Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015: The Best Of The Blog

2015 has been an interesting year, so we thought we'd end it by taking a look at our ten most popular posts from 2015, as well as the ten most popular posts we shared from around the web. Today we'll just be focusing on our own blog. Without further ado, here we go:

Top 10 Blog Posts

10: Breakfast, Brunch, and Brinner: A Guide to English Meals (July 3rd)

It seems that English-speaking nations love their food and have a multitude of interesting words for the meals throughout the day. We had a look at them back in July and it proved popular. You can read the full post here.

9: Localizing The Aisle: The Power of "Foreign Branding" (March 11th)

Making products sound foreign can make them more appealing. In March we discussed how languages were employed in marketing to sell products. You can read the full post here.

8: Why Translation is a Fascinating Career (August 28th)

In August we sang the praises of our chosen careers, and it looked like many of our readers agreed with us. You can read the full post here.

7: A Destruction of Cats: Collective Nouns of the Animal Kingdom (May 15th)

The intriguing collective nouns for animals from the English language proved very popular back in May and throughout the year. You can read the full post here.

6: Why There's No Such Thing as "Untranslatable" (April 22nd)

The internet is full of articles of the best "untranslatable" words from languages around the world. As professional translators, we think people need to rethink their use of this term. We explained why in April. You can read the full post here.

5: Romance Languages: From Aragonese to Zarphatic (May 1st)

It seems our readers love a bit of Romance languages. Our post from May covering one of the world's most important language families was one of the most popular of the year. You can read the full post here.

4: How French Gave English its Sophisticated Words (February 4th)

Towards the start of the year we covered the reasons behind many of English's most prestigious words being ultimately from the French language. You can read the full post here.

3: Why It's Hard to be a Translator and a Language Lover (May 29th)

In May we discussed the difficulties we were encountering as promoters of languages, learning languages, and translators, and wondered whether or not it was sustainable to encourage everyone to learn foreign languages even if it could result in us losing out on work. You can read the full post here.

2: Language Learning: Cognates and False Friends (July 24th)

Our second most popular post of the year came back in July when we discussed "false friends", words in a foreign language that look similar to those in your own, but can carry very different meanings. You can read the full post here.

1: Speech Tempo: What is the World's Fastest Language? (April 8)

Everybody's had that one complaint about people speaking too quickly when they're learning a foreign language. Back in April, we looked at a study that sought to work out if some languages are spoken more quickly than others. You can read the full post here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Why Life's A Beach: Minimal Pairs in the English Language

When two words are written differently, have different meanings, but are pronounced the same, we call them homophones. When words have different meanings, but are pronounced almost the same with the exception of one phoneme, we call them minimal pairs.
Differentiating ship from sheep can be as
difficult as telling sheep apart.
Some of the most complicated minimal pairs for non-native speakers are those with similar-sounding (but not identical) vowels. While it is quite easy to differentiate between bat and cat, hearing the difference between feet and fit is much more difficult.

It's not just vowels that can be problematic. When consonants sound quite similar, like the letters b and p in English, you can often mishear or mispronounce them, like in the words tap and tab. The letters t and d can also be difficult to distinguish when speaking and listening to English, as in the words bat and bad, for example.

Making mistakes with minimal pairs is to be expected and it often doesn't get in the way of communication, which I believe to be the most important thing when learning a language. However, I can also imagine how it might be embarrassing if one of the words in the minimal pair is a curse word. The difference between beach and bitch and sheet and shit is a nightmare. Of course, there's also can't, which can unfortunately sound like a word I wouldn't dare to type.

Minimal pairs can also be very problematic if the differentiating phoneme doesn't exist in your language. This usually means that you will find it difficult to either hear the difference or to pronounce the difference when you're speaking.

Sadly, I don't think there's a quick fix to getting minimal pairs right other than practice. However, there are a number of useful resources and websites to help you along the way, such as, which is one of my personal favourites.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Pseudo-Anglicisms: Loanwords English Doesn't Need Back

A great bit of footing.
In the past, we've looked at loanwords that have made their way into English from many different languages, including Russian, Hawaiian, and Malay. Of course, plenty of languages have also borrowed English words with varying degrees of success. These words sometimes remain unchanged from the original English version and keep the same spelling and meaning. However, there are also loanwords that have nothing to do with their English incarnations, which are known as pseudo-anglicisms.

Today we're going to show you a few of our favourite words that went from English into another language and got a bit lost along the way.

If you speak German, you might be familiar with the world Air-Condition. While it's clear that this word means "air-conditioning", it still sounds very peculiar if you speak English as your first language. The same goes for shampooing in French, which is not a verb, but rather the noun for "shampoo".

French, just like Romanian, likes to use baskets to refer to trainers or sneakers, whereas Spanish and Portuguese borrowed the English word "tennis" and changed it to tenis and tênis respectively.

While basketball is quite popular, borrowing the word in its entirety is not. Several languages, including French, have taken "basket" to refer to the sport. Footing is also a popular pursuit in French, Italian and Spanish... Never heard of it? In English, we call it "jogging".

Some tents in a camping.
When you go camping, you stay in a campsite. If you go camping in a country that speaks Croatian, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, or Spanish, you stay in a camping. Do you want to park your car in a "car park" or a "parking lot"? In Arabic, Flemish, French, Swiss German, Greek, Italian, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish, it can sometimes simply be called a parking.

The trend of adding the -ing suffix to English words doesn't end there. Lifting actually refers to a "facelift" in a number of different languages. Arabic, German, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish also sometimes use marketing to refer to "advertising", which is of course related to marketing, but doesn't cover all types of marketing.

A number of a languages like to call a tuxedo or suit jacket a smoking. This comes from the English term "smoking jacket", but does away with the most important part for English speakers, with "smoking" developing its own meaning in its new language.

My last pseudo-anglicism is zapping, I absolutely love this word. It means channel-hopping or channel-surfing in Dutch, French, German, Greek, Italian, and Swedish and has given rise to a number of TV shows that replicate that very idea without you ever having to touch the remote!

What are your favourite pseudo-anglicisms? Are there any words from your language that English has borrowed in a nonsensical way? Tell us about them all in the comments below!

Monday, November 30, 2015

English Auxiliaries and Tenses

On Friday we introduced English auxiliary verbs and how they can alter meaning. They do this in a number of fascinating ways, but we'll only be looking at one of these today. There are several verbs that act as auxiliaries in order to alter tense in English, so we're going to take a look at a few of the most commonly used examples: be, have, and will.

Tenses are used to indicate time, just like this
famous clock in London, England.

The verb to be is used to create both the present progressive and past progressive tenses. For example, the sentences "I am doing my homework" and "I was doing my homework" both utilise conjugations of to be in order to indicate progressive tenses. In these examples, to be is used alongside the gerund of to do (doing) to indicate an ongoing action either in the past or the present.


The verb to have is used to indicate actions that are completed. For example, "I have done my homework" in the present perfect or "I had done my homework" in the past perfect. These can then be combined with to be to create perfect progressive tenses such as "I have been doing my homework" in the present perfect progressive or "I had been doing my homework" in the past perfect progressive.


As an auxiliary, will is always used to create future tenses. For example, "I will do my homework". Just like the other examples we saw, it can be combined to create other tenses such as the future perfect, as in "I will have done my homework" and the future continuous "I will be doing my homework".

Friday, November 27, 2015

Introducing English Auxiliaries...

In the English language, there are a number of auxiliary verbs. These so-called "verbs" are often incredibly useful when used in tandem with other verbs. However, they are also often useless without another verb.

Unsurprisingly, most English learners struggle with this strange concept, To make matters worse, linguists also struggle to agree on what auxiliaries are and what they do. Auxiliaries often support other verbs, giving meaning to them without having any real meaning of their own.

Auxiliaries support verbs, just like the
Eiffel Tower's legs support its platforms. 
When verbs are like this, they act as a crutch to other verbs. They coexist. Auxiliaries can rarely be used in isolation, while the verbs they aid would have little or no meaning without their auxiliaries.

So auxiliaries sound really useful, right? You could say that in some cases, but it's difficult to tell some auxiliary verbs apart from their counterparts. Verbs such as be and have are often used as both auxiliaries and verbs in their own right. This means that those learning English can struggle to differentiate their functions.

Auxiliaries can also cause confusion when they're used in contractions. While use of the apostrophe is very common in English, there are other languages which rarely use it. This often leads non-native speakers to confuse certain auxiliaries. For example, take "he's"; it can mean both "he has" and "he is". This is definitely not helpful to people trying to learn the English language.

Auxiliaries can also be used to explain modality. However, it's probably better that we don't start discussing that minefield today...

We'll be back on Monday with more information on auxiliary verbs in English!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Impossible Task of Standardising English

English is a very popular language around the world. Many people speak it natively and many others learn it as a foreign language. However, native speakers can't agree on a single correct way to speak it, so those learning the language are stuck with either choosing which version to learn or being forced to learn one in particular.

There are many variants of English around the world. English is different from continent to continent and from country to country, and there are often different standard versions of English for each. When a language has multiple standard versions like this, it is said to be pluricentric. There are only a few languages in the world that are monocentric, with just one standard version.

If you're learning English, you will probably agree that it would be easier to learn if there weren't so many ways to spell words and say certain things. Is there a way to have a single standard version of English? Here are a few of my thoughts:

Could we use a regulatory body?

English is one of the few languages without a regulatory body that attempts to standardise the language. However, if you have seen the efforts by the Académie française to stop the rise of anglicisms in French, then you know that they often struggle to control languages. I don't think this would bring about a standardisation of the language.

There's nothing wrong with variation!
Could we at least standardise spelling?

English spelling almost became standardised once dictionaries came about. However, this was only on a national level. If you learnt American English spelling, you might have found my use of "standardise" rather than "standardize" quite odd. That said, when people can't be bothered with spelling words correctly, they'll spell them whichever way they like, as long as they can be understood.

The internet and text messaging are fine examples that show why spelling probably won't be standardised. Native speakers rarely write text messages to one another with completely correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

Do we even want a standard version of English?

It may be a bit confusing at first for English learners to see that most words can be written in a number of ways, that there isn't ever one correct way to say something, and that native speakers rarely agree about such things, but I also think it's incredibly fun to talk about! I would go so far as to say that we should celebrate the language in all its variety! Even if it is sometimes at the expense of understanding...

Do you have any ideas on how we could create a standard version of English? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

English Prepositions: Right Place, Right Time

If you're learning English prepositions, you might think they're insane... and you'd be right to think so! There's a time and a place for English prepositions, literally.

If you speak English natively, you may have never thought about how we use prepositions such as in, at, or on, but when you're learning English, you need to know how to use them correctly. For native speakers, their use seems obvious, because using the wrong preposition simply sounds wrong.

There are two main groups of English prepositions: prepositions of time, which refer to when something happens, and prepositions of place, which refer to where something happens. One of the most annoying things about English is that a number of these are identical and can be used in both situations.

We're only going to look at three of the prepositions today: atin, and on. These three prepositions can refer to both time and place, making them even more confusing. Rather than looking at them independently, we'll look at how they behave when talking about time and talking about place.

Prepositions of Time

When talking in English about when an event occurs, we like to use at, in, and on. Each preposition has distinct uses. While their exact uses are poorly defined and often vague, there are general rules as to when to use them.

At: The preposition at is always used when we refer to an exact time. For example, at four o'clock.

In: We always use in to talk about time periods such as months and seasons. For example, we would say in July or in summer.

On: We use on for days and dates. Every day from Monday to Sunday will use on. For example, on Tuesday. For dates, the same rules apply, e.g. on November 4 or on the 4th of November.

Prepositions of Place

Prepositions of place can be trickier than prepositions of time. There are a few rules, but like everything in English, there are exceptions.

You could meet "at" any of the buildings "in" this city.
At: When talking about places, at is often used to refer to an exact location or a point. At is often used for buildings and locations in a town such as at the bank, at the cinema, and at home.

In: This preposition is used when talking about enclosed spaces. Generally things that have four walls, a floor, and a ceiling, but not always. However, in can also be used to talk about things like countries, continents, and even planets which are fully contained within a solar system or galaxy.

On: We can use on to talk about surfaces. In English we think of floors a surface, so we would be "on the first floor", for example. We also consider other flat objects, such as paper, to be surfaces. So in English, you can choose a meal which is written "on the menu" as well as look at a picture "on the page".

Prepositions in English can get quite confusing, as there are often exceptions. However, if you follow these general rules, you should get the majority of them right. Like everything else with English, you'll just have to learn all the exceptions - good luck!

Friday, October 30, 2015

English Pronunciation: Beware of Greek Bearing Words

The English language's weak relationship between spelling and pronunciation is fairly well known. In fact, English is highly non-phonemic, which means that graphemes (letters) don't tend to have a direct link to pronunciation (phonemes).

There are multitude of reasons why this relationship is so poor. English vocabulary comes from a multitude of sources. While over half of the language's vocabulary is from Latin and French and around a quarter is from Germanic languages, there's a part of the English lexicon that can cause plenty of problems (especially for non-native speakers) when it comes to pronunciation: the words from Greek.

While Greek words account for only 6% of English vocabulary, the Greek language is the 4th largest contributor to the English language. While there aren't enough Greek terms to make speaking English seem impossible, there are enough to ensure that you can trip up over their pronunciation from time to time.

Unsurprisingly, Greek words, much like the Greek language, are written using the Greek alphabet. When these words made their way into English, the Greek letters had to go and the Latin alphabet ended up being used. When this happened, the Latin letters used didn't always line up directly with the pronunciation you would expect.

A fine example is the Greek letter Χ (chi). This letter tends to make a sound we often associate with the Latin letters C and K. However, in many words of Greek origin, this is written as ch. Words like this include architecture, chaos, chemistry, character, mechanic, and monarch.

The letter Φ (phi) gave us plenty of words that use ph when you would think that the letter F would suffice. This led to words like alphabet, blaspheme, dolphin, emphasis, orphan, philosophy, photo, and physics.

Then there's Ψ (psi), which gives us those words that use ps with a silent P and sound just like S. Examples include the Greek word for spirit and soul (ψυχή - psych), which is found in psychedelic, psychology, and plenty of other psycho words.

Of course, we love the interesting diversity the Greek language brought to English. You just have to be careful about their seemingly weird spelling, at least in comparison to words with more common roots. Just make sure to be careful when you pronounce them!

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Pitfalls of Using Translation Apps When Learning a Language

When you're learning a foreign language, it can be frustrating when you want to say something but lack the skills to do so. This is especially true at the very beginning when your language skills are rudimentary.

When you first start learning a foreign language, you're effectively a baby with a limited vocabulary and a limited number of verb tenses at your disposal. You're probably going to want to cry in the same way babies cry when they want food but can't ask for it! However, one of the worst things I think you can do is turn to machine translation to solve your problem...

...just like these irritating adverts for the Apple Watch, where two tourists visit Berlin and use their watch to ask a local for advice on where to eat. I don't mind that they used their app for this, but I don't like the way they just thrust their watch in some guy's face. Therein lies the problem. That's all the app's good for. You can thrust it in somebody's face and get an answer, but you won't understand their reply.

Machine translating what you want to say because you haven't learnt a particular tense yet is asking for trouble. You'll never understand the response, and because you don't understand the construction used, you'll learn little more than how to say that phrase again. That's if the app got it right in the first place.

You don't have to embark on your language journey alone, just
don't take a "translation" app along as a travelling buddy.
Then you have the problem of translating word for word. Word-for-word translation is rarely, if ever, useful. That's because languages have their own ways of saying things, their own syntax, and their own grammar. It's very likely that any machine translation of a sentence more complicated than an everyday expression will be nothing but complete and utter rubbish.

What you should be doing is learning to walk before you can run. You have to just deal with the fact that you can't say everything and rejoice in the fact that you can say something. Learn to rephrase things! More often than not, there are plenty of ways to express an idea, and getting your message across and being understood is one of the joys of speaking languages. It may not be the exact way you wanted to say it, but at least you said it yourself.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Why English Can Feel Like a Lawless Language

While we love all languages, English tends to get more of the spotlight at The Lingua File than other languages since it's our mother tongue. As our mother tongue, we didn't learn it in the same way as we did our second languages, so we have a vastly different understanding of it.

The first major difference we tend to find between English and our other languages is that, despite using English more fluently and with greater ease, we tend to understand significantly less about why we say certain things the way we do, having never studied them in the same depth as the rules we had to learn during foreign language tuition.

An American cowboy in Dakota Territory in the 1880s.
This means that when we speak English with non-native speakers, we are often asked questions about the language that we have never really considered or thought about. Proper grammar is drilled into us at a young age, so the weird nuances of English just become second nature to us.

Take time prepositions for example. We say in the morning, in the afternoon, and in the evening. However, we say at night. Sure, in the night exists, but we would rarely say it. We just know that "night" is used differently. I'm sure these exceptions are incredibly frustrating for those who are learning the language.

When you consider prepositions in general, the same type of exceptions that irk learners concerning time prepositions also occur with other prepositions, and can result in a lot of frustration when learners have to tackle them.

And what about pronunciation? For users of languages with a phonemic orthography (a language whose written symbols correspond directly to a given sound), English must be incredibly annoying. Why does the "u" sound different in unite and untie? They look almost identical to one another...

Don't forget phrasal verbs, too! They are so annoying for those learning English as a second language that we even dedicated an entire post to it!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The CEFR and Standardising Language Learning

If you speak a foreign language and live within the EU, you may be familiar with the Central European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment, which is usually referred to as CEFR.

The framework is an initiative that for the last two decades has aimed to establish standardised levels for gauging a language user's proficiency in any given foreign language throughout the EU. The most widely-recognised feature of the CEFR is the letter and number classification given as a reference to language speakers.

The classifications go from A1, which is used to describe those beginning their language-learning journey, to C2, which describes those who have mastered their foreign language. Between those two extremes you have A2, B1, B2, and C1.

The CEFR is certainly useful when it comes to employment as there are a number of exams that language users can take in order to prove to what level they can use their foreign language. On the one hand, this helps employers, who can have these claims verified and backed up by an employee's exam results. On the other hand, it can also open doors for language users looking for work, if they have completed any of the appropriate exams.

It's great that this framework promotes language learning around Europe and encourages many people, especially adult learners, to continue learning foreign languages that they may have studied in school, or even pick up completely new ones.

However, this framework can become an issue when it takes on the form of red tape and bureaucracy. When students consider learning a language to be little more than a means to a certificate and take no joy in it, it makes me incredibly sad. Of course, everybody has their reasons for learning a language, but when you make it a joyless business venture or just something to put on your CV, I think you might be missing a much bigger picture...

I don't think I could ever tell someone not to learn another language, even if I think it's for all the wrong reasons. I just think that if you learn a language only for employability, it's a lot like stargazing during the day.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Speaking to Non-Native Speakers

When you have an accent like mine (Geordie, from Newcastle), you have to accept that sometimes you won't be understood. When you speak to non-native speakers, you also have to understand that they may not understand everything. While I agree that there's no true correct way to speak any language, since accents and dialects are a large part of what I believe makes languages so interesting, you do sometimes have to make concessions and change how you speak in your own tongue to help them out.

Just as it's often not acceptable to speak very colloquially or swear in an interview in the UK, I do believe there are good ways and bad ways to speak to non-native speakers. I've seen people do it perfectly and, ashamedly, also terribly.

Firstly, just because somebody does not speak your language natively, does not mean in any way, shape, or form, that they are an idiot. In fact, learning a foreign language is mentally taxing, and it certainly takes a lot of smarts.

Be Calm

There are plenty of tourists and non-native speakers in London.
I've seen people get frustrated with non-native speakers for not immediately understanding what's being said. This is when people tend to be really rude to non-native speakers, speaking to them as if they're hard of hearing, incredibly slowly, with a tone of voice that screams "what the hell is wrong with you!?". It's not fair on them.

Strangely, in my experience I've most often seen this to be the case in parts of the world that heavily rely on international tourism, such as massive cities whose economy is booming thanks to the non-native speakers who just want to share in the culture, enjoy the sights and sounds of the place, and have a good time. I know living in big cities can be stressful, but it's no excuse to ruin somebody's holiday, especially when all they want to do is put their hard-earned pennies into your wallet.

They're learning a foreign language. They're not stupid. They're just another person and they deserve the same kind of respect you'd expect if you were trying to speak their language.

Give Them A Break

There are also those that prefer to give the non-native speaker absolutely no concession for their limited knowledge of their mother tongue. They will speak just as quickly and naturally as they would do with their friends.

Even if the non-native speaker is very good at the language, there's still a chance they'll make mistakes (which can be great if you read Wednesday's post). There's a huge difference between being accommodating by speaking more slowly, using simpler vocabulary, more common structures, and fewer idioms, and being a condescending dick, like in the previous example.

They're Human After All

I think the main point I'm making is that non-native speakers are just other people with hopes, dreams, and feelings. It may be easier to distance yourself from them because they don't speak your language, but don't! They deserve respect and all they want to do is talk to you because they love your language.

How have your experiences been as a non-native speaker speaking with natives? Good or bad? Or do you find yourself inexplicably condescending to non-native speakers in your mother tongue? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Why You Should Make Mistakes in a Foreign Language

Learning a foreign language is rarely a simple thing. You have to learn tonnes of new vocabulary and words that may hardly resemble anything you've ever seen before. Then there are false friends, the words that look or sound exactly like words in your own language, but have a completely different meaning.

Even then, when you learn a few words, the syntax may be completely different to the syntax in your own language. In this case, you have to train your brain to recognise this in order to make yourself understood and to understand what you read and hear.

Then there's the grammar. Some people can learn grammar with little effort. Then there are people like me, who even struggle with grammar of their mother tongue.

In addition to almost completely changing the way you think, you also have to learn how to pronounce all the phonemes in a language. Learning to use an authentic accent in a foreign language can be difficult if your mother tongue doesn't share many of its phonemes with those of your new language.

It's unlikely that you will gain all this knowledge and all of these skills overnight. Just like learning a musical instrument, there are going to be a few wrong notes here and there. That's not a problem.

Making mistakes and learning from them can be one of the most useful tools in your language learning arsenal. The worst thing you can do is not talk or practice your new language just because you're scared of making a mistake.

Sometimes mistakes can be embarrassing, but in my experience, most people that I've met have always been very understanding to those learning a language. In fact, some of the errors I've made in the past have been amusing, such as telling an older lady that I was horny when I meant to say that I was warm, and telling a friend that I had diarrhoea when I wanted to say a cold. I've never made either of these mistakes since.

So if you're learning a language, don't worry! Make mistakes and learn from them. The improvements you'll make will far outweigh any embarrassment you may suffer from making mistakes.

What's the worst mistake you've made in a foreign language? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Why Things Get Lost in Translation

I often get asked for the equivalent of bon appétit (or its equivalents in other languages) in English. It's a question that I always struggle to really answer. I can say "enjoy your meal", but it doesn't really sound right to me because that's just something that we do. Some families and friends say grace before their meal, while others just drop the plates on the table and start shovelling in the food. So even though the sentiment can be vaguely expressed, it might not be very natural for everyone.

This is where culture plays an important role in translation. While words can express something linguistically, the ways different cultures do different things means that you may only rarely be able to really express what one culture says to another.

For example, greetings throughout the day can vary wildly throughout languages. English appears to have an expression for almost every part of the day: "good morning", "good afternoon", "good evening", and "good night".

In other languages it may not be that easy. Some languages may have the same number of greetings, but the times that are considered morning, afternoon, evening, and night may be somewhat different. Others may just differentiate between day, when the sun is out and shining (which it rarely does in England, anyway) and when it's dark.

These differences between cultures, how people consider things, and how they see the world around them, can be awkward to navigate when translating. Especially when things are classified differently, or contain sub-classifications that do not exist in your language.

I'm fairly certain this would be hibou.
French natives have told me that there is a world of difference between a chouette and a hibou, but as an English speaker, they all look like owls to me. The main difference between the two is that one (hibou) features aigrettes, which are a sort of distinctive head plumage, while the other (chouette) does not.

This means that if the distinction being made in French is very important, you can't just say "owl", as the information pertaining to the head plumage is being lost. However, if this distinction is not particularly important, you would probably omit a description of whether or not this bird has plumage, meaning that some information has been lost in translation.

Of course, this is hardly a dire situation when speaking casually or in a text that has nothing to do with the birds themselves. However, my main point is that the act of translation always carries some degree of loss or degradation, because the amount of information contained in every word, even those that are very similar, may contain slightly less information in the target language.

However, the contrary can always be true. It's also possible that the source word contains less information than the closest equivalent in the target language. That means the translation can end up with connotations that were never there in the first place.

There's a difference between something getting lost in translation because the language is incapable of expressing something in an identical way to the source and a translation that is just bad because the translator misunderstood the source text or expressed it poorly due to not having a good understanding of the target language.

The best way to avoid these losses is to learn the language and experience the culture so that you never have to worry about it. Otherwise, just make sure you have a good translator!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How Useful are Conlangs?

Conlangs (constructed languages) are incredibly fascinating things. While most languages are the result of hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people talking to one another over thousands of years, conlangs are usually the creation of a single person or small group of people over a short period of time (in terms of human history, at least).

For those not familiar with conlangs, they are languages whose structure and vocabulary have been consciously devised by humans, rather than developing "naturally" over many years as other languages do. However, while I do find them very fascinating, the question of how useful they are keeps creeping into my mind.

What are conlangs for?

There are many reasons why conlangs are created. Some create them just for fun, while others create them in an attempt to create a universal language for all of the world's people to speak. Esperanto, for example, was created with this goal in mind.

In popular culture, science fiction probably makes more use of conlangs than other genre. This is because a fictional universe will always feel more convincing if an eight-eyed extraterrestrial speaks an alien language rather than plain old English.

But how useful are conlangs? Can they or will they replace natural languages? I'd like to try to answer a few of the most common questions surrounding these captivating creations.

How can you judge a conlang's utility?

First, let me say that you can only judge how useful something is if you know what you're trying to use it for. As I said, there are several reasons why you would create a conlang, and this will dictate how you create your language. If you are creating a conlang to be used in a handful of scenes in a film or a few pages in a book, you probably won't attempt to create a vast vocabulary where every word has hundreds of synonyms. However, if you are wanting you conlang to be used as a lingua franca, like Latin across the Roman Empire or English today, you might consider plenty of business and trade terms.

I believe the best way to judge a conlang's utility is by how well it accomplishes the goal of its creation.

What can they tell us about natural languages?

On an individual level, there are few things that will show you just how nuanced and complex languages are as trying to create your own. A lot of things you rarely think about when you speak a natural language will quickly come to the fore when you have to consider phonology, a writing system, creating a vocabulary and then putting a grammar system together.

Will a universal language ever build up a head of steam?
Will there ever be a universal language?

If a conlang such as Esperanto is designed to be everyone's second language, we have to first consider whether or not there is any trend towards there being a universal lingua franca, and if so, why would we pick one that has just been created, over one already spoken by millions or billions of people?

This is the main challenge for any conlang setting out with this goal. While there are conlangs that have thriving communities of speakers, none have ever come remotely close to achieving a widespread global status. Is this due to the languages themselves, or is there just too little demand for such a thing?

While languages are dying out at an alarming rate, this trend doesn't appear to be heading towards a singularity just yet. In fact, a number of minority languages have seen a revival in recent years and even extinct languages have come back from the dead (Manx, for example).

In fact, as long as people consider languages to be a part of their identity, the language which forms that identity will survive as long as that identity does. As long as the community and history that is home to a language still exists, people will continue to speak the languages that embody the shared history and culture.

This is why its almost impossible for a universal conlang to gain a footing on a global level. While there will always be those pragmatic people amongst us who wish to see an entire world communicating with one language, there will also always be those who don't.

So are they useful?

As I said, defining utility for conlangs is based on why they were created. For those created for fun, if you enjoy creating them and using them, then they serve their purpose. If you're trying to get the whole world to sing to the tune of just one conlang, you may be barking up the wrong arbo...

Agree or disagree? Tell us your thoughts on the utility on conlangs in the comments below!

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Sorry State of Languages at GCSE

Here in the UK, yesterday marked the day that children in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland received their GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) grades. The results for the Standard Grades, the equivalent in Scotland, were published earlier in the month.

For those not familiar with the UK education system, the GCSEs are the qualifications generally taken by students over their final two years of compulsory education (between 14 and 16 years old). This is the time of year when regardless of the results, people will complain.

If the trend is that grades are getting worse, then it is assumed that kids today are not as smart as those who studied before them. If the results are better, then the exams must be getting easier. I don't subscribe to either of those opinions because it's almost impossible to standardise the exams each year and the percentages for each grade given are fairly arbitrary.

Over a decade has passed since foreign languages were removed as compulsory subjects at GCSE, and the trends for foreign language education in the UK are not looking good. It seems every year the number of students taking a foreign language at GCSE decreases, and this year is no exception.

Declining Numbers

Perhaps one day all of these new Portuguese students
will be able to understand a performance at the
Municipal Theatre of São Paulo in Brazil!
In 2013, around 332,000 students were taking foreign language GCSEs. This figure dropped in 2014 to 321,000 students. This year it dropped yet again by an even greater amount to just over 300,000 students. It goes without saying that as a language lover, this doesn't feel great.

Those who do choose to study a modern foreign language at GCSE are also moving away from languages traditionally taught in the UK, such as French and German. Spanish has dipped in popularity this year, but this does follow nearly a decade of increasing popularity. Mandarin is doing well, with the number of students studying the subject increasing by nearly a fifth. More students have also been choosing to study Portuguese, Polish, and Arabic.

Some figures have suggested that foreign languages are being squeezed out by what I would call "modern" subjects, such as ICT (information and communications technology) and computing. It's hardly surprising that students are opting for these subjects given the world we live in and the increasing use of computers.

However, I don't think these two types of subjects are in competition. In fact, I believe the spread of telecommunications is the reason that languages are more important than ever. As the world becomes more and more connected, we've seen a rise in the demand for both communication technologies and foreign language abilities; it's just that the latter seems to have gone unnoticed by a number of students taking their GCSEs.

Easy "A"s (or "A*"s)

There are also stories going around that an increased number of migrants are taking the foreign language GCSE of their mother tongue. There have been suggestions that students are being encouraged to do this to either boost their school's performance or their own. While I suppose this isn't really in the "spirit" of taking a foreign language qualification, it would balance out having to take a number of other GCSEs in your second language.

The beautiful countryside and mountains of Crete, Greece.
This trend has also been said to be the reason for the increase in some of the less-common languages, such as Polish, Urdu, Turkish, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Farsi, Modern Greek, and Modern Hebrew.

The Reaction

Obviously, few are calling any of this a good thing. Negative adjectives are being thrown around as they seem to be every year. The UK is miles behind so many countries across Europe and the world in terms of foreign language education, and it's not going to close the gap if things continue as they are.

I find this all pretty abhorrent because it's certainly not caused by the teachers who are constantly given more bureaucratic hoops to jump through, more work to do, less pay, and yet still attempt to impart their knowledge upon the teenagers of this country.

What I find even worse is that although several groups with a bigger voice than me have spoken out about these disappointing trends, little seems to be changing.

What are your thoughts on the decline of foreign languages at GCSE? Any ideas on how to improve the matter? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Why the Hardest (or Easiest) Language in the World Doesn't Exist

There are plenty of lists around the internet of the hardest and easiest languages to learn. While these lists can be interesting and helpful if you're trying to decide upon a new language to learn, they're inherently flawed due to the idea that such languages actually exist.

Hold on! I'm not saying languages don't exist; that'd be completely absurd. Of course they do! What I'm saying is that it's pretty much impossible to classify languages as difficult or easy to learn. However, I have seen a number of clever criteria for attempting to create these classifications, so I'd like to look at a few of them today.

Hong Kong, the home of both Chinese and English!
Similarity to your Native Language

One of the first ways many people classify language difficulty comes down to similarity to the learner's native language. While I agree that I've seen plenty of evidence to support this statement, this does mean that the world's hardest or easiest language differs depending on your native language. Does this mean it could also be affected by which dialect of your native language you speak? I'd love to see some studies about that...


The complexity of a language is said to influence how easily somebody can learn it. However, "how complex is a language?" is as difficult to answer as "how difficult is a language to learn?". If one language uses more phonemes in speech, is it more difficult than one that uses more characters in its alphabet? How do we assign value to each component part? We couldn't possibly all come to an agreement on which elements complicate a language the most and which parts the least.

Time Spent Studying

Time is a fairly scientific way of measuring progress. The less time taken to become proficient in a language, the easier the language must be. However, at what point is a speaker "proficient"?

I don't find language learning to be a journey from A to B with a definite endpoint, but rather an ongoing adventure. I definitely couldn't pinpoint an exact moment when I became proficient in any of the languages I speak.

If proficiency is judged by passing a test, then the tests would have to be standardised across the entire world. I'm sure they're not...

All roads lead to Rome, but do all Romance languages lead to
a simple language learning experience?
Easy Languages

When it comes to English speakers, most lists put the Romance languages in the easy category. French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese tend to feature regularly as easy languages to learn because of their similarity to English.

Difficult Languages

The languages that generally get lumped together as the most difficult languages tend be geographically and linguistically distant from English (at least if you consider the language to be from the UK, as I tend to do). Languages from Europe don't tend to be included in this list.

Many of these languages make use of a different writing system to English, such as Arabic, Mandarin, Korean, and Japanese. However, I'm sure Mandarin speakers wouldn't struggle as much with the Japanese writing systems as someone more familiar with the Latin alphabet would.

With all that said, I tend to find that similarities can also make something more difficult to learn instead of simpler. For example, I know how to walk and I know how to drive. If you make me walk on ice, I struggle, and if you put me in a car that I'm not familiar with, I have to spend a while working out where everything is. However, I can still walk to the car and start driving and start walking when I get out the car, despite the two being completely different activities. Differences can make something more memorable!

While these are all fair ways to measure how difficult a language might be, they all ignore a number of factors. I'm not disparaging those who have tried to measure something that's seemingly immeasurable, I'm just saying that you can comfortably ignore a lot of these lists. If you want to learn Tagalog before you learn French, then go for it!

Everyone has their own experiences while learning a language. In fact, in a recent post I complained about the subjunctive tense and a few of the reasons that English speakers may find it difficult. That said, I know plenty of people who comfortably master it without even breaking a sweat!

What I'm trying to say is that when learning a language, there will always be things you find easy and things you find difficult. You'll never get to find out which is which if you don't start!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Translation and Copyright

I watched a fascinating web series on intellectual property (IP) the other day, which got me to thinking about how copyright, which is absolutely everywhere nowadays, affects translators. Rather that getting bogged down with the ins and outs of the law, since it differs from country to country, I'm going to look at the general concepts of IP while focusing on copyright and how it affects translators.

The symbol for copyright-free, like all
the images we use on The Lingua File.
Intellectual property is a concept whose goal is to promote the advancement of the human race and encourage people to make more, create more, and design more. Since there are few things more encouraging than money, it manages to do this by giving those who create things a temporary monopoly so that they can make money on their ideas.


What kind of thing you create dictates what kind of IP protection you can get. If you invent something, your invention can be protected as a patent. Of course, you can't patent things that already exist. Generally, patents are defined as new, non-obvious inventions with an industrial applications.


A trademark designates a brand rather than a product. The brand indicates the product's origin and can be a powerful thing. Brands such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Microsoft, for example, exist so that consumers know that the products they buy and use come from one of those manufacturers and not from competitors such as Pepsi, Burger King, and Apple.


This is the area of IP that should be of interest to those who, like me, are translators. Copyright generally covers what we would consider artistic creations, as it does not cover ideas or concepts, but rather how they are expressed. Everywhere is a bit different, but things covered by copyright include:

Written works, books, poems, plays, motion pictures, films, television shows, music and recordings, paintings, sculptures, and photos. While this list isn't exhaustive, you start to get the idea. Most of a translator's workload will include copyrighted materials.

I'll admit, sometimes when I translate I get a bit of an ego. When I reconstruct a sentence in a marvellously clever way, I genuinely believe that the translation is my baby, my creation. However, under most copyright law, particularly here in the UK and in the US, my creativity can sometimes be considered the copyright of the original author.

Derivative Works

This is when translations are deemed to be derivative works, and why wouldn't they be? I did use the source text as the "inspiration" for my work. Derivative works often include translations and cinematic adaptations. You could even argue that cinematic adaptations of literary works are actually translations, since they use a source material to create a target material.

The only way you would get to keep the copyright would be if you could prove that your work has a certain level of originality. This is almost impossible as a translator if you are trying to be faithful to a source text. However, if you have been given a certain level of freedom, you could argue that your own creative inputs have provided the necessary originality. As long as your translation isn't part of a work for hire...

Work for Hire

A number of legal jurisdictions include the concept of "Work for Hire" (WFH) as part of copyright law. This means that no matter how original you've been, you cannot claim copyright over your translation when the work was done as part of your salaried work, rather than in the freelance sense.

So how do you get copyright for your translations? Ask nicely, I suppose...

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Problems with Dubbing and Subtitling on Netflix

If you like TV shows and movies, Netflix is pretty great. The streaming service is one of the quickest ways to lose hours upon hours of your free time to popular media, and I'm cool with that. Netflix's algorithms always seem to suggest shows I end up liking, but there is one thing I don't like - its dubbing and subtitling.

Origami, another of Japan's fine artistic exports.
In the past, we've discussed dubbing versus subtitling at length (I tend to prefer subtitling over dubbing where possible). However, when watching anime (Japanese animation) I tend to take it on a series-by-series basis.

If the subtitles are good, I will happily watch an entire series with the original Japanese dialogue. However, when anime subtitles are bad, they are really bad! The internet is full of great examples of this.

Before I get into this rant, I need to clarify a couple of terms. For the purposes of this post, I'm taking "closed captioning" (CC) to refer to user-activated text that is generally used for those that are hard of hearing and "subtitling" to refer to a translation of foreign language dialogue that is not likely to be understood by the viewer. A quick way to distinguish whether you're watching CC or subtitling would be to see whether there are descriptions of sounds that wouldn't be considered dialogue, such as "[Phone rings]".

Aside from the bad grammar, unnatural syntax, or odd vocabulary choices present in bad anime subtitles, Netflix has a great way of making subtitles completely redundant. Aside from their low linguistic quality, I firmly believe there's also a technical issue at play here.

When I watch anime series on Netflix, I usually have two options for audio and two options for subtitles. The audio is available in either Japanese or English, while the subtitles are only available in English and can be "off" or "on". This is what causes problems.

The subtitles, just like the dubbing, are a translation of the original dialogue in Japanese. However, they are clearly not done simultaneously, nor do they appear to have any relation to each other.

On the one hand, the dubbing tends to have altered the original dialogue to make it fit better with the timing of the characters' speech, as well as make the lines more natural and easier to deliver by voice actors.

On the other hand, the subtitles tend to more strictly follow the meaning and structure of the dialogue. The massive difference between the dubbing and subtitling means that I find it almost impossible to have both dubbing and subtitling active at the same time.

Since you can either have all of the subtitles or none of the subtitles, Japanese text that appears in subtitles, such as explanations of time passing or where a scene takes place, are left untranslated. This is when I really get annoyed. I have to pause, turn the subtitles on, and rewind back to the start of the scene, just for the subtitles to load and tell me something like "One week later".

It should be noted that Netflix has also received criticism from deaf communities for the low quality of its CC. As much as I love the fact that it allows me to binge on watching massive robots and ninjas fight each other, it really needs to work harder on its foreign materials.

What do you think of Netflix's subtitling? Love it or loathe it? Are there better streaming services for subtitling? Or worse? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Introducing TLF Translation, Translation and Language Services from The Lingua File

Today's post is more of an announcement instead of our usual content. Over the next month, you'll be seeing a few changes to our blog and our Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, and LinkedIn profiles.

We'd like to announce TLF Translation, our translation and copywriting service. The new website can be found at and will be completed and fully operational in September.

What will happen to The Lingua File blog?

Don't worry about that! We'll still continue to provide language content through our blog (at the same URL, and social media channels. However, the social media channels will be named TLF Translation, so don't worry if you see the name on your feeds, it's just us!

What does TLF Translation do?

For details on our language services, feel free to check out the new website. In short, we mainly provide Spanish and French to English translation services (including translation, transcreation, and localisation) as well as English copywriting, editing, and proofreading services.

How can I help?

Thanks for offering! As we're starting out as freelancers with a passion for languages, you could always tell people about us or keep us in mind if you're in the market for translation work! Making sure people know we're here is one of the trickiest things about taking the freelance plunge, and we greatly appreciate all the help we can get!

Normal service will be resumed on the blog on Monday. We'd like to thank all our readers for their ongoing support over these past three years! Keep loving languages!

Friday, July 31, 2015

A Subjective Look at the Subjunctive

Don't get me wrong, I love languages: learning them, talking about them, and hearing them. However, there is one thing I just can't stand and it's the subjunctive. It's my pet peeve, my bugbear, and the proverbial thorn in my side. I avoid it like the plague even though I shouldn't.

Like most language fanatics, I do my fair share when learning and practising a language. I try to expand my vocabulary, learn the conjugations and even idioms, and use it regularly. That said, when it comes to the subjunctive, which is used in my two dominant foreign languages (French and Spanish), I awkwardly rephrase my sentences in order to avoid it. I just hate it!

Why do I hate it? Because it's not very common in English, and in the UK we barely learn anything about the structure of our mother tongue. I think it's just assumed that because we can talk and make ourselves understood that we should move straight on to Shakespeare and war poetry. In fact, I only started to learn about the structure of languages from studying foreign languages.

Welcome to Subjunctive Land. Just kidding, this is Venezuela.
So what is the subjunctive? When I was learning French it was simply called a "tense". While tenses refer to time, such as past, present, and future, and awkward combinations of those (the future perfect, for example), the subjunctive exists outside of time, in a place teachers like to call subjunctive land. It is technically a grammatical mood or mode, depending on where you learnt about it.

While subjunctive land isn't a real place, the name does somewhat help you to understand what the subjunctive is all about: things that aren't real. When you're using language to refer to factual things that have happened using simpler tenses such as the past, present, and future, you are using what is known as a realis mood. This can easily be remembered because it has the word real in it. The subjunctive takes place in the land of dreams and wishes, which is why it is an irrealis mood.

The reason I find the subjunctive awkward and confusing is because it's not as obvious in English, my mother tongue. While it definitely exists, English can be quite wonderful in its flagrant disregard for its own rules. Most people I know wouldn't even correct me, let alone realise, if I hadn't correctly used the subjunctive. However, in the other languages I've learnt, people will notice if you don't use it correctly.

The subjunctive occurs when you express a desire or a wish. Other times you'll need it when you start a sentence and find yourself creating a separate clause that couldn't exist without the first part of your sentence. This is known as a dependent or subordinate clause.

Not the kind of car you'd get an automatic gearbox in.
In English most conjugations are identical, with the third person singular being the obvious exception. In the English subjunctive mood, that third person singular either becomes the same as the present tense or the imperative tense (which are also often identical to one another). This minor change is so unnoticeable that you're barely aware of the subjunctive's existence and like conjugating, you rarely realise you've even done it.

For English speakers, I think it's a lot like learning to drive an automatic car and then having to drive a manual. In English it's all pretty much done for you and you never realise it's actually happening. Once you move to a manual car, you start to realise the changes you have to make when you try to do something different, like going faster. Sadly, I grew up learning a language where the subjunctive is almost automatic, and now I struggle to change the grammatical mood manually.

Are you a native English speaker who finds the subjunctive mood difficult? Or does your mother tongue have an obvious and complicated subjunctive mood? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.