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.