Besides the most basic terms in a language (greetings, numbers, how to say ‘yes’ and ‘no), swear words seem to be some of the most readily-learned phrases in foreign languages. Just the other night, I met a Mandarin speaker whose Cantonese lexicon contained the words for ‘hello’, the numbers 1 to 10, and various ways to insult other people. He was in the army in a Cantonese-speaking province, so this isn’t entirely unsurprising.
Why is there such a need to learn these words? Perhaps it’s because learning other languages is sometimes so frustrating that learners want to express this. I think it’s more that, especially in groups of younger people, swearing in a casual way is a way to connect with others, show that you are comfortable with them, and have a bit of a laugh. As long as you choose your audience well, and don’t have conversations consisting entirely of swear words and rude gestures, I think it’s acceptable.
I’ve also found that people sometimes swear in other languages when it is inappropriate to swear in their own. Even though many people know what the words mean, they seem to lose their potency in other languages. For example, I’ve heard quite a few people say the German word Scheiße (scheisse) instead of the English counterpart, shit. This has happened in social situations as well as in the workplace.
For a user-generated list of foreign swear words and phrases, have a look at YouSwear.com. They have phrases in languages from Afrikaans to Yiddish, and they even have a Swear Phrase of the Day.
Do you have any other examples of people’s fantastic swearing abilities in foreign languages?
Image from Sianuska at Etsy.com. ‘Old Lady’ is a foreign language sometimes, surely?
I can’t count how many times I have ‘learned’ a new word, and then promptly forgotten it again. I ask someone how to say something, they tell me, I repeat it back, and half an hour later, I have no idea what the word was.
It doesn’t really help that I am learning Chinese at the moment, so it’s more difficult to put the sounds, pinyin (Romanised pronunciation), and character together than it is for languages that use a similar writing system to my native language.
Nevertheless, I have found that, unsurprisingly, writing these words down helps. I managed to find a perfect little vocabulary notebook for this purpose (it has columns for word, part of speech, pronunciation, and meaning), though of course any notebook could be used for this. And in this technologically-driven world, a mobile phone, organiser, or even music player could do the same job.
Making a note of the word will reinforce it in your mind, and if you reorganise these words alphabetically or by group, and periodically read back through your collected words, they will become more familiar much faster. Not only will you be reminded about these words more often, it is likely that the words and phrases you discover on your own (rather than from textbooks or classroom material) will be more relevant or useful to you.
I’d better just make a note of the word for eggplant, before I completely forget it…
Groups of people, especially very different people, can produce interesting and educational experiences. When people speak different languages, it can be a challenge, or it can be a great learning opportunity.
I’ve been in situations where I have been the primary speaker because I happen to know the most of a foreign language, and also the person who has to have everything translated for her. I’ve also been in the situation where others think that because I look like I speak the language, I’m the primary speaker, but it’s not the case at all.
I recently came across a great anecdote about trying to find a kitchen utensil in Italy. The author speaks some Italian, but doesn’t understand that much, which is the opposite of how many people are in a foreign language. He explains:
The problem, however, was this: I can speak Italian well enough to pose a question without sounding like a complete idiot, but when it comes to getting the answer, I am just that: a complete idiot. In fact, I’ve tried learning several languages in my life and always have the same problem: I can speak okay, but for some reason I have a hard time comprehending when someone speaks back to me. I understand nothing. Most people seem to have the opposite problem when learning a new language. When my wife Jessie and I had lived in Rome a few years earlier, we were an Italian-speaking team: since I spoke better, I’d do all the speaking and pose all the questions. Then, Jessie would listen to the answer, the whole time I’d be watching her bob her head in comprehension, until she’d translate it into English for me so I could respond. It was odd, but it worked.
The full story is both entertaining and well written, and you can find it here: The Language of Can Openers in the Italian Countryside, by David Farley. Image from Ed Yourdon, under Flickr Creative Commons.
I’ve talked previously about learning language through other personal interests or hobbies, but how about through other academic subjects, or through general knowledge? Imagine being able to play Trivial Pursuit in your new language!
One way to boost your vocabulary is to learn what countries, cities, and people are called in your adopted language. You might even learn a few things about each place on the way.
Nations Online is a fascinating website with all sorts of information about the world on it. Their Country Lists page has links to lists of countries in eight different languages, as well as the local names for places. It also has lists of countries sorted by the mega languages they speak (Chinese, English, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, and French).
If you are learning one of these languages, it could be an interesting place to start research into geography, culture, traditions, and even local dialects of your chosen language.
Curt Smothers has developed an interesting exercise for Spanish learners based around Spanish-speaking country names, the names for their nationalities, and fun facts about the places. This exercise could easily be adapted for any language, and is interesting for children and adults alike.
Some fun facts:
Go to en.bab.la to order a full-size poster of the map above.
In a world where extensive 3D worlds are plentiful, but companies are still struggling to find a way to make online learning successful, a Shanghai-based startup company is developing what might be the next generation of education software. Wiz World Online, developed by 8D World, aims to teach Chinese children English through a 3D virtual world. It’s not your typical classroom stuff, either. The ultimate goal is to teach children how to really communicate, not just pass examinations.
From the tech blog at The New York Times:
Alex Wang, the company’s chief executive and co-founder, said the idea grew out of his personal experience landing at the San Francisco airport on his first visit from China, 21 years ago, when he was in his 20s.
Though he had studied English for years and scored well on the written part of the GRE test, he discovered that he could not read the McDonald’s menu in the airport, nor could he converse with the server. Although he was hungry, “I was never in that kind of conversation before, and I ended up with a jumbo Coca-Cola with tons of ice,” he recalled.
“Hundreds of millions of people experience the same problem worldwide, particularly in Asia,” he said. “People study languages, but cannot talk, cannot communicate.”
The biggest problems, he said, are that children studying languages do not get to practice the language in their daily lives, they do not get much attention from teachers in large classrooms and they are often afraid to make mistakes when they do try to speak different languages.
Those are the problems that Wiz World Online aims to solve. Kids choose an avatar and pick a scene, like a castle in a fantasy land or a supermarket in the United States. They are confronted with challenges, like dodging flying monsters or buying fruit, all of which ask them to use English. If they hit a ceiling in their language capabilities, they go to the wizards’ library and read so-called magical books that teach them lessons.
The company is initially focusing on kids age 7 to 12 in China but plans to expand globally, eventually teaching many different languages to kids all over the world.
This is an ambitious task, but if it succeeds in teaching kids (and adults?) how to interact in real (or almost real) situations in another language, it will be a big step forward in online learning.
I found an article on Examiner.com giving some great advice for would-be travellers to non-English speaking countries. It is obviously aimed at American natives, but pretty much all of the advice can be transferred to English speakers from other places, or speakers of any language going to a country where they speak a different one. It even works for people who speak the same language, but different regional variations. For example, I don’t use the term red eye to talk about a late-night flight, either.
If you are travelling in the near future, a lot of this advice would be useful to bear in mind:
* Make every attempt to at least acknowledge the mother language. Learning to say even a few words will indicate that you respect the native tongue.
* Do not use expressions or words that have recently come into the vernacular in the United States. For instance, saying you are “out of the loop” will probably put you there if you use that expression with a colleague in Colombia and letting someone know you are giving him or her a “head’s up” will probably just cause confusion in Korea.
* Watch your references. Certain words Americans say every day in conversation may be too abstract for a foreign audience. Almost all of us who were raised stateside are familiar with taking “a red eye” but there probably isn’t a single soul in Saigon who knows that expression to mean that he or she will be flying during the night.
* Repeat yourself. Being redundant may be the only way to ensure you are getting your message across so keep in mind that restating a concept by choosing other words to offer the same information twice is not only OK, it is almost always a good idea.
* Avoid speaking in a monotone. By raising or lowering your voice to make a point you may be helping to make yourself understood to someone whose command of English isn’t the same as your own.
* Watch your audience for any indication that you have lost them. For instance, if you are confronted by a glazed expression or two, you may want to back up and then slow down to keep communication flowing.
* Don’t continue talking, wondering if you have made yourself perfectly clear. Instead, ask directly if you sense you have lost your thread of communication and don’t take yes for an answer. Instead, dig deep by asking pertinent questions relating to the topic to make sure you are being understood.
+ Don’t be fooled by nods or smiles; these may not be signs that what you are saying has been understood, but rather that you are talking to a polite, if very confused, audience.
The original post also has links to advice for behaving acceptably in specific countries. Check it out.
A Chinese student from Sichuan province failed his gaokao (final examinations) essay because it was written in ancient characters, some of which were from thousands of years ago. From Shanghaiist:
The script, called “甲骨 Jia Gu” (oracle bone script) is from the Bronze Age and is usually found on ox bones or turtle shells. Professors who translated the essay into modern Chinese found that 19-year-old Huang Ling’s character use was largely correct, but his essay was awarded an 8 out of 80 (later lowered to 6).
The student’s score would normally mean that he would not be accepted into university, as Chinese requirements are usually very strict. However, examiners were impressed by his knowledge, and correct usage, of the so-called Oracle Bone script, and he may be accepted into Sichuan University after all.
Although I applaud his risky performance, I wonder if the results would be as positive if a British student wrote an essay in Middle English, or a French student in Gaulish. I kind of like to hope so.
I’ve always found it interesting that some words and phrases, even when they have almost identical dictionary definitions, are interpreted differently by different groups of people, and even different individuals. Sometimes I am sure that a word means a certain thing (because it’s always been used that way amongst people I associate with), and am very surprised to hear that it has different or alternative definitions in the dictionary.
Before I get carried away, I’d like to talk about an interesting Linguaphiles discussion I saw on LiveJournal yesterday. The original poster asked people what they thought the difference was between a first language, a mother tongue, and being a native speaker. According to narcissus1, and the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary:
… mother tongue and first language both refer to the language you acquire as a child and are most fluent in. When we use these words in everyday speech, do they include any connotations of race, culture and background? For example, if a person is Japanese does it necessarily mean that their mother tongue is Japanese? What about second and third (etc) generation immigrants who have lost the language of their parents?
Another question is, who do you call a ‘native speaker’? Again, OAL says that a native speaker is one who speaks a language as a first language. I’ve always considered English as my first language simply because it’s the language I’m most fluent in. But in my country English functions as a second language, and as a result I’ve never considered myself a native speaker of English.
A lot of the commenters seem to think that mother tongue is different from the other two, in that it carries the idea of culture and ethnicity. I tend to agree with this, and I think that’s why it’s not commonly used as an official term any more.
I consider myself a native speaker of English, and wouldn’t hesitate to say that it was my first language. I would say that Cantonese was my mother tongue, as my parents speak it, and I spoke it when I was very young. My Cantonese is not very good nowadays, but should I then consider it a second language? Was Cantonese equally my first language?
Read the full discussion for more interesting interpretations. I’d also be interested to hear about other people’s views and experiences.
I’ve already mentioned the great service that the Simple English version of Wikipedia provides for both learners of English and native speakers who want the layman’s version of things.
Now there’s a website that can show you what you’re missing when you’re reading the simple version, or what you’re not understanding when you’re reading the regular version. Again, But Slower does the simple but effective job of putting both versions side by side.
It can help you grasp the meaning of the more technical terms in regular Wikipedia articles, or give you a quick overview if you don’t have time to read the full-length versions. Give it a try!
Link via Lifehacker.