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The Language Thread


Ronnie

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Modern humans are unique in the animal world in many ways, but the first trait that marked Homo sapiens sapiens as distinct from other hominids was an unfortunate one - the species could choke to death. An evolutionary change meant that the larynx had been pushed into the throat, creating a link between the airway and oesophagus, and providing a means by which over 200 of their descendants would die on this small island in 2010 alone.

 

But with this physionomic change came a new dimension that hadn't been seen anywhere before - Homo sapiens sapiens had the capacity to speak. What started as grunts became complex languages, of which there are over 6,000 currently spoken on Earth. Some are extremely widespread - 398 of them (that's only 6%) are spoken by 94% of the people on the planet. The most popularly spoken as a first language is Chinese (the most popular branch of which is Mandarin), native language of more than one sixth of the world's population but restricted mainly to China (plus thirty other countries which host Chinese migrants).

 

However, the other languages at the top of the list don't have access to a massive country as Chinese does and so are truly global in their scope. Spanish and English are in equal second place with around 330 million native speakers (so far, far behind Chinese) but those people who have it as a first language are spread across 112 countries in the case of English (making it the world's most widespread language, adopted by 157 of 168 national airlines as the agreed language of discourse) and 44 for Spanish, following behind French (62) and Arabic (52).

 

But if those dominant 6% of languages account for nearly eleven twelfths of all first languages spoken, then the remaining 94% of languages must be thinly spread, often packed side by side. And indeed they are in particularly linguistically diverse parts of the world such as Papua New Guinea (or Independen Stet bilong Papua Niugini in the official tongue Tok Pisin [Talk Pidgin]), which has 841 indigenous languages flittering among only 6 million people.

 

With so many languages packed side by side it's often not possible to get by in life restricting oneself to the native one, and so monolingualism is not the norm, a statement which often catches English-speakers with great surprise. 44% of people in the European Union speak only one language natively. Over one quarter of the EU population, 28%, speak not only two languages fluently but are trilingual.

 

And so let's have a thread to celebrate the repercussions of that biological quirk in our ancestors, a topic in which we can explore the conundrums (conundra?), quirks and history of our massively successful native tongue, and share stories about other languages that we've chosen to learn.

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Umm im not sure this is what you mean but wanted to ask you this as your the wordsmith. Where does the word cakewalk come from I know it means something thats easy its just why cakewalk. If this isnt what you mean apologies

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We're definitely a language household. We've several bookshelves dedicated to the subject - they're packed two deep too:

 

OurLanguageShelves.jpg

 

Between the pair of us we can travel pretty much anywhere in Europe without having to use English, which is an important aspect of holidaying for us. We don't want to go anywhere where there are crowds and queues, we want to be mobile and head off the beaten path, and neither of us is comfortable with compelling someone else to speak to us in our language in their country. I handle the Romance languages, Ronette leads on the Germanic, and we get by in the Slavic ones between the pair of us.

 

We're not actually as multilingual as those shelves make us look, though - I'm only functionally fluent in French and Esperanto, though I can read and write Italian and Spanish and can usually pick up the scent when I come across Catalan or other related languages. Classroom French didn't particularly help me but I've lived in France twice and only ever spent time with the locals, only using English because French swear words just don't carry that Anglo Saxon venom. The froggies agreed and absorbed those words for their own use, which apparently out-lived my stays there because seven years after leaving the second time I found an old friend on Facebook and she casually used a couple of those words:

 

fuckinkcunt.jpg

 

Ronette can read German books at the same speed as I read English ones and never ceases to amaze me at how she, a girl too shy to order herself a drink in England, will take the lead in fluent German when we're abroad, a language she studied by herself. She's also fluent in Esperanto, which is a wonderful secret language for us to switch to if we want some privacy or if we're abroad and don't want English people latching on to us when they realise that we could order their food for them.

 

Any other linguaphiles on the board?

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Ronnie, my other half is Portuguese and I want to make a concerted effort to try and speak in her native tongue. But not just speak a few phrases and words, I'd like to try and become as fluent as possible. My cunning plan is actually to keep it as a relative secret for the time being, and eventually when I feel I've grasped it well enough, I'm planning to propose to her in her own language. I could just learn the Portuguese for will you marry me, but I want to bamboozle her a bit first with my impressive new lingo.

 

What's the quickest and relatively user friendly way to do this? (Learn the language I mean, not the proposal!) Do you know much Portuguese and if so, how difficult is it to grasp to a complete novice? You mentioned in Paid Members somewhere about how learning Esperanto (sp?) helps to learn other languages quicker, how is is this the case?

 

Obrigado.

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I'm not, though wish I was. I got myself to a reasonable "school" level in spoken Japanese when I was teenager (ie: I could ask someone their name, for directions to the post office, and how much the apples were, etc..), but it was really only because I was one of those kids so eager to be different, and with nobody to converse with, it fell out of my brain pretty quickly. These days I can really only remember the swear words.

 

I've half-arsedly considered other languages since then (a brief dalliance with Korean when I was studying Hapkido, and because it's alphabet isn't as complex as it looks, and Spanish as I was going to Tenerife), but I've never really gotten further than a handful of basic phrases.

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What's the quickest and relatively user friendly way to do this?

Immersion, but I suppose that this isn't an option for you if you want to keep it a surprise.

 

If you're starting from the beginning then I'd recommend two elements:

 

1) Some form of audio course so that you can hear the language spoken and manipulated. It won't present you with extensive vocabulary but it will give you the formulas to craft different meanings. For example, a poor English course might contain nothing but masses of vocabulary. That's not much use to someone who wants to express something like "I'm sorry but I won't be able to come to see you because my sister arrived early and so I have to see her tonight." If you get a good course it will build up to sentences like that - you can always learn the words as and when you need them. It's a lot easier to look up the word "sister" and insert it into a formula than it is to work out the formula from scratch. I'd recommend starting with the Michel Thomas foundation course.

 

2) A good text book, which will set out the grammar more formally, provide you with more vocabularly and example dialogue. Teach Yourself Portuguese would be my first port of call.

 

After that you need to encounter the language to build on it. When you're in Portugal don't automatically use English - if you must, say hello in Portuguese and then apologise for not knowing any more of the language - it gets you better service at any rate! Pick up a newspaper and read the odd article or letters page. Grab hold of a children's book. (I'm serious on that too - I did it in German and it helped me get my head around some quite difficult concepts.) Read billboards.

 

Do you know much Portuguese and if so, how difficult is it to grasp to a complete novice?

 

I've never attempted to learn it but I have a couple of books on it. I find it relatively accessible because of its similarity to Spanish - the secret seems to be "change where Spanish has X to Y and you get the Portuguese word".

 

For example, Spanish "Me llamo Ronnie" becomes "Chamo-me Ronnie" (or, I think, "Me chamo Ronnie" in Brazil), with Spanish "ll" (that's a single letter to them) becoming "ch" in Portuguese. I have Facebook friends that are Brazilian and I seem to understand their statuses more or less if ever I look at them.

 

You mentioned in Paid Members somewhere about how learning Esperanto (sp?) helps to learn other languages quicker, how is is this the case?

Nope, I mentioned it in the thread on online courses yesterday. If you're thinking earlier than that then it must've been from when you were doing detective work for Secret Santa and read it on my blog ;)

 

Anyway, here's what I posted yesterday:

 

I read on some website that learning Esperanto helps you learn other languages much faster, so I'm working on a free course here. No university degree or anything but if it helps in other ways, I think it's a good idea.

There's currently an evaluation by the University of Manchester into that. I know that there was one done by the Institute of Cybernetic Technology in Paderborn in which some kids were given one year of Esperanto and three in French, and the others took the usual four years of only French. The kids with the mixed background whipped them when it came to exam time.

 

The mechanism behind the claim is pretty straightforward - the most difficult language to learn is the first foreign one because you also have to learn how to learn a language. Once you've acquired that skill then learning subsequent languages becomes easier. Anyone that did French at school will remember how impenetrable it was at first: "Why is table a girl? Why do I have to change the word for white or green depending on what it's referring to?" Then you have to do entire lessons on individual verbs. Fun, fun, fun. A trip across the Channel then makes you realise that you can't actually speak French in spite of hundreds of hours in the classroom.

 

Because Esperanto does without those irregular features that makes other languages difficult it's easier to get on with the job of learning. (A study in France showed it took 150 hours to get to a certain level of proficiency in Esperanto, but 1,000 in Italian, 1,500 in English and 2,000 in German.) The skills learnt are transferable and so learning the next language becomes easier. And so learning Esperanto, if not much use in the sense that you're extremely unlikely to casually bump into another speaker (although I've done it), is useful as an investment in making it easier to learn follow-on languages.

 

Ronette and I are cases in point. We both know several languages but haven't invested that much time in them compared to school pupils. (Ronette has never taken a class in Croatian but I can see from here that she's 143 pages into the Croatian version of Murder on the Orient Express.) When we went to Kiev a couple of years back we got by in Russian, despite my probably having spent under 100 hours learning it. I'm not claiming to be a proper Russian-speaker, by the way, because vocabulary can't be absorbed without hours of immersion but I was quite happy using a limited wordstock and conjugating for past, present and future, asking questions and scaring a waitress. I would attribute a fair bit of our capacity to absorb languages to our having already developed the knack of learning them but also to our Esperanto - it's quite often the case that I mentally translate a sentence in Language A into Esperanto to get an idea of what's going on in it. If I wanted to analyse why Kevin Nash was wrong to say "'Where the big boys play.' Look at the adjective - play." it would take a bit of juggling to say "no, verb" when thinking about it in English but using Esperanto brings it up immediately.

 

I should add that it also came in handy for free holidays when I was younger. There's a charity (which I now run ;) ) that gives grants to young people to attend Esperanto events abroad, so I took a week's holiday in Sweden, went to Hungary on a few occasions and saw the new year in in a castle in Germany, among other things. Then I got too old to access the charity's funding and had to pay for holidays myself :(

Obrigado.

Boa sorte! (Good luck!)

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I'm not, though wish I was. I got myself to a reasonable "school" level in spoken Japanese when I was teenager (ie: I could ask someone their name, for directions to the post office, and how much the apples were, etc..), but it was really only because I was one of those kids so eager to be different, and with nobody to converse with, it fell out of my brain pretty quickly. These days I can really only remember the swear words.

Japanese?! You couldn't really have found anything more difficult for an English-speaker.

 

There was a paper in 1993 that looked at scores obtained by average-ability English-speaking Americans in foreign-language training. The time period was between 16 and 24 weeks and there were 43 separate languages under evaluation. The test scores were used to give an idea of how easy the language was to learn (and how linguistically close it must be to English). The people trying Japanese scored the lowest, leading to the conclusion that Japanese was the hardest (of the 43) languages for English-speakers to learn.

 

I've half-arsedly considered other languages since then (a brief dalliance with Korean when I was studying Hapkido, and because it's alphabet isn't as complex as it looks, and Spanish as I was going to Tenerife), but I've never really gotten further than a handful of basic phrases.

I tried Korean too. I intended to move over there a few years ago and so started learning. The alphabet (Hangul) is brilliant, having been designed over the course of several years by a king still venerated centuries later as extremely wise.

 

Edit: I forgot to finish a sentence! "I intended to move over there a few years ago and so started learning, but I met Ronette around the same time and so made what turned out to be the right decision and stayed over here.

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I speak 3 languages fluently including English. The other two are Hindi and Punjabi which are pretty similar but different enough to count as separate languages, I can converse as easily as I can go English in both those languages, I can only read basic Punjabi and I can't read Hindi. I can understand Urdu and Mir Puri but don't speak them, I have tried really hard to speak Urdu but I always end up slipping in to Punjabi, again because they are similar and my poor little brain can't keep them separate.

 

Im planning to spend a month in Brazil on a volunteering project next year so I want to get a decent grasp of Portuguese before I get out there. I haven't started learning yet, but have picked up bits here and there (mainly through being a fan of Brazilian MMA fighters) so I can decifer bits of written Portuguese, but I have long way to go as far as understanding a conversation. Learning is at the top of my to-do list in the new year.

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I feel seriously thick reading this thread. In fact Ronnie's posts always make me feel slightly inferior.

 

I've got English and nothing else despite 3 years of French lessons at school and my ex of 7 years being half Korean. My French is on about the level of Del Boy Trotter and I couldn't grasp Korean at all.

 

I know the odd Portugese word like Obrigado (thankyou) and Luta (fight) and a few others from MMA watching. The only other bits I know would be from food menus.

 

That's it. I bow to the rest of you and your language knowledge.

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I'm not, though wish I was. I got myself to a reasonable "school" level in spoken Japanese when I was teenager (ie: I could ask someone their name, for directions to the post office, and how much the apples were, etc..), but it was really only because I was one of those kids so eager to be different, and with nobody to converse with, it fell out of my brain pretty quickly. These days I can really only remember the swear words.

Japanese?! You couldn't really have found anything more difficult for an English-speaker.

Blame Manga Video, not that I had any that weren't dubbed into English anyway. Admittedly I was learning phrases with interchangable elements parrot style, rather than constructing sentences myself, but once I'd got past the stage of being daunted by the length of the words, I didn't think it was that bad. Certainly easier than when a friend tried to teach me some Cantonese.

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I feel seriously thick reading this thread. In fact Ronnie's posts always make me feel slightly inferior.

You shouldn't do. You're a great poster, especially that time you referred to Pat as a "filthy wrong 'un". I wish I could come up with something as straight to the point as that!

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I'm off to see a friend next year in Hong Kong hopefully. I would like to learn some basic essential phrases in Cantonese. Is Cantonese a much harder language to master than Japanese, or will it be a slightly easier ride.

 

This thread is fascinating.

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I speak 3 languages fluently including English. The other two are Hindi and Punjabi which are pretty similar but different enough to count as separate languages, I can converse as easily as I can go English in both those languages, I can only read basic Punjabi and I can't read Hindi. I can understand Urdu and Mir Puri but don't speak them, I have tried really hard to speak Urdu but I always end up slipping in to Punjabi, again because they are similar and my poor little brain can't keep them separate.

quote]

 

Ditto for me. The Urdu Punjabi confusion gets me all the time. From listening to family elders it seems that Urdu was taught in India rather than Punjabi. I like listening to various Asian radio stations and try to decipher the differences between the various languages. BBC Asian network is pretty much English speaking. I also speak little bits of Swahili.

It's often said that when travelling to a foreign country. The people of that country appreciate it, if you make an effort to speak the language of that country. How true is that? Ronnie has touched on this briefly.

I was in Belgium last year and everyone spoke English. Didn't have to butcher Flemish once. I was quite surprised.

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