There is an Elephant in the Room.

This one might form part 1 of an “I don’t need to learn a language because…” series

Google translate is pretty good, right? I use it, others I know use it, and I find the translations quite good. It is pretty tempting to say, what’s the point of learning a language when this software is so reliable? It can even get most idiomatic expressions right these days. Let me riddle you this Batpeople?  <<READER THINKS>> Oh I get it that is a thing that the Riddler says to Batman, yes… you either got or didn’t get the reference and I will elaborate why. There are several kinds of competence in language. (Oh baby a bullet list.)

  • Grammatical Competence – inflection, word order, ergative alignment… yawn.
  • Pragmatic Competence – what language is used for, e.g. how to give or request information, knowing that when you meet someone, you say hello and introduce yourself etc.
  • Semantic Competence – What does stuff actually mean? Does the saying “When pigs fly” really mean “Never”?
  • Knowing things that Batman’s enemies say.

Let’s evaluate this from the software’s perspective, Grammatical Competence? Check! No worries software can do this and continually refine its algorithms to get more precise. Unless I deliberately break the rules for comic effect I mean… you know that I know the rules, and I know that you know that I know you know that I know the rules. I am as linguists say “flouting the maxims.” Can software really detect my flouting without knowing a bit more about how competent I am with the above competencies, I could be new to English, so my accent may give away I have not broken a grammatical rule deliberately, what is seen as an error in one dialect may be normal in another and what about sarcasm? dead-pan, impersonations? Made up words that still mean something?

I have seen translation software come leaps and bounds, but we are constantly changing the mixture of competencies, contexts, flouting maxims and using non-verbal cues. Writing may be getting there but I think there will be a purely human element to translation and interpretation for some time to come and the only way for software to improve is become more human and have more inputs (visual, background knowledge of who is conversing, for example.)

Besides how will you impress and make someone warm to you by speaking their language, if you are just getting the software to do it for you, you didn’t go the extra mile, and they will know that. Oh and don’t forget the C-word, “Culture” language and culture intermingle when you learn a language they usually throw culture in there too because you do really need it to understand the language properly, this is especially true the more different a language or culture is.

As formerly alive person Nelson Mandela once said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

OK, so in summary translation software for communication is pretty good, no need to learn a language for this. But for the other million uses, nothing beats good old-fashioned human learning and skill.

 

 

 

 

Accent-ist!

DISCRIMINATION! Yes, it is insidious and everywhere and there is an air of inevitability about it… at the moment anyway. It can be deliberate, inadvertent and miscellaneous but before you get too worried about where I am going with all of this don’t panic I am going to talk about linguistics it is not going to be about anything serious…. OR IS IT! Dum dum dum!

While I was in one of my linguistics classes the other day a music student who was taking this particular class as an elective, got onto the topic of removing her accent while she sings because the Australian accent “just doesn’t sound good.” Many people agreed, to which I said, “You all only think that because all the movies are made in Hollywood and Britain has a history of Empire and Monarchy” thus giving those dialects and accents an air of prestige or normality.

It did not shock me that she and some of the others had this opinion, I have held this opinion about accents before as well. People like what they like and often don’t know why. What shocked me was that she so quickly belittled her own accent, an important marker of her identity. Identity is important to people, that’s why vegans, evangelicals, minority groups etc. are so passionate about their various causes and groups, I love you all people, and as stated before I ain’t going down this rabbit hole so settle down. Her tone was serious and matter of fact, not like a funny, self-deprecating joke that we could all relate to and laugh about.

One thing I tried to let go of very quickly after learning some linguistics was this idea of prescriptive-ism and that there is a right and wrong way to speak. Ponder this; some accents are R-less as in “water” is pronounced “watah.” This exists in many dialects of English ranging from pretentious douche-bags in England, bogans in Australia and redneck Americans, perhaps it is entirely arbitrary and that why we think when one group does it, it sounds good only because of generations of cultural brainwashing? Studies of Black English in the states have shown those dialects are just as complex and as rich in vocab as her Majesty’s English, maybe more so. There seems to be this mass ignorance as to what makes something sound cool, gangsta, sophisticated, dumb, mean or other adjectives, and how random it really can be. There is certainly some evidence for certain sounds being nicer or cuter than others, often diminutives and cute things have higher pitched sounds in them, e.g. “EEs” and “CHs” like sweetie or liebchen, terms of endearment in English and German. But what about something like contractions being informal in English but in French if you don’t use them properly you sound like an imbecile?

Next time you catch yourself thinking: (oh yess you better believe I found a way to do a bullet list!)

  • Geez, I fucken hate Hindi/yodeling/country/rap/metal music, it sounds so awful.
  • German is so aggressive and sounds ugly.
  • French sounds really…élégant
  • People with accent x sound dumb.

Remind yourself that your environment and upbringing has conditioned you to feel this way and that hundreds of millions of people love/hate those sounds you hate/love and use them for wonderful things like: (ooh yeah bullet list numero dos)

  • Poetry
  • Music
  • Making hilarious jokes about how funny other accents/languages sound.
  • Romance
  • Telling their kids they love them (kids can be a common side effect of romance.)

So please only take fun and humour from accents, do not use them to put people in boxes, just don’t be an accent-ist!

P.s Kiwis sound ruduculous 😉

Image from Goodreads.com, don’t sue me John Green or Goodreads I love your work.

Bi-weekly, Bi-lingual – Ni Hao

Obviously, I am a dad, I have a domain name that has the word in it, and my tagline says it too, why is that important? Because I am trying to give the gift/curse of language(s) to my children. I am fluent in English and French and competent in Dutch and German, I thought here’s what I will do, I will pass on the language of French to them, this was much to the ire of my family (who are either monolingual Australians and Brits or Dutch) and even myself if I am honest. It just made the most sense to me because it was a bigger language than Dutch and I spoke it much better. I had never raised bilingual kids before, and experience is one hell of a teacher, but it became evident to me that I was destined to fail. Here’s why I did:

 

  • I was the only parent who was proficient in more than one language.
  • Work and personal circumstances meant I would not have enough time with the child/children.
  • No support network or social contexts where the target language would be dominant, playgroups, relatives etc.
  • Australia is monolingual and does not assist, promote or even condone multilingualism in the home or at school. Argue all you like with this point, but it’s the reality of living in an English speaking country. Learning the days of the week and some greetings half way through primary/grade school does not cut the mustard.
  • The motivation for continued development, e.g. Friends, cool movies/shows and music, education/professional opportunities. English just has way more of this than other languages.

 

If you were expecting an uplifting raise a bilingual child article, you might now be thinking “WTF Polyglot DAD! You are being so negative and making me want to give up.” The good news is that I didn’t give up, well I did, and I didn’t. I had to become more realistic, I adjusted my expectations from bilingual to “interested in” and “aware of” other languages. I explained to my kids that there were many other languages, I read to them in French when I can, teach them words and I put children’s movies and series on that are in French, being mindful not to be too forceful with the language thing. Thinking to myself if I can’t make this thing mandatory I will encourage an interest at the very least. One might even term my approach the “Dora the Explorer” method. My second oldest child is actually quite interested in foreign languages, so this approach is working with him quite well. But as with any great story on an obscure blog, there is a plot twist to rival, nay surpass the “I am your father” moment from “The Empire Strikes Back.” After failed attempts to find French bilingual classes and daycare during my shared custody of the children. I gave up and just continued the measured approach outlined previously, but then a game-changer stared me right in the face. I recently got off at a train station in my city and saw an advertisement for the first bilingual Mandarin/English daycare in said city. It just so happens that I have a daughter who is nearly 3 years old, is not at school yet and already attends daycare so… short story even shorter, my young European Australian daughter is now enrolled in a Chinese bilingual daycare two full days every two weeks, where she will learn Mandarin, thus beginning a new saga. I am not sure how effective it will be, however, going back to the bullet points I wrote way up in the story, this addresses all but one! It seems my hopes to have my children benefit from speaking more than just English have been revitalised. Updates to follow.

Image from Nickelodeon

*No copyright infringement is intended.

The Indigo Plateau

Your motivation is starting to wane; you are conversational yet still frustrated and new languages are beckoning. Welcome to the intermediate plateau, the stage in language learning where you just stop making the fast gains and leaps in proficiency. For those initiated with content like podcasts, self-development and popular non-fiction books, concepts like the 80/20 and 10,000-hour rules and names like “Tim Ferris” and “Malcolm Gladwell” start to spring to mind. How something like the 80/20 rule extrapolates to language learning is that 20% of your effort will be used to see 80% of the results and 80% of your energy will be to achieve the remaining 20% of the results. The 100% meaning language mastery (near-native fluency.) From my own experience, I believe this idea to be true and demonstratable. If you use some rough statistical techniques such analysing the most commonly used words, morphemes, utterances or whatever breakdown of the noises and squiggles of a language you want to use, it will soon show that only a tiny portion of a language gets used frequently.

I think anyone who has gotten to this point in a language has felt super confident in one-on-one conversations with native speakers and then had their confidence smashed when they watch a movie or read poetry. An example from my own life comes from when I was learning French. I thought I was pretty fucking good 😉 only to try to talk to a monolingual French speaker about residential electrical wiring, and home renovation and realise this small portion of my vocabulary was non-existent. It was an example of that insidious 20% that comes in situations that are rare, specific and fluid. The 20% hides here:

  • Specific admin and government shit of the country where the language is spoken.
  • Housing, driver’s licenses, insurance etc.
  • Pop-culture, inside jokes and references to stuff only locals would know.
  • Those damn kids who skateboard on the sidewalk and their slang.
  • Jargon from various professions.
  • Idioms and sports terms that have made their way into the everyday vernacular.
  • Maybe some other contexts I have not thought about.

In our native language, we gradually acquire pretty much all of this in-depth specific knowledge during childhood and early adulthood. It actually takes us a very long time, but because the expectations of children and adults are entirely different, we don’t feel the pressure when learning this content. When we learn another language later, we hold these adult expectations. Kerstin Cable actually speaks about this in an episode of her podcast “The Fluent Show.” She mentions that when she arrived in England as a native German speaker with academic near-native fluency in English (C1 level in the European framework), she felt really out of her depth for quite a while. Segway: Check her podcast out, I really recommend it.

What can be done? From my experience and listening to that of others, several things can be done so we don’t fall off the wagon. Simple! Find motivation wherever you can get it and set short-term realistic goals that can be sustained over the long term. At the intermediate stage, motivation is really at risk unless the motivation is there, and the goals are realistic it will be a struggle. There are two types of motivation “extrinsic” and “intrinsic.” Extrinsic motivation is generated by our environment and community, some examples are:

  • Acceptance or inclusion by peers.
  • Necessity, work, education, travel, survival.
  • Cool content that is only available in that language.
  • Fame, money, prestige.

Intrinsic motivation may be harder to cultivate at this stage, some people tend to have more of it naturally, people who answer the question “Why learn that language?” with “Cos I can!” likely have this already. Intrinsic motivation could be stuff like:

  • A dream to someday buy a house and live in that country.
  • Prove to themselves that they can do something hard, the thrill of the hunt.
  • Genuine interest in language itself.
  • Boredom

Some of the above motives could be a mixture of both types of motivation, and indeed a healthy combination of both has to be present in my opinion for long-term progress. If the extrinsic motivation is weak, then the intrinsic motivation must be higher, this means it MUST BE FUN. Your expectations MUST BE REALISTIC. If extrinsic motivation is high but not the internal than you only reach the standard required by your environment and you probably won’t progress much further, Think of the little old Italian lady who after 50 years in “English speaking country X” still can’t speak native level English. She speaks precisely the standard demanded by her environment and nothing more, and her completely fluent children can bridge any gaps for her (Sorry little old Italian ladies, you are purely hypothetical in this example, and I am not some kind of “ist” who has a prejudice.)

Remember small wins over long periods will bust this plateau, after all, it is the 80% part of the journey. If anyone doubts that the devil is in the final 20% of the detail? I built in a test for you to pass, If you are older than 40 years old I highly doubt you will understand why my title is “Indigo Plateau” instead of “Intermediate Plateau” (I have added a picture to assist in finding out.)

Language learning is a logarithmic curve, and it gets harder to know what you don’t know the more that you know. Boom! Incepted!

*Images – no copyright infringement intended, probably copyright of Nintendo.

How hard is your language?

When I was growing up, I would often hear phrases like “They say English is the most difficult language in the world.” Nowadays you hear this same statement said about Mandarin, Arabic and Russian, in fact, some speakers of these global languages almost say it with pride. But what makes a language difficult, who finds it difficult and why? Is it how many words it has? How difficult it is for people to pronounce them? Is it because the alphabet has thousands of characters? Or is it because there is not much content out there or few people to speak it with?

Language can be structured, consistent and logical, especially if it is a synthetic language like Esperanto, but generally speaking, (boom, boom) languages are an absolute free for all, and I see many Darwinian concepts at work when it comes to how they grow, change and die. Every language borrows words from others, has grammatical rules that seem critical but get continuously broken and whose sounds change ever so slightly (or radically sometimes) with each subsequent generation. A measure of difficulty that I would often use when learning languages is a concept called “inflection.” Inflection makes itself known in many ways, for example, pronouns changing from “I” to “me” or “we” to “us”, verbs changing form, depending which person did what and when (conjugation). And the infamous noun gender found in German, French and pretty much every other Indo-European language. But even this is a poor measure because there are languages like Chinese which are not inflected in this way but possess other demons to torment foreign language learners such as tones and what many people consider to be a ridiculous amount of written characters. The Japanese actually try to limit their non-phonetic characters to 2,136, they are aptly named the “Joyo Kanji” translated as the “used Kanji.” But do you think they only use these? …Nope!

So what is the hardest language in the world?

Simple answer… all of them! For example Swedish is difficult for a native Chinese speaker but easy for English or German Natives, Arabic is torturous for French speakers but easy for Hebrew speakers. Language, like colour, is a spectrum, when does a dialect become a distinct language? Is like asking when does green become blue? If you want to try this kind of question out, ask a bunch of people what colour a tennis ball is. To labour the point, I speak Dutch, and when I hear Afrikaans I understand about 70-80% of what is said, Swedes and Danes often talk to each in their native languages without any more than that experienced by someone from New Orleans speaking English with someone from Glasgow.

However, for those who don’t like vague, neutral answers like mine, the difficulty of the language to an individual can be measured with these questions.

  • Does this language harbour stuff that you want to know about? E.g. Japanese and great Animé or the French with their poems about broken hearts, walking on bridges and along canals < this is a joke 😉
  • Can you get exposure to it? E.g. non-Anglophones getting waterboarded by the English language via pop-culture and business, or your city having a decent Chinatown to immerse yourself in.
  • Do you have the discipline to do a little bit of practice most days of the week?

If you answer yes to all three, it is an easy language, if no to all three then it is a hard language. Because from my experience, pointless inflection and decadent alphabets are no barrier if it is yes to the above, it is just a matter of persistence.

I would love to hear people’s thoughts on this so feel free to comment away. *Except if you want to mandate that your language the hardest, I guarantee there is a minority group or indigenous people somewhere speaking a way more inflected, tongue-twisty one.

Image from Inidam