In an earlier post, I talked about the importance of learning a little bit of the local language before visiting another country. Not only is it the respectful thing to do, it also saves you from embarrassing misunderstandings or spending your entire holiday communicating through pointing and exaggerated mimes.
A few years ago, I visited Lithuania for a weekend. It was for a one-off sporting event and was therefore likely to be my first and last time in the country. I didn’t need to become fluent in Lithuanian, but thought I should make an effort (particularly given where I work!) so I spent a bit of time using Talk Now before I left, learning the words for ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, ‘hotel’, and a few others. This allowed me to greet people, explain to taxi drivers where I wanted to go, and thank the staff in restaurants and shops in their own language. It wasn’t a lot, and there was still some pointing and gesturing required, but I felt better about myself and the locals seemed to appreciate my efforts.
I recently learned the story of how the idea for EuroTalk came about. One of our founders, Dick Howeson, was on a business trip in Hungary, waiting for a flight. He desperately needed to use the bathroom, but unfortunately, instead of pictures, the airport had used the words for ‘male’ and ‘female’ on the doors. This was a small problem for Dick, who didn’t speak any Hungarian, and had no way of knowing which was which. Unluckily, the airport wasn’t very busy at the time, and he had to wait twenty minutes for someone else to come along, so he could see which door they used.
At the time, a lot of people had been asking Dick for a language program specifically for business people, but his experience in Hungary made him realise that those travelling for work needed to start with the basics just like everyone else, rather than going straight to learning the words for ‘invoice’ or ‘contract’. That’s why EuroTalk software starts by teaching you the essential first words you need to get by – including ladies’ and gents’ toilet!
Our newest iPhone app, uTalk, is based on exactly the same thinking. It’s free to download and gives you 15 words in 25 languages (with lots more on the way). And not only that, it also contains all the EuroTalk games you know and love, plus some new ones, to help you remember them. If you decide you want to learn more, there are upgrades available to unlock loads more vocabulary.
So if you’re planning your summer holiday – or a business trip – now is the perfect time to download uTalk, and wherever you go, you’ll be prepared.
Over the last six months we’ve had our new free app uTalk translated into over 30 languages, and dealt with over 120 native language speakers who’ve either translated or performed the scripts. Along the way we’ve confronted many challenges which really emphasise how one language can be ambiguous whilst another is precise, and vice versa.
In English, for example, we can go to the shop and ask for a pepper without having to specify the colour, or order a boiled egg without stating whether it should be hard or soft; we refer to brothers and sisters without having to qualify their age; we talk about grandparents, uncles and aunts without saying which side of the family they are on and, perhaps most infuriatingly for non-native speakers (those inclined towards a bit of juicy gossip), we can refer to friends and partners without having to say whether they are male or female. We can be elusive and a little bit mysterious through the vagueness of the English tongue. This is not always the case in every language, and here are a few examples of what we’ve learnt so far:
- In Vietnamese, you don’t just have a brother or sister: there is no general word. Instead, you specifically have an older or younger brother or sister. In Basque, too, there is no generic word, but the difference depends on the gender of the speaker rather than age: my Mum’s word for her brother (neba) will be different to my Dad’s word for his brother (anaia).
- Danish has two words for a wall, depending on whether it is an outdoor, brick-built wall or an interior wall.
- In Polish, we debated the straightforward English phrase He scores (a goal), which can be translated with a variety of terms depending primarily on whether he scores visibly, in the eyes of the spectators, or definitely, after verification from the referee.
- The Romanians use two words for snow – one to describe the falling droplets, one to refer to the layer already on the ground.
As well as these difficulties in trying to get different languages to correspond to each other, we’ve come across some interesting stylistic issues which don’t exist in English:
- In languages such as Czech and Slovak, our translators worried over the best way to tell the time, since it is common to express twenty-five past two as five to half past two, a construction which may initially confuse learners who have never encountered it. (English speakers may also be surprised when they first learn the time in many Slavic languages, where quarter past four is, literally, quarter of the fifth, the implication being that we are in the fifth hour).
- In Chichewa, our translators opted for entirely different and equally valid counting systems: one went for the traditional Chichewa way of counting based on the numbers 1 to 5, followed by increasingly complex and lengthy sums which require quick thinking and an aptitude for arithmetic in everyday transactions; the other opted for the commonly used English loan words- twente eiti (28), faifi (5) etc. Both systems are equally used, understood and widespread in Malawi.
- Our Honduran consultant objected slightly to the inclusion of the word ketchup in the Latin American Spanish script, saying that la salsa de tomate would be more appropriate in his country. But this clashed with our Peruvian consultant’s advice, since ketchup is a widespread word in Peru and the salsa de tomate could refer to any other tomato-based sauce. Our Mexican translator chipped in that in Mexico ketchup is indeed commonly used, though catsup would be equally widespread… In the end, we settled on ketchup as the most generally acceptable in the largest number of places.
- In Polish, there is no good way to translate the phrases at the top of the stairs and at the bottom of the stairs: they would just say on the stairs in both cases. Part of the reason for this is the strange repetition you get if you specify at and on - na górze na schodach. The same odd-sounding repetition caused problems in the Spanish translation of I’m leaving tomorrow at eight in the morning, since the words for tomorrow and morning are identical, thus Me marcho mañana a las ocho de la mañana. It sounds so strange that people would prefer to leave out the first mañana.
These are just a few of the little points of interest we encounter on a regular basis in our translation project, and we’re looking forward to finding more and sharing them with you!
uTalk is now available from the App Store – it’s free to download and includes basic words in 25 languages, with options to upgrade for more vocabulary.
The last full-fledged Malay conversation I had must have been at least a year ago, possibly with someone elderly at a family gathering. Since moving abroad for college, I’ve written maybe ten sentences and spoken less than 100 words of Malay. It isn’t as though I’m horrible at the language — in fact, given my GCSEs, I would be categorised as being highly proficient — but it was simply that there was no one else to speak it to. The number of Malay speakers I know living in London could be counted on one hand and given our crazy school schedules, meeting up for a chat in Malay was hardly a priority.
Interning at EuroTalk as a Malay translator for the new Mathematics app has thankfully brought me back to my roots as a Malay speaker from Singapore. As expected of Asian families, my grandparents have often complained of the lack of association I have had with my mother tongue. Even more so with my move to London, 19 months ago. I am reminded to speak the language and act Malay, whatever that implies, each time I return to Singapore for vacation. Equally embarrassing are the quizzes my parents have decided to now throw me. At a restaurant last Winter break, my father quizzed, ‘What do you call radishes in Malay?’, which took me quite a while to recall. Sitting down for hours translating the Maths app has forced me to recall trivial words like ‘circle’ or ‘triangle’, things I would normally not say out loud—just imagine saying ‘Pass me the triangle-shaped biscuit’.
Malay in Singapore
Mother tongue as a school subject was made compulsory by the Singapore government in the 1980s, and although it is not used as the main language of instruction, it has been used to teach subjects like Social Studies. This policy was adopted by the Ministry of Education to emphasise the growing need to preserve the myriad of languages spoken in the country. However, its effectiveness in getting the younger generation to actively speak the language remains to be seen.
Singapore, a small island in the Malay Archipelago, is one of three countries with a good number of Bahasa speakers. Bahasa is the superset of modern languages such as Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Melayu (or Malay), both of which were derived from Sanksrit. Two other countries that speak Bahasa are our neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia. Unlike these two countries, however, Singapore’s economic position as a leading global city in the region of Southeast Asia has necessarily led to rapid rates of globalisation in the nation-state, resulting in the dilution of traditional languages like Malay, and other Chinese dialects due to the government’s choice of English as the main language of instruction. Malaysians and Indonesians, on the other hand, continue to mainly converse in Bahasa and clearly take more pride in the language.
Aside from globalisation, the ethnic diversity of Singapore could also be to blame for the lack of need to preserve Malay amongst its speakers. As an ethnic minority group in the country, Malays face colleagues, friends and sometimes even family, who don’t speak the language. 4 out of 5 of my closest friends are Chinese and when I worked at an architecture firm last year for my summer break, none of my colleagues were Malay. It is this unique racial make-up of Singapore that I sometimes blame for my lack of use of the Malay language. The only opportunities I got to speak the language were with my grandparents or at school during mother tongue classes. Even my parents were of a generation that experienced the full impacts of globalisation and were brought up to master English so as to be able to contribute to the economic development of the nation. Occasionally, my family would get visitors from Malaysia or Indonesia who I would then have to converse with in Malay, but such opportunities only came once or twice annually.
Unlike Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore is seeing dwindling numbers of Malay speakers. In my graduating year from high school, not more than fifteen Malay speakers throughout the country went on to study the language at the National University of Singapore, and the numbers are falling. Unfortunately, we are also increasingly relying on these few enthusiasts to spread the interest and use of the language in Singapore, in addition to incoming migrants from neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia to do the same.
Of late, however, Singaporeans of other ethnicities are beginning to pick up the language. Although the numbers aren’t high, it is worthy to note the curiosity many are still having with Malay. Some are picking up the language for academic reasons and others, in the case of inter-racial marriages, to be able to communicate better with their spouses’ elderly relatives at family functions. Whatever their reasons, at least someone is looking after the language and hopefully this phenomenon will continue to build in Singapore.
Even as a younger generation Malay speaker who was forced into taking mother tongue classes at school, it saddens me to see the language dying. Ironically, by being miles away from home, I am driven to take every opportunity possible to speak or write the language. Thankfully, the internship at EuroTalk has enabled me to sit at the desk for hours recalling words I used to speak or only read in textbooks. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined myself using the Malay language in London in this context, but if it will keep me in touch with my roots then I’m not complaining, and neither are my parents.
After reading Konstantia’s post a few months ago about how many of our everyday words come from Greek, I started to think about where some of our other words came from. You might think that we are the ones influencing everyone else (words such as wifi in French, surfear for surfing the net in Spanish, and a lot of business jargon in German – downloaden, ein Workshop, ein Meeting and so on…), and of course that’s true. Most new inventions (the Internet, computers and related tech such as wifi) are named by Americans, and therefore the English word is often passed along to other cultures and absorbed into their languages. You’ll also find many non-English speakers throwing in English phrases amidst their native tongue. Any other Borgen fans will probably have noticed the way that characters casually use phrases such as ‘on a need to know basis’ whilst otherwise conversing in Danish. Clearly our language, especially in the business, IT and entertainment domains, has a huge global influence.
However, if you look a little further back, you’ll find us doing exactly the same thing. It might seem incredibly cool to Europeans now to use English or merely ‘English-sounding’ words day to day, but we’re just as guilty of language-envy or just pure laziness with French, especially. How to describe that annoying feeling of being sure you’ve already seen or done something? Déjà vu, of course. Not to mention dozens of other words and phrases we all use on a daily or regular basis: laissez faire, enfant terrible, a la carte, a la mode, arte nouveau, en route, faux pas… I could go on for pages. You’d probably struggle to go through a day without using at least one or two obviously French words. It’s almost as if we simply couldn’t be bothered to think of our own words for some of these things, although I also suspect it has a lot to do with our associations with French as chic (another one!) and sexy. This is especially true in the beauty industry, which explains the proliferation of products labelled visage or with names like touche eclat remaining in their original alluring French guise.
French is the best example, as they are our nearest geographical neighbours, and historically one of our closest political connections, which explains the huge interconnection of our languages. However, as soon as you think about it, there are hundreds of other words that have crept into our parlance from other languages. Words like Zeitgeist and one of my favourites Schadenfreude have come over from German, whilst our food vocabulary owes a lot to Spanish (salsa, jalapeno, tortilla, nacho, paella…) We’re also becoming ever more familiar with words and especially foods from China and Japan. Sushi, sake, kimono, karate, karaoke and so on are everyday words to us, whilst we happily order bok choy, chop suey and chow mein without even thinking about it, not to mention concepts like yen, zen and feng shui. Taekwondo has made its way over from Korea, whilst we’ve taken words like bamboo and paddy from Malay.
This is just a quick look at some of the more obvious ways that our language has spread globally, and how many words we have absorbed from nearby European countries, but also from more distant Asian cultures. We’re such a global country, and it’s strongly reflected in our language. We’d love to hear more examples of English words creeping into other languages or other foreign words you’ve noticed in English, so feel free to leave a comment below!
Cristina Mateos is our Catalan intern here at EuroTalk, working on translating and recording our maths apps. In her blog post she explores a reason for learning languages that is often forgotten.
Utility versus Beauty.
Utility: Hammers, zips, kettles, light bulbs, electricity, mobile phones.
Beauty: Handwritten postcards, dawns, coffee smell, lovers looking into each others’ eyes, handknitted scarves.
The world where I live stores useful belongings in closed wardrobes and turns on the radio so as not to listen to the silence around. As a Spanish teacher, I sell my courses by reminding these ‘utility users’ of the fact that 500 million people speak Spanish around the world. It is therefore extremely practical to be able to communicate in this language and to display that knowledge (especially if it comes with an official certificate) on one’s résumé. And I really believe that… and I am more than pleased with zips and light bulbs. But I feel sorry for the dawns. I feel sorry for the dawns and for language learners turning into language users. I would like my students to be able to ask for directions in Sevilla, complete a business deal with a big enterprise in Buenos Aires or get a train ticket in any Spanish train station, but I also want them to be fascinated by the beauty of my language.
Los rinocerontes no pueden leer. This is probably the most pointless sentence ever, unless you meet a woman crying in disappointment because a rhino isn’t answering her love letters, and you find it necessary to clarify for her that rhinos cannot read. But the sentence itself: its sonority, the combination of the ‘e’ letters together, the way grammar is used in it, the choice of the masculine gender instead of the feminine… it moves language away from usefulness and places it closer to poetry. Don’t you find it amazing how it’s possible to play with a language and build nonsense sentences? Making up words – and this is something, as language learners, that we constantly do when trying to refer to concepts we don’t know the name for – just by using common lexical rules? (Like The mugness of a morning, or This dog is so killable when it starts barking in the middle of the night.) Have you ever fallen in love with a word in your own language just because of the way it sounds, as if it were a piece of music with no meaning at all apart from the feelings it causes for you? If not, I can suggest one in English that I love: wibble. And I can provide one in Spanish too… barítono. Beautiful as a handknitted scarf.
Let me come back to the point. As a Catalan speaker, I feel also sorry for my second first language. Catalan has been left apart so many times in the name of utility that too often I need to make a real effort to keep on using it. I have been told that Spanish is more practical. More and more parents in non-English speaking countries choose a school for their children taking into account nothing but the number of hours their children are going to be taught English, because English (and now probably also Chinese?) is the Future.
Then, in Utility’s name… we can close small shops and open more and more supermarkets. We can burn poetry books and publish more instruction manuals. We can forget about nice roasts and pies and cheesecakes, and ingest vitamins and protein pills every morning.
But if, like me, you feel sorry for the dawns, then learn another language.