Patricia is one of our most hard working uTalk challenge participants, learning Basque, Czech, Farsi and Kazakh since January (and let’s not forget Icelandic, Esperanto and Latvian last year)! We can’t wait to hear which language she’ll choose next…
There are many reasons why I love learning languages, including popular ones such as improving my résumé or getting by on a trip (and yes, I’ve got another trip to Iceland lined up, það er spennandi!). However, today I’d like to share with you one reason that is perhaps a little less obvious.
Due to an unexpected flight delay on my way from Pittsburgh, I recently overnighted in Toronto. The airline provided us (wonderful) accommodation in downtown Toronto and I shared a cab ride with two other stranded passengers. The cab driver had a talk radio station on, but it was not in a language I immediately recognized. Curious, I asked the driver which language that was. He told me it was Amharic, one of the languages of Ethiopia. I excitedly told him it was a language that was on my uTalk Challenge list and that I would learn it soon. Promise. He laughed and told me a little about Ethiopia and the Ethiopian community in Toronto. He taught me how to say “Hello” in Amharic and said I was brave to take on a new language every month. He then asked which language I was learning at the moment. I told him I was learning Persian (Farsi) and loving it.
The other two passengers in the cab then turned to me and said “well maybe we can help you then”. I lit up and proudly said “shabetun bekheyr”, “parvaz”, and “ba t’akhir” – “good evening”, “flight”, and “delayed”. They smiled and asked me what else I knew and if I had any questions about the language. And from there on, we talked about the old Persian script, Noruz, the influence of French, various historical events, Persian poets, and many other things. When I had left my house that day, I hadn’t expected to learn so much from people who, up to that taxi ride, were perfect strangers.
And that’s exactly the point: learning languages, even at a rudimentary level, opens you up to the world because it fuels curiosity. I didn’t converse in fluent Persian with my fellow passengers – I just let them know that I was interested in it and the culture and history that surround it (but it was very nice to hear that my pronunciation’s lovely!).
On that night, immersed in the vast multiculturalism of Toronto, I suddenly felt extremely connected to the world. And that’s the feeling I keep seeking over and over again in my language-learning journey. Perhaps it’s one of those “chicken or egg?” things, where it’s unclear whether learning languages opens up your mind or if it’s the curiosity that encourages you to learn languages… but whichever one came first for me, I’m certainly happy they keep feeding off each other.
So go ahead, tackle a new language, just start with a few words – you never know where it’ll take you.
The following post is from Paul, an English teacher who lives in Argentina. Paul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language teaching service which offers foreign-language level tests as well as other free language-learning resources on their website. Check out their Facebook page or send an email to email@example.com for more information.
If you love languages, and you’d like to guest blog for EuroTalk, please get in touch; we’d love to hear from you.
Talking about Time: Insights from Other Languages
Time: it’s an essential part of our everyday life, and we talk about it constantly — yet we can’t see or touch it. In English, we usually conceptualize time as a linear distance along a horizontal plane. This seems totally natural to us: time can be long or short, deadlines can be close to us or far away from us, and we have no problem representing minutes and hours on a timeline.
But as common as these expressions are, they raise some important questions about how we express time through language. As we’ll see, we often use conflicting metaphors to describe the passage of time. And other languages express time in a completely different way, challenging this anglocentric notion of time that seems so natural to English speakers.
Does time move around us, or do we move through time?
There’s no question that our relationship to time is a dynamic one: days pass, we get older, and the future becomes the past. But who’s doing the moving: time, or us? Expressions like “time flies” or “the hour dragged on” suggest that time moves and takes us with it. Indeed, if we talk about an upcoming test — “The final exam is getting closer” — we can certainly phrase it in terms of time moving towards us.
But we can also talk about the same test by saying “We’re getting closer to the exam date”. Suddenly, the relationship is flipped: now time is static, and we’re moving through time into the future. Indeed, language enables us to conceptualize time in terms as a static entity that we move through, as well as a dynamic entity that moves around us.
In just the English language, we have already found some peculiarities about how we express time. But when we introduce other languages into the equation, the picture gets even more interesting.
Is time horizontal or vertical?
In English, regardless of whether time moves towards us or we move through time, this movement is definitely horizontal. The words we use to describe time — “push back” a deadline, “be ahead” of schedule — are the same ones we use to describe horizontal distances (e.g., “take a step back”, “walk ahead of her”). That is, for English speakers, time is horizontal, with the past behind us and the future in front of us.
But this isn’t necessarily the case in Mandarin Chinese. For Mandarin speakers, it’s possible to talk about time in the same way as English speakers, with time running along a horizontal plane. But it’s also common to use vertical terms to describe the order of events, days, semesters, etc. For instance, the words shàng (up) and xià (down) can be used to express temporal relations: xià ge yuè means “next month”, and shàng ge yuè means “last month”.
Thus, in Mandarin, our familiar horizontal timeline can be flipped vertically, with the past being up and the future being down.
Is time a distance or a quantity?
Two classic ways to express time are the timeline and the hourglass. However, these point to starkly different metaphors. Whereas a timeline suggests that time is a distance, an hourglass suggests that time is a quantity. In English, we generally prefer to talk about time as a distance — saying that something “lasts a long time” is more common than saying it “lasts a lot of time”.
In Spanish, however, this isn’t the case. Indeed, saying tiempo largo (literally “long time”) sounds odd in most dialects; instead, mucho tiempo (“a lot of time”) is much preferred. Greek, too, features this tendency to use volume-oriented metaphors, using words like megalos (“large”) and poli (“much”).
Thus, whereas in English, our use of language favors the timeline, other languages like Spanish and Greek make greater use of the hourglass in their temporal expressions.
Is the past in front of us or behind us?
In English, we can look back into the past and forward into the future. This is as clear as day to us: the past is behind us, and the future is in front of us. Yet in spite of how obvious this may seem to us, this isn’t the case in all languages.
Take Aymara, an Amerindian language spoken in some regions of Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. In Aymara, the past is described as being in front of us, whereas the future is behind us. Though this conception of time seems jarring to us English speakers, it’s logical: we can see in front of us, just as we can remember the past; but we can’t see behind us, just as we can’t predict the future.
To our English-speaking brains, it seems only natural that time is a distance that moves horizontally. But as we’ve seen, this isn’t necessarily the case across languages: time is a complicated concept, and can be expressed through a variety of metaphors. Indeed, as any language learner knows, languages aren’t just sets of words, but rather bring with them a whole new way to view the world. That’s just one of many reasons why learning a language is such a great use of your time — whether that time be above you, below you, in front of you, or behind you.
After volunteering in a hostel in Riga for six weeks, I decided to take the long way home via a series of overnight buses. With everyone raving about how beautiful a city Berlin is, I decided to make it my next stop on my journey home.
It is easy to see why people like it so much.
I stayed in a huge hostel in the Turmstrasse area and this seemed like a really good location to stop in. Just twenty minutes away was the Victory Column, or Siegessäule, which overlooks a large portion of the city. A little further was Potsdamer Platz; the centre is all commercial with cafes and restaurants as far as the eye can see and business reaching high up into the sky from a series of highly polished skyscrapers. But the surrounding area has a lot of history and culture to offer too. Personally the Topography Of Terror, Holocaust Memorial, Friedrichstrasse and Reichstag were the things that grabbed my attention the most. An early evening stroll in the local neighbourhood turned into a several hour stint that saw me leave my hostel, walk the length of Turmstrasse, past the Victory Column, down to the Holocaust Memorial and back on my first night.
There is no one ‘centre’ to Berlin, but it seems most tourists and locals end up at Alexanderplatz. Walking out of the station the first thing you see is the iconic tower that overlooks a pedestrianised area. Walking behind this and into a little blissful shade after a journey on an overheated train was very refreshing. There is a lot to see from here, and I personally headed over towards the galleries and sat under the pillars looking out over the river for a while.
The Zoological Gardens are definitely worth a visit, and if you like zoos and aquariums then it is a must. There’s a very cute windmill of sorts that sits along a section of Budapester Strasse which is worth stopping at to admire.
The Brandenburg Gate was such an impressive sight first hand, you can really understand the sense of power there and the thought of those streets being lined with people waiting to see a glimpse of their leader is both disturbing and breathtaking.
The area around Nordbahnhof was one of my favourite places, full of gardens, interesting architecture, and of course the Berlin Wall Memorial.
The main station, Hauptbahnhof, was also worth looking round, whether you like trains or not. There are so many levels, platforms, different types of train, shops, places to eat and drink, you could spend hours within this huge complex and not get bored.
Of course, one of the best things about Berlin, from my perspective at least, is the cake. Much like Greggs back home in the UK, there is a bäckerei (bakery) wherever you turn, and such a choice of sweet and savoury treats it can be a little overwhelming.
I spent the best part of two days in Berlin and I have to say, it isn’t enough. I could have happily stayed another week and I am still not sure if that would have been enough to have seen everything that I wanted to. A return trip is definitely in order!
👋👇👌 – Hi, are you okay?
👍☺️ – I’m good thanks!
👏 – yay!
Or something like that.
Welcome to the wonderful language that is emojis 😁
And before you express concern that we are confused about what is a language and what is not, hey. Your entire screen staring back up at you currently is composed of a series of ones and zeros, manipulated into the glorious thing you see before you and that, the ones and zeros, is a language all in itself. Binary code. If you’re interested.
Emojis are much, much prettier to look at than a bunch of ones and zeros though, aren’t they?
Yes, we know. Emojis can be confounding to us too. But a language is a language, and language learning is good for our cognitive reasoning 😇
So let us give you a little introduction into the wonderful world of emojis, see if we can entice you in or relieve you of your confusion. Here are some reasons why we vote emojis as our new favourite international language.
✒️📚🕐 study time!
- So firstly, you may have heard of emoticons. Emoticons are not emojis, repeat, they are not emojis ‼️ Emoticons are ‘pictures’ composed of the keyboard symbols we already have, such as :), :(, and :D. Even our mothers know how to use them.
- Emojis originate from Japan and are, like Japanese characters themselves, pictographs. The word itself means ‘picture’ – e and ‘character’ – moji. Another argument in favour of emojis being a language, don’t you think?
- Emojis actually have specific, individual meanings but in the way that colloquial language changes and adapts, they can mean different things to different people. For example, 😋 ’officially’ means face savouring delicious food, but whenever we use this in our Whatsapp messages, it generally means we are being exceptionally cheeky. Tongue sort-of in cheek, see?
- Emojis are a beautiful, universal thing, allowing people to communicate when normal language barriers would apply. And there’s no grammar! Truly, this is a joyous thing.
- Emojis are also doing their bit for diversity. The latest versions of iOS offer emoji with different skin tones:
- and the generic ‘one size fits all’ ones…
- …and those for people of the LBGT community, 👭👬🌈❤️. But none for redheads apparently. There’s a campaign on Change for that at the moment.
- Emojis are multi-platform. You can use them, in various versions on all devices, and everyone is in on the act. Even National Rail Enquiries, who, on World Emoji Day last Friday, invited Twitter followers to guess station names using a series of emojis.
— National Rail (@nationalrailenq) July 17, 2015
- Emojis can shorten your messages and bring a smile to a recipient’s face: even if it’s just because they’re trying to understand what you mean:
Please come Christmas shopping with me?
Enjoy your holiday in Cyprus!
Join me for a cheeky drink after work?
- Some businesses will even let you order dinner via Twitter: 🍕
We could go on. But we’d probably get silly.
So the next time someone shows disdain for your messages full of emojis, you are well within your rights to reply with a 😝 that says hey, I’m learning a new language here!
Are you for or against emoji? Tell us what you think!
Everyone knows the key to language learning is immersion, but upping sticks and moving to the country where your language originates from is a huge commitment and not always possible.
However. There are a few things you can do to help your learning along. Watching films (with or without subtitles, depending on how brave you are), reading an online magazine or newspaper entirely in the language you’re trying to learn, and if you’re really fearless, try changing the language on all your devices – phone, tablet, computer and so on. Just be sure you know enough words to change it back.
My personal favourite way though, which I actually use myself when I am learning, is to listen to music. There is no quicker way to immerse yourself in a language, learn pronunciation, subject word order, vocabulary, colloquialisms, hidden meanings and double entendres, and so on. The list is technically endless and completely adaptable to whatever level you are.
Here are my five favourite English songs that I use in class with my students; what would you add to the list?
Passenger – Let Her Go
This song is perfect for learning English. The song is played just about everywhere so it’s instantly recognisable, the pace is not slow enough to make you feel daft but not so quick as to make you feel lost, and the most important thing is that Mike Rosenberg, the singer and face of Passenger, has a beautiful, clear voice that not only is nice to listen to but easy to understand.
Coldplay – The Scientist
Another really good song for learning. Clear lyrics, slow pace, understandable voice, (thanks, Chris Martin), and an interesting video to talk or think about once you know all the words. Resultant group discussions have included trains, drinking and driving, graffiti, and the environment. Watch the video if you’re not sure why.
Snow Patrol – Chasing Cars
What is good about this one is not so much the pace of the song but the simplicity of the lyrics. The verses are really short, and Gary Lightbody’s pronunciation on this one is a gentle exposure to the Irish accent in song. If you choose this song as one of the first to learn with, you’ll feel a real sense of achievement quickly because it’s such a simple one to learn.
Muse – Feeling Good
Music trivia for you first: did you know that this song was first written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the 1965 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint and has been covered by, amongst others, Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr and Michael Bublé? I have chosen the Muse version because I personally love Muse, plus Matt Bellamy’s voice on this one is slightly harder than my previous suggestions. Why is this a good thing? Well, the song is very recognisable and most people have heard at least one version of it, so when you hear this version you’ll likely know some of the lyrics already and will be exposed to yet another accent – and you’ll understand it. Bonus!
Maximo Park – Acrobat
I am a mean teacher. Or I can be. So when I am presented with a student who says they can understand all English lyrics and I know otherwise, I give them this track to try. Because all the verses on this track are spoken, which sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s not. The beautiful Paul Smith is from Teeside, so firstly we have the exposure to the accent and secondly, he doesn’t speak slowly at all. By the time you get to the first chorus you’ll probably throw your pen down in relief and look at your paper in alarm with the five words you’ve managed to scribble down. But it’s worth it. I promise.
If you’re not sure how to use music to learn a language, here’s my ‘how to’:
- Choose a song and listen to it a couple of times.
- Listen again and start writing down the lyrics that you recognise. Repeat as often as your patience allows.
- Look up the lyrics, either with something like AZLyrics or Lyric Translate, the latter of which will actually have your lyrics and the translated version side by side.
- Watch a lyric video so you can see the words whilst you hear them. Singing is optional but hey, why not?
Sound easy? Give it a go!