In the spirit of ‘Linguists Anonymous’, I am Felicity Jones, 45, and I am mildly addicted to learning other languages. I speak French, German, Spanish, Italian and some Mandarin. I have used uTalk to learn some Danish, and my January challenge is Greek.
Even as a child I would listen under the bed cover to a transistor radio beaming in words I could not understand from across Europe when I was meant to be asleep, and tried to make sense of the country names on foreign stamps. I then had the deeply unusual benefit of inspirational language teachers at school. Now, I travel a lot for my work and for fun, and as I always need to know how to say I am vegetarian – in Korean gogi bego is the most effective way to be clear about that – I have an excuse to learn at least a few words. Being able to say ‘thank you’ or ‘good morning’ makes travelling much more human.
What would I say to someone thinking about learning another language? Stop thinking about it and get going! The longer you think about it, the bigger the mountain seems. And don’t be afraid to communicate right from the off, even if you can only say hello or thank you – that’s why I love uTalk as it’s not just flat lists of words; you have to think, hear, speak even with your first words. And the Recall is an evil but effective section, the most like real life you can get to by yourself.
The most inspiring approach I have ever seen is Fluent in 3 Months by Benny Lewis. He uses ‘language hacks’ to accelerate confidence to SPEAK, an approach which transformed him from someone who thought they could not learn languages after school to fluency in seven languages and dabbling in more. Think like a child, open your ears, let yourself sound silly when you shape your mouth to make an unfamiliar sounds, ask someone how you say something in their language. Listen to the radio, read a children’s book, look at the signs in the airport and in shops, skype with native speakers and exchange your skills, go to a bar. Above all, speaking another language is only ever about connecting with someone else, with a different culture, a different way of being, however fleetingly and enjoying it. And if you have any doubt, apparently language learning stimulates the same part of the brain as other pleasurable activity!
by Patricia Ochman
My initial reason for taking on Icelandic was pretty pragmatic: I had started riding Icelandic horses and purchased a friendly Icelandic gelding, Léttfeti. I felt that picking up some Icelandic would allow me to get access to a treasure chest of information about my favorite breed and help me better understand my Icelandic best friend.
I took on a uTalk challenge and started learning Icelandic. Since I know Danish, I figured, how hard could it be? I would have this down in 30 days, no problem.
Well, fruits and vegetables were fine… but then it got thorny. Very thorny, very fast. Icelandic, it turns out, is not that similar to Danish. My initial enthusiasm turned into frustration because I thought this was supposed to be easy. Why were there three genders, four declensions, unusual pronunciation, weird words in weird places?
I gave up. It was too complicated, too different. Sorry Léttfeti, we’ll have to stick to English.
Until one day, I remembered that when I was younger, I refused to learn declensions in Polish because English and French (languages I already spoke) had no declensions. That’s when my teacher said, “That’s just the way it is; Polish has declensions and you’re going to have to learn them.” That response later resonated in my head when my Latin teacher made us repeat “rosa, rosam, rosae, …”. That’s just the way it is in Latin, I thought. I learned Polish and I learned Latin and I accepted declensions. I even started thinking that declensions add richness to a language, just like the pluperfect subjunctive tense adds richness to French.
Later on, I learned Finnish and because I had been told that Finnish is unlike any other European language, I just started from scratch, not assuming I would know anything at all. Hyvää päivää, olen Patricia. It went well and I progressed at a satisfying pace. It was unfamiliar and beautiful.
So then, why was I so frustrated with Icelandic? Could it be that my frustration had nothing to do with the language and everything to do with the fact that I was trying to fit a square peg in a round hole? It is certainly a very comforting feeling to think that something that is new to us is similar to something we already know. After all, we are regularly told “try it, it tastes just like chicken”… But doesn’t that just defeat the whole purpose of trying something new? How about “try it, it’s nothing like chicken, it’s totally unique and your mind may just be blown”?
I was trying to make Icelandic seem similar to something I already knew when it really wasn’t, and that’s what hindered my progress. I tried to put myself in the same mindset I had for Finnish and just told myself that this would be different. I’d have to let go of the buoy I was apparently desperately hanging on to and I’d simply have to embrace Icelandic for all its… well, Icelandicness.
I started focusing on the things I already knew in and about Icelandic and built on that. I tried to figure out its internal logic, its particularities, its flow. I started repeating out loud the words and sentences I learned and slowly made sense of them. Eyjafjallajökull is really not that scary when you understand that it’s just a juxtaposition of “islands”, “mountains” and “glacier”. Icelandic started to make sense and I started loving it. I’m still a beginner, but I’m now an excited beginner, unafraid of straying from what I already know. Vel gert!
I believe learning languages expands one’s mind, and this may be a reason why. Learning a new language means getting out of that familiar English, French, German, etc. playpen and discovering new ways of organizing and expressing thoughts. Scary at first, sure, but oh how rewarding.
The other day a colleague was telling someone his email address in French. He was halfway through and ran across a problem. He didn’t know the word for “the little ‘a’ in the circle”. In English we just say ‘at’, but that translates as ‘à’ in French and that sounds remarkably like the letter ‘a’. See the problem?
What he should have said was ‘arobase’, but different cultures call it completely different things – from official names to animal-based nicknames. Below we’ve found some of the most creative words for “the little ‘a’ in the circle”:
Animals (With Curly Bits)
The Germans, Romanians and South Africans (among others) all describe it as a ‘monkey tail’.
Thai and Hungarian people call it a ‘worm’ and the Italians refer to it as a ‘snail’.
The Swedish and Danish describe the shape as an ‘elephant’s trunk’ and the Greeks think it looks more like a ‘duckling’.
The “little a” isn’t only used in email addresses. In Spanish, the symbol is sometimes used to represent masculine and feminine gender in the same word, for example ‘amig@s’ means male and female friends, although this is frowned upon by the Real Academia Española, so we don’t recommend it!
What do you call the @ symbol?
‘It’s raining cats and dogs!’ is a common British phrase meaning that it’s raining particularly hard. There are various theories as to where the expression came from – although there’s no evidence that it’s ever actually happened!
It may come from the Greek expression cata doxa. This means ‘contrary to experience or belief’ and might explain why the expression is used when it’s raining unusually hard.
Equally, it could be derived from the old French word catadupe, which meant waterfall.
An old theory was that in heavy rain, dead animals would often be washed out of drainage systems on 17th century buildings in Europe.
There’s no conclusive answer. It may just be that it was a funny expression that caught on and became popular. We’ll probably never know…
In Britain it also rains buckets, stair rods, tacks and pitchforks… But did you know that in other areas of the world, it rains other things?
Our favourites are:
‘It’s raining wheelbarrows’
Czech: Padají trakaře
‘It’s raining knives and forks’
Welsh: Mae hi’n bwrw cyllyll a ffyrc
‘It’s raining shoemakers’ apprentices’
Danish: Det regner skomagerdrenge
‘It’s raining fire and brimstone’
Icelandic: Það rignir eld og brennustein
‘It’s raining lady trolls’
Norwegian: Det regner trollkjerringer
‘It’s raining husbands’
Spanish: Están lloviendo maridos
‘It’s raining old women with knobkerries’
Afrikaans: Ou vrouens met knopkieries reen (by the way, a knobkierrie is a kind of African club!)
‘It’s raining snakes and lizards’
Brazilian Portuguese: Chovem cobras e lagartos
‘It’s raining frogs’
Polish: Leje zabami
We’d love to know where some of these expressions came from, so if anyone has any information, please share it in the comments!