Ever wondered what us language geeks do for fun in our spare time? Reading books about languages, of course! Well, not all the time – but I recently read the very interesting Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher, and would recommend it to anyone else who is interested in how different languages work, and how our mother tongue affects our thoughts and behaviour.
Through the Language Glass is all about the ongoing linguistic debate about whether our native language affects our perception and the way we think about the world around us. A large portion of the book is dedicated to a rather in-depth discussion about the differences between colour vocabulary in various languages. You might already know that Russian and Italian have two words for ‘blue’ (light and dark blue). But you might not know that the famous Greek writer Homer didn’t have any words for blue, and instead used mostly red and black to describe the scenes of the Iliad. This led to a long debate about whether people in the past lacked our modern ‘colour sense’ and saw the world in only a few shades. You’d probably have to be pretty dedicated to trying to understand the evolving debate on the development of linguistic terms for colours to plough through this rather long section, but it is rather interesting if you’ve got the patience.
The rest of the book moves on to some interesting discussions of smaller tribal languages in Australia and elsewhere, and how their unique features either reflect the requirements of the society/location, or affect the behaviour of the speakers. For example, the Aboriginal language Guuguu Yimithirr has no words for left and right. Instead, speakers must develop an acute sense of North, South, East and West, as it’s impossible for them to say ‘the tree is on my left’ – instead they must say ‘the tree is North of me’. Experiments have shown that even if speakers of the language are driven to new locations blindfolded, they retain their incredible sense of direction and can still describe location based on the compass directions.
And how about grammatical gender? For us English speakers, referring to a table as ‘she’, as a Spanish speaker would (la mesa), or a girl as ‘it’, as a German would (das Maedchen), seems rather odd. But for most Europeans, using a blanket ‘it’ for everything doesn’t really feel right either. So what does this mean for all those speakers of languages with grammatical gender? Do they somehow see a table as girly and feminine, and a phone (el teléfono in Spanish) as macho and masculine? Well of course not… that would be silly! But there may be subtle ways in which these distinctions affect us. Think about how we can tell a story in English being vague about the gender of the person involved. Yesterday, I had dinner with my friend. Whether that friend is male or female is none of your business! But in Spanish, you’re rather forced to disclose that ‘la amiga’ was of course a girl.
We might find the idea of a ‘gender’ for inanimate objects strange and funny, but Deutscher traces this back to at least an original logical starting point. It might surprise you to know that there are many more genders in language, beyond the masculine, feminine and neutral genders you might already know. Some languages even have a ‘vegetable’ gender, which even includes things like aeroplanes. Why, you might ask? Well, it’s simple really. The ‘vegetable’ gender may have started off for only plants. This would have included wood, and anything made from wood, such as a boat, perhaps. It’s then not such a jump to having other vehicles in the same gender.
If any of this sounds intriguing and you’d like to know more, I recommend that you pick up Deutscher’s book. It’s not quite beach reading, but it’s accessibly written, not an academic tome that’s only for linguists. I can guarantee that you’ll learn something new about languages and maybe gain a different perspective on how your native language affects your perception.
We’re proud to be language geeks here at EuroTalk, but we know we’re not the only ones! Here’s your opportunity to show us what you know… Can you get 100%? And more importantly, can you beat your friends? 😉
(By the way, if you want to cheat on any of the questions, the words we’ve used in the quiz are in our uTalk app – now available in 100 languages on iPad, iPhone and iPod touch.)
Everyone’s always talking about how useful it is to speak another language – and they’re right, for so many reasons. There’s lots of advice too on how to get started and how to stay motivated when it gets tough. But the first question any aspiring language learner should ask themselves is, ‘Which language do I want to learn?’
Sometimes this is easy, because you’re moving to another country, or you’ve met a new partner who speaks a particular language. Even if this means you end up learning a language most people would consider unusual, to you it has a purpose and that makes it anything but obscure.
But what if you’ve just decided you want to learn a language, because you’ve heard that people with a second language earn more, or that learning a language makes you cleverer, and don’t have a particular one in mind?
At EuroTalk, we offer nearly 140 different world languages. It’s a pretty daunting selection to be greeted with when you’ve just Googled ‘I want to learn a language’ and stumbled on to our homepage, or downloaded the uTalk app. And that doesn’t even come close to the total number of languages spoken in the world. So how is anyone meant to choose one to learn? Do you just close your eyes and point at one?
Well no, we don’t recommend that approach; you could end up with something really fun that way, but at the same time, learning a random language just for the sake of it, when there’s very little chance you’ll ever get a chance to speak it, seems a shame. Half the fun of learning a language is getting to share it with other people.
So here are our recommended criteria for choosing a language:
Number of speakers
Generally, a language with more speakers is going to be more useful to you, because you’re going to have more opportunities to speak it. According to Ethnologue, the top five most spoken languages in the world are Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi and Arabic, with a total of 2.4 billion speakers between them, so knowing one of these languages is going to guarantee you lots of people to talk to.
On the other hand, it depends on your reasons for wanting to learn a language. If it’s to make friends all over the world, one of these five languages will stand you in good stead. But if it’s to improve your employment prospects, bear in mind that you might face more competition if you’ve chosen a popular language. I studied Spanish at university, which is in great demand with employers. But so did lots of other students. We’ve got five people who speak Spanish at EuroTalk – two of them are native speakers (there are less than twenty of us in total, to put that in context) so it’s rare for me to be called on to use my language skills. Something like Portuguese or Japanese, which are still in the top ten in Ethnologue’s list, might offer fewer opportunities but when one comes along, you’re probably not going to face as many rivals for the job.
Where it’s spoken
Another important factor. Firstly, you don’t want to learn a language that’s spoken in a country you never intend to go to, or in which you’ve no interest. Secondly, some languages, like French, Arabic or English, are spoken in many different countries. So if you’re going travelling and want a language you’ll be able to use in more than one place, one of these will be more useful to you. But if travel’s not top of your agenda, this might not be such a big consideration.
Similarity to other languages
Most world languages are organised in families, which means they come from the same root as the other languages in that family. This means often, although you may only speak one language, you can probably at least make yourself understood in another. Hindi and Urdu, for example, are mutually intelligible, as are Czech and Slovak. If you know Spanish, you can make a reasonably decent attempt at Portuguese or Italian, and although you might make a few mistakes, chances are you’ll be understood. I’m not suggesting you should go around speaking the wrong language at people, but if you do make an honest slip-up, or just can’t think of the right word, you’ll probably be ok. I’m fairly sure I spoke quite a bit of Spanish when I was in Italy earlier this year, but everyone seemed to understand what I was getting at.
Some languages, though, don’t have any close neighbours, or indeed any neighbours at all. Basque, for example, is what’s known as a language isolate, as is Korean. This means they don’t belong to a family, but stand alone, so if you’ve chosen one of these languages, it’s worth remembering that it won’t help you with any others.
Partly, this is to do with your travel interests. If you’ve a particular interest in Russia, for example, we’d recommend you learn Russian. But even if you’re not particularly interested in travelling, there are other things to consider. Are you a fan of opera? Maybe give Italian a go. Anime? Japanese. Star Trek? Klingon.
Or maybe you’ve got a particular interest in endangered languages, in which case you might want to learn Cornish or Sardinian, not necessarily for the wealth of communication opportunities it offers, but to help save a valuable world language from extinction.
You know yourself better than anyone. How motivated do you feel? Is this just a passing whim that you’re likely to give up the moment it gets difficult, or are you prepared to stick at it? The fact is, some languages are harder than others, and this is different for everyone, depending on your native language. For Europeans, Dutch is considered quite an easy language to learn, while Mandarin Chinese is very difficult. But someone living in Japan may find Chinese much easier to learn than any European language.
So if you’re living in Europe and intending to learn Mandarin, you’ll need to be pretty dedicated. And if you know you don’t have it in you, it might be better to try something else rather than face disappointment when it doesn’t work out. Nobody’s bad at all languages – you just need to find the right one for you.
If you’re still undecided, and in need of some inspiration, take our quiz – it’s not at all scientific, but might give you some ideas!
If you have any other tips or suggestions for readers trying to choose a language, please share them in the comments.
We had a great response to our recent language learning survey; thank you to everyone who took the time to complete it. First things first: we’re delighted to announce that the winner of the iPad mini prize draw is Konstantia Sakellariou. Congratulations, Konstantia – your iPad is on its way!
We wanted also to share a few of our findings with you. Some of the results from the survey were as we expected, others were quite surprising. Here are just a few of the things you had to tell us. Thanks again for all your thoughtful responses, we’ll put them to good use.
Which language(s) are you learning (or would like to learn)?
The first question was pretty straightforward. A couple of people ticked every language on offer (over 100) – now that’s what we call ambition! – but most chose between 1 and 5. Here are the top ten most popular languages: Other popular choices included Greek, Swedish, Dutch, Brazilian Portuguese, Norwegian, Irish, Polish and Icelandic. We also got some requests for languages we don’t yet offer, like Guernésiais and Twi – we’ll do our best to add those languages to our list, so watch this space!
Why are you learning a language?
Next, we wanted to know why you’re learning a language. Nearly half of the respondents chose travel as a reason, and almost as many said they were learning a language just for fun. 36% of respondents said it was for family reasons or for a relationship, and 27% for work. The results were quite evenly split though, showing that there’s no one overwhelming reason – everyone has their own motivation. Among the other reasons, we had a range of answers, including an interest in the culture of the language, personal challenge and wanting to follow literature, film and music in other languages. Many people are living in another country, which was their main motivation for learning the local language. And one person said that their heart asked for the knowledge, which we loved 🙂
What prevents you from learning a language?
We were also interested to know what stops people from learning a language, so we asked you to rate the following reasons out of 5. The most common barrier to learning is a lack of time, followed by not having found the right method, and then the cost involved. Incidentally, if you’re facing any of these barriers, you may like to check out our recent posts, on finding time to learn a language and learning on a budget. And if you’re looking for resources, did you know you can try out the EuroTalk learning method for free? Either visit our website, or download our free app, uTalk for iOS, to give it a go. We believe learning a language should be fun, because our research shows we learn much better if we’re enjoying ourselves, and this in turn makes it a lot easier to overcome the obstacles that get in the way. See what you think! Other answers included not having an opportunity to use the language, a lack of motivation and difficulty finding resources for the particular language they wanted to learn (we may be able to help there – we’ve got 136 languages and counting…).
How have you used your language when travelling?
Finally, we asked how knowing another language has been useful when you’re travelling. There was no clear winner here, which just goes to show knowing a language is always useful! But the top response was that it gives you the ability to talk to locals in their own language; many people added that they felt more welcome as a result and that it gave them independence so they could make the most of their trip. There were lots of practical reasons too, with getting around and eating out narrowly beating shopping in the poll.If you missed out on the survey this time, don’t worry – we’re planning another one soon, so keep an eye on the blog (you can subscribe by email above to get the latest updates), or follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And if you didn’t answer this survey but would still like to have your say on any of the questions, you’re very welcome to email us or add your thoughts in the comments below.
Data above based on 877 survey responses.
Sometimes one word is all you need… With the World Cup getting underway today, here’s how each national team says that all-important word, ‘goal’.
You can find this and lots more in our language learning app, uTalk – available to download and start learning right now from the App Store. So whether you’re watching the football at home or away, you’ll always be prepared.
(There are lots of non-football related words in there too, for those of us with other interests!)
Please do share the infographic with friends and tell us how you’ll be shouting ‘Goal!’ this World Cup 🙂
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