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Posts tagged ‘vocabulary’


What language does the voice in your head speak?

In today’s day and age, a great percent of the people travel, either for vacations, business or even a longer period of time, in search of a better job, better opportunities, to be with the loved ones and why not, just for the sake of a multi-cultural experience. While some of us learn a new language as a hobby or in school, migrants find that it is difficult to live in a country whose language you can’t speak. So this is where we get to the point of this article: how does it feel to speak another language than your native one, every day with everyone.

Ioana in LondonFirst of all, let me take you on a history trip back in the ‘90s. No, we’re not going to listen to Backstreet Boys, instead I’m going to tell you how our generation got to learn English from TV back in Romania. There was a single cartoon program back then, Cartoon Network, and it wasn’t dubbed in Romanian (like it is now), nor did we have subtitles. So we’d just watch the cartoons without completely understanding what they were saying (not that there was much conversation, but still) and I would occasionally ask my parents what does this/that mean. From the age of eight we’d eventually start learning English in school, but by then it already sounded familiar and we would only add the grammar to the equation.

Growing up, we had daily contact with American English from movies and music and by the time I finished high school I’d already got a certified advanced level.

So I was quite confident in my English; I got the chance to use it for both of the jobs I had in the years I worked in Romania, and I got along really well with the people I’d have to speak in English on the telephone or in meetings.

Last year, when I moved to London I was rather surprised to find that I couldn’t understand what these people were saying. I panicked at first but then I realised that no one is expecting me to be 100% fluent in English so I started asking questions or asking people to repeat so that I can understand properly. As I said, most of the English vocabulary I had was American, so I started picking up the differences like, ‘mug’ not ‘cup’, ‘biscuits’ not ‘cookies’ and ‘fringe’ not ‘bangs’.

At first I found it quite exhausting, and at the end of the day I wasn’t able to concentrate anymore or to use more complex words. With time, I got used to it and I started learning more and more words and expressions that I would afterwards try to use in conversations (like for example ‘I’m skint’, which means ‘I’m broke’). Also, in the first months here, I used to get nervous at the supermarket or whenever a unexpected conversation would start, fearing that I won’t find my words or that I wouldn’t remember certain things. With time, I started gaining more confidence and now, after ten months, I am easily able to have a conversation, express my feelings and ideas accurately and understand almost all what the other person is saying. I still have trouble understanding different English accents, and I would probably see myself stuck in a conversation about, let’s say, gardening tools – so certain topics with a specific word-pool.

You know how in your native language you can express your feelings and state of mind by the words you choose and by your tone of voice? Well, good luck doing that when you only know a single set of words for each thing. Also, studies have shown that sometimes people find that they can speak more freely in a non-native language because they don’t feel that the words ‘really’ belong to them, they’re not ‘their’ words.

But what happens when you spend more than half of the day speaking a different language? Your brain starts to associate certain situations, new situations that you didn’t have to deal with in your home-country, with a certain language – this is when you start to ‘think’ in another language. Some people associate this moment with the moment you start to feel like you belong to a certain culture, that your roots are starting to clench to the ground and now you’ve become (or at least moved closer to being) one of ‘them’.

So I’ve found myself in situations in which it was easier for me to express myself using an English word rather than a Romanian one, either because I found that it sounded better or because I couldn’t think of a proper translation.

It’s funny how the brain works sometimes – I got a call at work today from a business partner that also speaks native Romanian, so naturally I started talking to her in Romanian and found it very difficult to find the right words or to build the sentences without sounding stupid. I felt like I had to do a reverse-translation of what I would normally say in English.

At the end of the day, I can agree that using multiple languages really does wonders for your way of thinking and for the structure of your thoughts. Like Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’




10 popular expressions we owe to Shakespeare

Today is the official anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. (23rd April is also the day he died, but let’s not dwell on that.) For those of us who speak English every day, we often forget, or don’t realise, how many of the words and phrases we use come from the works of Shakespeare.

Of course we don’t know for sure that he invented them all himself (although apparently about a tenth of the words he used in his work were new). But it’s interesting to see how many of us, even those who claim not to be fans of his work, are regularly quoting Shakespeare.

There are so many examples of these – here are just a few.

Green-eyed monster

What does it mean? Jealousy.

Which play? Othello (Act III, scene 3) – although Shakespeare had earlier used ‘green-eyed’ to describe jealousy in The Merchant of Venice (Act III, scene 2).

“IAGO: O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on”

Cruel to be kindShakespeare

What does it mean? Treating someone badly for their own good.

Which play? Hamlet (Act III, scene 4)

“HAMLET: I must be cruel only to be kind.
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.”

It’s all Greek to me

What does it mean? Completely incomprehensible.

Which play? Julius Caesar (Act I, Scene 2)

“CASCA: those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.”

Break the ice

What does it mean? To get a conversation going, often by breaking some initial tension.

Which play? The Taming of the Shrew (Act I, Scene 2)
“TRANIO: And if you break the ice and do this feat,
Achieve the elder, set the younger free”

In a pickle

What does it mean? In a tricky situation.

Which play? The Tempest (Act V, Scene 1)

“ALONSO: How camest thou in this pickle?”

Forever and a day

What does it mean? A really long time!

Which play? As You Like It (Act IV, Scene 1)
“ROSALIND: Now tell me how long you would have her after you have possessed her.
ORLANDO: Forever and a day.”

The world’s my oyster

What does it mean? To have a wealth of opportunities.

Which play? The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act II, Scene 2)

“PISTOL: Why then the world’s mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.”

One fell swoop

What does it mean? All at once.

Which play? Macbeth (Act IV, Scene 3)
“MACDUFF: What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?”

Good riddance

What does it mean? To be glad to see the back of someone.

Which play? Troilus and Cressida (Act 2, Scene 1)

“THERSITES: I will keep where there is
wit stirring and leave the faction of fools.
PATROCLUS: A good riddance.”

Eaten out of house and home

What does it mean? To take advantage of a host’s generosity.

Which play? Henry IV Part II

“MISTRESS QUICKLY: He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his”

How many of these have you used lately? And does anyone have any other favourite Shakespearean phrases?

Personally, we’re a bit disappointed that more of Shakespeare’s insults haven’t made it into modern English; you don’t hear ‘thou cream-faced loon’ often enough these days (although maybe that’s a good thing). There’s probably a whole other blog post to be had from Shakespeare’s insults – but in the meantime, here’s a random insult generator – have fun, but be careful who you say them to!



5 tips for beginners in Japanese

Adam, 15, recently spent two weeks at EuroTalk for work experience. He’s passionate about languages and is currently learning Japanese. Here are his top tips for other beginners.

In November 2012, I decided to start taking Japanese lessons once per fortnight. As a younger learner, I thought it might be interesting for you to see some challenges that I have already faced while learning. If this post was about a language like French, quite a lot of the tips would be generic and applicable to other European languages, such as Spanish or German. Therefore, I hope that most of my tips will remain unique, just like the Japanese language.

Here are 5 tips for starting Japanese, from the viewpoint of a beginner!

1) Consolidate your kana before tackling Kanji

When I started to learn, I was pretty frightened at the prospect of learning kanji. In fact, I only started to learn kanji about nine months after starting, because my teacher advised me to gain a basic knowledge of the sound system, grammar, vocabulary and kana alphabets before learning. She was absolutely right – I couldn’t have imagined being able to pick up any of the theory behind kanji without the basic grounding first. Often, the On’Yomi reading is written in katakana. Considering I had been learning for 9 months at the time, my katakana knowledge was pretty poor, which inhibited some of my kanji learning. Getting a basic knowledge of Japanese is definitely a must before learning kanji!

2) Choose your learning materials wisely

There are a variety of Japanese learning materials out there, ranging from internet courses to books. It is important to choose learning resources that can cover every aspect of the language, without leaving any gaps in your required knowledge. This is why I would recommend the ‘Japanese for Busy People vol. 1’ book. It covers grammar, various verb forms, vocabulary, information on the culture, particles, conjuctions, sentence structure and counters. Another important feature is that it features no kanji, allowing you to consolidate your knowledge of kana and general understanding of the language. One negative aspect could be the fact that the book is quite business-orientated. In terms of grammar, this is fine, and means that politeness is emphasised throughout. However, some of the vocabulary might not be useful to some learners. For me, it’s quite funny to be able to tell a taxi driver how to get to the main branch office! Otherwise, you could use online vocabulary resources and of course don’t forget the uTalk app!

Studying Japanese

3) Don’t overload yourself with kanji readings!

When I learn languages, I want to know everything when I first come across it, even if it is really complex. For example, when I started to learn German, I was really eager to learn the perfect tense within the first few lessons. It was exactly the same as in French – just use ‘haben’ and add the past participle, right? Of course I failed, because I put the past participle straight after the auxiliary verb, rather than at the end of the sentence. In Japanese, I wanted to learn all the readings of a kanji as soon as I had learnt it. Eventually, I would have probably ended up using it incorrectly because I had just memorised the words associated with that kanji, without ever encountering them in a sentence!

Instead, you might want to try and learn a new kanji of a word that you have encountered frequently, rather than learning multiple new words from a kanji. In my Japanese book, I have a section for all the vocabulary that I need to learn for homework. I started to look up the kanji for each of those words. If I came across a kanji that I already knew, I would right the corresponding word down, with its kanji written next to it. Furthermore, if an unknown kanji came up a lot, I would write it down with the familiar readings next to it. This method ensures that I learn the readings of words that I am already familiar with.

4) Be organised

When learning Japanese in particular, I like to keep a routine to ensure that I learn kanji, vocabulary and do homework well. Some learners might not like repetition, but I think it’s one of the best ways to learn. By revising for 10 minutes every evening and recalling the information in a mini-test the next day, I can make sure that I remember vocabulary, grammar and kanji well. I like to take advantage of the brain’s ability to work better after waking up. This means that I only learn new words in the morning, during weekends, and revise words in the evening. Furthermore, I think it’s also important to test yourself after a longer period of time following the learning of a word, to ensure that you have maintained the word in your mind! However, it’s also important to state that our brain works even better passively, so doing some occasional Japanese writing, reading and listening is good when learning. You might pick up some new vocabulary without even trying! Try and be organised by placing short revision sessions, mini-tests and activities consistently over an allotted period of time.

5) Make your own learning resources

Lots of people have different methods when learning. I am quite old-fashioned, and approach language with the ‘no pain, no gain’ approach, using repetition and regular tests. This means that I need to locate places to find materials, suitable for my way of learning. Owing to the surprisingly low amount of Japanese kanji resources online, I recently made my own kanji grid on MS Word with 19 rows, and 15 columns. I could then put the kanji and their Japanese readings on the top row, with room for 15 kanji on one grid. I then had the perfect number of rows to have 10 boxes to practise each kanji, 7 boxes to test myself on one kanji everyday, each day of the week, and then had one box left over to test myself 7 days later. This is an example of using a self-made material, suited to my way of learning. I find that everyone has their own way of learning kanji, whether it be using flashcards, writing it repetitively or doing online exercises. Find the best way for you to learn Japanese!

I really enjoyed writing this post, so I hope you enjoyed reading about this. Even though I’m very passionate about language, I still make mistakes, so please forgive any potential inaccuracies in this post!




Learning a language – our top 10 tips

We all know learning a language is a great idea, but sometimes it can be hard to get motivated or to find the right way to learn. Here are our top 10 tips to help you get started.

1. Tell everyone you know that you’re learning a language.

This way, when you’re tempted to give up or chicken out, you might think twice knowing they’re all expecting great things from you. I call this ‘the biscuit tin method’; if you tell everyone you’re giving up biscuits, you’re a lot less likely to cave, just in case you get caught with your hand in the tin. It worked for me – I haven’t had a biscuit in years. Well, not out of the tin, anyway.

2. Start with the basics.

We know you might be learning French for an important business meeting, but you may not get a chance to show off the fact that you know how to say ‘Sales in the retail sector are growing steadily’, if you’ve not yet learnt how to say ‘hello’.

3. Don’t be scared to talk to people.


You might get it wrong sometimes, but if you don’t try, you’ll never get it right, either. In the immortal words of Richard Branson, ‘You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and falling over.’ Learning on paper is all well and good, but talking to people and making mistakes is the best way to pick new things up. And you’re more likely to get it right next time, because you’ll remember the situation you were in as well as just the word or phrase.

(This works both ways, actually – if you know someone who’s learning your language and they say something incorrectly, let them know about it. Not in a mean way, but in a helpful, constructive way so they understand where they went wrong and can get it right next time. And you’ll probably find it helps you understand your own language better, too.)

4. Don’t worry too much about grammar to begin with.

Yes, it’s important, but if you’re making the effort to talk to someone in their own language, as long as you can make yourself understood, they probably won’t mind if you get your verb ending wrong. So get your basic vocab and some stock phrases down first, then you can start learning some basic grammar to help you create your own sentences and take your study of the language further.

5. Make yourself some flashcards.

Or use a computer program or mobile app. (We hear uTalk‘s quite good…) Introducing an element of competition can be a good motivator, so see if you can team up with someone else who’s learning the same language and test each other, or compare your online scores. If you don’t have time to sit down and make flashcards, you could try labelling things around your house or workspace, so you see them all the time and the vocabulary will start to sink in without you even realising.

6. Find someone to talk to.

If you’re learning for a trip, then this is easy; there’ll be loads of people to chat to when you get there. But if you’re just learning for fun, try and find someone to practise with. A lot of the world is so multicultural now that it’s possible to find a native speaker of just about any language living just down the road. But even if you can’t, there are loads of websites where you can find someone to Skype with, even if they live on the other side of the world. For instance, italki is free and lets you connect with language teachers and native speakers around the world. The best part is, you might make a new friend, which can only mean one thing – cheap holidays…

7. Read, watch and listen to anything you can find.

If you’re at home, this could be newspapers, books, movies, music or websites. Or if you’re travelling, look at signs, menus or product packaging. If there are words you don’t understand, make a note of them and look them up later, or ask someone. You’ll probably be surprised how much you can piece together on your own, and that’s a great confidence boost.

8. Go to the country.

Even if you’re just learning for fun, there’s no better way to learn a language than to immerse yourself in it. Plan a holiday – if nothing else it’ll give you something to look forward to and will motivate you to keep learning. Visiting a country also means that you’ll learn the ‘real’ way of saying things – you might have learnt the correct way but when you arrive, you’ll find nobody actually talks that way.

9. Don’t give up.

It’s not easy to learn a language, but we all have the ability. There really is no such thing as someone who’s bad at languages. So if you’re finding it difficult, hang in there; it’ll be worth it in the end. And keep practising, because you may find all that vocab you spent ages learning will drift away if you don’t. Which seems like a shame.

10. Enjoy it.

We all remember our school days, studying French verbs and monotonously repeating meaningless sentences about your cats on tables. But learning a language can open up a world full of opportunities, new friends and different ways of seeing the world around us. So why make it a chore? Be creative – everyone’s different so do whatever works for you. You could try singing, for example. Or blogging about your learning journey. Try different things and see what works. And then tell us about it – we’d love to hear from you 🙂

Good luck!

Liz (with contributions from Alex and Nat)

You can now read and share this post in a handy infographic!


Pure and simple?

Recently, Alex wrote about the way languages borrow words from each other. She pointed out that in English, we’re always using words from other languages, sometimes without even realising it, with déjà vu, karate and Zeitgeist being just a few examples.

But is this mixing of languages a good thing, or should languages remain ‘pure’?

Hoji Takahashi, a 71-year-old man from Japan, hit the headlines a few weeks ago when he sued the country’s public TV station, NHK, for the mental distress he’s suffered as a result of them using too many words derived from English. A couple of the examples given were toraburu (trouble) and shisutemu (system).

Japan by night

He’s not alone – many elderly Japanese people have trouble understanding these ‘loan words’, and the government has apparently been under pressure for over ten years to try and do something about the dominance of American English in Japan, which has been growing ever since World War II.

The lawsuit is quite controversial, with some dismissing it as ridiculous and others giving Mr Takahashi their full support. But whatever your view, it does raise an interesting question – one that we at EuroTalk often face when translating the vocabulary for our software. Should we go with the word that people most often use, or the one that’s technically correct in the original language?

It’s a difficult decision, particularly when translating for people who want to learn a language, because we know that we have a responsibility to get it right; language learners are putting their faith in us to teach them the correct words, so they’ll be able to speak to people and won’t be embarrassed by saying the wrong thing. But at the same time, the ‘correct’ word might not be the one that they’ll actually need when they get to wherever they’re going. This is particularly the case with African languages, where many words are adapted from French, and indigenous South American languages, where the Spanish influence is very clear. And it can be frustrating for someone who’s just starting to learn a new language to find that half the words are not actually in that language at all.

A few examples:

– In Maltese, the correct word for ‘airport’ is ‘mitjar’, but everyone says ‘arjuport’.

– In Swahili, although ‘tomato’ is ‘nyanya’, ‘tomato ketchup’ is known as ‘tomato’, although the technically correct translation is ‘kechapu ya nyanya’.

– In Tumbuka, when counting to 20, Tumbuka numbers are used, but beyond 20 the numbers revert to English.

There are many more examples, as we’ve discovered over the years and particularly when working on the translations for the new uTalk app. Each new translation is carefully considered and discussed to decide on the best choice from a practical point of view, selecting the word most people would actually use in real life – even if this means some people, like Mr Takahashi, don’t agree with the final result.

What do you think? Should language learning software teach a language in its purest form, or is it better to learn the words that are most commonly used, even if they’re borrowed from another language?