Category Archives: Language

Learning two languages at once, or one via another

I am helping out currently with some language tuition and thought I would share a starting point, in case it is helpful.


Firstly remember, we are not aiming to let the perfect get in the way of the good. Would all the above sentences be used idiomatically by native speakers? Not really, particularly those on the left. Would they be understood easily by native speakers? Yes, of course.

Secondly, remember, we are trying to maximise our chances of understanding input (by listening, reading or, ideally, both). If we have the advantage – as we have with Latinate languages – of a lot of common vocabulary, then we may as well use it right at the start.

Thirdly, let’s keep grammar out of it. We don’t need to conjugate “falloir” or “pouvoir” or anything like that. Just use easy phrases which we can amend slightly to give different meanings (using for example “c’est necessaire” or “c’est possible”) and we can immediately get somewhere, at least. Repeating and replication are perfectly good ways to make progress in language learning.

Notably, French and Spanish (in this case for teaching Spanish to English speakers with some knowledge of French) is not the easiest list to compile – actually Spanish and Portuguese, French and Italian and German and Dutch are easier. This only shows that using existing linkages between languages, rather than starting right at the beginning, can help.

I hope it helps you too! Remember the main thing, however – have fun!

How to learn a language during lockdown

For many people, there has literally never been a better time to learn a language!

This is precisely because people across the world cannot currently go to classes. These seems counter-intuitive, but ultimately it is rare to learn a language in a class. Learning online is vastly preferable – and may how, rightly, become the norm.


The key to language learning is motivation. You cannot be taught a language. You have to learn it. I speak proficient Italian, can get by in Dutch and read Danish – yet I have never done a single class in any of them, nor have I lived in any of those countries.

It can be done in your own home!

Three main tips for language learning in lockdown.

Firstly, don’t put pressure on yourself and don’t put the perfect in the way of the good. Native proficiency in three months is not viable for anyone. In fact, native proficiency is not viable at all; and proficiency of any kind in three months is not viable. What you are aiming for is the ability to understand native speakers and ultimately the ability to converse with them on an increasing range of subjects. But don’t put pressure on yourself to set “goals” in terms of outcomes. The only discipline you really need is to take a bit of time at it every day.

Secondly, use the technology you have to your advantage and watch what you enjoy. Set up a YouTube playlist about Italian cooking and use the “automatic caption” option so you have both speech and subtitles in Italian; find a Netflix movie in Spanish and use the Chrome add-on to watch it in Spanish with Spanish subtitles; or just find the German evening news (“Tagesschau”) via ARD and add the subtitles. Think you won’t understand? Just by seeing what is going on in the kitchen, or knowing what the plot of the movie is, or having a broad awareness of today’s main news, you will actually understand more than you think. Phrases will come up over and over again, you will get used to the melody of the language, and you will soon find you can pick up quite a bit. Don’t worry about speaking to begin with – just watch and read (you really want to do both – particularly if it is a language pronounced quite distinctly from its written form, like French or Danish).

Thirdly, focus on what you enjoy! There is no point watching the history of German punk rock if you don’t like punk rock – you will just lose motivation. Pick something you want to understand. If you are interested in politics, take an interview with Angela Merkel. If you like sport, take a post-game interview with Cristiano Ronaldo. If you follow contemporary fashion, take in an Italian fashion show. You will be motivated and you will enjoy it because you are already appealing to your own interests!

Don’t set goals, just have fun and focus on what you already enjoy – and there really is no time like the present!

Coronavirus – the language of the “new normal”

Friday is language day on this blog, so what about the peculiar language to which we are now accustoming ourselves, which even a month ago would have seemed utterly alien?


See Shielding below.

Coronavirus / COVID-19

There are in fact seven known coronaviruses in humans (including two associated with the “common cold”) and many more in animals; the most recent, also known as the “novel” or “new coronavirus”, is the one we generally mean currently.

The new coronavirus is formally designated the ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2’, abbreviated to SARS-CoV-2.

“Coronavirus” is often used also to refer to the disease.

“The disease associated with the new coronavirus is the ‘Coronavirus Disease 2019’, abbreviated to COVID-19.”


“Essential” is perhaps the most complicated word used during the pandemic, deriving ultimately from Latin essere “to be” and cognate with “essence”. Across the world people are being told not to go out or not to go to work unless it is, or they are, “essential” – so, etymologically, “necessary for being”.

“It’s confusing because only part of the store supplies groceries so only part of it is really ‘essential’.”

It is difficult for any government to define “essential” on indeed “non-essential” precisely. “Essential journeys” are usually for “essential work” or “essential supplies” (usually understood to mean food and medicine) but may also be to “help a vulnerable person” (most obviously one “shielding”, see below); exercise is also deemed “essential” but, in Northern Ireland at least, this absolutely must not involve a vehicle (so you may exercise from home, but it is not “essential” to drive anywhere first). Generally, “essential” or “key workers” are deemed to be those associated either with Healthcare or with essential supplies (most obviously food), although this is often expanded to include those working in waste disposal. Many businesses, notably those involved in construction or the sale of certain health-related (but not specifically pharmaceutical) products, are deemed in the UK neither “essential” nor “non-essential”, a situation further confused by guidance that journeys should only be undertaken where they are “essential” and that people should work from home “where possible”.

Unlike in the rest of the UK, for example, in Northern Ireland off-licences (i.e. stores which sell almost exclusively alcohol) were initially specifically deemed “non-essential” and instructed to close; the “non-essential” designation was subsequently removed, but they were never deemed “essential”, meaning that they may or may not re-open. As it happens, my local one has opted to remain closed, presumably judging it is better served by “furloughing” its staff; the one in my parents’ village has, however, re-opened and is offering delivery. Make what you will of that…


“Furlough” in fact derives from Dutch, meaning a “leave of absence”. It has long existed in the English language specifically to mean a leave of absence to do with the special needs of the employer. It need not refer specifically to any wage being paid (by the employer, the Government, or anyone else), but is primarily to do with the idea of a temporary lay-off.

“The US Government Shutdown of 2011 led to plans to furlough 800,000 federal employees being drawn up.”

In the UK and elsewhere, the Government has intervened to assume those special needs of employers apply right across much of the economy, and to allow and indeed specifically encourage “furloughing” from 1 March for at least a three-month period.

Note, in the UK at least, that “furloughing” may apply to charities as well as businesses; and that it is possible to “self-furlough”. Furloughing is actively encouraged, leading intentionally to a situation where many businesses which were not instructed to close nevertheless opted to do so.

Key worker

See Essential above.


“Lockdown” strictly refers to the compulsory closure of all non-essential businesses and other workplaces, with the objective of ensuring people stay at home other than for essential reasons (typically the purchase of goods or medicines, participation in essential non-closed work, or helping a vulnerable person; exercise may or may not be allowed within this).

There will always be a question about whether the UK should have entered lockdown before Mother’s Day”

For many people, however, “lockdown” essentially means the application of all “social distancing” measures at once. The typical order is the requirement to “self-isolate” and “quarantine”; the prohibition of large gatherings (so no large festivals or sports events) and then small gatherings (including pubs); and then the closure of educational institutions and non-essential businesses and services.

On both the strict and popularly understood basis, currently, the entire Western World except Sweden (which has not closed most schools an restaurants) and arguably eight US States (notably those which still allow church services) is regarded to be “in lockdown”.


“Quarantine”, probably the oldest term on this list deriving from a Venetian term for the requirement to stay at home for 40 days during plagues in the Late Middle Ages, refers strictly to the requirement to stay at home to stop the spread of a disease.

In the United States, “quarantine” may be regarded as the effective consequence of what is referred to as a “shelter-in-place” order.

In the current situation, “quarantine” initially referred to the requirement to stay at home without having shown actual symptoms; typically, either because a member of the same household had shown symptoms, or because of moving from an area with (or perceived to have) higher incidence of the virus to an area with lower or no incidence. In many countries, “lockdown” is perceived as a compulsory “quarantine” for the entire country, although in fact for most people in most cases it is not quite as strict (particularly if, for example, people are allowed out to exercise).

The first arrest in the British Isles to do with the new coronavirus was of a man who had entered the Isle of Man from England and did not “observe quarantine” for the required 14 days.


“Self-isolation” strictly means the requirement of someone having symptoms of COVID-19 to remain isolated – not just at home, but in the case of a multi-person household a specific room (with specific access arrangements to a bathroom and kitchen). The person self-isolating should take steps not to touch anything out of their designated room; to use their own towels, crockery etc; and not to come into contact at all with anyone else.

“Those who show symptoms of COVID-19, notably a persistent cough or fever, are required immediately to self-isolate.”

Some people confuse “self-isolation” with “shielding” or “quarantine”, or just use it more generally.

My son developed a cough so I thought I’d better self-isolate too.”


“Shielding” in the UK or “cocooning” in Ireland is the term used for the requirement for vulnerable or at-risk people (terminology there varies) to “quarantine” strictly. The requirement is generally not to leave the home or come into contact with anyone outside the home for any reason whatsoever; thus, the “shielded” or “cocooned” person will require assistance from relatives, friends or the community at large for “essential” need such as groceries and medicines.

“A shielding letter has been sent to over a million people in England.”

“Shielding” is quite often equated to “self-isolating”, but in fact is closer to a strict “quarantine”. The person shielded may operate around the household relatively normally, but must not leave for any purpose.

If they work and cannot reasonably work from home, shielded people should be “furloughed”.

Social Distancing

“Social distancing” strictly refers to any of a series of “non-pharmaceutical interventions” (so, not involving medicine or treatment) designed to stop, slow or restrict the spread of a virus or disease.

Social distancing measures, including staying away from the most at-risk groups in all circumstances, were introduced in different countries at different times.”

For many people, the term actually now refers specifically in context to the most obvious form (also referred to as “keeping distance”), namely the maintenance of 2 metres or 6 feet distance (some countries require only 1.5m or even 1m) between yourself and anyone not from your household.

We were at the park but there was plenty of room and no problem with social distancing.”

More linguistic oddities

Last week’s post on linguistic oddities led me to consider just some random curiosities which exist in some Western European languages – and which, in general, would not strike native speakers as odd at all, but make the language stand out in some way or another.

Spanish people

Spanish treats people differently from anything else when they are the direct object of the sentence. You say simply yo vi la pelota ‘I saw the ball’, yo vi tu casa ‘I saw your house’ but, oddly, yo vi a Juan ‘I saw Juan’ and yo vi a tu primo ‘I saw your cousin’.

This “personal a” seems to have developed gradually from an original indirect object form, finalising around 1600, with the theoretical advantage that it distinguishes clearly the object from the subject (Juan quiere a Maria ‘Juan loves Maria’ could theoretically be reversed simply with A Juan quiere Maria ‘It’s Juan who Maria loves’). Nevertheless, other languages including Portuguese and Italian make do perfectly well just with word order and, in truth, no one is entirely clear why the “personal a” exists at all.

Danish numbers

Danish numbers have largely retained their Norse forms of millennia ago, and it is widely known in linguistic circles that counting is based largely on twenties. Therefore 90 is halvfems, deriving from halvfemsindstyve ‘half-to-five [thus four-and-a-half] times twenty’.

However, a less mentioned curiosity is the fact that all numbers read as ending in one, not just one itself, take the singular. Therefore en bold ‘one ball’, to bolde ‘two balls’; 100 bolde but 101 [hundrede en] bold [singular form] and back to 102 bolde [plural form]…

English possessiveness

English has a peculiarity that body parts are used with the possessive: ‘I broke my arm’.

Other languages, even traditionally Scots in fact, do not do this. Many specify whose arm, but do so with a indirect object pronoun: German ich brach mir den Arm [I broke to me the arm]; Spanish me rompí el brazo; Italian mi sono rotto il braccio; French je me suis cassé le bras; traditionally Scots, and even associated dialects of English, does something similar too: A brak the airm.

So (Standard) English is quirkily possessive in this way!

German gimmes

German (and also Dutch/Afrikaans word order) is notoriously complex and unusual – main clauses are V2 (main verb comes second regardless of what comes first); subordinate clauses are verb-final; interrogative clauses are verb-initial; and any infinitives and participles go to the end in all clauses.

There are other quirks, however, notably what happens when there is both an indirect and a direct object. English is slightly odd here too, but is consistent; you can say either ‘Give my brother the house’ (indirect object marked by going first) or ‘Give the house to my brother’ (indirect object marked with preposition, so goes second). This is the same even when these are replaced with pronouns: ‘Give him it’, ‘Give it to him’; ‘Give him the house’, ‘Give the house to him’; ‘Give my brother it’, ‘Give it to my brother’ (usage dictates that latter is much preferable in the final pair, but otherwise there is fairly free choice depending on emphasis).

German gets outright confusing, however. Indirect and direct objects are marked for case, so are distinguishable. Despite this, however, word order is strict – and inconsistent. ‘Give my brother the house’ is Gib meinem Bruder das Haus [-em marks indirect object; das marks direct]. ‘Give him the house’ is indeed Gib ihm das Haus [as a side point, we can see here that English object pronoun endings are derived from older indirect forms in -m, not direct]; though here the rule in German is that the pronoun must come first regardless of which is direct and indirect, thus Gib es meinem Bruder [‘Give it (to) my brother’]. This is not the curiosity, however; that is that ‘Give him it’ in German is in fact Gib es ihm [‘Give it (to) him’], thus the order is reversed when both objects are pronouns versus when both objects are nouns – and the order is compulsory despite the fact case endings mean it really needn’t be. That’s just, well, odd. And, from a learner’s point of view, quite annoying…

French precedence

I wrote some time ago about a bizarre quirk of French grammar which is held to be a marker of linguistic excellence – but is, in fact, basically made up.

In the Middle Ages, under a misunderstood influence from Italian, French grammarians introduced an in fact random “rule” which required the past participle to agree with the direct object if the object appears before it (known to mortified advanced learners as the “preceding direct object rule”). Thus j’ai vu la maison ‘I saw the house’ [no agreement], but la maison que j’ai vue and even je l’ai vue (where l’ is a pronoun referring to maison). This applies in any person: tu m’as vu ‘you saw me’ is used if I am male; but tu m’as vue if I am female.

This is a strange “rule” for all kinds of reasons, not least because with the odd exception it rarely makes any difference in speech. It also applies only with direct objects.

That it appears to have been based on Italian is even odder when you consider that it is not compulsory and generally does not apply in Italian! Most Italian speakers use it only when there is a risk of misunderstanding (typically in the third person singular only; so mi hai visto whether I am male or female).

Quirks are part of learning

The underlying point here is that, although linguistics is a science, languages are not mathematical equations. Many of their “grammatical rules” or just “norms of usage” are quirky, inconsistent or plain absurd (particularly when they have been “introduced” by people trying to mimic other languages!)

What this does remind us, however, is that in any walk of life our norm need not be somebody else’s norm. Nowhere is it more important to grasp that than with language learning.

“Round of 16” and other linguistic oddities

Topically, I was discussing this week the linguistic oddity whereby the Irish Head of Government retains his Irish-Language title “An Taoiseach”, the German and Austrian equivalent retains the translation “Chancellor”, but Scandinavian and Southern European countries have theirs referred to as “Prime Minister” even though that is not a direct translation of the title used in the native language.

Sometimes this issue becomes broader. A friend ran a recent series on social media running through the six Ancient Greek notions all translated into English by the single word “love” – albeit allowing for differing descriptions in English of that love, generally using adjectives themselves borrowed from Greek (“platonic”, “erotic”, also the suffix “-phile”; there is also even the “Agape Centre” on Belfast’s Lisburn Road). This, like the apocryphal “100 words for snow in Eskimo”, leads us to the most profound linguistic debate of all – does language represent our conceptualisation of things, or determine it…?

The differences can be more subtle. This week saw the first knock-out round of the Champions’ League get underway, referred to in English by the title “Round of 16”. This is odd, however, because the next round will not be the “Round of 8”, but rather the “quarter-finals”. World Cups and now European Championships (as isn’t it odd that English refers to one of those as a “Cup” and another as a “Championship” – German, perfectly logically, refers to them both as Meisterschaft “Championship”) under current format also have first knock-out round of sixteen teams referred to as the “Round of 16”. The oddness is magnified by the fact no other Western European language allows this irregularity – German, Dutch, French, Spanish and Italian all refer to this round as the “eighth-final”, logically, as the round before the “quarter-final”.

German is particularly logical here, but there is a quirky Ulster culinary link.

German forms its fractions simply through the number plus the suffix –tel, cognate with teil “part”. Thus “eighth” is acht “eight” plus –tel, giving achtel “eight-part, eighth”; “quarter” or literally “fourth” is vier plus –tel giving viertel.

Viertel is the interesting one, because older forms of English also did it the same way, yielding the word “fardel”, meaning “quarter-part”. The word “fardel” has been shortened in time to “farl”. This is the word we now find in “soda farl”, originally a quarter-piece of the bread.

There is the magic of linguistics, linking the World Cup to an Ulster Fry…

The fundamental point here is that even relatively simple concepts can be expressed markedly differently in various languages, simply as a matter of custom. It is these sorts of things which will usually catch out even a relatively proficient non-native speaker.

Meanwhile, the World Cup will from 2026 add a “Round of 32”. Will that be the “sixteenth-final” in other languages? Time will tell…

How do you learn “Vulgar Latin”?

I have outlined before, including here, that the language from which the Romance (or Latinate) languages (notably the national languages of Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian) derive is not Classical Latin but specifically Late Latin, sometimes referred to as “Vulgar Latin” (although that term, strictly, refers to the colloquial Latin of any period until around 1000AD).

We do have a remarkable knowledge of Classical Latin not just in writing but even as a spoken language. However, the point is that if Late or Vulgar Latin is the starting point (we may use the terms interchangeably here as Late Latin ultimately derived from the popular colloquial tongue referred to as “Vulgar” spoken even at the time of Christ), surely that is what we would want to learn if we want to cover the most recent common ancestor of all current Romance languages?

That is quite correct. This leads us to another question, raised most recently this week but on several previous occasions on these pages – how do you go about learning Vulgar Latin?

There, it gets complicated. The best effort, available free online, is by NativLang on YouTube, in a series (introduction here).

Unfortunately, most of the other material is written academically. There appears to be very little in the way of teaching the average enthusiast what Late Latin was like.

There are some reasons for this. Firstly, the way we have taught languages has always been separated into “Classical” (taught dryly and typically only in public or some grammar schools) and “Modern”, with no thought given to any period in between. Secondly, because Late Latin was spoken in the Dark Ages, it lacks the same literary exposure and is thus, in itself, harder to teach. Thirdly, Late Latin had no “standard”; whereas “Classical” Latin was based on educated speech and writing at the time of Caesar and Cicero (so that Classical standard continued to be the written language for centuries even when Late/Vulgar was clearly a distinct spoken language).

Fourthly and most importantly perhaps, to be frank, there is not a lot of point to learning Late Latin. It does not give you access to great literature (because it was not written at all); nor is it a particularly quick route to learning all the Romance languages (it is just as quick, given the potential motivation, exposure and learning resources, to learn one of the modern Romance languages for a start and then move on to the others).

Therefore, the very best thing we can do if we want to learn Late Latin is to learn Very Late Latin – namely, Standard Italian. Standard Italian is based on the speech of  educated people in Tuscany around 700 years ago, and is therefore based on an earlier spoken form than either Spanish or Portuguese (Standard French, like Italian, is based on the speech of many centuries ago but, for reasons first outlined here and subsequently elsewhere on this blog, is essentially a language apart).

So the answer to the question, unless you are really willing to get into the academics of it, is that to learn Late or Vulgar Latin your best bet, for several reasons, is to learn Italian – which, given it is surely also the most romantic language of all, is somewhat appropriate on this particular day of the year. Felice giorno di San Valentino!

To learn, avoid stuff you don’t need to know…

One of my frustrations with the way in which languages are traditionally taught is that they focus on a vast array of things, particularly vocabulary, you will never need to know. You cannot speak a language without knowing its vocabulary, of course, so learning a lot of words is essential; conversely, in many instances you can live without significant areas of vocabulary which you are simply never going to use.

ItalianThese parts of the body, from Long Bridge Publishing, appeared on an Instagram page recently. Learning them is always a fairly early part of the standard way of learning any language, and this is understandable. Doing so via an image is very helpful, and for most people is much easier than learning from a bland list. Still, however, look at all those words you just have to learn and remember…

Or do you? Just think, how many of the above are you really going to need?

All of this, ultimately, goes back to the key point that to learn a language you need to have a purpose. If your motivation is that you want to move to Italy to work and set up home, then it is quite possible you will need all the parts of the body – for all sorts of reasons, from leisure pursuits to medical emergencies. However, if your motivation is simply to know Italy for holidays, or to learn to cook, or even to visit on business, how many of the above words will you really ever use?

Even viso probably is not necessary – a workaround with testa would usually cover it. Anything as detailed as alluce or ginocchio can easily be covered under piede or gamba. A word such as sopracciglio sounds beautiful but is unlikely to be part of your daily life in Italy unless you move there to become a make-up artist.

If we also then take into account words we may find easy to remember (for example, pancia is linked to the English ‘pancreas’; guancia also gives us the Roman meat guanciale), we suddenly find that the list of parts of the body we really need to know is much shorter and much easier than an initial glance at the pictures above may suggest. Of 25 words above, most of us will really need to “learn” fewer than half.

This applies across the board. When we learn a language it is reasonable to be selfish, and to limit the learning we take on in areas which will never be relevant to us. This is yet another reason why standard “classes” only end up teaching us things we will never need to learn, and thus potentially demotivating us from bothering to learn the language at all. Self-learning, and focusing on what matters to us, is the way to make real progress.


Strong verbs – and how people always get them wrong

I’m being wrote off for being overqualified” wrote one postgraduate on Twitter recently, while one Special Adviser is quoted in evidence to Sir Patrick Coghlin as saying things like “I seen” and “I have came“. These are remarkably common “errors” (to be precise, “examples of non-standard usage”), even among professionals.

What is going on?

These are examples of “strong verbs”. Not all irregular verbs are strong, but all strong verbs are irregular. However, their history from a linguistic point of view is more interesting – although very few (albeit common) verbs in modern Germanic languages are now “strong”, once upon a time they likely all were. (For the record go-went-gone, a frequent source of error, is a suppletive.)

We can be fairly sure that at one stage in its linguistic development, Proto-Germanic (perhaps around 3000 years ago) used only strong verbs – i.e. all verbs marked grammatical changes by changing their root vowel (known in linguistics as ablaut). Over time, however, a different way of creating past forms of verbs, adding a dental suffix (typically -(e)d or -(e/i)t) became predominant. This predominant form became normalised (“productive” in linguistic talk, meaning all verbs entering the language or being created within the language used this “regular” form) but strong verbs remained. Indeed, because commonly used words are typically the least affected by language change, many common verbs remain “strong”.

Weak verbs form their preterite and past participle the same way, typically in English by adding -(e)d. Strong verbs (remember, these accounted for all verbs once upon a time) still accounted for around 700 verbs at the time of King Alfred (the time Old English split from contemporary forms of what are now German and Dutch/Afrikaans). These could be grouped into seven clearly defined classes, which can still be illustrated to some extent by modern English examples:

  • I: drive-drove-driven
  • II: choose-chose-chosen
  • III: bind-bound-bound(en)
  • IV: break-broke-broken
  • V: give-gave-given
  • VI: shake-shook-shaken
  • VII: fall-fell-fallen

The first thing to notice here is that these verbs generally exhibit a distinction between their preterite form (drove, fell etc) and their past participle (driven, fallen etc), thus exhibiting three distinct forms unlike regular verbs (like-liked-liked). The past participle often retains -(e)n, but this is far from universal even with verbs retaining three distinct forms (e.g. sing-sang-sung).

However, not all strong verbs now retain all the distinct forms, often because their past participle has lost the final -en (e.g. hold-held-held); in the modern language, some make no distinction at all (e.g. put-put-put). This is a natural trend – strong verbs in Middle English often had four distinct forms (with separate plural forms as well), so the tendency towards reduction is consistent.

The difficulty, in fact more so in English than in Dutch and German, is that the forms (and the classes) of strong verbs have become very unstable. For example, although sing-sang-sung seems straightforward and other verbs behave identically (e.g. drink-drank-drunk), there is also run-ran-run (where in fact the present tense form has aligned) and sling-slung-slung (as well as win-won-won). Some forms are still debatable – spin-span/spun-spun (some sources even suggest span with no object but spun with an object).

The tendency towards levelling to just two distinct forms ( as aforementioned, even three is a reduction versus the English of Chaucer) is powerful given the “principle of least effort” and that regular verbs only have two. Thus we see write-wrote-written reduced to write-wrote and see-saw-seen reduced to see-seen. Note there is no particular preference for whether it is the preterite form or past participle form which is deleted (and indeed, noting the standard forms are come-came-come, in colloquial speech you will often here both the “incorrect” she come yesterday and the “incorrect” she has came today).

At one level, this is a perfectly normal regularisation (one which in some dialects of English and Scots is almost complete, with few if any verbs retaining distinct preterite and past participle forms). It is worth noting also that there has been a tendency towards moving from strong to weak anyway – the 700 strong verbs at the time of King Alfred had become only around 200 by the time of Shakespeare (for example help-halp-holpen became help-helped; cf. modern German helfen-half-geholfen). In colloquial or informal usage “non-standard” forms are quite normal.

That said, using the wrong forms in formal writing is at best a sign of carelessness, and may reasonably be taken to suggest the writer does not read as much as they really should (particularly if they are claiming to be overqualified or working for a Minister who claims detail matters). No one likes an ultra-pedant, but sometimes I think [an irregular weak verb, for reference] a little care can make [another irregular weak verb] a difference.

English is a profoundly Germanic language

English is a profoundly Germanic language – and it is in fact harmful to enhancing our linguistic competence to pretend otherwise.

We have all heard the story. After the Norman invasion, Norman French and Latin were the “high languages” of England and thus redefined English as somewhere between Germanic (derived from Proto-Germanic, like German, Dutch and Scandinavian languages) and Romance (derived from Latin) – a hybrid language. It is not a hybrid, however. It is fundamentally Germanic (albeit one whose vocabulary is markedly influence by Romance in some contexts), and this is important.


We often hear figures as high as 63% for English vocabulary derived from Romance languages. This is an irrelevant figure. It may be true that if you search a dictionary more than half the headwords will be of Romance origin, but these include rare scientific terms or other words which only appear at certain levels of formality. When you look at the words in use, however, Germanic dominates. For example, more than two thirds of the words in this paragraph are of Germanic origin, not Romance.

This is largely because all the core vocabulary of English is of Germanic origin – all the pronouns, all the basic conjunctions, all the determiners, all the grammatical and basic verbs, all the numbers and other common adjectives (as well as almost all basic farming and forestry terms). They are not all of specifically West Germanic (essentially Dutch/German) origin; some are North Germanic (Scandinavian) – but they are Germanic.


English is also grammatically entirely Germanic. Its verbal system, with strong and weak verbs and modals [see also two paragraphs below], is Germanic; its pronoun system is entirely Germanic in structure as well as vocabulary; its adjectival system is heavily regularised but Germanic. Even regular noun plural formation in -s is in fact Germanic in origin (derived from Old English masculines, which had -as; vestiges of other forms also exist in irregular plurals such as men), despite the apparent similarity with French and Spanish.

Word order, although now heavily regularised compared to German or Dutch, is also fundamentally Germanic in origin.

Most importantly of all, perhaps, is that English has no future tense. This is a grammatical point – English can of course use modals (such as will, which originally meant volition as with the noun ‘will’) or adaptations (such as going to, again an independent development from French or Spanish and originally a literal meaning) to indicate the future, but there is no grammatical future form. This is the same for all Germanic languages. Conversely, all Romance languages have a synthetic future tense (i.e. they mark future grammatically with an ending).


Perhaps the most obvious marker that English is a Germanic language is how it is pronounced. English is articulated further back in the mouth than Romance languages (as is Dutch and as is German, at least in the north) and is in most dialects a “stress-timed” language like all West Germanic languages, meaning rhythm is designed to give equal length between stressed syllables (cf. ‘delicious tea’ versus ‘tolerable tea’) rather than equal length to each syllable (as is the case in Romance languages). This is easy to hear even when simply comparing German or Dutch speakers of English versus French, Italian or Spanish – the latter struggle much more with the location of articulation and the stress timing (and of course vice-versa!)

Why this matters

This matters because for centuries the powers that be have effectively willed English to be a Romance language, for reasons predominantly of prestige. Grammatical assessments, for example, almost always included reference to the “future” (and often also to concepts such as the “subjunctive”), which are useful for describing Latin but misleading when used for Germanic languages.

It also matters because, even to use our own language (never mind speak others), it is important to understand at least its fundamental structure and origin. Trying to deny this, and pretend it is really something it is not, is unhelpful.

We need to get over the idea that English is anything other than a Germanic language, and also that English being a Germanic language is a problem. It is the way it is!


“Comprehensible input” is key to language learning

I have written before about how the way we learn languages at school, or even as adults in classes, is so hopeless as to be potentially a complete waste of time. Most students leave school (or class) more convinced they cannot do languages than they were even before they started. Research increasingly demonstrates what many polyglots already knew – the key to language learning is not learning how to introduce yourself and order vanilla ice cream, but specifically listening and reading in the target language. This is known by researchers as “comprehensible input”.

As I have written before, the absolute key is motivation – before you attempt to learn a language (or anything else, for that matter), you need to be clear about why you want to acquire the skill and indeed specifically what skill you want to acquire. For example, if you are learning Spanish or Italian as a Northern European, you may well be doing so with a general view to being able to get by in those countries while on holiday there (or perhaps having retired there, or whatever). A language like German or Mandarin Chinese will probably be acquired more for business reasons. Move to languages as varied as Latin, Esperanto or Irish, and you are probably learning for access to literature or generally written communication – so the focus may be more on reading as a hobby as much as anything else. It depends on the language and the purpose, but it is worth being clear about those before you start.

Once you are clear about your motivation, the aim is to read and listen to the language as much as possible – modern technology makes this (particularly the latter) a lot easier than it was a generation ago. You might say, particularly if starting an entirely alien language (like Mandarin Chinese or Arabic), that this is ridiculous, but it is the best way – clearly, the “input” initially has to be at a beginner level, but try even watching a film in the target language with subtitles (i.e. in the target language – subtitles in your own language render the whole exercise close to pointless) and you will soon be amazed at how much you can decode just from the context.

The next key point is not to put perfection in the way of the good. “Comprehensible input” does mean you have to start at beginner level precisely so that it is “comprehensible”. However, you cannot hang around at beginner level for too long. If there is a single error made by language learners more than any other, it is waiting at beginner level for too long – either to try to get everything perfect, or just out of fear of moving up a level. What you do needs to be possible and fun – but also challenging, otherwise you are just wasting time.

The other important issue is that to be “comprehensible”, whatever you are reading or listening to needs to be interesting. This is why classes often do not work – if you are not interested in what you are doing, you will be less motivated to do it. So think about what you enjoy – if it is sport, for example, watch sportscasts or sport documentaries or read match reports. Over time, this can be progressed up to intermediate and advanced – perhaps reading newspaper reports or sports autobiographies or listening to podcasts where the language is quite colloquial. Alternatively, you may be interested in history, or geography, or even specifics like cooking or recycling. It is easy to find things in any major language on topics of interest, but the focus must be those rather than just random news reports or newspaper articles.

The combination of “comprehensible input” and interest, i.e. listening and reading on topics of interest will increase motivation, but also undoubtedly prove the fastest way to attain proficiency. This is not to say (as some researchers do claim) that there is nothing else learners can or should do – certainly speaking is a useful exercise, primarily to test where gaps in knowledge lie. However, it is to say that spending hours with vocabulary lists or grammatical tables is no way to start learning a language; the key is to move as quickly as possible to understanding the spoken and written language, using pure repetition and the context in which words are used and put together to grow knowledge and proficiency.