Category Archives: Language

Which language should I learn?

Linked to recent posts on here, and also an article in The Economist two weeks ago, is the question of which language a willing learner should choose.

Experts in The Economist made the case for French (on the grounds it is still widely spoken as an administrative language in various parts of the world), Spanish (on the grounds of rising numbers of native speakers and access from it to Italian and Portuguese), Brazilian Portuguese (this one lost me a bit so we will leave it there!), Mandarin (on the grounds of the rise of China) and Latin (as a conduit to lots of other languages).

Of these, I find only the case for Spanish convincing. On top of that, one obvious candidate was missed – German.

The article was extremely good but one really obvious issue – touched in last week on this blog – was missed altogether. You have to assess how motivated you will be to learn the language.

Are you really going to learn Mandarin? I mean, really? This cannot reasonably be done taking half an hour in the evening to do an Internet course from a flat in Bristol. It will require spending a considerable length of time in (a relevant region of) China – like, living and working there – and even at that being committed to immerse yourself rather than just seek out Westerners while teaching English to get by. Even in hugely favourable circumstances with real dedication, you will still probably come away with at best conversational proficiency (and very limited literacy), which you will then have to dedicate yourself to maintaining (by regular trips back to China, in all likelihood). How likely is that?

The same applies, in a way, to Latin. It appears more familiar of course, but in its case you really have no way of using the language (unless for some reason you have engaged in learning a language to reading fluency just to read ancient literature). I am not against a grounding in Latin by any means, but the best language you can learn? Dubious…

French is, of course, a fascinating language, but is at an immediate disadvantage because historically it differs markedly from other Latinate languages (with one consequence that it is difficult, objectively, to pronounce), so is limited in being a conduit towards them. Furthermore, the case for its geographical extent is limited, covering only North Africa and, at a push, Indochina. Compare that with the social and economic might of the whole Spanish-speaking world (or even the Portuguese in the longer run), and it comes out unquestionably worse. It has its uses no doubt (not least its retention as a formal administrative language by the likes of the UN and IOC), but its practical 21st century extent is restricted.

There is undoubtedly a case for Spanish. First of all, there is the motivation almost no matter where you are in the world – both Europeans and North Americans can find it instantly useful at a range of common holiday destinations for a start. Secondly, it has remained fairly close to Latin, as have Portuguese and Italian, and is thus a useful conduit to them. Thirdly, it is also relatively simple to use after just a little learning. Best of all is our exposure to it – it is quite common for Spanish-language hits to make it into the US or UK charts, and Spanish is increasingly used in US drama series (the main language of “Narcos”, a significant language in “Power”, and a peripheral but important one in many more). Nothing succeeds like exposure! Tie this to a large and growing number of native speakers with increasing economic influence, and the case for Spanish being the language to learn is close to unanswerable.

However, there remains a case for German. Approached the right way (as per the link), it is not as inaccessible as the scary word order and complex case system initially suggest. It is also, by far, the language I have found most useful – I have found it necessary to fix electronic items (shipped with menus set in German), to set up TVs (I received one with instructions only in German), help out tourists (both in Northern Ireland and elsewhere), operate on holiday (this year in Italy German was a lingua franca at our site and locations around it), and manage business (there may be something of a bias here, but I am asked for German translations or courses more often than any other, by far). This is scarcely a surprise. German is the most commonly spoken mother tongue in the world’s largest trading bloc, and the language of the world’s second biggest exporter – and is thus of vastly more significance than French and potentially ahead of Spanish (particularly from a European perspective). It is also a conduit to Dutch, and to some extent to Scandinavian, thus covering all Europe’s most prosperous economies. It is important to maintain motivation (so that visits to Germany or Austria result in you practising German on the natives and not natives practising English on you), but there are a lot of reasons for doing so.

Faced with the choice between Spanish or German, a lot of other considerations come into play. However, on the basis of geographical proximity, social use, economic value and linkage to other languages in the longer run (and thus basic motivation, the most important thing of all), the “language to learn” is definitely one or the other of those two.



Why is German more complex than Spanish?

I have written many times before on how German (as a Germanic language) is more closely related to English than any Latinate language (like French, Italian or Spanish), and is indeed fundamentally the same. In some ways, this makes it easier to learn.

However, much though professional linguists will dispute my claiming this so definitively, the fact is German is a harder language to learn than Spanish for the average English speaker. How and why?

Consider the Spanish phrase:

con el perro

Here, my core vocabulary as even a novice would tell me that “con” is a preposition meaning something like “with”, and “el” is an article, “the”, marking masculine singular in this case (as, like most Latinate languages, Spanish distinguishes between two genders, masculine and feminine). We may also know, or be able to work out from the context, that “perro” in most instances means “dog”.

The advantage with Spanish is we now know not only what the word “perro” means but also how to use it. Nearly all words ending in –o are masculine and the plural in Spanish is formed by -(e)s, so we not only know that “dog” is “perro” but also that “dogs” is “perros“. This is the same regardless of the use of the word (whether it is a subject, and object, comes after a preposition, or whatever).

If we turn to German, life suddenly becomes a lot more complex.

mit dem Hund

For similar reasons to the above, we can work out that this means “with the dog”. We know from this what it means, and in particular what the word “Hund” (cognate with English “hound”, to make things even easier) means. However, we have a problem – we still have no idea how to use the word!

Firstly, even the article “dem” tells us only that “Hund” is masculine or neuter (German nouns have three genders, unlike in any other major Western European language). Secondly, worse still, we have no idea what the plural form is – it could be “Hund“, “Hünd“, “Hunde” (which is fact it is), “Hünde“, “Hunder“, “Hünder“, “Hunden“, conceivably “Hünden” or maybe even “Hunds“. This may be before we have come to learn that the dative plural (German also has four cases, two of which in the modern spoken language may be used after prepositions) generally adds –n – so, notwithstanding the above, the plural form would actually be “Hunden” in this case (literally!)

The immediate difficulty with German, therefore, is that it is not as easy to “absorb” in a way which means you can then use it accurately. Spanish has a much clearer and simpler set of markers than German has, making it more instantly accessible to learners.

This is not to say that Spanish is straightforward. The average verb in Spanish has over 50 distinct forms (invariably approaching 40 in common use), compared to just four in English and six in German. The point is, however, that once the patterns and irregularities are learned, they are clear; whereas in German, particularly with nouns, there are simply fewer reliable patterns and things like gender or plural form just have to be learned individually (even if some can be reasonably guessed).

That is the “how”. What about the “why”?

The reason that German has been more conservative with nouns and less so with verbs than Latinate languages such as Spanish (and indeed more conservative than other Germanic languages generally) is not easy to determine.

Broadly, German is a more noun-based language, which may explain why it has retained its complexities predominantly around them (effectively retaining only partially predictable “noun classes”), while simplifying verbs.

Nevertheless, there is no clear reason why German is quite so conservative, even versus similar languages such as Dutch. It was not a deliberate ploy around the time of standardisation (as it was for Italian), nor has German been particularly isolated (like Icelandic).

That German is tougher to reproduce accurately than Spanish for English speakers despite its closer family links may simply by luck of the linguistic draw.


What is a language?

Actually there is perhaps one question more scary for a linguist (professional or amateur) than “How many languages do you speak?

It is, simply: what is a language?

As noted in the above-linked article, in the same way astronomers cannot really define an apparently simple term like “planet”, linguists cannot really define an apparently simple term like “language”.

In any attempt to answer it, it is worth re-emphasising a core point at the outset. When we refer to “English”, usually (particularly when we refer to the language in teaching or administration) we in fact mean “the standard dialect of English based on the form deriving from the variety spoken by the educated classes in the Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle at around the time of the invention of printing”. French has a similar story to the area around the Sorbonne; Spanish to Salamanca; Portuguese to Coimbra; Italian a notably complex one back a little further in time but based around Florence; German an even more complex one involving Frankfurt (written) and Hanover (spoken). Regardless of the exact history in each case, in most cases we are generally referring to an agreed “standard” written variety and how that variety is reproduced in contemporary speech. There is, notably, a degree of artificiality to this, and yet any “standard” could not survive if it did not represent a variety of the language widely understood and accepted by its users.

Then, in most of Europe (and most places which speak languages of European origin) and parts of the Indian Subcontinent at least, it is worth noting that nearly all “languages” derive from a common source, most likely somewhere in modern Ukraine around 4000-5000 years ago. At that time, in that location, there was a tribe which spoke what we now refer to as “Indo-European”, which was of course never “standardised”. As that tribe broke out, notably westward (from a European point of view) and southward (from an Indian), its language dispersed. As speakers entered new areas, they had to describe different things (new types of tree, sorts of landscape, or even shades of colour, for example); and they came across other tribes from whom they borrowed words and who influenced grammar and pronunciation. The real issue here is that the difference between languages is not just one of space (notably through modern mutual intelligibility), but also time. At some stage Indo-Europeans were speaking a single language, and later they were speaking Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit; later still Italian/Romanian/French/Spanish/Portuguese, Modern Greek and Hindustani.

Additionally, at certain times but in very different epochs we find the first written examples of each tree, and then the first published examples – all of which may have an impact of our perception and sense of what is and is not a language. The issue here is that our instinctive Western bias towards defining “language” very closely alongside “Standard written variety” is problematic. Did “Latin” only exist once it was written? Did “German” only exist once it was published? Do Amazonian tribes with no concept of writing not speak “languages”? In future we may find generations rejecting any language which does not have at least 1,000,000 Wikipedia articles as evidence of its existence!

We also have to consider further the distinction between written and spoken varieties. Clearly, they are connected. However, they are also differentiated in ways which to many of us are simply intuitive. How often do you use the word “therefore” in daily speech, for example? If we take this further, we find that a majority of people globally in fact do not only switch between spoken versus written and/or formal versus informal registers, but actually between languages. A rural dweller in Morocco, for example, may well speak Berber at home, Arabic at the market, and French in education and government dealings. Does that person speak three languages, when they are not each used in all contexts? Indeed, if Berber is never used for commerce, education or administration (and is never written), is it a “language” at all? And then, if that person meets a trader from Syria who also purports to speak “Arabic” but they cannot understand each other at all, who is speaking what and are they different “languages”?

Most of the terminology around this issue is in fact borrowed from German – Abstand refers to language differentiation by linguistic distance (“Irish” is clearly linguistically different from “English” but not from “Gaelic”; “English is clearly different from “Irish” but not from “Scots”); Ausbau is the notion of how far a language is deliberately developed (not just towards written standards, but that is an obvious issue); Dachsprache is essentially a person’s sense of which language they are speaking (or writing) regardless of context (so a northwestern German farmer may linguistically speak something closer to Standard Dutch than Standard German at home, but if he regards himself to be speaking German then, arguably at least, by definition he is); and Halbsprache is a term used for a linguistic variety which is not fully developed as a written standard language of a community or communities, but has some sense of development and commonality (perhaps, for example, in literature) which goes beyond a perfectly regular non-standard regional dialect or similar.

It is here that we find “language” status, in the West at least, is an intensely political thing – the old maxim is that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. At the time of the French revolution, Parisian French would have been easily understood by only a minority of the population, many of whom spoke completely different languages (from Breton to Dutch) and most of whom spoke a different variety originating from Latin; at the time of Italian unification it was openly admitted “We have created Italy; now we have to create Italians”. Of course, this political-linguistic emphasis can go the other way too – the successful revivals of Catalan and Welsh are tied, with different levels of connection and comfort, to nationalist/separatist political movements (as are many rather less successful ones). Countries such as Spain generally struggle with the challenge of so many languages at different levels of development and with different levels of popular support.

What is the solution to all of this? I have no idea! However, I would suggest the best solution I have seen is a language pyramid:

Spanish Arabic French
Japanese Russian German Hindi Indonesian
Thai Swahili Polish Dutch Gujurati Korean Wolof
Kannada Zulu Irish Catalan Afrikaans Papiamento Belarussian Maori Icelandic

Here, we can see (if formatting allows!) that English has a unique status as the foremost language of global trade, knowledge and diplomacy. Even here, this presents challenges, however. How different are the varieties and should we specify which one (American, British, or even a different non-native version) predominates? For how long has English had this unique status? Which language had it before and how did it lose it?

In the next level, purely by way of example, I include three languages of unquestionable global reach and cultural relevance. That said, even here they have attained this status by different means. Spanish has it by weight of numbers; Arabic due to its religious role; and French due to its previous role as the high language of Royal elites and global diplomacy. Some of these may not stand the test of time.

At the next level we have significant national languages, not only because they are spoken by a lot of people in globally relevant economies, but also because they have some degree of reach (Pokemon, vodka, Vorsprung durch Technik, guru, nasi goreng etc.). Even here, we have some challenges. What exactly does Russian cover? Do we allow for Austrian German in any way? Is Hindi to be considered distinctly from Urdu, and why? Is Indonesian to be considered alongside Malay, and does this affect its status?

At the next level we have significant national languages which perhaps do not have quite the same reach, or significant international trading languages in particular regions. These are quite distinct issues, and we are now touching on just how far our Western bias towards “Written Standards” takes us, versus the practical reality of trading and living in some form of “lingua franca” for hundreds of millions of people.

At the final range we have a lot of distinction: established regionally significant languages, national languages in restricted use but of historical significance, growing regional languages in large economies, languages in administrative use in regional powers, significant inter-regional trading languages, national languages whose status distinct from other languages is disputed, national languages within nations, and linguistically significant national languages of small countries. Maybe these do not all belong at the same “level”, but they show a range of uses and challenges in terms of definition of a “language” and why it may (or may not) be so defined – globally, nationally, regionally; socially, politically, economically; never mind linguistically!

Of course, most of the world’s languages would not even make it on to the above pyramid. From tribal languages of restricted range to languages of uncertain status (Ulster Scots anyone?), the challenges only multiply below the pyramid! This is to say nothing of constructed languages such as Esperanto or Klingon; or indeed codes or systems which meet some of the common definitions of “language”.

We may, in practice, never be able to agree on the definition of a “language”. We should at least reach some agreement, however, on the complexities which surround the challenge of agreeing that definition!




Lessons from Swiss German

Last week’s discussion led to one correspondent, who already has the coolest Gravatar ever, introducing Swiss German into the equation – something I had only ever previously done when discussing Ulster Scots.

My piece on “language interference” only really applies to lamguages of roughly the same standing – large national languages, in that case. Regional or minority languages, such as Catalan and Irish, are somewhat different, partly because they are in more limited use but probably mainly because speakers of such languages are always fluent and often in fact native speakers of another language. It is easy for two people speaking Irish as a second language to throw in an English word they know both will understand; or indeed for a foreign learner of Catalan just to switch to their fluent Spanish rather than hazard a guess at the Catalan in the knowledge that the Catalan listener (who will invariably also speak Spanish) will understand. This is a very different type of interference.

Of course, Scots (or Ulster Scots as it is known in Northern Ireland and Donegal) suffers this severely, as it is not just regional but also closely related to English, the most prominent global language. There is a fuzzy line and significant confusion between what is Scots and what is in fact Scots-influenced English, leading to wide (and frankly understandable) dismissal of the former’s claim to “language status” by the vast bulk of the population on both sides of the Sheuch (see what I did there?!)

So what about Swiss German?

To cut a long (very complicated) story short (so as to simplify it outrageously), Continental West Germanic constitutes a continuum of mutually intelligible dialects running from just beyond Ostend in northern Belgium to just beyond Graz in southeastern Austria. Speakers at each end of the continuum cannot understand each other, but all the way along there are speakers of different dialects who do.

Nevertheless, there is a significant dialect boundary running along a roughly horizontal line around Frankfurt am Main. This is not a perfect line, but a somewhat fuzzy one. Nevertheless, what is spoken to the north of it is undeniably “Low German”, and to the south is “High German”. The difference is marked in a sound shift – north of the line has “water”, “pepper” and so on as in English; south of it has “Wasser”, “Pfeffer” and so on as in modern Standard German; there are also fairly clearly defined grammatical and vocabulary differences.

As Holland (the area around Amsterdam and Rotterdam) rose to prominence, its “Low” version became the educated standard for the whole of the Germanic-speaking Low Countries (what we now refer to as the Netherlands and northern Belgium) – what we now refer to as “Dutch”.

What is now Germany, however, adopted a central standard which was, in most ways, “High” (i.e. southern); Austria and Switzerland (assumed for linguistic purposes to include Liechtenstein) also came to adopt this “High” standard – what we now refer to as “German”.

This presents the curious linguistic situation that the two largest cities in German-speaking Europe, Berlin and Hamburg, are in fact in traditionally “Low” German areas but had “High” German foisted upon them. Because the “High” Standard was for generations in effect a foreign language to be learned by northerners in those cities and elsewhere, northern German speech when speaking “High” became much more regularised (and is in effect the “standard” pronunciation recommended to foreign learners), where southern German speech retained significant regional variation (and is thus now seen to deviate more markedly from the High “Standard”, even though it is fundamentally more southern than northern).

One southern set of dialects which remained, in spoken form, significantly distinct from the Standard were those found in Switzerland, where over two thirds of the population are deemed “German speakers”. They do write Standard German (with minor variations), and speak an albeit markedly accented version of it when in the presence of non-Swiss or non-German speakers (such as in the national parliament), but in fact to each other they all speak Swiss German. This is not a single form but in fact a series of dialects characterised by the fact they underwent the aforementioned sound shift even more thoroughly and happen to be spoken in Switzerland and Liechtenstein (and also in the small neighbouring Austrian province of Vorarlberg). Notably this is the case just as much in urban areas as in rural.

You cannot learn Swiss German in the way you can learn Catalan, nor is there any serious movement towards formal writing (nor, thus, towards any form of written standard). It is a spoken language (albeit used in informal writing, such as internal tourism adverts, newspaper birthday greetings or unofficial emails), and a growing one. On German-language television and radio in Switzerland only news (of local Swiss content) is in Standard German; everything else, from political chat shows to traffic reports, is in Swiss German.

In practice, people from neighbouring parts of Germany and Austria (e.g. Swabia or the Tyrol) have no real difficulty understanding Swiss German, although even they would switch to Standard German in conversation with a Swiss. For Germans from further north or even Austrians from further east, however, comprehension can be difficult without some time taken to gain familiarity.

The main issue is pronunciation, which is broadly more gutteral and has marked differences in vowels (for example sein is pronounced more or less as “sine” in Standard German but similar to “seen” in Swiss). There are also minor differences in syntax (around word order in the clause and particularly a peculiar system of verbal duplication in some cases), in past tense verb forms (for example Standard German gewesen becomes Swiss gsi “been”), and in the range of meanings applied to a given word (for example “schaffen” means something between “to create” and “to accomplish” in Standard German, but more like “to work” in Swiss). Swiss also generally follows southern dialects for its food terms and pronouns, which can be quite different from the Standard usage; it also sometimes has its own optional dialect terms (which can vary from place to place), although in practice very few southern Standard German words are not also used in Swiss (with appropriate phonological adaptation).

Underlying all of this is a (probably subconscious) desire on the part of the Swiss to mark themselves out as distinct (something which characterises the country in many ways and even defines it, but which appears to be sociolinguistically specific to German speakers). Swiss German (to be specific: the distinctiveness of speech from Standard German even fairly well up the social and formal scale in Switzerland) has gained ground since the War while most minority languages and dialects in Europe were losing it. This matches a widely reported general antipathy between German-speaking Swiss and Germans generally; no such antipathy exists between French-speaking Swiss and the French nor between Italian-speaking Swiss and the Italians, and there is no linguistic parallel there either – and so the French of Switzerland is not notably distinct from that of France, and likewise for Italian.

So distinct are Swiss German speakers that, as reported in the comments section on this blog, they will often selected English (or French) words in preference to importing a German innovation. This tendency appears even to have crept into Swiss Standard German (which, for example, prefers English “tram” to Standard German “Strassenbahn” and French “velo” to Standard German “Fahrrad“, “bicycle”).

For all that, there is no question that foreigners and non-German-speaking compatriots will be addressed in Standard German; Swiss German is seen as specific to German-speaking Swiss and is not to be foisted on anyone else (indeed quite the contrary, it is as if outsiders are to be shielded from it). This makes the approach to and purpose of its development quite different from the approach to Catalan (an obvious linguistic parallel) or even seemingly Scots, as there are no notions of standardising the written form or competing generally with the Standard written variety.

Is it a language or a dialect? I asked a German-speaking Swiss that once, to be told politely in effect that the question was irrelevant. “Standard German” is “Standard German” and “Swiss German” is “Swiss German”. And that’s that.

What is the relevance of Swiss German to the rest of us? That is something to ponder as we eat our Muesli…

“Does one language interfere with another?”

You are never quite sure which blog posts will prove popular and interesting and which will not. Last week‘s, on determining how many languages someone speaks, proved pleasantly popular! One question raised in response was whether one language can “interfere” with another? Here, I can only write from experience, albeit with some grounding in my postgraduate linguistic research.

The answer is yes, it can. However, it can in varying and often quite unexpected ways, depending on the level of competence and the relationship between the languages concerned. Noting the relationship between languages and cramming “core vocabulary” is important, at least for non-professionals like me! I can only explain this with reference to acting and CDs…

Here I again raise the distinction from last week between “native”, “fluent”, “proficient”, “limited” and even perhaps “potential” competence (these are not specific to me – the US State Department, for example, asks for competence on a scale from “5” to “1” roughly along the same lines).

Professional linguists can reach such a high level of competence even in non-native languages that they do not allow interference of any kind. An interpreter, for example, can move from one language to another (say, English to German) without even thinking about it and with no apparent interference at all. Mere mortals like me can’t…

Moving between English (“native”) to German (“fluent”) for me requires an almost conscious effort. Languages have different characters, and so it is almost the same as an actor moving into a different role. Without resorting to stereotypes, German is more clinically structured than English, and allows for less meandering (as a recent research paper noted, it is almost impossible to translate “There is my neighbour out for a walk” into German because German culturally requires an objective to the walk); consequently word order is a lot stricter and, I find, more preparation has to go into planning an entire sentence before even starting it. That said, I do not find any interference in vocabulary – I do not find myself accidentally saying English words in German or vice-versa, except where something has a particular cultural significance (for example, “central station” does not quite translate “Hauptbahnhof” even though that is literally correct, as the latter also usually conveys a meeting point with a shopping centre – therefore a German thinking of a “Hauptbahnhof” would be thinking of something much grander than, say, Belfast “Central Station”).

Spanish and French, in which I do not claim fluency (though frankly, as implied last week, many people with my proficiency would – beware such people!), are different because I find it harder to assume the character – it is like playing a role without knowing the full back story. I still find no vocabulary interference from my native language, English, and I suspect little grammatical interference (for example, knowing that “think of” in English is “denken an” [literally more like “think at”] in German at least makes me less likely to assume the French would be “penser de” – which, of course, it isn’t). However, there is significant interference between them – a French word will often come to me when looking for a Spanish one, or I may assume without checking that a Spanish grammatical construction also applies in French (e.g. Spanish has “Estoy en Paris” and “Voy a Paris” but French has “Je suis à Paris” and “Je vais à Paris” – Spanish as English changes preposition between “I am going to Paris” and “I am in Paris” but French does not, something I may instinctively miss in rapid speech).

Then if I move to Italian, this “interference” becomes profound. Discussing football in my best attempt at Italian with Napoli fans on the train on the way to the Emirates Stadium a couple of years ago, one asked after about fifteen minutes if I spoke Spanish – so evident to him must this interference have been! Yet along with the interference, there comes a “block” – for example if speaking Italian, once I have thought of the Spanish word it actually hinders me finding the Italian one from the back staircase of my memory unless it is similar; the same actually applies vice-versa (if I do get the Italian word first and someone were then to ask me for the Spanish, I would probably struggle to locate it without significant delay). Again, I am sure that for a truly competent professional linguist, this delay would rarely if ever occur.

This is also where the relationship between the languages matters. Italian and Spanish are, as mentioned last week, relatively close; both are less close, but still clearly related, to French (Italian more so than Spanish). All other things being equal, “interference” is more marked the more similar the languages involved, turning the normally beneficial similarity into an occasional irritation.

Then there is the issue of which language you are “thinking” in. This is slightly ludicrous, because we do not vocalise our thoughts as such, but I do find that I effectively think in a language (going back to my point that I have consciously to pick a language in use and almost act as if in character – unlike really competent linguists, I cannot just effortlessly shift between them). To be specific, I find I can at any time maintain two (but only two) languages in use and then opt to select one – almost like having two CDs in a multi-CD player and then choosing which to play. To switch to a third, I almost have consciously to remove one to allow the other in (as if taking out one CD from the player entirely and replacing it with another). To some extent, this experience is backed up by research into children’s language proficiency – children can retain two easily, but introducing a third complicates things and will at least lead to compartmentalisation (where, for example, one language becomes associated with one parent, a second with the other, and a third with school, and if any is then used out of “compartment”, confusion follows).

So, to use the above example: to try to speak or understand Italian, I shift my brain to Spanish (as noted last week, a language in which I have greater proficiency and was arguably once fluent). This in effect means removing the “German CD”, replacing it with the (somewhat scratched!) “Spanish CD”, and then hoping that works for Italian!  Similarly, if reading or overhearing Dutch, Afrikaans or even Danish, I will switch back to the “German CD”, as it is the nearest of the languages I really know. Broadly, therefore, to access a Germanic language I will go via German, and to access a Latinate language I will go via Spanish (with significant French interference) – a decision which is automatic but of which I am constantly aware.

The most bizarre aspect of this is that it really does mean, at least for someone with limited talent but lots of enthusiasm like me, that the other “CD” becomes completely inaccessible. I remember arriving at Cologne “Hauptbahnhof” having driven through France after several months in Spain, to find when someone held the door open for me that I had clean forgotten the word “Danke“; I then had to walk round a sausage stall for a few minutes, almost like a substitute warming up before entering the field of play, before being confident enough to approach and place an order (a supposedly straightforward task in a language in which I was and am nominally fluent!)

That brings us neatly to the ultimate interference issue – core vocabulary. Core vocabulary – key, usually small words like “here”, “left”, “also”, “yes” and indeed “thank you” – is held in my experience (backed by some research) in a different part of the brain and thus “interference” in any direction between any language is possible at any time. Speaking to Dortmund fans before a game in Madrid, I caught myself saying “Das glaube ich también” (“I think so” in German followed by “too” in Spanish); I came across a fluent English speaker in southern Spain who nevertheless always said “” instead of “yes”; and there are many more examples.

For what it is worth, I address this problem merely by selecting the required “CD” (Spanish for Latinate-speaking areas – French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian; German for Germanic-speaking – Dutch/Afrikaans, Danish/Norwegian/Swedish) and then referring to my list of core vocabulary in advance and trying to get that as far forward in my brain as possible.

So there it is – there is interference in both vocabulary and grammar between languages in which I am less proficient, between languages which are similar and between any languages in terms specifically of core vocabulary. This can be countered to some extent by adopting the character of the language, or at least the language family, but for amateurs like me it is like needing the right CD in the drive. As ever, the real lesson here is that with the right links competence in a vast array of languages is possible – but beware anyone claiming mass fluency! It’s much tougher – and more fun – than that!

I am running a course as Queen’s University, Belfast, touching on some of these issues in the autumn. 

“How many languages do you speak?”

In the same way an astronomer hates being asked how many planets there are in the Milky Way, a linguist hates being asked how many languages they speak. It is one of those questions which seems straightforward, but is in fact nightmarishly complicated.

Let us even leave aside the really tricky question of “What is a language?” and focus solely on national languages in Western Europe. How many does anyone speak?

Personally, I speak only one language natively, namely (British) English. English is of course an oddity in Western Europe because, as a fundamentally West Germanic language with a dramatic French-Latin overlay, it has no obvious sister language. Whereas anyone who can read Danish will have a reasonable chance also with reading Norwegian, or anyone who can read Spanish with Portuguese, there is no such partner for English. So native proficiency in English gives you English and, realistically, nothing else – a total of one.

I studied Germanic Linguistics, lived in Germany briefly both as a child and a student, and visit German-speaking Europe annually. Thus, I speak German fluently and with a reasonably native accent – but definitely not to a level of native proficiency. Most German speakers take me to be Dutch (as Dutch is closely related and Dutch people all seem to speak everything!), but almost never mistake me for German. This means I can speak and write grammatically accurately (and generally, but probably not always, idiomatically), and I can read and understand more or less anything proficiently (although, as with anything, if the topic is unfamiliar there can be problems). Notably, I find things that happen in German easier to explain in German, and I occasionally dream in German – some people’s definition of fluency. But I am most certainly not native – so still only one native, but let us say two fluent.

Now it gets really tricky. As a minor subject I studied Spanish, which meant I lived with a family in Andalusia for five months. Immersion is the best way to learn a language in the sense of coming to understand and speak it reasonably fluently, so I certainly was fluent in spoken Spanish (even reasonably colloquially, at least at the time). However, I read very little and my writing would no doubt still have been littered, even after the five months, with minor grammatical errors (notably, mistakes around things like prepositions which may be glossed over or just mumbled in speech, or choice of wrong tense, or the odd wrong gender). I have visited Spain only very infrequently this century, and continue to read very little Spanish, hence my use of the past tense with reference to my former relative spoken fluency. A bit of time back in Spain or Latin America would no doubt help, but it takes me a while to tune in (even, say, for series like Narcos) and even then I by no means pick up every word. So I was never as fluent even in speech as I was in German, it is arguable whether I was ever fluent in writing, and I am only getting rustler. How do you count that one? Not native (so, still one), not really fluent (so, still two), let us call it broadly “proficient”?

Then there is French, and now it gets very confusing! I never stayed with a French family (nor indeed in France) for more than two weeks, but I did study the language to A-Level, and in a subsequent course. Thus, I definitely find it easier to write French accurately than Spanish, but almost impossible to speak it at all idiomatically (far less colloquially). My technical vocabulary is probably greater in French than Spanish, but some more basic household words are probably missing in French but not in Spanish. Of course French, even at the best of times, is extraordinarily difficult for foreigners to pronounce! So, is my French better than Spanish? In some ways yes; in others, no. I would say that, overall, my Spanish is marginally better, but it is hard to calculate. So let us cop out and call it “proficient” too.

Now, the real chaos starts. As a fluent speaker of German with a degree in Linguistics, I find another West Germanic language like Dutch (and Afrikaans, but let us stay in Europe) relatively easy to read, and in many contexts also to understand. I have glanced at a few “Teach Yourself” books, so would have some written and spoken proficiency, given German gives you such a head start anyway. Of course, opportunities for use are scarce, given the vast majority of Dutch and Flemings speak fluent English (and often German). So where on earth does that fit? Er… “limited proficiency”?

Then, as a proficient speaker of Spanish and maybe French, there is an obvious window to Italian and Portuguese. I now visit Italy relatively frequently, find I can get by for everything from ordering meals to discussing football, and have attained a government qualification in it online; however, there are still major gaps in vocabulary (which I often just have to guess) and grammar (I am fine in the present tense but past and future are a little trickier). I used to visit Portugal and find Portuguese easier to read (it looks closer to Spanish than Italian) but harder to understand (it has a certain slushing sound which means “tuning in” for someone familiar with Spanish takes a while longer than it does with Italian – oddly, I find this a particular difficulty with European Portuguese, but less so with Brazilian). I would claim, therefore, what we may call “limited proficiency” in Italian, but would currently claim nothing for Portuguese aside from the potential to attain it some time.

Then, there is Scandinavian. Scandinavian languages are Germanic, but the split with German/Dutch happened even earlier than it did in the case of English. They still look more like German not only because they did not have the French-Latin overlay that English had, but also because they did have a German-Dutch overlay (mainly technical trading and transport terms in the late Middle Ages from “Low German”, a West Germanic variety somewhere in between the speech of Vienna and Amsterdam). I have had the opportunity to visit the Nordic countries regularly, particularly Denmark, both for business and pleasure, over the past decade. As in the Netherlands and Belgium, it is impossible to practise the spoken language (as the locals all speak English). However, as a regular reader of Danish in newspapers and websites I do have some reading proficiency, which vaguely applies also to Swedish, and even some written ability, but almost no spoken capability whatsoever (like French, Danish is in any case notoriously difficult to pronounce). So, er… let us not claim those at all, but no doubt some would!

How many languages to I speak? No idea. But three thoughts:

  • just like anyone can learn to drive a car, anyone can learn a language given determination and the right links/tools;
  • beware of some of the outlandish claims some people about the number of languages they really speak; and
  • if you do embark on a linguistic journey yourself, recognise that the quest for perfection will never truly be fulfilled but is very, very addictive!

Vocabulary and the mysterious subconscious

I hate vocabulary lists.

One of the many reasons is that the brain does not function on a one-to-one basis, and indeed words are generally found lurking in the brain without conscious thought.

An extreme example: I arrived five years ago one lunchtime at Hamburg Central Station for a stag night. This meant that I had to find somewhere to put my case, knowing that it would probably be 24 hours before I saw it again.

Being a keen rather than talented linguist, I find I have consciously to switch language when arriving in German-speaking Europe, but as I walked towards the information point I had determined (in German, insofar as you “think” in any particular language) that I did not have the word for “locker”.

So I resolved to ask the gentleman at the info point:

  • Gibt es hier in der Nähe irgendwo, wo ich meinen Koffer lassen kann?”
  • “Is there somewhere nearby where I can leave my case?”

This is in many ways the fundamental skill of linguists. It is not that they know the word for everything, but that they have enough of the language to get around any such problems. (This actually applies in any individual language – there is a body of evidences which suggests educated English speakers are not so much better spellers than uneducated English speakers, but better at finding ways to avoid the word they cannot spell without affecting comprehension.)

So I approached the gentleman and said:

  • Wo sind die Schließfächer?
  • “Where are the lockers?”

Wait. Where did that come from?!

Consciously I was fully resolved to say the first sentence, not knowing the word for “locker”; and yet what actually came out was the second sentence, containing the word “Schließfach”, “locker”, in its plural form.

Evidently somewhere, in my brain’s hard drive on a file I had consciously ignored but which was subconsciously somehow available, I did in fact have the German word for “locker”. It was almost as if my brain had performed a reverse-definition function – that by determining how I would define what I was looking for, the brain then presented me with the headword.

This case is prominent in my recollection because it was so bizarre – it was the one time I remember clearly determining to say one thing and then saying another! However, it was an example of how language works – we do not spend a lot of time thinking about which words we use, we just operate from the store.

This is yet another reason I vehemently dislike vocabulary lists! Put them in a Schließfach and throw away the key…

Ulster Scots will never cum on, an aye claucht tae the Airis

The Depairtment Cultur in Norlin Airlan is cam tae the view, at the oncum o the Ulster-Scots tongue wad lyk be best taen awa frae it. Wha nou coud “beir the gree for aa that”?!

Coud it be, but, at the mukkil problem here isna whaur the oncum o the tongue gaes on, but whit hit bes ettilt at?

Thar a notion, at the oncum o Ulster Scots wad aye be ettilt at the ae thing as the Airis. In Norlin Airlan, aabodie kens richtlie, hou this wad be! But thar nae pynt tae siclyk. Ulster Scots isna the lyk thing, an haesna the lyk things nott for its oncum (for a wheen reasons, as kythes on this steid an ithergaets).

An aye claucht tae the Airis, Ulster Scots will lyk juist win tae naewhaur. Thar ither, better ensaumpils athort Europe o whit Ulster Scots soud be ettilt at. Laich Saxon, Swiss German, ein Catalan an ithers shaws a road, at wad ansuer tae Ulster Scots (an Scots aagaets) – tongues, as bes the lyk o the staundart langage, as fowk forordinar taaks mair nor wryts, an as wis aince richtlie unner threit.

An thinkan mair on whitwey fowk coud mak uiss o the tongue (for ensaumpil in new music or leiteratur), mair fowk wad tak a interest – an no sae monie wad fash thairsels, anent wad it be a langage in its ain richt or no!

A langsom collogue anent “status” an whitwey Ulster Scots gets on agin the Airis is nae road foerairts. It is tym for a chynge in our wey o gaein. We maun wirk thenou for the guid o the tongue, an it leivan yet.

Hae yeirsels a braw Burns Nicht!

The meaning of “to see”

I have written many times before of the need to throw away vocabulary lists when learning languages. Languages do not consist of sequences of words on lists which translate exactly to each other; but rather they consist of words and combinations which have a range of meanings depending on context. That range varies significantly (as explained in the linked article). The consequence of this is that our language learning becomes stilted, and the target language seems to be nothing more than a type of formula to be dryly learned consecutively as we go through a school textbook, rather than a real living means of communicating things, ideas and feelings.

To which you may respond: “Oh, I see.”

Which is interesting, because what, precisely, do you see?

To pursue this further, we are taught that in French “I see” is “Je vois”, but you could not possibly respond to the above with “Je vois”! Genuine misunderstanding would inevitably ensue, as the French speaker demanding to know exactly what it is that falls within your line of vision!

By the way, why do I appear to me putting random words in italics? Sequence, consequence, consecutive, pursue and ensue are among many words in the English language which derive ultimately from the Latin sequor “I follow”, either more or less directly in the first three cases (and indeed absolutely directly in the legal/logical term non sequitur), or via French in the latter two (modern French has suivre).

What has this to do with see? Well, see ultimately shares the same Indo-European origin as sequor, and therefore has the fundamental meaning of “follow”. It was only later than Germanic languages came to assign the more specific meaning in most contexts of “follow, with the eyes”.

Do you see now?!

Stop it, for the sake of you and me!

There is an advert on the television at the moment that uses the term “to you and I”.

Every day I see some similar phrase: “to you and I”, “from you and I”, “between you and I”, even “between him and I”.


It is “to me” and “from me“, so why on earth would it be “to you and I“?

English uses the oblique pronoun (“me, him, her, us, them”) as a general object form, including universally after prepositions (“from, to, of, between” etc).

The direct personal pronoun forms (“I, he, she, we, they”) are only ever used as the subject of the sentence.

The confusion arises around “you”, whose direct and oblique forms are identical in Modern English. That does not excuse such grammatical carnage.

The rule is incredibly simple. So let us keep it that way, eh? For the sake of you and me… and us and them…


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