How to learn languages – General

This list of vocabulary items proved popular among a number of correspondents.


So I intend to run a trial series on Fridays on how best to learn other Western European languages – please participate (and correct me where appropriate)!

The idea is to give an absolutely basic grounding, from which you can develop knowledge in the ways I have suggested in the past. Remember, motivation is essential!

Here is one absolute essential: the trick to speaking a language is not to know everything, but to get around what you do not know. That is what this is about!


To speak any language, you will of course need to know how it is pronounced. You need only the basics to start with – most consonants are pronounced the same way in any language, so you will need to know the vowels, probably the diphthongs (two vowels pronounced together), and perhaps some awkward consonant clusters (consonants appearing together).

Over time, it pays to mimic the rhythm and intonation of the target language. To speak Italian like a Cockney or French with an Ulster accent is like trying to learn the words of a song without the tune. You will never get it absolutely perfect, but you want to get to the stage where you are not immediately identifiable as an English speaker (not least because that makes it hard to practise if the other person knows, or thinks they know, English).

As a quick tip: not all letters are entirely individual. Many are actually closely related to each other, and this can have an impact on how they change from language to language. For example, pairs such as /b/ and /p/, /v/ and /f/, /g/ and /k/ or /z/ and /s/ are in each case voiced and voiceless versions of what is otherwise the same letter; some languages may distinguish them, others may not.


Standardisation is an essential part of this – each modern Western European national language has a written standard. Such standards have developed in different ways – some gradually through time through constant updating, some based on deliberately conservative usage of a particular geographical dialect, some as deliberate mergers of dialects. Exactly how deliberately standards were developed and how widely accepted they are varies from case to case – but knowing something about how a standard developed will always help guide a learner to a general understanding of the interconnection between the spoken and written language. (Of course, some learners may specifically wish to focus on specifically on spoken or specifically on written – a decision worth making at the outset.)


Firstly, you will want to have a basic idea where most of the vocabulary comes from. This is often quite easy – most Italian words come from Latin. However, it can be tricky – English is a Germanic language, yet much of its vocabulary is directly or indirectly from Latin. Knowing this means you can take a reasonable guess even at vocabulary you do not know (remember – the trick is to get around what you do not know).

Secondly, you will want a reasonable list of pronouns/determiners (including articles) and prepositions – in English, such words include ‘that’, ‘the’ and ‘to’. Such words do not directly translate from language to language (remember, no vocabulary does!!), but it is absolutely necessary at least to recognise many of them at the outset, and then begin to use them by mimicking the patterns you hear.

Thirdly, you will want the above list. What is it? It is a list of what I have found to be “core vocabulary”; words which are essential to saying things. Remember, again, the key is to “work around” what we do not know – for example, we do not need to know the word ‘often’, provided we can say ‘nearly always’ or ‘sometimes’. The above list is the ultimate “work around”!


Unfortunately, you cannot get anywhere without grammar. This is often dreaded because it tends to be taught in too much detail. To start with, you need only the basics (and to know which quirks to watch out for); the detail can come freely once you are using the language.

Firstly, you will want to know how nouns work – they or the words around them may or may not be marked for number (in English, singular or plural), gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) or case (in English, direct ‘they’ versus oblique ‘them’; many languages have far more than this).

Secondly, you will want to know how verbs work – they may or may not be marked for (or supported by other words to mark) tense (in English, past or present), aspect (whether ongoing and/or relevant, e.g. ‘I have been’, ‘I am being’) or to “agree” with the subject (‘I like’, ‘she likes‘). They may also be marked directly for mood (in English, indicative or subjunctive) or voice (active or passive).

It is worth noting that tense is a peculiarly Indo-European thing; languages around the world often have verbal systems which indicate the evidential basis of the action (whether I felt it; saw it; heard about it first-hand; heard about it from other sources; etc), and some have no concept of time within their structure or vocabulary whatsoever. The comparative obsession with tense is itself a relatively recent innovation within Indo-European – originally, the focus was more on mood and aspect (essentially on relevance rather than particularly time).

Thirdly, you may want to know how adjectives work – they may or may not “agree” with nouns; and they may or may not take the same form as adverbs.

Fourthly, you will want to know at least basically how clauses are structured, including the main word order (English generally is “SVO” – subject, verb, object), negation, and connecting words (‘He came but you stayed’, ‘I like that she was here’, etc).

There will also be other particles to deal with – how to link things together, express questions or exclamations, and so on.

This seems like a lot, but you can do it in stages – work out how nouns work, then verbs (and put those together), then adjectives (and add those in), and then structure, picking up the particles as you go along.


Character? I think knowing a language’s character before you begin is as relevant as anything.

Firstly, you want to know the background to the language. Where does it come from? What influences are contained within it? For example, English is a Germanic language heavily influenced by Norman French, marked also by a significant sound shift from around 1350-1600. Knowing this means you can make sense of why the vocabulary is the way it is (with basic words generally Germanic, and high culture words French or Latin), why the spelling appears so odd, and even to some extent why the grammatical structure is relatively simple.

Secondly, you may want to know generally whether the language is predominantly nominal or verbal – in other words, does it build clauses predominantly around nouns (facts) or verbs (actions)? This is general, and no language is absolutely one way or the other, but knowing this gives you a real feeling for how the language is used.

Thirdly, languages are not standalone things – they are products of a culture. You will need to learn something about the character of those who speak them too. (However, steer clear of stereotypes, which are often unfair and unhelpful!)

What now?

So, let us try this with a few languages over the next few Fridays – we will go back in time to start with, to touch on this final “character” point (and also make us realise how lucky we are that languages simplify over time). Then we will try some modern Western European languages.

MLAs’ curious lack of curiosity


This is a German word without obvious translation, but it is always the first word which comes to my mind when I think of Stormont. It means really “idea-less” in the sense of “lacking in things (ideas) occurring to you”; perhaps “lacking in creativity” would cover it in some circumstances.

I was reminded of this by one correspondent over Christmas, who remarked how he found so many MLAs “lacking in curiosity” (his term).

Indeed, I spoke to a German interpreter who worked with a delegation from the German State of Baden-Württemberg to the Assembly, who remarked to me that MLAs did not ask their visitors a single thing about where they were from. Baden-Württemberg, a diverse State (a third of the population of its largest city, Stuttgart, have no German passport) with among the very highest living standards in Europe on the back of a flourishing economy (think Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and countless companies in areas from pharmaceuticals to accounting), is apparently of no interest whatsoever to us. It subsequently elected a Green First Minister, the first in Europe, for the record.

This lack of curiosity, tied to a lack of creativity and basic ideas, is deeply troubling. Frankly, we should not be electing people who are not interested. The penalty is isolation and parochialism, leading inevitably to standards of policy-making, legislation and governance which fall well below the best globally.

We always expect the rest of the world to be curious about us. It is time we were led by people who were curious about the rest of the world – einfallsreich, perhaps!

DUP/SF simply unable and unwilling to govern properly

A snowball is now rolling within the Northern Ireland Executive which means that, seemingly, without a blatant climbdown by one party or the other the Executive will fall, necessitating elections.

Such elections would be utterly pointless of course because, assuming they returned roughly the same Assembly as in May, all the problems at the root of the Executive’s trials would remain. (A few more would be created too – the “convenient” Justice Minister which saved the Executive from an immediate collapse after the last election would probably lose her seat, for example.)

No, at the heart of this, just over half a year in, is the simple fact that the people of Northern Ireland elected into government two parties who are incapable of and uninterested in governing.

People therefore lose give up on “politics”, but actually we should know better than anyone that the choice is between politics and violence. Politics therefore has to be made to work. There is a cost – in drugs unfunded, operations missed and schools unresourced – for having unable and uninterested people in government.

The fact is you could almost pick ten people at random off the street and they would provide a more competent government than the Executive we have (the one we elected). At least some of them would have a basic ability to get on with each other.

The DUP’s story is, of course, not straight. Low level issues concerning the recipients of office rent and maintenance contract have now become huge public interest stories of public money shuffled through mysterious incompetence to people who, some might say suggest, just happen to fit the stereotype of a typical DUP supporter. Claims there is only one letter, or that there were no meetings, or that there was SpAd interference, are soon disproved. British libel laws are blocked by a purportedly British party and the free press attacked for doing its job. Meanwhile the party professes to stay loyal to a Leader whose Ministerial career has consisted of one error or oversight after another, as so eloquently outlined by the Green Party leader on the Assembly floor before Christmas. That Leader is of course capable of absolutely no charity to her coalition partners, literally from Day One talking up the past and even before Day One suggesting she had to remain Finance Minister while her colleagues played hokey-cokey because Nationalists as an entire group could not be trusted with the purse strings (what goes around comes around, it turns out…)

Not that Sinn Féin is an innocent party by any means. It has had the chance to deliver on key issues for it such as an Irish Language act but failed due to ludicrous overreaching; it too has gone against Business Cases (e.g. the movement of an entire Department to Ballykelly is against advice); it has then shown itself confused about what a public inquiry is and how it works (the ludicrous notion that the politically appointed Attorney General would have anything to do with making appointments to an independent inquiry, for example, shows basic ignorance of the legal system and an unwillingness to become informed even when this is pointed out); and then it too has lashed out at the media merely for pointing out inconsistencies in exactly what its demands are. Meanwhile the left hand is unclear what the right hand is doing, and its Finance Minister denies any involvement in the scandal despite plainly knowing about it since before a Committee meeting in early October and holding an office through which he could act to limit the damage.

Fundamentally, if the DUP and Sinn Féin cannot work together, then they have no business going to the electorate pretending they can and then just hobbling from crisis to crisis. No matter how good they are at populism, the fact that elections could even be spoken of only eight months after the last ones shows how utterly useless they are at democratic government.

After all, it does not take a genius to see that, in a democracy, when things go wrong you have a proper independent inquiry into who was responsible and what can be learned. So why is the Executive set against this obvious course of action?

They are not only useless, but they evidently also have something to hide, just as they hide their donors. The notion of pointless elections should not deflect us from that key point.

Oh, and always remember. Pride comes before a fall.

Never Waste a Crisis (I) – Opposition

Tuesdays on this blog were taken up almost entirely by the EU Referendum and its consequences in 2016, but there is a more local crisis now in the form of the scandal over the removal of Cost Controls and failure to implement proper Reviews around the Renewable Heating Incentive Scheme from 2012.

Past guest blogger Richard Price will take us through five points over the next five Tuesdays on how he would use this crisis to reform the institutions and make them work more effectively.

In 1976, a medical doctor, M.F. Weiner, published an article in the journal Medical Economics titled “Don’t Waste a Crisis — Your Patient’s or Your Own.” In it, he encouraged his colleagues to consider how a medical crisis can be used to improve aspects of personality, mental health, or lifestyle.

In its still comparatively fledgling status, Stormont cannot afford to let the opportunities for improvement posed by a crisis, such as the Renewable Heating Incentive scandal, go to waste. There’s been quite enough waste already.

What opportunities for improvement are posed? I submit 5 suggestions for discussion. Readers will have more of their own. Please be sure to suggest those in the comments section below.

The first opportunity for improvement posed by the RHI scandal is to…

  • Coordinate the opposition in a formal and structured manner

The renewable heating incentive scandal was quite a test for the new opposition structures at Stormont. It was also a necessary test. Voters, and indeed some still-nervous party insiders, needed to see, smell and taste the strong public value of a well-functioning opposition system, doing its job of scrutiny.

It was a test that the opposition largely met.

On the first level, each opposition party delivered its own valuable forms of critique on the matter, conducted their own forms of investigation and provided important varying spokesmanship on the topic both in the Assembly chamber, and more widely. Each new line of attack, each new form of enquiry, helped to generate new heat, as well some light, upon the matter.

Secondly, there were clear signs of coordination and cooperation across party lines, from the jointly submitted motion to exclude the First Minister from office, to the shared (and justified) haranguing of the speaker and walkout from the chamber.

The need for such coordination cannot be over-emphasised. There are six parties represented in Stormont, but not participating in the Executive. There is an ever-present risk of the opposition allowing itself to appear divided, duplicating scrutiny efforts, avoidably stepping on each other’s toes, scrambling for limelight in an undignified manner, squabbling and falling into all manner of other bear-traps native to the party politics landscape.

Arguably the public outrage on #RHI helped to force cooperation. However, this context cannot be guaranteed in future.

The first opportunity for improvement posed by the Renewable Heating Incentive scandal is, while the soil is still fertile for it, put in place formal structures for coordinating all of the opposition in Stormont.

One vehicle for this could be a cross-party opposition coordination committee. This might meet once a week to coordinate opposition activity, assign remits across party lines, generally provide a forum for determining how to enhance the status of Stormont opposition, and establish trust between the opposition parties. This latter aspect is all the more important if the promise of “offering the voter a choice of an alternative” at Assembly Elections is to ever be offered. Seeing that parties can work together well in opposition will breed confidence they may be able to do so in Government.

From an opposition perspective, a potentially under-reported aspect of RHI is, why did no MLAs from other parties, bar perhaps Steven Agnew, pick up on the scheme’s failings earlier?

For now, some (admittedly poor) level of excuse can be provided in that the SDLP, UUP and Alliance were all in the Executive at the time of its introduction, and so were not working full time on opposition scrutiny as is the case today. Such failure to conduct scrutiny may be less forgiven in future. An opposition coordination committee/working group can ensure every line of every Executive regulation and proposed programme gets the intense glare of critical examination it merits, by sharing out the roles in an effective manner.

Or in short, the forensic talents of Jim Allister, Steven Agnew and People Before Profit, are too good for Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood to waste. Work together folks, on a long term and structured basis. It doesn’t compromise the separate offers each party makes to the public in respect to policy priority, but does ensure the current wielders of power know all that they do is being watched.

Finally, there are still major deficiencies in the way Stormont opposition functions. Privileges and tools for opposition usually accorded in other legislatures, are still lacking. While the public will not have a great deal of patience for endless whining about process, all 6 parties should prioritise their joint demands for improvement, and ensure all avenues for enhancing how they can conduct their scrutiny role, are identified and pursued.

RHI showed that the opposition parties can work together. Now to ensure that is sustained.

World in 2016 is a great place

Global poverty (i.e. subsisting on under what, in 1980, was $1/day) has halved since 1980.

In that time, the total extent of human knowledge has risen over 350-fold.

For the first time ever, the majority of the world’s population lives in a democracy.

More people have access to healthcare, welfare and information than at any time in history.

People live longer in every part of the world than they ever have; not least because road fatality rates have halved this century and people are less likely to be victim of a violent death than ever before. (It’s an extreme case, but in 1972 there were 480 violent deaths in Northern Ireland; in 2016 there have been 15.)

Scientific endeavour is eradicating diseases, delivering improved medicines, and uncovering aspects of the universe around us which move us closer to answering the ultimate question of whether we are alone.

People are freer, healthier and more educated than at any time in human history.

Just some thoughts about how bad things are in 2016…

Happy New Year.




2017 – Twenty seventeen

A notable feature of confusion in the English language over the past generation or more has been the pronunciation of years in the 21st century. Did the London Olympics occur in twenty-twelve or two-thousand-and-twelve?!

Interestingly, there is less doubt as to the long-term answer to this than the short-term. In the short term, the tendency was to carry over the tendency from the first decade of referring to, for example, the Beijing Olympics of “two thousand and eight”. Thus, even the Rio Games were, for some, in “two thousand and sixteen”. There is a certain logic to this – “2016” is so pronounced otherwise, and most other languages of which we are aware (admittedly those more distant linguistic cousins of Latin rather than Germanic origin) make no distinction between the pronunciation of years and the pronunciation of numbers in general.

However, the long term trend in English is towards first two digits followed by final two digits pronounced as separate numbers. This year will, a generation from now, always be pronounced “twenty sixteen”. This tendency will work backwards too; 2012 will almost certainly come universally to be “twenty twelve” within the next few years. In fact it is not impossible that, in the second half of this century when it is out of living memory for most, even 2008 will come to be “twenty oh eight”, although this is less predictable.

The same did not quite apply in the 20th century, but there is a slight parallel. At the time, the years of the Edwardian era were lengthened by many speakers so that, for example, by maternal grandfather was born in what was often pronounced at the time as “nineteen hundred and six”, even occasionally “nineteen and six”. It was only later that “nineteen oh six” became universal.

Perhaps because of the extra syllable, next year will come even in its own time to be almost universally “twenty seventeen”, and it is this which will see previous years gradually re-pronounced by analogy (a significant aspect of linguistic change which is still very much apparent).

So, Happy New Year and wishing readers a very prosperous twenty seventeen!


HIV, the DUP, and why Liberals lose

A DUP MLA earlier this month gained headlines for the admission that he had not realised, when first elected, that heterosexual people could get HIV.

This was leapt upon by various Liberals on social media, mocking his (past) ignorance.

And this is precisely why Liberals lose elections and referendums with frightening regularity.

In principle, what happened here was a man admitted that he had not known something, and that once he had been informed he used his new knowledge to adapt his position – in fact, to a more broadly Liberal one.

If, every time someone admits an error and adopts a more Liberal position in rectifying it, Liberals jump on that person’s past ignorance rather than current courage, then how exactly will they ever persuade anyone to their perspective ever again? What is the point in switching to a more Liberal position if Liberals yell at you either way?

Of course, the other problem is that they then miss the real issue. The DUP MLA rather spoiled the whole thing by saying effectively that he was only supporting people with HIV because some of them are heterosexual. The logical progression of that would seem to suggest that he is still an unreconstructed homophobic bigot. But Liberals were so busy calling him names about his past ignorance on health matters, they actually (with some exceptions) missed the potentially relevant bit.

And yet even there, he same MLA did not stand in the way of a pardon for past homosexual offences the same week, a significant advance on his and his party’s previous position. If Liberals in Northern Ireland would like an advance in other areas – for example turning the Assembly majority for same-sex marriage into actual legislation by the end of this decade – then it is the DUP’s support or at least effective neutrality they will need. The evidence now is that this is possible. So perhaps it is worth asking what needs to be done, and not done, to achieve that further advance?

There is more to changing society than joining a self-congratulatory mob to yell at people you don’t like online, even where we have genuine reason to dislike someone on the basis of their stance. People on all sides need to realise that quickly.

A resolution for 2017. By all means educate. But never humiliate. 

Where would we be without the BBC?

One very specific question about the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal stands out for me above all others.

When exactly did the Executive start trying to find ways to limit the cost over the next 20 years?

There is an obvious problem about the Economy Minister’s sudden interest in the issue (as opposed to trying in effect to bribe airlines to fly from Belfast to New York with our money) and the Finance Minister’s sudden interest in being as his desk (as opposed to in the United States, perhaps using the aforementioned route). It appears they only became interested in saving some of the £485-£600m (they do not even agree the sum) within the past month, despite having been in office for fully six months beforehand.

There is no public evidence whatsoever that the Executive – the First Minister, Finance Minister or Economy Minister – were going to do a thing to restrict the cost to us of the Renewable Heat Incentive failings until within the past month. This is despite the fact they clearly each knew about it.

Why their sudden interest, now, in actually doing something? The BBC Spotlight documentary which uncovered the scale of the problem, the definite incompetence and the potential corruption.

Thank goodness for a free, impartial and well resourced media. Without it, the scandal may never have been uncovered and the price would have been paid by each one of us. But we should not forget the other scandal – but for the BBC raising the issue, the current Executive was going to do nothing about it, despite three Ministers knowing all the details.

Yet another reason we should cherish the BBC, but change the Executive…

UK has never been “independent”

2017 will of course be an interesting year because the UK will start along the road to what the victors in June’s referendum often describe as “independence”. Thousands of miles away, Jamaica will likely choose to join other Commonwealth Realms in the Caribbean in a move towards a Republic. The two are linked interestingly.

Leavers tend to omit the point that, on their own terms, the UK has never been independent. In the 17th century, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands became the first English colonies – and they were English, not British, because the UK did not exist yet.

The Union, in its various forms, therefore always relied on free trade. This was, of course, usually on its own terms as an imperial power, as crucial raw supplies were brought in, typically under protection of the Royal Navy, from the Americas, the Middle East, South Asia, the Far East and Australasia.

Decolonisation after World War Two saw the British recognise that they still needed free trade and supplies of what they themselves could not produce to prosper, but they could no longer do it on their own imperial terms, and thus doing it from great distance became rather pointless. They were not alone – countries such as France, Belgium and Portugal faced the same reality just as Spain had already faced it. Thus, in trading terms, the faraway Empire was swapped by necessity, but absolutely consciously, for the European Economic Community by the UK and other European (former) powers. It was this Community which, collectively, allowed them to continue to trade with the rest of the world while still largely dictating the terms, all while allowing for the adjustment to nearer trade between European powers of roughly equal economic size and living standards.

Put simply, some time between 1956 (Suez) and 1972 (European Communities Act), the UK got around to making the only realistic adjustment available to it. During those wilderness years, living standards in the UK slipped from the highest in Europe to the sick man of Europe but, backed by its new economic might within the European Community/Union from 1973, it saw per-capita income grow faster than any other major comparative (G7) economy. The UK swapped, by necessity, “imperialism” for “interdependence” – and it in fact proved rather good at the latter.

The UK, as an entity, has thus either been “imperial” or “interdependent”. It has never been “independent” – recognising always that this would be a rather foolish status for a soggy peripheral island with almost no natural resources and limited land area.

So, this “independence” lark could be intriguing, because the Union as we know it has never before experienced it. Only one thing is for sure – those hoping to “take back” something will be disappointed.

Distinction between Executive and Legislature must not be fudged

I was joined on BBC Talkback during the week by Professor Rick Wilford, who perhaps made the most important point of the whole Renewable Heat Incentive crisis – it is essential to distinguish between the Executive and the Legislature (Assembly).

We have not been inclined to do this properly in the past because the same parties have made up both. However, the distinction is essential.

The Executive consists of Ministers who, to quote the current First Minister, “decide”. The Ministers decide on policy programmes and individual policies, and on legislative priorities and individual laws and regulations. This is central to democracy, because Ministers are accountable to the electorate and thus responsible for the outcomes of what they “decide”.

The legislature, in the case of Northern Ireland, consists of MLAs, who “scrutinise”. They do this primarily through committees aligned to each Ministry, though also in plenary session. It would of course be impossible for MLAs to be across every detail, not least because even when they ask for that detail they are not always given it by Ministers who recognise they are accountable and may not wish to be too closely challenged. Realistically, the best MLAs can do is assess the broad policy direction of the Executive versus stated objectives, and then ask why stated objectives are not being met. That is why again it is for Ministers specifically, with all information open to them, that (again to quote the current First Minister) “detail matters”.

It is worth noting in this case that MLAs were told, from 2012, that the scheme had to be different in Northern Ireland due to consultants’ advice on the state of renewables in Northern Ireland; (implicitly) that any financial risk would be reviewed annually and met by the Treasury (explicitly they were told “parity would not be affected”, which in context has this meaning and was indeed what civil servants advising believed); and that the scheme was largely (actually 98%) the same. Notably, there were MLAs at this time raising concerns about the quality of general advice in such areas given the absence in NI of an independent Environmental Protection Agency (uniquely in the UK); and when one MLA (Steven Agnew) raised a specific concern in a Written Question about the exact nature of the incentive in September 2013 the Minister, frankly, fobbed him off in response. So actually MLAs did raise general and even specific concerns – they did their job as scrutinisers and continue to do so now (for example through the Public Accounts Committee).

Where it went wrong was at Ministerial level, the level at which the Minister looks at the detail and decides. The detail told the Minister that the removal of cost controls meant there was a perverse incentive, though this would be reviewed annually. The detail told the Minister that the funding was not in fact subject to Annually Managed Expenditure (the type to which “parity” is relevant) and any risk was therefore to be met from Northern Ireland’s devolved budget. And the detail told the Minister that her advice was in any case flawed, as it was not sufficiently independent (and subsequently not sufficiently regular, as she failed to ensure the annual reviews actually took place).

In other words, it is the Minister who needs to recognise that “detail matters” and the Minister who “decides”, and this Minister decided to implement a flawed scheme and fund it from the devolved budget excluding cost controls without reviewing it regularly. Thus it is the Minister alone who is to be held responsible for the consequences of ignoring the detail and making poor decisions.

The Executive is thus responsible for decisions such as moving a Department against the Business Case, continuing to train too many teachers in segregated institutions, overspending on the Social Investment Fund, announcing an Air Ambulance without sufficient medical staffing and so on (over and above this latest scandal and others) – financial waste which means cancer drugs go unfunded, further education courses are cut and crucial youth intervention programmes are slashed.

Ultimately who is to blame? Well, unfortunately, the electorate. It was the voters who returned this Executive. Those who want competent government can only hope they choose more carefully next time…

Wishing all readers, no matter how they voted or even if they didn’t, a very merry Christmas.