Category Archives: Language learning

by

The Anglophone Millstone

sprechen

I’ve owned up in an earlier post to the rather disgraceful fact that I can’t speak German despite having once spent 18 months living in Germany. I know how to to produce the sounds of German accurately; I can read the language aloud from a text, and pronounce everything correctly — I just draw a blank on most of what the text means.

I have the necessary motivation. A key determinant of success at learning a language is the degree to which you like the speakers and want to interact with them and…

by

Babble, Brabbeln, Babiller, Balbettare

firstwordsI’ve spent the last month babbling. I like that word, babble. It’s what babies do before they “really” talk. It’s also the sound of water running over rocks. Apparently it is not related etymologically to Babel, the Hebrew word for Babylon, now known for the infamous tower whose builders were punished with the sudden eruption of mutually unintelligible languages.

I’ve been babbling because I have a purely fanciful desire to speak the major European languages, and my monthlong trip to Corsica a…

by

The World’s Best Philosopher of Linguistics

Yesterday while tidying my study I discovered something shocking: The world’s most brilliant, insightful, and prescient philosopher of linguistics died four months ago, and I didn’t know.

putnam

I was unwell in March, recovering from minor but painful surgery. Popping opiates like M&M’s, I would fall asleep while reading, and then lie awake in pain all night (my heart still aching from Tricia’s recent death). Yesterday I shifted a pile of papers and uncovered the March 26 issue of The Economist, open …

by

Colonialism in U.S. Spanish Departments

Las_Meninas_01

Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas

While Las Meninas is perhaps the world’s most famous selfie, and Miguel de Cervantes’s edits on Cide Hamete Benengeli’s novel mapped metafiction centuries before it was in vogue, there’s an argument to be made that the cultures of Spain should appear considerably less in U.S. curricula. In a recent study, I found some disturbing trends: Despite efforts toward cultural democratization in the 1970s, nearly all Spanish-language departments in the United States are over…

by

Living in Latin

salvilogoIf you think Latin is a dead language, think again. Over the past few years, a growing number of “living Latinists” are breathing new life into Latin, taking it out of the classroom and into the light of day.

In February I attended  Bidua Latina, the North American Institute for Living Latin Studies’ Latin-immersion weekend. The institute, known as SALVI (see logo at left for the full name), seeks ways to make learning the language more enjoyable for students, teachers, and the general public. T…

by

The Social Consequences of Switching to English

I commented here a few months ago on the status of English as a planetwide communication medium and some aspects of the “undeserved good luck” that got it that unlikely status. “The race for global language has been run,” I said, “and like it or not, we have a winner” (see this Lingua Franca post). English continues to expand its reach, and spreads at an increasing rate; many have noted, for example, that the European Union is moving in the direction of conducting most of its business in English…

by

‘Gangsta’ Shakespeare

“It will be like catching butterflies in the dark,” a colleague of mine commented.

He was talking about my signing up to teach a course called “Shakespeare in Prison” at the Hampshire County Jail, in Northampton, Mass. It would have a total of 30 students, half inmates and half Amherst students, and focus on the sonnets and a handful of late plays, including King Lear and The Tempest.

“The endeavor is laudable but impractical,” my colleague added. “Language is an impediment. You will be di…

by

Being an Interjection

facebookemoji

Facebook was in the news last week for introducing a choice of five emoji you can use to tag a post or other online object that inspires some emotion in you. Formerly, your only recourse was the thumbs-up icon of the Like button: You could tag an item to say “Like!,” which might mean you agreed with it, you were amused by it, you were moved emotionally by it, you hope others will look at it, or any number of other things. But now, if you hover the mouse cursor over the Like button, you get a ch…

by

The Awful Chinese Writing System

biang

Is the Chinese writing system a sufficient reason on its own to guarantee that Mandarin will not become a global language like English? That’s what someone asked me after I discussed the prima facie unsuitability of English to serve as a world communication medium. And while I make no claims at all to sinological expertise, I know enough to tell you that the answer is yes. The system is a millstone round the neck of the whole sinophone world, and should have been ditched decades ago.

Don’t hold…

by

Writing in a New Language, Writing Anew

writing_systemMy admiration for the writer Jhumpa Lahiri went up a thousandfold after reading an excerpt from her new book, titled “Teach Yourself Italian,” in this week’s New Yorker. Having been trying to teach myself Italian for the past 18 months, I thought I would find a fellow voyager in Lahiri’s essay. As it turns out, Lahiri became so obsessed with the language that she moved to Italy with her family, something I’ve never contemplated doing. Wow, I thought. Then she began reading solely in Italian,…