So You Know a Linguist…

By   February 8, 2012
On behalf of all linguists, thank you Jodie!

Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking

By   February 4, 2012

Anna Wierzbicka is a Polish-Australian linguist who has extensively researched intercultural linguistics, semantics and pragmatics. I have been reading many of her books and articles for my PhD research because she is interested in how language reflects ways of living and thinking, and more specifically, how the lexicon or words of a language can provide valuable clues to understanding culture.

Linguistic relativity, better known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, has been debated for quite a while by certain researchers who argue that human thought and language are completely separate and independent. Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, is probably the most popular denier. However, Pinker was attempting to describe human thought and cognition on the basis of English alone.  Wierzbicka, among others, has rightly criticized Pinker for his views on the link between language and thought. Here are a few quotes from the introduction to her book, Understanding Cultures through their Key Words:

“To people with an intimate knowledge of two (or more) different languages and cultures, it is usually self-evident that language and patterns of thought are interlinked… Monolingual popular opinion, as well as the opinion of some cognitive scientists with little interest in languages and cultures, can be quite emphatic in their denial of the existence of such links and differences.”

“The grip of people’s native language on their thinking habits is so strong that they are no more aware of the conventions to which they are party than they are of the air they breathe; and when others try to draw attention to these conventions they may even go on with a seemingly unshakable self-assurance to deny their existence.”

“The conviction that one can understand human cognition, and human psychology in general, on the basis of English alone seems shortsighted, if not downright ethnocentric.”

The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – that language constrains thought and prevents users of a language from thinking about certain concepts – is indeed wrong. The weak version of the hypothesis, which Guy Deutscher attempted to explain in his popular article Does Your Language Shape How You Think? and his book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, is generally accepted by most linguists. Deutscher, however, insists on stating that language creates thought when in fact it may be more accurate to say that culture influences thought, which is then expressed through language. Personally, I believe that language reflects and describes ways of living and thinking, but it does not necessarily shape or determine how you live or think.

This is precisely John McWhorter’s criticism of Deutscher’s book, though I do have to disagree with his assertion that color perception as evidence of linguistic relativity is “dull.” If someone does not think cultural elaboration through the lexicon, such as the famous words for snow example, is interesting or relevant, then why does that person bother researching languages and cultures in the first place? Besides, as Wierzbicka explains, “once the principle of cultural elaboration has been established as valid on the basis of ‘boring’ examples, it can then be applied to areas whose patterning is less obvious to the naked eye.”

Here’s an interesting experiment you can try with color perception. It will be very easy to choose which square is a different color in the image below.


Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking


However, it will probably be a tiny bit harder to find which square is different in the second image. (If you’ve seen these circles before, beware that I did change the location of the different square!)


Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking


Yet the Himba of northern Namibia have the exact opposite problem. They are able to detect the different square quite easily in the second image, but took longer for the first image, because their culture, and therefore language, has a different way of categorizing shades of colors. Not every human being thinks in terms of  ROYGBIV. Because English speakers do not normally classify colors based on slightly different shades (or at least what we perceive as slightly different shades) of green in the second image, it is harder for English speakers to see it at first glance, but the absence of that word does not mean that English speakers cannot see it at all or do not have the ability to form the concept in their minds.

My native language does not have a word for Schadenfreude but I certainly know what it is and can understand the concept. The fact that German has one word for this concept and English does not simply means that the concept is perhaps more salient for users of German, but it does not mean that users of other languages cannot conceive of what it is. There are countless “untranslatable” words such as saudade, hyggelig, or litost that express the values and thoughts of the people who use these words. They provide insights into the life of the society and culture to which the language belongs. We cannot even begin to understand a different culture if we do not know the words because it is through language that culture and ways of living and thinking are expressed.


Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking


Another book by Wierzbicka I recommend, Translating Lives: Living with Two Languages and Cultures, includes the experiences of twelve Australians who speak more than one language. Their stories and their lives show how language, culture and identity cannot be separated and what it is like to live with, and between, multiple languages and cultures. For anyone who is a speaker of another language, the idea that you are a different person and that you interact with other human beings in a different way when using different languages seems a bit obvious. But most monolinguals are not aware that their worldview is shaped by their native, and only, culture and language. They tend to assume that the every human being thinks in the same way but simply uses different words for concepts, objects, ideas, etc. Even if they know a few words in another language, they believe that translations found in dictionaries are sufficient. Dictionaries may list freedom as the translation for French liberté, but are they really the same thing? How about truth and Russian pravda? Anger and Italian rabbia?

To quote Sapir: “The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.”

When I speak French, I am fully aware that I am not the same person as when I speak English. I do not interact with other French speakers in the same manner as I do with English speakers while I’m speaking English. There are certain concepts that I find easier to express in French, and yet others that do not have a strong enough emphasis or connotation for me if I use French rather than English. When I hear the word milk in English, I have a different concept of what it is compared to when I hear lait in French. I’ve explored some of these cultural differences before (Cultural Differences in Photos & Culturally Relevant Photos), but they are not limited to separate languages. There are, of course, differences among dialects of the same language. Whenever Australians say the word thongs, I picture a very different article of clothing than they do!

That is not to say that all words in a language are culture-specific. If they were, cultural differences couldn’t really be explored. Linguistic relativity is actually combined with linguistic universality. Wierzbicka is also the lead researcher on Natural Semantic Metalanguage, an approach to cultural analysis that is based on the idea that there are, in fact, a few universal meanings expressed by words (semantic primes) shared by all human languages and that using these primes can help eliminate cross-cultural miscommunication. Listen to/read her interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for more information.

I’d love to hear your opinions on this! Do you believe that how we speak shapes how we think OR that how we think shapes how we speak? Or are language and thought so interlinked that we cannot separate them?

Happy Australia Day!

By   January 25, 2012

Happy Australia Day to my Aussie friends!

Australia Day commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. The Commonwealth of Australia was officially formed on January 1, 1901, when the colonies federated but this date is not widely known as Commonwealth Day since it is already a public holiday (New Year’s Day) and Australia Day had already been established on January 26.

Though it does not celebrate independence from Britain after a bloody war as the American national holiday does, Australia Day traditions are quite similar: barbecues, beaches, parades and fireworks. However, today I will be participating in another British/Australian tradition which I know nothing about. I will be attending a cricket match at the Adelaide Oval!

In any case, to celebrate all things Australian, I give you a commercial that will seem oddly familiar to Americans:

 Football, Meat Pies, Kangaroos and Holden cars
They go together underneath the Southern stars

 It is the Australian version of the famous American jingle by Chevrolet! (Chevrolet is called Holden in Australia.)

Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet
They go together in the good ol’ USA

I hope everyone has a great Australia Day!

Cost of Living in Australia: My Personal Experience

By   January 19, 2012

January 2015: Updated to include living costs for all three places I have lived in the suburbs of Adelaide.

I was warned about the high cost of living in Australia before moving here, though luckily it is not as bad as I thought it would be. Perhaps it is because I came directly from France rather than the US, but I feel as though the only expense that is very high in Australia is rent. Yet keeping in mind that there are only 20 million people in this entire country (roughly the size of the US minus Alaska) and that most of them live in the big cities near the coasts, it’s understandable that the rents would be higher in a city of millions of people compared to 50 thousand, which was the average size of cities where I’ve previously lived.

Sizes of Australia and US compared

Rents have also increased in recent years due to the mining boom and the strength of the Australian dollar, which was just a few cents off the US dollar in the 2010’s.  For comparison, it was $1 USD = $1.50 AUD ten years ago. (By 2015, the AUD had decreased in value to about $1.20 for $1 USD). Once you leave the large cities and head to the countryside, prices are much cheaper and similar to what I’ve found in the Midwest. Yet living in the countryside in Australia is a bit harder than in the US because of the lack of people, which means a lack of certain infrastructure facilities and services. Many of the small towns only have populations in the hundreds.

However, cost of living is only half the story. Incomes also need to be taken into account. It doesn’t really matter what the cost of living is or how much you make; what matters most is how much money you have left over each month. In France, my bills were high but my salary was incredibly low. In Australia, my bills are still high but my salary is 50% more than what I made in France – and keep in mind that my income in Australia is a living stipend that is just above poverty level, whereas my income in France was for a full-time job that required a Master’s degree. So I am much better off financially in Australia.

Cost of Living in Australia

For anyone who is interested in living in Australia, here is what I have paid and currently pay living close to Adelaide (only about 5 miles/8 kms from the city center) for three different locations. Keep in mind that I am single with no kids AND prices are much higher in Sydney/Melbourne/Brisbane so if you are planning on moving somewhere else in Australia and you have a family, these costs may not help you much. If you are a student in Adelaide, you can expect to pay between $130 and $180 a week (about $560-$780 per month) if you rent a room in an apartment or house, and that usually includes utilities such as electricity/gas, water, and internet. Check your university’s accommodation website for listings, as well as for current rents.

1. Monthly Bills for apartment near campus

Rent (includes water): $1300

– two-bedroom, furnished 60 M2 apartment run by a student housing company that is 2 minutes from campus so I could walk. Obviously I could have cut this in half if I had a roommate but I quite enjoyed having the whole place to myself. (Other big cities have higher rents; luckily Adelaide is not as expensive as everywhere else.)

Electricity: $50 for most of the year; $100 during “winter”

– there was no actual heating system in the apartment so I had electric heaters, which meant that this bill was higher in the winter months. No gas in this apartment (only electric stove/oven).

Internet: $30

– for 10 GB of data per month, but you can definitely find cheaper/more data. Since I was in student housing, it was just easier to use their pre-paid internet. Some companies do offer unlimited DSL internet (no data caps) for about $60 a month, but their customer service is not the greatest.

Cell phone: $30 (pre-paid through Telstra, which I rarely use)

Groceries: $150

Transportation: $15 (about half off normal bus fares thanks to my student ID)

Laundry: $8

  • Total monthly bills: about $1600

2. Monthly bills for house near campus + car (2012-2014)

Rent (includes water): $1540

– three-bedroom house, within walking distance to campus. I had one or two housemates for some of the time to reduce costs.

Electricity/Gas: $100-$150

– gas stove and hot water heater plus ducted heating/cooling; having both gas and electricity means paying two supply charges of over $70 each quarter in addition to usage charges

Internet: $60

– for 150 GB of data per month (DSL connection through Internode)

Cell phone: $15 (pre-paid, which I rarely use)

Groceries: $180-$200 (I adopted a cat in 2012 and his food is expensive because he is spoiled)

Gas/Petrol: $40-$50 (I didn’t have to drive much since I lived near campus)

  • Total monthly bills: about $2000 (maximum without housemates)

3. Monthly bills for house near campus + car (2014-2015)

Rent (includes water): $1250

– three-bedroom house, within walking distance to campus. I have one housemate (but she was gone for 6 months so I paid full rent during that time).

Electricity/Gas: $200

– gas oven/stove and hot water heater plus one heater in lounge; having both gas and electricity means paying two supply charges of over $70 each quarter in addition to usage charges. This house is a bit older and very drafty so it’s insanely cold in winter and the heater uses both gas and electricity.

Internet: $73

– for 50 GB of data per month (I couldn’t get DSL in this location so I had to get a cable connection)

Cell phone: $15 (pre-paid, which I rarely use)

Groceries: $180-$200

Gas/Petrol: $40-50 (I don’t have to drive much since I live near campus)

  • Total monthly bills: about $1800 (maximum without housemates)

Yearly Bills

Private health insurance (optical/dental): $264

Renter’s insurance: $170

Car registration: $600

Vet plan for cat (consultations/vaccinations): $280

No residency card because my visa is valid for the duration of my PhD. (Though I did pay $550 to get the visa in the first place.)

No income taxes because my living stipend is tax-free, and currently income up to $18,200 is not taxed either.

No occupancy tax on my apartment or houses.

There are other costs to factor in, especially if you move to a new place, such as disconnection and reconnection fees for electricity/gas, cancellation fees for breaking contracts, and new phone line installation for internet connections (even if you never plan on using the phone line!). When I moved between houses in 2014, I had to pay around $150 for electricity/gas to be moved and $358 for a new phone line in order to get cable internet connected. I also bought a lot of furniture and appliances since the houses I lived in were not furnished (except for an oven) but you can find really inexpensive stuff on Gumtree.

Prices for other things such as clothes, books, electronics, etc. are more expensive than in the US but it is quite easy to find sales and discounts, especially after Christmas and during the end of the fiscal year (June-July). Some stores such as Kmart and The Reject Shop have lower prices as well. Telecommunications are more expensive than France but comparable to the US. Bundles for home phone/TV/internet are around $100-150 a month. Food items can be hit or miss, especially fruits and vegetables, depending on the weather. Bananas were $15 a kilo when I first arrived in 2011 because the crops had been wiped out by cyclone Yasi in Queensland, but now the prices are back down to less than $2 a kilo. Look for food that’s labeled “quick sale” – the expiration date will be that day or the following day so you’ll need to eat it quickly but it will be much cheaper.

Cost of Living in Australia: Bananas were really this expensive in 2011!

Staples such as bread, milk, and pasta are quite cheap but cereal, yogurt and cheese are more expensive than I would have expected. Gas is just over $5 USD a gallon ($1.33 AUD a liter) while eating at restaurants and going to the movies are pretty much New York prices. Since Australia is an island that is rather far from everywhere and has strict import and quarantine rules (to protect from diseases or pests further destroying the native populations), higher prices are reasonable for some things. But with the strength of the Aussie dollar and the ease of shopping online nowadays especially at US stores, there is more competition for local stores to lower prices.

If anyone would like specific prices for certain things, let me know.


French Books Giveaway: Win a FREE Autographed Copy of Say it in French or Great French Short Stories of the Twentieth Century

By   January 10, 2012

My second book published by Dover Publications, Great French Short Stories of the Twentieth Century: A Dual-Language Book, is now available!

The original French stories are on the left page and literal English translations are on the right page. There are 15 stories representing authors and settings from France and other French-speaking areas such as Quebec, Guadeloupe, Mauritius and Senegal. This book is designed for intermediate/advanced learners of French to increase their vocabulary and learn more about the literature of the Francophone world.

For beginners of French or those interested in traveling to a French-speaking country, my Say it in French phrasebook (+ Food and Wine supplement and 2,500 English-French dictionary) is also available.

To celebrate the release of my second book, I’m doing another giveaway! If you would like a FREE autographed copy of either my Say it in French phrasebook OR my Great French Short Stories dual-language book, all you need to do is:

  • send me an e-mail at ielanguages (at) gmail (dot) com or comment on this blog post,
  • let me know which book you would like,
  • and what country you are located in (I will send it from either the US or Australia depending on where you are located)


I will choose two winners at random; one for each book. Giveaway is open to residents of planet Earth. One entry per book per human being.

Good luck!

UPDATE: Congratulations to the four winners! The books have been sent to you!

Trains and Planes in France and Australia

By   January 6, 2012

Traveling by train is still a pretty nice experience in France, and even though Australia is just as big as the US, long-distance train travel across the continent is quite enjoyable Down Under too. I have taken the high-speed TGV and slower regional TER trains in France numerous times, and when I first arrived in Australia, I took The Overland train from Melbourne to Adelaide. I don’t have much experience with trains in the US, though I would love to hear some opinions on Amtrak.

Most areas of France are well-linked by trains and the TGV routes lead to the major cities. Annecy is only 3.5 hours from Paris on a direct TGV line and tickets can be as low as 17€ or 22€ if you buy early enough. The TER ticket prices never change and you can buy them right before getting on the train. The convenience of being able to hop on a train and get to where you want to go without having to drive (especially if the weather is bad) was always a nice possibility in France. I took the TER to Grenoble last week from Annecy and while it cost 37€, it was probably only slightly more expensive that paying for gas and tolls – which are rather expensive in France – and knowing that I didn’t have to drive through the snow or while tired from traveling/jet lag was worth it.

Even though Australian trains are not high-speed and the journey from Adelaide to Melbourne took 10.5 hours, I would gladly do the trip again to see more of the countryside between the large cities. Australia has fewer major cities (and people! there are only 20 million people in the entire country after all) but they are all linked by railways and tickets can be as low as $50 for some routes. Taking luggage is free though sometimes there are restrictions. For example, the Overland allows 2 checked suitcases at 20 kg each.

I traveled a lot by plane while living in France, but mostly to other countries since France is rather small and taking the train is usually easier. Flying in Europe tended to be a hassle because of the ridiculous liquid ban and always having to go through security at every stopover if you didn’t have a direct flight. Luckily with the Schengen Space nowadays most airports don’t require you to go through security as often as long as you are traveling completely within the borders (similar to flying domestic in the US), and even though you can at least lock your bags (unlike in the US where TSA gets to steal your stuff), friends and family still cannot accompany you to the gate. Plus the US continues to use irradiating body scanners, while they have been recently banned in Europe where they only use non-irradiating scanners. You only have to face the dilemma of get cancer or get groped in North America. So I have never liked flying because of the unpleasant ambiance I find at airports, especially American airports.

And then I flew on a domestic flight in Australia.

What a world of difference:

  •  ANYONE can go through security to get to the gates.
  • You can lock your bags.
  • You don’t have to take off your shoes.
  • The security agents are actually nice!
  • Qantas still provides free food and free checked luggage.
  • Even though Virgin Australia (on a Saver fare) and Jetstar (the low-cost offshoot of Qantas) make you pay extra for food and luggage, it’s still rather affordable to fly across the country.

The only thing that I didn’t like was that no one checked my ID at any point so I could have used someone else’s boarding pass to get on a plane. But overall flying in Australia is a very pleasant experience and a thousand times better than flying in the US.

Australia to France in December

By   December 31, 2011

Traveling from Australia to France always involves a lot of flying (ok, Australia to Anywhere involves a lot of flying), but changing seasons is another big shock that is hard to get used to. I spent Christmas in summer with temps in the 30s C / 90s F and then I came back to the Alps where it is snowing and barely above freezing.

I went from this:

to this:

and on Sunday I will be heading to Michigan where it is even colder and more snow is in the forecast.

I am enjoying my time in France even though this trip is rather short (only 4 days). I went to Grenoble yesterday to meet up with Crystal (Crystal goes to Europe) and Dana (grenobloise) and today I am spending New Year’s Eve in Annecy. Actually, I’m spending most of my time with this furball since I haven’t seen him in nearly six months:

He hasn’t changed at all.

Bonne année à tous et à toutes !

Happy New Year everyone!

Aussie Christmas Songs

By   December 25, 2011

In honor of my first Australian Christmas:

Aussie Jingle Bells by Bucko & Champs (they have quite a few funny songs, such as Deck the Shed with Bits of Wattle and Australians Let Us Barbecue)

Christmas in Australia by Brian Sutton

Six White Boomers by Rolf Harris

Christmas Day the Australian Way by Angry Anderson (nice geography lesson of Australian places)

White Wine in the Sun by Tim Minchin

Quebecois Christmas Songs

By   December 23, 2011

Some of these are obviously rather comédique rather than folklorique. Enjoy!

23 décembre by Beau Dommage

La valse de Noël by Fernand Gignac

La toune de Noël by Crampe en Masse

C’est Noël, il neige dans ma tête by Paul et Paul

Le Père Noël c’t’un Québécois by Les Cowboys Fringants

More Christmas Songs in French

By   December 13, 2011

More Christmas songs in French! Most of these videos have lyrics so you can learn the words and all of them are French versions of English songs you probably already know. Don’t forget the five songs I posted two years ago: French Christmas Songs

La Promenade en Traîneau (Sleigh ride)

Le Petit Renne au nez rouge (Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer)

Le Père Noël arrive ce soir (Santa Claus is comin’ to town)

Les anges dans nos campagnes (Angels we have heard on high)

C’est l’hiver (Let it snow)

Quebecois French and Australian Christmas songs to come!