Category Archives: Learning Other Languages

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?

Notes from Symposium on Language Education in the Asia-Pacific Region

By   November 19, 2011

I attended a symposium last week at my university on language education in the Asia-Pacific region. It was very interesting and fascinating and left me wanting to learn every Asian language and visit every Asian country. I also attended the new postgraduate student induction and have been finishing up the final revisions on my research proposal. Next week I’m off to Canberra for a conference (and a little sightseeing!) so I probably won’t post again until I return.

Some notes I took at the symposium:

  • English is the official working language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which includes Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – all of which have English as an integral part of their primary curriculum. Quite a difference from the European Union with 27 member states and 23 official languages!
  • A common myth about second language learning is that a student’s native/home language will hinder acquisition of the second language and that starting to learn a language as early as possible is always better. In fact, using the child’s home language to teach core concepts such as math and science and introducing the second language (such as English) later yields better results. In North American contexts, students take about 5-7 years to learn English well enough in order to learn other subjects through English. In non-Anglophone contexts (such as Asia or Africa), it takes longer – usually 8 years. English Only movements such as those that restrict usage of Spanish in the US or Aboriginal languages in Australia are not supported by linguistic research. Using one’s native language helps in the acquisition of a second language, especially at a young age.
  • The closing of the second day of the symposium brought up questions that perhaps we don’t have the answers to (at least, not yet). For example, is motivation the real issue? Low levels of language study in Australia (and the US) have been a problem for a while, but is it really a lack of motivation by the students or is it more related to educational structures? The foreign language budget is often cut and classes cancelled to make room for more “important” subjects, while at the same time governments continue to stress how vital knowledge of languages is for students’ futures. It should also be noted that the motivation for teaching languages is very different (usually economic or political) from the motivation for learning languages (usually humanistic). Even if there is a lot of teaching of a language in schools (such as English in Asia), is there learning? Are schools the best places to be educated?

If you’re interested in the Asia-Pacific region, the Asia Education Foundation website provides information about Asia literacy in Australian schools.

In December, I’ll start posting about my actual PhD research and the wonderful world of vocabulary acquisition and lexical variation!

New language tutorial on Danish / dansk

By   October 28, 2011

Thanks to Anders, we now have the 20th language tutorial on Danish / dansk

Tutorials I to III are available, though some grammatical explanations and sample sentences still need to be added, especially in the last part. Anders plans to record mp3s to go along with the tutorials and I will be adding the vocabulary to the Germanic Comparative Lists alongside the Swedish vocabulary that is already available. Any Norwegian speakers out there who can help add to the Norwegian tutorial or comparative lists?

Danish Tutorial Index

Danish I Tutorial

Danish II Tutorial

Danish III Tutorial

Copenhagen, Denmark

Say it in French Phrasebook and Swedish Listening Resources Now Available

By   October 1, 2011

My Say it in French phrasebook (Dover Publications) is now available through for $5.95!

I have recently updated the Listening Resources podcast to include Swedish mp3s. Transcripts, English translations, and an RSS feed are also available. Check out the Swedish Listening Resources page for the first eight mp3s. (The mp3 player is not Flash-based so you can listen to them on iPhones/iPods/iPads too.)

I plan on adding more languages and dialects so let me know if you’d like to contribute!

Most Studied Languages in Europe, Australia and the US

By   September 27, 2011

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the European Day of Languages and Eurostat has provided statistics about the most studied languages in the 27 member states of the European Union plus Iceland, Norway, Croatia, Macedonia and Turkey (though stats for Portugal are missing).

“In the EU27 in 2009, 82% of pupils at primary and lower secondary level and 95% of those in upper secondary level general programmes were studying English as a foreign language. The second most commonly studied foreign language at primary and lower secondary level was French (16% of pupils), followed by German (9%) and Spanish (6%), while at upper secondary level it was German (27%), followed by French (26%) and Spanish (19%).”

Take a look at the table in the PDF file. I was a bit surprised to see Spanish as the 2nd most studied language in Norway and Sweden, as well as Danish in Iceland, but the rest weren’t all that surprising (Russian in the Baltics and Bulgaria, German in Eastern Europe, French in Romania, etc.)

I’ve already posted about enrollment data for Australia, where Japanese and Italian take the lead (though Indonesian and French practically tie for third place). The ACTFL has a recent report for American public schools where Spanish, French and German are still the main three languages. The MLA has the same information available for universities and colleges, where Spanish, French and German are still the top three as well even with the large increase in Arabic and Chinese enrollments. American Sign Language and Italian are nearly tied for 4th place.

Variation and Standardization: Romansh in Switzerland

By   September 8, 2011

An article about Romansh in the latest Weekend Australian is very interesting and relevant to my PhD research on the teaching of variation in language. Romansh has been the fourth official language of Switzerland since 1996, but there are five main dialects of the language among its 60,000 speakers, and none of the dialects are the official form (called Romansh Grischun or RG) that is taught in schools and published in books. Instead of unifying the speakers of the various dialects in an attempt to save the language from dying out, the standardized form has only brought about resentment and anger among students who do not want to learn from books written in a language that no one actually speaks.

My PhD research is on variation in the lexicon (vocabulary) of French, and if the variants are included in textbooks so that students can learn all forms of the French language as well as the cultures that are inseparable from it. The types of variation I am investigating are geographic and stylistic, or the various dialects of French throughout the world and formal vs. informal variants of words. Variation occurs at all levels of language, but I am focusing on the lexicon instead of the grammar because it the most salient feature of variation and the largest obstacle to comprehension for learners of French.

A lot of researchers argue against the standardized form of French that is taught in textbooks because it is actually no one’s native spoken language and students cannot acquire communicative competence by learning it, nor can they possibly learn the cultures of the various Francophone regions that are reflected in the varieties of language. Overcoming prescriptivism and language purism has always been difficult with regards to French, and the textbook publishing industry’s resistance to change because it could potentially lead to loss of profit have also contributed to the clone-like effect of language textbooks. Luckily some lexical variation has made its way into a few textbooks, though it seems mostly limited to Quebecois vocabulary of formal variants.

All variants of a language should be considered equal to each other, rather than one standardized (or even mother country) form being seen as superior to the others. American, Australian, and British English are all equal just as Canadian, Hexagonal, and Swiss French are all equal. Variation is a natural and inherent part of language; standardization is not.

Opponents of Romansh Grischun believe that it will only lead to the native dialects, as well as their cultures, dying out quickly. Proponents believe that it will allow Romansh to survive longer and prevent it from becoming a language only spoken by the elderly, though their justification for this is unclear. Standardization of a language may increase critical mass for statistical purposes and cut down on translation costs, but it does not prevent language death.

Even if Romansh Grischun becomes the native language of future generations (which is rather unlikely), the current dialects and cultures of the Romansh community will have died in the meantime. This unified Romansh language of the future would not be the same as the Romansh language of today (i.e. the collection of dialects with similar yet distinct properties), so could it really be considered as saved? Or should it be considered revitalized in another form? And what happens when variation inevitably starts to occur in the future Romansh?

Pronunciator: Free Vocabulary & Phrases in 60 Languages

By   September 3, 2011

Time flies when you’re having fun! It’s been nearly two weeks since I last posted and my only excuse is that I love working on my PhD so much that I spend all my time with my books and articles instead of my computer. I’m barely keeping up with updating the site and responding to e-mails, but I did receive a very nice e-mail yesterday that I wanted to share.

My review of some language learning websites that I posted 18 months ago in which I said “I just wanted to learn some vocabulary (and how to pronounce the words) online since my main focus on learning languages in the beginning stages is to simply understand what people are saying, and to be able to say a few phrases to get around while traveling. I don’t worry so much about forming grammatically correct sentences or having long conversations just yet.” inspired Robert to create a company and website to do just that.

Pronunciator launched on September 1st and it contains basic vocabulary, verbs, phrases, and conversation in 60 languages. There are 421 units of multiple lessons and 3 million pages for you to explore, all completely free. (Not all of the content is up yet, but it’s coming.) In addition to the audio flashcards, there are listening and reading exercises plus playback and vocal recognition modes where you can compare your pronunciation to the native speaker. Check out the site and thank Robert for putting so much work into it and helping others to learn languages for free!

Multicultural and Multilingual Australia

By   August 22, 2011

One of the many reasons why I love Australia: an official Multicultural Policy

Multicultural and Multilingual Australia

From the government’s Multicultural Policy released in February of this year:

“Australia is a multicultural nation. In all, since 1945, seven million people have migrated to Australia. Today, one in four of Australia’s 22 million people were born overseas, 44 per cent were born overseas or have a parent who was and four million speak a language other than English. We speak over 260 languages and identify with more than 270 ancestries. Australia is and will remain a multicultural society.”

Multiculturalism in Australia produced the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), which offers television and radio programs in 68 languages. Luckily they have a free to air channel (as well as an FM channel) so I don’t have to pay extra to watch France 2 news every morning. They also have several podcasts available through iTunes (which is how I discovered them while still living in France.)

Australia is also the most multilingual of the English-speaking countries, and was the first to create a multilingual language policy. The most commonly spoken foreign languages are Italian, Greek, Cantonese, Arabic, Mandarin and Vietnamese. Most bilinguals or multilinguals in Australia are either Aborigines or immigrants who speak English as a second language. The majority of native English speakers do not speak another language, similar to the situation in the US and UK.

Though some states and territories do require the study of a foreign language at primary/secondary level, by the final years of secondary school, only about 10% continue their studies (Years 6-8 have the highest percentage of students). The main languages studied are (followed by enrollment figures for 2006):

1. Japanese 332,943
2. Italian 322,023
3. Indonesian 209,939
4. French 207,235
5. German 126,920
6. Chinese (Mandarin) 81,358
7. Arabic 25,449
8. Spanish 20,518
9. Greek 18,584
10. Vietnamese 11,014
11. Other 45,567

The situation at the tertiary level is a bit sad. Unlike the US, no Australian university requires the study of a foreign language and many language departments have been incorporated into schools of other disciplines. For example, my particular school is called Communication, International Studies and Languages. Only 10% of first-year university students are taking a foreign language, and less than a quarter continue language studies through the third and final year of a Bachelor’s degree. Thirty-one languages are taught at universities, though 12 are taught in only one jurisdiction while 8 are taught in all states (Chinese, French, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin and Spanish).

For more information on languages in Australian schools, download the PDF of Second Languages and Australian Schooling from the Australian Council for Educational Research.

Multiculturalism Links:

Multicultural Australia (government site)

Australian Multicultural Foundation

Making Multicultural Australia

Comparative Grammar of French, Italian, Spanish & Portuguese Available as PDF

By   June 22, 2011

I have finally finished scanning the 1868 book Comparative Grammar of French, Italian, Spanish & Portuguese Languages by Edwin A. Notley that I first mentioned in April. It is 412 pages total and available to download in PDF format.

The original 19 x 13 cm book is set up with two columns on the left page for French and Italian and two columns on the right page for Spanish and Portuguese. If you want to print a section, I would advise experimenting with multiple page or booklet printing first. I tried to clean up the pages the best that I could considering the age of the book, and some of the pages are not as straight as I would like them to be, but I wanted to share this book sooner rather than later.

You can download the file from one of the following links. The file size is about 69.1 MB, so please be patient.


UPDATE: @MmeCaspari has uploaded the PDF to FlipSnack if you’d like to flip through the book online before downloading. (Also works on iPad/iPhone/iPod.)


Disclaimer: This book is in the public domain in the US since it was published before 1922. Please check your country’s copyright laws before downloading if you are not in the US.

New Language Tutorial on Latin

By   June 18, 2011

Thanks to Brandon, Latin is now featured on!

The Romance languages derived from Vulgar Latin, the major spoken language(s) of the Roman Empire. Classical Latin is what is taught at universities and written in books today since most of Vulgar Latin was never written down. The Appendix Probi is an interesting list from the 3rd/4th century CE that shows the changes between the two (and encourages people to use the Classical Latin words instead of the more common Vulgar counterparts.)

The greatest extent of the Roman Empire:

If you’re not interested in Latin for religious purposes and don’t ever plan to visit Vatican City, where it is the official language, you can still read plenty of Latin at the Latin Wikipedia, which does include 20th century topics.

Latin I Tutorial

Latin II Tutorial