Language Matters: Separated by a Common Language

Britain and America are both English-speaking countries, but a Brit abroad in the US (and vice versa) wouldn’t necessarily know it!

Overcoming the language barrier between these two English-speaking countries is a matter of understanding how the meaning of what you say is affected by each country’s cultural context.

It’s not just differences in what things are called, although that can also be confusing.

Ex. An American might say ‘nice pants’ to a friend or coworker, but in the UK ‘pants’ means underwear! (A Brit would say ‘nice trousers’)

How we speak is affected by our country’s culture. In the UK, directness can be considered rude. Asking “are there any other options to consider” is an indirect way of saying “I don’t like this idea.” British people recognize this, but someone from the US would understand it to mean only that a decision hasn’t been made yet.

On the other side of things, Americans value straight-forward communication, and sometimes come off as bossy as a result.

To communicate effectively, it’s necessary to understand not just what you are saying, but how it will be understood by your audience. Mastering this will ensure that the message you intend to send will be the one received!

Language Matters: Is Txting Killing Language?

L8ly there has been a lot of worry over the millions of texts being sent every day that ignore punctuation and capitalization, replace letters with numbers, and use LOL way too much. OMG, R txts KILLING THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE?

Linguist John McWhorter has a different take on texting, and it’s good news. He says that texting resembles spoken language much more than written language.

Think about it, you don’t think about capitalization and punctuation while talking right? But texting doesn’t just loosen sentence structure, it brings in its own layers of complexity.

For example: LOL has evolved a more subtle meaning than ‘laughing out loud,’ like in the following context:

Susan: lol thanks gmail is being slow right now
Julie: lol, i know.
Susan: i just sent you an email.
Julie: lol, i see it.

Nothing said above is funny right? Here ‘LOL’ is being used to mark the speaker’s feelings of understanding and empathy.

We’re beginning to write like we speak largely because we finally have the technology — mobile phones — to keep up with the pace of real-time speech. Imagine trying to carry on a conversation with someone using typewriters!

Texting is a whole new way of writing that young people are using alongside their ordinary writing skills. In other words it’s not the decline of the English language, but a new ‘fingered speech‘ that’s being constantly evolved, mainly by 16 year old girls! :)





Language Matters: Learning Through Gesture

Have you ever tried explaining something to a friend, when all of a sudden you find your arms waving up and down and your hands acting things out as you go?

I bet it helped get your point across

Our body language communicates a great deal, even as we explain things in words. A number of studies have shown that learning is easier when the lesson involves words and gestures, and that these lessons stick around longer in your memory than the lessons that only use words.

Apparently actions and words work hand in hand!

While the researchers behind these studies are hesitant to jump to conclusions, their repeated findings in favor of gesture-based learning have led to a push to incorporate gesture-based technologies in classrooms.

By the way, we often make reference to our bodies and actions when talking about learning and abstract concepts. I’ve made sure to point out a few examples in this post!

Language Matters: Does Gender Matter, Too?

It’s long been said that women are better at learning languages than men.  While broad statements like these always need to be looked at with a critical eye, there are some differences in the way women and men learn languages that can help explain why women tend to be more proficient at picking up a new language.

In children, boys and girls process language differently in the brain.  Girls’ brains show more activity in language encoding areas when learning language, while boys’ brains show more activity in in visual and aural areas.  This means that girls are more efficient in learning language abstractly, while boys need images and sounds to learn effectively.

Female language learners use more study methods than male learners, including speaking, writing, reading, and listening.

Female learners are four times more likely to talk with native speakers of the language they’re trying to learn, according to one language learning website.  These casual online conversations can help learners pick up slang and colloquialisms while becoming more comfortable with the language.

Finally, girls tend to be more motivated to learn languages in school than boys.  The reasons behind this are not known (and hotly debated), but it might have something to do with the idea that language learning is more female-dominated.

None of these facts necessarily prove that women are better at learning languages than men, but they do present some interesting evidence.  What do YOU think?

Language Matters: Learn to Talk Like a Scalawag

Arr matey, you best be swabbin’ the poop deck before I make ye walk the plank!

The Greenwood Public Library in Indiana is making the world a more swashbuckling place with its new free online language courses, including a five-lesson class on pirate-speak.

Get ready for next year's Talk Like A Pirate Day!

Of course, for those looking to learn a more traditionally useful language, the library is also offering classes in languages like Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, German, Italian, and English as a second language.

Online language courses are a departure from the traditional ways of learning languages in classrooms with lots of face-to-face interaction and practice.  But with the ability to access the language classes on smartphones and other mobile devices, these courses offer something traditional classes don’t: convenience and portability, which is important when undertaking something as time-consuming as learning a new language.

Greenwood Public Library’s classes are only available to those holding a Greenwood library card, but many other public libraries around the country offer similar language courses.  If you’re in the U.S., look up your local public library to see what they have!

Would you take an online language course?  What about an online pirate language course?  Shiver me timbers!

Language Matters: Christmas Carols in Native Languages

In the United States, the holiday season is in full swing, which means Christmas carols playing on the speakers in many stores and restaurants around the country.  Always in English.

How about something a little different?

Indian Country Today Media Network has on its website five Christmas songs sung in indigenous languages from North America — Woodland Cree, Ojibwe, Navajo, Cherokee, and Arapaho.  The songs are as beautiful as ever, and some of the videos include lyrics so you can sing along.

Here’s my favorite:

Language Matters: The Universal Word

You probably say it every day without even thinking about it.  Someone says something you don’t understand or you didn’t quite hear them correctly, and you utter the common response:


In a new study, researchers argue that “huh” is, in fact, a true word and that it is the only universal word across all languages.

It’s a true word because it isn’t innate — it’s a part of language that must be learned — and it follows the rules of language — you’d have to learn how to say “huh” correctly when you’re learning a new language.

“Huh” also has a true meaning — it’s not just a noise of surprise or confusion.  When you say “huh?” in conversation, you’re expressing a few things at once: you don’t understand something due to lack of knowledge and you’re asking for a response to clarify what you didn’t understand.  All in one tiny syllable.

While the researchers couldn’t study the use of “huh” in every existing language, they did look at 31 dialects from five different continents to gather their data, providing ample evidence of the ubiquity of the word.

What do you think?  Is “huh” really a word?

Language Matters: Slang — Not Too Cool For School

It’s the part of learning another language that can be the most difficult to pick up — slang.

If something is hip, then it’s cool… or is it hot?  Somehow, being “down to” do something is the same as being “up for” doing something.  And what the heck is “twerking?”

Many English language learners move to the United States to perfect their language and learn American slang.  While they can speak English fluently, they know that their speech is more formal and proper than that of their American peers, and they want to change that.

Stephen Mayeux, teacher of English as a Second Language at UC Davis, has written lessons based around 90′s hip-hop to teach students American ways of speaking.  ”Straight Outta Compton” is a perfect example to teach language learners about variations on pronunciation, substituting the sound “outta” for the words “out of.”

Other language teachers are doing similar things, incorporating slang into their lessons to give students a more complete picture of the language and allowing them to fit in more easily with their native-speaking friends.

How much English slang do you know?  Would you want to take a whole class on slang?

Language Matters: Speaking Without Numbers

Can you imagine a language without numbers?

The Piraha, an indigenous people of Brazil, speak a language that uses only eight consonants and three vowels, depending instead on tones, stresses, and syllable lengths to express meaning.  The simplicity of their language means they can hum or whistle whole conversations!

They also have no words, or concepts, for numbers.

The modern world would be bewildering without numbers, but the Piraha don't see any use for them.

There is a word that means a “small size or amount,” a word for a “somewhat larger size or amount,” and a word for “a bunch,” but no words for individual numbers.

Why no words for numbers?  The most likely reason is that the Piraha have never needed them.  Nothing in their way of life requires counting or differentiating between specific numbers of items, so their language never developed those words.

The Piraha also seem to have no interest in learning about numbers or arithmetic, again because their culture does not require the knowledge.  Why study something of no practical value to your life?

There is a word in the Piraha language for all other languages that translates as “crooked head.”  They see all other languages as “laughably inferior” and show no interest in learning them.

It’s hard for us to imagine an existence without numbers.  Even the way we measure time requires numerical words and representation.  How do you think life would be different without the concept of numbers?

Language Matters: Studying Personality with Facebook

How much do our Facebook profiles reveal about who we really are?

Researchers at Cambridge University are trying to find out by analyzing the language of Facebook status updates.  With 75,000 volunteers, it’s the largest investigation of language and personality that’s ever been done.

They found some funny correlations, like how teenagers often post the word “ugh” with the word “homework.”  They also found some more revealing results, like a higher frequency of words and phrases like “sick of” and “depressed” being used by neurotic people.

Grouping words by age and frequency shows some obvious trends in Facebook statuses. Which group do you fit into?

Using the language of Facebook statuses to study personality is uniquely effective because Facebook statuses are created naturally by people, using their own words.  This is different from other studies of language and personality, where researchers can only analyze a fixed list of words and phrases.

Of course, the study isn’t perfect, mostly because people self-edit on Facebook.  They post what they think will gain attention or “likes” and they leave out less desirable aspects of their lives.  Still, the research is promising and could be a new direction for studying personality.

Do your Facebook statuses reveal your personality?