Language Matters: How Hyperpolyglots Think

A “polyglot” is someone who speaks multiple languages.  A “hyperpolyglot” is someone who speaks six or more languages.

What’s it like inside the heads of these talented linguists?  The Guardian talked to four of them for their fascinating insights.

One hears languages like music, learning new sounds and grammar from the lyrics of songs.  She thinks in multiple languages, switching between them to find the perfect word for the idea she wants to express.  The language she chooses can affect her mood.

Another only spoke English until age 21, but has spent the last ten years traveling the world and learning languages along the way.  He credits many of his amazing experiences to being able to speak the language of the locals and make connections to people that would have been impossible if he only spoke English.

All of them have a passion for learning languages, and all of them know that speaking multiple languages opens doors to understanding people in new and different ways.

It makes me wonder: is speaking only one language like using only one color to paint?  Like using only one key of music?  How much do those of us who only speak one (or even two or three) languages miss out on?

How many languages do YOU speak?

Language Matters: The Languages of the United States

The United States is a country of immingrants, which makes it well known for being a so-called “melting pot” of cultures and peoples.  It is also known for having no official language, which means that while English is by far the most common language spoken, knowledge of English is not required to become a citizen.

So what languages, other than English, do Americans speak?

The Washington Post has an interactive graphic with some answers (go to the page to zoom in):

This map shows counties where at least ten percent of the population speak a language other than English at home.  Pink indicates Spanish, green indicates Native American languages, blue indicates French, and yellow indicates German.

My home county, San Francisco, which is so small that you have to zoom in on the map to see it, is bright blue, which means “other.”  45.3% of people in my county speak a language other than English at home, with the most common language being Chinese.

A country with no official language and people who speak a variety of languages faces unique challenges in education, government, and infrastructure.  If all the road signs are in English, for example, how does a Spanish-speaking citizen navigate the roads?

How many languages are spoken in your home country?  Is there more than one official language?

Language Matters: Does Grammar Matter?

Let’s talk about grammar.

I remember learning grammar rules in school, diagramming sentences, memorizing parts of speech, and identifying tenses.  Sometimes it was frustrating.  I thought, “I know what I want to say, and other people get my meaning, so why do I need to know all these rules?

As it turns out, more and more educators think that students don’t need grammar and spelling lessons in our age of technology.

Is techspeak ruining English, or improving it?

These teachers look at “techspeak” used by young people online and, rather than seeing the breakdown of the English language, they see it evolving into a new, more creative and flexible language.

After all, with spellcheck correcting spelling errors and developments toward a “grammarcheck” that corrects grammar, what’s the point of memorizing out-of-date linguistic rules?

Other teachers see things differently, arguing that a basic knowledge of grammar rules will actually help students be more creative.  An understanding of grammar is necessary for people to organize their thoughts and express them clearly.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think it’s important to know proper grammar and when to use it.  After all, when a university professor receives the following email from a prospective student, it’s hard to ignore the fact that techspeak is not always appropriate:

“hi, can u pls clarify smthng 4 me? say i wnt to take intnl devt study w ur prgm. do i apply to bth prgms or just 1 n which 1 would it B. evry help is appresh8d. thk u.”

What do you think?  Is grammar outdated?

Language Matters: English and Culture

We at VocabNetwork think that learning English is a great thing, an effort to be proud of.  Others think differently.

Rajnath Singh, the party president of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, said recently that the widespread use of English has led to the loss of “our language and culture,” because fewer and fewer people speak Sanskrit.

Do you agree?

On the one hand, he is correct that changing the language of a society will inevitably change the culture of that society.  An India where no one speaks Sanskrit would be a fundamentally different place, even if all other cultural norms stayed the same.

On the other hand, knowledge of English is increasingly important in today’s globalized world, especially in the realms of business and academia.  English is considered the international language, so speaking English is the only way to be a part of the global conversation.

Could the English language become so prominent that other languages die out from lack of use?  Or is it possible for an international language to exist alongside local, cultural languages?

Language Matters: Anglophones at the Tour de France

Have you been following the Tour de France?

The race, arguably the most famous bicycle race in the world, is a race around France that’s been happening for 110 years.  And even though the athletes who compete in the Tour de France come from all over the world, most of the communication in and about the race has been in French.

That is, until now.

The last two Tour titles have gone to English speakers and this year’s might go to another Anglophone (though Chris Froome, the race leader, is a Briton who also speaks French).

Many Tour de France athletes who don’t speak French or English as their native language prefer to learn English rather than French, and conduct their press interviews and other Tour business in that language.

Not that long ago, riders who didn’t speak French were at a real disadvantage — they couldn’t converse with their fellow competitors, they had to have translators to read official documents and find out about official scores and announcements, and they knew they needed to learn at least some French to get by.

Now, it’s a lack of knowledge of English that’s more of a handicap.

The rise of English as the world’s international language means that a rider from Germany can talk with a rider from Italy — in English.  An athlete who speaks only French would be left out of the conversation.

Not that the Tour will ever give up French entirely — the race is, after all, in France.

What do you think about this?  Do you think you’d be upset if you lived in France and you knew that more and more of the Tour’s athletes and communications were in English?

Language Matters: Memory and Language

Today, VN blog readers, I have a question for you.  But first, a story.

How closely is language tied to memory?

Over at, a man has related his only four memories from his childhood between 1939 and 1946.  Only four memories until age eight!  While not too unusual, it is a rather small number of memories.

On the other hand, a friend of his can relate many memories, in vivid detail, from the same years of her own life.  She remembers running at the sound of air raid sirens, eating terrible waxy margarine and drinking bitter tea, and how they slept at night.

Why would one person retain so many more memories than another?  The writer has two ideas:

1) His friend’s memories are of England during World War II, and are of a dramatic, vivid nature.  His memories, in contrast, are of a childhood in Canada without such dramatic events.

2) Until 1946, he only spoke Ukranian.  Now, as an adult, he has lost almost all knowledge of that language.  Could his childhood memories be tied to his childhood language?  Is the reason he can’t reach his memories because he no longer has the language of those memories?

What do you think?

If you learned a second language in the middle of childhood or later, are your earliest memories tied to your first language?  Do you “think” in your first language when remembering your earliest experiences?

Language Matters: Geography Matters, Too

Have you ever thought about how languages were formed, and why certain languages contain some sounds while other languages leave those sounds out completely?

There has never been a distinguishable pattern to language sounds and geography, so scientists assumed it was all random — until now (

There’s a type of sound in some languages called an ejective, and it involves creating a burst of air through the lips as part of the sound.  English and other European languages don’t have this sound, but you can listen to the different types of ejectives on Wikipedia.

The dark spots are the high-altitude places where languages with ejectors originated.

After studying the places where languages with ejectives are spoken, and then looking at the places of origin of those languages, scientists noticed an interesting pattern — languages with ejectives all originated at high altitudes.

The possible reason for this trend involves air pressure.  Creating an ejective sound requires effort to push the air through the mouth forcefully, and at higher altitudes the lower air pressure makes these sounds easier to create.

Do you speak a language that uses ejectives?  Are there other ways that you can think of that geography might influence the development of language?

Language Matters: The Universal Alien Language

So far, all attempts at creating a universal language, one that everyone in the world can use to speak with total precision, have failed.  Even Sir Isaac Newton, one of the most brilliant people to walk the Earth, couldn’t accomplish such a feat.

But one linguist and legions of Star Trek fans have come close.

Klingon, the language spoken by Star Trek aliens of the same name, began with six lines in a movie, and has developed into a true language with 3,000 words, as well as its own grammar and syntactical rules.

Today, Star Trek fans around the world use the Internet to analyze and discuss the language.  Fans have even translated Shakespeare’s Hamlet into Klingon — in iambic pentameter!

At some Star Trek meetups, fans with different native languages can communicate with each other using Klingon.

While only around 100 people in the world speak the language fluently, it’s proved itself to be the closest we’ve come to a purely invented language that can help people communicate in a brand new way.

Are you a Star Trek fan?  Do you know any Klingon words?

Language Matters: Why Spelling is So Difficult

“Through”, “cough” and “rough” look like they should rhyme, but they each sound completely different.  Why “knead” needs a silent K is a mystery to me and “bureaucracy” has far too many vowels.

But English isn’t the only language with inexplicable spelling, and there are four reasons why this mismatch between pronunciation and spelling occurs.

First, many languages borrow words from other languages.  English is especially guilty of this (check out VN’s Foreign English studylist to study some!),  but it’s not the only one.  And when you take a word from one language and insert it into another, the spelling probably won’t change, but the pronunciation will.

Second, pronunciations of words change over time.  Spelling, again, usually stays the same.  This can explain the existence of so many silent letters in words — our lazy tongues eventually drop the sound of the letter, but it stays in the word.

Third, many languages use alphabets designed for other languages.  English uses a Latin alphabet that was derived from the Greek alphabet.  Gaelic (both Scots and Irish) uses silent letters to indicate vowel length, consonant quality, and other syntactic clues to pronunciation, leading to long words that sound completely different from how they’re spelled.

Finally, in some languages, the written form is actually a different dialect than the spoken form.  The languages of Arabic, Tamil, and Sinhala are all like this.

Do you have trouble with spelling?  If your first language isn’t English, how does the spelling of your first language correspond with pronunciation?

Study some weirdly-spelled words with VocabNetwork’s Strange Spelling studylist.

Language Matters: The Future of Spelling Bees

Have you ever participated in a spelling bee?

They are common in elementary schools in the United States, and almost nonexistent in many other countries.  In a spelling bee, children attempt to spell words of increasing difficulty.  When they misspell a word, they are disqualified.  The last child to spell a correct word is the winner.

"Not only do I have to spell 'sepulcher,' I also have to tell you what it means? It's tough to be a kid these days..."

Spelling bees are popular in the US because English is full of so many notoriously difficult words to spell.  Countries with languages where the spelling of words match the pronunciation would not have as much need for spelling bees.

Soon, however, spelling bees in the US are going to change.

The National Spelling Bee has announced that participants must now know the definition of a word as well as how to spell it.  This means that the spelling bee will be more of a vocabulary bee, helping kids to increase their knowledge of English language along with English spelling.

I think this is a great idea.  After all, what’s the point of being able to spell ‘vitriol‘ if you could never actually use the word in your speech or writing?

What do you think?  Would you like to participate in a ‘vocabulary bee’?