Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Archive for the ‘Foreign Languages’ Category

Who’s Better at English? Swedes or 6-Year-Olds?

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Ever go to plan a vacation (somewhere … anywhere but here!) and wonder where your English will be of the most use?

Of course, I’d advocate learning at least some, if not a significant amount, of any local tongue. But let’s face it: learning all of the world’s estimated 6,500 languages is hard. Like, really hard.

So what countries speak English the best?

This blog post from The Economist highlights a new study that examines the fluency of foreign English speakers.

According to the post:

EF Education First, an English-teaching company, compiled the biggest ever internationally comparable sample of English learners: some 2m people took identical tests online in 44 countries. The top five performers were Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. The bottom five were Panama, Colombia, Thailand, Turkey and Kazakhstan. Among regions, Latin America fared worst. (No African country had enough takers to make the lists’s threshold for the minimum number of participants.)

The post, which is fairly short and contains lots of other intriguing tidbits about the whys and hows of foreign fluency.

But one thing in particular caught my eye:

Starting young, while it seems a good idea, may not pay off: children between eight and 12 learn foreign languages faster than younger ones, so each class hour on English is better spent on a 10-year-old than on a six-year-old.


All right. I guess I can buy that, especially from a financial standpoint, but I would like to point something out.

Even though children may be able to learn more quickly at a later age, it still may be a good idea to start a second language younger so that by age 10, they’re already working with a good foundation and can grow from there.

An often-cited study by K.A. Ericsson and A.C. Lehmann shows that expertise in almost any field requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

If older children really soak up languages better than their younger brothers and sisters, think how much more and how quickly a ten-year-old would learn if he’d already had four years of instruction.

Written by Nathanael Green

April 6, 2011 at 7:12 pm

Controlling Your Tongue

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Just one of many

If you’ve ever taken college English, you know something about styles of writing. And you know there are different ones with different rules.

MLA, Chicago, AP … and those are just a few established style guides in the US. Then you’ve got spelling differences between American English and British English (color and colour).

But what if there were a central agency to regulate English spelling, usage and grammar? Other languages have them.

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May 24, 2010 at 8:56 pm

See? English isn’t So Hard.

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A lot of people complain about how difficult the English language is.

Its spelling is crazy (see my earlier post on “ghoti” pronounced “fish”). English is full of contradictions with words like cleave being its own antonym–it means to cut off or sever, and also to cling or adhere.

We have a right to complain how hard our language is, don’t we? Well, considering some of the complexities in other languages, our complaints are like whining about too-tight  diamond rings and too-fat wallets.

Sure, English is a complicated language, but all languages are complicated. And this recent article in The Economist takes a look at some of the world’s most difficult languages and what makes them unique.

To be fair, I think the difficulty of any language is dictated by your own native tongue. So sure, Spanish is relatively easy for English speakers to pick up because of their similar histories and structure. But to a native speaker of Ainu, Spanish might seem just as mind-bogglingly unfamiliar as their language does to us.

And to an infant, English and the article’s most difficult language (I won’t spoil the surprise) are equally easy to acquire.

So whether it’s really the most difficult language or not is up for debate. But still, the article is well written and explores some fascinating aspects of different languages. One language discussed even causes a lump to form on each speaker’s larynx as they attempt to pronounce its sounds. Fun!

So definitely check out the article. And next time you complain about English – just remember that there’s no laryngeal disfigurement required.

Written by Nathanael Green

January 7, 2010 at 7:33 pm

A Little Science about Language and Babies

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Apparently, babies are tuned in to language from the moment they’re born, and possibly earlier. A recent study suggests that even if they can’t understand or form specific words, newborns recognize the intonation of their parents’ tongue and try to replicate its peculiar melody.

Here’s the article at NPR, which also includes the original broadcast audio and demonstrations of the differences between French and German babies’ intonation.

And just in case you’re still curious, here’s a fairly in-depth analysis of that same study from the Language Log blog at University of Pennsylvania.

Written by Nathanael Green

November 17, 2009 at 6:02 pm

Languages Deader (Or Dyinger) Than Latin

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Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great: Proud to know his language lived on ... sort of.

Latin’s not a dead language … not really. It never completely disappeared, but morphed into a bunch of other languages like Italian and Romanian. Like Anglo-Saxon getting sculpted over the centuries to give us English. And the process is easy to see – think about Shakespeare’s English and you can see how much change can occur in a measly five hundred years.

But there are a lot of languages deader than Latin. (“Deader?” Yeah, check out this post on absolutes.) And they’re dying faster than ever before. According to this article, approximately 90% of the world’s 7,000 languages will die by the end of this century.

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November 3, 2009 at 7:06 pm

Do You Talk Like Alex Trebek?

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Alex Trebek sans mustachio.

Alex Trebek sans mustachio.

I have a confession to make: I have a bit of the Alex Trebek Syndrome.

I’ll explain more in a minute, but first, listen to this link, which will start a sound clip automatically.

This is from the movie I Love You, Man, where the main character, Peter, pronounces the name of his favorite movie in a decidedly un-American way. Maybe Chocolat should be said the way he insists, but what about other foreign words?

Do you go to a bakery and ask for a KWAsahn?

(You know what it sounds like, so stop rolling your eyes at my attempt to type out a French pronunciation.)

You probably wouldn’t do that unless you were traipsing through Pah-ree. So most Americans will ask for a kruh-sahnt, even knowing that it’s a French word, and probably knowing how they pronounce it.

Sometimes we do put on that foreign accent …

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October 22, 2009 at 10:06 pm

Does Language Shape Reality?

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Is reality the same for everyone?

Some people think the language you speak may influence how you view the world. It may inform your prejudices, your beliefs and how you relate to everything around you.

What if English didn't have a word for "time?"

What if English didn't have a word for "time?"

For instance, what if your language had no concepts of time? How different would your world-view be? Kind of nice to think you could never be late for work, isn’t it?

This seemingly timeless aspect of one language is precisely what prompted a linguist studying the Hopi language to propose the idea of linguistic relativity. Also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, linguistic relativity says that because we use language to define our world, our world-view is defined by our language.

What’s that really mean?

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July 13, 2009 at 8:34 pm

5 Reasons to Never Use “he/she” Again.

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I can’t stand the phrase “he or she.”

You know what I’m talking about. We used to say “he” or “they” to talk about a person whose gender was unknown, but now this often shows up as “he/she” or “his or her” and no matter what form it takes, it makes me cringe.


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Written by Nathanael Green

January 29, 2009 at 8:49 pm