Bilingual, Second Language Acquisition, Second Language Experiences

No More Excuses: Language Learning Made Easy

I’ve made it my mission with this blog to point out that there’s more to linguistics than speaking multiple languages. But lately I’ve come across several articles about language learning, including some really cool new (and free!) apps that were designed to make learning another language easier than ever.

First, though, I want to reiterate some benefits of learning another language. There’s a great deal of evidence out there that being multilingual changes your brain in positive several ways, and recent research even suggests that learning a new language can expand your mind, both figuratively and literally.

Language is about understanding and expressing ideas and concepts; as you increase your access to different words and cultural ideas, it becomes easier to find the right word or expression that can most closely share the idea you have in your head with another independent mind. Plus, learning the different ways that ideas can be expressed makes you realize that there are many ways to say the same thing, and that there’s no “right” way to express yourself, as long as you’re able to communicate your ideas. And, of course, there’s that great quote from Nelson Mandela that, for me, hits the nail on the head as far as why I love linguistics:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart” 

There are many ways to learn another language: immersion is an amazing (if occasionally disconcerting–in a good way) experience, if that option is available to you. If not, there are plenty of classes out there at places like Multilingual Chicago, Language Trainers USA, or private tutors. If you live in a major city, you might find something like the Polyglot Bar, where people gather to practice different languages and meet like-minded language learners.

For those of you without access to these kinds of resources, fear not! There are many other options available at a variety of price points. The most well known is the Rosetta Stone software, but lately there’s been an explosion of smart phone apps available for little to no cost. Although I haven’t tried any of these…yet…I was drawn to this article about the creator of Duolingo, primarily because they talk about their user experience research: they employ A/B testing to figure out which lessons in which orders are the most effective for language learning, and then update lessons to incorporate those changes. As a firm believer in giving back to communities that provide researchers with data, I love hearing of these kinds of applications.

So forget your excuses and go learn another language–your brain will thank you for it!

What other thoughts would you add about language learning? Has anyone used any of these software programs or apps? If so, feel free to add in your two cents or a review in the comments below!

Language in the News, Second Language Experiences

Finding the Humor in Language: A Pun Example

Humor is a tricky thing. Language-related or –dependent humor is even trickier. It relies on understanding the double meanings of words, or using pronunciations in a novel, unexpected way. Here’s a fairly classic example:

Knock Knock.

Who’s there?


Lettuce who?

Lettuce in, we’re cold!

If you search for “knock knock jokes for kids” you’ll see many examples of these types of jokes, where there’s misdirection in the pronunciation (i.e. lettuce sounding like “let us”). I’m betting their popularity with young children has to do with this new concept that words and sounds can mean something other than the obvious.

There are many examples of this type of linguistic-based humor, but understanding the joke can be tricky if you’re less than fluent, not only in the language, but the culture as well. In an article from The Guardian about language and humor (Warning: this article contains some strong/NSFW language), there’s quite a discussion about humor in different languages, and how working jokes into a classroom lesson, or acknowledging unintentional humor due to mispronunciations, can be a chance to enhance language learning. Jokes can be used to lighten the mood when students are frustrated, or it can point out certain words, phrases, or sounds that can be tricky if mispronounced or misunderstood and help to reinforce the lesson. And when a language learner gets the joke, it can be a strong positive reinforcement of their hard work.

My own experiences with language-related humor come from a group project I did for my Intro to Linguistics course. My partner and I recreated an experiment where bilingual speakers of varying abilities were asked to read puns on a screen and click through to the next one when they understood the punchline. We had several interesting findings. But first, we had to get creative in figuring out how to conduct the actual experiment. Although there are plenty of computer programs that can run these types of tests, we had neither the access nor the time to figure out how to use them. So we improvised and used the timings feature on Powerpoint. We would meet with our volunteer test takers (friends, fellow students—our subject pool was the very definition of a “sample of convenience” and was discussed as such in our final report), set up the presentation and timings feature, describe the experiment, and let them proceed through the 30 or so pun examples.

What we discovered was that our test takers took the most time figuring out puns where the first half of the pun set up a joke one way, but the second half (the punchline) was only understood if the first half of the pun meant something different. I’ll give you an example:

Two men walk into a bar. The third one ducks.

Understanding the joke means that the reader has to shift their understanding of the phrase “walk into a bar” from “entering a place that sells alcohol” to “move in a way that they hit a metal rod that is perpendicular to their body.” Since the first line is also a common way to set up a joke (at least in American English), the “getting” the humor comes from being able to quickly adjust one mental picture to another, based on multiple meanings of the word “bar.” Our test takers who did not identify themselves as native English speakers took longer to process these types of puns, since it required time to mentally activate the different meanings of words until the one that gave sense to the joke was hit upon.

It seems that jokes and humor are among the most difficult aspects of language to learn, since they require a level of cultural comprehension and nuance that goes beyond knowing the vocabulary and pronunciation. But as The Guardian article concludes, there’s always physical humor. Just don’t hurt yourself as you slip on that banana peel.


On an unrelated note, I’ve recently updated my work samples to include an animated video I created to describe what linguists do for a younger audience. Feel free to let me know what you thought, about the video or today’s blog post, in the comments below!

Framing, Language and Business, Second Language Experiences

Multilingualism–It Makes Good Business Sense

Today I found a whole slew of articles discussing language in the business world, primarily focusing on the challenges of engaging with customers around the world, or opening offices in multiple countries. Since I couldn’t pick just one topic to focus on, I thought I’d give links to them all (plus a semi-related bonus link at the end) with some commentary.

To start off, I found a press release about SDL’s Language Cloud, which as I understand it, offers companies a combination of “human, machine, and specialist machine (?) translation” services, so that they can connect with customers in the local language. I found this video on SDL’s site, which helped me better understand the goals of this new platform. At one point, the video mentions that not only was the website translated into the local language(s), product reviews were translated as well. And then I started wondering: there’s no mention of what this cloud platform does when it comes to translating things like idiomatic expressions. For things like website copy, it’s likely that the phrasing is run past a native speaker (at least, I’m assuming this would be done, otherwise you might end up with some amusing, yet technically correct phrases like some of those found here). But product reviews may not get this same treatment, and if you’ve ever used something like the “see translation” feature on a Facebook post, you know that the translations are sometimes confusing or unclear).

Next, I found some articles that talk about being an employee for a multi-national company. The first one is a somewhat basic argument for why it’s a good idea for relocating employees to learn the local language(s). They make a case for why it makes good business sense (along with simply being practical for daily living), as well as why employees might be resistant to learning a new language and what companies can do to encourage or reward those employees who do attempt to learn.

One of the reasons they give for why employees don’t learn the local language(s) is that they mistakenly believe that everyone speaks English. I wonder if this is primarily targeted at businesses that are moving from the U.S. to other countries. My own experiences traveling to European countries have taught me that many people don’t automatically assume that everyone they encounter speaks their language—they try the locally dominant language first (if they know it), and then any other language they can speak. Living on a continent with so much linguistic diversity will do that.

Finally, I found a blog post with tips for presenting in a foreign language (i.e. without an interpreter or translation software). I’ve had personal experience with this and I can honestly say it was one of the most nerve-racking times of my life, not because of the presentation, but because of the Q&A afterwards. I was lucky that I was able to choose the presentation topic, which meant I would probably know the answers to any questions, and I simply had to focus on understand the question itself, to be able to answer it successfully. Still, I agree with the suggestions put forth by the blog, and would only add that sometimes it’s best to act confident and “fake it ‘til you make it.”


[As promised, here’s the bonus link, which I liked because it talks about reframing how you think about your business—from mentally referring to your company a verb rather than a noun—can help you appreciate its complexity and ever-changing nature]

Language in Advertising, Second Language Experiences

How a Telecomm Company Helped Save a Friendship (and a Language)

Advertising often gets a bad reputation. Companies seen as trying to sell you something, to get you to spend money on something they make (whether you need it or not, and especially when the answer is ‘not’) are ‘just in it for the money.’ Like everything else in life, the reality is rarely so black and white. Which is why when I read about corporations or brands uniting their corporate goals with something truly worthwhile, I want to share it.

Vodafone, a European mobile telecomm provider, started a marketing campaign called Vodafone Firsts, and decided to help promote it by bringing together the last two known speakers of Ayapaneco (aka Tabasco Zoque), a language from Mexico which has almost completely died out. These two friends, who stopped speaking to each other many years ago over a disagreement about the Ayapeneco language itself (how’s that for irony?) have reunited and agreed on a form of the language, and now teach it to local children in an effort to bring this language back to life.

You can read the article I found from Mashable, and I highly encourage you to watch the video Vodafone created as well.

I’d like to be able to say that language death is a rare occurrence, but that’s simply not the case. As you can see from the Endangered Languages Project and UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, thousands of languages are at risk, several critically so. Language vitality relies on new generations of speakers to keep not only the vocabulary and grammar, but the cultural knowledge shared through languages, alive. I could go on and talk about language policies that force citizens to only learn certain languages at the expense of others, or about how people have worked hard to revitalize languages that were almost lost, but I’d rather share something more personal.

The majority of my family is Polish, and the majority of my ancestors first came to the US in the latter part of the 19th century. Although I took Polish language courses in grade school, I retained very little, and am now limited to a greeting, some numbers, and words for food. But I remember my grandmother having conversations with neighbors, and code-switching easily between English and Polish, mostly when she didn’t want us grandkids to understand what she was saying. It was amusing and somewhat frustrating at the time, but now I just feel the loss of that tie to my family’s history. I had a brief opportunity to take advantage of that knowledge and I didn’t, because I didn’t know any better at the time. And while there are still many Polish speakers in the world, in my family and community at least, those numbers dwindle every year.

I’d love to hear from people who’ve had similar experiences with languages spoken in their family, whether fluently or not. Share your stories in the comments—I look forward to reading them!

Cognitive Linguistics, Language in the News, Second Language Experiences

How Languages Can Change Our Choices

Recently, there’s been a study into how language appears to affect morality based decision-making. I’ve seen this story covered by several sources, so it’s possible you may already be familiar. If not, the basic idea is discussed below, or you can read this more comprehensive version from The Economist.

The Study:

Researchers asked study participants to make a hypothetical decision about sacrificing a life to save five in two different ways (either pushing someone on to a train track to save five people OR throwing a switch that will definitely kill the one man, but save the five people—sacrificing yourself is not an option). They randomly posed the situation to half of their study subjects in their self-described native language (which was, for the most part, English). Then they asked the other half in a second language (either Spanish, Korean, English or French). These were all languages that the study subjects knew, but they were not native bilinguals.

The Results:

The researchers found that when asked in their native language, only a few subjects said they would push one man to save five people. But when asked in their second language, more people chose to push the man.

The Possible Explanations:

The article mentions that the reason behind this may have to do with how the brain makes decisions, and how this ties into how languages are processed. In their second languages, the subjects’ brains use their logical “cognitive system” to make a decision, because speaking a less-known language requires more conscious thought. In their native languages, the speakers’ brains could rely on their more intuitive decision-making system, because speaking required less conscious decision-making and awareness

I can’t say what the right explanation might be, although the one put forth by the article (and summarized above) makes sense to me. I’ve experience the sensation of my brain being “maxed out” when speaking in a second language. When I lived in France, I found myself taking almost daily afternoon naps before dinner, just because I felt so tired of thinking so much all day. I also used the brain power excuse for eating so many delicious French desserts, because, I argued, the sugar recharged my brain.

I will say this, however: logical decisions are often considered more reliable, because they’re based on reasoning and time. But I’ve read several books that argue that in some situations, decisions based on intuition are just as good, sometimes more so, because they’re based on personal experience. And any skill, like learning a second language, that helps a person develop both types of decision making models sounds like a good thing to me.

Language and Theatre, Recommended Reading, Second Language Experiences

Eddie Izzard and the Ultimate Audience Design Challenge

If you’ve ever seen a Q&A interview where they ask, “Name a performer you’d drop everything to see,” my answer to that is, hands down, Eddie Izzard. I’ve seen him perform his comedy act live and many times on video (and even briefly met him at a signing in Chicago), and the brilliance of his performances blows me away every time.

One of my favorite bits is from his show “Dressed to Kill,” when he does an entire bit in French. I highly recommend you watch it (I’ve included a link), because it is hilarious AND, if you’ve been following my blog, you’ll be able to appreciate it like a linguist. He uses intertextuality and gesture during the French bit about showers and the President of Burundi to reference back to an earlier bit in English (he uses repetition quite a bit throughout his performance), so everyone gets the joke, even if they don’t speak French.

The other day, in an article in the Boston Globe, Izzard has revealed that he’s recently been taking a new show on tour and performing in the native (or dominant) language of the area he’s visiting. So far he’s done shows in English, French, and German, and wants to move on to Spanish, Russian, and Arabic.

Since he’s not fluent in all of these languages, he’s had to script the show completely (i.e. no improv), with the help of his brother, Mike Izzard, who happens to be a linguist (just one more reason to love those Izzards!). But in performance, he (Eddie Izzard) has found that certain phrases, particularly those that rely on wordplay, need to be changed in each language because their meaning doesn’t really translate.

This is the ultimate example of audience design: adjusting what you say to have the maximum impact and best chance of being understood as you (the speaker) intended it. We do this all the time, although not necessarily to large audiences of people who speak a different language, but the concept is the same. And like Izzard, when what we say doesn’t get the response we expected, we change it to try something new.


*I was going to add a paragraph about how this applies to marketing, but techcommgeekmom wrote a nice piece covering this topic. I encourage you to read it here.

Second Language Acquisition, Second Language Experiences

Why Studying Abroad is Good for Business

If the multiple Rosetta Stone commercials are any indication, there are quite a few people out there interested in learning a second language. I’ve seen posts on FaceBook asking about various software programs for SLA (second language acquisition). I’ve taken classes with people who were there to learn a few key phrases to use while on vacation. And I’ve known others who wanted to learn the language of their ancestors. But it wasn’t until my study abroad experience that I had the chance to talk with students who were abroad, studying another language, because they considered it a resumé builder, or good for their future careers.

Then, just last week I saw this article from Forbes, titled, “How Learning an Additional Language Could Influence Your Business,” which talks about the rise in international business relations, and how learning multiple languages (and about multiple cultures) can minimize financial losses due to misunderstandings.

It’s been my experience that, in the US, learning a second language, studying abroad, and international travel for extended lengths of time aren’t considered necessary, unless you’re aiming for a career in diplomacy or are majoring in a specific language. To some extent, I understand this. For example, the North American continent is made up of three countries (not including the various island nations in the Caribbean), the European continent: about 50, and the African Continent: almost 60. It’s much quicker for someone in Luxembourg to travel to Germany (445 km / 276.5 m) than it is for someone to travel from Boston to Los Angeles (4800 km / 2983 m). When you add crossing an ocean into the mix, the time and money required rises exponentially, and it’s just not feasible for everyone.

But if the US is going to be a part of a global business community, I believe international awareness should be more encouraged as part of our educational system, and acquiring multiple languages should be promoted beginning at an early age. By simply reframing the idea that international travel is less of a luxury and more of a valuable investment, we’ll be setting up the next generation to think and act globally. And that will benefit everyone in the long run.

Second Language Experiences

Talking the Talk: A New Year, A Chance to Learn a New Language

A popular New Year’s resolution, along with “go to the gym” or “get organized” is “learn (insert language here).” If improving your language skills in 2014 is on your list of resolutions, and you’d like to know a little about a linguistic perspective on learning new languages, then read on!

First, I think it’s important to say that I always encourage people who want to learn a new language, no matter what age you are, or what level you’re starting at. Learning a second or third or twelfth language gives you access to new ways of thinking, of seeing and understanding the world and it’s people. It opens up your mind to recognizing that languages are arbitrary, that all cultures are valid, and that people are really happy when you at least attempt to speak to them in their native tongue.

But unless you spent the first few years of your life in a bilingual household, or at least were regularly exposed to another language on a regular basis before the age of about 5, then you should expect a few bumps along the path to fluency. This is because our brains, from a very young age, begin to hone in on the sounds associated with the languages spoken to and around them. In order to streamline this process to verbal fluency, connections that COULD be made in the brain but aren’t necessary are lost. Languages that rely on certain phonetic or semantic systems that aren’t present in your native language become harder to grasp. For example, in Mandarin, there are four tones that can be used when producing a word, and each of the tones changes the meaning of the word. That doesn’t happen in English (saying “ball” with rising intonation or falling intonation doesn’t change the meaning of the word itself), and so we’re not as adept as picking up subtle changes in tone at the level of an individual word.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t become fluent speakers of another language after kindergarten. It just means it will become more difficult, will require more conscious motivation, and a LOT of practice. But it’s possible: I have a friend who moved from the US to Barcelona, and learned not only Catalan, but also Spanish, in the five years she’s lived there. She candidly told me that the first two years were difficult, and this was with almost constant immersion outside her household, where her and her husband spoke English. But now she considers herself bilingual in English and Catalan, and an advanced Spanish speaker. IT CAN BE DONE!

So if you’re hoping to learn, and I mean really learn, a new language starting this year, here are some tips from a linguist:

1. Find a way to immerse yourself in the new language as much as possible.

It will be hard at first, and frustrating. But practice really does make perfect. Find a class that is taught in your target language (when I lived in Chicago, I took classes at Multilingual Chicago—they frequently offer discounts and special princing, or check out Groupon or other coupon sites for deals, especially this time of year!). Find a group that sponsors gatherings or movie nights. And watch tv and movies without the subtitles—you’d be surprised how much this can help with become familiar with the sounds of your new language!

2. Be patient with yourself, and don’t expect to become fluent right away.

My analogy for this one is: when you first move to a new city, it takes time to learn how to get around, the different routes, streets, neighborhoods, etc. As time passes, you get better and better, and it feels more like home, but you know that you’ll never be a “native,” with all the deep understandings of what it means to be from “(wherever),” like you do when you talk about your hometown.

Remember, when you learned your first language, you had years of near constant immersion, with many different people, some of whom loved you dearly, and who didn’t expect you to respond with full sentences for almost 4 or 5 years. AND  your brain was at its peak for language learning! This time around it’s going to be very different.

3. When you start dreaming in your new language (and maybe even talking in your sleep), then you’re on your way to knowing your stuff.

The first night I spent in France last summer, one of my roommates (who was by far one of the most fluent French speakers in our group) came home from a bar, fell asleep, then woke me up in the middle of the night when she started mumbling in French. When I mentioned it the next morning, she didn’t remember doing it!

The idea behind this one is that there comes a point where you’re not translating every word or concept in your head, but instead have slipped into this mindset where the new language has become so familiar that this translation has become almost instantaneous or subconscious.

So good luck, and feel free to share any stories, frustrations, or questions in the comments section!

Second Language Experiences

Yes I Understand, But I Don’t Know How To Tell You

Last summer I had the privilege of doing a summer study abroad session, that included a 6 week stay with a host mother, and the chance to live and study with students from all over the world.

When I talk about my experiences there, I tend to focus on the positive: how beautiful the town was, how interesting it was to live with a host mother and students from other countries, etc. But the flip side of the experience was how difficult it was, and how I experienced a deep challenge to my own sense of identity. I found out that when you can’t communicate fluently with others, they judge you, and not very fairly. Even if you explain that you’re learning. Even if you know the answers to questions, but you just can’t phrase them perfectly. My language skills were perceived as lacking, and many times I was looked at as being dumb.

This experience, difficult as it was, actually opened my eyes to some aspects of language learning. I can understand why an immigrant family would want their children to become fluent in the dominant language, whatever that may be, so they don’t have an experience like mine. And just because someone can’t communicate as fluently was we expect them to, doesn’t mean that they don’t understand what’s being said or feel that judgement. In fact, most of the time I was able to comprehend what people were saying, I just wasn’t capable of responding quickly or with the exact words I wanted to use.

I was so glad I had this challenging experience, not only as a linguist, but as a human being. It’s an experience I hope, and dread, to have again.