English is Weird

In the past, I’ve written about my struggles with learning Polish…and then Mandarin…and now Spanish, but this month, I thought I’d honor my students’ struggle instead. Just in case you’re not a linguistics freak (or language teacher) like me, I’d like to share just a few of the many reasons English can seem extremely weird (read: difficult) from a non-native speaker’s perspective. So, without further ado, here are a few of my favorite things (and definitely my students’ least favorite things) about my native tongue.  

Crazy Spelling System

First up, unsurprisingly, is English spelling. Even if English is your first language you probably still have a bone or two to pick with whatever drunk group of academics decided “ph” looked way cooler than “f” or even with those thoughtful teachers who recited “I before E except after C, and when sounding like A as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’” …nice little rhyme, but what about “weird”, “glacier”, “albeit”, and “seize”? Of course, there are about a thousand reasons both historical and linguistic to account for this mess, but students (and most speakers) just don’t care. They’re too busy trying to work out why we still have a “b” in words like “thumb” and “debt” or why “knight” isn’t spelled “nite”. One of my favorite linguistic observations demonstrating the absurdity of English spelling is the made-up word “ghoti”. If you take the “gh” from “rough” add the “o” from “women” and finally the “ti” from “nation”, “ghoti” should be pronounced as “fish”. WTF, English.

Gender and Case in Pronouns

One of my biggest complaints with Polish was the abundance of grammatical gender and case. It blew my mind that there might be a possible 21 versions of the same word, something you don’t have to worry about so much with English. That is until you get to the pronouns. “I, me, my, mine, myself”, “you, your, yours, yourself”, “he, him, his, himself”, “she, her, hers, herself” and that’s not even mentioning retired classics like “ye” and “thou” or more modern-day usages like the singular “they/their”. It’s really a mess of various elements of gender and number with a glimpse into a defunct case system and, of course, a plethora of exceptions to any sort of pattern. And when we throw in the contractions we use (such as “he’s” and “you’re”, which can sound an awful lot like “his” and “your”), I can understand why students get a little frustrated with the inconsistency.

Easy-peasy…

All the Vowels

However, even if we put spelling and word forms aside, English is still extremely bizarre when it comes to pronunciation. Bizarre and incredibly difficult. One of the hardest things about English pronunciation is the mastering of all the vowel sounds. We all know that English has 5-6 vowels: A E I O U (and sometimes Y), but interestingly, we have between 15-20 different vowel sounds, depending on dialect. That’s why we have all the strange combinations like “ee”, “ou”, “ea”, “oi”, etc. and a bit of a crazy pronunciation game with minimal pair lists like “beet, bit, bet, but, bat, bot, boot, and boat” (go ahead and read those out loud if you didn’t already – it’s so fun!). It’s no wonder my students are worried that with a slight change in the position of their mouths they might be asking to take an extra shit rather than an extra sheet or maybe heading to the bitch instead of the beach.  >_<  

I ❤ IPA

Phrasal Verbs

Another odd feature of English is our love of function words, particularly prepositions. I remember happily memorizing a song of about 50 of them in elementary school, but as a teacher, I cringe when students ask me how they can memorize not only the prepositions of English, but the phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs are the multi-word verbs that native English speakers love to (over)use: “go on”, “give up”, “find out”, “calm down”, etc. Of course, we could use “continue”, “quit”, “discover”, and “relax” instead (much to the delight of other Indo-European language speakers), but that would be way too easy! Imagine if you broke up with your significant other after breaking into their house because your car broke down all while your skin was breaking out. Phrasal verbs like “break up”, “break into”, “break down”, and “break out” are so arbitrary and annoyingly similar that many learners of English often know every word in a sentence yet still struggle to piece together the meaning – it’s almost like we’re talking in code.

All the Englishes

Finally, a bit like Spanish, there are so many varieties of English to choose from, and if you’re going for proper World English mastery, you’ll have to be aware of the many dialectal differences in grammatical features, vocabulary, and pronunciation. For example, if chatting with a Brit, you might want to avoid referring to your “pants”. When speaking to those from the US, you’d better call it “soccer” and not “football” or you’ll definitely have them confused. Canadians use the “washroom”, Australians eat “brekkie”, and even the vast majority of native speakers need subtitles to understand Scots, so good luck with that! There’s an incredible amount of regional and socioeconomic dialects in English, and it’s only getting more diverse with the vast number of international varieties and accents being added to our ever-globalizing society.

Ultimately, English (like every language on the planet) is chock-full of oddities which make learning and speaking it quite the challenge. Of course, as this has kept me employed for the last decade, I wouldn’t want it any other way! Haha! Just remember, while English can be tough, it can definitely be mastered through thorough thought, though. Cheers!  

Fun Facts and Features of Mexican Spanish

Mi escuela

It’s pretty safe to say I’ve been learning and using quite a bit of Spanish as of late. Living abroad, immersed in a new language and culture tends to push certain language lessons to the forefront (like how to order food, how to pay your bills, etc.), but recently, I decided I wanted more lessons, formal lessons. So, I started taking intensive Spanish courses at the University of Guadalajara. It has been so much fun to be a student again and to learn so much about the Spanish language, a language that has been strikingly absent in my life prior to this move. I took Latin classes in high school and (mostly) French in university before focusing on Polish and Chinese, so for me Spanish is super exciting and feels brand new. In fact, it’s so exciting and new that I want to share some of the things I have loved most about getting to know good ol’ español.

1 The Arabic Influence

The first thing I noticed right off the bat was the huge Arabic influence. Of course, I know Spain and the Arab empires had a history (to put it mildly), but I was still really surprised at the number of daily-use Spanish words that have a strong Arabic flair. My favorite of which is definitely “ojalá”. Ojalá means “hopefully” in Spanish, and as soon as I heard it, I knew there was an “allah” connection in there. The sound and use are super similar to the expression “inshallah”, which I’ve been hearing my Saudi students say for years. Now I think I use “ojalá” almost as frequently as they use “inshallah”, and I absolutely love it. The name Guadalajara is actually another example of Arabic influence. It means “valley of the stone” in Arabic. Other common words with Arabic roots are: alberca (pool), arroz (rice), jarabe (syrup), naranja (orange), sandía (watermelon), taza (cup), and zanahoria (carrot).

This is what comes to mind when I think “alberca”

2 The Drama

Go team perros!

Another feature of Spanish that I immediately loved was the drama or passion that is imbedded directly into the language. For example, to say “I’m sorry” in Spanish, you might use “lo siento”. However, if you translate the phrase literally, it means something more like “I feel it”, which I feel has a bit more strength to it. Another super common expression in Spanish is “me gusta _____”, which is generally translated as “I like _____”; however, grammatically, it’s more like saying “I am pleased by ______”. I feel a little Victorian and definitely a tad dramatic when I translate phrases like these in my head (“Yes, the tacos please me immensely, thank you kind sir”). I can also feel the emotion in some of the vocabulary/etymology divergences as well. “Pets” in Spanish are “mascotas”, which feels so much stronger to my English brain. I also love the vivid images given to “word searches” and “ironing boards” in Mexican Spanish, which are “sopa de letras” (letter soup) and “burros de planchar” (ironing donkeys), respectively.

3 The Specificity

Something else that jumped out at me pretty early on in my Spanish crash course was the specificity of the language. The first example I was met with was the fact that in Spanish I can be American (“americana”) or I can be United Statesian (“estadounidense”). This is a specification I really wish was just as easy and natural to make in English. Another good example is the term “treintañeros” or thirty-somethings, which is a word that this particular treintañera has found quite useful. Of course, there is also a seemingly endless supply of words for taco-like things: tacos, vampiros, dorados, gringas, guisados, etc. We’re honestly still figuring out all the particulars there, but it’s not just Mexican dishes that require this level of specificity, the ingredients often call for it too: for example, the difference between tomate and jitomate. From my understanding, tomates are green and rather small, whereas jitomates are your general Romas, beefsteaks, etc. Neither of which should be confused with my personal favorite: jitomates cherry.

4 The Slang

Another fun feature (of every language really) is the slang. And no, I don’t necessarily mean bad words, just words that are used in a more playful way. Some of my recent Spanish favorites include:

-Chafa (crappy)

-Chavorucco (someone older that acts young)

-Chido (cool)

-Chin (darn)

-Codo (literally “elbow”, figuratively “stingy”)

-Crudo (literally “raw”, figuratively “hungover”)

-Fresa (stuck up/snobby)

-Garrón (freeloader)

-Güey (dude)

-Moja pendejos (literally “wet idiots”, figuratively “annoying drizzly rain”)

-Naco (trashy/tacky)

5 The Trip-ups

¿Jabón o jamón?

But perhaps the most fun (and memorable) part of learning a new language are the missteps. Language is tricky and one slip of the tongue or change of a vowel and you could be saying something completely different. For example, when I was asked if I have a boyfriend or spouse. Instead of saying, “sí, soy casada” (yes, I’m married), I said “sí, soy cansada” (yes, I’m tired). I’m pretty sure it sounded like I was tired of being married. Haha! Sorry Tucker! Another slip-up I made recently reminded me of my students. In English there is always an issue with the pronunciation of “soup” and “soap”. They’re super similar words, but definitely not interchangeable. Well, I made the same kind of strange substitution when attempting to ask for soap (jabón), but instead asking for ham (jamón). Oops! Sometimes the missteps can be a bit more extreme as well. When trying to recall the general word for seafood (mariscos), I actually said something not so nice in Spanish, and promptly got a lesson in pronunciation as well as political correctness.

I’ve been having an amazing time learning and using such an incredibly rich and fun language. Making new friends and discussing the intricacies of linguistics (or else trying to ignore them completely and just speak) has continually reinforced all the reasons I love living abroad and being (currently) surrounded by all things español. ¡Qué buenas ondas! Ojalá this is only the beginning!

Duolingo Dossier

So, let me start off by saying I have absolutely no personal or professional stake in Duolingo. In fact, I actually applied for a writing job for them once and never heard back…but that slight misstep (on their part) aside, I really love Duolingo, and for this month’s post, I’m going to tell you why.

Generally, I’m all about setting goals and challenges for the New Year, but alas, my goal this year is actually to have zero expectations whatsoever (we’ll see how that goes…). However, for those of you who haven’t been quite so jaded by 2020, January is still a great time to develop new habits, such as learning or practicing a foreign language. And for me, Duolingo has been an amazing way to keep that particular habit up for the last 446 days (yes, that’s my current streak number – woohoo!).

They seriously get me.

Of course, before I can get into the specifics of the app/website itself, I have to recount why learning a foreign language is such a great thing to do. In short: it does amazing things for your brain, it gives you new insights/perspectives, it can connect you to other people and cultures, it can be incredibly useful for travelling abroad, and it can be a fun way to diversify your skills and spend some time away from Netflix/social media, just to name a few of the major benefits. Even if you try Duolingo and hate it, I still recommend finding a language-learning system that works for you (in-person classes, one-on-one video chats, traditional workbooks, etc.) because there is really nothing like learning a foreign language!

Now back to Duolingo. One of the reasons I love this particular app and website so much is that they are completely free. It’s not the usual you get all the basics for free, but as you advance you need to pay or spend a certain amount of time on the app or whatever other hoops they’ve come up with. No, with Duolingo, you can access all the materials and completely finish as many courses as you’d like without ever having to pay. Of course, they do have a “Duolingo Plus” option, which allows you to work offline and skip any ads, but in my years and years of using Duolingo, I’ve never been tempted because, honestly, the ads are super minimal, no videos or anything, and who’s ever “offline” these days anyway? 

Another absolutely amazing thing about Duolingo is that there are a plethora of language options/courses to choose from (from Irish and Hebrew to Klingon and High Valyrian, no joke), and it’s super easy to switch back and forth between them. This is great if you’re like me and feel like French Fridays should be a thing. It’s also great because not only does it track and keep record of your progress, you can also test into a course and not have to start at the very beginning (for example, if you took Spanish in high school or gained some previous experience elsewhere). I’ve also mentioned a few times now that there is both an app and a website – they’re linked by your account, but they each have slightly different options, views, exercises, etc.

I also love that Duolingo allows you to set personal goals, for example, how much time you want to spend practicing each day. It also can send you reminder notifications or emails if, like me, you have trouble remembering if something happened early this morning or yesterday… Of course, these goals and reminders are completely optional and customizable, so you can turn them all off and live a more low-pressured life if you’d prefer. The lessons themselves are also extremely quick (or “bite-sized” as Duolingo touts), so it’s actually really easy to fit them into your schedule. I typically do mine while I’m waiting for something: the water to boil, the dog to pee, etc.

With Duolingo I also love the variety it offers. The courses/lessons are fun, and they aim to create useful yet entertaining sentences, scenarios, etc. but there are other features that are equally helpful and perhaps even more dynamic. I especially love going through the “stories”, which use the vocabulary and grammar you learn in the courses to create dialogues with a bit more context and substance. The stories and characters are quite entertaining – one of my favorites was when a character’s son thought his parents were lion tamers because he found a whip in their closet! Tell me that’s not an intriguing story to read in any language! Haha! Tucker and I have also been competing to complete all the different achievements (like earn 100 crowns, finish #1 in the leaderboard, etc.), which is another way to increase motivation and add another level to our learning. The Duolingo podcasts are also really fun (and free). They use both English and your target language to narrate longer, true stories related to life, culture, and the human experience.  

Everything is bigger online!

I also really love how intuitive the interface and activities are. I recently got my parents (who aren’t necessarily “app-people”) into it and no matter how tech savvy (or not) you are, it’s super easy to set up and use. It’s also not very grammar-y (which I realize is a plus for most people). The courses aim for immersion-like teaching (similar to Rosetta Stone), so you cover the major skills without having to sit through grammar instruction. There are “tips” that you can check at the beginning of each section, but they’re not necessary. Duolingo also takes a thematic approach and groups its sections according to topics like “greetings, restaurant, travel”, etc. which build on themselves as you progress.

Ultimately, it feels like playing a game. You complete the activities, you win gems, which you can then use to “buy” outfits for Duo (the owl mascot), or for fun courses like “idioms, dating”, etc. There are also “leagues” where you can see how you stack up against other learners, “wagers” where you can bet some of your hard-earned gems and go for double-or-nothing if you maintain a 7-day streak, etc. And oh, the streak! Probably my favorite of the stats they keep up with – it feels amazing to see that number climb and know that while I didn’t do much in 2020, at least I can say that I practiced a foreign language every. single. day. 🙂

So proud!

Finally, I think it’s important to remember that everything in Duolingo is take it or leave it; some people focus on the streak, others on the checkpoints, others pick it up and put down every few years or so; it’s really whatever flotter votre bateau. And even though Duolingo isn’t sponsoring this post (not yet anyway), I still really think you should give it a try, because for me it has been a simple, fun way to develop a skill that can bring tremendous benefits and entertainment, for free! So, try it out, and when you do, be sure to say “hola” to Duo for me!

Student Perspectives: To Me China Is ______

This semester I’m teaching an English Stylistics course where we delve into the various styles of written English including official documents like resumes and letters of recommendation, but also more creative forms of writing like poetry and blogs. To finish out the unit on creative writing, I had my students use the features we’d been discussing in class to write a blog post of their own, and for added excitement and authenticity, I told them I’d share the best ones with all of you on my own blog.

We decided on the topic “To Me China Is _______” as a way for them to reflect on their own culture and harness their own unique points of view to share something new with an unknown audience. I honestly wish I could share all 46 of them because they all did an amazing job, but for now, here are the links to some of my favorites:

To Me China Is…Golden

To Me China Is…Unequal

To Me China Is…A Land Full of Beauty

To Me China Is…Superficial

To Me China Is…Diverse

To Me China Is…A Peaceful Haven

To Me China Is…Full of Magic Power

To Me China Is…A Treasure-trove of Specialties

To Me China Is…Possibilities

To Me China Is…Changing

 

 

Language Woes

IMG_0262One of my goals this year, as I mentioned in my last post, is to really focus on my Mandarin skills. I’m planning to take the HSK before we leave next summer, and I’d really like to do well. The HSK is a Chinese proficiency test for foreigners learning the language. The highest score is a 6, which would demonstrate “a learner who can easily understand any information in Chinese and is capable of smoothly expressing themselves in written or oral form”. I’m aiming for a 3 (haha!), and since I’m likely going on this journey alone (Tucker really has no interest), I’d like to at least share a little bit about what makes Chinese such a difficult language to learn.

First off, there is no alphabet. For example, (meaning “not”) is pronounced méi, while (meaning “establish”) is pronounced shè. They look similar, but sound nothing alike. Similarly, 香蕉 “banana” and 相交“to intersect” are pronounced the exact same way (xiāngjiāo). There is clearly no “sounding it out”, which is what frustrates Tucker to no end! Okay, you think, that’s not such a big deal. You just have to remember the characters as if they were words. Unfortunately that means there are over 50,000 to memorize. Also, each word is not one character; they are some combination of characters, which means not only do you have to know the characters in a particular word, but you have to know the order: 蜜蜂 (mìfēng) means “bee”, but 蜂蜜 (fēngmì) means “honey”. No, I don’t want any bees on my toast, thanks.

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43 strokes for 1 “biang”!

However, recognizing the characters and knowing their order isn’t enough either because if you want to learn how to say them or find more information about them, in, say, a dictionary, you must be able to write them. Chinese has a very particular stroke order, which refers to the order and direction in which you write the characters. This is how Chinese dictionaries are often organized (even online), and if you don’t obey the proper stroke order, most online translators can’t seem to figure out what you’re going for. If you’re someone who starts your English letters from the bottom up, good luck! Even if ignoring the correct stroke order wasn’t an issue, most Chinese characters an average of between 7 and 12 strokes. The most in any single English letter? 4. My characteristically neat handwriting has never been tested in such a way!

Luckily, a group of linguists realized just how difficult the Chinese characters were for people coming from languages with alphabets, so they created one of my favorite things in the world: pinyin. Pinyin is a system of phonetic representation of Mandarin. It utilizes the Latin script (like English), and allows us, alphabet freaks, to quickly (and more naturally) read the pronunciation of a word. Sometimes a word will be presented with both the characters and the pinyin, such as: “卫生间 wèishēngjiān” (which means “bathroom” by the way – very useful!). This double representation is why I often say learning Mandarin is like learning two languages, you really have to know the characters and the pinyin! It is super helpful for us when we see both pieces of information together though. Then we know both how to say the new word and how to write it. Unfortunately, we rarely get that; usually it’s one or the other, not both. Sometimes there is a translation instead of the pinyin, but I’m not sure that is always so helpful…

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This one is actually pretty great!

IMG_0266Another problem we often encounter with pinyin is that it is more often than not missing the diacritic marks. Those marks represent the four tones of Mandarin, and are essential in its pronunciation. Unlike in English, changing the pitch of your voice while speaking Chinese can actually change the words you are saying. The pronunciation of mā (“mom”), má (“hemp”), mǎ (“horse”), and mà (“to scold”) only differs in tone. Unfortunately for lazy, toneless English speakers (like me), this makes it really hard for native Mandarin speakers to understand exactly what we’re saying. We try for “mom” and end up with “horse”, something which I hope has been more entertaining than irritating for them!

Ultimately, we struggle in reading, writing, speaking, and, with the various Chinese dialects, listening is a challenge as well. However, if you ask me whether I find Chinese or Polish more difficult to learn, I’ll say Polish every time. Chinese and English grammar actually have a lot in common. Our word order for example, is pretty similar. Chinese also has no articles or gender to worry about (two language features that I learned to despise very early on in French, and again with Polish). Perhaps most interestingly, unlike Polish and English, Mandarin is an isolating language, which means that the verbs are not inflected or changed for things like tense or aspect. So while in Polish I had to work really hard to conjugate and decline every word in a sentence before I could put them into a coherent thought, in Chinese I can just string them all together, adding new words when a change in tense or number is needed. For my brain, that is so much easier to do!

There is also something so intuitive about Chinese. Although my Chinese teachers tell me I should NEVER separate the characters of various words, it’s hard not to, and honestly that’s what helps me remember the vocabulary half the time in the first place! Here are some gems we’ve discovered (so far) in the Chinese lexicon:

IMG_0267Train = Fire + Car

Balloon = Air + Ball

Cellphone = Hand + Machine

Turkey = Fire + Chicken

Menu = Food + Sheet

Patriotism = Love + Country

Delicious = Good + Eat/Drink

ZhongWenAlright now! Who’s ready to learn this with me?! Chinese is definitely a language on the rise as far as power and prestige go. Much like what happened to English in the 1700s, increases in immigration, tourism, and business are spreading Chinese to all parts of the globe. In Australia, I was surprised and delighted to find Mandarin on most signage, and, even in Georgia/Florida (quite far away from China), maps and other tourist information can often be found in Mandarin. Some linguists refer to Chinese as the language of the future, and while right now it’s more painfully in my present, I hope to keep it around for my future as well! Wish me luck! 祝我好运!