Language Lens

A blog about life, discovery and culture through the lens of language and linguistics.

Archive for the category “Bilingualism”

Some language quirks about Brussels

Brussels is home to the institutions of the European Union and for that reason the capital of Europe.  Although it’s not as internationally recognized as cities like London, Paris or even Amsterdam, on a political level, this is where things happen.  Being American I often call it the “Washington DC of Europe”, but there are countless differences between the two.

Brussels is the capital of Belgium and is legally bilingual with French and Dutch.  Why two languages?  That’s complicated but imagine a city tucked between two regions – one French speaking and the other Dutch speaking – and that is Brussels.  At the same time, it’s the most international city in the world after Dubai with 184 nationalities living here (as stated by the Bulletin.) French is used more within the City of Brussels, but English is the language used in common for the international community of course.

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As home to so many nationalities, this means there are numerous languages in contact influencing the other all the time.  According to he third Taalbarometer study by VUB, there are 104 maternal languages in Brussels!  Among the people I’ve met so far, there are few who aren’t studying some language in fact, be it English for professional development purposes, French to survive in Brussels, Dutch for those living or working outside of town, or another language for professional and promotion opportunities within the EU institutions.  Due to the high percentage of bicultural couples as well in Brussels, it’s not uncommon to meet young children who speak four languages well at home.

Not only is Brussels an international place, it’s also within Belgium that has three official languages: Dutch, French and German.  For these two factors, I will be bold and say what I have come to believe and observe since moving here: In Brussels, the quantity of languages spoken is valued higher than the level at which you speak each one.  This doesn’t mean that people don’t speak languages well, quite the contrary, but it does explain why many claim that they lose fluency and get worse with their second, third or fourth language here.   Where there is a loss there is always a gain, and the gain in Brussels will be one or more new languages for your mind and CV as well as  immense cultural opportunities.

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The graphic below shows Brussels as “bilingual” but this is how the it’s measured within the Belgian system alone.  As Brussels is an international place unlike any other, we know it’s much more than just “bilingual.”  

A few linguistic challenges to consider in Brussels

In a place where there are more than 100 languages spoken and where there are two official languages within the city limits, no wonder “interference” happens when speaking English in particular. “Interference” is the influence from one’s mother tongue (or other dominant language) when learning and speaking a new language; interference occurs when we “transfer” parts of one language onto another.  This is normal; it happens for anyone learning a new language, and it happens a lot in Brussels with English and any other non-native language for that matter.  Language “purism” is another factor.  Purism is a pejorative term in linguistics for a strong conservatism regarding the use and development of a language.  Those who are language purists aim and seek to speak the most original (or pure) form of a language.  It is why some will want to learn British English over American English, for example, or study Spanish in Spain instead of Argentina.  The chances of learning  French or Dutch well are likely here, always knowing interference is a factor in language learning, but if you are intending to perfect your English, know that Brussels can be a hard place to do so.

I learned long ago and am a firm believer that language is a living thing that molds and changes with time and the environment.  This is why the emergence of an international English is happening throughout the world and especially in a place like Brussels.  I’ve heard people call it different things like: Eurish, Globish, Euglish or International English.  When communicating is the priority, sounding perfect and “pure” lose relevance quickly.  Stay tuned for future posts on Eurish/Globish/Euglish!

It’s a very enriching experience to live in such a culturally diverse and dynamic place.  I’m coming to see that Brussels can be a place for anyone – language lovers or not – but one thing is certain, at some point you’ll probably give in to language learning resistance and pick up another language out of need, interest or possibility while in Brussels.  This is just that type of place, and because of the diversity, one must be realistic with their learning goals.  The best way to learn a language is full immersion and that isn’t realistic in an international community where communication has priority over language perfection.  Next post: realistic goals for learning English in an international environment such as Brussels.



Native Speakers as the Language Authority

Language is a living thing… constantly changing and transforming in the face of modern society.  Spanish, unlike English, has an authority or “regulatory body” which monitors the language and works to promote linguistic unity between different Spanish speaking regions: the Real Academia Española (RAE), Royal Spanish Academy in English. The RAE works to ensure a common standard in the language, following its founding charter: “… to ensure the changes that the Spanish language undergoes […] do not break the essential unity it enjoys throughout the Spanish-speaking world.”   Since English has no official regulatory body, some suggest the Queen is that authority or dictionaries like the Oxford English dictionary or the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but in the end, dictionaries are just a collection of words and language is so much more than that.

There are many more countries in the world that speak Spanish compared to English, however, there are many more English speakers in the world as it´s the most common second language to learn and is a lingua franca.  English as a lingua franca (ELF) has emerged as a way to explain communication in English between speakers with different first languages. One in every four English speakers in the world are native speakers, therefore the majority are speaking English as their second language!  Since English doesn´t have this authority like the RAE for Spanish, it will naturally be influenced by many people who speak it as only a second language and not even from just natives.  Singlish is an example: colloquial English spoken in Singapore.  Although English is an official language in Singapore, Singlish is a dialect with unique intonations and grammar stemming from the influence of other languages in the region, such as Malay and Chinese.  It is a regional variation of English–a dialect in other words–but it´s not the same as comparing US and British English as these come from Standard English and are not influenced by other languages in the case of Singlish.

Despite so many people in the world speaking English at a near native level, it is still the native speakers who are thought to have authority in this according to Barbara Seidlhofer in her article English as a lingua franca.  Seidlhofer says that, “there is still a tendency for native speakers to be regarded as custodians over what is acceptable usage.”  Perhaps the RAE equivalent in English are the native speakers themselves.

Despite RAE´s controls, there is a lot of creativity with new words in Spanish.  I love how you can make a verb for almost anything, like matear (as in to drink mate), boludear (to be/act as a “boludo” in Argentina), and my personal favorite: salpimentar (to salt and pepper your food.)  With the internet and technology, news words are constantly being added to the English vocabulary, and English has its own way of creating new words, such as by combining two ideas and/or concepts (like in the examples below) or to make a verb from a noun for the action, such as “to google.”  The following is a summary of some brilliant new terms that really reflect culture in the United States and/or in English speaking countries.  Some made me laugh a bit too!  For a full list of terms from the original article “25 brilliant words to add to your vocabulary”, go here.

afterclap askhole beerboarding cellfish chairdrobe chiptease destinesia dudevorce hiberdating internest nonversation textpectation

I have been back in the United States for about four months, and I can´t say that I have heard any of the following terms used, but I wouldn´t be surprised if I started hearing them, or if they are already used.  Who hasn´t bought a bag of chips and in the end it´s more air than chips?  And “chairdrobe” is great for me, as I have done this my entire life!

These terms are definitely better understood by native speakers, as they join together two words or two ideas to describe a new phenomena, which may not even exist in the same way in a different culture.  Furthermore, these words aren´t “real words” (yet) that one can find in a dictionary.  They are reflections of culture influencing language to create new words for new activities. New words come from new ways of life, and again, language is always changing and evolving, just like life around us.

Exactly this, another way to think about things!

another perspective

Why “Soccer” and not “Football”? Blame it on the Brits!

So it`s the World Cup and what a joy to be in a place like Argentina during this time.  Just like any other event, be it a concert or local football game, the people are as passionate as you can imagine.  When Argentina plays, the streets are empty and you hear shouting and screaming from all the buildings around.   Restaurants and homes are decorated in flags of light blue and white.  Many offices are equipped with extra monitors and TVs to watch the games while working.  Store are closed in order to not miss a moment, and no one–except two foreigners (myself included)–came to a class that was scheduled before game 2 on a Saturday.  Whether you like football or not, it`s hard to not get sucked into the excitement somehow!


I`m American and grew up watching “the other football.”   You know – the one that does not have to do with feet at all?  Come on America!  Why do we have to be different than the rest of the world?  I have been annoyed by this, just like many of you, but there is a reason for it and it`s not American arrogance.  In fact, it`s the Brit`s fault!

football vs. soccer


The word “soccer” is a diminutive of association, as in As-soc-iation Football.   In the early 1800`s, a group of British universities took the medieval game “football”  and started playing their own versions of it, all with different rules.  In order to standardize things across the country, however, these games were categorized under different organizations and given different names.  One version of the game played with only hands became “Rugby Football.”  Another version was called  “Association Football.”   Rugby Football later became “Rugger” for short, and Association Football later became “Assoccer,” quickly changing to “Soccer” alone.

Eventually Rugby and Soccer both spread across to the United States  in the early 1900`s.  What was known as “Gridiron” in Britian was called Football in America and  “Association Football” kept the name “Soccer.”   The Brits also kept using the term  “Soccer” for a large part of the 20th century; in fact between 1960 and 1980, “Soccer” and “Football” were “almost interchangeable” terms in Britain.  The first documented case of the sport being called by the term “Football” was in 1881, 18 years after it was first called “Soccer” (or officially “Association Football.”)

Soccer is not as popular in the United States, although things are changing.  Of non-Brazilian fans visiting this year`s World Cup for example, the greatest number of fans come from the US!  Personal economics makes a difference of course, but that is more than neighboring Argentina fans.  Vamos USA!

So… it will be hard to overcome the many stereotypes against Americans and “Soccer” but remember this, it isn`t our fault!  I was surprised too!



Sources for this post:

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Translation marketing blunders oh my! Part 1

I have a favorite class with students where we talk about cross cultural communication and share stories about language and/or cultural mishaps.  Something will inevitably happen when you are learning another language.  Working as a waitress once I remember telling a Spanish speaking table that I was pregnant instead of embarrassed.  It`s a common error to make and in the end just reason to laugh.  Don`t let the possibility of saying something wrong stop you from trying!

The stakes are higher in business, however, and translation and cultural awareness must be considered.  In international marketing, one of the most well-known translation blunders comes from car maker Chevy and their car the “Nova.”  In Spanish it literally translates to “It doesn`t go.”  It was obviously not the message Chevy wanted to portray for its car that is suppose to go, and go fast for that matter!  (See below for more clarification on this case.)


Mistakes with cultural awareness without a doubt have happened and continue to happen, especially as the world becomes more global everyday.  Examples of that for another post!  Today`s post is a compilation of translation mistakes (in writing, not speaking) that led to unfavorable results in international markets.

1. The Chevy Nova isn`t the only English to Spanish (or vice versa) mistake that has occurred with cars.  In fact there have been many.  Here are three examples of model names that were unfit for the Spanish and Portuguese markets.

  • The Mazda Laputa literally translates in Spanish to the Mazda “whore” (la puta).
  • The Nissan Moco literally translates to the Nissan “bugger” (el moco).
  • The Mitsubishi Pajero is the Mitsubishi “wanker.”   The car was renamed as “Montero.”

2. Honda introduced their car the “Fitta” in Nordic countries in 2001, only to later to learn that it referred to a woman’s genitals in Swedish and Norwegian. In the end, they renamed it the “Honda Jazz.”

3. Gerber is America’s best-known baby food maker, but “gerber” can be translated as “to vomit” of all things in French. Evidently the name was not marketed in France.

4. In Germany, Clairol launched a curling iron called the “Mist Stick” and mist in German is slang for manure: the “manure stick.” Uh oh…

5. Sharwoods, a UK food manufacturer, spent £6 million on a campaign to launch its new ‘Bundh’ sauces only later to receive calls from numerous Punjabi speakers indicating that “bundh” sounded just like the Punjabi word for “arse”. Oops!

6. The Japanese company Matsushita Electric (now Panasonic) was promoting a new PC for internet users. They had created the new web browser and received license to use the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker as the interactive internet guide.  The day before launch, they realized the mistake and saved themselves a lot of embarrassment. The ads for the new product featured the following slogan: “Touch Woody – The Internet Pecker.”  “Woody” and “pecker” are both references to male genitals in English.

7. In the 1970`s, Wang Computers was an American computer company with the motto: “Wang Cares.”  Sounding a lot like “wankers,” British branches refused to use the motto.

8. “Traficante” is an Italian mineral water, but in Spanish translates to “drug dealer” or “trafficker.”  In 2006, it was purchased by Coca-Cola.

9. When Pope John Paul II visited Miami in 1987, a local T-shirt maker produced commemorative T-shirts for the Hispanic market “Vi la papa” without realizing that a simple article change in Spanish changed the meaning. The shirts literally read: “I saw the Potato” (“la Papa”), instead of “I saw the Pope” (“el Papa”).

10. The toothpaste and toothbrush company “Colgate” literally means “hang yourself” in the voseo form of Argentinian Spanish.

More on Chevy`s Nova: Despite being perhaps the most common example given in international marketing, the story of the Nova is actually a myth.  The car was sold with this name in Venezuela and Mexico, having quite successful sales in Venezuela in fact.

For a similar post but related to cultural blunders, go here!










In Portuguese, the word “saudade” is when you miss someone or something constantly, and not just in the moment.  It´s possible to summarize the feeling in just one word: saudade.   “Estou sentindo saudade de voce.”

saudades de vc

Part of the fun when learning another language is discovering terms and words that don´t exist in your first language.  I can only speak for comparing Spanish and English, however, words like “friolenta/o” (adjective) and “pochoclera” (noun) are a few of my favorites.

  • Friolenta (Argentina) Friolera (Spain): When someone is sensitive to cold and gets cold easily. “Soy friolenta.
  • Pochoclera: Coming from “pochoclo” (popcorn), this is a light-hearted, fun movie that is suitable for eating popcorn. “Quiero mirar una pochoclera.”

As the previous post gave an example of aboriginal girls always knowing which direction was which, it came back to their language which doesn´t use words like left or right and uses compass points instead.  Germans have an expression for being alone in the woods “Waldeinsamkeit” simply because they have forests and have lived the experience; the term wouldn´t serve a culture who only knows the tropical rain forest.  Our words are all subject to the culture from which we grew up, somehow.  From a recent article in 9GAG, entitled “Untranslatable Words, shows a lot about different cultures,” eleven examples were given, each with a hint of culture associated with the term.  I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.


Saudade11Saudade10 Saudade9 Saudade8 Saudade7 Saudade6 Saudade5 Saudade4 Saudade3 Saudade2

A New Perspective

“Speak a new language so that the world will be a new world.” ~Rumi

See the world from a new perspective

Knowledge of language

“Knowledge of languages is the doorway to wisdom.”
~Roger Bacon



The limits of my language

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” ~Ludwig Wittgenstein

Bonzai tree

Unfolding Language, Unfolding Life – Podcast Summary

Children of bilingual parents, or parents of two different languages, start to develop a bilingual brain in the womb.  So by the time they are born, their brains are not the same as a monolingual child.

By the age of 3 of 4, kids have already acquired thousands (yes thousands) of words and complex grammars.  Children in fact can speak many grammars that they were never taught!  (If only learning a second language were this easy you’re thinking.)  Although imitation can certainly help, in truth this podcast tells us that young children don’t learn by imitation and instead learn by where they are at in their personal development.  This is why a little girl will repeatedly say “My teacher holded the baby rabbits,” no matter how many times her mother corrects and tells her that it’s “My teacher held the baby rabbits.”  Eventually she will graduate to a higher level and use the irregular verbs, but until then, she is learning aspects of language by finding and recognizing patterns in the language she hears around her, rather than by simply imitating others.


This simply touches the surface of the information available related to child and language development.  I encourage you to listen to this podcast if you get some time to hear it from a true expert, Jean Berko Gleason, a psycholinguist from Boston University who is credited with developing the “wug test,” a test of children’s knowledge of morphology.

Listen to Unfolding Language, Unfolding LIfe here.

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