Language Lens

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

Archive for the category “Language”

Football and English: The Power to Unite

It’s that time of year again, the World Cup.  The United States didn’t qualify and after Argentina and Spain lost, I naturally went for where I live now–Belgium.  The team was doing great and made it to the semi-finals!  I speak in the past tense, because it all ended last night losing to France.  Despite losing, however, people still honked their horns and celebrated the team’s success, which put a smile on my face.  These past few weeks have been exciting and beautiful as the occasion united people who otherwise have little to nothing in common.  This is the power of sports, and football in particular.

Brussels is a conglomerate of people from all over the world, and finding a real “Belgian identity” is hard for a few reasons.  First of all as stated in the last blog post, there are approximately 184 nationalities living within the City of Brussels!  And secondly, Belgium itself is divided.  Unlike some countries where division is due to race or religion, the modern explanation for division in Belgium is  language.  In Flanders they speak Flemish, a dialect of Dutch. In Wallonia, they speak French, although a Latin language Walloon was their original language and has declined in use little by little, today being spoken by few.

The World Cup can be a time for unity.  You cheer for your team, then you go for another if need be.  You may not watch the games or be a fan, but you still like to see people on the street smiling and filled with excitement.  In Belgium, bars were filled with people of all kinds.  Bars were filled with Flemish and Walloons, matching the demographic of the team in fact!  They had to unite to play as a team, so how could they overcome the language division that existed between them?

I overheard some Irishmen talking last night about how the team communicated, and it wasn’t by speaking the others’ language.  Instead, it was by speaking English together!  A trend that is starting to happen bit by bit is that Flemish and Walloons are choosing to speak English together instead of each other’s language.  It seems English is able to bridge the divide somehow.

Belgium lost which was disappointing for many but good news came as well as a lost football team in Northern Thailand were rescued.  This was a miraculous story with divers from many countries working around the clock to save the boys.  When the boys were found, fortunately some spoke enough English to be able to communicate with the British divers who found them.  When EU Parliament workers have a meeting, it’s English that is spoken to reach the numerous nationalities represented.  Historically English was a language of submission and cultural domination, but today it’s the language used to unite groups and ease communication barriers.  English today is a common lingua franca across the globe.

The World Cup is a time of unity and cheers come in many languages, but when more than “Go” “Stop him” or “Shit” (among others) are needed, English is the language in common.  Football and English, together or separate, they are true forces that can unite!

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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 the 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.

 

When brands meet grammar

We are all well aware of top brand names: Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Nike, or Apple.  Love a brand or hate it, it is a way of giving identity to a product, service or line of either. A brand is also a way to differentiate a product/service from its competitors, which is defined as its (brand) “positioning”.   Both Motel 6 and Hilton for example are in the same business and are recognized names, however, they do not compete with one another as they are in different classes and have different product “positioning.”

According to the annual study by Forbes, in 2017 Apple tops the list as the most valuable brand in the world for the seventh consecutive year, worth $170 billion.  Google is the second most valuable brand, followed by Microsoft, Facebook and then Coca-Cola.  Global brand recognition is a true success for a company, but what about when a brand meets grammar and becomes so well recognized that it surpasses language barriers or even becomes part of common everyday language?  Apple for example is used by millions of people who have little to no knowledge of English at all and yet they still say and recognize the name.  Google is a great modern example that takes it beyond solely recognition.  It started as a simple search engine and today is a common verb meaning to search for something online!  Although Merriam-Webster tells us that “to google” is to use Google specifically to find something online, who uses anything other than Google really?  …. Ok, some of you, but most of us wouldn’t consider using anything else when believe it or not there are 140+ options out there!  Yahoo is the second most used option, but somehow “yahoo it” just doesn’t sound as good as “google it” … and who can deny that “googlealo” (Google it) just rolls off the tongue so well!

Googlealo

*Translation: “When you don’t know something, Google it.”

Other marketing success stories are products like Bandaid, Kleenex, Q-tip or Gillette in Spanish speaking countries where it’s the common name for a standard razor.  These are the everyday terms for the products themselves when they actually come from merely a brand name.  Due to the dominance of American brands and recognition in movies, many cultures and languages adopt a brand name for a product.  It happens often but still, few brands will reach this level of recognition.  How it happens is something for another blog post, but starting with children, during their learning and formative years is definitely one example.

A friend of mine is a teacher for young kids in Barcelona, Spain and upon doing a grammar exercise of word opposites, a young student showed the influence of a brand.  In the final example, when “DIA” (day) was really asking for NOCHE (night) as the answer, he responded with Carrefour, (a French) supermarket competitor of another (Spanish) chain called Dia.

Is this:

a.) a comical example of a young learner b.) a case of marketing101  c.) both

I say BOTH!

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Spell “sardoodledom” please!

Spanish, like many of the other Romance languages, has a transparent spelling system, which means once you know how to say the basic letters, you can pronounce nearly anything.  It means that the letters will (almost) always be pronounced the same way.  If only English were this way!  Instead, it has strange letters popping up, like the “h” in spaghetti or the “b” in doubt, and don’t even get me started on the vowels!  Technology is making spelling less and less important to people as well, therefore “a lost art” if you will.   According to Mencap, a third of British adults struggle with spelling due to over-reliance on spell checks and technology, and for people over 18, one out of every five has difficulty spelling tricky words.

Should we all return to the spelling bee days?  Until learning that English has an “opaque”spelling system, also known as deep orthography, I assumed all elementary students participated in spelling bees, some spelling “e-s-c-u-e-l-a” while others spelled “s-c-h-o-o-l.”  But no!  English students need spelling bees because of the spelling issues, difficulties, and rarities.  As English speakers, we must study the spelling because we can’t guess based on solely how the word sounds!  This is why many consider English pronunciation difficult, as one doesn’t know how to say the word by reading it alone.  And it’s also why those regular verbs in the past can get so confused…

So, next time you want to ask your Catalan or Colombian friend about those dreaded spelling competitions, think twice!  They didn’t do it!  But you could ask a French, Arabic or Hebrew speaker perhaps…as their spelling system is like English–opaque and unclear! The question remains if videos like this appear in those languages and cultures!   Spell “sardoodledom” please!

Language, it shapes many things in our lives

“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” ~Benjamin Lee Whorf

To be in the black vs. to be in the red, that is the question

To be in the black vs. to be in the red, that is the question.   These phrases are common in Business English, and despite black usually having a negative connotation, it is positive in this example.  “To be in the black” means for a company to be making profit, to have money in its account in other words, where “to be in the red” means the contrary–to have a negative balance in its account and owe the bank.  Both terms can apply to a person, a company or an account.

  • XYZ company is finally in the black and seems to be recovering financially!
  • ABC company on the other hand is in the red and continues to lose clients, unfortunately.

These terms come from the days of manual accounting, where a ledger was used to manually keep track of funds.  A positive flow of money was reported in black ink, and an expense was reported in red ink.  The way I wrote that makes it sound like a historic practice which it isn’t, but let’s face it, technology has replaced and changed many practices including how balance sheets and income statements are done.  Just remember this: a company wants to be “in the black“, as they want to be making money!

This is the case for English, but be careful as the phrases do no translate directly into Spanish!  “Estar en negro” or “trabajar en negro” means to work illegally, and translates instead to “working under the table in English,” which means avoiding taxes and earning in cash for example.  It doesn’t refer to a foreigner working in a country illegally.  “Estar en blanco” (literally, to be in the white) means to be working legally, to be paying taxes on wages and reporting income.

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  • Estoy trabajando en negro por ahora.  I am working under the table for the moment.
  • No extraño mi trabajo en blanco, porque gano mejor en negro.  I don’t miss my registered/legal job, because I’m earning better under the table.

A little Business English for you folks, and my favorite Rolling Stones song with a fitting title: Paint it Black, but don’t be fooled by the name.  The lyrics are clearly about someone who is likely “in the red” instead.

Whiskey: I stand with the ‘e’

Well gosh… it’s been many months since I wrote for this dear blog, and I hate to let so much time pass, but it’s been a busy year… with a lot of movement.  One part of that movement was returning to the “homeland”, she says with an Irish brogue.  I like to tease like that, as many of us Americans come from Irish ancestry, and especially a family with the last name of Kelly, the second most common last name in Ireland after Murphy.  Irish roots come from both sides of my family in fact, and nearly all my life someone made mention of just how Irish my name is.  So… it was no wonder that I wanted to go and see it someday.  That day arrived this past summer when I finally made it to the Emerald Isle!

My brother is the Guinness drinker in the family, and I went to the Guinness Museum in his honor, but I will admit it’s not my favorite brew.  What I prefer but don’t drink often is whisky.  I mean whiskey.  Both are actually right!  I was told before about this spelling difference, but didn’t quite understand it until I went to both Scotland and Ireland and saw it for myself.  These two countries take their whiskey seriously!  In the gaelic language, whiskey originated from the word uisce (Irish) /uisge (Scottish), meaning “water.”  Distilled alcohol in Latin (aqua vitae) is technically “water of life”, so therefore combine Distilled and Whiskey into Gaelic, and you get uisce beatha (Irish gaelic) and uisge beatha (Scottish gaelic), meaning “water of life” and indeed that is how it is viewed.

There are two general ideas about the spelling change.  First that it’s just a regionalism between the two countries, like color and colour from the US vs. Britian.  And secondly that the spelling refers to where it is from.  After going to the Whiskey Museum in Dublin, I attest that the second is true!  Whisky without an e is always for the Scottish versions, often called Scotch for Scotch Whisky.  Spelling it as “whiskey” in fact can be quite offensive.  As the two countries were competing back in the day and still dispute over who has the best spirit to offer the world, the ‘e’ was added to the Irish version for “excellent” to show its superiority.  Today much “whiskey” is spelled as such in the US as well, which isn’t surprising after visiting and seeing just how tied the two countries are.  The only other place I saw a comparable number of American flags is in America itself, and tour guides’ best explanation for this was “to welcome the American tourists.”  In the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013, nearly 33.3 million Americans (10.5% of the total population) reported Irish ancestry, where Ireland itself has nearly 6.4 million lads and lassies!  So many of us consider ourselves Irish American, although I learned saying American Irish is more accurate, and what the Irish think is more appropriate as well!

So… now you know a bit about the word difference.  This isn’t just a spelling variation or a regionalism.  It truly shows where you stand in terms of preference and allegiance.  I stand with the ‘e’.

Here are a few photos from my journey: the Irish Whiskey Museum, the Cliffs of Moher, the Dingle Peninsula, St. Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin, Ring of Kerry, Galway, Blarney Castle, and Killarney National Park!

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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

Connecting meditation and language learning

I come to you almost two weeks after finishing my first meditation retreat.  This was for a technique called Vipassana, which is one of the most ancient forms of meditation from India.  Until about a year ago I had never heard of it, and until about two weeks ago I knew nothing about it.  I had tried several meditation techniques, never getting real direction and only getting frustrated in the process.  Maybe you relate.  Like everyone who starts, I was trying to stop my mind, but how can you do that really? And especially when you have a mind that will never seem to stop running? They say “mente a mil” in Spanish, literally the idea of your mind being at “speed one thousand.”

I am no expert and am pretty young in the meditation world honestly, but I now understand the point and have experienced some real results of my own.  Meditation can be practiced in many forms: in cleaning, drawing, focusing on breath, counting breath, scanning the body for sensations, the list goes on.  You are simply learning to observe your mind rather than stopping it, and each technique has a different approach on how to do it.  By observing, you become aware, and awareness is the first step to any kind of change.

Now I want to talk about language learning, and of course since this is a language blog!  A wise woman once taught me about this thing that happens when acquiring language.  First you become aware of a mistake you are making either on your own or with a teacher´s help. Then you get repeated correction from a teacher (and realize just how much you are making that mistake.) Thirdly, you start to correct yourself, and finally, the error is no longer an error and has been converted, corrected, transformed…however you want to call it.  There is something in linguistics called “fossilization” which is an error that has happened so much or was never learned correctly to begin with that it has “hardened” so to speak, leaving an imprint as a fossil does.  It´s a mistake that a student has made so many times that it has become part of their natural speech, for example.  In the world of meditation, you could call it taking root.

As I worked to find my bliss at the Vipassana retreat, I realized it wasn´t bliss at all really.  It was hard work sitting up for hours at a time and trying to focus.  I had some moments of bliss but there is nothing like the bliss of seeing some change in your life.   I “scanned my body” (and for anyone who has done it, you know what I mean) and throughout the week thoughts came to me, things I hadn´t thought about in years and others that came around and around again.  Some of these thought patterns we all have seem impossible to change, just like a fossilized mistake!

So I´m back to the real world, the hectic world that it is.  Those ten days in silence enjoying nature, finding inner peace, and searching for the right meditation position were blissful now that I compare it to the city noise.  Maybe it is  just that I´m back to the typical routine, and it feels intense because I had never calmed my mind like that before?  Why do we meditate really?  To find peace, tranquility…equanimity… equanimity… equanimity.  We do it to change our minds and to evolve, because you can evolve past the broken record that goes on and on in your head.  Awareness is the key to any kind of freedom, even freedom from language mistakes.  You too can correct and evolve past fossilized mistakes.  It just takes some work.

I had many days to sit and meditate and admittedly think about other things too.  One thing I thought about was this blog post in fact and the connection to fossilized mistakes and roots in our mind.  These things can change… it just takes some work.

meditation one

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