Language Lens

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

Archive for the category “Linguistics”

The learning process…and the process of “fossilization”

There are many theories on how we learn language, therefore there are many methods on how to teach.  Students are different and for adults what is even more different are their life circumstances and schedules.  We can’t always have the “ideal” situation for learning by moving to London or Washington DC, and what is “ideal” anyway?  The practicalities of life play a big part in language acquisition, and this is simply a reality.

English is a unique case as it’s spoken in many more countries than just the UK, the US, Australia, Ireland etc.  It’s the “common language” among people in an international environment and for traveling.  English is also unique because we have regular exposure to it, and it dominates the entertainment industry.  This is how so many people learn on their own by immersing themselves into TV series, podcasts or music.

Although it’s wonderful to have the ability to learn on your own, it presents some challenges and limitations as well.

  • Many times there are “holes” or “gaps” in a student’s knowledge – things that weren’t learned well from the start, therefore leaving a ‘hole’ or ‘emptiness’ in the flow of knowledge.
  • We naturally have “interference” from our first language onto a second, so we “transfer” things from our mother tongues onto English.

Both common sources of mistakes – holes and interference – lead to “fossilization”, which occurs when a mistake is repeated enough times without correction that it becomes a habit.   The mistakes technically harden in your brain leaving an imprint, like a fossil.

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… but rest assured, there is no challenge too difficult to overcome.

Fossilized mistakes are possible to correct.  It just takes work and more than that, it takes greater awareness, which is the first step to any change.  Meditation techniques teach that “what you feed will grow.”  In other words, what thoughts and beliefs you constantly reinforce by repeating them will grow stronger in your mind.  The process is the same regarding language, including how we talk to ourselves as we learn, how we react if and when a mistake occurs and those darn “fossilized mistakes” themselves.  The more we repeat them, the more they take root.

This leads me to the four general steps in the learning process:

  1. A student makes mistakes and gets correction from a teacher. There is no limit to how long this process might take and it’s a more passive process for the student.
  2. Eventually the student starts to “self-correct” and this is when you know language acquisition is shifting from passive to active. Self-correction is possible due to greater awareness, which is the first step to any change.
  3. The mistake is made once in a while, always self-corrected when noticed.
  4. Eventually the mistake disappears. The hardened fossil has been broken open and thus dissolved.

This matters anywhere you learn another language, but since there are around 184 nationalities living in Brussels and around 104 languages present, this makes “interference” widespread and there are few native speakers to learn from as you would in London or Washington DC.  If everyone is influenced by their first language, then interference comes in many forms in Brussels.  Some people call the English spoken in international communities such as this “Globish”, “Eurish”, “Euro-English” or simply “International English.”

Some observations and tips for language learning based on my teaching experience:

  1. Frequency is more important than duration of time in order to retain and memorize information. For example, it’s better to learn a language in small increments of time (30 minutes a day) instead of a two hour class all at once.
  2. For improving comprehension it’s better to stay with one general accent and get used to the sounds, tones and expressions before moving on to another. Some students think it’s best to change their teacher and hear different accents all the time, but it actually works in the opposite effect as your ear never adapts fully to one. This is to focus your comprehension and limit the amount of information you receive at once.
  3. When you aren’t focused and can’t concentrate, it’s best to take a short walk, try to meditate or find whatever means you can to relax before learning begins. Being relaxed and calm is more important than knowledge or skills, because when we aren’t relaxed, it blocks us from speaking at our full potential and therefore the knowledge we have matters less.

Since language is best learned with more frequency than of duration of time…since greater awareness is needed to make a change… and since “fossilization” is real and occurs when students don’t get corrective feedback, targeted conversation is the way.

Remembering what meditation reveals: “What you feed will grow.”

If conversation isn’t guided and if there isn’t someone available to point out “interference” or “fossilized mistakes”, then we continue to feed these errors and find ourselves in a vicious cycle of habit.  Fossilized mistakes are just that – they’ve happened enough where they are now habit.  By being more “mindful” of your learning, by targeting problem areas, and by being in a calm environment to do so, you can learn to break the habit of “fossilization” and then be in a better position to continue learning on your own!

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

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!

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.

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

Happy Birthday Lengua Lens!

Language Lens started as a blog and later developed into something more: Lengua Lens.  One year ago today Lengua Lens was officially launched!  Thanks for your follows, interest and support this past year!

Happy Bday

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.)

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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!

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Find the Beat!

I remember how school changed for me after starting piano lessons; it all of a sudden got easier.  And then there were the really really smart kids who had great grades, scored high on all of the placement tests and were perhaps “smarter than the rest.” I noticed that many of them played an instrument, primarily the piano, and I remember thinking then that perhaps there was a correlation.

And absolutely there is a connection.  Nina Kraus, of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University in Illinois,  says, “when we play a musical instrument we are exercising and making important electrical connections, or pathways, in our brains.  This might even help our brains when we are trying to learn another language, or a new subject in school.”  In another study related to reading Nina argues that “kids who are poor readers have a lot of difficulty doing this motor task and following the beat…It seems that the same ingredients that are important for reading are strengthened with musical experience.  It may be that musical training, with its emphasis on rhythmic skills, can exercise the auditory-system, leading to less neural jitter and stronger sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential for learning to read,” she said.  This study adds to the emerging (and fascinating!) correlation between musical-rhythmic skills and performance in other areas related to language, such as non-verbal elements and kinaesthetic learning.

Another recent study with jazz musicians shows that the part of the brain that is activated while playing together is the same area that is related to syntax of a language – the order of words.  In the study, one musician would play four bars and the next would make up four bars in return, to compliment the previous sound.  They were improvizing  and having a “music-like conversation” really, which makes the connection to syntax so interesting.  The study showed that even as they were not playing and were waiting their turn simply listening to the sound of the other, “the brain wasn’t resting. The musicians were processing what they were hearing to come up with new sounds that were a good fit.”  This reminds me of when we are in a conversation and sometimes are thinking about what we are going to say in return rather than just listening to the other talk.  You know it´s happened to you too!

A lot of language learning success is related to being able to recognize and repeat patterns, and what else is full of patterns and rhythms – music.  The intonation of a language, not to be confused with pronunciation or accent, is an essential part of mastering a second language and has all to do with hearing rhythms and tones.  There are countless examples of music and its relation to language learning.  Whether you learn a second language by imitating rhythms and sounds or by listening to a song and learning the new language as a result, find the beat to help you in your language learning process!

Musical beats

Saudade

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.

Saudade1

Saudade11Saudade10 Saudade9 Saudade8 Saudade7 Saudade6 Saudade5 Saudade4 Saudade3 Saudade2

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