British Council seminar on language learning

June 4, 2014

Yesterday evening I watched a seminar from the British Council on language learning, which took place in Cardiff and was broadcast live on YouTube (video below). There were two talks, each followed by brief Q&As, and both are well worth watching if the topics interest you.

First, Miguel Angel Muñoz explored whether learning a foreign language makes you smarter – and if so, how. He reports on research into the cognitive benefits of bi- and multilingualism, and clears up some of the uncertainty in this area. Miguel wrote a post for the British Council blog which will give you an idea of the content of his talk.

Next, Michael Rundell of Macmillan Dictionary spoke about the difference between real rules and mere usage peeves, and how we should therefore teach grammar. For a flavour, see his excellent related post where, referring to Nevile Gwynne’s championing of pre-modern grammar books, he writes:

It is hard to imagine any other field of study in which a source is recommended precisely because it is out of date.

Here’s a slide from Michael’s presentation. The reference to “Heffer 2014″ will be familiar to anyone who has read my recent posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

michael rundell - british council seminars - language learning - using data vs claims

The video is 2½ hours long. If you want to skip around, introductions begin at 3:20, Miguel starts at 7:45, and there’s an interval from 1:02:45 to 1:13:18. Michael’s talk starts (after a technical hitch) at 1:16:15 and ends at 2:20:00, at which point there’s a few minutes of closing remarks.*

It’s almost like being there, except you have to make your own tea.

*

Other British Council seminars and videos are available here.

* Or there are, if you’re twitchy about it.


Pseudotranslations

March 18, 2014

Imgur (pronounced “imager”), a popular image-hosting social website, has a fun thread on translation errors and substitutions in speech.

It starts with a user saying his Russian wife asked for a roll of inches when she meant a tape measure, and the comments soon filled up with more in this vein: some poetic, some amusingly absurd, a few resulting from memory failure in the speaker’s own language.

I did not know the words for ‘ice cubes’ in German so asked for ‘very cold water with corners’ (from user slimydog)

My dutch neighbor called a [merry]-go-round a horse tornado. (disguisenburg)

I have referred to Muffins as bread mushrooms. (zinvader)

When I was learning English I could not remember the English for Reindeer, so I called it a Christmas Llama. (Unusualpretense)

When I was learning Swedish and making plans with friends, I kept telling them “Smells good!” when I meant “Sounds good!” (freegiant)

I went to say “a bee!” in Japanese but said “a jar of honey!” instead. (jlist)

Couldn’t remember “shower” in Spanish once, had to tell the maid my friend was “in falling water” (theblueshell)

My friend from France never said “Go Away”. Instead: “PUT AWAY YOUR FACE!” Its my favorite expression to this day <3

I know I’ve produced some howlers/classics of my own when I was learning languages, or trying to communicate in other countries, but none come to mind this evening. Got any to share? Smells good!

Update:

See the follow-up at All Things Linguistic, which has further examples in the post and comments, and queries the pronunciation of imgur.


The celestial aspirate of Mister Lem

March 8, 2013

Stanisław Lem, in The Star Diaries, has an amusing inversion of our custom on Earth of adding more and more letters and titles to our names as we gain academic and other distinctions.

From “The Thirteenth Voyage”:

My object, when I set out from Earth, was to reach an extremely remote planet of the Crab constellation, Fatamiasma, known throughout space as the birthplace of one of the most distinguished individuals in our Universe, Master Oh. This is not the real name of that illustrious sage, but they refer to him thus, for it is impossible otherwise to render his true appellation in any earthly language. Children born on Fatamiasma receive an enormous number of titles and distinctions as well as a name that is, by our standards, inordinately long.

The day Master Oh came into the world he was called Hridipidagnittusuoayomojorfnagrolliskipwikabeccopyxlbepurz. And duly dubbed Golden Buttress of Being, Doctor of Quintessential Benignity, Most Possibilistive Universatilitude, etc., etc. From year to year, as he studied and matured, the titles and syllables of his name were one by one removed, and since he gave evidence of uncommon abilities, by the thirty-third year of his life he was relieved of his last distinction, and two years later carried no title whatever, while his name was designated in the Fatamiasman alphabet by a single and – moreover – voiceless letter, signifying “celestial aspirate” – this is a kind of stifled gasp which one gives from a surfeit of awe and rapture.

Lem’s literature is as much philosophical excursion as it is storytelling (with plenty of playful asides, as above). He has a gift for both, and a wicked sense of humour – some chapters in The Star Diaries are like Borges having a Douglas Adams dream, as I remarked at the time.

He’s probably best known for Solaris, but it’s not one of the handful I’ve read so far, all of them brilliantly entertaining and consistently thought-provoking. It seems appropriate that Mister Lem’s own name is so short: not quite Master Oh’s stifled gasp of awe and rapture, but not a million light-years away either.

*

Edit: Speaking of aspiration and verbal invention, Passive-Aggressive Notes has a note this week from a 6-year-old girl to her mother with what appears to be a sigh of frustration: “hhhh”. I don’t think I’ve seen a sigh spelled so perfectly before.


Tongue-tied, by Li-Chin Lin

February 5, 2013

The current issue of Words Without Borders has an interesting comic about language and identity by Taiwanese artist Li-Chin Lin, translated from French by Edward Gauvin.

Tongue-tied, excerpted (I think) from her début graphic novel Formose, vividly explores the politics of dialect and language, social attitudes towards their use, and the complications of squaring one’s sense of self with these conflicting pressures.

Li-Chin Lin - Tongue-tied - comic on language and identity

Li-Chin Lin is interviewed here about her work; the page is in French, so drop the text into Google Translate or similar if you want a rough version in English or another language.


Link love: language (47)

October 17, 2012

It’s time – past time – for a roundup of language-related items I enjoyed over the last few weeks. So here they are:

Is malarkey Irish?

The world’s oldest message in a bottle.

Grammar gotcha” and political speech.

Vices of modern prose (from a century ago).

Briticisms in American English.

When foreign words and native accents meet.

Linguistic advice for pseudo-Elizabethan romancers.

A short history of Wow! from 1513 to now.

Literature vs. traffic (art installation).

Why handwriting matters.

Spudger.”

Is funner grammatical?

Dialectal differences in sign languages.

An immodest proposal to reform the English writing system.

Noah Webster’s designs for American orthography.

France ≠ twirling a moustache: how British sign language is changing.

Good debate on language rules, usage, and authority.

Mononymy: when people use just one name.

How the Beatles used and influenced the English language.

Non-singular only is not debatable.

Are some languages faster than others?

A dictionary of Demotic Egyptian has been published.

Translating Finnegans Wake into Chinese.

Booklet on the recently expired Cromarty fisher dialect of Scots (PDF).

*

Note: some of these I’ve already shared on Twitter, and some that I’ve tweeted didn’t make the list. Them’s the breaks.

[lots more links]

Eva Hoffman: ‘somewhere between tongue and mind’

June 21, 2012

I mentioned Eva Hoffman’s book Lost in Translation here in April when it featured in a bookmash, Forest of Symbols. John Cowan, in a comment, said it was wonderful, which prompted me to bump it up the unread pile. I can now agree wholeheartedly with John, and am grateful for the prod – it’s the best book I’ve read in months.

Hoffman was a child when she and her family fled Poland for Canada, and later the U.S.; her book, subtitled Life in a New Language, is a memoir of this migration in three parts: Paradise, Exile, and The New World. In it she writes with grace and deep insight about her happy youth in Poland, her alienation across the Atlantic, and her gradual psychological and cultural integration into an English-speaking world.

Read the rest of this entry »


Mar dhea, moryah — a sceptical Irish interjection

May 14, 2012

The Irish phrase mar dhea /mɑr’jæ/, /mɑrə’jæ/ “mor ya” is characteristic of Irish English speech. It’s a sceptical interjection used to cast doubt, dissent or derision (or all three) on whatever phrase or clause precedes it. Mar dhea literally means as were it, i.e., as if it were so.*

Sometimes mar dhea is translated as forsooth, but I’m not sure this is helpful. Better to consider it an ironic insertion similar to As if!, Yeah right!, or a sarcastic indeed or supposedly. Bernard Share, in Slanguage, describes it as an “expression of sardonic disbelief or dissent”, while P. W. Joyce says it’s:

a derisive expression of dissent to drive home the untruthfulness of some assertion or supposition or pretence, something like the English ‘forsooth’, but infinitely stronger [English As We Speak It In Ireland]

Mar dhea has been anglicised in many ways, for example moryah, mor-yah, maryahmara-ya, maryeah, mauryah, maureeyah, muryaa, moy-ah, and moya. It’s a testament to its popularity in Hiberno-English, the diversity of Irish pronunciation, and the difficulty of finding precise orthographic correspondence between the two tongues.

Read the rest of this entry »


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