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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Five reasons English speakers struggle to learn foreign languages

It's no secret that English speakers struggle to learn foreign languages but there are good reasons to explain their woes that can't just be put down to the fact that all young Europeans speak English. Linguistics expert Michelle Sheehan looks at five of them in this article from The Conversation.

According to a recent survey co-ordinated by the European Commission 80% of European 15-30 year olds can read and write in at least one foreign language. This number drops to only 32% amongst British 15-30 year olds.

This is not just because all European young people speak English. If we look at those who can read and write in at least three languages, the UK is still far behind. Only 8% of UK young people can do what 88% of Luxembourgish, 77% of Latvian and 62% of Maltese young people can do. 

So what are the difficulties Britons face when learning other languages? Here are a few of the basics. 

1. Objects have genders

One of the most difficult and bizarre things about learning languages such as French, Spanish and German – but also Portuguese, Italian, Polish, German, Hindi and Welsh – is that inanimate objects such as chairs and tables have genders, so they are masculine (he), feminine (she) or sometimes neuter (it). 

There is no real logic to this – milk is masculine in French, Italian and Portuguese, but feminine in Spanish and German, but it still tastes and looks the same. In Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, gender is usually indicated by word endings (-o and -a), making it easier to learn, but sound changes in French have made genders rather opaque, and a real challenge for second language learners. 

Interestingly, English used to have grammatical gender too, but this was basically lost in Chaucer’s time. There are still some remnants of it in English, though: the pronouns he/she/it__ are masculine, feminine and neuter, but he/she are now only used to talk about living things, not tables and windows (as they were in older stages of English). 

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Contrary to what you might think, languages don’t actually need gender. The gender-neutral singular pronoun they, has been much discussed of late, but many languages lack the equivalent of he/she, having only they(among them Turkish and Finnish). Other languages, notably Swahili and related languages, have many more genders – up to 18. French gender is easy by comparison.

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2. Agreement is vital

Once you have memorised the fact that house is feminine and book is masculine, the next step is to make sure that all the adjectives, articles (the/a), demonstratives (this/that) and possessors (my/his) describing these words have matching gender and also indicate the difference between singular (one) or plural (more than one) ma belle maison(my beautiful house) but mon beau livre (my handsome book). Linguists call this “agreement” or “concord”, and it is very common, especially in European languages – but nonetheless quite tricky for English speakers, simply because they don’t really have it (any more).

Once again, English used to have this, but it has been almost completely lost. They still have a little bit of it left though: “this sheep is lonely but these sheep are not”, and we know that partly because of the word these, a “plural” demonstrative.

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3. Just being polite

French has tu/vous, German has du/Sie, Spanish tu/usted, Italian tu/lei, but, in English, we just have plain old you. Linguists call this the “T-V distinction” (because of Latin tu/vos) and this politeness distinction is found in many European languages and well as in other languages (Basque, Indonesian, Mongolian, Persian, Turkish and Tagalog). 

Essentially, there are two different forms of you depending on power dynamics, and every time you strike up a conversation, you need to choose the right pronoun, or risk causing offence. This poses obvious difficulty for English speakers as there are no hard-and-fast rules about when to use the formal or informal form. 

In fact, usage has varied over time. In the past, pronouns were often used asymmetrically (I call you vous, but you call me tu), but western Europe increasingly uses pronouns symmetrically (If I call you tu, you can call me tu as well). In recent years, the polite forms have become less used in some western European countries (at least in Spain, Germany and France). That might mean that these languages could eventually change, but in the opposite way from English. `

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English also had thou/you until Shakespearean times, but the informal thou was eventually lost (and retained only by some dialects, for example in Yorkshire). Thou was also the singular form, just as tu/du are – used when addressing just one person. So, when English lost thou, it also lost the difference between talking to just one or more people. Languages like to fill in gaps like these, and many dialects have created novel plural forms: y’all, you lot, you guys, youse. 

What’s interesting is that these forms are often themselves regulated by politeness. So, many people would use you with parents, you guys with friends and you lot with kids. When it comes to language, politeness is always there but, in some languages, it is a little more in your face. Once again, French, Spanish and German are not actually that complex in making a simple two-way distinction. They are nothing compared to languages like Japanese, which have bamboozingly difficult “honorific” systems.`

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4. Keeping track of case

Where German has der/die/des/dem/den/das, English has only the – and this poses considerable challenges for English speakers learning German. So why does German have all these different ways of saying the? This is the German case system which spells out the article the differently depending not only on whether it is singular or plural (see above), but on its function in a sentence (subject, direct object, indirect object, possessor). 

English has case too actually, but only with pronouns. “I love him”, does not (alas) mean the same thing as “he loves me”. It’s not only the word order that’s different. I/he are the subject (nominative) forms and him/methe object (accusative) forms. They are also different from my/his, which are the possessive (genitive) forms. Once again, English used to be like German but it has lost most of its case system.

Articles, demonstrative and adjectives all inflected for case in Old English, so English speakers a few hundred years ago would have found German pretty simple. German is not alone in having case. Many European languages have case and it is also found in many unrelated languages (among them Turkish, Japanese, Korean, Dyirbal and many native Australian languages). In a sense, case gives us another way of keeping track of who is doing what to who. English speakers use word order for this function, but this is by no means the only option.

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5. A matter of mood

This takes us to our final challenge, verbal inflection. Where English regular verbs have just four verb forms jump/jumps/jumping/jumped (which can combine with auxiliary verbs in certain ways as in “I have been jumping”), Spanish has a hefty 51 (I won’t list them all here). So Spanish (like Italian and German and to some extent French) is a richly inflecting language. 

Verbs in Spanish (Italian, and French) change depending on tense (as in English), but also depending on aspect (the duration of an event), mood (the nature of the event) and person/number (the kind of subject they have). 

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This poses notorious problems for English speakers, especially when it comes to mood. The dreaded subjunctive indicates that something is not being asserted as true and this turns out to be difficult to learn when that is not an important distinction in your own language. 

Once again, though, English itself used to be more like Spanish, French, Italian and German in this respect. Old English verbs also inflected for tense, person/number and mood. In fact the subjunctive remains an option for many speakers in examples such as: “I wish I were (or was) you” and: “It is vital that you be (or are) on time.” 

Once again, then, English speakers a few hundred years ago would probably have been better linguists than Britons are now, as their language still had many of the features which pose difficulties for modern-English-speaking language students. Somehow I think it’s not really grammar that’s holding Britons back, though. With language, where there’s a will, there is always a way. The 2% of Britons who can read and write in more than three languages show that that’s true.

This article was first published on The Conversation website.

Author: Michelle Sheehan, Reader in Linguistics Course Leader, BA (Hons) English Language, Anglia Ruskin University

 

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

There are about ten Sámi languages alive today, spoken across the northern parts of Scandinavia and eastern Russia. But they are among the many Indigenous languages around the world that are at risk of disappearing. 

Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

You might have heard that there are over 200 words for snow in Sámi languages, which is unsurprising, given the climate of the Sámi homeland in Northern Europe. But there’s a lot more to the languages than snow. 

The Swedish Sámi parliament website says that “language is the bearer of cultural heritage and reflects our people’s common view of life and values. Language transfers knowledge about nature and the world.”

But Sámi language fluency has been declining rapidly for decades. Pite Sámi is critically endangered, with fewer than 50 living speakers, all in Sweden. Today, Northern Sámi is the most widely spoken. 

Due to assimilation policies in all the countries the Sámi found themselves in, older generations of Sámi people were not allowed to speak their own language in school, meaning some languages have already been lost. 

The Local spoke to speakers and researchers of the languages to find out some of the most unique and beautiful words still in use.

1. Sápmi  

Sápmi is the Northern Sámi word for the traditional dwelling place of the Sámi people, which encompasses the northern parts of Scandinavia and the Kola peninsula of Russia. Since the 20th century, national borders and state policies have divided Sápmi and the people who call it home. 

Location of Sápmi in Europe

A map of where Sápmi in northern Europe. Map: Wikipedia

Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi is part of the Sámiskeveivisere, Sámi Pathfinders, a group of young Sámi people who visit high schools and teach students about Sámi culture. She says Sápmi itself is one of her favourite words. 

“The word means a Sápmi without borders, it means relatives, sisters and brothers, and community,” she says. 

2. Eadni 

Eadni means ‘mother’ in Northern Sámi.

“It’s one of the first words that children learn,” says Berit Anne Bals Baal, a lecturer of linguistics at the National Centre for Sámi Language in Education at the Sámi University College, who chose it as her favourite word.

It has a complex phonology (sound system), and is similar to the Northern Sámi word for Earth, which is eanan

3. Guohtun  

Guohtun is a Northern Sámi word that describes the ideal conditions for reindeer to find lichen to graze under a covering of snow. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s one of those words that resists simple translation.

Lars Miguel Utsi, the Vice President of the Sámi parliament of Sweden, says, “Guohtun is a very complex word. It encompasses geography, plants, lichens, snow, and reindeer. It exemplifies the language and its connection to land and water.”

“It’s a very soothing word because it means that there is food and the reindeer can reach it,” he said. 

4. Giitu  

Giitu means ‘thank you’ in Northern Sámi.

Anyone who knows some Finnish might notice that it sounds quite similar to the Finnish word for ‘thank you’, kiitos. That’s because Sámi languages have more in common with Finnish than with Swedish, Danish or Norwegian, coming from the same language family: Finno-Uralic. 

You can respond to giitu with leage buorre which means ‘you’re welcome.’

5. Čáiddas 

This means snowball. We couldn’t have a list of Sámi words without having something specific to snow, could we? 

6. Vuovdi 

This means forest in Northern Sámi. Vast swathes of Sápmi is covered in forest. Sámi reindeer herders rely on old-growth forests to let their reindeer graze; they eat the kind of lichen that only grows in older forests. 

7. Boazu

Reindeer husbandry is a vital part of Sámi life. Photo: Image Bank Sweden

In all Sámi languages, there are two different words for reindeer. In Northern Sámi there is goddi and boazu.

Boazu means a reindeer who has been tamed and can be milked. Goddi is the word for wilder reindeer.  

Reindeer herding is an important aspect of Sámi culture and a vital source of income for many Sámi people. The Sámi parliament estimates that about 2,500 people are dependent on income from reindeer husbandry. 

8. Bures

An easy one! This is how you say “hello” to another person in Northern Sámi. 

9. Goahte  

Goahte is a type of hut in Lule Sámi. It’s a traditional Sámi home that can be built in several different ways, depending on what material is available, like with wooden panels or a construction of wooden poles covered with peat or cloth.

10. Sámediggi 

This is the Northern Sámi word for the Sámi Parliament. There’s a Sámi parliament in each country that divides Sápmi.

In the Scandinavian countries, it’s essentially a government agency with the aim of representing the Sámi people and increasing opportunities to participate in public debate.  

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