Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Does knowing another language give you a larger mother tongue vocabulary?

Today, I would like to pose the question, if knowing another language makes you a language snob i.e. do you start to use ‘bigger’ words in your mother tongue when you are learning or know another language?
My immediate answer is yes, only because I learnt my source language at a young, impressionable age where I might not have had a wide vocabulary yet. We are exposed to a larger Latin vocabulary when we start to learn one of the modern romance languages (from my experience). For example, languages such as French and Spanish have a rich Latin base. English, in my opinion, has in a sense been “dumbed down”,  in that we use everyday words rather than maybe a richer, more “formal” vocabulary.
For example, it is frequent to see Latin words in Spanish e.g. cadáver which is common in everyday use whereas in English the direct equivalent cadaver is seldom used in an informal context, where dead body is generally preferred. This might be down to ignorance of the word unless you’re a medical specialist.
In French the expression “I’m dead tired” is “Je suis mort de fatigue” (Lit. ‘I’m dead of fatigue’). Fatigue being a word in English which is not very frequently used in an informal context. Although you wouldn’t use fatigue to translate this expression.
This may all be down to which technical vocabulary we use in certain contexts, however I do believe when we are learning another language we are exposed to more Latin based words (only looking at the languages I know) and through this we start using a richer vocabulary in English.
Conversely though, we could say that people learning English not so much enrich their mother tongue but are exposed to a wider range of synonyms in English. For example, hoard in Spanish is acumular roughly translated as accumulate. Some translators find it difficult to get out of the translationese rut and use the word accumulate, rather than hoard when referring to, for example, the Diogenes Syndrome.  Take another example, the word feckless  translated in Spanish is débil or incapaz and doesn’t quite portray the richness of meaning which feckless has i.e. lacking strength of character. English is a language full of synonyms. Other languages’ vocabulary often paraphrase words e.g. cot death in Spanish is muerte súbita del lactante (Lit. sudden infant death) and has no other equivalent.
Interestingly, the Inuit people have over 15 words to describe certain types of snow. So this whole discussion could be down to context and how we relate our immediate surroundings to the number of words we have for use in different contexts and the corresponding words.
I would like to know if you have had any experiences of your vocabulary being enriched from having learnt another language. In my case I was fascinated by the many Latinisms when I was learning Spanish which I could transfer to English and sound “smarter”. E.g. discussing the television series CSI with my friends I could say cadaver instead of dead body;) (This could have all just been down to an age thing though).

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Fright Night

Today's post is a bit of a humorous anecdote from my days of language learning. I know this is not really related to translation or the industry but I thought it could well illustrate the (sometimes) extreme measures we as language specialists strive for excellence in our languages.

A bit of background: I live in Johannesburg, South Africa, a place where Rottweilers walk the streets in pairs. The only difference between South Africans and people living in first world countries, is a slightly paranoid fear of crime. The relevance of this will soon be clear.

So, to start the story...

My first formal language exam in Spanish was for the international O-Level exam which was compiled of four components, one being a listening test. We had done past papers and practiced as a class for weeks, the teacher instilling a huge fear in us about the listening exam (we aren't living in a country where Spanish is spoken every day, how could we expect to have mastery of it etc. etc.)! So the night before the big exam arrived. I wanted to excel in the exam so I thought I would play practice tapes of the exam while I slept (they say you learn tremendously that way).

I went to bed early that night, pressed play on the CD and promptly fell asleep. I hadn't been asleep for long when I awoke, in a daze, feeling as if I had been asleep for hours when in fact it had only been half an hour. As I was waking, I heard a man's voice and I froze. I lay there frozen for what seemed like minutes. I eventually forced myself to focus and was so befuddled as to why this thief (the wild imaginings of a South African) was speaking Spanish to me and just standing in my room. I eventually became compos and realised my idiocy! Needless to say I immediately switched off the tape and never did that again!

So, a bit of sage advice: trying new language techniques the night before a big exam isn't highly recommended. It's probably a bit late by then anyway.

I don't know if listening to the tape in my sleep helped, but I did do well in the exam but that was more down to preparation than anything else I think.

Have you taken any strange measures to improve your target and/or source language for translation purposes? Have you tried any crazy language learning techniques which have claimed success? What are the most outrageous ones you have heard of?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Do languages have personalities?

Do languages have associated personalities which transfer to their speakers?

Last week I read a very interesting blog post by Translation Guy who discussed the idea of split linguistic personalities of bilingual Chinese English speakers. Here I quote the first paragraph:

"In a recent study by psychologists at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, researchers discovered that bilingual Chinese English speakers have a split personality, at least when they are speaking English and Chinese. “[Native] Chinese students who were fluent in English appeared more assertive and aggressive and open to new experiences,” which are the kinds of personality traits often associated with blue-eyed foreigners in a Chinese cultural context."

I thought it would be interesting to expand on it from my point of view so here's my theory. I don't think this is a phenomenon specific to English Chinese speakers. I think I have a split personality too between the western languages I know. In English (my mother tongue), I think I am shy and internalised, rather listening and evaluating than immediately outgoing. In Spanish, on the other hand, I think I am more outgoing. I'm maybe a bit more friendly in Spanish because (1) I know I need to get information, and (2) people can tell I'm a foreigner and therefore may have a bit more tolerance towards me if I don't follow the unspoken rules of a language. In English I would be severely reprimanded if I strayed from any unspoken rules. Maybe I am this way in English because of my deep-seated fear of rejection. Also, I think I'm more outgoing in Spanish because I know that none of my friends or family whom I see everyday can speak Spanish. So because they can't understand me, this justifies my "other personality" giving me more free reign to let loose. I like to call this 'the car tunnel syndrome'. Let me explain. When you're driving, it's like you're closeted in your own space- you're listening to your own music, you're thinking about things, you think you're alone (quite rightly so;)) but you forget that people can see you very clearly, especially when the urge hits to scratch your nose. This is what happens when I speak Spanish. I think none of my friends or family can understand so therefore I have more freedom to say and express myself in ways I might not normally do in English, me being more 'accountable' in English. I'm not saying that I'm brash and harsh or even that I have a completely different demeanor in Spanish but I do think I have adopted another way of speaking and expressing myself verbally and non-verbally. This could all just be down to adapting myself to another culture and in a way, trying to come off completely native in a different cultural setting (Alan Turing and ELIZA perhaps?).

It is strange that I come off more outgoing in Spanish than in English, my mother tongue, and I wonder if there has been any transference where English people now think I have adopted something from Spanish. Do languages have "personalities" which transfer to their speakers? Is Spanish a more outgoing language or is this a generalisation associated with Spaniards?

What are your thoughts? Has anyone told you that you have a split linguistic personality or has someone said that you are very outgoing which doesn't concur with how people describe you in another language? Is it easy to detect ones own split linguistic personality?

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


The proverbial 'they' say that once you start dreaming in a language which is not your mother tongue, you have reached complete mastery of that language. I'm not sure if that's a myth or not. My mother tongue is English and I speak Spanish fluently. After a day where I have read tomes of Spanish books and spoken Spanish for at least 2 hours I do find that when I fall asleep I have, to steal a phrase from Lisa Carter, 'word soup' swimming in my head, and will then subsequently dream that I'm speaking Spanish to someone, but never have I experienced a random dream where the events taking place in my head have a Spanish narrator. But do we really have a dream language and isn't it just pictures we're really actually dreaming in?

I wanted to try and dispel this myth and attempted a little field research of my own. The field wasn't very large; I actually only asked one person, my dad. My dad's mother tongue is German and he speaks English fluently. I asked him in what language he dreams and he couldn't actually say!

So, how do we really measure when we are fluent in a language? It has been almost 10 years now that I've been speaking Spanish and I've been contemplating learning another language. Is it too soon, how long will it take me to dream in this other language, are all considerations. Do I want to clutter my life with another language when I am trying to specialise in certain areas of the Spanish language for translation?

What other myths have you heard which claim to measure when you are fluent in a language? Do you know of anyone who dreams bilingually? I'd love to know!

Monday, 1 August 2011


Today’s blog post is about the new, free interchange language site storming the internet, Verbling. Language users ‘trade’ languages in a series of sessions (mutual times arranged by the organisers of Verbling). Spanish speakers converse with English speakers in Spanish for 5 minutes and then switch, where the English speakers speak in Spanish with their Spanish partner for 5 minutes (sort of like a language speed dating) and then change partners. The purpose is to supplement language learning not to replace it as  Jacob, of Verbling explained. There is no substitute for speaking a language with a native speaker.
I first noticed Verbling in a story in ATG Translations Daily and subsequently read an article in one of Spain’s largest daily newspapers El País (English article here). As a second language speaker of Spanish myself I thought this was a great idea because living in South Africa doesn’t give me the necessary daily exposure to Spanish I would like. I tried out a few sessions on Verbling and am hooked. So...I was so fascinated by Verbling that I gathered all the information I could glean about it and started thinking how I could share this with a wider audience than my current circle of 5 friends. I did a bit of surface digging and in the blink of an eye, after requesting an interview with the Verbling founders (Jacob Jolis, Mikael Bernstein and Fred Wulff), I was talking to them.  So...I spoke with Jacob and Mikael via Skype from California on a cold, dark winter’s night in Johannesburg, Gauteng. I want to thank them for doing the interview with me, a little-known blogger, with a strange South African accent.
Here are the fruits of that conversation and the story of Verbling. I hope everyone enjoys and spreads the word!
Verbling was only recently launched in June 2011 by Standford students Jacob Jolis, Mikael Bernstein and Google programmer Fred Wulff after being in the pipeline for 6 months before that. All three were good friends even before Verbling. Mikael has a background of being  a Swedish-Russian interpreter in the Swedish army and found that upon coming to the USA there was no really simple way to practice his spoken Russian. Mikael speaks English, Swedish, German and Russian. Jacob a self-professing language geek, speaks French, Swedish, English and Spanish and is also on Verbling almost every night too. Thus Verbling was born. They were working on Verbling and studying at the same time at Stanford in the spring of 2011 but they will not be returning in the autumn as they really want to focus all their energies on Verbling. They are so passionate about Verbling and their main priority is building Verbling. They aren’t even worried about there being no Wikipedia article about Verbling or its co-founders. I broached this subject after I stalked them, googling Verbling and their individual names, and was curious as to why there was no Wikipedia article (my source for everything). They truly are dedicated to Verbling and only want to see the growth of it. They gave permission to yours truly to create a Wikipedia article so if any readers out there would like to do it...
Verbling, the name, came about after a two day brainstorming session. They liked the name as it’s a noun and a verb, its short and its memorable and a blend of the words ‘verbal’ and ‘linguistics’.
Verbling currently only operates in the English-Spanish language pairs and I asked them why this was so and if it was directed solely at this target market from the beginning. Jacob explained that Spanish is the number one language studied in the USA. Jacob did admit to being a little biased as he is currently learning Spanish. Spain, Colombia and Argentina top the list as being the top users of Verbling. They explained that in Spain because of the economically harsh times, it’s a huge advantage  knowing English and putting this on your CV helps enormously. This also explains the reason why it is so popular. It has been the perfect time to launch Verbling as the technology is available. Feedback from users has been really positive and there have been calls to extend the conversation time of 5 minutes between participants.
Verbling will be adding more language combinations too. There has been a great demand for Arabic to be one of the languages. The order in which new language pairs are added will depend on demand. People need to go to verbling.com and sign up so that more languages can be added based on demand. Verbling currently has 15 000 users.
Verbling is free and Jacob and Mikael assured me that it will stay that way in the near future.
I asked them where they saw Verbling in five years and I think I made them a bit awkward. All they said was that it was difficult to say. I have a feeling that MS Word might recognise their company’s name in spell check very soon.
I asked them if they would consider developing an iPhone/iPad/android app and they definitely hope to when they expand. Apple doesn’t support flash player (which their site uses) and they want to make the internet version really good before launching into that avenue.
There are plans to hire more employees in the future but for now it is just the three of them.
At the end of the interview I pounced an unexpected question that wasn’t on the list of questions I had sent to them beforehand and felt bad when there were a few seconds when they were laughing to cover the silence and desperately trying to think of something to say. I asked them if they could tell me a funny, strange, random, unknown fact about Verbling or themselves. Jacob explained that they work out of the same apartment they live in and they were searching for somewhere to rent and Fred’s uncle had found the place they are in at the moment, and they signed the lease without ever looking at it beforehand. They lived for a month in the apartment without moving their couches into their bedrooms, so technically working and living in the living room.
They really do care about the user experience and spend hours each day reading user feedback. The only word I can use to describe them is the Spanish word ‘simpático’.
It really was a pleasure speaking to them. You can contact them on Twitter (@VerblingTeam), on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/verbling) or email founders@verbling.com.
From left: Jacob Jolis, Mikael Bernstein and Fred Wulff (Source: El País)