K is for Korean and Kickapoo

Like Basque and Japanese, Korean is a language isolate. It has about 70 million speakers in North and South Korea, and a further 5 million or so in NE China, parts of Japan, and small communities in Russia and the USA.

Until the 15th century Korean used Chinese characters for writing, and only the elite were able to read and write. In the 15th century the monarch, King Sejong, invented a new writing system which was more alphabetic, and this made writing more accessible to people.

Known as Hangul, the system consists of 24 symbols, representing vowel and consonant sounds which are written in a “box” approximately the same size as a Chinese character. Each “box” has a consonant-vowel-consonant symbol, written roughly left to right, top to bottom.

It has a subject-object-verb sentence structure and includes many basic words from old Chinese as well as an increasing number of borrowings from English.

Kickapoo, also written Kikapú, is not a well-known language – in fact it has only about 250 speakers, making it in danger of extinction – but it has such a great name I simply had to include it in my A-Z!

It belongs to the Algonquin family of languages. It originated in the Great Lakes area in North America, but is now almost extinct in the USA and most of its speakers live in Mexico. The language used to include “whistle speech” where each sound could be represented by whistle, but this aspect of the language has now died out from the lack of use.

Whistle languages were mostly used by hunters and herders, so that they could communicate without frightening the animals. The limitations of whistle sounds meant that many sentences were ambiguous, making this aspect of the language only useful in certain circumstances.

Sadly I can’t point you in the direction of a Kickapoo course, but if you fancy learning some Korean, have a look at FutureLearn.

Related posts: J is for Japanese     L is for…….

H is for Hawai´ian

H is for...Hawai´ian is a Polynesian language, related to Maori, and believed to have evolved from Tahitian. It is named after the island of Hawai´i, where it is the joint official language with English. The Hawai´ian language is under threat from English, which is the language used in schools, and for any years it suffered a decline, but in recent years it has been promoted and the number of native speakers is rising again.

Before the 1820s, Hawai´ian was a spoken language only. When missionaries arrived on the island, they learnt the language and then set about devising a writing system so that they could teach the local people to read and write.

The alphabet has 13 letters: 5 vowels and 8 consonants, including a glottal stop. It is written in Latin script with the addition of a character that looks like a back-to-front apostrophe, which represents the glottal stop.

Related posts: G is for German      I is for Invented Languages

Learning Chinese

As readers of this blog will know, I love learning new things.  Last summer I spotted an advert for a course in Chinese for primary school teachers, and as MFL (modern foreign languages) is my specialist subject, I decided to sign up.  Throwing myself in at the deep end, I promised my new school that I would set up a lunchtime Chinese club, so I had to make sure I really did learn some!

I must confess, I was a bit worried.  I mean – Chinese is really difficult, right?  It’s doesn’t even have an alphabet, just thousands of characters.  But it actually turned out to be a lot easier than I imagined.  Obviously, it takes years to learn to speak a language fluently, so I have only learnt the basics, but this is what I discovered:

–          It’s a subject-verb-object language, so the word order is the same as English.  This already makes it easier than some languages.

–          The verbs don’t conjugate (i.e. there are no different endings depending on who is doing it – like he lives, they live in English, or il habite, ils habitent in French.

–          There are no articles (English has ‘a’ and ‘the’; French has un, une, des, le, la and les; Spanish has un, una, unos, unas, el, la, los and las; Chinese has nothing)

–          There are no tenses.  In Chinese, the verb remains exactly the same and you know whether it’s past, present or future from the context.

This simplicity actually makes it ideal for primary school children to learn.

Like any language, it does have its peculiarities and difficulties, such as the tones (the way your voice goes up or down for certain words) but this is no more challenging than getting children to understand the concept of nouns having genders (Chinese doesn’t have those) or that ‘you are’ might be ‘tu es’ but might be ‘vous êtes’ depending on who and/or how many people you are talking to.

Of course the characters are tricky but the children in my club really enjoy drawing and practising them, and they have the advantage that children are not influenced by how the word is written, so in general their pronunciation is better right from the start.  The fact that the language isn’t written with an English alphabet doesn’t faze them at all.  (In fact, I also run an Ancient Greek club and the children there are also fascinated by the fact that language can be written using different symbols.)  We all enjoy making up little stories to help remember the characters.  On the course I did, we learned a little about how the characters are made up, with radicals giving an indication of meaning and a phonetic element indicating pronunciation.

And there is far more vocabulary in some topic areas.  For example, English has mum, dad, brother, sister, grandma, granddad, while Chinese has different words depending on whether it’s an older or younger brother, a maternal or paternal grandmother etc.  But for the moment the primary aged children I am teaching only need to learn the ones they require for their own family.

The children and I are really enjoying learning together, and although I will never be fluent in Mandarin, you never know – one of the children I am teaching may be inspired to study it further and become fluent in the future.