R is for Romance languages

The most common Romance languages are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian and Catalan. Other lesser-known ones include Occitan, Galician, Asturian, Sicilian, Corsican and Sardinian. In all there are about 35 living Romance languages. Sadly their name comes from the word Roman and not the word romantic.

The Romance languages are the ones that evolve from vulgar Latin. Vulgar here means common, ie the version of Latin actually spoken by the common people, compared to the classical Latin of the church and of the elite. Originally vulgar Latin and classical Latin were mutually intelligible, but over time vulgar Latin evolved into the various Romance languages and the people were no longer able to understand classical Latin.

Most Romance languages have lost some of the more difficult aspects of Latin, such as declensions and cases. Because of this they have a much stricter subject-verb-object word order, and they make more use of prepositions.

There are about 800 million speakers of Romance languages in the world and most of them are in Europe, Africa and the Americas. In Europe the places where Romance languages are spoken roughly equates to the boundaries of the Western Roman empire.

And to return to the statement in the first paragraph about the Romance coming from Roman and not romantic, there is a link between the words. Back in those days, “serious” literature was written in classical Latin. Popular tales, such as love stories, were written in the common (ie  Romance) language, and so they came to be called romances.

Related posts: Q is for Quechua   S is for Spanish

D is for Dead Languages

Dead languages are those which are no longer spoken. Some, such as Latin, are not strictly speaking dead – they have just evolved into other Romance languages. There was never a time when Latin stopped being spoken and Italian started; the language just slowly changed over time, much like ancient Greek becoming modern Greek. Sanskrit, an ancient language of India, has had a similar journey. It is maintained as the sacred language of Hindu worship, but just like Latin, it has evolved into other languages such as Hindi, Bengali and Gujarati.

Most languages that die, rather than evolve, do so when they are not passed on to the next generation for some reason. This is what happened to Gaulish and what is still happening too many languages around the world.

Probably the most famous of the dead languages is Egyptian, the language of ancient Egypt, with its distinctive hieroglyphic writing system. This language began its decline around 7 CE with the arrival of Arabic, following the Muslim conquest of Egypt.

Linguists now recognise the importance of keeping languages alive, and many languages at risk of extinction are given protected status. Languages such as Cornish have come perilously close to extinction but they have been revived and nurtured and now have a growing number of speakers.

Related posts: C is for Chinese      E is for English

Tuesday November 13th

If you live in Spain or Greece you’re probably being extra careful today.  Tuesday 13th – that unlucky day when things are bound to go wrong…

Tuesday? Not Friday? No. Although for UK, USA and most other countries in the western hemisphere Friday 13th is considered the unluckiest day in the world, people in Greece and Spanish-speaking countries people fear Tuesdays.

The reason is not known for sure, but it has been suggested that it has something to do with the fact that Tuesday is named after the god of war (martes in Spanish after Mars and  ἡμέρα Ἄρεως (hemera Areos) in Ancient Greek after Aries) and so trouble was expected on this day.

Another suggestion put forward is that the day is considered unlucky because Constantinople fell on a Tuesday (Tuesday May 29th 1453), causing many Greeks to flee their homes.

At least we all agree that it’s the number 13 that’s unlucky though, don’t we?  Err…..no! In Italy it’s the number 17 that is considered unlucky. The reason is a bit convoluted, but bear with me…

  •  In Roman numerals 17 is written as XVII
  • If you rearrange these four characters you get VIXI
  • VIXI means “I have lived” in Latin, and it is found on many graves in Italy

During the middle ages, uneducated people found it difficult to distinguish between XVII and VIXI and so the number 17 came to be associated with death.

Here endeth the culture lesson for today!

For language teaching or tuition, visit my website www.sjbteaching.com.

Related post: How do they celebrate Christmas in Greece?

Languages at 5 – what’s all the fuss about?

The government suggest that children should start learning languages at the age of five, and suddenly in true British fashion we are throwing up our hands in horror. We are criticising the government for suggesting such a ridiculous idea. We are throwing up every obstacle we can think of, dismissing as irrelevant the fact that other countries teach their children English from a young age, and focusing firmly on the negative.

One of the poorest excuses for not learning a language I have heard in the last 24 hours is: “It’s different for us. We’re an island so we are more cut off from the rest of Europe.” Maybe you forgot, but we are connected to mainland Europe by train lines now. It’s quicker for someone in London to get to a non-English speaking city, than for someone in Frankfurt to get to a non-German speaking city.

“What’s the point in teaching our children a foreign language when they haven’t got a wide English vocabulary yet, and they are still struggling with the complexities of our own grammar?” The point is that at this age language skills come more easily to them. When they are still mispronouncing some words in their own language they are not afraid to have a go at pronouncing foreign words.

In the last couple of years I have taught a variety of languages to Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 children. They have sung French songs in a presentation for new parents, German ones in school assemblies, and Latin carols in Christmas plays. In fact last Christmas one 5 year old girl I had been teaching was so confident that she sang a solo in Latin!

I’ve told them stories in a number of different languages, and they have taken great delight in joining in with repeated phrases. They have learnt not to get hung up about understanding every single word as long as they understand the important parts.

These children have been praised for their abilities and they now see having knowledge of a foreign language as something to be proud of, not something to be scared of.

Nobody is suggesting that we suddenly expose a five year old to the difficulties of German cases, so let’s do something really radical. Let’s put all our language prejudices aside and examine the positive side of teaching languages to children at a younger age.

One of the main frustrations in learning a new language is not being able to express yourself in that language as easily as you can in your own, and this is what causes a lot of learners to lose heart and give up. The older you are when you begin to learn a second language, the greater the chasm between your ability in your own language and in the one you are learning. By beginning to give children the tools they need to learn a second language, we are closing that gap. At this young age children are happy to be learning just words and short phrases, so there is no need for teachers to worry that they don’t have enough knowledge.

Starting teaching languages at 5 lays foundations for more in-depth language learning in KS2. The children already have 2 years of vocabulary behind them so by the time they start to learn some grammar they have enough words at their disposal to build useful sentences with.

What about the fact that they struggle with grammar in their own language? People are assuming that teaching grammar in MFL lessons, and grammar in literacy lessons have to be mutually exclusive, but this does not have to be the case. Grammar is grammar in any language. Nouns are still nouns, verbs are still verbs, and (in European languages) sentences still have to begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop. A sentence in any language needs a verb to make it make sense, and adding a connective will make it more interesting. Instead of being scared of teaching languages to primary school children we should embrace it as a means to reinforce their learning in English. It can even be used as an aid to expanding their English vocabulary. For example: “French only has one word for small – how many can you think of in English? Let’s use a thesaurus to find some more.”

Why then stop at reinforcing English? I have taught children to tell the time in French the week after they did it in their maths lesson, thus consolidating what they have learnt. The children were happy to do it again because it was in a different language, and those children who had struggled to tell the time when it was taught in English had a second chance to pick it up.

We already have several generations who are terrified by the thought of speaking another language. Don’t we owe it to our children to let them be the ones to whom it is second nature?