S is for Spanish

Spanish, aka Castilian, is one of the Romance languages and the second most spoken language in the world after Chinese. It just spoken in Spain, most of Central and South America, and parts of Africa.

The language evolved from Latin, and its current form spread from the north of Spain, down through the country when the Christians reconquered the lands from the Moors. There is still lots of Moorish influence on the vocabulary, including words such as aceite (oil) aceituna (olive), albóndiga (meatball), alcalde (mayor) and aldea (village).

Spanish is a popular language to learn as a second language in the UK, partly because Spain is a popular holiday destination, and partly because its phonetic nature makes it easier to learn than some European languages such as French and its lack of cases makes it easier to learn than other European languages such as German.

Like most Romance languages, it has two genders (masculine and feminine) for nouns, and sentences follow a subject-verb-object word order. Probably the languages most distinctive features are the upside down question mark (¿) and the upside down exclamation mark (¡).

If you fancy learning some Spanish, there is a free course at FutureLearn. If you’d like some face-to-face lessons instead, then get in touch to see how I can help.

Related posts:  R is for Romance Languages     T is for…..

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…

Q is for Quechua

With approximately 8-9 million speakers, Quechua is the largest surviving indigenous language in the Americas.

It originated in Peru with the Incas, and then due to trade relationships, it spread north to southern Columbia and south to northern Argentina. Quechua is mostly spoken in Peru and Bolivia where it has joined official status with Spanish.

When the Spanish first arrived in the 1500s, Quechua was such an important language that it continued to be widely used. It was officially recognised by the Spanish administration, and Spanish officials learnt it to communicate with the locals.

However, in the 18th century, Quechua was banned as an administrative and religious language, and its use declined. In the 19th century it was reinstated, but by this time the damage had been done and Quechua was no longer seen as a prestigious language. Quechua was made an official language in Peru in 1975, but Spanish is still seen as the language of economic advancement.

Related posts: P is for Proto Indo European     R is for Romance Languages

Candlemas

Candlemas is celebrated on February 2nd. It is 40 days after 25th December, and so it is believed to be the day that Mary was purified after giving birth and therefore the day that Jesus was first taken to the temple.

The date is known as Candlemas because in the 11th century all candles that were going to be used in church that year were blessed, and people took their own candles to church to be blessed also.

In Mexico the date is called Día de la Candelaria and it marks the end at the Christmas celebrations. The baby Jesus is taken from the Nativity scene and dressed in a special outfit before being taken to church to be blessed. According to tradition, whoever found the baby Jesus charm inside the Roscón on 6th January has to buy the tamales (chicken and meat wrapped in corn dough) for the party after the Candelaria ceremony.

February 2nd is also linked to many non-Christian festivals relating to hopes and prayers for a good harvest later in the year. It is the date of the pagan festival of Imbolc, the Roman festival of Lupercalia and a Mexican festival were the indigenous villages took their corn to be blessed before planting.

Learning a language with Duolingo

At the beginning of the summer I signed up for a Duolingo account. I know, I know – I’m late to the party, but better late than never.

Not long after I started, I read an article about why apps are no good for learning language. The article listed dozens of reasons why you can never learn from an app, why learning from an app is detrimental to your language learning experience, and why the only possible way to learn a language is from a language tutor, and it was written by… a language tutor!

I suppose as a language tutor myself, I should back this article 100% and agree with everything it said, but I’m not going to. While I agree that for many people having a language tutor is beneficial, I think an app such as Duolingo definitely has a place in learning a language. My husband, a fluent German speaker, has commented that my German has improved more in the few weeks since I’ve been using Duolingo than in the previous few years of off-and-on German learning, so I’m going to look at the reasons for this.

Firstly, each of the Duolingo lessons are only five minutes which means it’s easy to fit them into your day. Waiting for a bus or for the kettle to boil? Do a Duolingo lesson while you’re waiting. I’ve found that with a few five-minute bursts I can easily do 15-20 minutes every day, and this little but often approach helps me to retain what I’ve learnt. I tend to do two or three revision lessons and one new one each day, but you can set the pace yourself. As you progress you earn points, called Lingots, which you can use in the Lingot shop to buy bonus lessons, tests and various other things.

The words are learnt in the context of a sentence, which really suits my learning style. I’ve tried to learn the different case endings for articles and nouns before, but when presented with them all in a table my eyes start to swim, my head starts to hurt and I can’t make any sense of it at all. One of the first sentences I learnt with Duolingo was “Die Fliege isst das Fleisch” (the fly eats the meat) which allowed me to store a sentence in my head as a point of reference – so now I always remember that “das” remains “das” in the accusative case. After only a few days I had built up a store of reference sentences for masculine, feminine and neuter nouns in nominative, accusative and dative cases, and was able to independently substitute other words to make simple, grammatically correct sentences.

There is a lot of built in repetition which helps the words and structure enter my long-term memory, and you see and hear the words several times before you are asked to write them yourself. If you make a mistake, you get a message telling you which bit of the sentence is wrong, and how to put it right, and there are several opportunities throughout the lesson to correct a mistake made earlier on.

Many of the sentences are nonsense. They all make grammatical sense, but not necessarily semantic sense. I’ve seen this as a criticism from some people, but for me personally this works well because it means that I focus more carefully on the grammatical structures. If you want to just memorise and repeat some useful phrases, then this app probably isn’t for you, but memorising and repeating set phrases isn’t the same as speaking a language. Because I know that the sentence isn’t necessarily going to make sense I can’t just pick out a couple of words I recognise and guess the rest, I have to look closely at the sentence and pick out the grammatical structures. This enforced close examination then makes it easier when I have to produce sentences in German, because I have already taken note of the correct word order, case endings needed, accented characters, etc.

Of course, it’s always easy to get carried away with learning new words and phrases, and all too easy to forget to go over what you already know. This means that although you may feel as though you are making progress because you are completing lessons and moving up the levels, in fact you’re not learning the language because you are forgetting so much. Duolingo has built in reminders that you need to go back and revise. Each skill is represented by a colourful circle, and when you have completed all the lessons for that particular skill the circle turns gold. After a while the circle changes back to its original colour, and this is a visual reminder that you need to redo some of those lessons as a refresher. As the lessons are so short, revision doesn’t seem like a chore, and redoing lessons still earns you points towards Lingots to spend in the shop.

Could anybody learn a language with Duolingo? Possibly, possibly not. I’m a linguist, so I’m used to thinking about language structure, and the context-based style of Duolingo really suits my way of learning. Plus I have the added bonus that I can practise with my husband as often as I want, so I’m constantly reinforcing what I have just learnt.

If you’re thinking about learning a language I’d suggest giving Duolingo a go. It’s free, so what have you got to lose? If you find it doesn’t work for you, or if you feel you need a real teacher as well, then you could have a look at adult education classes or a language tutor. If you live in north Birmingham and you need a French or Spanish tutor then get in touch to see how I can help you.