Friday, January 30, 2009

The blurry lines between formal and informal forms in Japanese

I've got a question about Japanese that I'd like to address to the experts (Tae Kim, I hope you're listening!).

Most Japanese grammars present the formal desu/-masu forms and the regular forms as a dichotomy: you pick one and use it 100% of the time with a certain person or you pick the other and use it 100% of the time with that person. The thing is that a lot of native Japanese speakers mix up the two in actual usage with the same person. My question is what rules do these follow? When can you throw in a few informal forms in otherwise formal speech and vice versa? There seem to be a variety of conditions for this, but I've never heard anyone try to explain it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On the Spot – Vincent of Street-Smart Language Learning

This is an interview I did with the now-defunct Aspiring Polyglot. It was originally posted there on the date of this post, although it wasn't posted on this blog until May 8, 2010, shortly before Aspiring Polyglot closed up shop at the end of that month.

Another language learner interview for all of you to read and possibly learn something from. I have a lot of other things going on this week so I haven’t had the time to write a post of my own.

Here’s Vincent’s language learner interview. Vincent is the author of the Street-Smart Language Learning blog and is a firm believer in the benefits of language immersion.

You can read the full interview, after the jump.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Why do we call Japan "Japan"?

Kelly of Aspiring Polyglot left this comment on my earlier post about how to say "China" in Russian and Japanese:
Would you happen to know why we call Japan 'Japan' and not Nihon or Nippon?
This is one that I dug up a long time ago because I wondered the same thing.

The kanji for "Japan" are 日本. They respectively mean "sun" and "origin", or together "origin of the sun". This is of course from the perspective of China, to the East of which Japan lies in the same direction as where the sun rises. That's also where English gets "land of the rising sun" from, which is simply a more nuanced translation of the characters than "origin of the sun".

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Getting exposure to your target language in a plane

I'm currently on a plane on my way to Tokyo for a week-long trip there followed by a week-long trip to China. Sitting here, it's obvious what a useful environment for language learning your flying time can be; the by-necessity multilingual environment of a flight to another language zone means you can easily get some exposure to your target language while in transit that probably isn't always readily available outside of where the language is spoken.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Saying "China" in Russian and Japanese

Today I came across Китай (Kitay), the Russian word for China. Curious as to how China ended up with that name in Russian while most other languages that I'm familiar with have a form similar to English, I guessed that it was related to the English word Cathay and Wikipedia appears to have confirmed that for me. They both seem to trace their roots back to Qìdān (契丹), which I'll wager was pronounced "Kitan" or the like back in the day.

If you that's not enough useless knowledge about what China is called in various languages, then I've got one more for you. In Japanese, China is generally called Chuugoku (中国), but they've got a couple of versions like "China" as well, one which is A-OK and the other which is taboo. The one that's fine to use, and is even kind of cute, is just taking the word from modern English: Chaina (チャイナ). Like many English words, the Japanese flexibly stick it into their script and then use it freely, if informally, although the only place I've heard it commonly used is in a contracted form to say Chinese: Chaigo (チャイ語). You'll particularly hear college students use this one when discussing studying languages, and they do the same sort of contraction with other languages as well. For instance, "French" becomes Furago (フラ語) instead of the full form of Furansugo (フランス語).

The term you don't want to ever use in Japanese is Shina (支那). Although the mayor of Tokyo might beg to differ and has been known to use it, it is generally offensive to Chinese people due to its wartime use, despite its uncontroversial origins dating back to Sanskrit (read the whole story here).

Language-learning linkwrap 1/23/09

Voters head to polls today to decide 'English First' proposal: Nashville's "English First" proposal would "prevent city government from translating written materials into other languages or using interpreters for people who don't speak English well". Great, just what we need: less foreign-language use in the U.S.

Learning a language at home is easier than ever: Local news gushes over and, and throws in a totally unrelated but seemingly mandatory shout-out to Rosetta Stone.

Column: 'Tell me' program opens world of languages: If you belong to the Marathon County Public Library in Wassau, Wisconsin, you can get access to for free. And those of you outside of the U.S. thought we were lucky to have free access to all those expensive language-learning recordings.

A Classical Language Requirement: Meet Jake Miller. Watch Jake get a whole lot about learning languages wrong. It's too much work to even try to correct everything this guy's getting wrong, so I'll leave it to someone else to tilt at this windmill.

It's all Greek to me: Omniglot gives us the low-down on how to say "It's all Greek to me" in a ton of languages.

Tim Ferriss and language learning

For those of you that haven't stumbled upon it yet, Tim Ferriss's blog is quite an interesting read, but I am of course most interested in his posts about languages, the best of which are:Once I get through Street-Smart Language Learning, you'll quickly see that I agree with almost all of his ideas.

And, courtesy of Tim's blog, here's a bonus link to a good article on frequency lists: Why and how to use frequency lists to learn words by Tom Cobb.

Top 10,000 words in Dutch, English, French, and German
Word lists based on frequency of use

Monday, January 19, 2009

Bilingoz review: Great specialized Japanese vocab, could use some better study methods

Bilingoz (via Aspiring Polyglot), the brainchild of Mark MacIntyre, a Canadian who has logged nine years in Japan teaching English and finding the existing tools insufficient to teach those with a need for specialized vocabulary, is a study aid for English speakers in need of specialized Japanese vocabulary (or vice versa, I suppose), such as accounting, dentistry, metallurgy, etc., and one in particular that attracted a lawyer like me: law. So I kicked the tires by testing out my knowledge of basic Japanese legal terms, which (thank goodness) I seem to know pretty well.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Saturday Chinese school for my daughter (and me)

To get back to the theme of ethnic experiences in the U.S. that I touched on earlier, many of you in the U.S. or Canada may remember from your childhood that you, if you're Asian, or your Asian friends always had to go to school on Saturday. While the rest of us were getting our brains rotted out by Saturday morning cartoons, Asian kids' parents forced them to do more school, as if any kid thought five days wasn't already enough. Those forced to go never seemed very happy about it, and often rebelled and stopped going when they got old enough to pull it off. As much as these kids may have been unhappy during classes, those who actually ended up sticking with it ended up (hopefully) thanking their parents, because they were probably pretty darn good at the languages that those classes were teaching them.

My daughter, age four, just kicked off her experience with this Asian-American tradition with Saturday Chinese school (yes, that is despite her Japanese mother and her Italian-American father). We recently discovered that there's one of these schools about ten minutes from our house and, although we missed the first semester, we were eager to get her started and finally got around to it today. While she's had Chinese nannies and babysitters for most of the time that she's been speaking, we found that she was progressing a lot more in English (she goes to English nursery school every day, karate once a week, and dance occasionally) and Japanese (she goes to Japanese Kumon classes twice a week and ballet once a week) than in China, whereas Chinese was originally her best language (she started speaking while we were in China).

As it turns out, her Chinese classes here are as much of a language experience for her as they are for my wife and me.

Which language to argue in?

After my wife read this post, she started telling me about what might amount to an interesting trend. After noting that she herself prefers to argue in English rather than in Japanese, she said she heard the same thing from her Japanese-speaking American professor about his English-speaking Japanese wife. He told her that typically he'd be using Japanese while she'd be using English when they argue.

She cited two reasons for why she prefers English. The first, which I don't buy so much, is that English has more appropriate curse words to throw into the mix. I would agree that English has a leg up on Japanese in the curse word department, and we certainly use them a lot more, but Japanese attains the exact same effect through intonation and certain verbal forms rather than adding colorful vocabulary to the sentence. For instance, the standard, informal way of saying, "What are you looking at?" would be "Nani miteru?", "Nani miteru no?", with the no making it a bit softer, or "Nani miten no?", with the swallowing of the ru to an n making it sound more informal. You start to sound unhappy when you say, "Nani miterun da?" or, with a bit more oomph, "Nani miterun da yo?". When you're even more unhappy, so unhappy that you can't even say the whole thing, then it'd become "Nani miten da?" or, with oomph, "Nani miten da yo?" Depending on how it was said, that last one might be translated as "What the hell are you looking at?" To upgrade that to the equivalent of a stronger four-letter word in English, you would just make the intonation more angry, forceful, and emphatic.

The second reason, which makes a more sense to me, is that she said that when she switches languages, she switches cultures as well. I can relate to this better, as this is something I do as well. When visiting a friend in France with whom I had studied in Japan, she joked that she could tell what language I was speaking - English, French, or Japanese - without even hearing what I was saying due to the change in my mannerisms. As for arguing, Japanese culture is quite a bit less confrontational than our barbaric Western culture, and argumentative females remain a relatively rare species in Japan, so the cultural switch leaves her at something of an arguing disadvantage.

So I'm curious... has anyone else encountered anything like this in a multilingual relationship?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Languages, dialects, and politics

When you think logically about where to draw a line between a dialect and a language, it would seem that the place to draw the line would be at mutual intelligibility. If the way two groups of people speak is mutually intelligible but somewhat different in pronunciation, word usage, etc., you're looking at two dialects, whereas if those two patterns of speech are not mutually intelligible, you're looking at two languages.

This standard would generally work well as a rule of thumb. American, British, and Australian English would all be dialects, as would the Kantou and Kansai dialects of Japanese, while Spanish and Portuguese would be languages. However, such a division won't always hold true in all languages, and the big example I'm thinking of is Chinese.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Berated for speaking Japanese like a yakuza

As you might know, I grew up in an Italian-American family in a suburb of Philadelphia. I don't know if this is something that all Italian-American kids run into, but one day my dad sat me down and - I kid you not - told me that I was never to get involved in the mafia. I thought he was kidding and kind of laughed it off, but he was quite serious. I think this may have been a real concern for people of his generation, having grown up in heavily Italian-American parts of Philly in the 1940s and 1950s, and I had the feeling that this was a talk his own dad had had with him at some point. But, as the good little suburban Eagle Scout that I was, I didn't have the first clue about how to join the mafia and the idea was so foreign to me that my dad's little sit-down seemed downright silly.

So it was with much amusement today that I got berated by my wife for speaking like a mafioso. We've been watching through The Sopranostogether lately, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that it wasn't the influence of The Sopranosthat had me talking like a mafioso, because my wife was complaining about me doing it in Japanese - not English. We had our little spat in Japanese, and apparently I started sounding like a yakuza, i.e., a member of the Japanese version of the mafia.

Why English will remain the world's lingua franca

Over on The Linguist on Language, Steve Kaufman "hazards a prediction" that the current economic crisis might lead to a crisis in confidence in the English-speaking world and that "it may not be such an obvious given that English has to be the international language." Steve also says that it's all in the attitude toward English, that it's a kind of fashion. I disagree with those two statements; it's not about attitude, it's about numbers, and the numbers show English very likely to remain the de facto lingua franca for a very long time to come.

But before I back that up, let me first kick off with where I agree with Steve. I think we will see multilingualism on the rise. Part of it - and I agree with Steve wholeheartedly on this point - is that it's not a big deal to be multilingual, and I think more and more people are coming to that realization. I also think it's quite likely that certain languages might take on a regional nature. While I don't see German supplanting English in Europe, or Russian maintaining its preeminence for much longer in Eastern Europe among the Westward-facing post-Soviet Bloc generations, Chinese is a sure contender to gain some regional clout. The high ratio of Koreans and Japanese in my own and many others' Chinese classes in Beijing is a sure sign of this. And, generally, as the relative size of English-speaking economies decline as countries like China, India, and Brazil continue to grow, multilingualism undoubtedly will get a boost.

That said, I don't think English is going to lose its spot as the world's de facto lingua franca to become just one of several important or regional languages. The numbers that best demonstrate this are how much of world GDP can be allocated to each language. What these numbers suggest is perhaps no major shocker: the continued dominance of the English language, albeit in a gradual decline, and the slow uptick of Chinese, with most other languages' positions not changing very much.

Tutoring on LingQ

When I saw this post on Steve Kaufmann's The Linguist, calling for tutors on LingQ, I jumped at the opportunity. I've been enjoying the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" tutoring on sites like Livemocha and Live-8, so I wanted to give it a go on Steve's system as well. Tutors on LingQ get points and can cash out those points at $15/hour or use them on LingQ, and my points will surely be used to further my own language-learning goals. (Steve used LingQ to learn Russian. Perhaps I should finally make an attempt to take Russian off of my list of unfinished business...)

While LingQ will certainly be up for a more thorough review by me after working with it some more, I can say right now that there's one feature I absolutely love. On LingQ, you copy and paste any text you want into it. When you highlight a word in that text and click a button, LingQ will look up the word for you automatically using Babylon's dictionaries or other free resources like Wikipedia, and then you can quickly make a flashcard (or what's called a "LingQ" in LingQ) by simply cutting and pasting. What a blessing that system is. For years, I've been taking my arbitrary texts (whether news articles, lyrics, or what have you) highlighting all the words I didn't know, looking up all the words, and then making flashcards. LingQ makes this exercise so much easier. The only downside is that you're limited to 300 flashcards on a free account, but if you can shell out (a pretty darn reasonable) $10/month, you'll have unlimited flashcards.

To get back to my own LingQ tutoring, I'll be holding my first session next Monday on a topic everyone seems to be wagging their tongues about: this big, bad economic crisis. So, if you're studying English, feel free to get on there and look me up!

Update Jan 15 2009 8:43PM: My username on LingQ is VincentPace (thanks Edwin!).

Related: Livemocha review: Love the native speakers, the method not so much

Livemocha review: Love the native speakers, the method not so much

I've recently been giving the totally free language-learning website Livemocha a spin. Livemocha is absolutely excellent for putting you in touch with native speakers and having them correct your written and spoken submissions, but its teaching method leaves a lot to be desired, and they still have some kinks to work out of the system.

Livemocha divides a language into courses, then units, and then lessons. For most languages, there are four courses that aim to get you to an intermediate level, and each course is divided into three units of about five lessons each. Lessons, in turn, are divided into four types of activities: learn, review, write, and speak.

Let me start with the last two and what I love about the site: how it links you up with native speaker tutors, and plenty of them at that. The "write" section asks you to write a short text, generally based on the lesson but you're free to meander off topic (and I frequently do), and the "speak" section asks you to read and record a passage of target language text. You then submit these to up to ten other users to correct for you.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The mother of all language link collections

Happy new year! I've returned from a brief holiday hiatus with a resolution to bring you much language-learning goodness in 2009.

To kick it off, I just ran across So you want to learn a language, which maintains copious links to all sorts of language-related websites, including both more general sites (like this one) and language-specific sites. The site is an excellent place to dig up resources for just about whatever language-related activity you care to partake in.