July 2012 Archives

Learning languages

The summer season is here - even if the weather associated with it is not - and so many evening activities have ceased before re-starting in the autumn. It is an ideal time to think about doing something different and taking a class in a summer school. I have taken the opportunity to learn some New Testament Greek taught by an enterprising Oxford University Theology undergraduate during her long vacation.

The process of learning a new language is a challenge. Many non-linguists seem to think that acquiring a new language is something you "pick up". Indeed, arguably, babies do "pick up" a language because they hear it spoken and they imitate the sounds and use the individual words most pertinent to their situation such as "drink", "more", "no".  The more sophisticated the command of our first language, the more structured our learning process of another language has to be. Everyone has to apply themselves to a bit of homework - in this case, initially learning a new alphabet and then the rules of grammar.

For linguists, the nuts and bolts of a new language, such as the terminology of grammar (nouns, verbs, genitive case, gerund, etc), are familiar, but the challenge comes in remembering where the rules differ. A verb may be weak in one language and strong in another, a noun may be feminine in one language and masculine in another, and prepositions were invented to catch us all out!

The whole process is fascinating, I think, and so far I am enjoying spelling out words in the as-yet unfamiliar alphabet and finding links with my native language (Claire, our tutor, is letting us in gently, I think!) but I am reminded that learning a new language requires application and dedication. It is thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating, too!

Unlike New Testament Greek, which is a dead language, and cannot be practised in conversation, members of the Weston French Connection group are reminded that we will continue to meet throughout the summer on the fourth Thursday of the month in the Old Crown to ensure our French conversation skills have an occasional airing!

Where words come from

Purists of certain languages deplore the infiltration of their language by words of English origin. Although now widely used, some French speakers dislike "le weekend" and "le selfservice"; native German speakers may frown on "downloaden" or "Computer". And they have a point. These languages have perfectly good words of their own to express these concepts.

This article from the BBC website explains how the English language has adopted words of Asian origin into common usage. Stemming from the era of British rule in India, many words are now part and parcel of the language to such an extent that many people may not notice their foreignness, such as "chutney", "pyjamas" and "veranda".  The French have embraced the word "shampoo" with such enthusiasm that they have given it the English suffix of "-ing" (to create a noun, not a verb) - perhaps to show its origins. But the suffix is only half the story.

A radio programme exploring this subject further will be broadcast on Friday 13 July on Radio 4 at 11.00 BST.