Will The New Digital Age Endanger Linguistic Diversity?

A recent piece in the New York Times describes Iceland’s transition to a widespread use of English, and outlines steps the government is taking to prevent an erosion of the native tongue. Why is Icelandic being undermined by English? [T]he revered Icelandic language, seen by many as a source of identity and pride, is being undermined by the widespread use of English, both in the tourism industry and in the voice-controlled artificial intelligence devices coming into vogue. Tourism has exploded in recent years, becoming the country’s single biggest employer, and analysts at Arion Bank say that half of new jobs are being filled […]

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The Single Quickest Way To Learn A Language

The other day, a friend asked me this question: What are the THREE top strategies you use to learn languages quickly? What should I focus on to accelerate my learning? In response, I made it easy for him. I gave him ONE single strategy to focus on. What is this golden strategy to speak a new language more quickly? It is to SPEAK the language. The best way to learn to speak the language is to, well, speak the language. It seems simplistic, but it is a powerful truth. Think about it: How do native speakers become native speakers of […]

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Does Bilingualism Truly Imply Cognitive Superiority?

It is a common narrative that bilingualism leads to cognitive advantages. In other words, that bilingual individuals have cognitive benefits versus their peers in areas other than linguistic aptitude. But is this true? The answer is, “it depends”.   As this piece in Aeon Magazine describes: There is more than one type of bilingualism. A ‘simultaneous bilingual’ learns two languages from birth; an ‘early sequential bilingual’ might speak one language at home but learn to speak the community language at school; and a ‘late sequential bilingual’ might grow up with one language and then move to a country that speaks another. The differences […]

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What Do Latin American Country Names Mean?

Europeans first arrived in Latin America in the late 15th and 16th centuries. Until then, the region was inhabited by indigenous tribes, such as the Maya (mostly in modern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador), Inca (mostly in modern Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and southern Colombia), and Aztec (mostly in modern Mexico). What has always fascinated me is the range of idiosyncrasies observed in Latin American country names. On one hand, you have countries whose names are evidently influenced from the languages of their Spanish conquistadors (e.g., El Salvador, Costa Rica). On the other hand, you have countries whose name decidedly points to native linguistic origins (e.g., Panama, Guatemala). […]

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The Disparity of Population Density

Geography and languages are often deeply intertwined in terms of historical patterns, but this post pertains less to languages and more to geography and population density. And in particular, the “inequality” of population density. I recently came across Max Roser and a fascinating project that he has been working on, which is well worth checking out: Our World in Data Our World in Data uses maps and other visualizations to depict empirical data on poverty, violence, health, education, the environment, and other socioeconomic factors. In an era where data sources abound to an extreme degree, simple yet engaging visualizations help the human mind grasp and contextualize that […]

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What Are The Cognitive Benefits Of A Bilingual Brain?

The following TED-Ed video infographic highlights some important benefits that thinking bilingually can bestow upon your brain. Here are a few cognitive advantages that result from being bilingual: Higher density of the grey matter that contains most of your brain’s neurons and synapses (= increased processing speed). More activity in certain regions of the brain when engaging a second language. Possible delay of diseases (by as much as five years) such as Alzheimer’s or Dementia, as a result of the workout a bilingual brain receives on a continuous basis. Effort and attention needed to switch between languages triggers more activity and strengthening of the dorsolateral prefrontal […]

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Can Adults Learn Languages Like Children?

A common hypothesis among the linguistics community is that children learn languages much more easily and quickly than adults. Supporters of this hypothesis indicate that children have more of a “clean slate” during the first few years of their life. On the other hand, adults already speak and communicate in their native language, which diminishes their busy minds’ learning capacity. The critical period hypothesis is the formalization of this debate. It links the ability to acquire a  language to aging. The more you age, the hypothesis asserts, the less capable you are of picking up a language. Famous linguist Noam Chomsky has at […]

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Strategies From A Teenage Hyperpolyglot

  A few years ago, the Economist ran an article on Tim Doner, a 17-year-old hyperpolyglot. His natural curiosity has led him to speak at least 20 languages, including Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Mandarin Chinese, and the American-Indian Ojibwe language. Quite an uncommon set of tongues!   He is largely self-taught, and employs methods often discussed in this blog, such as Skyping with native speakers, watching or listening to shows and podcasts in the target language, reading simple articles and books, visiting ethnic stores or cafés, etc. You can see videos of his speeches and interviews below this post. But what are the main takeaways […]

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What Are The Hardest Languages To Learn?

Have you ever considered certain languages impossible to learn? If so, you are wrong. It has been proven that you can become – at least conversationally – fluent in any language you set your mind to. However, it is undeniable that certain languages are substantially easier to learn than others, depending on what your native tongue is. The infographic below groups a number of languages into Easy (e.g., Spanish, Swedish), Medium (e.g., Greek, Polish), and Hard (e.g., Arabic, Japanese), all from an English speaker’s perspective. The grouping is based on the hours it would take an English speaker to achieve proficiency, while the graphic also cleverly displays the […]

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America’s Foreign Language Problem

It is not surprising that Americans’ interest in and knowledge of foreign languages has been steadily diminishing. Compare the US presidents in the 18th and 19th centuries to those since the mid to late 1900s: Despite limited technology, the early US presidents were surprisingly erudite when it came to foreign languages. To name a few: John Adams knew Latin and French. Thomas Jefferson was fluent in French and also knew Spanish, Welsh and Arabic. James Madison was versed in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. In contrast, all presidents since FDR barely spoke/speak any language other than English. Why this trend prevails has long been a topic […]

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