Stephen Colbert Gets His Own Language

American comedian Stephen Colbert’s late night alter ego is known for his ego…and his frequent campaigns to get everything from spiders to a piece of the International Space Station named for him.

So, the latest news from his alma mater, Northwestern University, should bring a smile to his face. Researchers there named an invented language used for an experiment “Colbertian,” after the comedian.

NBC Chicago quotes Communications Professor Viorica Marian, one of the authors of the study, explaining their reasoning:

“Stephen Colbert has brought new words like ‘truthiness’ and ‘Lincolnish’ into the lexicon. We had to invent a new language to do our research, and no one invents words as readily as Stephen Colbert. Naming our new language after Colbert was a no-brainer.”

Of course, the guaranteed extra publicity might have been another factor, as well.

What does “Colbertian” sound like? Well, basically like gibberish, but that’s to be expected in a language invented for a language learning experiment.

Incidentally, the experiment looked at how being bilingual affects your ability to learn additional languages. The results dovetailed nicely with this study by the University of Haifa, implying that being fluent in two languages makes it easier to learn a third (Colbertian, in this case).

During the experiment, both monolingual and bilingual individuals were asked to learn Colbertian, then given a quiz in which they were asked to match nouns from the language with the appropriate pictures. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, participants who were already bilingual ““experience less interference from their native language when listening to speech in a newly learned language.”

Study co-author James Bartolotti told the Chicago Sun-Times, ““We found that people who learned both English and Spanish at an early age and continued to speak them, better retained the words in Colbertian.”

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5 Things you Need to Know about Living Abroad

5 Things you Need to Know about Living Abroad

Your average secondary school French teacher, however inspirational when armed with a rainbow of board pens and with the dulcet tones of our friends from Encore Tricolore as background noise, cannot teach you everything you need to know ahead of your ventures abroad.

As part of my French and German degree (class of 2008), I underwent a period of time in the respective countries. During the fifteen months that I split between Tübingen, Tergnier and Munich, I kept a list of the peculiarities I discovered on an almost daily basis. Here is a small sample… Read more

What is the Hardest Foreign Language to Learn?

No matter what, learning a foreign language takes some effort. But some languages are easier than others. Which languages are the hardest for English speakers to get a grip on?

This infographic, based on information provided by the Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State, might have the answer.  It shows how much class time it generally takes to become proficient at speaking one of 23 major languages.

European languages like French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese are classified as “easy,” generally taking 24 weeks and 600 class hours to attain proficiency in.

Meanwhile, in the “Medium” category, we have Hindi, Russian, Vietnamese, Turkish, Polish, Thai, Serbian, Greek, Finnish and Hebrew. To become proficient in one of these languages, it usually takes 44 weeks of study or 1,110 classroom hours.

Finally, the “Big Four.” According to the US Department of State, the four most difficult languages to learn are Arabic, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. To become conversational in one of these languages, you’ll probably need 1.69 years, spending 2,200 hours in class!

What makes these languages so hard to learn? For Arabic, one problem is simply that there aren’t many cognates to help give English speakers a head start on vocabulary.  Then, there’s the fact that written Arabic tends to drop vowels. One reporter trying to learn Arabic described the resulting confusion in Slate here:

Maktab, or “office,” is just written mktb. Vowels are included as little marks above and below in beginning textbooks, but you soon have to get used to doing without them. Whn y knw th lngg wll ths s nt tht hrd. But when you’re struggling with comprehension to begin with, it’s pretty formidable.

Other factors mentioned in Slate include unfamiliar sounds and a “ferociously unfamiliar grammar.”

What about the other languages? Chinese has two strikes against it. First of all, it’s a tonal language, which means that the tone you say a particular word in changes the meaning of the word. Secondly, there are literally thousands of characters to learn.

A complex writing system is also listed as a mark against Japanese, though some Japanese enthusiasts argue that the FSI is giving the language an undeserved bad rap.

English speakers trying to learn Korean face difficulties with syntax, sentence structure and conjugating verbs, plus written Korean uses some of those pesky Chinese characters, too. Again, there are dissenters. For example, translator and ESL teacher Donovan Nagel says,

“Languages like Korean, Mandarin and Arabic tend to draw this kind of negativity from people and it usually comes from bitter people who gave up at some point early on.”

Whether learning a particular language comes easy or not depends on a bunch of different factors, including your native language and whether or not you are already bilingual.

The complete infographic is below- do you agree with how the different languages are ranked?

Via: Voxy Blog

Foreign Language Mistakes: These Words Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean

Learning a new language inevitably involves a bit of public humiliation. You’re bound to make mistakes, and some of them will make you blush. That said, some foreign language mistakes are both more common and more cringeworthy than others. With that in mind, here is a collection of foreign words that probably don’t mean what you think they mean: Read more

Blogger Fired for Writing About Homophones

Tim Torkildson, a writer hired to manage a blog for a Utah language learning school, got his 15 minutes of fame last week after the language school fired him for writing a post about homophones.

“Homophones” are simply words that sound the same, like “read” and “reed” or “see” and “sea.” As you can imagine, they can be confusing for English language learners and students need to be taught how to distinguish them.  The post that got Torkildson fired was a short bit about homophones beginning with the letter”A” that should have offended absolutely nobody.

Unfortunately, Torkildson’s boss was offended.  Apparently his brain stopped working once he read the prefix “homo-.” Here’s how Torkildson describes what happened the next day:

“I’m letting you go because I can’t trust you” said Clarke Woodger, my boss and the owner of Nomen Global Language Center.  “This blog about homophones was the last straw.  Now our school is going to be associated with homosexuality.”

I said nothing, stunned into silence.

“I had to look up the word” he continued, “because I didn’t know what the hell you were talking about.  We don’t teach this kind of advanced stuff to our students, and it’s extremely inappropriate.  Can you have your desk cleaned out by eleven this morning?  I’ll have your check ready.”

Oh, those dirty, dirty homophones! Of course, the Internet loves a good idiot, so Torkildson’s story quickly went viral. In his zeal to avoid having his school associated with the prefix “homo,”  Mr. Woodger has all but ensured that it will be associated with homophobia on the search engines for some time to come and possibly forever.

I didn’t try to make any clever homophobia/homophone puns because it’s all been done at this point, but if you need a good laugh check out “The Homophone Menace” on the Washington Post. It’s a thing of beauty.

Swearing in Translation

New research from the University of Warsaw confirms what we already knew: learning to swear in translation is innately appealing. Think about it: If you only know a few select phrases in another language, chances are they’re either “survival phrases” or swear words.

To test whether bilinguals prefer to swear in their native language or their second language, the researchers designed a “covert experiment” amongst a group of bilingual university students, all fluent in both English and Polish.

The students were asked to translate two “equally offensive” texts from English to Polish and from Polish to English.  When translating from English to Polish, the majority of the students tempered the obscenities, bowdlerizing the texts.  However, when they translated from Polish into English, they were much more willing to use offensive language, sometimes even adding obscenities out of whole cloth.

Well, at least for certain obscenities. The study actually only found a significant difference when it came to ethnic slurs directed at certain outgroups. Apparently, swearing in a foreign language can be easier from a psychological standpoint because the words don’t carry as much weight in your mind. However, since society has become somewhat deadened to even the “big seven” dirty words, the effect was only significant when it came to ethnic slurs, words that today are designated as “hate speech” and thus are far more taboo than your standard four-letter obscenities.

In a write-up of the study published in PLOS One, the authors conclude that “the main factor triggering the language choice in bilinguals is not necessarily the different emotional power of both languages, but social and cultural norms.”  The “distancing effect” of using a foreign language makes it easier to cross those cultural boundaries.

(Via IO9)

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How a Second Language Keeps You Young

Looking for the fountain of youth? Look no further than a foreign language class, at least as far as your brain is concerned. According to a new study from the University of Edinburgh, learning to speak a second language actually keeps your brain younger and protects against age-related cognitive decline.

The study looked at 835 men and women, all born in Scotland to English-speaking families. They were tested for mental abilities once at age eleven  and then again in their seventies.

The subjects who spoke more than one language did much better than would normally be expected on the second round of tests, especially in the areas of general intelligence and reading. Research has clearly established that children are “wired” to learn a second language more easily than adults, and there are cognitive advantages to being raised bilingually.

However,  in this study the beneficial effects were seen even in people who learned their second language after the age of 18.  So, it’s never too late to reap the benefits of learning another language.

Study author Dr. Thomas Bak, of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, wrote:

“These findings are of considerable practical relevance. Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life. Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the aging brain.”

Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, professor of medicine at Harvard, confirmed the importance of the study to the BBC:

“The epidemiological study provides an important first step in understanding the impact of learning a second language and the ageing brain. This research paves the way for future causal studies of bilingualism and cognitive decline prevention.”

Image credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by brain_blogger

You Can Haz Spanish!

Last month, we wrote about the potentially dire consequences of the UK’s foreign language shortage for our economy. How do we get more people to learn another language? As it turns out, the common housecat  may hold the key.

Say what? According to research performed by a company called Memrise, people retain information better when it is presented in the form of cute cat pictures. As Memrise COO Ben Whately explained to the BBC:

“We wanted to know what kinds of visual mnemonics were most effective at helping people to learn fast. The pattern began to emerge that pictures of cats always featured disproportionately among the most effective.”

Now, you can channel your obsession with funny cat memes into something productive: learning another language. Read more