Language. Mobility. Environment.

A short guide on how to speak to yourself in a foreign language (and make it look completely OK)

At some point in our lives, we might have engaged ourselves in an imaginary heated conversation on the phone just to avoid someone we vaguely know (or wish didn’t know) so that we can pretend we haven’t actually seen them – just make sure your phone is set on silent mode, or it might get very awkward.

Well, guess what? This anomaly in our social behaviour can be used for better purposes than ignoring acquaintances on the street. Like testing your language skills, for instance.

What in the world am I talking about?

Well, considering that I desperately need to convince my family that I am not a weirdo after all, I just can’t walk around the house speaking to myself in another language just to practice. I used to do that, by my mum has grown very worried about it. To be honest, I myself feel very uncomfortable just talking to no one about random things while wandering in my room. In this tricky circumstance, your phone is the answer.

Sit down and pretend that you have free calls abroad (if only!) and that you can call that friend who’s native speaker of the language you are currently learning. Pretend to be dialling their number, too! But, in reality, you are just opening the voice recorder app to have it ready. Put your phone on your ear (or use headphones, depending on your habits) – say hi to your friend, ask them how they are and go with the flow, with a pinch of creativity: make up a conversation, imagine what your friend would say in reply and answer back. In the meantime, you’ll be recording everything. 5-10 minutes of an inventive conversation is enough (and trust me, you’ll run out of topics after a while).  At the end of it, say bye to your imaginary interlocutor (potential eave-droppers will be reassured that you are actually speaking with someone on the phone) and voilà, you have just completed an excellent practice session of your language skills – and on top of it, you have a file that records it. Listen back to it later, analyse your own pronunciation and compare it, check your grammar, monitor how your vocabulary has grown. Note down major mistakes, think of how you could have said words and phrases differently, look for idioms! Idioms are great and the fact that you use them is a sign you are mastering the language. It’s a perfect method to individually test your oral language skills that you can take up literally anywhere – even walking on the street! Nobody will consider you a nutter, as long as you make sure you are talking on your phone. Don’t be afraid of awkward silences when you don’t know what else to say – they occur in real conversations too, so what’s the deal?

The ability to evaluate your own performance from the recordings you will have collected is a sign of major improvement. Do you have ten minutes to spare, or are you walking alone for a significantly long time? You can dedicate this time to your daily dose of foreign language learning.

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Recipe of the day: Dutch for Beginners (with children’s books)

1504442_411374425659606_1695231641_oLearning Dutch is turning out to be a lot of fun. In my last post I mentioned that I was learning it by reading a children’s book by Annie M.G. Schmidt (one of the best birthday presents I have ever received, I must say). Following the same topic, I thought it would be a good idea to show in detail how I use and deconstruct such a simple text and make it as effective as one-week worth language course. And I don’t really want to keep revising for tomorrow’s politics exam, so might as well do languages.

 The initial plan was to read a story a day, but exams and life in general have prevented me from sticking to it religiously, so I read one whenever I have time (or pretend to have some). Today is the case, so here I am, I  fetch the book, open it on page 33 and read: 

Boodschappen doen. Moeder zegt: ‘Willen jullie een boodschap doen? Hier heb je een mandje. Haal een pond kaas op de hoek, weet je wel?’Jip en Janneke nemen het mandje. En ze gaan naar de winkel op de hoek. Takkie gaat mee. Takkie gaat altijd mee. ‘Kijk,’ zegt Jip, ‘wat een grote hond daar aan komt.’‘Dat is Hector van de boer,’ zegt Janneke. ‘Die is heel groot, maar hij doet niks.’Takkie begint te brommen. En hij blaft. En hij wil naar de grote hond toe. ‘Hier blijven, Tak’ zegt Jip. Maar Takkie blijft niet bij Jip. Hij gaat erop af. O, o, nou gaan ze vechten. Ze rollen en grommen. En de haren vliegen in het rond. En Takkie is zo klein en Hector is zo groot. ‘Kom dan hier, Takkie,’ gilt Janneke. ‘Toe, Jip, haal hem weg.’Jip is bang voor Hector. Maar hij krijgt zo’n medelijden met Takkie. Hij gaat naar de honden toe. En hij slaat met zijn mandje. ‘Daar,’ roept hij, ‘niet vechten!Hector kijkt op. Hij is erg verbaasd. Hij vindt het gek dat die kleine jongen hem durft te slaan. En Takkie loopt weg. Hij jankt een beetje. Zijn pootje doet pijn. Jip neemt hem op. ‘Stoute Tak,’ zegt hij. ‘Het was jouw schuld. Jij bent begonnen.’‘Ja,’ zegt Janneke ‘jij bent begonnen, Tak!’Takkie kijkt heel zielig. En Jip en Janneke nemen hem mee naar huis. ‘Waar is de kaas?’ vraagt moeder.‘O ja,’ zegt Jip ‘dat is waar ook.’Maar Takkie mag niet meer mee. En dan gaan ze kaas halen. En Takkie moet thuisblijven. In zijn mandje. En hij heeft erge spijt.

I will not ‘analyse’ the whole thing (God forbid) but I will try to show as briefly as I can how I work with a text in order to get knowledge on the language out it. I will focus on the first lines of the story, and please, if you feel like it, try to carry on till the end. You will be surprised to see how quickly you can grasp the gist of it!


  1. A children’s book in Dutch
  2. Mental agility and a pinch of creativity
  3. Motivation
  4. Pens, paper and sticky notes
  5. Basic knowledge of German is helpful but not absolutely necessary

 Step 1. Read out loud.

I usually read out loud, trying to focus on the basic pronunciation patterns I have been taught. The G’s are pronounced down at the bottom of the throat, the IJ’s and EE’s that always trick me (it’s a matter of whether the jaw goes up or down – I think?) OE is like the English ‘oo’, UI/UY are rather weird and sound like a very posh ‘ou‘ like in house. And the S’s seem to have a very peculiar sound. Oh, and I also make sure that words like praten, grote, halen have a long first vowel. If my native-speaker friend is around I might ask her to quickly read the text for me, but if she’s too busy, online services like Acapela Text-to-Speech will do.

Step 2. Second reading and word-hunting. (And this is core phase of the process)

Phonetics is fine, now it’s time to get down to meaning. What does it even mean?


In this case, the title does not turn out to be a good start. Doen, easy, ‘to do’. But boodschappen? No clue. I google it, and the pictures at the top show trolleys full of groceries. ‘To do the shopping’, maybe? That’s it!

First line. ‘Moeder zegt’. You don’t really need to know German for the first word. It’s pronounced ‘mooder’.  It’s one of those words that link all Indo-european languages together, from Latin mater, to French mère up to English mother. ‘Zegt’. Ok, here you actually might need some German. ‘Sagen’ is German for ‘to say’. Dutch did not like the S, because the Z is cooler. And here we have ‘zeggen’. So, what does the mother say?

 ‘Willen jullie een boodschap doen? Hier heb je een mandje. Haal een pond kaas op de hoek, weet je wel?’

 Boodschappen doen, again. We know that already, we’re safe. The rest is basic grammar, jullie is the plural you and willen is the omnipresent verb to want (if you know German, that might sound familiar). Yes, because Dutch are more straightforward and do not really see the point of using those overly polite


expressions like ‘Would you like..? Could you please..? Would you mind..? Pointless waste of time. Next sentence, and the unknown word is mandje. No clue, back to google. Small basket, because we know that the suffix –je makes things smaller and cuter.  (On a side note, ‘cute’ in Dutch is ‘schattig’, universally acknowledged as the least cute word in the Dutch language).

Hier (sounds like here!) heb… hev, have? Here we go!

Haal. No clue. The dictionary has the answer (mind the double vowel, although the base form is halen!). Een, a, basic grammar again. Pond kaas. Pond is kilo, sort of, or a 10356200_466854676778247_4560978842809608785_npound, as older people might say. And the kaas… well, we are talking about the Netherlands. And my Dutch housemate is mad about Quesadillas. Because there is queso in it. Or casus, as Julius Caesar might have called it. Or cheese. Do you get it?

Weet je wel? Ok, this expression is EVERYWHERE in the book. After you read the first four stories, you can be sure you’ll know that it means, literally, ‘you know well’. In this case it’s more like ‘are you OK with that?’ for some reason. It’s one of those phrases you have to learn, so thank you very much Annie Schmidt!

 Jip en Janneke nemen het mandje. En ze gaan naar de winkel op de hoek. Takkie gaat mee. Takkie gaat altijd mee.

Jip and Janneke, by the way, are the two kids this book is all about. And Takkie is their stupid dog (I love dogs, I am just reporting what they themselves say about the poor thing). So, we know what a mandje is. And the kids ‘nemen’ it. Now, here it all depends on whether you know German or not. If you do, you know that nehmen means to take. The Dutch did not like the h, but that tragic loss does not really undermine your understanding. If you don’t know German, the dictionary is the best option. And write this word down! – it’s quite common. What do they (ze) do next? They ‘gaan naar de winkel op de hoek’. Winkel is shop. Hoek (Ecke in German) is corner. Once you’ve looked up for this words you can easily infer that gaan implies some sort of movement (they go) and op is the preposition. So, they go to the shop by the corner. And their dog goes along. With them, as usual. (mee -> met -> mit -> with). Altijd. Tijd is basic vocabulary, it means ‘time’. “Altime” (?) = always. Besides, you have a clear grammar rule in front of your eyes. Jip and Janneke are two, and when they go they bring an N with them. Takkie has a T, because he’s ‘a third person’. As a matter of fact…

  • (Ik ga)
  • (Jij gaat)
  • Hij/zij/het gaat
  • (Wij gaan)
  • (Jullie gaan)
  • Zij gaan


Kijk,’ zegt Jip, ‘wat een grote hond daar aan komt.’‘Dat is Hector van de boer,’ zegt Janneke. ‘Die is heel groot, maar hij doet niks.’

Kijk’. No idea. The online dictionary suggests ‘kijken’, to look. Easy, it’s an imperative. Oh, so this is how you form the imperative in Dutch! You take the verb, cut the –en off, and les jeux sont faits. (I apologize to any Flemish reader for my uncalled use of French). Zegt Jip. Now we know what that is. Wat, basics again. The Dutch must have issues with the letter H. Wat is what. What what? No, I mean, wat means ‘what’, ok?

‘Een grote hond’

Een grote hond. Hond (German Hund) means dog. Grote. Use your brain! Got it? Groß… gros… great… grande…? Yes, exactly. ‘Big’. There’s a big dog here. Which is not Takkie. Because this dog is ‘there’ (daar) and aan komt. Komt comes from kommen, which means to come (duh!). Aan is one those nice preposition that Germanic languages love because they always want to be super precise about where a thing is. Is it by, above, beneath, is it moving or is it still? So, this dogs ‘come by/at that place’ – the shop by the corner, we assume.

Your turn now!

It’s a game. Every word is a small challenge that gives your brain the right cues to think, make connections, understand, imitate and communicate in turn. The challenge makes memorising more interesting, a process that can be eased by using flash cards or sticky notes to spread all over your bedroom walls…

Step 3. Memorise!

The best way to keep all these information for the long term is to do a quickly summing-up (Zusammenfassung in German, a word that I really fancy!) of all the grammar rules detected throughout the text and list all the new words, My list for this particular text includes boodschap, mandje, hoek, winkel, brommen, vechten, grommen, verbaasd, medelijden. What’s great about children’s books like this one is that these words will keep showing up constantly, alongside new words that will just keep adding on to your personal vocabulary. Just remember what I said in my last post – remember not to focus solely on the reading/writing bit. What you ultimately have to do is communicate! Reading out loud is essential.



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A few tips on language learning.

How do I learn languages?

I am currently going through that phase following the end of a particularly inspirational book. You know, when you get to the last page, sigh after the last word and contradictory feelings are crossing your soul. The book I am talking about is New Finnish Grammar by Dario Marani (read here what The Guardian has said about it). Mariani is a linguist, and his linguist hand has left its mark throughout the book. The story features a young man, named Sampo Karjalainen, and his journey to retrieve his supposed Finnish identity through the re-acquisition of the Finnish language, which he has irreversibly forgotten together with his past due to severe head injuries. The narration is partitioned by references to his private language lessons carried out by a doctor first, and a priest afterwards. They both lead him into the world of sounds and inflections of the Finnish language, a world that Sampo explores with fervent enthusiasm, as he merges his attempts to language acquisition with his quest for his own identity.

Sampo’s passionate engagement has drawn my attention to an aspect that embraces pretty much my whole life, and yet it barely slips into daily conversations or into my general work: the actual language-learning process. I have been asked quite often about ‘my secrets’, how I can just remember words, sounds and grammar rules and put them together fairly easily. First of all, I feel like I have to confess my sins: I fall in love with new languages very quickly and as soon as I have mastered the most basic elements of one language, I am already switching to a new, different language crush. That said, I acknowledge that what ultimately boosts my language skills is a proper obsession for the process itself. I find the possibility to express a thought, a feeling or an idea with different words and sounds absolutely fascinating – and highly satisfying. As a result, my ears feel an odd pleasure in dealing with a new word. I record it in my favourite area of the brain, I repeat it to myself until it becomes mine. Lately, this has occurred with the words tietää (Finnish, to know), Morgenthau (German, morning dew), obuolys (Lithuanian, apple) and today with the English debunk, which I’ve found in an article I have read before dinner.

This is how ‘love at first hearing’ usually occurs. A word overheard on the bus, or in the historical areas of my hometown where I always have the chance to come across some interesting tourists. Now the interest has sparked off – what happens next?

Which are the best ways to gain fluency in a language? Personally, this is what I find crucial:

Learn your native language!

So obvious and yet such a neglected point. Knowledge of one’s native language (or the lack of it) does make a huge difference between a successful learning outcome and the struggled nightmare of a very slow journey. Language learning implies a kind of technical jargon whose understanding by the learners is absolutely determining. When German teachers point out that in German subordinate clauses require the main verb to go down at the end of the sentence (e.g. Ich weiß, dass Johannes 14 Jahre alt ist), they are hopeful that the learner will understand what ‘subordinate clause’ means. If s/he doesn’t, that will inevitably slow down the learning process. So: make sure your knowledge of your own language and its grammar is up to date – this will make everything a great deal easier, faster and more straight-forward.

Be the child within you!

We’ve all been through the tough process of learning a language, and we’ve all been successful: the earliest years of childhood. A good method to learn a new language is to start that process anew. I am currently learning Dutch through a children’s book. Sentences are short and easy, concepts are stated repetitively with different words and phrases thus providing a wide range of expressivity. With this kind of language, implying the meaning from the context will always work. This is how I learnt how to say ‘I am a bit shy’ for example. (Ik ben een beetje verlegen!). This stage is now crucial, and makes a difference between a long and short learning programme. The best way to learn a language is to experience it first hand in the country where it’s spoken – and I’m not being very original here. The constant exposition to it places the learner in a linguistic childhood, where s/he acquires and repeats what is told, in a wide range of circumstances. Like those of necessity, for instance.

Language of necessity.

A baby starts speaking so that he or she can communicate their needs to the parents. Need drives language. It has been studied that learning a language through necessity improves the learning outcomes considerably. I will not talk around it, but I will portray an exemplary situation to prove the point. You are in France, and your knowledge of the French language is fairly limited. You are catching the plane home on the next day, but you have just realized that you still haven’t printed your ticket. You suddenly get stressed because you know that you cannot leave without it, and as you booked with a cheap airline, you cannot cancel your booking without loosing all the money you’ve spent on it. You don’t have a printer but you need one. You are in a village in the west, no one speaks English and you have no idea of how to say printer in French. You try in a shop: the lady there does not understand what you want so she just gives up and you leave the shop discouraged. The same happens in the second shop. You are increasingly stressed. In the third shop, the lady there is patient and tries to help you. Using absurd periphrasis you get through her and she yells enthusiastically: ‘imprimante!’. You repeat the word to yourself, hating it badly. Hating so much, that you will never forget it anymore. (The example provided might or might not correspond to a true, personal story).

Read IPA

Interaction determines proficiency. Relying upon books, magazines, online articles will definitely enhance your knowledge of vocabulary and of grammar put in context, but will be not directly helpful for your pronunciation and thus communicative skills. During my first year at uni I was suddenly exposed to a huge amount of new words that I found in academic articles and books I had to read as assignment. I learnt so many new terms, but every time I found myself in the right context to make them useful and actually employ them in my speech, I used to fail most of the time. Simply because I used to never check their pronunciation. Reading helps your understanding of texts and your ability to write, but a close focus on it also compromises your communication skills. Especially if you are dealing with a language like English, French (or the worst of the worst, Chinese) mispronunciation might extensively prevent communication from being delivered effectively.

Fetch the recorder!

Yes, I know, it’s ridiculously awkward for all of us. But I swear, it’s useful. Recording your voice gives you the opportunity to assess your performance more thoughtfully. Or even recording a video of yourself speaking with your webcam: that would give you access also to different elements of your oratorical skills. As an improvised ‘external observer’ you would be able to spot flaws and strong points and use them to improve yourself. This activity is strictly connected with listening tasks. A good way to employ both resources is to write down a conversation or a monologue from a movie, reading it along with the actors and then repeating it to yourself. Then compare the two versions. You’ll be surprised to find this extremely useful!

If you have more useful tips, feel free to share them!



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Language Innateness – Jan-Wouter Zwart vs. Dan Everett

Is language innate, is it build progressively from a basic universal grammar? Or does it construct itself imposed by external factors (necessity, society)?
See what Dr Zwart from the University of Groningen and Daniel Everett, from Bentley University, USA. I suggest reading this article from TheGuardian to get the gist of what is Dr. Everett’s position:

Many thanks to the Linguistica in Pillole Facebook page for sharing this video.

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A clique of clicks

7 million of people in South Africa speak Xhosa. Nelson Mandela himself spoke it and not many outside this community are able to pronounce correctly his complete name, or the name of the town where he grew up – Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and ‘Qunu‘ respectively. Since last week I thought that nothing could be more unpronounceable that the Danish rødgrød med fløde, yet I have now  changed my opinions completely. In terms of phonetics, Xhosa is quite of a tricky one. The hardest bit is certainly the clicking sound system, traditionally considered by many a form of primordial human language – theory that has now been disproved. This particular linguistic feature has been borrowed from the Khosian languages, which use clicks quite extensively. Xhosa has three types of plain clicks, two Dental/Alveolar (central and lateral, written respectively as c and x) and Postalveolar, conveyed with the q. The word ‘Xhosa’ itself begins with the former. Although we might find it not that hard to imitate the sounds, put them into actual words and use them in a flowing conversation sounds like madness. Not to mention singing…

It’s an agglutinative language, that means that it makes uses of lots of prefixes and suffixes to convey the role each word has in a sentence. As most African languages, it is quite complex and certainly its odd phonetical features do not help the external learner. The official languages of higher education in South Africa are English and Afrikaans, yet at least nine institutions use Xhosa and the language is taught in primary and secondary school extensively throughout the country. The number of its speakers and thus its political relevance makes it particularly influential; it also appeals the curiosity of linguists from all over the world, expectedly fascinated by the weird clicks. However, no matter how surprised people might feel hearing this language, this phenomenon is closer than we think. According to Susanne Fuchs, Laura L. Koening and Ralf Winkler, German – yes, that German, one of the three official languages of the European Union – actually possesses a (weak) form of click. (click here to read the article). Close analysis have showed how in phrases like ‘Er nascht Kitschende‘ or ‘Er nascht Tischende‘ a so-called lingual ingessive airstream mechanism occurs – fancy words that simply describe, for instance, that funny sound kids make to recall a horse trotting.

Xhosa Language profile from the Students' Handbook of Linguistics, Univeristy of Edinburgh.

Xhosa Language profile from the Students’ Handbook of Linguistics, Univeristy of Edinburgh.

Sala kakuhle!

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Ab initio

I’m putting this first article together after swinging back and forth with my thoughts, in a desperate attempt to make up my mind. English or Italian? – I ask myself. English or Italian? – My life in a nutshell. The eternal question that, with barely two single words linked together by a little, tiny disjunctive, tell my life story. Ultimately, the middle ground gets the upper hand. I mean that hybrid form of border-language, that kind of English which I am not sure whether we should still call it English, or maybe something else. Words come up at random, the first to come is the right one. Yet, translations of particularly pretentious language juggling will be promptly provided, no worries!

Now that my language choices have been clarified, we can proceed to the next, crucial question, the fifth of the holy five Ws. Why?

The idea of this Blog originally stems from a latent form of exasperation shared among my group of friends, fed up with my endless rambling monologues on languages and linguistics. When people happen to talk about languages, my geeky spirit is unleashed, that’s why. Therefore, I now leave a disastrous past blogging experience behind to open up this language nook to trigger discussions on a topic I feel particularly attached to. I often come across interesting essays and articles on this subject, related to general reflections or specific research projects within the field of linguistics. As a result, I’d like to make use of this Language Watch to report and make comments about what’s happening out there, among words, phrases and sounds telling stories of other countries and cultures. Let’s see what happens!


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