Publications written in Black Country dialect.

Back at Home with Dialect

I’ve had dialect on the mind lately. As a language learner, that’s nothing new; learning how my target languages vary across geography has always been a fun (and useful) distraction.

But this time, it’s a case of back to my roots as I research my local Black Country dialect for a university project. It’s a winding path that led me to the Black Country Living Museum this weekend, the sights and sounds of my home region at every turn. The caws, shaws and ays tripped off the tongues of the fantastic volunteers, all well-versed in Dudley spake. I lost count of the times I was wistfully reminded of how my grandparents talked.

A chain-making forge at the Black Country Living Museum.

A chain-making forge at the Black Country Living Museum.

It‘a a timely reminder that we don’t always have to look to the language books for linguistic diversity. Regional dialect is just not always feted for that. In fact, pundits often paint it as something far less worthy of our attention.

At least, that was my experience growing up as a Black Country kid.

Doing Down Dialect

My family have always spoken the local dialect. Happily, naturally, barely even aware of it. At school, though, I learned that a different standard was set. Broad Black Country was a tongue subtly shunned. Although dialect shame was no longer as explicit by that time (some shocking attitudes prevailed just a decade or two earlier), it was clear that “doing well” meant “speaking proper”.

Later, at uni, I worked hard (though likely, without even too much conscious awareness) to flatten out the giveaway vowels in my own accent, which were so eagerly pointed out as entertaining during Freshers’ Week. No, not all dialects are created equal in the eyes of the hoi polloi. But those clumsy attempts to escape it also stir up the mirth. Heck, they even dissect Liam Payne for it of late.

As a result, I saw my family dialect as something to resign myself to. I never really gave it the time of day. It was background noise, something to be borne, something I just ended up with. What a shame that is. But what a common story it is, too.

(Re-)Learning to Love It

Learning that dialect – yes, even my own – fascinates and occupies linguists, had a profound effect on me. Only recently have I come to regard mine at something special, something worthy of study in its own right, just like one of my foreign languages. I’m approaching Black Country English with the kinds of mental tools that I’d approach a foreign language with. And I’ve realised how richly unique it is.

If social pressure ever prompted you to lock your own dialect in a dusty mental cupboard, try revisiting it with fresh eyes. Check out local societies working to document and promote it. Leaf through a dialectology primer to find out where yours fits in, and why it’s special. Reappraising mine as something with an important linguistic story to tell is a response to that language-obsessed youngster, seeking a skill to make himself special by looking further and further away.

You already have something unique. Treasure it.

A bag of books from the gift shop at the Black Country Living Museum.

A bag of books. What better souvenir?

Eurovision 2022: Belgium’s Jérémie Makiese at the Second Semi-Final — EBU/SARAH LOUISE BENNETT

Happy Eurovision, Language Lovers!

Well, didn’t that year pass by quickly? It’s only Eurovision Day again!

It’s no secret: a love of Eurovision and language learning always went hand in hand for me. The song contest was the main reason I became so captivated by the idea of foreign languages as a kid, so I have a lot to thank it for.

But of course, things have changed over the years. The language rule was relaxed in 1999, allowing countries to enter in languages other than their official ones. In practice, that meant English for almost everybody. That said, enough brave and proud souls still keep the languages coming. France, Italy, Portugal and Spain: I’m looking gratefully at you in particular!

Still, there are always a few extra tongues that sneak in each year. In fact, this year we’re spoilt, as the final will include:

  1. Breton (for the second time for France, the last being in 1996)
  2. Dutch (for the first time in a final since 1998)
  3. Icelandic (most recently featuring in 2019 and 2013)
  4. Italian
  5. Latin (in the Serbian song – the last time being the repeated word Lapponia in Finland’s 1977 entry)
  6. Lithuanian (for the first time since 1994 – unless you count Samogitian as a dialect, in which case 1999)
  7. Portuguese
  8. Romanian (thanks to Moldova)
  9. Serbian
  10. Spanish (including a little in Romania’s entry)
  11. Ukrainian

Now call me an optimist, but that’s pretty good going for a competition which no longer enforces a language rule. And if we’re including the semis, we also had Albanian, Croatian, Greek and Slovene in 2022. Thumbs up to all those countries proving that English language participation still isn’t a given, even after 23 years of the free language rule.

In any case, however you are marking this great day, have a wonderful, joyful Eurovision.

And enjoy the languages!

Learning Devanagari on Duolingo (Screenshot)

Learning Devanagari ‘Just Because’ : On Not Needing a Reason

Have you ever learnt anything just because? Without any specific motivation or goal in mind? Learning something for the heck of it is a valid goal in itself, of course, and exactly how I’ve ended up with a basic knowledge of Devanagari script.

It all started off with an equally woolly, goal-diffuse pastime: collecting old language books. Some time last year, I added a lovely, pristine copy of the late 90s Teach Yourself Nepali to my collection. I bought it for the sake of completion, if anything. It filled a gap in my TY hoard.  But true to my New Year’s dabbling promise to myself, I spent a little time working through the first chapter. I found myself fascinated by the script, but a bit overwhelmed by the book’s everything-at-once introduction to it.

After a bit of Googling and Wikipediation, I realised that Devanagari is the script of choice for both Nepali and Hindi. What’s more, I remembered, Duolingo has a Hindi course. Surely I’d find a gentler introduction to the script there.

And didn’t I just. Duolingo introduces Devanagari very comfortably and gradually across the four initial lessons of its Hindi course. Each one contains just a subset of letters, and there’s no pressure to progress until you’re ready for the next tranche of beautiful, curved characters.

Casual Devanagari

So I started spending five minutes here and there on it. I approached it as a bit of fun, a pattern-matching game. As the lessons don’t contain actual words, that’s all it was – and it was all the more fun for it. I felt I was testing my memory, keeping my visual recognition skills sharp, and having a bit of fun casual mind-gaming.

Not only that, but it turned out to be a handy way to get my score up on days when I was too busy, or too tired, to do full-blown language lessons in the app. In five minutes of short practice lessons, I could clock up enough XP to keep me afloat for another day. Devanagari became my free pass.

Months later, I’ve almost learnt Devanagari by accident. I’ve barely noticed those characters settling into my synapses. And it’s there, if I ever need it, for learning Nepali, Hindi, or any of the other languages that are written in it.

It’s a far cry from my experiences as a schoolteacher, where there was often a pressure to justify language learning in utilitarian terms. To students, to parents, to ‘core’ subject staff – you name it. For sure, there are many very practical reasons to learn a language, and we all became adept at tripping them off, on cue.

But my Devanagari journey serves as a nice reminder that there doesn’t have to be a point at all, beyond ‘just because’. If there’s enjoyment, if there’s contentment, if there’s curiosity and it’s satisfied, that can be the whole point. Learn what you like.

An old, brick-style mobile phone. The notification problem was significantly less noticeable with these! Image from freeimages.com.

Creating a Notification-Free Language Routine

We’re slaves to our mobile devices these days. At least that’s what a whole tranche of research suggests, popularised in books like How to Break Up With Your Phone, Digital Minimalism and Smart Phone, Dumb Phone. Mobile operating systems bake in an addiction-dependency loop, the notification system being the carrot to our donkey brains. We just can’t help coming back for more.

I took a short study break away recently, in order to get some well-needed head space. My mistake? I didn’t plan any notification downtime. And it was my language learning apps that rudely interrupted my calm most, calling me to constant action. Green owl, I’m particularly looking at youIt’s time for your lesson! You were knocked out of the top ten! There’s still time to move up in the Diamond league!

Now, I’m a good lad and I always do my daily Duo. But the nagging began to feel a bit… stressful.

Pavlov’s Notifications

There’s an element of shtick to all this, of course, that Duolingo has very successfully spun into social media gold. It’s genius, to be honest; a top-class case study in building a brand identity. That mock menace is all part of the fun in the learning. It’s often great to have bad cop on our backs, cajoling us into action when we’d rather just idle.

But it can all feel a bit Pavlov’s dogs at times.

As a bit of a control freak myself, I find that aspect particularly unsettling. How much control have I ceded to my phone’s notification system? To what extent am I still enacting my own free will here? And how well has that notification system trained me to keep running back for more endorphin hits, even sans notification? Checking the phone first thing in the morning, walking to various destinations (never a great idea), last thing at night…

If I were a dog, my trainer would be collecting an award right now.

Granted, we’re not talking about mindless entertainment or trivial content. Those language learning pings emanate from some of the best educational apps out there: Duolingo, Anki, Glossika. Surely that isn’t a waste of time?

Well, no. But as part of a wider problem of notification addiction, I thought it was time to wrest control back just a little. To start using these resources on my own terms again.

Off With His Notification!

So it’s off with the Duolingo notifications, for a start. As much as I love the competitive side of it – daily targets, leagues, monthly quests – I hate being told what to do (it’s that control freak in me again). I already love doing my daily lessons. I’m not going to forget, so you don’t have to stress me out by reminding me every five minutes that I’ve dropped out of the top ten.

Likewise, I’m always on the lookout for more non-digital opportunities to learn and practise foreign languages. I’m building up an old-school language library, and taking time to go through those wonderful, physical materials mindfully, and far from my phone. I build in plenty of one-to-one and group classes to get time with real human beings. I’m using my devices for more slow learning tasks like reading books and listening to podcasts, which complement the fast-and-furious educational app mode (variety is key!). And I’m trying to follow general advice around breaking phone addiction: having a no-scroll rule for morning and night, and giving myself a phone curfew.

It is possible to break notification addiction, while still benefitting from wonderful resources like Duolingo. You just have to cede to your own inner control freak now and again.

A diagram showing lots of connections between coloured dots, representing a network. Image from FreeImages.com

Everything In Order : Fascinating Correspondences

When you have a finger in many pies – as those of us who love gorging on languages tend to – you start to realise that the flavour of those pies, the individual ingredients, turn up again and again. And sometimes, those repeated recipes surprise the palate. A hint of savoury in a sweet dish; a dash of sweetness in the salty. Unexpected culinary correspondences are always a delectable treat.

OK, enough with the fodder metaphors. Here, we use our tongues for speaking, not tasting. (Well, both, if we’re totally honest.) But one unexpected correspondence popped up for me this week, which linked together two of my languages that I thought were otherwise fairly distant from each other otherwise: Gaelic and German.

Order, Order

German is famously particular about its word order. Its hallmark is the verb-final phrase, where we get sentences like:

Ich will eine Banane essen. (I want a banana to-eat.)
Ich habe versucht, die Banane zu essen. (I have tried, the banana to eat.)
Ich habe eine Banane gegessen. (I have a banana eaten.)

I know, more food. Can’t help myself, can I?

But foody or not, this kind of sentence is something that becomes instinctive after a while learning and speaking the language. It is so quintessentially German, that I was surprised to see the same kind of thing crop up in Gaelic.

Where verb phrases are governed by a matrix element containing modal expressions like ‘is urrainn’ (can) or ‘feumaidh’ (must), we see verb-object inversion, leaving the verb at the end of the phrase. And the word order of the subordinate verb phrase is curiously like the German:

Feumaidh mi biadh a cheannach (Must I food to buy)
Ich muß Essen kaufen (I must food to-buy)

What’s afoot here?

Explaining Correspondences

Now, it could all be chance, of course (recalling Dawkins’ independently developing eyes). Or does it point towards some distant echo of Proto-Indo-European word order? The latter makes me happy, like an archaeologist unearthing a fossil that connects two distantly related prehistoric creatures. In fact, many believe that, as far as PIE had a ‘default’ word order, it was probably verb-final. Perhaps Gaelic and German both preserved this in their lexical amber.

On the other hand, maybe it’s all down to language contact. Proto-Celtic and German occupied the same kind of geographical space once upon a time. Maybe bilingual speakers of one influenced the word order of the other.

Fascinating questions. It all makes me wish I were an historical syntactician.

In any case, I love spotting language correspondences like these, especially if I haven’t read about them specifically before. And the more you dabble, the more they pop up.

Are there any joy-inspiring crossovers that you’ve spotted in your languages recently?

Repeated colours - repetition in resources like Glossika can be key to securing fluency. Image from freeimages.com

Glossika Eyes App Launch!

Just a bit of exciting on-the-grapevine language learning goss from Glossika this week.

As many of you know, I love the Glossika platform for accent and structure training. I recently sang its praises in a Linguascope Webinars talk, and was chuffed to see the enthusiasm spread to others. It’s almost counter-intuitively simple, but it works.

Well, this week I received a newsletter from them with what might seem initially frustrating – a change to the pricing structure. But there’s more to it than the ubiquitous cost-of-living rises. The prices are changing in line with App Store pricing – because finally, there’s going to be an app!

Hoorah, I hear you cry. (At least that’s what I’m doing.)

The thing is, Glossika already works perfectly fine in a mobile browser. But there’s something about a dedicated app that makes the whole experience a bit stickier. The reason I so religiously serve my terrific twosome, Anki and Duolingo, is just that: an app simply makes platform access less of a hassle.

And as for that pricing change, it’s fortunately only a very small increase: 99¢ on the monthly tier, and 11¢ (yes, 11¢!) on the annual. That miniature hike is more than understandable if the team is covering extra development costs too, of course.

And – hopefully –  that valuable student discount will still be on hand to keep the platform within the reach of more than just the most comfortably off.

That’s one way to make a great platform even greater. Bring it on, Glossika!

A wee book treat to myself: Colloquial Scottish Gaelic (Routledge)

A Book in the Hand (Is Worth Two in the Kindle Library)

Sometimes I forget how much I love to hold a real book in my hands.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the convenience of Kindle titles and other e-formats. Only the other week I was singing the praises of the Teach Yourself enhanced versions. A whole course – text and audio – in a single place (and it adds 0kg to my backpack weight). I still think they’re fantastic.

But sometimes you get a reminder of how satisfying old school is. I had one this week when I finally plumped for a long yearned-for hard copy of Colloquial Scottish Gaelic.

Why had I put it off for so long?

Well, there’s the price of the hard copy, for a start. £35 is a hefty commitment for a book. Especially so, considering that I had access to the electronic version for free through my university library. Not only that, but like many publishing platforms making audio content free, Routledge has put all the audio online. I could access all of the content already!

But for all that, I just wasn’t bothering to use the materials at all. Why? screams the spendthrift inside me.

Fast forward, my Amazon credit spent, and the book proudly on my shelf. I’m picking it up at every opportunity, having a quick nose here and there when I notice it, sitting down for half an hour’s mooch through the pages. I’m even listening to those audio materials and reading along, finally.

So what is so different?

It’s hard to put your finger on just what is so special about a real book. There’s the joy of the tangible ownership of it, perhaps. I made an investment in a thing – now I want to make the most of that thing. It’s almost like you can feel the weight of the knowledge you’ve paid for right in there.

And there’s nothing like using money (or vouchers) to feel the value of a physical object. I admit I get a bit of that as I curate a Kindle library. It’s lovely seeing the digital books line up neatly on those shelves.

But there’s  something simply cosy (or hyggelig, or gemütlich etc.) about holding a real book in your hands, isn’t there?

And sometimes it takes a wee treat to yourself to remind you of that.

Pop linguistics books

Pop Linguistics Books for Prep or Pleasure

I fulfilled a long-time promise to myself in 2020. I went back to university to do the linguistics masters I never had the chance to do years ago. It’s been a journey (and still is!).

That said, as a long-time language nerd, I wasn’t going in completely blind. Like most linguaphiles, I love reading about languages, as well as learning them. Over the years, I’ve happened across a few pop linguistics titles that prepared the ground (little did I know then) for my return to uni. They’re accessible, fun reads, and nobody needs a formal linguistics background to enjoy them. Just a healthy interest will do. And whether or not you plan to take the same step as I did, they’ll all get you thinking about how languages work, and change, in whole new ways.

Without further ado, here are a few of my favourite pop ling books.

Dying Words

Nicholas Evans

Nicholas Evans is an Australian linguist specialising in endangered languages. Dying Words is first and foremost his empassioned cry to recognise the value of every language to the library of human knowledge. 

To drive the point home, he builds his arguments on solid research and extensive field experience; his expertise on Australian languages is worth the price of the book alone.

But it’s all written so accessibly, with each technical term or methodological aspect so carefully explained, that the book doubles as a kind of gentle introduction to historical linguistics. Linguistics primer gold.

The Unfolding of Language

Guy Deutscher

The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher - one of my top recommended linguistics books

The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher

This book is pretty special to me. It was the one that first got me thinking language change is cool!

In it, Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher tells the most fascinating stories about how words and grammar develop. The most lasting insight from this, for me, was that of the great churn of language change. It’s truly never-ending, as the results of yesterday’s changes provide the material for tomorrow’s. It’s quite the revelation how French has iterated and iterated from Latin hodie (today) to aujourd’hui – tautologically, on the day of this day.

If you like this one, it’s also worth checking out his Through the Language Glass.

The First Word

Christine Kenneally

Author Christine Kenneally takes perhaps the most speculative of linguistics topics – the evolution of language – and provides an exciting and compelling tour of scholarship in the field. A trained linguist herself, she now works as a journalist, and the combination of the two makes this a compelling pleasure to read. Even if you find the concept of language evolution too woolly and conjectural, the book is fantastic for simply prompting thoughts on what language is.

The Adventure of English

Melvyn Bragg

Despite being the only book on this list by a non-linguist (at least professionally), the author of The Adventure of English is nonetheless a sharp tool and very well informed – of course, none other than the legendary broadcaster and cultural commentator Melvyn Bragg. His book on the history of the English language, and the emergence of many different global Englishes, made a decent splash in the right circles, in any case. I’ve seen it recommended as pre-reading for a few different English linguistics courses, including a former Open Uni module. As you’d expect from a broadcast journalist, it’s pacy and entertaining – so much so that you might well finish it in a couple of sittings.

Books for Prep or Pleasure

So there you go – a handful of tips for some light linguistics reading. That goes for anyone interested in the field, whether for personal interest or uni prep. Also note that there’s not a Language Instinct in sight, although I do love that one, too. It’s just a bit too obvious as it remains ubiquitously recommended here, there and everywhere!

None of these are really academic texts, of course. Most are written in that chipper, journalistic style familiar from that close cousin to the field, pop science. But for that reason, they’re all a bit of a joy to read. I hope you enjoy them too.

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

Just for the sake of completion: my (now very battered) copy of The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

 

Steam Gaming for Language Learners! A screenshot from Fallout Shelter in German.

Polyglot Gaming : Letting Off Steam

I must have needed to wind down this weekend. Either that, or my brain needed a rest. Whatever the reason, I ended up hopping on the Steam platform and indulging in a bit of polyglot PC gaming!

Now, I’m by no means a hardcore gamer. Despite early promise as a proud Commodore 64 technokid, and some dalliance with the groundbreaking Quake in the 90s, I managed to avoid the console era almost completely. Only in recent years did I start to make up lost ground, milking my Oculus Quest 2 to the max for all its gaming / language crossover fun.

Steam has been around for years already, of course. Oddly, PC gaming had never been a huge draw for me, beyond a brief addition to Sid Meier’s Civilisation at university. Maybe I associate the computer too much with work and study to really enjoy it. But when I heard friends cooing over Steam’s ample catalogue of free-to-play games, I thought it was worth a nose. We all need a bit of distraction now and again, right?

They weren’t wrong. After installing the Steam app, you have access to a bunch of older titles for absolutely nothing. But not only that…

You can search the Steam library by language.

Screenshot of the Steam app - gaming in many languages!

Multilingual gaming!

Instant polyglot satisfaction. And it’s not just the usual roll call of tongues, either. There are some more off-the-beaten-track entries on the language list, including Greek, Polish and Ukrainian. Of course, most of these options just change the interface text and written dialogue, but some include multi-language spoken audio too.

Perhaps it was the old Civ 2 addiction stirring in me again, but I found myself spending far too much time on the Noughties Sim classic Fall Out Shelter. If it hadn’t been for the fact I’d switched it to German, I might feel just a little bit guilty with all that procrastinating.

Only a tiny bit, though.

Polyglot gaming - a screenshot from Fallout Shelter in German

Polyglot gaming – a screenshot from Fallout Shelter in German

 

Waves crash against rocks. Over time, contact creates change. Image by FreeImages.com

That’ll Leave A Mark! Language Contact and Change

When languages brush up against each other, they tend to leave a mark. With tongues jostling for existence within the same space, language contact situations serve up some fascinating examples of cross-pollenation.

It’s something that you keep spotting as a Gaelic learner, for example. With clockwork regularity, you come across word-for-word calques, or loan translations, lifted straight from English. You cuir air an telebhisean (put on the television). You cuir dheth co-dhùnadh (put off a decision). And I’ve even seen how you can cuir suas le cudeigein (put up with someone).

Wrapped up in Gaelic lexemes, look indigenous enough. But those prepositions air (on) and dheth (off) are behaving in ways that they might not have done, say, in Classical Gaelic, which might constrain their use more tightly. In effect, English has imported its own phrasal verb construction, which is now becoming an increasingly acceptable category in contemporary Gaelic, too. There’s syntactic change afoot.

It’s gone the other way often enough in the past, of course. The origins of the English progressive (to be -ing) may well lie with the partical + verbal noun structure of Celtic. And contemporary Hiberno-English has a past tense construction to be after doing, roughly equivalent to the perfect tense, which it appears to have nabbed from Irish.

(Un)mutual Contact

But as you might expect, language change through contact isn’t usually happening equally at any one point in time. Many factors, not least social dominance of one language over the other, can make the  transference very lop-sided.

Contact linguist Myers-Scotton makes sense of this by asking where two languages meet, fundamentally: in the minds of speakers who have to use them both. Locating the process within bilingual speakers, and how they switch between languages, is a neat way to expose the front line of contact induced change. For a start, it allows us to evaluate the status of the two parties squaring off. The ‘base’ tongue is the matrix language, forming the main sentence frames of speech. Into that, embedded language – the outside influence – inserts itself to varying degrees, in the middle of it all.

Sometimes this insertion can come in the form of a single word. Myers-Scotton gives one example from Nairobi Swahili speakers: “ku-appreciate hiyo” (to appreciate it). English, the embedded language, contributes the verb appreciate. But it’s the matrix language, Swahili, giving it a regular infinitival marker ku-.

Elsewhere, larger, deeper syntactic structures can be recruited from the embedded language. The results can drastically alter a language’s syntax; the Balkan Sprachbund is a region where neighbouring languages – from completely separate branches of Indo-European: Albanian, Greek and Slavic – have gradually come to resemble one another grammatically. The most likely driver, again, was the bumping together of different peoples, and the necessary cross-linguistic skills and code-switching that required.

The End of the Road?

For some, this kind of change is the thin end of a wedge that leads to total replacement of the less socially secure language. At some point, the matrix and embedded languages will flip. Social pressure might privilege the outside language for a new generation of speakers, who might start slotting just the odd heritage language word in, here and there, as a cultural nod. A generation on, perhaps even that will peter out.

Is that the fate befalling Gaelic, gradually taking on anglicisms to the point of transformation? Actually, I don’t think that’s the foregone conclusion here. Syntactic convergence doesn’t necessarily spell the end for a language. It can be seen as a strategy to support continued bilingualism, for example; if languages share structures, it’s cognitively less costly to maintain more than one at a time. For sure, borrowed syntax is also a crutch that helps the army of new speakers (thanks to Duolingo et al.) feel a little less lost when getting to grips with Gaelic.

No, death isn’t always the end. Contact outcomes are many, and include paths that lead to sometimes surprising, but very much un-dead extremes. Living proof of that, Media Lengua (literally something like ‘between language’), is the outcome of indigenous Kichwa crashing up against Spanish in Colombia and Eduador. The resulting mixed language preserves Kichwa grammar, but has been almost entirely re-lexified with Spanish vocabulary. Deep breaths, purists: Gaelic is a long way off from that.

Oceans Collide

As with all things linguistic, bilingual speakers are just one part of a complex picture of contact change. But running through the countless evidence as above – anecdotal and otherwise – it’s easy to appreciate why they are a particularly active site. Bilingual speakers are the point at which two tides crash up against each other and the waters mix. A sort of linguistic Grenen, Skagen where oceans collide.

It’s also pause for thought for polyglots. What features do we carry over from one language to another? And if we embed into our target language cultures, do we become agents for change?