Linguistics Olympiad and language learning

I was always a bit rubbish at learning languages at school (and when I started learning British Sign Language a few years ago I wasn’t much better), but I find languages utterly fascinating. Otherwise I suppose I wouldn’t have spent four years on a degree studying linguistics! I saw a news article this week about the UK Linguistics Olympiad.

In this competition, the contestants are given some sentences or words from a foreign language along with an English translation and they need to use these to decipher some untranslated sentences. I remember having a similar task for Japanese while studying a module on teaching English as a foreign language. I loved it. There’s something really fun about deciphering bits of a language by analysing a few sentences’ grammatical structures and words.

Why, when I was so useless with languages at school, does this appeal to me? I guess the idea of cracking a code is intriguing for most people, and analysing language structures is always fun. Would someone ‘naturally’ good with languages be better at this kind of task than someone like me, who’s useless at language learning, but who has experience analysing grammar (even if mainly English grammar)?

This reminded me of this post from Tim Ferriss’s blog in 2007, which talks about how to get a grip on a language in an hour. The idea is similar: deconstruct the grammar. While I realise language learning has more components than this, this approach appeals to me. Maybe one day I’ll test it out myself.


First words

I follow the Humans of New York Facebook page – if you don’t know it, check it out! – and the photographer is currently exploring other parts of the world in partnership with the United Nations and posting the stories and pictures of people living in the places he visits.

While there are similarities in a child’s first words across languages (for example mummy, daddy, hello, bye, uh oh and woof-woof are typical first words in English, Cantonese and Putonghua), there are also differences in the types of words that are first said. However, I imagine for nearly all cultures and languages a child’s first word is memorable. While not as deep as some of the stories posted by Humans of New York I really liked this story today from Nairobi, Kenya.

“Do you want to hear a funny story from when he was a baby? We were a little worried about him, because the neighbor’s children were the same age, and they were already walking. So we tried to encourage him by buying some tiny shoes and putting them on his feet. He didn’t walk, but he did say his first words: ‘Take them off!'” (Nairobi, Kenya). From the Humans of New York Facebook page.

(This picture isn’t on the HONY website yet, when it is I’ll try to remember to link it to there instead of the Facebook page).

My first word was “gone”. Apparently I used to sit in a high-chair in the kitchen while mum pottered around. I used to play with my toy cars and sometimes launch them off my high chair with a “gone!”. Mum would pick them up and put them back on the high-chair for me to launch them off again. I imagine mum used to say something such as “The car has gone again!”, which baby me picked up on. Before I could talk, I used to imitate the sounds of motorbikes and crows. Why just motorbikes and crows and not other vehicles or animals I don’t know. I do still love crows though, they’re intelligent, awkward and beautiful. Curious to read about other people’s first words.