Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition gets another beating

“They’ve no myths, numbers or colours and few words for past or present – no wonder the Pirahã people defy our most cherished ideas about language”. It’s another cracking article in New Scientist about language that seems to suggest Whorfian ideas of culture affecting language might be more accurate than Chomsky’s universal grammar. Give it a read if you have a mo.

Now kids are supposed to learn Chinese?

The British Council is arguing that teaching children French in school is a bad idea: what we really need to be doing is teaching them Mandarin. Well, okay, they’re actually arguing that teaching languages is a good thing and we need to step up our efforts. But they’re also saying perhaps we ought to try languages like Mandarin and Spanish in preference to French.

Do they live on some parallel plane of existence? We’ve been trying to teach kids French and other European languages for decades. Are we notably bilingual now? Can the majority of British people fluently speak a language other than English as a result of their schooling? Do we, through our best efforts, close relative location and membership of the EU, happen to have a glut of French, German, Spanish and Italian teachers?

All the answers to these questions are “No”. So, exactly how quickly and how well does the British Council think any attempts to produce fluent Mandarin speakers will pay off? Given that the government only just over a year ago ended the compulsory teaching of foreign languages to all 16 year-olds, exactly how much extra effort is going to be needed anyway?

Plus Mandarin: not the easiest language in the world to pronounce correctly. Going to need a lot of native speakers for this one…

Too old to learn languages?

Slate has a vague stab today at trying to explain why someone might want to spend £100 or so on Rosetta Stone. I’ve tried Rosetta Stone’s German course and wasn’t desperately impressed: you essentially end up with a brain full of vocabulary and no grammar or useful phrases, if you’re lucky; if you’re unlucky, you’ll have a different kind of learning style altogether and none of the images actually sink in, leaving you considerably out of pocket and no wiser.

I personally prefer the ‘Instant’ books, which get you up to a rudimentary level in a short time. Certainly, they help more with reading foreign languages than Rosetta Stone does, unless you’re learning a language with a non-Roman alphabet such as Greek or Japanese – the ‘Instant’ books use transliterations instead of the native script.

There’s a useful amateur podcast on learning languages as an adult that’s far more use than the Slater article, though. It’s called Trying to Learn Spanish, and while later episodes are far more concerned with Spanish language learning, the first few podcasts look at more general approaches to language learning as an adult.

More Spanish and Greek flash cards

I’ve put up week six of my set of Spanish flashcards, designed to accompany Instant Spanish, over on my iFlash page. I’ve also added combined versions of both the Greek decks and the Spanish decks, so you can revise all the words in one go once you’ve completed a book. Enjoy!

PS Learn rudimentary Spanish in six weeks? More like six months in my case. You know why? Journalist with something to do but no deadline: that’s why.

One hundred things we didn’t know a year ago. Except we did.

The BBC is running a story containing 100 facts we didn’t know last year. Aside from the 101st fact that we did know quite a few of those things if we’d ever read a book before 2005, there were quite a few interesting nuggets in there, notably:

7. Baboons can tell the difference between English and French. Zoo keepers at Port Lympne wild animal park in Kent are having to learn French to communicate with the baboons which had been transferred from Paris zoo.

29. When faced with danger, the octopus can wrap six of its legs around its head to disguise itself as a fallen coconut shell and escape by walking backwards on the other two legs, scientists discovered.

50. Only 36% of the world’s newspapers are tabloid.

53. It takes 75kg of raw materials to make a mobile phone.

65. Actor James Doohan, who played Scotty, had a hand in creating the Klingon language that was used in the movies, and which Shakespeare plays were subsequently translated into.

99. The Japanese word “chokuegambo” describes the wish that there were more designer-brand shops on a given street.

Hungary and Finnish not so close after all

It turns out the Finnish and Hungarian aren’t so close after all, despite my previous impression. According to The Economist, Estonian is a lot closer.

“Philologists’ labours have identified some 200 words with common roots in all three main Finno-Ugric tongues. Fully 55 of these concern fishing, and a further 15 are about reindeer; only three are about commerce. An Estonian philologist, Mall Hellam, came up with just one mutually comprehensible sentence: ‘the living fish swims in the water.'”

If you haven’t picked up the Christmas edition of The Economist, you definitely should. It’s a time when they let their writers go wild and scribble on about anything that interests them (as well as the news). This year’s highlights include the history of wheat, a survey of human evolution, personal finance in Jane Austen’s novels and an analysis of the sex-toy market in China.