Hi, hoi, hola, hej


Did you get here through LINGO? Be welcome, dear reader! Have a leisurely look around the blogOr did you end up here without reading LINGO? Feel equally welcome. But if you’re even remotely interested in languages, do yourself a favour and get your hands on it.

On these pages, I publish stuff that has not made it into Lingo and will not make it into my next book. The posts are somehow too personal, chatty, specialised, untimely or otherwise ill-suited. In a word, the blog is (even) more of a playground than my books are. Enjoy it, and feel free to share your thoughts about language, linguistics and Lingo.

Vietnamese (3): What’s harder than the language

vietnam-1745819_960_720“How’s your Vietnamese coming along?” people ask me, for it’s the sort of outlandish hobby that gets remembered. The answer is: so-so, could be better. I’m struggling with two problems, and I’m pretty sure that many serial language learners are familiar with them.

One is keeping up the self-discipline. I found that not too hard when I was at school, easy when I was staying in Latin America and very easy, indeed irresistible, when I was in love with a German woman. Using Duolingo, with its computer game based psychological tricks, also used to help. But studying at home from a conventional book and CD, motivated mostly by my wish to write an article in a year’s time, I find the going somewhat hard.

The other problem is vocabulary. I’m trying to study my course book – from Assimil’s With Ease series – at a pace that will allow me to learn not only the grammar, but also the words. Grammar, for me, is comparatively easy, and Vietnamese is not particularly demanding in this department. I could probably acquire the broad outlines in a theoretical manner by assimilating a short article. But studying grammar without vocab is like finding out about love-making from a sex ed video: without experiencing what it’s really like, you miss all the fun.

But there the metaphor stops, for memorising words is less self-rewarding and more of a challenge – the fun only starts when you try to say things with them, probably to stumble. And even the first set of 200 includes such devilish doppelgangers as ‘to have, there is’, ‘Miss, madam, you (female, young)’, and cố ‘to try’, while followed by thể means ‘human body’ – on its own, it means ‘muscle’, but fortunately that’s not on my flashcards yet.

So considering the whole situation, I guess what I’ll have to do is set aside half an hour every day at a fixed time and do the nitty-gritty work.

Okay. Here then is my belated new year’s resolution: the first 30 minutes after my lunchbreaks will be dedicated to Vietnamese. Should it on some occasion prove utterly impossible, I have to reschedule it. Skipping it is no option.

And you can help, too. You are hereby invited to ask me, “How’s your Vietnamese coming along?” I hope that next time I can truthfully answer, “Not too badly, thanks.”


I’m quite looking forward to the book that polyglot Alex Rawlings has written, How to Speak Any Language Fluently: Fun, stimulating and effective methods to help anyone learn languages fasterdue out in June. Knowing him and having read a few paragraphs, I have high expectations.

Idioms and images


Some idioms are puzzling

As chance would have it, I was holidaying in Spain just when I had to read the galley proofs of the Spanish edition of Lingo, so I spent part of the time hearing and speaking one of my favourite languages and another part reading and writing it. It was while reading that I came across a translation that made me pause. The original says that Basque and the Indo-European languages are ‘worlds apart’. The translator, José C. Vales, rendered this as mundos independientes, ‘independent worlds’. Perfectly fine, I think: Basque is one world, Indo-European another, and they’re independent, separate – apart. Continue reading

A gap year on Basque, thanks to Lingo

Guest blog by Lily Finnie (South West London, UK)

photo-of-meIn my last year of school, I was planning on doing an Extended Project Qualification, which is basically an extra qualification answering a question on any topic of your choice. At first I had no idea what I wanted to do it on. My initial idea was an investigation into sound symbolism, but after admitting defeat due to a severe lack of supportive information, I was back to square one.

 As it happened, I had just finished reading the book Lingo, which has a chapter on Basque. It made a question pop into my head: ‘Why is this language so weird?’ Having never heard of ergativity before and experiencing a rapidly increasing, reasonably obsessive interest in different language grammars, I decided to use my project as a way of delving into the world of Basque. And it was with that vague idea as my inspiration that I decided to undertake the project of answering the question, ‘How and why is Basque a linguistic isolate?’ Continue reading

How to be an Anglosplaining jerk

Alison Edwards, the linguist who translated my book Lingo into English, is a columnist and blogger that I much enjoy reading. Here’s her latest blogpost. As it was first published in a Dutch university magazine, she didn’t translate the book title at the end, so I will do it for you: The Discovery of Heaven. Or am I blundering into ‘Dutchsplanation’ here…?  

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard the term mansplaining being bandied around; a portmanteau of the words man and explaining. It was inspired by a landmark essay by the Ameri…

Read the full post at How to be an Anglosplaining jerk

Both inspiring and disgusting

mcwhorterI love Lexicon Valley, the podcast on linguistics. In a show from June, titled The tragedy of English spelling, John McWhorter (upper picture) interviewed Anatoly Liberman (lower picture). Let that line-up sink in for a second: both of them are not only highly regarded professionals, they’re also great popularisers of the science of language. As an admirer of both men, I was listening breathlessly.

And then, along comes this adorable passage. Continue reading

Vietnamese (2): very early discoveries

adrOver 30 years ago, I studied some Danish from a book. As a result, I understand a lot of the written language, but my idea of what it sounds like is sketchy at best. That was a mistake I didn’t want to repeat with Vietnamese. So the first thing I’ve been concentrating on these past few days is pronunciation and how it relates to spelling.

The good news is that Vietnamese is much, much more consistent in this respect than is Danish (or English, or French). The not-so-great news is that quite a few of the spelling conventions are counterintuitive. And the really bad news is that many of the Vietnamese phonemes are hard to distinguish for my European ears. Plus there’s tones, of course, but I knew that, so it’s no news, just bad. Continue reading

Vietnamese (1): why, and how to begin

vietnamese-alphabetAttending the Polyglot Conference in Thessaloniki, late last month, has inspired me to do a bold and daring thing: start learning Vietnamese. While the language may appear small in comparison to its northern neighbour, Chinese, it actually has no fewer than 80 million speakers. Moreover, one of these, a friendly and wonderfully efficient woman named Tuyết, happens to clean our house every fortnight, so I may have an opportunity for practice there – or at the very least, I will be able to surprise her one of these days. (Days? Make that ‘weeks’. Or ‘months’, more likely.) Continue reading

Dad’s polyglots – a recipe

cookbookA father recently sought my advice about the linguistic education of his two young children. Among the many friendly and interesting emails I get from readers of Lingo, this one really stood out, because his was a question I’d never given much thought to before. Our brief correspondence is reproduced below, anonymised, very lightly edited and, of course, with the father’s permission.


I just finished reading Lingo and wanted to extend my compliments. I’m recommending it to all my friends interested in languages. (I’m American, so unfortunately I can count all these folks on one hand).

I’d like to put a question to you. I have two children under the age of 5, and am interested in giving them the gift of a portfolio of languages while they’re still young enough to learn them very easily. But I want to choose wisely. Continue reading

Science update: the articiple

In a surprise turn of events, the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva has generated a new part of speech that does not fit into the Standard Model of Grammar. After smashing participles and articles into each other, experimental linguists found not only particles, as expected, but also words of a hitherto unknown category, provisionally labelled as articiples.

A collision between the article the and the participle gone produced the particle to (which in nature only ever exists in infinitives such as to be) accompanied by the novel word ghene. Now that the experimenters know what to look for, they expect to find other articiples. Until then, it’s hard to ascertain the meaning, function or even pronunciation of ghene.articiple

The discovery has already led to frenzied speculation among theoretical linguists. ‘I believe that smashing articles into any part of speech may yield an “art of speech”, given the right conditions’, said Oene Daasma, a theoretical linguist at the University of Franeker, the Netherlands. ‘And in the privacy of our coffee corner, I’ve heard my Harderwijk colleague Fetze Alsvanouds think out loud that verbs might be turned into adverbs by adding no matter what, preferably nothing or even less. These are exciting times for theoretical linguistics.’


minimumThe scribbles on the right are not just doodles, a badly drawn rough sea or an attempt by a 5-year-old to emulate grown-ups’ fascinating handwriting. A real adult has written a real word here: minimum.

Even if you had figured that out for yourself, you’ll agree it’s not easily legible. That’s due to a shortcoming in our alphabet: the similarity between hand-written i, n, u and m. In many words confusion is never far away, which is why monks, clerks and other writers have come up with all sorts of clever tricks. Continue reading