Interview from Novi Sad

Here’s an interview I did at the Polyglot Conference in Novi Sad last month with Lindsay Dow of Lindsay Does Languages. I talk about how Omniglot came into being, and about learning languages, particularly Welsh.

English, Irish, Language, Language learning, Travel, Welsh Leave a comment

Mutual intelligibility

This week I heard an interesting conversation about the mutual intelligibility between Czech and Slovak friends. They were talking in English, but said that when they can talk to each other in their own languages they’re able to understand everything. The Slovak lass said that she finds it strange for Czechs to speak Slovak to her as if they speak Czech she understand them without difficulty, though if people from other countries speak Slovak, that’s fine. I use what little Slovak I know with her, for example. The Czech lass said more or less the same thing about Slovaks – she doesn’t expect them to speak Czech, though if they do, that’s fine by her.

If you are a native speaker of Czech or Slovak, what’s your take on this?

What about other languages that as mutually intelligible as Czech and Slovak?

I understand that Swedes and Norwegians can talk to one another in their own languages, for example. Would it be strange for a Norwegian to speak Swedish or vice versa?

Czech, English, Language, Norwegian, Slovak, Swedish 3 Comments

New Omniglot designs

You might have noticed recently that various different designs are being tested on Omniglot. The idea is to improve user experience on the site, and to increase my revenue from the site. While the latter certainly is true – my income from Google ads has been up 200-300% since the changes were started a few months ago, which means that my overall income has almost doubled – I’m not convinced of the former.

When you visit the site in different browsers and on different devices you’re likely to see different designs. You may even see different designs each time you visit in the same browser/device. I can see the old site in Chrome and Firefox on my laptop, but in IE, and on my Samsung tablet, I see new designs. You can see the old site by clicking on this link.

I have put a poll on the Omniglot Facebook group asking whether you prefer the new designs or the original site. Please let me know what you think, if you haven’t done so already.

If the majority are for the old site I will switch back to it.

Here are some examples of the new designs:

An example of a new homepage design

Inner page
An example of a new inner page design

An example of a new homepage design

Inner page
An example of a new inner page design

Here are the original designs:

Original homepage

Inner page
Original inner page

General Leave a comment

Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 8 Comments

Muddling through

to muddle through
– “to succeed in some undertaking in spite of lack of organization” [source]
– “to succeed in doing something despite having no clear plan, method, or suitable equipment” [source]
– “to cope more or less satisfactorily despite lack of expertise, planning, or equipment.”
synonyms: to cope, manage, get by/along, scrape by/along, make do, make the best of a bad job [source]

When learning a language, or other things, are you someone who can set goals, make plans and stick to them?

I do sometimes set myself language learning goals, and often make plans, and even manage to stick to them for a while. However my goals tend to be fuzzy, my plans half-baked, and my sticking-to-it abilities somewhat sporadic. Generally I tend to learn bits and pieces of languages as the fancy takes me, and try a variety of courses and methods, at least until I get bored or find alternatives, and just muddle through as best I can.

When people ask me for advice about learning languages, as they often do, I have plenty of suggestions, but the only one I stick to is to do a lot of listening. So I don’t really practise what I preach. Is my advice less valuable as a result? Perhaps it is.

Do you advise people to try learning techniques you don’t use or rarely use yourself?

Does the concept of muddling through exist in other languages?

English, Language, Language learning, Words and phrases 6 Comments

Reverse psychology and language learning

Yesterday I met Aran Jones, the guy behind the website, and we had a very interesting chat, in Welsh, about language learning. His site started as a Welsh language course, and now also offers courses in Cornish, Dutch, Latin and Spanish. You can learn all these languages through English or Welsh, and you can also learn English and Welsh through Spanish, and he plans to offer more languages in the future. The courses are designed to get you speaking in a relatively short time.

One interesting point we discussed was the way language learning is presented. Many courses claim that you can learn a language quickly and with little or no effort. All you have to do is listen and repeat – don’t worry about learning grammar or vocabulary! Moreover people who encourage others to learn languages tend to emphasize that it is possible, anybody can do it, that you don’t have to have a special language gene/gift/talent, and that it isn’t all that difficult. Just jump in and start speaking! Don’t worry about mistakes!

An alternative approach is to say that language learning is really hard, takes a lot of work, and that relatively few people succeed, and to discourage people from trying it. By presenting it as a real challenge like this you might encourage more people to try. When they find it isn’t as difficult as they expected and that they can succeed, they will have a greater sense of achievement. In other words, a kind of reverse psychology. On the other hand, many people already believe this and are convinced that they can’t learn a language, so it wouldn’t work for everyone.

Another thing we discussed was improving your listening comprehension, especially if you find speech at normal speed difficult to understand. Slowing down your recordings, or asking people to speak more slowly, is a way to deal with this, and can work well. An alternative is to speed up the audio – in some SaySomethingin lessons the audio is at twice the usual speed, for example, and if you listen to it quite a few times you will eventually understand it. Then when you listen to it at normal speed it will be much easier to follow.

Here’s an example of recording in Spanish at normal speed (which sounds fast to me).

Here’s this recording at twice the normal speed.

I do something similar when learning to play classical pieces on the guitar and piano – if I’m struggling with a piece I might try something even more challenging. Then the original piece seems easier when I go back to it. Or I try playing folk tunes as fast as I can, then slow then down to a more normal speed, and they seem much easier.

Cornish, Dutch, English, Language, Language learning, Latin, Spanish, Welsh 4 Comments

Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 5 Comments

English only in Lidl

It’s been in the news recently that Lidl supermarkets in the UK have a policy that their staff should speak only English to customers, irrespective of their native language in order to ensure that staff and customers “feel comfortable”. Apparently this is “for the benefit of all our customers as well as our staff to ensure a comfortable environment where all feel included.”

The only exception to this is if a customer doesn’t speak any English and a staff member can speak the customer’s language, then they can use that language.

Why anyone would feel uncomfortable or excluded when they hear people speaking other languages I don’t know. It’s not something that happens very often after all.

There has been outrage about this policy in Wales, where according the the Welsh Language Act of 2010, it is illegal to stop staff from speaking in Welsh.

This policy came to light after Polish staff at a Lidl in Kirkcaldy in Scotland were threatened with dismissal for speaking Polish to each other during their breaks and on the shop floor, even though they explained to their manager that many Polish-speaking customers, some of whom who speak little or no English, come to the store because they know that the staff speak Polish [source]. This appears in violation of Lidl’s policy, and could be bad for business.

According to another report I found today, Lidl have clarified their language policy. They said that it was a “great asset” to have such a multi-lingual workforce, and:

“We understand that in certain regions of the UK there are other official languages in use and we welcome the use of these in our stores. We also ask that, if possible, our staff respond to customers in the language in which they are addressed. We absolutely aim to empower and encourage any staff members to use their language skills to assist customers.”

They also said that:

“staff were welcome to speak in their language of choice whilst on breaks, but asked that they consider colleagues who may be sharing the facilities.”

English, Language, Polish, Welsh 5 Comments

Paddling poodles and dibbling ducks

Pudelhund / Poodle

Yesterday I discovered that poodles were bred to hunt ducks and other water fowl in Germany, and that the word poodle comes from the German Pudel, an abbreviation of Pudelhund (water dog), from the Low German Pudel (puddle), from pudeln (to splash about) [source].

The English word puddle is derived from the Old English word pudd (ditch), and is related to the German pudeln.

A group of ducks on water is known as a paddling, team or raft of ducks – so you might see a paddling of dibbling ducks on a puddle puzzling a poodle.

Other collections words for groups of birds: and

Another duck-related word is dibble, which means “to drink like a duck, lifting up the head after each sip”. It also means “a small, hand-held, pointed implement for making holes in soil, as for planting seedlings and bulbs; to make holes (in soil) with a dibble; to plant with a dibble”, and is a slang word for a police officer – from Officer Dibble in the Top Cat cartoons [source].

English, Etymology, German, Language 3 Comments


Some skeuomorphs

I came across an interesting word and concept today – the skeuomorph [ˈskjuːəmɔrf], from the Greek σκεῦος (skéuos – container or tool), and μορφή (morphḗ – shape), and defined as “a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues from structures that were necessary in the original” [source].

This term was apparently coined by H. Colley March in 1889 after he noticed that some ancient artifacts had a retro look. For example pottery bowls had patterns like woven baskets [source].

Modern skeuomorphs include many digital icons and interface elements on computers and other electronic devices which resemble their non-digital analogues, such as the waste basket / trash can, clocks, shopping trolleys / carts, and so on.

English, Etymology, Greek, Language, Words and phrases 2 Comments