Earth apple in the garden dress

Baked potato

An interesting French expression I learnt last week was “pomme de terre dans la robe de jardin” or literally “apple of the earth in the dress of the garden”, which is apparently one way French speakers refer to a baked / jacket potato.

Other names include:

– pomme de terre au four = lit. “apple of the earth in the oven”
– pomme de terre cuite au four = lit. “apple of the earth cooked in the oven”
– pomme de terre en robe des champs = lit. “apple of the earth in the dress of the fields”

Are these expressions all used in French?

Are baked potatoes popular in French-speaking countries?

How about in other countries?

In the UK a baked potato can be a meal in itself. They are often served with cheese, tuna and other fillings – my favourite is cheese and bacon. Is this a peculiarly British thing?

English, French, Language 4 Comments

Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

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

Language, Quiz questions 3 Comments

Learning multiple languages simultaneously

One of the talks at the Polyglot Gathering was about a way to learn several languages at the same time. The speaker, Elisa Polese, explained how she teaches up to 10 languages simultaneously by comparing and contrasting them. It sounds like this technique can work quite well for similar languages, at least at the beginning. However I’m not sure if it would work at higher levels, as the differences between the languages might become more noticeable and more difficult to compare.

Have you tried to teach or learn several languages at the same time?

Over the next year or so I might try to improve the languages I know. I’m still thinking about how I’ll do this, but have some ideas.

English, Language, Language learning 3 Comments

Reflections on the Polyglot Gathering

Polyglots dancing at the Slaughterhouse in Berlin

I got back from the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin late on Monday night. I travelled by train the whole way, which is a bit more expensive than the plane, and takes a few hours longer, but I prefer to travel this way, and you see more. The journey went smoothly, apart from the train from London, which was an hour late getting into Bangor. Fortunately I got a partial refund on my ticket. On the Eurostar I talked to a interesting lady from Vancouver, and on the train to Bangor I talked, mainly in Welsh, to a doctor from Felinheli.

This year’s Gathering was as much fun as previous years – it was my third. I arrived in Berlin quite late on Wednesday evening the day before it officially started, and missed out on most of the polyglot games that were going on in the afternoon and evening. Next year I might arrive a day or two before the start to give me a chance to explore more of Berlin – this year I spent most of my time in the venue and didn’t go exploring.

Over the next four days I learnt about many things, including Portuguese-based creoles, Greek, minimalism, Sardinian languages and dialects, why many language learners don’t acquire native-like accents, metaphors in native Canadian languages, language mentoring, how musical techniques can be applied to language learning, the stagecraft of multilingualism, and much more. I got to know old friends better, met lots of new ones, and I spoke lots of different languages. My talk on Manx went well, as did the introduction to Welsh that I helped with.

The talks were mainly in English, with some in French, Italian, German, Esperanto, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, Indonesian, and in various combinations of these.

Between us we polyglots speak quite a few different languages. The most common (i.e. those with quite a few speakers / learners) include English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, Romanian, Esperanto, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Russian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Serbian, Greek, Finnish, Hungarian, Welsh, Irish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Malay, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Swahili. There were also speakers and learners of Wolof, Punjabi, Hindi, Marathi, Romani, Tamil, Latin, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish, Breton, Sardinian, Luxembourgish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Slovenian, Albanian, Basque, Tagalog, Turkish, Navajo, Toki Pona, Klingon, and probably other languages.

I’m looking forward to the next polyglot event – the North American Polyglot Symposium in Montreal in July. I’ll be doing a talk on the origins of language there, so should get working on it.

Some things I learnt from the Gathering

There are many ways to learn languages, and no single way will work for everyone. Some like to focus on one language at a time until they have reached a level they are happy with, then move on to the next language; others like to study many different languages at the same time. Some learn grammar and vocabulary first, then learn to speak; others start using their languages straight away, or soon after they start studying. Some like to study on their own; others like to study in a class and/or with a private tutor. Some combine many of the above and more, to varying degrees – I certainly do.

From Malachi Rempen’s talk on cartooning, minimalism and language learning (Less is More: What Silly Doodles Can Teach Us About Fluency), I learnt that you can do a lot with a little. He showed how he can make his Itchy Feet character express a wide variety of emotions with just a few lines, and suggested that the same can be applied to languages – you can communicate even if you know only a little of a language. He also argued that fluency means different things to different people, and might not be the best thing to aim for.

Tim Keeley, professor of Cross-Cultural Management at Kyushu Sangyo University in Fukuoka, explained that the idea that only children can acquire native-like accents in foreign languages is wrong – the brain is flexible throughout live and you can learn to perceive and produce foreign sounds. However there are emotional barriers which stop many people from sounding ‘native’. When learning another language you can also take on or create a new identity, and those who are willing and able to do this are most likely to sound more like native speakers. You also shouldn’t worry about mimicking people. In fact that is a good way to acquire native-like pronunciation.

Michael Levi Harris, an actor and polyglot from New York, talked about parallels between learning a part and learning a language. He explained that actors tend to exaggerate speech and physical mannerisms when learning a part, then make them more subtle, and that language learners can try the same things – exaggerate the pronunciation, gestures, etc. until they become second nature, then tone them down. He also talked about taking on different identities when speaking different languages and with different accents. If you can find a native speaker of a language whose voice and mannerisms appeal to you, then you can create your character in that language based on them.

The extend to which you take on a new identity in a new language depends on how much you want to integrate into a new culture. If you want to be taken for a native, then you need to sound and act like them. Alternatively you could try sounding like a native, perhaps with a bit of a foreign accent, but not worry so much about acting like them. If you spend a lot of time in a different county interacting and observing the natives, you’re likely to pick up at least some of their behaviour anyway.

Fiel Sahir, an Indonesian-American musician and polyglot who currently lives in Germany, talked about applying musical techniques to language learning. He explained how practice is the key to music and language, but it has to be intelligent practice that focuses on areas that you find difficult. This might be particular passages in a piece of music, or particular tenses or noun declensions in a language. By focusing like this, you can make a lot of progress.

Focus is something that I find difficult sometimes. I can and do focus, but often get distracted. I was thinking about how I’ve been dabbling with a variety of languages recently and not making a lot of progress in any of them. So my plan is to focus on one, or two, languages for the next year – Russian and Czech – and learn as much as I can in them. I will keep my other languages ticking over, but not spend much time on them.

Arabic, Basque, Breton, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Cornish, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Esperanto, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Language, Language learning, Latin, Luxembourgish, Malay, Manx, Norwegian, Persian (Farsi), Polish, Portuguese, Pronunciation, Romanian, Russian, Sardinian, Scottish Gaelic, Serbian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Toki Pona, Travel, Turkish, Welsh Leave a comment

Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

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

I don’t know what language this is. While waiting on Birmingham New Street station last Monday I saw a couple with a young daughter. They were talking this language and at first I thought based on its sounds and their appearance that it was some kind of Chinese. When I listened more closely I thought it probably wasn’t Chinese, but sounds like a language from somewhere in South East Asia, and probably a tonal one, though not Thai or Vietnamese. I didn’t get a chance to ask them what language it was.

Apologies for the quality of the recording. I recorded this on a train and there was a lot of background noise, which I tried to remove, but this has affected the speech to some extent.

Language, Quiz questions 2 Comments


Stammtisch [ˈʃtamtɪʃ] is a German word I learnt yesterday which means “regulars table”. It usually refers to a group of people who get together for an informal meeting regularly, maybe in a local bar or café, and to the table where they sit. They might play cards, discuss politics or philosophy, or just chat.

It is also used for meet-ups where people get together to practise their languages, so my language café group might be called a Stammtisch in Germany.

Are there similar words in other languages for this?

Language 3 Comments

Polyglot Gathering 2016

I’m currently at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin. I arrived here on Wednesday evening and have been speaking and hearing lots of different languages. So far I’ve had conversations in English, French, Welsh, German, Irish and Mandarin, and spoken bits and pieces of Spanish, Italian, Russian, Czech, Portuguese, Toki Pona and Esperanto. I’ve also heard some Finnish, Punjabi, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Slovak, Sardinian, Dutch, Hebrew, Indonesian, Norwegian, Swedish and other languages that I didn’t recognise.

Yesterday I went to talks on Portuguese Creole languages, Greek, language learning and linguistics, how to achieve advanced language competence, and on connections between cartoons and language learning. This morning I’ve been to talks on teaching multiple languages simultaneously, and languages and dialects of Sardinia. All the talks I’ve been to so far have been in English, apart from the Sardinian one, which was in Italian.

I’ve met lots of people I know from previous polyglot events, and lots of new people too. I might try to explore a bit more of Berlin at some point as well.

Chinese, Czech, Dutch, English, Esperanto, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Language, Language learning, Linguistics, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Sardinian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Toki Pona, Travel, Welsh Leave a comment

A Monkey’s Wedding

Photo of a rainbow taken from the Armadale to Mallaig ferry in May 2016 by Simon Ager

On an episode of The World in Words podcast that I listened to today I learnt the expression “a monkey’s wedding“, which is apparently what you call a day when rain falls while the sun is shining, at least if you live in South Africa or Zimbabwe.

As this is quite a common phenomenon in the UK you’d think we’d have a way to refer to it, and apparently we do – a monkey’s birthday. I haven’t heard of this before. Have you?

Apparently the meteorological term for this is sunshower, and sunshowers are often accompanied by rainbows.

Do you have other words for this in English or other languages?

I know that the page about sunshowers on Wikipedia has a list of these terms from around the world, but I’m interested in any you know and use.

English, Language, Words and phrases 10 Comments

Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

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

Language, Quiz questions 2 Comments

Will you be pernoctating?

If someone asked you if you were planning to pernoctate, would you know what they meant?

This is a word I came across today in the blog A Linguist Abroad in a post about ‘Interesting’ Cambridge rules. It appears in the sentence:

A Tutor (the pernoctating Tutor) is on duty every night and may stop a gathering forthwith if it is causing disturbance to other members of the College or neighbouring community.

(emphasis added)

To pernoctate [ˈpɜː.nɒk.teɪt] (UK) [pɚˈnɑkˌteɪt] (US), is “to stay all night; to pass the night (especially in prayer)”, according to Wikitionary.

A pernoctation is:

– An overnight stay; action (or instance) of abiding through the night at a location.
– The action (or an instance) of walking about at night, especially as a vigil or watch.
– A religious watch kept during normal sleeping hours, during which prayers or other ceremonies are performed.

According to the usage notes, “the sense of a religious watch may apply either to a holy vigil or to diabolical activities.”

These words come from the Late Latin pernoctātiō ‎(a spending [of] the night), from the Latin pernoctāre (to send the night), from per- (through) and nox/noct- (night).

Students who need to work all night to finish an assignment / essay, or to revise for an exam might “pull an all-nighter”.

Are there other ways to express this idea?

English, Etymology, Language, Latin, Words and phrases 1 Comment
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