Book hunting in Montreal

Yesterday I spent the morning hunting for interesting language books with Lindsay Dow, of Lindsay Does Languages, Benny Lewis, of Fluent in 3 months, Steve Kaufmann, of lingq, and Josh Koehn from California.

The first book shop we went to had a good selection of books in and about a wide variety of languages, including Old Irish, Middle Welsh, Breton and Sanskrit. I resisted buying anything as I have no spare space in my bag, and already have plenty of language-related books at home.

After wandering around Vieux Montréal for a while we had lunch in a nice café, then Lindsay and I went to meet Moti Lieberman of The Ling Space, where there are videos which explain and discuss linguistic and language-related topics in an accessible way. I hadn’t heard of this site before, but will definitely have a look at some of the videos. It sounds very interesting.

In the evening we met up with Kris Broholm of Actual Fluency, Oli Richards of I will teach you a language, and some local friends of theirs for dinner in a vegetarian place on Rue Saint-Denis.

I’m taking it easy this morning, and after lunch will head to the airport – my plane leaves at 16:45, and I’ll arrive in Manchester at 07:50 tomorrow morning, as long as my flight from Paris isn’t affected by the planned strike by Air France staff.

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.

One Person One Language (OPOL)

An illustration of a bilingual family

This post is based largely on an article by Francois Grosjean:

One popular way to raise bilingual children is for each parent to speak only their native language with their children. For example the father will speak English and the mother will speak Spanish, and the children will acquire both languages. At first the children might mix the languages, but they will soon come to associate one language with each parent. There is also a belief that if the parents mix languages, e.g. the Spanish-speaking parent sometimes speaks English, and the English-speaking parent sometimes speaks Spanish, the children will get confused.

Problems with the OPOL approach
There are problems with the OPOL approach – children is likely get more exposure to one language then to the other, and one language is likely to become dominant. The children may come to prefer that language, especially if both parents speak it, and the children may be able to understand but not speak the non-dominant language. This is quite often the case with minority languages like Welsh and Irish.

It can also be difficult to stick to OPOL when other people are around who only speak one of the languages. For example, if a Spanish/English family is with Spanish-speaking friends, does the parent who only speaks English with the children stick to English, even though the friends might not understand, or do they switch to Spanish? Parents can find such situations stressful and might adapt their approach to context and be more flexible rather than sticking rigidly to OPOL.

Does the OPOL approach actually work?
There are have been a number of the OPOL approach, including a notable one of 2,000 families by Annick De Houwer, which found that children in a quarter of the families did not become bilingual, and that in families where parents mixed languages, as many children became bilingual as in OPOL families.

What is the OPOL approach based on?
Given the popularity of the OPOL approach, you might think that it’s based on sound foundations of research and testing. This is not the case. It has probably been around for a long time, but the first reference to it in modern linguistic literature is in a book from 1913 by Jules Ronjat, a French linguist with a German wife. In 1908, when his son was born, Ronjat asked his colleague, Maurice Grammont, for advice on raising his son bilingually. In a letter Grammont advised Ronjat to speak only French to his son, and for his wife to speak only German. Since then many other people have discussed the OPOL approach, and often cite a book by Grammont, Observations sur le langage des enfants (Observations on Children’s Language) which was supposedly published in 1902, however does not in fact exist, according to François Grosjean. So the OPOL approach is based on the opinion of Maurice Grammont, who published nothing on language acquisition, as expressed in a letter to his colleague Jules Ronjat.

Have you tried or are you trying the OPOL approach?
Did it work / is it working for you?
What problems have you had with it?

Life as a Bilingual: The reality of living with two (or more) languages (by Francois Grosjean, and Aneta Pavlenko)

Links to websites with information and advice about raising children bilingually

Articles about bilingualism

Online language communities

On an episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme, Word of Mouth, that I listened to recently, they talk about how English might change in the future. One interesting thing that came up was that new linguistics communities are emerging online on forums and other places where people spend a lot of time chatting to one another. One way this happens is that misspellings and typos, which might be accidental or deliberate, are adopted by other members of the virtual community and become a way of identifying insiders from outsiders. While such words might be viewed as errors by outsiders, for insiders they become the norm, and might eventually replace the ‘correct’ words.

So if you hear or see words being used in a way that seems odd, ignorant or incorrect way to you, don’t forget that that usage might be acceptable and normal among a particular group of people. This is one way how language changes and new varieties emerge.

Language acquisition

I spent Christmas with my family at my brother’s house in Devon in the south west of England. His daughter is now 20 months old and it’s fascinating to see how she’s acquiring language.

The last time I saw her was at Easter this year when she was nearly a year old. At that time she was able to say a few words, but now she has a lot more words and little phrases, and understands more as well. Most of her words are in English, but she also uses some Russian ones (her mother is Russian) such as сок (juice), and even some BSL signs, such as thank you, picked up from baby signing classes.

As well as English and Russian, she’s picking up some French from the French nanny who looks after her a few days a week while her mother is working. So she is on the way to becoming a polyglot. Whether she’ll be as enthusiastic about languages as I am remains to be seen, but it will be very interesting to see how her language develops.

Do you have or know children who are being raised bilingually or multilingually? Do you have any tips and stories you’d like to share? Guest posts on this topic are very welcome.

7000 Languages Project

I heard about an interesting project today: 7000 Languages Project – the goal of the project is to create web- and mobile-delivered learning materials for the 7,000 languages beyond the top 100 or so that attract significant commercial support.

The 7000 Languages Project involves creating Langscape, an online portal for learning about languages worldwide, that combines an interactive language map with links to an expanding range of resources on thousands of languages. Langscape is intended to serve multiple communities, including language teachers and learners, researchers, K-12 educators, government and NGOs, and public outreach.

The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct

According to an article I came across yesterday the idea that language is an instinct or that there is some kind of language organ in the brain is unlikely to be true. Vyvyan Evans, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University, argues that,

“Our brains really are ‘language-ready’ in the following limited sense: they have the right sort of working memory to process sentence-level syntax, and an unusually large prefrontal cortex that gives us the associative learning capacity to use symbols in the first place. Then again, our bodies are language-ready too: our larynx is set low relative to that of other hominid species, letting us expel and control the passage of air. And the position of the tiny hyoid bone in our jaws gives us fine muscular control over our mouths and tongues, enabling us to make as the 144 distinct speech sounds heard in some languages. No one denies that these things are thoroughly innate, or that they are important to language.”

He explains that if language were an instinct, children would just know it once their language organ had been tuned to the specific parameters of their mother tongue(s). However it takes children several years of trial and error to grasp the intricacies of language, and they don’t usually generalise patterns they spot to all relevant words straight away. For example, a child might notice that some words have a different form when you’re talking about more than one of something, and they might only apply that change to words they know already at first. Later they might apply it to all nouns, even ones with irregular endings, and eventually they will learn the irregular forms as well.

Another aspect of the language gene/instinct argument is the idea that underlying all languages are a set of universal attributes – the universal grammar. However since this idea was proposed, more and more unusual language structures have been discovered that don’t fit the model, and one of the few elements that remains is recursion – the way sentences can be embeded within other sentences. Even that is questioned as at least one language, Pirahã (híaitíihí), possibly manages without it.

Professor Evans also argues that if there were a language organ, it would have to be passed on via DNA, and that this is unlikely given the complexity needed for such an organ, based on our current understanding of how DNA works. Genes and parts of the brain that were thought to be specific for language, or aspects of language, have been found to be involved in auditory processing or motor control.

You can read more on this in the book The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct.

Have you read the book? What is your take on this?

When is a language not a language?

One perennial problem in linguistics is how to decide whether a language is a language or dialect. In the fascinating book, Speak: A Short History of Languages, which I read recently, Tore Janson argues that a language can be considered a language when those who speak it decide that it is one, and they give it a name. This often happens when a language acquires a standard written form, and/or becomes the language of a state of other political entity.

He gives the example of Italian in the Chapter Did Dante Write in Italian?: Dante is said to be one of the first authors to write in Italian rather than Latin, however he didn’t see Latin and Italian as separate languages, but just different forms of the same language. Dante refers to Classical Latin as Grammatica (Grammar), the colloquial language of Italy as Latium vulgare (popular/vulgar Latin), and he calls the language he wrote in Latino (Latin). Italian only started to be called italiano or lingua italiana not long after Dante’s death.

Janson gives the another example of the Khoisan languages of South Africa, which have many different names. Speakers of these languages, when asked, might use the name of their area, tribe or some other name for their language – but generally don’t have a particular name for their form of speech. Several hundred names have been collected by linguists, and as a result nobody is quite sure how many Khoisan languages there are and how they are related to one another. None of these languages have a standard written form, and speakers rarely, if ever, write them.


I spent last weekend at my mum’s house, along with my brother, sister-in-law and their one-year old daughter. The last time I saw my niece was at Christmas, when she was making some sounds, but not really babbling much. Now she is babbling away all the time and sometimes says recognisable words, or at least utters sequences of sounds that might be words. Her mother, who comes from Russia, speaks mainly in Russian with her, while her father speaks only English with her (he doesn’t speak Russian). I haven’t heard any Russian words among her babbles, but there might be some I don’t recognise – my knowledge of Russian is somewhat limited. They also use some signs with her which they have learnt at baby signing classes, most of which look like standard BSL signs to me.

It’s fascinating to observe her linguistic abilities developing, and it won’t be long before she is using more words and starting put them together.

Sound instincts

According to an article I came across today, humans possibly have innate preferences for the sound patterns found in languages which might help babes to distinguish language from non-language and to acquire language.

An experiment undertaken by the National Academy of Sciences found that even new born babies show a preference for combinations of phonemes common in human languages over rare or non-linguistic combinations of phonemes. For example, it is relatively common for words to begin with bl, not very rare for them to start with lb. This suggests that the range of sound combinations found in languages, which though large, is limited by our brains innate preferences.

I found another report on this story on Science Daily which provides more details.