Languages of London

Last night I went to the first Languages of London meetup – it’s the same group I’ve been going to for a few months (the Polyglot Pub), but with a new name and venue, and more participants.

Some happy polyglots at the Languages of London meet-up in the Wellcome Collection café

The meetup was supposed to take place in the Institute of Education in UCL, which is a good location in central London near Russell Square and Euston. Unfortunately they were closed for the Easter holidays, even though they had confirmed in advance that the venue would be available. So we had to find somewhere else in a hurry. Fortunately we found a good alternative in the café in the nearby Wellcome Collection.

There were more people there last night than have been at any of the Polyglot Pub meetups I’ve been to, from various countries. We chatted about languages, and other things, in a variety of languages, and generally had a good time. I had conversations in English, Welsh, French and Japanese, and spoke odd bits of Spanish and Portuguese. There were also conversations in Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, Thai and a few other languages.

These meetups happen once a month and if you’re in London for the next one. Do come along. They’re for anybody who is learning a language or two, who speaks a few languages, and/or is interested in languages.

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.

Which are the most learned languages?

When up-dating the Which language should I learn? page on Omniglot this week I decided to try and find out not only which languages have the most speakers, and also which ones have the most learners.

The top ten languages in terms of overall number of native (L1) and second language (L2) speakers are:

Language L1 speakers L2 speakers Total speakers
Mandarin Chinese 850 million 180 million 1,030 million
English 340 million 510 million 840 million
Arabic 240 million 250 million 490 million
Spanish 400 million 90 million 490 million
Hindi 260 million 120 million 380 million
Russian 150 million 110 million 260 million
Portuguese 215 million 35 million 250 million
French 80 million 140 million 220 million
Bengali 190 million 20 million 210 million
Indonesian/Malay 60 million 140 million 200 million


If you count Hindi and Urdu speakers together, as I’ve done with Indonesian and Malay, the number of L1 speakers is 324 million, L2 speakers number 214 million, and the total number of speakers is 438 million. This doesn’t change the rankings of other languages.

The languages with the most learners are English (600 million), French (100 million), and Spanish (21 million). If you add these figures to the above totals, English moves into first place, French into seventh place, and Spanish into fourth place.

The most popular languages to study in the USA are Spanish, French, American Sign Language (ASL), German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Latin and Russian [source].

In Europe the most studied foreign languages are English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian [source].

I couldn’t find any figures for the number of Chinese learners, but there were 234,275 takers of the Chinese Proficiency Tests in 2012 [source]. I suspect that the total number of people learning Chinese isn’t huge, but it has increased over the past few years.

Do you have details of which languages have most learners in other countries?

Irish and Ndebele

Yesterday I went to Global Café, a group for international students which I’ve been going to on and off since I was a student myself. I use it as a chance to meet people and practise my languages, and I got to speak quite a few different languages last night, including Welsh, French, Irish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese and German. There were also speakers of Vietnamese, Arabic, Malay, Northern Ndebele, and probably other languages.

The most linguistically interesting person I met there was a guy who grew up in Ireland where he spoke Northern Ndebele at home, and was educated through the medium of Irish. He also learnt English and French at school, and is currently working on Mandarin and Welsh. His parents come from Zimbabwe, and his dad speaks about 10 languages. He had a bit of trouble with my Ulster Irish, but we managed to communicate okay. I don’t think I’ve met anyone else who speaks a Bantu and a Celtic language before.

What is the most unusual combination of languages you’ve come across?

Hi. Keefak? Ça va?

Hi. Keefak? Ça va?

What language(s) do they speak in Beirut?

According to an interesting programme and article I came across today, many people in Beirut speak Arabic, French and English, and frequently switch between them, often using two of them, or all three in the same sentence.

While some might see this kind codeswitching as a sign that people haven’t learnt any of the languages completely, others believe it is a way people express their Lebanese identity. In fact, codeswitching requires a good knowledge of all the languages you’re switching between, especially when it occurs within sentences.

Are there other places where most people regularly codeswitch between three of more languages like this?

In Wales codeswitching between English and Welsh is common, and with some of my friends we add French, and/or other languages, into the mix.

An owlfully badgered cup of tea

badger and cup

Yesterday I discovered that the Italian word for cup, tazza, is rather similar and possibly confusable with the word for badger, tasso, which can also mean a rate (of exchange) or a yew (tree).

It’s unlikely that if you mistakenly ask for un tasso di tè rather than una tazza di tè, you will be given a badger of tea, but it would be an easy mistake to make, especially if you know the French word for cup, tasse, or the Spanish taza, or the German Tasse, which comes from the French, which comes from the Arabic طاس (ṭās – die; bowl), from the Persian تاس (tās – die/dice).

I also discovered the wonderful word owlful, which means full of badgers, or possibly full of owls. How awful it must be to be owlful! It’s a word that should have appeared in the Harry Potter books, which are brimful of owls at points, and slightly, though not entirely, badgerless.

Water lilies, nymphs and blue lotuses

A nymphaea / water lily

There was talk of ponds and water lilies last night at the French conversation group and I discovered that one French word for water lily is nymphéa [nɛ̃.fe.a], which comes from nymphaea the Latin name for this genus of plants. The Latin word comes from the Ancient Greek word νύμφη (nymphe), which means girl, and also refers to a low ranking female deity who haunts rivers, springs, forests and other places [source].

Nymphéa refers specifially to the white water lily, or nymphaea alba, which also known as the European White Waterlily, White Lotus, or Nenuphar, a name that is also found in French: nénuphar [ne.ny.faʁ], and which comes via the Persian نيلوفر (ninufar) or the Arabic نلوفر (nilufar), from the Sanskrit नीलोतपल (nīlotpala – blue lotus), from नील (nīla – blue-black) and उतपल (utpala – lotus) [source].

Many names for plants in French come directly from Latin, whereas in English many plants have common names and Latin names. In other languages do plants have both common and Latin-derived names, or just one or the other?

Languages in the UK

Today I found maps on the Guardian website which show the percentages of speakers of languages other than English in a number of major UK cities. It is based on data from the 2011 census and shows where the speakers are concentrated. For example, the main concentration of Bengali speakers is in East London around Mile End, while Arabic speaks are concentrated mainly along Edgeware Road. Meanwhile in Cardiff there are Polish speakers in most parts of the city with a particular concentration between Newport Road and Broadway.

This kind of map might be useful if you’re looking for people to practice your languages with.

Do you know if similar maps are available for other cities or countries?

Best languages to study

According to an article I came across in the Daily Telegraph today, the best / most useful languages to study, for those in the UK, are:

1. German
2. French
3. Spanish
4. Mandarin
5. Polish
6. Arabic
7. Cantonese
8. Russian
9. Japanese
10. Portuguese

The reasons why each language is useful vary quite a bit. For example Brazil is the sixth largest economy in the world and will be hosting the next (football) World Cup and Summer Olympics; apparently Russia is the UK’s fastest-growing major export market; and Poland is the largest consumer market in the EU. Languages valued by UK employers includes German, French, Spanish, Polish and Mandarin.

If a language is useful or in demand by employers, that’s quite a good reason to study it, but if you that’s your only reason for choosing a particular language, studying it might seem like hard work. If you also have an interest in the language itself, the culture of those who speak and/or the places where it’s spoken, you’re more likely to enjoy your studies and became proficient in the language.

Have you studied any languages solely because you thought they might be useful?

One of the comments on the article suggest that it is better to study a vocational subject such as science, medicine or law and to study a language as a secondary subject, rather than just focusing on a langauge. Another comment states that a university in a language or languages isn’t particular useful if you don’t have other skills.

Little quiz on lesser-spoken languages

Just thought I’d share this with you here: – see how good your knowledge of endangered and lesser-spoken languages is.

In other news, Arabic has become the language of choice for Facebook in the Middle East and North Africa, according to this report. It’s overtaken English in popularity and left French behind.

What language do you use for Facebook?

I usually have it in Welsh.