Students enrolled in language degrees declines once again

The number of students enrolled in foreign language degrees in the UK is at its lowest in a decade.

While students taking STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) have increased, those opting to study traditionally popular languages such as French and German have fallen.

Some of the reasons students are shunning language degrees include the prevalence of English in the global business environment and the perceived difficulty of performing well in these degrees. With such a vast range of options available to today’s students, who are able to study virtually any subject, languages have lost their appeal.

However, this is bad news for young jobseekers in the UK. Foreign language degrees are popular with employers, who appreciate the time and commitment that goes into learning a new language, and they stand graduates in good stead in the highly competitive jobseekers’ environment.

The number of students in the UK has decreased overall, but this downward trend has hit language degrees particularly hard.

However, languages remain the most popular degrees for British students studying abroad in France and Germany, with rising numbers indicating that this could become the most popular way to study a language. This plunges students into an immersive environment and surrounds them with their chosen language and culture, which can make the language learning process faster and more successful.

But all is not lost if you decided against a language degree. There are lots of courses available to help you learn in your own time, whether this is an evening class, a structured CD-ROM/ DVD-based course or even a mobile app.

Read more about the decline of language degrees in the UK>>

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The relationship between gestures and Italian sign language

Think about how many gestures you use on a day-to-day basis. From rubbing your fingers and thumb together to signify money to the quick mime of a hand tipping a mug to ask if anyone wants a cup of tea, it’s probably a lot more often than you realise. But few languages make more use of gestures than Italian.

While the use of gestures throughout Italy is widespread, it has recently come to light that the deaf Italian community has struggled to understand where exactly they fit in. Italian Sign Language is far richer in meaning than the 250 gestures used in daily life by Italians from all walks of life, but it is often overshadowed by the more familiar gestures with which Italians and other Europeans have become accustomed.

In Italy, it may not be too difficult to make yourself understood with gestures alone. Gestures can be considered a form of language in much the same way as sign language, though gesticulating is more of an enhancement than a robust language in its own right. The problem deaf Italians have is that while everyone can communicate with gestures of sorts, very few people understand their sign language, making it difficult to speak to hearing Italians.

This raises an interesting question about the relationship between gesture and sign language in other parts of the world. In countries such as France and the UK, speakers are known for being relatively more subdued in their gesticulating and actions. This provides less of an aid for those who speak the language poorly, but British Sign Language (BSL) and French Sign Language have a much higher status than Italian Sign Language, which is not even recognised as an official language in Italy.

For speakers of sign languages to receive certain rights, that sign language must be recognised by the government. This allows them to receive the assistance of interpreters, for instance in court and in medical situations, and gives them access to signed communications. While Italian Sign Language is popular in the deaf community, Italy still needs to go a long way to ensure that speakers get the same linguistic rights as hearing individuals who use gestures to accompany their every day spoken communications.

Read more about the relationship between gestures and sign language>>

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The difference between US and UK English

On Saturday, I’m making my first trip to New York. Fortunately there will be no language barrier facing me, but it got me thinking about the difference between UK and US English and their global usage and status.

Despite the fact English originated in the UK, it is the US form of English that tends to be spoken around the world. International language schools teach the US vocabulary, and students find themselves speaking with American accents, most likely without ever realising.

US English is spoken by around two-thirds of English speakers worldwide, helped in part by the vastly greater population of the United States compared to the United Kingdom. However, despite the significantly larger geographical area of the US, American English is relatively homogenous alongside its UK counterpart. Accents tend to be less distinct, and one accent may be used by swathes of the country – this is unheard of in England, when even the short distance between Liverpool and Manchester offers up very different accents.

Some of the differences between US and UK English are minor, such as the ‘-ize’ suffix used in American words as opposed to the British ‘-ise’ in words like ‘hypnotize’. However, there are lots of disparities in the vocabulary, such as ‘sidewalk’ for ‘pavement’, ‘faucet’ for ‘tap’ and even, confusingly, ‘chips’ for ‘crisps’ and ‘fries’ for ‘chips’.

There are also differences in the pronunciation. In US English, the rhotic ‘r’ (where, for example, the ‘r’ is pronounced at the end of ‘car’) is generally considered a prestige variety, whereas in British English, this is primarily used in Scottish dialects, and is considered non-standard. Words like ‘better’ are pronounced ‘bedder’ with a tap sound, which, again, is considered non-standard in the UK.

American English also uses some different grammatical formations. For example, in the UK we might say ‘I would have done’, whereas in the US you would say ‘I would have’. In the UK, you ‘talk to’ someone; in the US, you would ‘talk with’ them.

I can’t wait to spend some time immersed in US English, and I’ll report back on anything interesting I come across when I get back!

Learn to speak English with Language Advantage>>

Why do pronunciations change over time?

As a Linguistics graduate, my three years of study came flooding back to me when I stumbled across this article about the various language processes which have been slowly changing the pronunciation of the English language. Historical linguistics is the study of language change over time, and can focus on spelling, syntax, vocabulary or, in this case, the phonology.

Phonology is the study of sound in language, and looks at the way different sounds adapt to their environment. It differs slightly from phonetics, which is the study of the acoustic processes that take place when we speak. Phonology looks at the rules of language, and historical linguistics can lead us to an explanation of an observed phonological rule.

‘How many languages do you speak?’ is one of the most common questions I’m asked when I say I studied Linguistics. However, it’s not a case of studying one language. It’s language as a whole and all the rules that go with it. It puts the foundations in place to be able to analyse languages somewhat objectively using a ‘toolkit’ of information that allows us to probe the sounds, the meaning and the grammar of languages, along with where they came from and how they evolved.

Language change may be conscious, or unconscious. Sociolinguistics accounts for much of the conscious language change, with convergence (trying to sound more like others) and divergence (trying to sound different to others) mechanisms used to establish a new way of communicating. Many of the phonological changes outlined in the article, however, are unconscious, and fuelled primarily by the anatomy of the vocal tract.

For example, epenthesis, the process of adding an extra sound into a word, was not a conscious change in the language. The rapid movement from the nasal sound [m] in ‘empty’ to the plosive [t] forces a sound in between to make the transition easier for the human vocal tract to process. The [p]  acts as a bridge between the relatively different [m] and [t] sounds, taking the place (labial) and voicing from the [m] and the manner (plosive) from the [t] for a consonant cluster which is easier to articulate.

I will be writing more about linguistics in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for more!

Read more about the phonological change of English>>

Hawaiian a bigger influence on English than Cornish

It certainly came as a surprise to us to find out that British languages Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Cornish have had less of an impact on the English language than Hawaiian, Swahili and Zulu.

Given the geography, it would be natural to assume that our neighbours from Wales and Scotland and the inhabitants of the South West had contributed a significant amount to English. However, the Oxford English Dictionary found that Cornish has donated just 40 words to English, making it the 45th biggest influencer of the language.

Even those words we have adopted from our British relatives are not in particularly common use. When was the last time you spoke about a fugou (a Cornish word for a house dug into the ground) or took your coracle for a whirl on the lake (a Welsh word for a small round boat)?

The theory behind this is that the Anglo-Saxons felt that the native British languages at the time were insignificant, and that this snobbery led to their being sidelined. As these languages have continued to decline and English has fully established itself as the overwhelming language of choice in the UK, there has been little pressure to adopt words from other indigenous languages of the British Isles.

Unsurprisingly, Latin and French are the two biggest influencers, giving us 40,000 and 20,000 words respectively. Latin arrived in the UK with the Romans, while French became highly influential during the Roman invasion. Our other Western European cousins have also had a significant impact on English, as well as Scandinavian languages from the Viking invasion, with many modern place names being derived from their Viking names.

Read more about the influence other languages have had on English>>

The Irish language resurgence

What connects prisoners and schoolchildren in Northern Ireland? Surprisingly, it’s the move to increase the number of speakers of the Irish language.

The official language of Northern Ireland is English, with Irish and Ulster Scots also spoken by a far smaller proportion of citizens. As of 2011, just 11% of the Northern Irish population said that they had ‘some knowledge of Irish’, behind the 19% of Welsh citizens claiming some knowledge of Welsh, prompting calls from pro-Irish language groups to raise national proficiency of this native language.

In 1970, the first Irish-speaking school, Bunscoil Phobal Feirste, opened in Northern Ireland in an attempt to preserve the language in the local area and to encourage more children to learn Irish amid fears that it may die out under pressures from the far more prevalent English language. To date, there are close to 100 Irish-medium schools in Northern Ireland, and while exam entries remain low, figures have increased slightly in recent years. With post-primary Irish-medium schools receiving state funding, it is clear that this is a cause important to many Irish citizens.

Learning Irish has long been popular among prisoners in Northern Ireland. Learning Irish as a second language allowed inmates to challenge the authority of prison staff by enabling them to hold conversations between themselves without being understood by guards. This meant they could speak about anything without being challenged, forcing guards to learn the language themselves or be left in the dark about inmates’ conversations.

An Irish language pop group, Seo Linn, released a series of tracks covering popular chart hits in the Irish language. Recently they released their first original song in an attempt to fuel interest in the Irish language to connect with younger generations. Exposure to languages in popular culture is a common way to make these languages feel more relevant and up-to-date for teenagers, which can then spark an interest in learning the language.


Do you speak Irish? Would you be interested in learning the heritage language of your country? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Getting to grips with Croatian

We planned a little escape to the sunshine after weeks and weeks of heavy rain and wind battering the south coast of England.  There were still flights free for Dubrovnik in Croatia and it was a destination we’d been meaning to visit for many summers… but had left it too late to get a flight.

We knew that February was an ‘interesting’ time of year to visit Croatia, but we figured it was on a level with Rome and it would definitely be warmer than the UK. Speaking to people over there, we found out that we enjoyed unseasonably warm weather in Dubrovnik this year with temperatures up to 18 degrees centigrade. We were extremely lucky to have sunshine every day, albeit with quite a breeze blowing.  Sitting outside having a coffee was a delight.

I always try to do a bit of language preparation before I leave, but had been inundated with work, so time was limited.

I did a last minute search of the iTunes store the day before I left on ‘Croatian’ and saw quite a few language learning apps come up. The first was WorldNomads Croatian Language Guide and I downloaded that as it was free. I took a quick look around it – and I don’t know if it was me – but I couldn’t get any audio with the app, which seemed quite pointless. There seems to be a video lesson and I pressed play, but got nothing at all in terms of sound, nor images.

Next I thought I would revert to my old favourite, Eurotalk apps, which I’ve used many times. I downloaded that for about £6.99 and it has served me well. It’s not extensive by any means, but gives me the phrases, and importantly, the pronunciation of the Croatian language which was completely new to me. I must admit I am a bit lost with it and it reminds me what it is like to be a totally new language learner.

I have not got past the ‘First Words’ section of the app and I am almost ashamed to say that I’ve not tried that much. Everyone we’ve met – from 16 year olds to 60 year olds – has an amazing grasp of the English language. I can see that from the TV channels – nothing is dubbed and everything is subtitled. I remember going to an international trade event, where someone from the Croatian Embassy was presenting and I think he said that 80% of the Croatian workforce has a working knowledge of English. If that is so, it is an amazing feat.

So back to my Croatian… I can’t tell if it sounds more like Italian, German or Russian to my untrained ear… I have started to recognise words by listening to Sochi Olympic coverage and Champions League commentary in Croatian. I will do some research on the origins of the Croatian language and get back to you!

In fact, the only words I can actually remember are ‘Hvala’ (the only thing helping me with that is ‘koala’), ‘molim’ (please) and ‘bok’ (hello). ‘Ra?un molim’ is ‘the bill please’. That is only one word a day… a pretty lame attempt for me.

Find out how to learn the Croatian language and get the Language Advantage>>

Why is Finnish so difficult to learn?

I have just got back from a weekend in Helsinki, and when I wasn’t busy cooing at the pretty snow or devouring a plate of fabulous Finnish food, I spent a lot of time listening to the language. Finnish is often said to be one of the trickiest languages for English speakers to learn, and having experienced it first-hand, I have to say that I’m not entirely surprised. So why exactly is Finnish so difficult to learn?

Finnish doesn’t even remotely resemble its Nordic neighbours, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. Nor is it close to Russian, with whom it shares a border. In fact, Finnish is thought to be related to just two major modern languages: Estonian and Hungarian. These, along with lots of other lesser-spoken languages, belong to the Uralic family. While these languages are relatively similar to one another, they bear little resemblance to any other language family.

‘Thank you’ is ‘takk’ in Norwegian, ‘tack’ in Swedish and ‘tak’ in Danish. So we might expect something similar in Finnish, right? Wrong. If you want to express gratitude in Finnish, you will need to say ‘kiitos’. Conversations in Finnish are certainly not easy for beginners, even if you’re hoping that your strong Swedish or Norwegian skills will carry you through. In fact, Swedish is an official language in Finland, so you will probably be better off speaking Swedish if you’re comfortable with the Scandinavian languages.

And if you think you’ll try your luck with written Finnish, you might want to think again. Double consonants and double vowels are extremely common in Finnish, meaning it isn’t uncommon to find words such as ‘liikkeessään’ (showroom). You’ll also need to remember to dot more than your ‘i’s with words like ‘kääntäjää’ (translator).

The Defense Language Institute in California gives Finnish a difficulty rating of III (out of four) in terms of difficulty for native English speakers to learn, making it the perfect language for anyone who likes a challenge. Plus, we are currently in the most active Northern Lights season in 60 years, so this might be the best time to delve into Finnish or Sami if you’re heading into the Arctic Circle.

Have you ever tried to learn Finnish? What’s the hardest language to learn you’ve ever come across? We’d love to hear your stories.

Learn Finnish with Language Advantage>>

The easiest languages for English speakers to learn

Following on from our last blog post about tips for making languages easier to learn, today we’re going to be visiting several of the top ten easiest languages for English speakers to learn. Just think – if you choose one of these languages and then apply the tips we offered earlier in the last post, you could be holding conversations in your language of choice in no time!

[Read more…]

Top tips for learning languages easily

If your New Year’s resolution was to learn a new language but you haven’t quite got round to it yet, what are you waiting for?! We’re halfway through February, it’s still bleak outside and it’s the perfect time to put these long winter nights to good use with some language learning. And of course, if you start now, your conversation skills should be in pretty good shape for your summer holiday…

1)      Be a social butterfly

If you use Facebook every day, one simple way to ease yourself into a new language is to change the language of your account. You can ‘aime’ your friends’ posts in no time, and you’ll be surprised by how quickly you adapt. Brushing up on your language skills while you socialise online? Yes, really…

2)      Little and often

Many people find the time commitment associated with learning a new language intimidating. However, you really don’t have to spend an hour every single day poring over books and dictionaries. Apps like Duolingo are perfect for dipping into a language in quick ten minute bursts when you’re running a bath or waiting for a bus, helping you fit language learning into your busy schedule. Alternatively, Language Advantage offers the Earworms Rapid Languages range for speedy, song-based teaching.

3)      Eat your words

When you go on holiday, many of your interactions with locals will be around food when you stop for a bite to eat. This is the perfect excuse for you to try that new French restaurant in town or the traditional Italian deli round the corner. See how much of the menu you understand, and you can even practise your accents with your lucky companion.

4)      Watch your language

When the weather is wild outside, batten down the hatches and curl up with a foreign language film. Keep the subtitles on for support or turn them off if you really want to push yourself. In the early stages of language learning, try to watch a children’s film in your language of choice without subtitles so you can familiarise yourself with more common words before you grapple with that gritty art-house drama.

5)      Come fly with me

It is widely known that immersing yourself in a language rapidly improves language skills. This is why exchange programmes are so popular at school. The great news is that Language Advantage offers a range of brilliant overseas language courses, meaning you can enjoy the sunshine, polish up your language and make new friends in the process.

What’s your best tip for making language learning easy?

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