[For the Oxford Words blog:] Is Polish the most difficult European language to learn?

Krakow perspective

How ethical is it to start working in a country where you don’t speak the local language?

Before I started teaching English in Poland, this question didn’t trouble me in the slightest. When I taught in Sardinia, I spoke enough Italian to get by; and nobody in Cambodia expected foreign teachers to speak any Khmer at all. But Polish is inna para kaloszy (a different pair of shoes) for me as a British English speaker. On the one hand, it almost sounds vaguely familiar (Polish is now the second most widely-spoken language in England) and at first glance, looks deceptively approachable (unlike Russian, Polish is written in the Latin alphabet). On the other hand, its sibilant shushes shimmer past my ears without me being able to understand a single word. And when it comes to speaking, even common everyday words look like a collection of leftover Scrabble tiles: where do I start with wszystko (all), jeszcze (yet), or even cześć (hi)?

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[For the Oxford Words blog:] Why learn Italian?

Cala Gonone

“Marjorie!”

Sighing with relief, I looked around the rows of old-fashioned single desks, wondering who the unfortunate Marjorie was. Our fierce and flame-haired Italian professoressa was picking on lone students to perform grammatical acrobatics. It was eight o’clock on a dark December morning and my Introduzione all’italiano module was not going well.

Marjorie!” – poor girl – “dico a te! The third person plural imperfect subjunctive of redimere, now! In a complete sentence!”

That’s when I realized that everyone, including the professoressa, was looking straight at…me. I was (apparently) “Marjorie”. At that moment, impaled on the imperfect, I did indeed ask myself why I had chosen to learn Italian on my year abroad (as well as realizing that introduzione might not translate culturally quite as expected). And yet there were dozens of us in that optional class, tackling the trapassato remoto. Italian remains the fifth most widely-taught language in the world. So why are we all in love with la bella lingua? To find out, I asked some friends who have all studied Italian at some point to tell me why they chose this language in particular.

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Indebted to…Italy

Terrace in Sardinia

Try this experiment: think of a word, any word, that we use regularly in English which has clear Italian origins before reading on.

Ready? It’s more than likely you’ve come up with a gastronomic term – a snap poll I took last week placed pizza, spaghetti, and cappuccino as front runners (along with ciao, which incidentally was originally a way of politely declaring ‘I am your slave’. You might want to think about that before saying it in the future.). There’s no doubt that Italian cuisine is one of the country’s most successful exports. For example, while you probably didn’t know that today is reportedly National Lasagna Day in America, there’s a good chance that you know and love the Italian dish itself, since lasagna (or lasagne in its more authentic spelling) has also well and truly earned its place on the list of Britain’s favourite dishes. Before we tuck into today’s layered lunch, however, it might be worth paying tribute for a moment to the various ways in which the Italian language has influenced English over the centuries.

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[For the Oxford Words blog:] Paris in the spring?

Patisserie

Whether or not ça sent le printemps [spring is in the air], where better to head for a break than Paris, the city of light itself, to soak up the café culture with a crêpe, a croissant, and a copy of L’Equipe all sous un soleil de plomb? But if your budget won’t stretch to travelling abroad despite your craving for a café crème, there’s a aperçu [taste] of France a little closer to home – just take the Circle line.

“We’ll always have South Kensington”

According to the 2011 census, London is home to more expats from France than from any other European country apart from Ireland, and many of them can be found working, if not living, in one of the most affluent and attractive areas of the capital. Stroll down the southern end of the newly-pedestrianized Exhibition Road in South Kensington and you will pass crêperie after café after croissanterie. Chairs and tables pepper the promenade, heralding the newly arrived premières tiédeurs du printemps [first warm days of spring]. Waistcoated waiters sail through the larger well-known French boulangeries-patisseries such as Paul and Le Pain Quotidien, while nearby Bute Street is bursting with independent boucheries, bistros, and brasseries. One eatery declares proudly in a window that it’s reached the finals of the competition to serve “the best cup of coffee in Europe”, a claim that cannot really be left untested at ten o’clock on a Saturday morning.

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Let’s just “call a cat a cat”: cat idioms in foreign languages

Cat cafe cat

Just a few weeks ago Christine Lindberg explored phrases and idioms that revealed the somewhat surprising way in which the English language describes man’s best friend. But what about that equally popular household pet – the beloved, fluffy, crazy cat? (Those three adjectives are among some of the most popular in the English language to precede the word cat, according to the Oxford English Corpus.) I decided to look at how our feline friends are portrayed in expressions and sayings – but this time I wanted to compare the way that cats are depicted in the English language with the way that they appear in other languages. So using the bilingual dictionaries available in Oxford Language Dictionaries Online (Chinese, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish), I began researching whether cats are known universally for getting the cream.

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[For the Oxford Words blog:] Jèrriais, the language of Jersey

Jersey sea

There was one thing I wanted to know as the plane touched down: were we actually abroad? On the one hand, everyone was driving on the left, paying in pounds, and speaking in English (albeit with what sounded like a faintly South African accent). On the other, everything was the wrong colour: yellow telephone boxes, red squirrels, and green pound notes (yes, pound notes – remember them?). As we wound our way through a lush forest of palm trees on the way to the capital, I looked at the bus ticket the driver had given me and saw:

Bouônjour à bord d’la beusse

It looked like French; or rather, it looked how French might look through a tropical haze. In fact, it was my first glimpse of real Jèrriais, the native language of Jersey – rich, colourful, and full of quirky phrases. I’m not sure if I ever worked out whether we were actually à l’êtrangi (abroad) or not; but I did learn this handy Monday-morning response to Comme est qu’ tu’es? (How are you?): J’sis coumme eune pouque mouoillie (I feel like a wet bag).

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This blog is a he: gender in foreign languages

He and she signs

Cast your mind back to your twelve-year-old self stuck in the classroom on a Friday afternoon in the middle of a French lesson. (Or German, or Spanish, for that matter.) If you grew up as a native monolingual English speaker, what was the thing you struggled with the most when learning a foreign language? Was it the convoluted concoction of verb conjugations? The weird and wonderful sounds you had to produce? Or perhaps the fact that téléphone was masculine and voiture was feminine?

This last point – getting the gender right – is one that perplexes many native English speakers, who scratch their heads at the idea that random inanimate objects could be thought of as masculine or feminine, perhaps because of all the cultural associations we attach to those terms. In fact, classifying nouns by gender is not unusual – around half of the world’s languages spoken today feature some kind of formal gender system. The English language itself used to be no different to modern German in this respect, as Old English grouped nouns into three genders. In Anglo-Saxon times, if you stood on a brycg (bridge – feminine) looking out to sea, you may have glimpsed a wifmann (woman – masculine, oddly enough) on board a scip (ship – rather interestingly, neuter). You would probably then realize you had been drinking too much ealu (ale – also neuter.)

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A Word a Day keeps the cobwebs away: our weird and wonderful “Words of the Day”

Cobweb

Who knew?

Some of the words that have arrived in your inbox this year may look or sound familiar but have unexpected meanings. Who could have guessed that one sense of the French word baraque is hefty person, for instance, or that Bach in German actually means brook? And in Italian the word bottega (shop or workshop), so often seen in restaurant titles, has another rather unexpected sense demonstrated in the following phrase: hai la bottega aperta = your flies are undone.

On the same theme, it’s useful to know that if a French man is talking about his tablettes de chocolat (literally chocolate bars) he’s referring to his six-pack, or that another meaning of choucroute (literally sauerkraut) is a beehive hairdo. And London residents may not be surprised to find out that in Italian fumo di Londra (literally London smoke) means dark grey; while an Italian medusa, on the other hand, is actually a jellyfish.

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