Category Archives: Language Learning

Un mercenario al que pagas bien no te deja en la estacada

I haven’t been writing any language learning related blog posts for quite some time now. It is not because there is nothing to write about, on the contrary I have a lot of ideas big and small in language learning department, but I’m too busy with technology/work and other things.

Anyhow I’m very actively learn Spanish language and the moment, keeping on hold French and Afrikaans and postponing desire to learn other languages 🙂 I’m about to receive (unless I failed my exam) my DELE B1 certificate. Subjectively I can say that my writing capability still requires a lot of work as well as speaking lacks control of tense system though I can say a lot using limited amount of tenses and doing a lot of mistakes 🙂

My learning strategy includes loads of input from day-0 (listening, reading) and I’m currently reading “La carta esférica” by Arturo Pérez-Reverte and in this book I stumbled upon the following idiomatic expression – “dejar a alguien en la estacada”. Here is the passage from the book:

Además, siempre preferí contratar a asalariados eficientes antes que a voluntarios entusiastas… Un mercenario al que pagas bien no te deja en la estacada.

Pérez-Reverte, Arturo. La carta esférica (Spanish Edition) (Kindle Location 3386). Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial España. Kindle Edition.

So I decided to read up a bit on the phrase and below you may find what I learnt. Disclaimer: most of the post talks about etymologies of phrases/words and these are frequently contested, I  have to warn you that I didn’t do rigorous scientific check/verification and you are more than welcome do double check these theories. 🙂

I quickly found English equivalent for this expression – “to leave someone in the lurch”, and while meaning was clear both expressions required some extra checks in dictionary to understand where they came from. So basic modern meaning of both expressions is to abandon someone in difficult situation.

Let’s start from the Spanish one – “dejar a alguien en la estacada” if you are in a mood for definition of meaning in Spanish here you are – “La expresión ‘Dejar a alguien en la estacada’ es comúnmente utilizada para señalar cuando a una persona se la ha dejado abandonada a su suerte en una situación que podría ser peligrosa, apurada o de difícil solución, no brindándole la ayuda o auxilio que precisa” (source). But what is this “estacada” where our troubled person left? It actually comes from medieval jousting tournaments, martial game based on the military use of the lance by heavy cavalry.

Tournament between Henry II and Lorges, 16th century

Tournament between Henry II and Lorges, 16th century

Tournament field for this competition was fenced by “estacas” – wooden posts which formed sort of palisade and land within this fence was called “estacada” (tournament’s arena sort of). During tournaments, after competition was over only knight which felt from his horse (often heavily wounded) left on that land and victorious knight used to leave arena without helping or paying attention to one which stayed on the field. From this takes origin phrase “dejar a alguien en la estacada” which in modern language used to refer to “leaving someone in difficult or dangerous situation”.

What about English version? As you can see Spanish idiom has rather military origin and its English equivalent despite having similar meaning in modern usage has completely different origins. It also revolves around of the place where you left the troubled person – “lurch”. And honestly I had to look it up as I haven’t had an idea about what it could be. Dictionaries list number of meanings of which, knowing sense of the phrase, you may guess that one which we have in the phrase “to leave someone in the lurch” is this:

“a decisive defeat in which an opponent wins a game by more than double the defeated player’s score especially in cribbage

I also found interesting blog post which offers more interesting and fitting options for origins of lurch, such as:

1. Lurch is a noun that originated from lich – the Old English word for corpse. Lych-gates were the roofed churchyard entrances that adjoin many old English churches and are the appointed place for coffins to be left when waiting for the clergyman to arrive to conduct a funeral service. Hence ‘left in the lych/lurch’ supposed to mean “left in a quite difficult situation”…

Lychgate at the Church of St. James the Less, Philadelphia

Lychgate at the Church of St. James the Less, Philadelphia

2. Second theory states that jilted brides would be ‘left in the lurch’ when the errant bridegroom failed to appear for a wedding.

Those two seems to be apt/interesting yet only listed as suggested explanations with no evidence to support them.

And while most of the dictionaries link the lurch with losing/bad situation in cribbage aforementioned blog post mentioned above suggests that word/phrase “originates from the French board game of lourche or lurch, which was similar to backgammon and was last played in the 17th century (the rules having now been lost). Players suffered a lurch if they were left in a hopeless position from which they couldn’t win the game.” But again, looking at illustration they have there game board looks similar to the one for cribbage.

And after looking at both Spanish and English idioms which convey one idea yet have different origins I realized that both cribbage board and jousting tournament field have something in common…

Modern 120-hole cribbage board

Modern 120-hole cribbage board

Giovanni Ferri, Saracen joust in Piazza Navona in the 25th of February 1634 (Seventeenth century)

Giovanni Ferri, Saracen joust in Piazza Navona in the 25th of February 1634 (Seventeenth century)

Don’t you think?

Russian version anyone? If you interested in a Russian equivalent of “dejar a alguien en la estacada” / “leave someone in the lurch” I think it will be “бросить на произвол судьбы”, phrase which literal translation goes as “to leave someone to the arbitrariness of fate”… As you can see yet again completely different phrase to convey the same idea. Russian phrase centered around “fate” which is blind and not in a sense of unbiased Themis (known to Russian speakers as “Фемида” [Femida] and aka Justitia aka Lady Justice), but rather blind in its cruel arbitrariness. So to leave on  to the arbitrariness of fate would be leaving vulnerable person in really difficult situation.

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A Little Book of Language by David Crystal

A Little Book of LanguageA Little Book of Language by David Crystal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just done listening audio edition of this book and this is just a little comment/review about it.

Initially because of the word “little” in the title and number of opening chapters talking about how children develop their language abilities I was slightly concerned that I picked a wrong buck which going to talk exclusively about children speech development 🙂 But it turn out that this “little” book give all encompassing overview of all things language starting from children speech development and touching on all possible things language related: applied linguistics, sociolinguistics, forensic linguistics, etymology, dictionaries, endangered languages and languages revival, dialects and regionalisms, speech therapy so it is really Little book of Language.

In case you are not linguistics/language geek who wants to know everything about language you may find such book useful for example if you need what facet/aspect of language/linguistics you are interested to learn more about.

I guess I’m going to add more David Crystal‘s books on my ever growing to read/to listen list, and I think it is high time to finally read/listen something by Naom Chomsky as his books were on my to do list way too long 🙂

View all my reviews

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Frequency principle for language learning

At the time when I started to learn English I remember some statements that to maintain conversation in English on a descent level in most of the situations you need around 3500 words. I don’t remember exact explanation to that, but 3500 figure stuck in my head up to present 🙂 Anyway even this relatively high number is a real source of consolation for students scared by an ocean of unknown words in new language, as putting a limit on what you are going to need from that changes your POV from frustration and dismay (if you have that) to something like “it’s attainable/manageable.” It is especially important for language learners who for some reason preoccupied by “how do I learn all that” more than anything else and consequently not able to start working in small steps towards tangible results. Personally, I never was intimidated by vocabulary immensity, rather perceiving it as richness and space to explore.

Anyhow now trying to learn French, I have better idea of importance of frequency in language acquisition, especially when you aiming at rapid language acquisition. Recently I heard more qualified opinion of Dmitry Petrov who builds his entire language learning system around frequency principle, and according to him average native speaker in any language uses 50-60 verbs regularly vast majority of other verbs used only rarely (approximately in 10% of speech). And giving the fact that verb is a “language’s engine” or core around which you can built various structures it is a good idea to familiarize yourself thoroughly with most frequent verbs and other parts of speech in your target language.

Side note: I think an opinion a person who supposedly can read in 50 languages and works professionally as interpreter with 8 of them Dmitry is more than qualified to speak about how to learn language efficiently.

Anyhow now I have a bit more clearer understanding of importance of frequency principle and will try to apply it in my language learning quest. This principle is not a revelation and maybe something we all know with our gut feeling, but sometimes idea has been spelled out to you to be appreciated fully. There are special frequency based dictionaries out there and some lists of words can be found in the internet. My French teacher recently shared with me some links to check out most frequent words in French:

20 verbes les plus conjugués sur

Les 50 verbes les plus fréquents (à l’oral et à l’écrit)

100 most frequently used French words

Les 600 Mots Français Les Plus Usités

Last link is most extensive list of all mentioned and it mentions interesting statement/factoid for those who like benchmarks anxious to have some frame of references on how much words is enough: it mentions that magic 3500 figure and also says that “le vocabulaire de Guy De Maupassant a été évalué à une fourchette allant de 12 000 à 15 000 mots” 🙂

So if you aiming for full blown sophisticated writing in your target language there is just 12 000 – 15 000 words to master… Almost nothing if you compare with number of entries in unabridged edition of OED or with some impressive but useless to be well known simultaneously for any person amount of rapidly growing corpus of special terms from science and technology.

Anyhow for me frequency principle is not something to guard me from vastness and richness of vocabulary but rather an efficiency tool in language learning something to focus on in the beginning. But lest frequent words to me not something to be ignored they rather space of opportunities and world to explore… Really there should be treasures and loads of things to explore in that space.

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French vocabulary: Job

French vocabulary post dedicated to words in one or another way related with job.

travail  [tʀavaj] (noun, m) – job/work

travailler [tʀavaje] (verb) – to work

boulot [bulo] (informal) – job/work

il prend son boulot à 7 heures du matin – he start toiling at 7 hours in the morning

Je suis au boulot – I am at work

Aller au travail – Go to work

avoir/cherche travail – to have/look for job

bureau [byʀo] – office

employé [ɑ̃plwaje] (noun, m/f) – employe

chef/directeur [diʀɛktœʀ, -ʀis] – boss/director

chef d’etat – head of state

entreprise [ɑ̃tʀəpʀiz] – enterprise

travail régulier – regular/permanent job

faire la navette – to commute

profession [pʀɔfesjɔ̃] – profession

gagner sa/la vie – to make a living

qu’est-ce que tu fais dans la vie? – What do you do for a living?

formation – education

stage [staʒ] – internship

CV – the same thing as in English bur pronounced differently [seve]

lettre de motivation – letter of application

entretien d’embauche – job interview

entretien [ɑ̃tʀətjɛ̃] – interview/conversation

embauche [ɑ̃boʃ] (v) – to hire

embauché (n) – hired person

RH (ressources humaines) – HR (human resources)

travailleur qualifié/ouvrier qualifié [uvʀije, -jɛʀ] – skilled worker

être en/au chômage – to be on the dole/to be unemployed

chômage [ʃomaʒ] – unemployment

cmômeur/chômeuse [ʃomœʀ, -øz] – unemployed

virer [viʀe] / licencier [lisɑ̃sje] – to sack/fire someone

un emploi à plein temps – full time job

un emploi à temps partiel – part time job

salaire [salɛʀ] – salary

heures supplémentaires – overtime

coupe – salary cut

grève [gʀɛv] – strike

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French learning tools – iTalki, Radio etc.

It has been a while since last time I wrote something on language learning. I had summer break with my weekend French classes and was about to continue them this Setpember, but institution offering them failed to offer me schedule which works for me this time so I’m not sure if and when I continue these classes.

To some extent because of that I decided to try something else as I didn’t want to stop my language learning for prolonged period of time. At some point YouTube filtered out to me an advert of iTalki (not surprising as I frequently watch language learning videos there). So I put on my to do list to try this service and finally did it. I was under impression that this service sort of new, but as I found out afterwards this is not the case. Anyhow I registered there and found an English speaking French tutor who lives in France and already had 4 short learning sessions. It is quite different experience by contrast with my previous learning schedule with 4 hours of group class during weekend once a week.  Now I have one to one 30 minutes sessions 4 times a week with native speaker. It is early days still, but I like the dynamics of this learning style. The fact that I have 30 minutes of time per lesson means that I really focused all the time, it is too short to be bored or tired in the process and I really like this (it means maximum efficiency). Next spending this little time 4 days in a row during the week feels better and seems to be more efficient instead of too long pauses which I had with more hours but once a week only.

I already started to work through beginner’s French text book and getting some useful guidance from my teacher. First of all previously I was not able pick good radio stations for casual listening of French speech, back in a day I was not able to pick up right stations, even after posting question about this on – “Radio or podcasts for French language learners?”. Now thanks to my teacher I’m solved this part for me, and this is how my TuneIn Radio list looks like now:

TuneIn French Radio

These French radio stations are really good – exactly what I was looking for – lots of speech and quality language/content (relatively the same as BBC for English learners). You may also see there East Rand Stereo which end up on my list after my visit to South Africa…

From other useful things I learnt from just four 30 minutes lessons I had so far there was revision of job related French vocabulary, I learnt mnemonic “CaReFuL” (this is to remember the fact that final consonants are usually not pronounced in French, except for c, r, f, l), and now I know that apart from liaison there is an elision, the latter was the thing I knew about without knowledge of its name. 🙂 Elision is the omission of the last vowel of a word when the next word begins with a vowel or an h (most commonly used with the definite articles le and la).

So I really pleased with my experience with iTalki and my new teacher so far and will continue to work on my French using 4 days a week schedule with 30 minutes lessons.

LITTLE UPDATE: After I showed this post to my former class mate (From french classes bien sûr) he shared with me another really useful resource for French language learners – Apprendre le Français avec TV5MONDE which seems to be really good for learners with resources and activities sorted by proficiency levels (from A1 to B2).

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Nelson Mandela on language

Being keen language learner and somewhat amateur linguist I just started quite interesting course on“Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages”. This course offered by University of Adelaide and delivered by Ghil’ad Zuckermann and Rob Amery. Course promises interesting overview of such things as linguicide (language killing) and glottophagy (language eating) and most importantly language reclamation as response to that (why and how). Course will use case studies of Hebrew and Kaurna languages. I just started with course materials but already found it very interesting starting from palimpsest as a metaphor for language and the quote of 1st South African president Nelson Mandela which I wanted to jot down here in this post. Here is the quote:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Nelson Mandela

This is proper way to look at the language which sometimes can be forgotten in the world dominated by some “dialect(s) with an army and navy”.

By the way Nelson Mandela learned Afrikaans during his time imprisoned in Robben Island. There is another his quote on language I found, this one from his book “Long Walk to Freedom” worth mentioning here:

“Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savor their songs.”

Nelson Mandela

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Giving your opinion in French

Some chunks of language are more useful than the others, in the same way as chunks (expressions, constructions) are more useful than isolated words for communication. At the end of the day after ability of asking and answering basic questions, next thing in terms of usage frequency is ability to give an opinion. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t urge you to run around and doing hard sell of your opinions. But if you think about the way we communicate then you realize that apart from basic Q&A we do a lot of this “opinion giving” either to share our opinion with others on our own accord or upon request, and we do this both in formal and informal communication. I think you would agree that we should not underestimate expressions for giving opinion and it is very useful to know them early in your language learning journey.

Here is a list of expressions you may use for giving your opinion in French.

In my opinion – à mon avis / Selon moi / D’apres moi / Pour moi etc.

As for me – Quant à moi

For my part – Pour ma part / Pour ma part je pense que…

I’m not sure that… – Je ne suis pas sûr que…

I think that – Je pense que / Je crois que / Je trouve que

As far as I’m concerned – En ce qui me concerne

It is obvious that… – C’est évident que…

What strikes me the most is… – C’est qui me frappe le plus c’est…

I maintain that – Je soutiens que

I have feeling that – J’ai le sentiment que

It is without doubt – C’est sans aucun doute

I took all these expressions from the video by Pascal whose channel on YouTube I may recommend to all learners of French. And you may also watch it to get an idea about how to pronounce all these expressions.


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Does a broader vocabulary allow you to think faster?

Answer by Marc Ettlinger:


Language has been called a Cognitive or Cultural Tool, a description that succinctly summarizes the research on the effects of language on cognition and the mind.\nThis research also answers your question with a definitive Yes: A broader vocabulary can allow you to think faster. Assigning a label, which is basically what a word is, to a concept allows it to be used more easily in your brain.

Consider the evidence:

One study looked at differences in counting ability and counting memory between speakers of English and speakers of Piraha. The Piraha language is notable for many things, one of which is its lack of any words for numbers or counting. What they found is that the Piraha can still recognize quantities – not surprising. However, their memory for quantities was worse than English speakers’.

Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language and cognitionMichael C. Frank,Daniel L. Everett, Evelina Fedorenko, Edward Gibson


Dan Everett with the Piraha

This is one of many cross-linguistic studies of how cognition is different between speakers of different languages. Another example is a comparison of English speakers and speakers of a language called Guugu Yimithirr (yes, real) which differs in its lexicalization of space. English speakers (e.g., me, possibly you) can use left and right with reference to the speaker itself (i.e., indexical). Guugu Yimithirr speakers use cardinal directions (North, South) even to speak about events on a small spatial scale.

This difference affects spatial cognition. Perhaps obviously, Guugu Yimithirr speakers are better at orienting themselves in open space since they must constantly be aware of where North is. Annecdotally, they are better than homing pigeons in orienting themselves to the compass absent any cues.

Conversely, English speakers are far better at a task that involves completing a maze and arranging shapes then turning around to face another direction and doing the same thing. Thus, the presence of indexical direction words (left, right) improves our ability to think about space indexically.

Language and SpaceStephen Levinson


Guugu Yimithirr kids pointing cardinally

Not only is the existence of a word important, but so too is how easily you can access it.

In another study, based on Daniel Oppenheimer’s work on processing fluency, the researchers looked at short term stock price fluctuations and its relationship to the stock ticker symbol (e.g., MSFT for Microsoft, FB for facebook). What they found is that stocks with symbols that were easier to say did better imediately after IPO.

Predicting short-term stock fluctuations by using processing fluencyAdam L. Alter and Daniel M. Oppenheimer

And riffing off that general idea, I worked with some colleagues looking at the difference in hard-to-pronounce and easy-to-pronounce plural words (e.g., keys as easy versus busses as hard). What we found is that the plurality of objects for easy-to-pronounce plurals was remembered better (Learning to remember by learning to speak by Marc Ettlinger on Cog Blog)

Learning to Remember by Learning to SpeakMarc Ettlinger, Jennifer Lanter and Craig VanPay


Children showing us what they know about one and many

One thing to note: most of what I’m talking about here is accuracy and you’re talking about speed. In cog sci, the two are often interchangable because of a well-known speed-accuracy trade-off , Wickelgren77

What may be surprising is how quickly these effects begin to happen. Recent research has shown that when learning a new word (in your native language), the new word begins to affect cognitive processing a quickly as a day later. This is particularly true if you’ve had a chance to sleep on it.

Learning and Consolidation of Novel Spoken WordsMatthew H. Davis, Anna Maria Di Betta, Mark J. E. Macdonald, and  M. Gareth Gaskell


The effects of sleep on the consolidation of novel words


Ultimately, your question serves as a useful companion to this other Quora question: Does an increased vocabulary change the way you think?

In answering, I suggested (Marc Ettlinger’s answer) that there is some effect of an increase vocabulary, but “change the way you think” is a bit of an extreme way to put it; vocabulary doesn’t serve as a straight jacket for what you can and cannot conceive of. Almost every invention was an idea before it was a word, for example.

But there is definitely an effect, as the answer to your question shows.\nSo, language can serve as a cognitive tool, improving your ability to think about the things language labels.


Does a broader vocabulary allow you to think faster?

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Why do Russians have “V” in their names?

This is an answer from and I think it could be interesting not only for those who don’t know Russian language or learning it.\n

Answer by Alice Tsymbarevich:


-ov(a), -ev(a) and -in(a) are suffixes denoting “of the”, “belonging to” (-ov does sound a bit like of, doesn’t it? Easy to remember!). They are mostly added to first names or professions, showing an etymology that the first bearer of this surname was:\n- Ivan/ov = of Ivan’s family (cf. English Johnson)\n- Petr/ov = of Pyotr’s family (cf. English/Scandinavian Peterson)\n- Kuznets/ov = of the smith’s family (cf. English Smith)\n- Tsar/yov = of Tsar’s family/circle/property (cf. English Kingsman)\n- Medved/ev = of the Bear (could be a nickname for some dude in the past that became a nickname for his entire family)\n- Mark/in = of Mark’s family (Len/in, Put/in, Solzhenits/yn – the same suffix)

-sk(i/aya) is the suffix that also shows belonging, popular in Western Russian and Polish surnames (Russian examples would be Vladimir/ski, Bel/ski). Surnames and adjectives combining those two suffixes are pretty frequent, e.g. Petr/ov/ski, Hvorost/ov/ski.

\nThe same goes for the names of Russian towns.\n\nWhy do Russians have “V” in their names?

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How many languages is it plausible for somebody to ultimately speak fluently or at least on a conversational level?

How many languages is it plausible for somebody to ultimately speak fluently or at least on a conversational level, and does speaking more than one closely related language help to leave room for more languages to learn relatively easily?

Answer by Judith Meyer:


We don’t know the upper limit. Historic polyglots are said to have spoken 65 or 58 languages. In the modern day and especially in terms of verifiable claims, I present to you:

Emanuele Marini speaks more than 30 languages on a conversational level and has proven it: at the Polyglot Conference in Budapest, he was accosted in 16 randomly-chosen languages (with less than an hour to prepare) and the result was posted on Youtube:


He is a shy, quiet guy who doesn’t have a language-learning product to sell you. He doesn’t even have his own blog or channel, but he sure impressed all the polyglots who attended the conference.

Relatedly, here’s a video of Richard Simcott (the guy on the left in the above video) speaking 16 languages more fluently; he has also studied 30+ languages:


Alexander Arguelles knows 38 languages – his focus is to read literature in them, but he also speaks most of them fluently.

Ioannis Ikonomou, an in-house translator for the European Commission, speaks 32 languages (…) – and that includes Chinese at such a high level he can do official translations of classified documents in Chinese.

The limit is really time rather than languages. All the people I mentioned above have jobs that allow them to spend all day speaking or writing various languages, so they are investing more than 8 hours a day in maintaining their languages or studying new ones. At that level of commitment, the sky is your limit.

I calculated my own average as well and it’s more like 2 hours a day. That’s enough to learn and maintain 12 languages – if you accept that for some I’m significantly better at reading than speaking, simply because it’s my focus and I don’t see much point in speaking Latin for example.

Regarding the question of closely-related languages, I personally find that they can be a hindrance as much as a help. When you learn too many closely-related ones, it becomes really hard to keep them straight in your head. That’s why I have lately only added non-European languages to my roster.

How many languages is it plausible for somebody to ultimately speak fluently or at least on a conversational level, and does speaking mor…

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