Category Archives: Language Learning

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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