Photo by Elias Gayles / CC 2.0
Students are anxious to learn it. Dictionaries try to define it. Media outlets develop extensive style guides for it. Governments try to control it.
What sounds like a new crack epidemic is, in fact, just a language: English.
We live in a world surrounded by many different types of English. You can enjoy the weird and wonderful offerings of Urban Dictionary, smile when an Indian businessman asks you to prepone your meeting, or watch The Wire and realise you need subtitles.
But ‘proper English’ is still a desirable commodity – and big business. So who gets to decide what it is?
Dead white males
In 1876, the Prussian Minister of Culture, Aadelbert Falk invited delegates from all the German-speaking territories to Berlin, to attend the fabulously named ‘Conference for the Establishment of Greater Unity in German Orthography’. German was reformed and standardised, a process that continues to this day, with the most recent changes in 1996.
France went one better and established the venerable Académie française in 1635, the final authority on all matters pertaining to the French language. It is still alive and kicking today – naturally, its 40 members are known as ‘Immortals’ – with an official dictionary that blows a big fat raspberry towards English, insisting on courriel instead of email.
So why isn’t there something like this for English?
The history of the English language is not that of ordered change or reform but rather that of a great staggering beast, lurching from continent to continent, shaped by accident, war and chance. Whether you blame geography, cultural difference (or perhaps indifference), or colonial expansion, the fact remains that there is no single institution to which English speakers worldwide can point to and say: this defines correct and proper English.
Leather and paper
Dictionaries have always been considered the traditional guardians of established language, and in the case of British English, none more so than the Oxford English Dictionary.
Its remarkably detailed system of quotations, many submitted by a man in a mental asylum, is the linguistic equivalent of fossil bedrock: heavy (over 60kg), tough to dig through, and richly rewarding if you have the tools and the patience.
At the same time on the other side of the Atlantic, Noah Webster was setting out to change the way Americans wrote and spoke. He was by all accounts severe, correct, and humourless, which may be why he wrote a dictionary – one that altered the course of American English forever. Maybe one of these days the US might even tacitly acknowledge his impact by making English an official language.
For over a century these dictionaries were unassailable fortresses. But the digital age is steadily eroding their foundations and challenging their authority.
When did you last use a dictionary? Was that before or after the last time you looked at a Microsoft Word document and saw a squiggly red line under a word? You probably used the autocorrect function, or perhaps you went to an online crowd-sourced dictionary like Wiktionary. It’s certainly faster than going to the shelf, but how much do you trust it?
Many meta-lexicographers (an excellent word to throw around at dinner parties) have long believed that users regard dictionaries as repositories of linguistic truth rather than indicators of actual usage. How we should speak, not how we really speak.
But if enough people use it, at what point does it become ‘proper English’?
David Foster Wallace claimed in 2001 that American language was in the midst of a Crisis of Authority. Today, English as a whole is in the midst of an ongoing Crisis of Identity.
It is simultaneously the language of a faded colonial superpower and its former colonies, the language of a fading superpower, the language of Hollywood, the lingua franca of business, science and the Internet, the default language of international travel, and probably a source of dread for many millions of young schoolchildren across the globe.
Size matters. The volume and speed of English flowing around the world, through phone lines and cables, at airports and in hotels, is greater and faster than at any previous point in human history. It’s hard to monitor and even harder to control. The grammar police, whose furious letters were once a staple of the Letters to the Editor pages, are being drowned in the flood.
The tech giants are key players in tracking and shaping this flow. Predictive text and spell checkers are already arguably more powerful than any dictionary.
Let’s not ignore another set of traditional gatekeepers, those who teach English, either as a first or a second language, and provide testing and accreditation. They have to be authorities: their business model relies upon a very specific definition of ‘proper English’. When Foster Wallace was teaching in American colleges, he often found it helpful to explain to bemused students that Standard Written English is simply a sub-dialect of English – no more or less correct than any other.
The idea that usage + time = acceptance can be seen as democratic or as a sign that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, depending on your perspective. The ‘rules’ of correct English – and the gatekeepers that guard them – are essentially reactive forces. Can they keep up with the speed at which the language is evolving?
For all its insistence on rules, what feels right in a language is often precisely that. We are constantly told that mastering a foreign language means developing ‘a feel’ for it.
“I know it when I see it”, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about pornography.
Perhaps we could say the same about ‘proper English’.
Why do most English native speakers find it easier to learn German than Polish? Why is Spanish not so hard if you can already speak French? And why are Turkish and Indonesian even more tricky for us?
The answer is obvious if you’ve ever heard of language families. These are groups of related languages that descend from a common base language. Six of the languages we offer are Germanic languages, namely English, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, whereby the Scandinavian languages are more similar still to each other. The second major language family on offer at Babbel are the Romance languages: Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian, for example. The languages within a language family have much in common. For example, time expressions sound similar in related languages. Moreover, close linguistic relationships are often also reflected in grammatical rules and concepts.
What implications does this have for learning a foreign language and the courses offered by Babbel?
We generally create new courses for target languages in German and then adapt them for the other six languages in which we offer courses. We ensure that translations and adaptations remain as close as possible to the target language. This means that as many related words and similar sentence structures as possible are used. It is commonly true that the more similar the language you already speak is to the language you are learning, the faster you will understand the rules and relationships. If you are learning a language that belongs to the same language family as your native tongue, you will often require fewer additional explanations than someone whose mother tongue belongs to a different language family.
How we tailor the Babbel courses to your native language
Here is an example: the distinction between the verbs “pouvoir ” and “savoir” is not as obvious to a German speaker learning French as to an Italian. This is because in Italian there is a correlation with “potere” and “sapere”, whereas both verbs translate to the same word in German, namely “können” (can / may). The explanations of when to use “pouvoir” (when something is allowed or possible) and when to use “savoir” (more “know, be acquainted with, be able”) are simply omitted in the French courses for Italian speakers. However, the individual verb forms “savoir ” and “pouvoir” must of course be practiced by all French learners alike.
Conversely, we sometimes need to add explanations to the translations of the version for German speakers for other languages. For example, German speakers are accustomed to inflecting verbs: “ich bin, du bist, er/sie/es ist…” (“I am, you are, he/she/it is…”). Thus we do not specifically point out that there is a separate verb form for each personal pronoun when introducing “être” (to be) in the French course for German speakers. Swedish speakers, who use the same verb form for all personal pronouns – “jag är, du är, han/hon/den/det är…”, are given an additional explanation as follows:
Can you see the difference? Although German and French do not belong to the same language family, they are very similar in this respect. If you want to make learning easy, try some of our “true friends” courses! There you will find words and phrases in your target language that are probably already familiar to you from your native language. You want to avoid pitfalls? Then take a look at the latest “false friends” courses for Polish. They will help you to avoid mixing up terms that sound similar to words in your native language but mean something completely different.
Have fun learning languages!
At the occasion of the International Francophonie Day which is celebrated everywhere around the world today, we conducted a little research about the French language and found out some astonishing facts which we wanted to share with you.
French is one of the very few languages spoken all over the world, ranked the sixth most widely spoken language after Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic. There are currently over 220 million French speakers worldwide.
In Europe, the largest populations of French speakers are essentially to be found in Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg. French is Europe’s second most widely spoken mother tongue, after German but ahead of English.
French is the second most widely learned foreign language in the world, together with English, it is taught as a foreign language in the education systems of most countries around the world. At Babbel it is one of the most demanded learning language among our learners, and it keeps growing, along with our French team, which will keep you posted with upcoming new French courses!
As today is International Mother Language Day, we wondered if it was possible to find the answer to a simple question – how many living languages are actually spoken around the world? Well, the most extensive source we could find is Ethnologue (published by SIL International). It maps the world’s languages and, as of 2013, includes 7,105 distinct languages. In 2009, by the way, only 6,912 living languages were listed. You can browse the maps on Ethnologue to see the different statistics for continents and regions. For example, there are only about 284 languages in Europe, whereas in Asia alone the website lists 2,304 separate languages.
Dialects are not to be confused with languages. A dialect is a variation of a language which differs from the so-called standard language in its pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. If you want to learn more about dialects (and the differences between dialects and accents) check out our interview with actor and dialect coach Robert Easton from 2008. Robert was Al Pacino’s personal “Cuban-accent-coach” in “Scarface”!
As with languages and dialects, there’s also a distinction between dialects and accents. Check out the speech accent archive which is a compilation of almost 1,000 speech samples from all around the world. With all speakers reading the same English text, you’re able to hear just how much accents vary, even within a single English-speaking country. Just browse the world map and click on the flag corresponding to the location where the text was recorded.
By the way, be proud of your accent, it can be a great aphrodisiac! CNN compiled a list of the 12 sexiest accents on the planet. And anyway, if you don’t like your own accent, Babbel‘s voice-recognition tool and many prononciation exercices might just be able to help you out.
Happiness can come at any time of year and not just on Valentine’s day: You get to know someone, you become curious about them and suddenly you can think about nothing else but this very special person. So, we thought we would take the opportunity on this special day to introduce you to our new special courses. In the course “Love letters” you can follow the story of two protagonists, who meet on a dating site. It used to be that such an occurrence would be met with raised eyebrows in one’s circle of friends, but now it has become fairly commonplace to meet someone online. You surely know a happy couple, who found each other in this way, or perhaps it’s even how you met your partner.
It can already be hard enough to put thoughts and feelings into words, in one’s own mother tongue, without offending one’s counterpart. “It was not only important for us that you practice reading and writing in this course, but also that you are following an exciting storyline. And love is after all an enthralling subject!”, explains our Senior Content Manager Katja Wilde. Over the course of the lessons you will discover if Mariana and David can put their initial difficulties behind them and find a way to each other.
At the same time you will expand your vocabulary of terms dealing with ideals of love and relationships. Here, you learn to express your feelings in a language other than your native language. Alongside vocabulary, the course also trains reading comprehension as well as writing texts freely and is intended for our learners who have achieved the level B1.
So then when it happens that you fall in love, you will be able to express what’s really on your mind.
Rather than David and Mariana, French learners will be following the story of Alain and Romy in the course “Lettres d’amour” as they get to know each other, and maybe also fall in love. You can find out here:
Cartas de amor
About the blogger: Crisi is an old hand at Babbel and has been on board since 2008. It’s not only professionally that she loves to meet people and to learn with them: She has already travelled to 47 countries and in addition to souvenirs she also always brings home a smattering of local language with her. This is how to greet someone in Luganda, the other official language in Uganda alongside English: “Ki kati!”.
Whether you live in a rich country or a poor one, in a tiny village or amidst the bustle of a mega-city: It doesn’t take much to open up new perspectives for yourself – for example access to the Internet and a will to learn.
I had this experience once again last year in Uganda. In February, I travelled to Uganda for a month and met with Edmund Page from the Xavier Project in the capital, Kampala. This initiative and its sister project YARID (Young African Refugees for Integral Development) have made it their mission to provide access to education for the numerous refugees in the city.
Most refugees trying to build a new existence for themselves in peaceful Uganda come from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has seen bloody conflicts flare up repeatedly over the past twenty years. So far, over five million people have been killed in the war for gold, diamonds and mineral resources and an estimated one to two million are currently displaced, of whom alone about 50,000 are living in Kampala. They lack everything, including accommodation, food and medical care. Even if they were expelled by the rebels as students, traders, mothers, nurses or teachers, they are not welcomed in Uganda with open arms as refugees speaking a different language. They can communicate very little, except with other people in the same circumstances, because in the Congo, alongside the local languages mostly French is spoken. In Uganda, however, it is mainly English that is spoken. So if you want to find work in Kampala and take part in public life, you need good English skills!
At YARID some of the refugees have the possibility to take part in an English course for free. Often it takes a lot of effort for them to be able to concentrate on learning, since beginner and advanced pupils are taught together, often about 70 people all at the same time in a small room. One of the volunteers is Robert, who fled the Congo in 2008 and now passes on the language skills he obtained to those that have followed him.
For an hour I helped Robert to teach the mostly adult students. It was really fun, because they were extremely enthusiastic! Although the teaching time was short, I was quite worn out because I was having to fight against the noise levels in the small corrugated iron hut. I also found it a real shame not to be able to address the individual course participants on their various learning levels – some were visibly bored, while others had a hard time to keep up with the lesson, in which mostly whole sentences were written up on the blackboard and repeated loudly in chorus. Especially the women on the course are very shy and don’t dare to come forward and to ask questions if they don’t understand something.
After my host Edmund showed me the computer room of the Xavier Project, I came up with the idea of using Babbel – English courses on the computer would solve all these problems!
At first, however, it was only a half success: Out of the twelve outdated machines only two worked well enough and the Internet connection was painfully slow. I put my own laptop alongside them and always put two or three people on one computer. Most of them had never used a computer before and first of all needed to familiarise themselves with how you click with the mouse or which letter is to be found where on the keyboard. But once they arrived on the Babbel website, everything worked wonderfully: Lesson after lesson vocabulary was spoken out loud and typed in – long into the evening, until the room had to be closed.
In the days that followed I repeatedly held a “Ladies’ Day” and explicitly invited women from the English class in the afternoon to the computer room, including Fatou, who, at 60, is one of the older students. They didn’t let their initial struggles with the keyboard discourage them, and before long were posting requests on their Facebook accounts to all “moms” to do likewise and learn English in this way. To see how much fun Fatou and the other women had on the computer has motivated me to become an advocate for reliable access for refugees to Babbel courses.
Back in Berlin I launched a fundraising campaign within Babbel and my circle of friends, which was very successful. So, in November, I was able to return to Uganda with some laptops, speakers, and some money for a better Internet connection. This time I showed Alex, the new employee of the Xavier Project, how to set up Babbel accounts, redeem donated access codes and select courses that match one’s own ability level. From this month on, Alex will be conducting regular computer courses, where he shows his participants, amongst other things, how to use Babbel.
So the refugees in the project will be able to learn English with their own account, whenever they have time, and at the same time practise using a computer, which will give them an advantage when looking for a job. In so doing, each person can take the time that he or she needs to learn spoken and written English according to their own ability.
I am very pleased that the Congolese refugees in Kampala have a way to improve their situation with relatively little effort and I hope that many of them will soon become a part of Ugandan society. Often it only takes a small initiative, to produce something that makes the world much bigger. Or, as they say in Uganda in their down-to-earth way: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The next best time is now.”
With our Babbel birthday/ Christmas party last Friday, the weekend was slightly shorter for our 110 Babbel colleagues than usual. We had lots of fun celebrating Babbel’s six birthday and its numerous milestones achieved so far. In this video you can see what some colleagues of our team remember as a personal highlight of 2013 and they wish Babbel for the future!
by Markus Witte (Co-founder)
Hard to believe: the sixth year since we went online with Babbel is here. We are once again happy and proud to confirm that it was our most successful one yet. So much has happened in this last year: there was a financing round of over 10 million US Dollars, 45 great new people joined the Babbel team, including several experienced managers. In addition a new office, two new learning languages (Norwegian and Danish), new apps for two platforms (iOS and Android) – and a new logo! But above all millions of new users, for whom this is all happening.
What started with four founders in a small office in a cramped old apartment in Berlin-Kreuzberg, has grown into a buzzing hive of over 100 full-time employees. And there are also, believe it or not, more than 150 authors, pedagogues, editors, translators, narrators and supporters who work freelance while maintaining other professions such as teachers, musicians and actors. Added together that is a huge number of people, who are all creating Babbel together.
We feel that this is an excellent reason to celebrate. And since January is from the outset for us the liveliest month (through your and our many good intentions), we have even delayed Christmas somewhat. So, on Friday we will be rocking around the Christmas tree. And then it continues with the seventh year, for which we again have a lot planned. Some things shall be a surprise, and other things will go live before we discuss them. However the following are certain: there will be Russian, our first learning language that does not use the Latin alphabet. And we intend to whip the Review Manager into shape. And also learn a lot of new things ourselves. And continue to have lots of fun. And create.
English for work, Spanish for the next holiday or Italian for the nice neighbour from across the road: For all those who have resolved to achieve a lot in 2014, there is now something new from Babbel. Just in time for the new year, we have released our new app for Android devices.
Mobile learning on the go is currently a central theme for us. The comprehensive apps for iOS started it all for us a few months ago. Since then many of you have been waiting for an app that is more than a simple vocabulary trainer for your Android phone or tablet. And here it is so now also Android users can learn languages while they travel. All the popular courses from Babbel are finally available in mobile format, and your learning progress is automatically synchronised between all devices and the Web.
Optically the app matches the new uniform look of Babbel with its clear lines. In addition to the new logo, it presents the new icon symbol for the mobile user interface a large “B” with a plus in front of it no frills, just concentrating on the essentials. This is Babbel 2014!
Also new is the fact that there is no longer a separate app for each learning language: For the first time now all languages are combined in one app. So you can switch freely between languages and try out the first lesson of each course for free. Babbel customers automatically have full access to all courses in their purchased language(s).
So go ahead and download it, log in and discover and maybe the good intentions will also work out!
Click here to go to the new app in the Google Play Store
Wired, the US magazine on emerging technologies, published an article from Markus Witte, CEO and co-founder, on the the revolution taking place in private learning. Read it here:
The education system is changing. Established teaching methodologies are reaching their limits in most developed countries. New requirements are needed. In the search for solutions, technology is playing an increasingly prominent role — allowing for new approaches such as the “inverted classroom,” Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) and “mobile learning”. We keep hearing of an “education revolution” — one in which technology will bring upon a radical transformation in schools and universities.
There are certainly great hopes for a change to the better but recent news are somewhat discouraging. Some even spoke of a “backlash” after Udacity, one of the most ambitious projects to revolutionize higher education, changed course towards corporate customers. Other, less well-known initiatives are also struggling: I recently spoke on a panel about “the future of education” together with a manager from a large publishing house that develops new digital products for schools and a CEO of a startup that built an adaptive software tool for maths education. Both discussed ways to persuade governments, ministries and committees to use their newest tools. But even to run a test involves a sales cycle of way more than a year — not exactly the pace of a revolution.
Education Will Change With the Way We Learn
Real changes and disruptions usually come “from below”: through the individual decisions of the many rather than through sweeping decrees from the government. From the car to the internet to the tablet to the iPhone — that is, in all the great upheavals that new technologies have created in our lifestyle, culture, and working environment — it has been the many individuals that have decided to adopt changes, not the politicians.
The good news is that there is indeed a revolution going on. But it is not about education systems. It is about learning. It is people taking learning into their own hands. A new trend is initiated by a whole new breed of learning technology start-ups that set out to make learning easier for everybody. Their goal is not to alter elementary education or university teaching. They do not deal with governments; their customers are not countries and states. They are focused solely on their users — people who want to learn something. And this is a powerful force to harness.
Learning tools like Babbel are directly tailored to the user; there are no institutions in between. People decide for themselves whether or not the product helps them toward their goals and is worth their money. It’s a much smaller-scale enterprise than a nationwide introduction of new software for schools or the building of an online university.
These upheavals are also taking place in the learning sphere but outside of the established educational systems. Students are currently not the most active in this change process. As a rule, they study for their degrees and final exams with a goal clearly in mind. Formal education is more about passing a French exam than about being able to actually talk to a French person. This is because a degree or certificate is often equally valuable as the actual knowledge or skills.
The Learning Revolution is Taking Place at Home
More and more people are using new technologies for self teaching. Let’s look at language learning for example. Over 100 million people all over the world are learning languages online today (1) — and only a fraction of them would ever have considered using traditional learning materials or courses to do so. As a part of my research, I have personally talked to some of them: It would never have occurred to the nurse in Louisville to buy a textbook or an expensive CD to learn a language — but now, she’s studying German on her tablet after her shift. The same holds true for the retiree in southern France who started to learn English on his laptop at the age of 70, or for the London banker riding home on the tube practicing Spanish on the latest iPhone. This group of people has decided to self teach because they came across learning tools of a new generation.
Technology is not really generating new demand but makes more things possible. E-mail, cameras in smartphones and Wikipedia are just a few examples of how this works. All these examples “replace” older technologies — and yet they open up completely new spaces.
The choices are manifold and changing at a breathtaking pace. In language learning alone, virtual classrooms, tutoring via video chat, learning communities with user-generated content, crowd-sourced translation services, and interactive services for self-learning offer a dizzying array of choices. Established standards and clear user expectations are nonexistent. Only one thing is for sure — the interest is enormous and the popularity of the internet and smartphone apps for learning is growing by leaps and bounds.
Language learning is only a part of a trend toward self-learning. Other offerings, from computer programming to brain training are popping up like daisies. No matter what the latitude or longitude, private individuals are deciding to learn on their own accord.
This revolution is taking place in living rooms and cafés, on public transport and in offices. It is carried out by people who decide to take their learning into their own hands — and they are finding ever more and better technology-based products to help them.
In the end, the education revolution might be a real, old-fashioned revolution: one that comes from below, takes unforeseen routes and hits the centers late in the process. It might already be in full swing and it might be way more powerful than it seems when we only look at the established education systems.
(1) a guess based on the compound user numbers of Babbel, Busuu, LiveMocha, duolingo = 140M alone. 40% of them probably use more than one platform (= 84M unique users) at least 20M more unique users will use smaller platforms
Read more about Markus Witte and the founding team here.