The Babbel Blog

Language & Learning

Guarding the gates of English

Posted on April 24, 2014 by

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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’?

Like, literally

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’.

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Why your native language determines how you learn a foreign language

Posted on April 3, 2014 by

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.

linguistic-families

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.

savoir vs pouvoir

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:

 Swedish localization

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!

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Languages, Dialects and accents – which one is yours?

Posted on February 21, 2014 by

As today is International Mother Language Day, we wondered if it was possible to find the answer to a Bildschirmfoto 2014-02-20 um 17.21.35simple 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.

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The Learning Revolution: It’s Not About Education

Posted on January 8, 2014 by

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.

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Happy European Day of Languages!

Posted on September 26, 2013 by

Read this post in German (Deutsch)

Today is the 12th European Day of Languages. The action goes back to an initiative of the Council of Europe and celebrates the 24 official languages ​​and over 60 language communities existing in the European Union.

That English is the most widely spoken foreign language in the EU, is no longer a secret. What other mother tongues ​​and foreign languages ​​are predominantly spoken in the EU, and what benefits they entail, is shown here. Feel free to share the love, just link back to the original post!

 

 

 

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Of public viewings, wellness and shootings

Posted on May 31, 2013 by

Read this post in German (Deutsch)

British kids usually learn French, Spanish or German at school. I loved learning German. So much so that I studied German to A-Level and then at university. I was finally able to read Schiller, Goethe and Brecht in the authors’ own words. So imagine my disappointment when I found the language actually spoken in Germany was somewhat… familiar. Double Whopper mit leckerem Bacon und Cheddar Cheese, bitte!

And yet something was not quite right. I kind of knew what was meant with these ‘Denglish’ words, so beloved of middle management and Detlef D! Soost. Yet their German equivalents seemed easier to understand. But why? It turns out such words are almost always pseudo-anglicisms, or Scheinanglizismen.

Put simply: they are bad translations. All Germans know Handy does not mean mobile phone in English (although fewer know that handy means praktisch).  But did you know that if you ordered ‘country potatoes’ to go with said Double Whopper in the UK you would be met with a blank look? Because we call them potato wedges (Kartoffelecken). My jaw dropped (mir ist der Kiefer heruntergeklappt) when an English-speaking friend invited me to watch the football at a ‘public viewing’, because I assumed someone had died and he had no shame (public viewing = die Ausstellung eines aufgebahrten Leichnams).

It seems these ‘adopted’ words almost always have a different meaning in English. So let me help you out here. At the airshow do not, for example, declare your admiration for the aeroplane that just did a ‘looping’ (it did a loop-the-loop). Neither should you ask the IT guy to set up the ‘beamer’ for your PowerPoint presentation (ask for a projector), or invite someone to go on a ‘wellness’ weekend (call it a spa weekend). English speakers may chuckle (kichern) at signs in Germany for the ‘drive-in’ restaurant (our restaurants get driven through: drive-through restaurant).

People who claim to have worn a ‘smoking’ to a glitzy event (smoking = das Rauchen; der Smoking = tux, tuxedo or dinner jacket) and Kate Moss, I assure you, has never taken part in a ‘shooting’ or the police would probably have been involved (shooting = eine Schießerei); it is more likely she took part in a photo shoot. English speakers might well go to a gym but they would never go to a ‘fitness studio’. And remember, if you ask a DJ at a wedding party to play some ‘evergreens’, he will either think you are talking about Christmas trees (evergreen = immergrüne Pflanze) or a naff (schlecht br. umgs.) song by Westlife. Try asking for some golden oldies instead. On the subject of oldies: don’t ask to take the oldtimer for a spin (durch die Gegend fahren) because in English an old-timer means alter Hase. He would probably object. You might, however, suggest taking the classic, vintage or heritage car for a drive.

But do not suppose that only Germans make the faux-pas of borrowing words incorrectly. We Brits and our American cousins will try ordering a ‘Stein’ of beer at the Oktoberfest (when we mean Maßkrug) or a glass of ‘Hock’ if we would like a glass of wine from Hochheim am Main. You might even hear the air force talking about ‘strafing’ the enemy (when they mean aus der Luft unter Beschuss nehmen). So it’s all swings and roundabouts.

Some typical German mistakes in English are examined in the interactive English course here. Have a go and good luck!

Robert Compton has lived in Berlin since 2009 and works as a translator and proofreader.

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Mass tourism? No, thanks! Babbel’s tips for an off-the-beaten-path summer vacation in Europe

Posted on April 10, 2013 by

Read this post in German (Deutsch), French (Français), Spanish (Español)

Overcrowded resort beaches, bad food in hectic restaurants and seemingly “exotic” holiday destinations where the only native language is that of retired tourist groups… sound familiar? Welcome to mass tourism. Those undeterred by scenarios such as these will spend happy holiday on popular islands such as Mallorca or Sardinia or in cities such as Nice and Barcelona.

But not so fast: There are still a few little spots in Europe that – at least for the moment – haven’t yet been spoiled by mass tourism. You only have to look a little harder…

 

Vieux Boucau: This small village on the French Atlantic coast is familiar to but a few surfers and camping enthusiasts. White sand beaches bordered by vast dunes stretch for miles, while pine forests in the background give campers shade. Those with little taste for the hustle and bustle of nearby Biarritz get their money’s worth in this charming village, enjoying beautiful sunsets on the dunes.

 

 

Molise: Far from the flow of traffic, mountains, vineyards and stone villages are the backdrop to this idyllic region of Italy. 200 kilometers east of Rome, among beech forests, fields of wild herbs and clear mountain lakes, travelers encounter a special kind of holiday. The small spa town Termali is the gateway to the region. However lovers of unspoiled beaches will have made a true find with Petacciato.

 

 


Cuesta Maneli
: The Costa de la Luz, Spain’s Atlantic coast in the gulf of Cádiz, hosts cavorting crowds of tourists from countries all over the world. But even here there’s an alternative: The insider tip is Cuesta Maneli. On the southwestern edge of the Doñana National park there is a kilometer-long, unspoiled sandy beach. Those looking to while away there can reach the remote coastal strip via a 1200 meter-long boardwalk through wild dunes.

 

 

 

 

 

Moose, red wooden houses and Pippi Longstocking: To date, most people associate Sweden with unspoiled, idyllic nature for the whole family. But even here it can be hard to find places unaffected by mass tourism. One of these areas is the province of Hälsingland. In a landscape of stony mountains, in the borderlands between northern and southern Sweden, nature lovers can immerse themselves in the wilderness. Marked paths and trails lead the way through dense forests full of lynx, bears, moose and wolves, along with countless lakes for swimming and fishing.

 

If you want to get your language skills in shape for vacation, Babbel.com is the place. You’ll find travel vocabulary for French, Spanish, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Swedish, German, Dutch, Indonesian, Polish, Turkish and English and as iOS, Android and Windows Phone 8 apps.

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Babbel Acquires San Francisco Based PlaySay

Posted on March 21, 2013 by

Babbel CEO and co-founder Markus Witte is giving some insights into the motivations in acquiring PlaySay. Founded by Ryan Meinzer in 2008 PlaySay is ‘a language learning experience’, offering a unique, visionary and fun way to learn Spanish and English. The 2011 TechCrunch Disrupt finalist PlaySay Inc., which has its headquarters in San Francisco, has seen its app ranked #1 in the education category of the iTunes store in ten countries, including the USA.

 

We already saw several great news in the first few months of 2013: Babbel apps for new platforms, coming along with important awards and even a presentation of our Polish vocabulary trainer to German chancellor Angela Merkel and Poland’s prime minister Donald Tusk.

Now we’re taking a step to increase our presence in the United States by acquiring the the language learning firm PlaySay. A very unusual step — most San Francisco start-ups are not bought by a German start-up.

In our case, we feel that combining PlaySay and Babbel makes a lot of sense. We’ve watched the success of PlaySay since we saw their pitch at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco back in 2011. Since then, PlaySay was mentioned by some major newspapers such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and others and had its app as a #1 in the education category of the US App store and 10 other countries.

The current PlaySay app will be continued for the time being. All users are invited to join Babbel as well to combine both learning experiences. The product teams are in discussions of providing an integrated product.

The acquisition of PlaySay is opening a number of opportunities in the US market, especially since we have Ryan Meinzer, the PlaySay CEO, by our side as an advisor and supporter. Babbel’s CTO Thomas Holl and I will be in San Francisco with Ryan in early April to lay the foundations of our presence in California.

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Neue Apps für Windows Phone 8

Posted on March 15, 2013 by

Im Oktober 2012 hatten wir elf Babbel-Apps für Windows 8 Tablet und PC veröffentlicht, die seither mehr als 390.000 Mal installiert wurden. Damals hofften wir auf eine Fortsetzung der angenehmen Zusammenarbeit mit Microsoft, wussten aber noch nicht, ob und wie es konkret weitergehen würde. Denn alles steht und fällt mit der Resonanz der Anwender. Umso größer die Freude über den Erfolg der App, der uns veranlasste, die für Windows Phone 8 optimierte Version nachzulegen – die wir jetzt, sehr angemessen im Rahmen der CeBIT, erstmalig präsentieren konnten.

Es wird die Kanzlerin bestimmt freuen, das Lernen der polnischen Sprache zukünftig auch auf ihrem Windows Phone 8 fortsetzen zu können.

Die neuen Windows Phone 8 Apps gibt es momentan in elf Babbel-Sprachen im Windows Phone Store.

Hier schon mal ein paar visuelle Eindrücke der schicken App:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Meet the Team: Gregory

Posted on March 1, 2013 by

Gregory, one of our dearest colleagues and favourite Frenchmen, is from Annecy, a picturesque town in the French Alps. He is the face of French support. When he isn’t supporting, he can be found playing with mobile devices and spreading good vibes.

Lac d’Annecy

What are you doing at Babbel?

I started in May 2011 as a freelancer in support, and since March 2012 I have been working here full-time. I get to do more and more technical support, including testing and experimenting with new products, like new apps for iPhone, iPad, Android devices and also Windows 8 Tablets. Last but not least, I also translate into French, and do some recordings for YouTube videos.

Which languages do you use on a daily basis?

At Babbel I mainly use English and German since those are our working languages. Sometimes also French. And German I’m trying to push more and more. I feel most comfortable, of course, in my mother tongue. It’s just comforting to be able to say what you mean. La langue suit la pensée – only then the language follows your thoughts.

Can you tell us a little about your experience of learning German in Berlin?

When I first got here I could only speak a few words of German, could barely understand what was being said, and had problems explaining myself. Sure enough, I mostly got to know other French people, and in my work life as well. But the bosses were German and Swiss, and they forced – or let’s say encouraged – us to speak German. And ever since I’ve been with Babbel my German has improved considerably.

In the first few months I tried out language tandems a lot, which means I met German people who wanted to learn French. From what I experienced the results weren’t very successful, however, since many people had problems imagining how a foreign person learns German. Vice versa, a Frenchman is likely to have a hard time explaining exceptions in French grammar.

What advice can you give to language learners?

Surround yourself with people. I find it very helpful if others correct me. Also, I like watching German TV or films in German.

Is there a first German word or expression that particularly stuck to your mind?

It’s sort of strange, but yes. I was 14, 15 years old, and we read a German text at school. One sentence went like “Ich mache Yoga” (I do yoga), and the whole class was on the floor laughing. Nothing special about this sentence, but the pronunciation just cracked us up!

Which (other) languages would you like to know?

Russian, Spanish and Brasilian Portuguese.

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