Speaking in Whistles: The Whistled Language of Oaxaca, Mexico

Whistled language is a rare form of communication that can be mostly found in locations with isolating features such as scattered settlements or mountainous terrain. This documentary above shows how Dr. Mark Sicoli, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, conducts field studies among speakers of a Chinantec language, who live in the mountainous region of northern Oaxaca in Mexico. The Summer Institute of Linguistics in Mexico has recorded and transcribed a whistled conversation in Sochiapam Chinantec between two men in different fields. The result can be seen and heard here.

The most thoroughly-researched whistled language however is Silbo Gomero, the language of the island of La Gomera (Canary Islands). In 2009, it was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The UNESCO website has a good description of this whistled language with photos and a video. Having almost died out, the language is now taught once more in schools.

Note: This post first appeared on our site back in 2013.

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By profession, Matthias Rascher teaches English and History at a High School in northern Bavaria, Germany. In his free time he scours the web for good links and posts the best finds on Twitter.

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What Are the Most Effective Strategies for Learning a Foreign Language?: Six TED Talks Provide the Answers

Earlier this week we featured the Foreign Service Institute's list of languages ranked by how long they take to learn. Now that you have a sense of the relative life investment required to learn the tongue or tongues of your choice, how about a few words of advice on how to start? Or perhaps we'd do better, before the how, to consider the why. "A lot of us start with the wrong motivation to learn a language," says Benny Lewis in his TED Talk "Hacking Language Learning." Those motivations include "just to pass an exam, to improve our career prospects, or in my case for superficial reasons, to impress people."

Real language learning, on the other hand, comes from passion for a language, for "the literature and the movies and being able to read in the language, and of course, to use it with people." But Lewis, who now brands himself as "The Irish Polyglot," says he got a late start on language-learning, convinced up until his early twenties that he simply couldn't do it.




He cites five flimsy defenses he once used, and so many others still do, for their monolingualism: lack of a "language gene or talent," being "too old to learn a second language," not having the resources to "travel to the country right now," and not wanting to "frustrate native speakers" by using the language before attaining fluency.

None of these, however, seem to have occurred to Tim Doner, who went viral at sixteen years with a video wherein he spoke twenty languages that he taught himself. He discusses that experience, and the fascinations and techniques that got him to that point and now well past it, in his talk "Breaking the Language Barrier." At first put off by the drudgery of French classes in school, he only began to grasp the nature of language itself, as a kind of system breakable into masterable rules, when he began studying Latin.

Wanting to understand more about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Doner decided to find his way into the subject through Hebrew, and specifically through rap music recorded in it. Using language study as a means of dealing with his insomnia, he discovered techniques to expand into other linguistic realms, such as the method of loci (i.e., remembering words by associating them with places), learning vocabulary in batches of similar sounds rather than similar meanings, and seeking out the foreign-language learners and speakers all around him — a relatively easy task for a New Yorker like Doner, but applicable nearly everywhere.

In "How to Learn Any Language in Six Months," Chris Lonsdale delivers, and with a passion bordering on fury, a set of useful principles like "Focus on language content that is relevant to you," "Use your new language as a tool to communicate from day one," "When you first understand the message, you will unconsciously acquire the language." This resonates with the advice offered by the much more laid-back Sid Efromovich in "Five Techniques to Speak any Language," including an encouragement to "get things wrong and make mistakes," a suggestion to "find a stickler" to help you identify and correct those mistakes, and a strategy for overcoming the pronunciation-hindering limitations of the "database" of sounds long established in your brain by your native language.

Your native language, in fact, will play the role of your most aggressive and persistent enemy in the struggle to learn a foreign one — especially if your native language is as widely used, to one degree or another, as English. And so Scott Young and Vat Jaiswal, in their talk "One Simple Method to Learn Any Language," propose an absolute "no-English rule." You can get results using it with a conversation partner in your homeland, while traveling for the purpose of language-learning, and especially if you've relocated to another country permanently.

With the rule in place, you'll avoid the sorry fate of one fellow Young and Jaiswal know, "an American businessman who went to Korea, married a Korean women, had children in Korea, lived in Korea for twenty years, and still couldn't have a decent conversation in Korean." As an American living in Korea myself, I had to laugh at that: I could name at least three dozen long-term Western expatriates I've met in that very same situation. In my case, I spent a few years developing self-study habits for Korean and a couple other languages while still in America, and so didn't have to implement them on the fly after moving here.

Even so, I still must constantly refine my language-learning strategy, incorporating routines like those laid out by English polyglot Matthew Youlden in "How to Speak any Language Easily": seeking out exploitable similarities between the languages I know and the ones I want to know better, say, or finding sources of constant "passive" linguistic input. Personally, I like to listen to podcasts not just in foreign languages, but that teach one foreign language through another. And just as English-learners get good listening practice out of TED Talks like these, I seek them out in other languages: Korean, Japanese, Spanish, or wherever good old linguistic passion leads me next.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Map Showing How Much Time It Takes to Learn Foreign Languages: From Easiest to Hardest

Do you want to speak more languages? Sure, as Sally Struthers used to say so often, we all do. But the requirements of attaining proficiency in any foreign tongue, no doubt unlike those correspondence courses pitched by that All in the Family star turned daytime TV icon, can seem frustratingly demanding and unclear. But thanks to the research efforts of the Foreign Service Institute, the center of foreign-language training for the United States government for the past 70 years, you can get a sense of how much time it takes, as a native or native-level English speaker, to master any of a host of languages spoken all across the world.

The map above visualizes the languages of Europe (at least those deemed diplomatically important enough to be taught at the FSI), coloring them according the average time commitment they require of an English speaker. In pink, we have the English-speaking countries. The red countries speak Category I languages, those most closely related to English and thus learnable in 575 to 600 hours of study: the traditional high-school foreign languages of Spanish and French, for instance, or the less commonly taught but just about as easily learnable Portuguese and Italian. If you'd like a little more challenge, why not try your hand at German, whose 750 hours of study puts it in Category II — quite literally, a category of its own?




In total, the FSI ranks languages into six categories of difficulty, including English's Category 0. The higher up the scale you go, the less recognizable the languages might look to an English-speaking monoglot. Category III contains no European languages at all (though it does contain Indonesian, widely regarded as one of the objectively easiest languages to learn). Category IV offers a huge variety of languages from Amharic to Czech to Nepali to Tagalog, each demanding 44 weeks (or 1100 hours) of study. Then, at the very summit of the linguistic mountain, we find the switched-up grammar, highly unfamiliar scripts, and potentially mystifying cultural assumptions of Category V, "languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers."

To that most formidable group belong Arabic, Chinese both Mandarin and Cantonese, Korean, and — this with an asterisk meaning "usually more difficult than other languages in the same category" — Japanese. Now if, like me, you consider studying foreign languages one of your main pursuits, you know that possessing a genuine interest in a language — in its mechanics, in its ongoing evolution, in the cultures that created it and the cultures it in turn creates — can do wonders to get you through even the most aggravating difficulties on the long journey to commanding it. Then again, I'm also a native English speaker who chose to move to Korea, where I study not just the Category-V Korean but the Category-V* Japanese through Korean; you might want to take with a grain of salt the words, in any language, of so obvious a masochist.

You'll find the full Foreign Service Institute language difficulty ranking list below. No matter which category you'd like to take on, you can get a start at our Free Foreign Language Lessons collection, many of whose materials come produced by the FSI itself.

Category I: 23-24 weeks (575-600 hours)
Languages closely related to English
Afrikaans
Danish
Dutch
French
Italian
Norwegian
Portuguese
Romanian
Spanish
Swedish
Category II: 30 weeks (750 hours)
Languages similar to English
German
Category III: 36 weeks (900 hours)
Languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
Indonesian
Malaysian
Swahili
Category IV: 44 weeks (1100 hours)
Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
Albanian
Amharic
Armenian
Azerbaijani
Bengali
Bosnian
Bulgarian
Burmese
Croatian
Czech
*Estonian
*Finnish
*Georgian
Greek
Hebrew
Hindi
*Hungarian
Icelandic
Khmer
Lao
Latvian
Lithuanian
Macedonian
*Mongolian
Nepali
Pashto
Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik)
Polish
Russian
Serbian
Sinhala
Slovak
Slovenian
Tagalog
*Thai
Turkish
Ukrainian
Urdu
Uzbek
*Vietnamese
Xhosa
Zulu
Category V: 88 weeks (2200 hours)
Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers
Arabic
Cantonese (Chinese)
Mandarin (Chinese)
*Japanese
Korean
* Usually more difficult than other languages in the same category.

via Big Think

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Dictionary of the Oldest Written Language–It Took 90 Years to Complete, and It’s Now Free Online

It took 90 years to complete. But, in 2011, scholars at the University of Chicago finally published a 21-volume dictionary of Akkadian, the language used in ancient Mesopotamia. Unspoken for 2,000 years, Akkadian was preserved on clay tablets and in stone inscriptions until scholars deciphered it during the last two centuries.

In the past, we've published audio that lets you hear the reconstructed sounds of Akkadian (Hear The Epic of Gilgamesh Read in the Original Akkadian and Enjoy the Sounds of Mesopotamia). Now, should you wish, you can download download PDFs of U. Chicago's Akkadian dictionary for free. All 21 volumes would cost well over $1,000 if purchased in hard copy. But the PDFs, they won't run you a dime.

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A Lecture About the History of the Scots Language … in Scots: How Much Can You Comprehend?

Dauvit Horsbroch has served as the Language and Information Officer of the Scots Language Centre since 2007, and has spent considerable time living in North East Scotland. Above, watch him give a 19-minute lecture on the history of the Scots language ... in Scots. For the first 20 seconds, you might think, no sweat, I can hang with it. Then suddenly your comprehensions fades out, only to return moments later, before disappearing again. And on it goes.

As you listen, you can entertain the long-simmering debate: Is Scots a distant dialect of English? Or is it its own distinct Germanic language? Writes Slate: "Both modern English and Scots descended from Old English in the 1100s, and developed separately for hundreds of years. When Scotland and England joined to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, Scots was widely regarded as its own language, distinct from English. It is still one of Scotland's three official languages (the other two are English and Scottish Gaelic), but because it is mostly mutually intelligible with English, it's sometimes regarded as a dialect of English or slang." If you'd like to see Scots written, as opposed to just spoken, spend time over at the Wikipedia Scots page.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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The Theater Dictionary: A Free Video Guide to Theatre Lingo

It's 11 o'clock. Do you know where your showstoppers are? Or, more to the point, do you know why a musical-comedy writing team seeks to orient its showstopping number at “eleven o’clock”?

The Theater Development Fund’s Theatre Dictionary is an ongoing attempt to define and document theater terms for both the rabble and any budding practitioners who’ve yet to master the lingo.




Each term is accompanied by a loopy slapdash skit. Not all of the performers exhibit the pedigree Veronica J. Kuehn and Nick Kohn of Avenue Q bring to “Eleven O'Clock Number,” above, but casting administrators and ticket booth reps in starring roles lend a homey egalitarianism, such as when students from the Yale School of Drama’s Department of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism are given free license to explore the origins of “vom.”

(This loosey goosey approach also allows for uncredited appearances by other theatrical tropes---the marathon rehearsals where popcorn constitutes lunch and one actor repeatedly complains that his work has been insufficiently acknowledged.)

A “What Does This Word Mean” tab for each term anchors the video silliness, providing historical and anecdotal context. It’s in keeping with the Dictionary’s greater goal of bringing theater to the people, letting everyone play with the toys.

Some of the definitions are practical shorthand…

Others are couched in longtime, possibly archaic theater lore…

I’d exercise caution with some of this lingo. Even though many of these terms are born of practicality, overusing them may cause others to view you as the most obnoxious of self-declared Triple Threats, the kid in the comedy-tragedy mask sweatshirt, prone to belting out the entire soundtrack of CATS at the slightest provocation. (“Thanks, 5!!!”)

Some of these terms have unexpected crossover appeal, most recently Ghost Light, above. Knowing the meaning of the term will help you better appreciate the power of the Ghostlight Project, a post-election coming together of theater artists and audiences in defense and support of vulnerable communities.

You can browse the Theater Dictionary complete glossary here or watch the videos on TDF’s Youtube channel.

The Theater Dictionary’s FAQ contains information on how professional theatre companies and organizations and college-level theatre programs can apply to contribute a video.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Learn What Old Norse Sounded Like, with UC Berkeley’s “Cowboy Professor, Dr. Jackson Crawford

If you want to study another language, by all means feel free to study such widely spoken ones as English, Spanish, and Chinese. But obscurity, as we all learn at one point or another growing up, also has an appeal, though we often need someone cool to give us a hint as to which obscurities to pursue. One "cowboy professor" has, since the videos he posts to Youtube have begun to gain popularity, emerged as the cool guy who may well turn a generation of scholars-to-be on to the study of Old Norse. Though he holds an academic position at the University of California, Berkeley, "Wyoming's Dr. Jackson Crawford," as he refers to himself, seems to spend at least part of his time in what he describes as "the Wilderness of the American West."

He also shoots his videos out there, an appropriately sublime backdrop for the discussion of the mechanics of the Old Norse language, originally spoken by the Scandinavians of the 9th through the 13h centuries, and the myth and poetry composed in it.




Here we have three of Crawford's videos meant to address questions of general curiosity about Old Norse: what the language sounded like, and, in two parts, how best to pronounce the names of the various gods, places, and other elements of its mythology, from Óðinn (whom you might have seen referred to as Odin) to Valhǫll (Valhalla) to Ásgarðr (Asgard).

Jackson also gives readings from the 13th-century Poetic Edda, arguably the most influential piece of Scandinavian literature ever written, and one which he recently translated into modern English. Perhaps a sample:

Þagalt ok hugalt
skyli þjóðans barn,
ok vígdjarft vera.
Glaðr ok reifr
skyli gumna hverr,
unz sinn bíðr bana.

A noble man should
be silent, thoughtful,
and bold in battle.
But every man should also
be cheerful and happy,
till the inevitable day of death.

In addition to that and other impressive CV items, he also came up with the runes and Old Norse dialogue for the hit Disney movie Frozen — just in case you had any concerns as to the language's professional practicality. Explore his Youtube channel here.

via Digg

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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