Learn the Korean Language with Hundreds of Episodes of Let’s Speak Korean Free Online

What with the rise of Kore­an pop cul­ture over the past decade or so — the viral­i­ty of Psy’s “Gang­nam Style,” BTS’ rise on the Bill­board chart, Bong Joon-ho’s Acad­e­my Award for Par­a­site, and the world­wide Net­flix phe­nom­e­non that was Squid Game — the Kore­an lan­guage is now avid­ly stud­ied around the world. Back in the nineties, few in Korea would have imag­ined that pos­si­ble, and few­er still in the West. I vivid­ly remem­ber the first day of an extracur­ric­u­lar com­put­er-pro­gram­ming class I took in high school, whose instruc­tor began his lec­ture by say­ing, “Look, cod­ing is hard. I don’t expect you to learn it in two weeks any more than I’d expect you to learn Kore­an in two weeks.” Sure, I thought. But who would want to learn Kore­an?

Fast-for­ward 25 years, and — irony of ironies — here I am liv­ing in Seoul. Not only do I now speak Kore­an (with con­sid­er­able room for improve­ment, mind you), I pub­lished a book in Kore­an last month. In the seem­ing­ly unend­ing round of news­pa­per, radio, and tele­vi­sion inter­views I’ve sub­se­quent­ly had to give about it, I’ve often been asked how I man­aged to learn the lan­guage. There is, of course, no one per­fect­ly effec­tive strat­e­gy, no mat­ter what sub­ject you’re study­ing, but I do feel as if I received a lot of help ear­ly on by binge-watch­ing a show called Let’s Speak Kore­an. Orig­i­nal­ly aired on Ari­rang, Kore­a’s Eng­lish-lan­guage tele­vi­sion net­work, it soon made its way to Youtube, where you can watch hun­dreds of episodes that start teach­ing the Kore­an lan­guage from the very basics onward.

The most recent Let’s Speak Kore­an series, which ran for five sea­sons in the mid-two-thou­sands, is avail­able in this set of playlists. You can also watch ear­li­er ver­sions of the show made in 1999 and 1997, each of which has its own teach­ing style employ­ing dif­fer­ent gram­mat­i­cal forms and sam­ple dia­logues — as well as hosts and for­eign par­tic­i­pants in the roles of the stu­dents. I feel per­ma­nent­ly cast in the role of the stu­dent in my real Kore­an life, despite resid­ing here for the bet­ter part of a decade now, speak­ing Kore­an (and indeed writ­ing in it) on a dai­ly basis. It’s been a jour­ney, and like any attempt to mas­ter a lan­guage, the end is nev­er in sight. But at least I can look back at Let’s Speak Kore­an and fond­ly remem­ber that there was a time when I did­n’t know 은/는 from 이/가, 하면 된다 from 해도 된다,  or ‑거든 from ‑더라고. (Admit­ted­ly, I still have trou­ble with those last.)

Relat­ed con­tent:

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

Watch More than 400 Clas­sic Kore­an Films Free Online Thanks to the Kore­an Film Archive

How a Kore­an Pot­ter Found a “Beau­ti­ful Life” Through His Art: A Short, Life-Affirm­ing Doc­u­men­tary

How Kore­an Things Are Made: Watch Mes­mer­iz­ing Videos Show­ing the Mak­ing of Tra­di­tion­al Clothes, Teapots, Bud­dhist Instru­ments & More

The Writ­ing Sys­tems of the World Explained, from the Latin Alpha­bet to the Abugi­das of India

Let’s Learn Japan­ese: Two Clas­sic Video Series to Get You Start­ed in the Lan­guage

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

The Museum of Wonky English, a Japanese Exhibition Dedicated to Hilarious Mistranslations

I got hooked on Duolin­go a few years ago. Since then, I’ve used it dai­ly to prac­tice lan­guages like French, Span­ish, Finnish, Chi­nese, and Japan­ese. But none of those cours­es is quite as pop­u­lar with as many users as the one for Eng­lish, which is wide­ly spo­ken around the world — and, inevitably, almost as wide­ly mis­spo­ken around the world. Even non-Eng­lish-speak­ing coun­tries tend to put up some Eng­lish-lan­guage sig­nage, sparse and strange though it can often be: a hand­writ­ten gro­cer’s sign warn­ing cus­tomers not to “fin­ger the peach­es”; a notice mount­ed just above a uri­nal that urges vis­i­tors to “please uri­nate with pre­ci­sion and ele­gance.”

These exam­ples come, unsur­pris­ing­ly, from Japan, whose awk­ward but vivid­ly mem­o­rable writ­ten Eng­lish has long cir­cu­lat­ed in West­ern media. That made Tokyo the ide­al loca­tion for the Muse­um of Wonky Eng­lish, a pop-up col­lab­o­ra­tion between Duolin­go Japan and cre­ative agency Ultra­Su­perNew that, as the lat­ter’s site describes it, exhibits “six­teen of the best exam­ples of wonky Eng­lish found all over Japan.”

When “vis­i­tors look at the signs, menus, clothes, and oth­er objects exhib­it­ed in the muse­um — objects that can make them chuck­le, gasp, think, and reflect — they will notice there’s more depth to wonky Eng­lish than they ini­tial­ly thought and become more embold­ened to learn a for­eign lan­guage.”

You can still see some of the Muse­um of Wonky Eng­lish’s prized lin­guis­tic arti­facts in the pro­mo­tion­al video above (which pro­vides the orig­i­nal Japan­ese phras­es from which these odd trans­la­tions sprang), as well as in the pic­tures accom­pa­ny­ing this Japan­ese-lan­guage arti­cle. “Please do not eat chil­dren and elder­ly.” “When cof­fee is gone. It’s over.” “Crap your hands.”

Though uni­d­iomat­ic at best, these phras­es and oth­ers exert a kind of pow­er over the imag­i­na­tion. When close­ly scru­ti­nized, they also illu­mi­nate the mechan­ics of the under­ly­ing Japan­ese lan­guage and its dif­fer­ences with Eng­lish. And though the Muse­um of Wonky Eng­lish was open for only a week, a run that end­ed last week, I can assure you — liv­ing, as I do, in Korea — that wonky Eng­lish itself remains in rude health.

via Spoon and Tam­a­go

Relat­ed con­tent:

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

David Fos­ter Wal­lace Breaks Down Five Com­mon Word Usage Mis­takes in Eng­lish

“Weird Al” Yankovic Releas­es “Word Crimes,” a Gram­mar Nerd Par­o­dy of “Blurred Lines”

Steven Pinker Iden­ti­fies 10 Break­able Gram­mat­i­cal Rules: “Who” Vs. “Whom,” Dan­gling Mod­i­fiers & More

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

The Restau­rant of Mis­tak­en Orders: A Tokyo Restau­rant Where All the Servers Are Peo­ple Liv­ing with Demen­tia

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

Werner Herzog Lists All the Languages He Knows–and Why He Only Speaks French If (Literally) a Gun’s Pointed at His Head

If you’ve explored the fil­mog­ra­phy of Wern­er Her­zog, you’ve heard him speak not just his sig­na­ture Teu­ton­i­cal­ly inflect­ed Eng­lish — often imi­tat­ed in recent years, though nev­er quite equaled — but Ger­man as well. What else does he speak? In the clip above, the Bavar­i­an-born direc­tor of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitz­car­ral­do responds thus to the ques­tion of exact­ly how many lan­guages he has: “Not too many. I mean, Span­ish, Eng­lish, Ger­man… and then I spoke mod­ern Greek bet­ter than Eng­lish once. I made a film in mod­ern Greek, but that’s because in school I learned Latin and ancient Greek.”

The list does­n’t end there. “I do speak some Ital­ian. I do under­stand French, but I refuse to speak it. It’s the last thing I would ever do. You can only get some French out of me with a gun point­ed at my head” — which is exact­ly what hap­pened to him. “I was tak­en pris­on­er in Africa” by “drunk sol­diers on a truck,” all of them “fif­teen, six­teen years old, some of them eight, nine years old,” armed and tak­ing dead aim at him. “That was very unpleas­ant,” not least due to the lead sol­dier’s insis­tence that “on nous par­le français ici.” And so Her­zog final­ly “had to say a few things in French. I regret it. I should­n’t have done it.”

But speak­ing, in Her­zog’s world, isn’t as impor­tant as read­ing. “I read in Span­ish and I read in Latin and I read in ancient Greek and I read in, er, what­ev­er,” he told the Guardian in a more recent inter­view. “But it doesn’t mat­ter. It depends on the text. I mean, take, for instance, Hölder­lin, the great­est of the Ger­man poets. You can­not touch him in trans­la­tion. If you’re read­ing Hölder­lin, you must learn Ger­man first.” This along­side an appre­ci­a­tion of “trash movies, trash TV. Wrestle­Ma­nia. The Kar­dashi­ans. I’m fas­ci­nat­ed by it. So I don’t say read Tol­stoy and noth­ing else. Read every­thing. See every­thing. The poet must not avert his eyes.”

It you want to become like Wern­er Her­zog — well, best of luck to you (though he has cre­at­ed a “rogue film school” and cur­rent­ly stars in a Mas­ter­class). But if you want to fol­low his lead in this specif­i­cal­ly lin­guis­tic respect, you can start from our col­lec­tion of free online lessons in 48 lan­guages. There you’ll find mate­r­i­al to start on every­thing from Span­ish to mod­ern as well as ancient Greek. Also includ­ed is French, Her­zog’s bête noire, as well as Latin, which in the Guardian inter­view he calls his third lan­guage. Ger­man, which also fig­ures into our col­lec­tion, turns out not to be Her­zog’s native lan­guage: “My moth­er tongue is Bavar­i­an. Which is not even Ger­man, it’s a dialect.” With his film­mak­ing activ­i­ties cur­tailed by world events, per­haps he’d con­sid­er pro­duc­ing a series of lessons?

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

To Make Great Films, You Must Read, Read, Read and Write, Write, Write, Say Aki­ra Kuro­sawa and Wern­er Her­zog

Wern­er Her­zog Offers 24 Pieces of Film­mak­ing and Life Advice

Wern­er Her­zog Gets Shot Dur­ing Inter­view, Doesn’t Miss a Beat

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

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

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Why Learn Latin?: 5 Videos Make a Compelling Case That the “Dead Language” Is an “Eternal Language”

“I tried to get Latin can­celed for five years,” says an exas­per­at­ed Max Fis­ch­er, pro­tag­o­nist of Wes Ander­son­’s Rush­more, when he hears of his school’s deci­sion to scrap Latin class­es. “ ‘It’s a dead lan­guage,’ I’d always say.” Many have made a sim­i­lar­ly blunt case against the study of Latin. But as we all remem­ber, Max’s edu­ca­tion­al phi­los­o­phy over­turns just as soon as he meets Miss Cross and brings up the can­cel­la­tion to make con­ver­sa­tion. “That’s a shame because all the Romance lan­guages were based on Latin,” she says, artic­u­lat­ing a stan­dard defense. “Nihi­lo sanc­tum estne?” Max’s reply, after Miss Cross clar­i­fies that what she said is Latin for “Is noth­ing sacred?”: “Sic tran­sit glo­ria.”

From ad hoc and bona fide to sta­tus quo and vice ver­sa, all of us know a lit­tle bit of Latin, even the “dead lan­guage’s” most out­spo­ken oppo­nents. But do any of us have a rea­son to build delib­er­ate­ly on that inher­it­ed knowl­edge? The video at the top of the post offers not just one but “Three Rea­sons to Study Latin (for Nor­mal Peo­ple, Not Lan­guage Geeks).”

As its host admits, “I could tell you that study­ing Latin will set you up to learn the Romance lan­guages or give you a base of knowl­edge for fine arts and lit­er­a­ture. I can tell you that you’ll be able to read Latin on old build­ings, hymns, state mot­toes, or that read­ing Cicero and Vir­gil in the orig­i­nal is divine­ly beau­ti­ful.” But the num­ber one rea­son to study Latin, he says, is that it will improve your lan­guage acqui­si­tion skills.

And lan­guage acqui­si­tion isn’t just the skill of learn­ing lan­guages, but “the skill of learn­ing oth­er skills.” It teach­es us that “thoughts them­selves are formed dif­fer­ent­ly in dif­fer­ent lan­guages,” and learn­ing even a sin­gle for­eign word “is the act of learn­ing to think in a new way.” Study a for­eign lan­guage and you enter a com­mu­ni­ty, just as you do “every time you learn a new pro­fes­sion, learn a new hob­by,” or when you “inter­act with his­to­ri­ans or philoso­phers, inter­act with the writ­ers of cook­books, or gar­den­ing books, or even writ­ers of soft­ware.” Latin in par­tic­u­lar will also make you bet­ter at speak­ing Eng­lish, espe­cial­ly if you already speak it native­ly. Not only are you “unavoid­ably blind to the weak­ness­es and strengths of your native mean­ing car­ry­ing sys­tem — your lan­guage — until you test dri­ve a new one,” the more com­plex, abstract half of the Eng­lish vocab­u­lary comes from Latin in the first place.

Above all, Latin promis­es wis­dom. Not only can it “train you to con­cep­tu­al­ize one thing in the con­text of many things and to see the con­nec­tions between all of them,” it can, by the time you’re under­stand­ing mean­ing as well as form, “grow you in big-pic­ture and small-pic­ture think­ing and give you the dex­ter­i­ty to move back and forth between both.” Just as you are what you eat, “your mind becomes like what you spend your time think­ing about,” and the rig­or­ous­ly struc­tured Latin lan­guage can imbue it with “log­ic, order, dis­ci­pline, struc­ture, pre­ci­sion.” In the TED Talk above, Latin teacher Ryan Sell­ers builds on this idea, call­ing the study of Latin “one of the most effec­tive ways of build­ing strong fun­da­men­tals in stu­dents and prepar­ing them for the future.” Among the time­less ben­e­fits of the “eter­nal lan­guage” Sell­ers includes its abil­i­ty to increase Eng­lish “word pow­er,” its “math­e­mat­i­cal” nature, and the con­nec­tions it makes between the ancient world and the mod­ern one.

Latin used to be more a part of the aver­age school cur­ricu­lum than it is now, but the debates about its use­ful­ness have been going on for gen­er­a­tions. Why Study Latin?, the 1951 class­room film above, cov­ers a wide swath of them in ten min­utes, from read­ing clas­sics in the orig­i­nal to under­stand­ing sci­en­tif­ic and med­ical ter­mi­nol­o­gy to becom­ing a sharp­er writer in Eng­lish to trac­ing mod­ern West­ern gov­ern­men­tal and soci­etal prin­ci­ples back to their Roman roots. And as the School of Life video below tells us, some things are still best expressed in Latin, an eco­nom­i­cal lan­guage that can pack a great deal of mean­ing into rel­a­tive­ly few words: Veni, vidi, vici. Carpe diem. Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. And of course, Latin makes every expres­sion sound weight­i­er — it gives a cer­tain grav­i­tas, we might say.

If all these argu­ments have sold you on the ben­e­fits of Latin, or at least got you intrigued enough to learn more, watch “How Latin Works” for a brief overview of the his­to­ry and mechan­ics of the lan­guage, as well as an expla­na­tion of what it has giv­en to and how it dif­fers from Eng­lish and the oth­er Euro­pean lan­guages we use today. You might then pro­ceed to the free Latin lessons avail­able at the the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas’ Lin­guis­tics Research Cen­ter, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture. The more Latin you acquire, the more you’ll see and hear it every­where. You might even ask the same ques­tion Max Fis­ch­er pos­es to the assem­bled admin­is­tra­tors of Rush­more Acad­e­my: “Is Latin dead?” His moti­va­tions have more to do with romance than Romance, but there are no bad rea­sons to learn a lan­guage, liv­ing or oth­er­wise.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Learn Latin, Old Eng­lish, San­skrit, Clas­si­cal Greek & Oth­er Ancient Lan­guages in 10 Lessons

What Ancient Latin Sound­ed Like, And How We Know It

Hip 1960s Latin Teacher Trans­lat­ed Bea­t­les Songs into Latin for His Stu­dents: Read Lyrics for “O Teneum Manum,” “Diei Duri Nox” & More

Why Should We Read Virgil’s Aeneid? An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

The Tree of Lan­guages Illus­trat­ed in a Big, Beau­ti­ful Info­graph­ic

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, 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.

An Interactive Map of the 2,000+ Sounds Humans Use to Communicate Without Words: Grunts, Sobs, Sighs, Laughs & More

When did lan­guage begin? The ques­tion is not an easy one to answer. There are no records of the event. “Lan­guages don’t leave fos­sils,” notes the Lin­guis­tic Soci­ety of Amer­i­ca, “and fos­sil skulls only tell us the over­all shape and size of hominid brains, not what the brains could do.” The scant evi­dence from evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy does not tell us when ear­ly humans first began to use lan­guage, only that they could 100,000 years or so ago.

How­ev­er, the ques­tion also depends on what we mean by lan­guage. Before the lin­guis­tic tech­nolo­gies of gram­mar and syn­tax, hominids, like oth­er mam­mals today and a good num­ber of non-mam­mals too, had a word­less lan­guage that com­mu­ni­cat­ed more direct­ly, and more hon­est­ly, than any of the thou­sands of ways to string syl­la­bles into sen­tences.

That lan­guage still exists, of course, and those who under­stand it know when some­one is afraid, relieved, frus­trat­ed, angry, con­fused, sur­prised, embar­rassed, or awed, no mat­ter what that some­one says. It is a lan­guage of feeling—of sighs, grunts, rum­bles, moans, whis­tles, sniffs, laughs, sobs, and so forth. Researchers call them “vocal bursts” and as any long-suf­fer­ing mar­ried cou­ple can tell you, they com­mu­ni­cate a whole range of spe­cif­ic feel­ings.

“Emo­tion­al expres­sions,” says UC Berke­ley psy­chol­o­gy grad­u­ate stu­dent Alan Cowen, “col­or our social inter­ac­tions with spir­it­ed dec­la­ra­tions of our inner feel­ing that are dif­fi­cult to fake, and that our friends, co-work­ers and loved ones rely on to deci­pher our true com­mit­ments.“ Cowen and his col­leagues devised a study to test the range of emo­tion vocal bursts can car­ry.

The researchers asked 56 peo­ple, reports Dis­cov­er mag­a­zine, “some pro­fes­sion­al actors and some not, to react to dif­fer­ent emo­tion­al sce­nar­ios” in record­ings. Next, they played the record­ings for over a 1,000 peo­ple, who rat­ed “the vocal­iza­tions based on the emo­tions and tone (pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive) they thought the clips con­veyed.”

The researchers found that “vocal bursts con­vey at least 24 dis­tinct kinds of emo­tions.” They plot­ted those feel­ings on a col­or­ful inter­ac­tive map, pub­licly avail­able online. “The team says it could be use­ful in help­ing robot­ic devices bet­ter pin down human emo­tions,” Dis­cov­er writes. “It could also be handy in clin­i­cal set­tings, help­ing patients who strug­gle with emo­tion­al pro­cess­ing.” The study only record­ed vocal­iza­tions from Eng­lish speak­ers, and “the results would undoubt­ed­ly vary if peo­ple from oth­er coun­tries or who spoke oth­er lan­guages were sur­veyed.”

But this lim­i­ta­tion does not under­mine anoth­er impli­ca­tion of the study: that human lan­guage con­sists of far more than just words, and that vocal bursts, which we like­ly share with a wide swath of the ani­mal king­dom, are not only, per­haps, an orig­i­nal lan­guage but also one that con­tin­ues to com­mu­ni­cate the things we can’t or won’t say to each oth­er. Read the study here and see the inter­ac­tive vocal burst map here.

via MetaFil­ter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Where Did the Eng­lish Lan­guage Come From?: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

Why We Say “OK”: The His­to­ry of the Most Wide­ly Spo­ken Word in the World

The His­to­ry of the Eng­lish Lan­guage in Ten Ani­mat­ed Min­utes

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Oldest Writing System in the World: A Short, Charming Introduction

Teach­ing child vis­i­tors how to write their names using an unfa­mil­iar or antique alpha­bet is a favorite activ­i­ty of muse­um edu­ca­tors, but Dr. Irv­ing Finkel, a cuneiform expert who spe­cial­izes in ancient Mesopotami­an med­i­cine and mag­ic, has grander designs.

His employ­er, the British Muse­um, has over 130,000 tablets span­ning Mesopotamia’s Ear­ly Dynas­tic peri­od to the Neo-Baby­lon­ian Empire “just wait­ing for young schol­ars to come devote them­selves to (the) monk­ish work” of deci­pher­ing them.

Writ­ing one’s name might well prove to be a gate­way, and Dr. Finkel has a vest­ed inter­est in lin­ing up some new recruits.

The museum’s Depart­ment of the Mid­dle East has an open access pol­i­cy, with a study room where researchers can get up close and per­son­al with a vast col­lec­tion of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia and sur­round­ing regions.

But let’s not put the ox before the cart.

As the extreme­ly per­son­able Dr. Finkel shows Matt Gray and Tom Scott of Matt and Tom’s Park Bench, above, cuneiform con­sists of three components—upright, hor­i­zon­tal and diagonal—made by press­ing the edge of a reed sty­lus, or pop­si­cle stick if you pre­fer, into a clay tablet.

The mechan­i­cal process seems fair­ly easy to get the hang of, but mas­ter­ing the old­est writ­ing sys­tem in the world will take you around six years of ded­i­cat­ed study. Like Japan’s kan­ji alpha­bet, the old­est writ­ing sys­tem in the world is syl­lab­ic. Prop­er­ly writ­ten out, these syl­la­bles join up into a flow­ing cal­lig­ra­phy that your aver­age, edu­cat­ed Baby­lon­ian would be able to read at a glance.

Even if you have no plans to rus­tle up a pop­si­cle stick and some Play-Doh, it’s worth stick­ing with the video to the end to hear Dr. Finkel tell how a chance encounter with some nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring cuneiform inspired him to write a hor­ror nov­el, which is now avail­able for pur­chase, fol­low­ing a suc­cess­ful Kick­starter cam­paign.

Begin your cuneiform stud­ies with Irv­ing Finkel’s Cuneiform: Ancient Scripts.

via Men­tal Floss

Relat­ed Con­tent:

You Could Soon Be Able to Text with 2,000 Ancient Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs

Hear The Epic of Gil­gamesh Read in its Orig­i­nal Ancient Lan­guage, Akka­di­an

Hear the “Seik­i­los Epi­taph,” the Old­est Com­plete Song in the World: An Inspir­ing Tune from 100 BC

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Her solo show Nurse!, in which one of Shakespeare’s best loved female char­ac­ters hits the lec­ture cir­cuit to set the record straight pre­mieres in June at The Tank in New York City. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Ta-Nehisi Coates Speak French Before & After Attending Middlebury’s Immersion Program

The many fans of Ta-Nehisi Coates, long­time Atlantic cor­re­spon­dent and author of books like The Beau­ti­ful Strug­gle and Between the World and Me (not to men­tion his more recent role as a writer of Black Pan­ther comics), know a thing or two about the tri­als and tribu­la­tions he went through to become one of Amer­i­ca’s best-known pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als, but few­er of them know how intense a bat­tle he’s waged, over the past few years, on the side: that of mas­ter­ing the French lan­guage in his 30s and 40s.

“I’m tak­ing an hour a week to try to teach myself French,” Coates wrote on his blog at The Atlantic in the sum­mer of 2011, explain­ing that his wife “went to Paris five years ago and loved it. She wants me to go back with her, and I want to go. But I refuse to do so until I have a rudi­men­ta­ry under­stand­ing of the lan­guage. This isn’t about impress­ing the French — I expect my accent to mocked — it’s about how I inter­pret the world. Lan­guage is a big part of it.” After start­ing to dig into the For­eign Ser­vice Insti­tute’s French mate­ri­als (avail­able free in our lan­guage-learn­ing col­lec­tion), he crossed out the word week in “an hour a week” to replace it with day, already sens­ing, no doubt, the unex­pect­ed demands this par­tic­u­lar lan­guage would make on him.

“ ‘Et alors’ is sim­i­lar to our ‘So what?’ But ‘Et Alors’ does­n’t sim­ply sound dif­fer­ent, it feels dif­fer­ent, it car­ries anoth­er con­no­ta­tion, anoth­er music,” he wrote in an ear­ly 2012 fol­low-up. “I don’t know if that means any­thing to peo­ple who don’t write pro­fes­sion­al­ly, but for me it means a ton.” It seems only right, he con­clud­ed, “that a writer should explore lan­guages and try to spend time with as many as he or she can. That I should arrive at such an obvi­ous con­clu­sion at this late date is hum­bling.” And so he pressed stead­fast­ly on, mem­o­riz­ing French vocab­u­lary words and gram­mat­i­cal struc­tures, tak­ing class­es, meet­ing with a tutor, and after receiv­ing his first pass­port at the age of 37, study­ing and prac­tic­ing in real Fran­coph­o­ne places like Paris and Switzer­land.

Coates stepped up to a high­er lev­el of French skill — and a much high­er lev­el of French chal­lenge — when he signed up for Mid­dle­bury Col­lege’s sev­en-week French immer­sion pro­gram, throw­ing him­self into an envi­ron­ment of much younger and “fiercer” class­mates with­out the pos­si­bil­i­ty of lean­ing on his native lan­guage. When he sat down for the four-minute video inter­view at the top of the post before ship­ping out to Mid­dle­bury, he lat­er revealed, “there were sev­er­al moments when I did­n’t even under­stand the ques­tion.” No such prob­lems when he sat for anoth­er short con­ver­sa­tion after the sev­en weeks, cap­tured in the video just above: “What changed most at Mid­dle­bury, for me, was not in how I talked, but how I heard.”

Though Mid­dle­bury clear­ly helped push him for­ward, Coates does­n’t seem to con­sid­er par­tic­i­pa­tion in such a pro­gram a require­ment for even the ambi­tious French learn­er. Main­tain­ing the right atti­tude, how­ev­er, is non-nego­tiable: “I expect to suck for awhile. Then I expect to slow­ly get bet­ter. The point is nei­ther mas­tery, nor flu­en­cy. The point is hard study — the repeat­ed appli­ca­tion of a prin­ci­ple until the eyes and ears bleed a lit­tle.” Grap­pling with French has taught him, among oth­er life lessons he’s writ­ten about, “that it is much bet­ter to focus on process, than out­comes. The ques­tion isn’t ‘When will I mas­ter the sub­junc­tive?’ It’s ‘Did I put in my hour of study today?’ ”

How you feel about your process of study, Coates empha­sizes, “it is as impor­tant as any objec­tive real­i­ty. Hope­less­ness feeds the fatigue that leads the stu­dent to quit. It is not the study of lan­guage that is hard, so much as the ‘feel­ing’ that your present lev­el is who you are and who you will always be. I remem­ber return­ing from France at the end of the sum­mer of 2013, and being con­vinced that I had some kind of brain injury which pre­vent­ed me from hear­ing French vow­el sounds. But the real ene­my was not any injury so much as the ‘feel­ing’ of despair. That is why I ignore all the research about chil­dren and their lan­guage advan­tage. I don’t want to hear it. I just don’t care.”

After less than a year of study­ing French, Coates found, his brain had begun to “hunger for that feel­ing of stu­pid­i­ty” that comes from less-than-sat­is­fac­to­ry com­pre­hen­sion. “There is absolute­ly noth­ing in this world like the feel­ing of suck­ing at some­thing and then improv­ing at it,” he wrote in a more recent reflec­tion on his ongo­ing (and now sure­ly life­long) engage­ment with French. “Every­one should do it every ten years or so.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free French Lessons

French in Action: Cult Clas­sic French Lessons from Yale (52 Episodes) Avail­able Online

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

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

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.

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.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Learn 40+ Lan­guages for Free: Span­ish, Eng­lish, Chi­nese & More

A Col­or­ful Map Visu­al­izes the Lex­i­cal Dis­tances Between Europe’s Lan­guages: 54 Lan­guages Spo­ken by 670 Mil­lion Peo­ple

The Tree of Lan­guages Illus­trat­ed in a Big, Beau­ti­ful Info­graph­ic

How Lan­guages Evolve: Explained in a Win­ning TED-Ed Ani­ma­tion

More in this category... »
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.