How language can be confusing

How language can be confusing

How language can be confusing

Even English speakers can get into trouble with their own language and misunderstandings can happen.

One tip for English learners is KISS – Keep It Short and Simple, to avoid complicating things.

In this sketch from the Two Ronnies, they illustrate, not only their supreme skills in using language, but also how misunderstandings can occur.


Eddie Izzard – Learning French

Eddie Izzard – Learning French

Eddie Izzard - Learning French

Eddie Izzard – Learning French

Eddie Izzard in his own inimitable way recounts how he used French in France – a couple of naughty words have crept in, but that’s Eddie for you.

Eddie says:

I describe my language ability in percentages of fluency.

I’m about 65% fluent in French, 30% fluent in German, about half a percent fluent in Spanish.

I’m already touring my show in French in France, and after that I’ll be doing it in Spanish, then Russian, then Arabic.

They say if you have French and English you should be speaking Spanish pretty well after a month of deep immersion.

If I get stuck with a word or a phrase during a show I ask the audience, “How do you say such and such”, and they help out.

I don’t find languages easy but I have a hunger to learn.

When you can speak another language you go from being a person in an adult’s body pointing at things like a child to being able to communicate with people like an adult again.

There’s a political basis for me to learning other languages, because if we don’t come together in the world then the world’s not going to make it.

There’s a business case, too – I’m beginning to turn a profit on my foreign shows.

Plus, no stand-up has done this before, so there’s also the fun, bloody adventure of it.

(Source: The Guardian)

Language as a window into human nature

Language as a window into human nature

Language as a window into human nature

Language as a window into human nature

Language and meaning are a fascinating subject – as illustrated in the video below, which shows the way, in which, speakers attempt to put meaning into words – sometimes producing the desired effect and sometimes it failing miserably.

One of the most widespread misconceptions regarding communication is that we can transfer meaning, as a speaker, directly into the minds of the listener – much as a direct form of implantation – this is just not true, even if some sort of meaning is decoded.

Anyone who has tried to talk about a great film that they have seen, or attempted to retell a particularly funny joke, will know just how untrue this notion is.

Although the listener ends up with virtually the same knowledge as the speaker has on the subject, there is little control on the qualitative results of the communication – the speaker attempts to inject meaning into their words, but it is then left to the listener to take out and set the meaning into their own set of knowledge, experience and emotions.

Arguably, this illustrates the point that words cannot convey meaning – they can only carry a set of instructions from speaker to listener of how meaning is meant to be construed (from the point of view of the speaker).

Another illustration of this point is the way that written words can often cause problems in communication – see our post on written communication pitfalls.

Think about any book that you have read and enjoyed, only to be largely disappointed when you have seen the film – it is very rare that a film exceeds the book.

This is also true for the times when we have attempted to carefully craft a message – only for it to be misunderstood by the receivers – have a look at the video which deals with these difficulties in a humourous way…

In this RSAnimate, Language as a window into human nature, Steven Pinker shows us how the mind turns the finite building blocks of language into infinite meanings.

Language is What Makes Humans Unique

Language is What Makes Humans Unique

Language is What Makes Humans Unique

Language is What Makes Humans Unique

Language is what separates humans from animals and is one of the most important aspects of being human – it is what makes us unique.

Although, anyone who has attempted to learn a foreign language will tell you – there is a gulf of difference between knowing a language and being able to communicate or use it.

There many variables which go into making up a language (although we will look at just a few here) including:

Semanticity – where words have specific meanings.

Displacement – using tenses to talk about past and future events or abstract concepts and hypothetical situations.

Structural Dependence – How words are placed in a sentence or clause which can alter the meaning.

Grammar and Syntax – how words are constructed to give meaning

Have you ever wondered why apes and monkeys are unable to talk?

Evolutionary psychologists suggest that language developed through adaptation, which happened around 5 million years ago when humans separated on the evolutionary path, from higher primates.

Physical differences between humans and animals lie in the throat anatomy, which enables a large range of sound production. The brain area responsible for language production – the Planium Temporale is larger in humans in the left cerebral hemisphere than in any other animal on the planet.

Wernicke’s studies discovered that damage to this area resulted in the inability to understand language and produce fluent speech – “Fluent Asphasia,” whilst Broca found a more anterior region of the brain that is used for language production. When this area is damaged, the results are discontinued speech production – “Non-Fluent Asphasia.”

Sperber’s studies focused on “Metarepresentation,” which is a reflection on our own and other’s mental processes, and results in the interpretation of what others would to do or think in a certain situation or context. People can imagine what they think others are thinking – which is a huge evolutionary advantage which allows us to lie to others – an ability that children under 2 years of age are unable to do – which involves qualities of semanticity, displacement and structural dependence – which animals are not able to carry out.

Cognitive psychologists focus on the properties of sound and ‘process recovery’ in communication – how a person forms a sentence and relies on the listener to recover their ‘thoughts’, designed to convey meaning.

Ever been in a situation where you have considered that you have communicated a clear and simple message that was understood differently or produced effects that were unexpected?

Mayer and Schanveldt researched “Semantic Priming”, the ability to recognise words related in meaning and “Associative Priming” – words that occur close together, such as Work-horse, summer – holiday etc. Semantic priming and associative helps us understand and recognise meaning, in fact sometimes so rapidly that we only listen to half of what was said.

There are, of course many theories and variables which form the difference between animals and humans as far as language is concerned, but we will not look too deeply at this at this point.

Researchers argue that sentences we form are already well formed structures, unless we are using relatively new forms and structures, as we would if we were learning a foreign language – representation has to formed and not retrieved in this case. As words in a sentence are sequential, there remains the question of when we build the representation – do we wait until the sentence is completed or do we start building as words are perceived?

Sentences contain two types of information:

1. The meaning of the individual words.

2. The syntactical structure.

Take the sentence – “Hello.” it is grammatically correct and conveys meaning.

Chomsky sought to prove (or disprove this) through his grammatically correct, but meaningless sentence, “Coulourless green ideas sleep furiously.”

A cognitive view would argue that, communication relies on the listener’s metarepresentation and a speakers representation in order for (successful) communication to occur, whereas, a social psychologist’s view would argue that communication does not only rely on interpreting the thoughts of others. Meaning precedes language and is transmitted by language, which differs from the Social Constructivist view, which argues that language creates meaning.

In some parts of Europe, during the middle ages, Latin was the written language, despite the fact that nobody spoke it any more – apart from the clergy and other minority levels of society – this is called Diglossia, and still occurs throughout the world today in certain contexts.

Social psychologists view language as a social, process, and who would argue with that one? Language is used between two or more people as a social interaction, where meanings are formed, contested, constructed and construed, dynamically through prior knowledge and cultural knowledge of situations – communication is for a function, to get things done. This also applies to solitary thinking, reading and reasoning, where the use of language is carried out by way of a dialogue with the self – the internal voice.

It is clear that some researchers have successfully ‘taught’ forms of language to primates – although to date none have been able to reproduce spoken language – it stays on the level of understanding, apart from some experiments where sign language and ‘token’ language has been produced more of a reaction than any real form of interaction, and this does not prove that they would have developed a language among their own species.

The question remains as to whether the attempts at human type communication is authentic or just clouded by exaggerated empathy that sees things that were not really there. Whatever, the result, there is no evidence of ‘turn-taking’ a feature of human conversations and little spontaneity – one such experiment resulted in 96% of the responses being made up of requests, which were then rewarded in some way – a parallel which is closer to Pavlov’s dogs than true communication.

There is the argument put forward by evolutionary psychologists that chimps could have maintained some form of ancestral language ability, as they are the closest animal relatives of humans.

The fact remains that humans are hard-wired to learn languages – it is a natural instinct, but in order for it to be successful, it must occur in a social setting, which necessitates interaction with others. Studies with feral children has revealed that their ability to learn languages and to become fluent in the language is limited by the late age that they learn – indeed the consensus among linguists regarding bilingualism is that the ceiling for becoming bilingual in a language ends at around 14 years of age – this does not mean that people cannot reach a high level of competence, just that there is a difference in fluency and bilingualism.

Animals can undoubtedly communicate within their own species using sounds and gestures, although this is a long way from any language as we know it – and this is what makes humans thoroughly unique, the ability to communicate with, and learn languages, naturally and instinctively.

In summary, language is What Makes Humans Unique.

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Animated  Podcast number 6: Why study for an MBA ?

Animated Podcast number 6: Why study for an MBA ?

So what’s an animated podcast ?

Good question !

It’s a podcast with pictures, learning tips and clues. In short, it’s just a helping hand to help you understand the conversation and the context.

This is Animated Podcast number 6 in a series of 10, in which each one has a specific focus and gets progressively more challenging. 

In the sixth one, Why study for an MBA, you can hear students from China, India, France, Mexico, Taiwan and other countries explain what has motivated them to make a career change and study for an MBA in Aerospace. It’s a fascinating insight in the the motivations and challenges they face.

Who is it designed for ?

It’s a perfect opportunity for new learners (pre-intermediate) to hear many different accents and also learn a lot of  key words for workplace conversations.

It’s a great way for Intermediate learners to consolidate knowledge.

Enjoy and Welcome to the English Podcasts Youtube Channel  !

Click here to access the YouTube Channel

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