Gossip!

Heard the latest? No?

Oh, you really need to read this one, then!

Chances are you’re reading this because you couldn’t help clicking on the link and checking the latest gossip. It’s alright, don’t worry. I’m not going to judge you, and neither is this young blog going to become one more sensationalist gossip-driven online publication. I confess I only started my post like this to attract you here. And now I invite you to take a tour among languages and the history of their words. Today we’re exploring the word gossip.

The idea/concept of gossiping is likely to exist in every language in the world, as thegossip practice of talking about our neighbours’ private lives is just too appealing. Of course I’m only guessing (and joking), although there has actually been some serious research on the nature of gossiping from the viewpoint of evolutionary psychology. But let’s explore what different languages call this practice and where the terms used come from.

DEFINITION

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the noun gossip as “conversation or reports about other people’s private lives that might be unkind, disapproving, or not true”. Some words with similar meanings in other languages include:

Portuguese (Brazil): fofoca
Portuguese (Portugal): mexerico
Spanish: chisme
Italian: pettegolezzo
Russian: сплетни [spletni]
Japanese: 噂 [uwasa]

Apart from Japanese, all those languages are related in various degrees (all of them belong to the Indo-European linguistic family). Nonetheless, the words they use for gossip are almost totally unrelated. Let’s check what’s behind each of them.

PORTUGUESE

The word used mostly in Portugal, mexerico, comes from the verb mexer, which means “to mix, to stir” and has its origin in the Latin verb miscere (to mix, to revolve, to confuse). So it apparently comes from the idea of confusing what’s true and what’s false about someone.

The Brazilian Portuguese equivalent fofoca (which is also used in other former Portuguese colonies such as Angola) evolved from fuka (to mix) in Kimbundu, a Bantu language from Angola. Many African slaves brought to Brazil by the Portuguese had a close contact with their master’s domestic lives and may have incorporated into their dialects the meaning of gossiping conveyed by the Portuguese word mexerico. The word spread and was eventually absorbed into the variety of Portuguese spoken in Brazil, along with hundreds of other African and Native American words.

SPANISH

A common word for gossip in Spanish is chisme, which probably comes from the Latin schisma, which, on its turn, comes from the Ancient Greek σχίσμα [schisma], meaning “division, separation”. The Spanish term seems to carry the idea of words spread that result in a division or a conflict between people.

ITALIAN

The word pettegolezzo comes from the noun pettegolo, used to refer to “a person who spreads malicious gossip”. The origin of pettegolo is uncertain, but there are two strong possibilities. One is that it would be related to the Latin putus (a boy) through a diminutive form (puticolus). Another possibility would be that it comes from the Latin verb petere, which means “to look for”. How the words pettegolezzo and pettegolo came to be connected to gossiping is still a mystery. What do you think?

RUSSIAN

The Russian language uses the word сплетни [spletni] for gossip, which is also shared  with other Slavic languages such as Ukrainian – плітки [plitki], Belarussian – плётка [plyotka] and Polish – plotka. The word derives from the verb плести [plyesti], which means “to weave, plait, interlace”. The verb itself has a greek origin (πλέκω [pleko] – to knit, to plait, to intertwine). While there’s no widely accepted explanation for how a word based on the idea of “weaving” ended up meaning gossip, a Russian expression might give us a hint: in Russian, when talking about plotting against somebody, one can use the expression плести интриги [plyesti intrigi] – “to weave intrigues”.

JAPANESE

In Japanese, the word for gossip is uwasa (in writing, represented by the kanji 噂 and in hiragana “うわさ”). It’s said to come from Old Japanese combinations of words meaning “private conversation about one’s social superiors”. This somewhat reflects the Japanese culture, which is heavily based on hierarchical differences. And yes, it may also be because gossiping about your boss is always a lot more fun!

ENGLISH

And, finally, where does the English word gossip come from? From family intrigues!

The word evolved from the Old English godsibb (sponsor, godparent), which was a combination of “God” and “sibb” (sibling, relative). In the 1300s, the meaning of the word extended to “a familiar acquaintance, a friend, neighbor”, especially to someone invited to attend a birth. In the past, births were very important social events in Europe (particularly to the nobility and the royals), and were attended by family, relatives, friends and other unrelated but interested people. I’m sure you can easily imagine whispers such as “Is it boy or girl?” and “Has she managed to give the king an heir?” going round the castle’s halls and chambers. By the mid-1500s the word was already used to refer to “anyone engaging in familiar or idle talk”, and in the late 1800s people started using it to refer to “(malicious) conversation about people’s private lives”.

DIFFERENT YET THE SAME

This brief account on the etymology of gossip in only a handful of languages already shows us how diverse the ideas behind the same concept can be. Some languages focus on the harm the action of talking about one’s private matters may do, such as confusing truth and lies and creating conflicts between people. Other languages see it in terms of who is doing it – someone close to the ‘victim’, someone socially lower than him or her or just a wandering kid. There are about 7000 languages in the world, and I guess most (if not all) of them have a word for gossip. There must obviously be some overlapping vocabulary, such as in the Slavic languages, each of them having their own modern version of a common ancestor term. There may well be cultures that gossip and talk about gossiping, but don’t have a word for it. I wonder if there’s any language where the concept of gossiping is not present (which is also something quite likely).

Now go have a natter with your friend and advertise (but don’t gossip about) this blog. Please.


SOURCES

BONOMI, F. (2018) Vocabolario Etimologico della Lingua Italianahttps://www.etimo.it

CUP, Cambridge University Press (2018) Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus – https://dictionary.cambridge.org

GP, Gramota Portal. Slovari Russkogo Yazyka (2018) – http://gramota.ru/slovari/

HARPER, D. (2018) Online Etymology Dictionaryhttp://www.etymonline.com

HOUAISS, A. et al. (Orgs.). Dicionário Houaiss da língua portuguesa. 1.ed. Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva, 2009. 1986 p.

MPL, MacMillan Publisher’s Limited (2018) Online English Dictionary – https://www.macmillandictionary.com

RAE, Real Academia Española (2018) Diccionario de la Lengua Española (DLE)http://dle.rae.es

WIKIPEDIA. Wikitionary (2018) – https://en.wiktionary.org

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How (not) to choose an English language school – part 3 of 4

If you’ve been following this series of posts about how not to be deceived by appealing offers and promises of fast, better language learning, welcome back. If you haven’t, be my guest and, if you like, also check out the previous posts, where I talked about two common myths about foreign language learning (just click on the titles):

MYTH 1: Our cutting-edge methodology will make you fluent in English in 18 months.

MYTH 2: The earlier you start learning English, the faster you’ll acquire it and the better you’ll speak it.

Today I’m talking about another argument often used by language schools to lure customers:

MYTH 3: FOR THE BEST RESULTS, COME STUDY ENGLISH WITH OUR AMERICAN TEACHERS.

What is behind this myth is the idea that the best teachers anyone can have are those who are native speakers of the language they’re teaching. Well, it seems to make sense. What could be better than learning English with someone who comes from an English-speaking country? This person will provide you with the best vocabulary and pronunciation and an in-depth knowledge about the culture. No Brazilian teacher can beat an American when it comes to knowledge about the English language, right?

WRONG!

Almost everything’s wrong with these ideas. Let’s see why and how.

Who’s the native speaker?like a native

Imagine we have a Portuguese language school and need to hire native speakers of Portuguese to work as teachers. On the day of interviews, we have four candidates: (1) a girl from the megacity of São Paulo, with a degree in International Relations and lots of travel experiences; (2) an Engineering undergraduate from a town in the south of Brazil; (3) a man who didn’t finish elementary school and (4) a teenager from Rio.

What do they all have in common? They’re all Brazilian and native speaker of Portuguese. What don’t they have in common? The language they speak, funnily enough.

This is because “Portuguese language” is basically a general term used to refer to several varieties of the Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) community. It’s not only about the different accents these people have. There are lots of differences in vocabulary and grammar as well. And the same thing happens in English. Someone from Yorkshire, UK speaks a variety quite different from someone from Austin, USA. And even within the UK, you’ll find loads of differences in the way people use the language.

The thing is that some native speakers have more prestige than others. If you decide to study in a school that has native speaker teachers, what you expect to find is a very sophisticated person from a cosmopolitan centre such as New York, London or Sydney, not native speakers of English coming from Thurso, Scotland or Oudtshoorn, South Africa.

Everything I said about native speakers so far is interesting and relevant, but there’s only one reason why our candidates above wouldn’t make good language teachers: they have no training on foreign language teaching.

In order to illustrate how this important, just try to answer this question: what would a ‘Portuguese As a Foreign Language’ lesson given by that uncle of yours who is a physician be like? What sort of skills would he teach? What techniques would he make use of? How would he choose the best assessment approach?

The truth is that foreign language teaching is a complex activity that requires not only a high level of fluency but also great knowledge about the structure of the language, the methodologies, the different techniques for teaching grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading, writing, speaking, collocations, pronunciation etc. Just like practically all of the professions, it requires qualification. Being a native speaker of a language doesn’t qualify you to teach it.

Native vs non-native teachers

Ok, let’s suppose we have two candidates for a teaching position in an English language school in Brazil. Both of them have had language teaching training and have taught English for a least 5 years. One of them is an American, born and raised in the USA, but now living in Brazil for about 2 years. The other is Brazilian and learned English in Brazil. In this sort of more balanced competition, what would be the advantages and disadvantages of having a native or non-native English language teacher?

Non-native speakers of the language they teach can be great examples for their students, as they’ve gone through pretty much the same process as their students. They know which aspects of the language will pose greater difficulties and they can easily switch to the native language they share with the students in order to explain or give instructions. The communication between teacher and students is genuinely bilingual.

On the other hand, non-native speakers will probably not be as good models of natural language usage and pronunciation as the native speakers. And the latter will have cultural information to share as someone ‘from inside’ the linguistic and cultural context. However, native speakers might not be good models of International English, depending on the variety of English they speak, and this is an important issue because most people learn English to communicate with the world, not with the guy from countryside Texas.

The fact is that it’s not really important to know whether your English language teacher will be a native or non-native speaker of English. Professor Jeremy Harmer, a leading scholar and researcher of ELT, says that the two most important questions to be answered are:

  • Does the teacher speak English that is good enough?

  • Does the teacher know how to teach?

How (not) to choose an English language course – part 1 of 4

ENGLISH LANGUAGE – AN EXPENSIVE PRODUCT

Learning languages is all about advantages. It can improve your memory by making your brain work in ways it normally doesn’t. It can broaden your horizons and take your understanding of other cultures to a whole new level. It can be that asset that will land you that higher-paying position in the company. And while being bilingual or multilingual is actually the normal thing for the majority of the population (I may talk about how and why humans are mostly bilingual in a future post), there’s still some prestige in it, depending on which languages you know. This is because some languages are politically more “interesting” than others.

That English is the most important language in the world is surely beyond dispute. It was spread round the globe during the apex of the British Empire in the late 19th century. During World War I, it started standing out as an international language, and by the late 1950’s it had already established itself as the lingua franca of the world. It all happened quite fast, in the speed of the industrial revolution, and because of the overwhelming political, military and financial influence of the United Kingdom and the United States. But although their influence is still great to this day, the scenario is a lot different, at least from a linguistic point of view.

It seems that the English language, which had traveled the world riding on the coat-tails of the UK and the USA for over a century, has finally become independent. Today, it’s the official language in other 51 countries and it’s the language of international commerce, science and foreign affairs. Brazilian tourists visiting Russia will probably use English to buy their theatre tickets. In the business dinner of a trade fair in Sweden, it’s very likely that the Arabian businessmen will communicate with their South Korean counterparts in English. And in a world in which knowledge (in particular, skills and professional qualifications) is a true and highly profitable asset or product, it’s no wonder that English has inherited from its original owners a great potential to be capitalised, monetised.

MIRACULOUS LEARNING ON OFFER

And here we finally get to the point. While language is the property of those who claim it – whatever historical, cultural or political reasons they may have for that – language teaching and learning isn’t so much so. In other words, anyone can teach any language and there’s hardly any regulation of if or how this should be done. Because of the status of English in the world, teaching it as a second or foreign language has become a highly profitable business. And in this extremely competitive market, where giant corporations duel over market dominance round whole countries and where all sorts of medium-size and small companies elbow each other to surface in the ocean of local language schools, it’s no wonder that we’re bombarded with all sorts of bizarre adverts and miraculous offers about how well (or fast, or effortlessly, or enjoyably) we can learn English. Advertising done this way, in a fashion very much likely to be referred to as confusion marketing by the experts, often misleads those trying to choose a language course.

learnenglishfast
Don’t take that bait!

Quite obviously, if you’re reading this post, it means either that you’ve somehow survived that process or that English is your native language. Anyway, please help me spread the ideas and hints in this text to those who will go through the trouble of formal foreign language instruction. Note, however, that I don’t intend to bring up the solutions to language learning problems. This is but a reflection on a few facts which I think everyone willing to take up language lessons should be aware of. In this series of four posts, I’m going to talk about common (mistaken) ideas about foreign language learning and go through a few strategies or hints that will hopefully help your friends make informed decisions about where to study English.

COMMON MYTHS

From a myriad of widespread myths about how English language is best learnt, I’ve selected just three of them, which I find specially interesting as they’re usually sold to people as truth. The first one is discussed below.

MYTH 1: Our cutting-edge methodology will make you fluent in English in 18 months

Come on, folks, let’s face it: there’s no such thing as cutting-edge methodology. Every English language school has its procedures and coursebooks guided by (or, at least, based on) one or more of the following methodological approaches:

  1. Learning by using only English, in order to simulate a real-life immersion into a far-fetched scenario in which the natives have no knowledge of any language other than their own (aka ESL – English as a Second Language);
  2. Learning through repetition and drilling, often triggered by pictures or short dialogues (aka audio-lingual method); or
  3. Learning by trying to solve problems or complete tasks that involve and require exchanging information in English with other learners (i.e. communicating with them) (aka CLT – Communicative Language Teaching).

None of those methodologies are new. The ESL approach is basically another name for the Direct Method, in vogue in the 1970’s, but whose ideas and practices can be tracked back to the second half of the 1800’s. On its turn, the audio-lingual method derived from the language courses developed in the 1960’s by the US goverment to train their military and are heavily based on behaviourist principles put forward in the late 1950’s. Finally, the CLT (or Communicative Approach, as it’s also commonly referred to) is not really a methodology, but a set of strategies and practices aiming to help create a genuine communicative setting for the target language to be used, and it was suggested in the late 1980’s.

And what about the time issue? Can anyone become fluent in English in 18 months? The answer is yes and no. First, we need to define whatever it’s meant by fluent. If they mean you’ll be able to say who you are, where you come from and what you do, and maybe to buy your own train tickets and order food from a simple menu, then yes, you may well be “fluent” after 18 months of study. Bear in mind, however, that for most institutions (and even for most people), if you have only these basic communicative skills, you’re quite far from being fluent. You will probably need at least a couple of years of frequent classes and contact with the language in order to be able to discuss misunderstandings, solve problems, persuade and get across your opinion on climate change. This is, among other things, what a fluent English speaker is usually expected to be able to do.

There are several other old methods and approaches that are still used to this day and there are also schools that shape their ways of doing things by frankensteining what they consider to be the best bits of each of the earlier methods in what has been called a post-method or post-CLT approach. At the end of the day, all you need to tell that friend of yours who’s thinking about taking up English is that he shouldn’t trust the advertising.

Follow me. In my next post, I’m going to talk about why you’re not a loser if you only started learning a foreign language at 35 years old. (That 3-year-old niece of yours isn’t going to be fluent by the time she’s 6.)

Discovering the linguist in myself

…So I tried to establish the reasons why writing about languages and linguistics could be relevant to me.

The other day, while sitting around with a couple of books on my lap, I had an idea. ‘What if I create a blog to write about languages, linguistics and the like?’, I pondered. My next thought was that it would be a stupid idea. Too many more experienced, important people had already dedicated their time to something like that. Who would read me? Who would even find me in this endless sea called the Internet?

Another big drawback with my idea was my previous tries, all of which deemed fruitless. I had already had other blogs (about my side job as a musician, aresearchbout my travel experiences, about English language learning), but I could not find the will to commit to them for too long. Most of them did not reach their second year. I realised that, if I was to commit to a blog, it had to matter to me more than somewhat. It had to be closely connected to my current work and research. So I tried to establish the reasons why writing about languages and linguistics could be relevant to me.

That exercise rekindled fond memories of my childhood years, when I first came across linguistics. It was about 16 years ago, when I was 13. At that time I was obsessed with the Ancient Egypt and I was sure I was going to do History in university and eventually become an egyptologist (I was not aware of how hard it is to get into the mainstream of Egyptology). I had a magazine about Egypt and one of its articles was about hieroglyphs. I learnt that scholars only managed to “break the code” of that mysterious language after finding the Rosetta Stone. I really wanted to learn how to read the Egyptian script, but I simply had no access to coursebooks so specific, and the Internet was still precarious where I lived.

My interest in the Egyptian language eventually waned, but another language piqued my curiosity. In my teenage years, I was lucky to be in a close-knit group of friends, and one of those friends belonged to a family that had immigrated from Lebanon in the beginning of the 20th century. He would tell me how his grandparents spoke Arabic at home, and how he and his parents could understand most of the language but were unable to speak it (a phenomenon I later learnt to be called “passive bilingualism“). This friend of mine had tried to study the language on his own, and I made him teach me what he knew. Still, to this day, I can understand and use the Arabic alphabet and have a short basic conversation in Levantine Arabic.

Meanwhile, other less committed attempts to pick up foreign languages included some contact with Latin, through old missals found on a dusty bookshelf in the church I used to go to; Spanish, with some coursebooks I had been given and in a year of short weekly lessons during my second year in secondary school; and English, as it was the main foreign language taught at school.

My last year in secondary school played a determinant role in my choosing of career. It was 2005, I studied in a state school in the town of Pedro Osório, and we had one 60-minute lesson of English language a week. Obviously, I could hardly yield any learning results from those lessons, as most of the students were not really interested in the language. But I was! So I found out that my teacher also owned a small English language school. He eventually saw how interested and motivated I was about learning English and invited me to work as a language assistant at his school. I would be able to attend lessons there if I helped with the school’s organisation during the week. That was my first work experience and I had the chance to see how a language school worked. At the end of that year I passed the university entrance examinations and moved to the city of Pelotas to study TEFL (Teaching of English as Foreign Language) at the Federal University of Pelotas.

My four and half years as an undergraduate student had a major role in shaping my professional profile. I understand many people end up dropping out and trying other programmes before they can finally find their vocation, but for me it was love at first sight. When I entered university, there were about 25 people in my class, most of whom had already studied English for many years. I was one of the few odd men out. Apart from the not very effective secondary school lessons, I had had just about 20 hours of formal English language instruction at my former teacher’s school. And now I was in a programme that would teach me how to teach a language I barely knew myself. Quite a challenge! I took it on and got round it! During my undergraduate years I managed to work for four consecutive terms as an English language teacher at the university’s extension courses. I also taught myself some Spanish, had a one-year course of Latin and did a six-month course of German.

From 2009 to 2010 I worked in a small language school in one of the suburbs of Pelotas. Then I graduated and got a new job in Yázigi, a high-profile language school chain, the oldest in Brazil. Still in 2010 I met (on a penfriend website for language learners) the person who would become my wife a couple of years later, a Russian girl called Ekaterina. When we first met in person, in 2012, she gave me a Russian coursebook, and that is how I started learning one more language.

Two years ago, when I was trying to make up my mind about what to investigate in my Master’s degree research, I remembered all those foreign languages I had had any sort of closer contact with – namely, Ancient Egyptian, Arabic, English, Spanish, Latin, German, and Russian. On several occasions while studying one of those languages, I felt that what I knew about another language could help me. I used my previous linguistic knowledge countless times, both consciously and unconsciously, to get hold of new vocabulary or structures in the language I was learning. That was it! My research was going to be about cross-linguistic influence in foreign language learning.

Today, somewhere halfway through my dissertation research, I am sure that was the right choice. I am more and more convinced that second/foreign language learning and teaching depends a lot on the knowledge teachers and learners have about language contact and crosslinguistic similarities, so I am going to use this blog to share with you my research and talk about other interesting topics related to multilingualism, language contact and foreign language teaching.

See you next time!