Words. The bearers of meaning, the core of every natural language (although not from a scientific point of view – check out phonemes, morphemes and syllables). We hardly ever think about the words we use when we are speaking, texting or post something on the Internet. We take words for granted, as if their only meaning was the one we meant to convey when using them. As though they did not have a history. Today, while watching a documentary on Netflix (who does that?) I learned the history of the word bistro.

As far as my knowledge reached, I knew the Portuguese word “bistrô” and the English word “bistro” were both quite obvious borrowings from the Frenkutuch “bistro”, and all of them meant a small restaurant or bar, especially one in a French style. But as often as not, words have way more interesting pasts.

In 1812, Napoleon and his apparently unbeatable army invaded Russia. I will not go into all the very interesting historical events (you might well google it if you are not familiar with them), but it is enough to say that in that year the Napoleonic forces suffered their first big defeat and retreated after nearly succumbing to the fierce Russian winter. These facts alone could already count as extraordinary and amazing, but that was not the end. During the following two years, the Russian Army chased the French back into France and marched into Paris, for Napoleon’s utter humiliation.

The Tsar’s forces stationed in the French capital for a couple of months, which certainly led to quite a clash of cultures and countless situations of language contact. It is said that Russian soldiers would often come into the local shops and restaurants and demand to be served right away. In Russian, the word for “quickly” is “быстро” (pronounced more or less like “biss-tre”). It seems to have taken no time till smart shop owners associated the Russian word with the kind of service they sought to provide. And this is how the “French” word bistro was born.

This is only a highly possible, if not likely, account of where the word came from. There are a few other theories, as there does not seem to be any scientific research to have focused on tracking down the term. We should also bear in mind that, as interesting as that story may seem, it is still not the whole thing again. The very Russian word “быстро” certainly has its own history as well. How far into the dark past of words are you willing venture? Do not forget to stop by a bistro before and get yourself a coffee and big, yummy croissant!

See you all next time.

P.S. For those interested in the documentary I mentioned, look for “Empire of the Tsars”.


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!