How to Type with a Foreign Accent

I spend a lot of time on IRC channels and discussion forums where many of the users are not native speakers of English. Recently one of these expressed surprise when I observed: “You type with a foreign accent. What is your birth language?” He knew, of course, about speaking English with an accent, but he hadn’t encountered before the possibility that the same cues could be observable in written English.

Herewith , some instructions on how to type with an accent. All the examples I will give are utterances I have observed in the wild.

To sound generally foreign, omit elisions and contractions normally used by native speakers. Type “I do not think I have the time” rather than “I don’t think I have time”.

To sound German, put commas in places that do not correspond to speech pauses in English. “I do not know, how he could have believed that.”

To sound Russian, omit definite or indefinite articles. “No, you cannot have cheeseburger.”

To sound like a speaker of Hindi or Urdu or one of the related languages, emit wordy run-on sentences that begin with “Esteemed sir”, like: “Esteemed sir, I would be grateful if you could direct me towards a good book on Python because I am attempting to learn programming.”

Understand, none of these errors actually interferes with comprehension. I’ve found that these second-language speakers are often more worried about the quality of their English than they need to be.

87 thoughts on “How to Type with a Foreign Accent

  1. > To sound Russian, omit definite or indefinite articles. “No, you cannot have cheeseburger.”

    I know this. There are no articles in Russian and there are only one present tense etc. As a result I tend to make these mistakes all the time, especially when I’m tired…

    But how can we learn to be better?

  2. I frequent a lot of web boards that have folks from Scandinavia and South America (at the same time – that’s interesting). They are common interest boards. There are certain idioms that they both use (incomprehensible to English speakers) and don’t tend understand English idioms very well. Typical for the Scandinavian folks to sound a bit like Yoda when writing. “This is important, do you think”? The people, particularly from Brazil often type English but use Portuguese or Spanish phraseology. “”What is problem”?

    And you’re right, they are almost always more concerned about it that native English speakers are. Heck, I’m just happy they are there. Generally tell then that if we don’t understand, we’ll ask. Don’t worry about it. But they do.

  3. My own uncle (Serge Illaryonov) “contributed excellent examples of plain English” for the book “Plain English at Work: A Guide to Writing and Speaking”. From this example I know that it’s possible to be very good in English when your native language is Russian. But he lives in US.

    Is there any chance for those who live in non-English countries learn to sound native?

  4. Swedish: Add random Ss to the end of verbs. “No, you can’t do it. Go home. Takes the shower and.washes the shames out of you.”

  5. In what way is “I would be grateful if you could direct me towards a good book on Python because I am attempting to learn programming” a run-on sentence?

  6. >Is there any chance for those who live in non-English countries learn to sound native?

    Don’t worry about it too hard. If you hang around native speakers long enough, you’ll get it by osmosis. If you don’t., your English is not broken; it’s quite comprehensible.

  7. >In what way is “I would be grateful if you could direct me towards a good book on Python because I am attempting to learn programming” a run-on sentence?

    Omitting the comma before “because” creates the effect of a run-on, even though the sentence as written is only weakly and technically incorrect.

    Remember, we’re talking about accent patterns here; the point was that Hindi-speakers tend to write as though they’re pattering out entire paragraphs at high speed without a pause for breath. The effect is a bit comical.

  8. I’ve noticed an RL parallel: I can often identify native Chinese-speakers by handwriting style.

  9. >The people, particularly from Brazil often type English but use Portuguese or Spanish phraseology. “”What is problem”?

    And ironically, a literal, word-for-word translation from Spanish “¿Cual es el problema?” would actually yield the correct sentence.

  10. I work for a managed web hosting company and our second-largest customer base is in India. It’s really quite amazing how many are pretty good at writing and speaking English thanks (I would assume) to the proliferation of Internet.

    One plaintive phrase that my co-workers and I always get a kick out of is “do the needful.” Our Indian customers use it all the time and I’d really like to know where that came from.

  11. >“do the needful.” Our Indian customers use it all the time and I’d really like to know where that came from.

    It’s a Britishism, originally “do the needful thing”. The Indians doubtless picked it up during the Raj.

  12. It’s really quite amazing how many are pretty good at writing and speaking English thanks (I would assume) to the proliferation of Internet.

    Not really. In India, English is taught as part of the primary school education. Something that likely came about during the British Raj.

  13. When I was learning to speak, a small child, my mother was talking Russian to me and my father was talking English. And the first things I ever spoke were like “This is a бяка”. That’s right, even before I knew any languages I knew how indefinite articles work. They were always “a бяка”, not just “бяка”. Yet I drop them for some strange reason when I write English nowadays.

    My parents stopped the experiment when I started stuttering at the age of 2-something.

    That’s why I’m so frustrated about this. I can’t say that English is not my native language.

  14. FWIW, it is also common for non native speakers to get the aspect of verbs wrong. For example “I am needing to deploy this page to my web site” or “I will want to be speaking to you next Tuesday.” This seems also very common amongst Indian natives though I have seen it amongst other nationalities also. I suspect that their languages do not have some of the subtle aspect distinctions that there are in the English verb, but I don’t know for sure.

    I have also noticed that Russian speakers in addition to omitting articles, often use them in place of certain other determiners. For example “Many web pages have title ‘Hello’. In the case, deploy to directory ‘Hello Files’.” Similarly, I have seem adverbs end up in the wrong locations, such as “We deploy always to this web server.” I also see Russians omit the certain verbs (particularly copulative verbs) on occasions: “Why this problem? It because we have no permissions on directory.”

    Also, on occasion, I hear confusion related to the genitive in English, usually meaning not using the Saxon genitive, though this is generally more stylistic than erroneous, but falls within the general idea of “accent”. “The home page of Bill Gates is at …” rather than “Bill Gates’ home page is at…”

    Again though, these are perfectly understandable to my ears, and any non English speaker who gets to the level where these are their only flaws has pretty much mastered the language.

    No doubt this could be extended to English itself. “I’ll see you Tuesday Morning” is almost certainly written by a Yank, “I shall not be on time”, by a Brit. In British English that would be “I’ll see you on Tuesday Morning”, and in American “I won’t be on time.”

    Kudos to anyone who has the patience and discipline to learn any foreign language.

  15. > I suspect that their languages do not have some of the subtle aspect distinctions that there are in the English verb, but I don’t know for sure.

    Or they do, but depending on the context, they don’t quite match the English ones, so the non-native speaker tends to get them slightly wrong. I notice this often with e.g. native French and Swedish-speakers.

    Another typically German thing is to use the plural of the uncountable ‘information’, ‘informations’ or ‘infos’. I’ve always thought that that was curious, since it’s not the form of that plural in German either, and you’d think that German-speakers of all people would not take ‘just add ‘s” for granted.

  16. >> To sound Russian, omit definite or indefinite articles. “No, you cannot have cheeseburger.”
    >I know this. There are no articles in Russian and there are only one present tense etc.
    My own uncle (Serge Illaryonov) “contributed excellent examples of plain English” for the book “Plain English at Work: A Guide to Writing and Speaking”. From this example I know that it’s possible to be very good in English when your native language is Russian. But he lives in US.

    THE US ;D

    the estonians have a similar problem with he/she — they have no gender-specific 2nd-person pronoun. one of my ex-girlfriends taught herself to speak english off the tv (seriously), and would not uncommonly get jumbled up over the he/she thing. typically to a bit of amusement on both sides.
    but as eric said: not an issue. typically, we (native–english-only–speakers, such as aussies and americans and brits) are so slightly-bashfully amazed and grateful for your own multi-lingual capability relative to our own relatively retarded mono-lingualness, that we just bleep through to your meaning without getting precious about trivial “errors”.

    ie, don’t worry about it. just keep on as you are, communicating fully with just that delicious (broadening) tang of “otherness”, and after a while you’ll just fall into the native rhythms of THIS language just as you did your own. probably without noticing what you’ve done ;)

  17. english’s nature actually helps out non-native speakers quite well here, due to its lack of inflection.

    ie, the normal-usage meaning of “i runs to the gate” will be 100% clear in english, though wouldn’t be in many other languages, even though it does slightly suggest you’re not a native english speaker (who would ideally have said “run” rather than “runs”)

  18. JessicaBoxer: >FWIW, it is also common for non native speakers to get the aspect of verbs wrong. For example “I am needing to deploy this page to my web site” or “I will want to be speaking to you next Tuesday.”

    neither of these verb “aspects” are wrong (indeed the latter is rather more correct than the usual construction): what they are is different from what you believe normal.

    be aware that most english-speakers’ awareness of the subjunctive form is very poor nowadays (so god help any non-nativespeakers’ attempt to learn it quickly from english teachers), and i note your examples strongly suggest intent to use it.

  19. I left Iraq 4 years ago when I was 15. Oman, like all the other GCC countries, is an international society; there are people from every nation which means knowing English is a must.

    In Iraq, English is taught starting from 4th grade, luckily, I joined the only HS that taught all subjects in English, but still, when I came to Oman I realized that I lacked a lot, mainly my accent needed improvement.

    You sure are right in the last part, we DO try to improve our English. I, for example, happen to be very knowledgeable about grammar.

  20. To sound Hungarian: use the active sense whenever you can instead of the passive one (almost like E-Prime). Plus, imitate the usual mistakes of Germans and Austrians (for historical reasons). Plus, tend to use the third person singular “s” at verb endings in third person plural, “these ideas does not make sense”. (The reason for this is that in Hungarian the whole concept of singularity and plurality is not really clear-cut. “these apples” is in plural but “three apples” is in singular i.e. “three apple” because it’s understood as one singular set consisting of three apples.)

    I disagree with the the omitting of contractions: “I do not think” is normal in British English if you want to sound educated or you want to put a little bit of emphasis or even pathos onto the matter, see f.e. my favourite contemporary political thinker: http://blog.skepticaldoctor.com/

  21. an interesting(?) inability to speak english by the english, is the growing jumbling of constructions where there are homophones or irregular verbs overlapping regular constructions.

    in the context of eric’s post, you can immediately identify a british person under the age of perhaps 40, distinguished from an american/canadian/aussie/kiwi/south african/40+briton/2nd-language-speaker, if they are unable to use words like “spin” or “sink” correctly.

    eg (of usage normal but wrong):

    “the aeroplane span into the water”

    “the boat sunk”

    “i threw it and it span”

    spin/spun/span, in particular, is the acid test of nationality: if span is used for spun, the writer’s British and young(ish). i have not seen spun used correctly in even the national newspapers for at least 5 years.

    as an australian, i find this particularly hilarious. 25 years ago one of our deliberately-overthetop-obnoxious shock-comedians used this construction as a deliberate pisstake of his own deliberately-OTT ignorant uneducated yobbo-ness. “i threw this glider and it, it spun… no… it SPAN *vast hilarity from crowd* ”
    and every use i’ve seen in english papers in the last 5+ years has parrotted his pisstake (accidentally). i have seen it several times just in the last month in The Times, for god’s sake. The Times. apart from the FT, britain’s only remaining journalism.
    life has imitated “art” (to coin a phrase).

  22. There are actually two (albeit overlapping) sets of patterns for spoken and written English – written English is more characterised by collocation, spoken English by (vast) numbers of fixed and semi-fixed expressions. Learning to use them all naturally (and to avoid unnatural ones) is largely a statistical exercise requiring massive exposure/immersion. But as others have pointed out, non-native speakers don’t get judged on the mistakes they make in a second language, whereas if a native accidentally substitutes ‘queue’ for ‘cue’, say, his ass will surely be forfeit, and deservedly so.

  23. “collocation”…”fixed and semi-fixed expressions”

    these are the identical concept expressed in different words. be aware that attempting to look expert by throwing verbiage and artificial (and irrational) distinctions is not the same as actually understanding what you (think you) are talking about.

    that’s a qulue. faux-fallingonsword aside.

  24. come to think of it:
    >the estonians have a similar problem with he/she — they have no gender-specific 2nd-person pronoun.

    chinese/thai/etc speakers regard us hindo-european-speakers (which does not include the estonians, finns, or hungarians), as having a similar problem with Tones. we don’t have them, as grammatical features.*

    “ma ma ma ma ma” creates a lot of puntacular hilarity when attempted by westerners.

  25. these are the identical concept expressed in different words.

    Stone me. You do know what ‘overlapping’ means, I presume? In language teaching, the distinction is recognised as a way of distinguishing formal written registers from spoken ones. Collocation refers mainly to things like which words are statistically more likely to pair up – “unmitigated disaster”, “dogged determination”, etc. Fixed expressions are often sentence heads and tails like “I was wondering if…” and are more likely to have discourse-structuring functions.

    I await with anticipation your insights as to what is wrong with this. Hell, I might write it up somewhere.

    be aware that attempting to look expert by throwing verbiage and artificial (and irrational) distinctions is not the same as actually understanding what you (think you) are talking about.

    You seem to be on a bit of a mission here. Want to talk about it?

  26. Regarding:
    “I am needing to deploy this page to my web site” or
    “I will want to be speaking to you next Tuesday.”
    > neither of these verb “aspects” are wrong (indeed the latter is rather more
    > correct than the usual construction):

    They are not wrong in the sense there is no situation in which they might be correct, however, and perhaps I was not clear, the use of the continuous here is not typical at all. The subject here is “accent” that is to say, the peculiarities of phraseology, and this is certainly uncommon phraseology. It would be more common to use a simple aspect, as in “I need to deploy…” or “I will want to speak…”

    I am confused by your reference to the subjunctive. Neither of these phrases is subjunctive. Perhaps you can expand more on your concern.

  27. I am an Indian, though not of Hindi origin. I must say that Indian English is quite colourful and varied across regions. Though interspersed with Colonial British expressions, that trend is actually reducing these days. Indians also tend to have a tendency to use the continuous present tense. For instance: “I am living in India” is preferred to “I live in India”. This happens almost unconsciously.

    Raj English is almost extinct in everyday usage, though still used in ultra-formal contexts; like in government memoranda and by letter-writers of the old school. The other trend is that English spoken in India is highly influenced by local language and some of the local expressions are liberally mixed with English.

    However, I find it sad that there is a tendency to neutralize the language and we’re losing out on rich and interesting local dialects and colloquialisms. I personally prefer to write, as far as possible using a neutral accent. But I do tend to write in a more formal tone than native speakers. Possibly early training has a lot of influence over our subsequent usage of language.

  28. Swedish: Add random Ss to the end of verbs. “No, you can’t do it. Go home. Takes the shower and.washes the shames out of you.”

    That looks more like a New Yorker than anything else.

    I know a guy that’s Swedish; when he was new to English, he’d frequently use the incorrect words when they are spelled similarly. Though vs Thought, and others like that.

  29. also for indian, use “revert” instead of “reply”. to sound generally foreign (or possibly like an idiot manager), treat “code” as a count noun when talking about programming. “please do the needful and revert to me the codes i am needing” is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

  30. > an interesting(?) inability to speak english by the english
    Not to mention the inability to comprehend collective singular nouns. “The company are…” just makes me shudder.

  31. And when you see something like this (actual quote!), you know instantly that you’ve spotted an American:

    is ther a apcific reson or does no one want seed it or what. i downloade a bad set on public domian but files are inconsitant id love to see all 5 series in dual audio but it not hetre so was woundering if anyone knew why???

    (I am also an American.)

  32. “To sound German, put commas in places that do not correspond to speech pauses in English. “I do not know, how he could have believed that.””

    Heh. It takes years and years in the elementary schools of Germany and Hungary to beat into the kids to ALWAYS put a comma before the how, because that’s where the sub-sentence ends and sub-sentences MUST be separated, one must clearly signal where the sub-sentence ends. Then of course it takes years and years to unlearn it when writing English :)

  33. Another way to sound foreign is to mix word sequence in sentence. For example in Latvian (and other languages) where words have flections, word order in is only guidelined, and can be changed for better rhythm or impression.
    Usage of commas for Latvian is similar to German and it is even more aggressive as participial phrases also need to be set in commas.

  34. To sound like a French speaker, confuse the pronouns “him” and “her”. In French, the gender of the possessive pronoun depends on the gender of the noun it refers to, not the gender of the person who possesses it. For example, « son livre » could mean “his book” or “her book.”

  35. Hell, I might write it up somewhere.

    Or perhaps not. No, OK, fixed expressions are a form of collocation, fair dos, trying to cover that with ‘overlapping’ was sloppy of me. But the *patterns* of collocation in formal writing are quite different from those in speech, to the extent that the fixed expressions can be seen as a separate area.

    Good enough for you?

  36. b4 i wnt 2 kldg, i cud nt evn spll enguhneer. No I r 1!

    A cow orker of mine would wear that tee shirt whenever it was his turn to explain to the stupid tech writer (me) what his part of the project was for me to document. Since by the time I was brought in, the project’s similarity to the original design resembled the relationship between between a coelacanth and a brontosaur.

  37. “the estonians have a similar problem with he/she — they have no gender-specific 2nd-person pronoun.”
    Why should that be an issue, as English hasn’t got one either? Do you know a language that does?

  38. I honestly believe that the principle of communication is to get a particular piece of information across. As long you can do that, it doesn’t matter if you got a bit of accent or not. I do agree though that non-native English speakers, including myself, are a bit more concerned when it comes to English communication in general. Perhaps it is due to the fact that during their learning process a lot of people might have mocked them which in addition to other “traumas” added this “extra worried mindset”. Anyhow as some have already mentioned in here, if enough time is spent alongside a native speaker the language will eventually become more natural and fluent and the non-native speaker will end up picking up even some common mistakes made by natives.

  39. Mike:
    Is think the thing about “information[s]” for Germans is that those are actually countable in German.

  40. BTW, to sound US-American, write “phenomena” even if you mean the singular “phenomenon”… :-P

  41. ” I do agree though that non-native English speakers, including myself, are a bit more concerned when it comes to English communication in general. Perhaps it is due to the fact that during their learning process a lot of people might have mocked them which in addition to other “traumas” added this “extra worried mindset”. ”

    I agree perfectly but I think this could/should be pointed out more, er, radically: I’m really angry at all of my English teachers: they helped me almost nothing but harmed a lot.

    They insisted on speaking and writing grammatically correctly, i.e. what they taught was “English as a science” instead of “English as a skill”, because it is the typical approach of the sciences that it’s better to know a little but fairly correctly than to know a lot not so correctly. They considered it to be better to be able to say or write little, but correctly, than to be able to say or write anything and everything understandably, if imperfectly. This is a typically quasi-scientific, Rationalist approach and it’s pretty useless in languages.

    Practical skills like cooking, driving, fighting, map-making or languages require exactly the opposite, anti-scientific approach: get the student to a level where he can do everything to a basic, imperfect, but workable level, make him able to cope with all of the everyday problems on an imperfect but workable level and then, only then, focus on refining it. It’s better to be able to cook 30 everyday dishes imperfectly than to be able to cook 1 excellent dish perfectly. It’s better to be able to defend yourself in everyday situations that to be able to throw one kind of kick with an artistic perfection but otherways have no idea on how to fight. It’s better to learn to speak English with bad grammar, bad style and a limited vocabulary but understandably than to know all the details of “reported speech” and “future perfect” and the other such grammatical stuffs my teachers focused on, but not be able to cope with an everyday conversation situation.

    It’s the sense of _urgency_ and the trading of certainty and correctness and accuracy and perfection for getting things done _fast_ that makes practical skills different from sciences and this was my teachers just didn’t understand.

    They almost crippled me. Really. Luckily, I began to read some novels in English at 16 and got away from their grip quickly. But they crippled my father and mother. Every time I try to teach them some English and f.e. ask them to describe a typical day of theirs they just freeze up and spend 20 seconds on thinking about what the past tense of “I get up” is. And I always try to tell them: just don’t, don’t think, don’t try to get it right, say it badly if you don’t know how to say it correctly, say it any way you want but say SOMETHING, anything, say anything FAST, because it’s more important to get the conversation rolling than to get it exactly right, and even if you say it badly the other person will usually be able to figure it out what you mean. But they just can’t.

    They were crippled by the teachers – the teachers drilled into them a “say it perfectly or shut up” attitude. And I just cannot make them unlearn it. If they can’t get it perfectly right they freeze up. And this makes me angry. This is no way to teach skills. They way to teach skills is to do it, do it, do it and do it and worry about correctness later on.

    I think this always comes from the Rationalist mistake: that correct action can only come from correct theory. It’s wrong: correct action usually comes from simply doing it a LOT. By doing it a lot you’ll deduce the theory for yourself anyway, on a subconscious level, so why worry much about it? Just do it – a LOT.

    But you can’t make a teacher understand it. Teachers are by nature Rationalists. (That’s why they tend to lean Left, btw.)

    I’m lucky to have got away from the crippling by the teachers but many others cannot. I got smart – now that I’m learning German I do 90% of it by reading Stern etc. and rely very little on the teacher, and I explicitly told my teacher – DO. NOT. TEACH. ME. Meaning: don’t correct me too often. Don’t worry much about correctness. Teaching – teaching this way – helps little and harms a lot. Just converse with me. Just let me speak. Let’s just talk about stuff and as long as you understand me it’s good enough. Our agreement is he is to correct me only if I make the same mistake five times in a row.

  42. Thomas Cavello: >> an interesting(?) inability to speak english by the english
    >Not to mention the inability to comprehend collective singular nouns. “The company are…” just makes me shudder.

    well, actually, your own shuddering is due to a poorly taught understanding of collective nouns. “The company are…” is precisely good english where the speaker/writer is using language consonant with the company as a collection of people rather than as an entity in its own (emergent) right.

    ie, collective nouns are collective, not singular.

  43. Shenpen: >>“To sound German, put commas in places that do not correspond to speech pauses in English. “I do not know, how he could have believed that.””
    >Heh. It takes years and years in the elementary schools of Germany and Hungary to beat into the kids to ALWAYS put a comma before the how, because that’s where the sub-sentence ends and sub-sentences MUST be separated, one must clearly signal where the sub-sentence ends. Then of course it takes years and years to unlearn it when writing English :)

    double heh: written english only 200 years ago was punctuated in the basic same form.

    english typesetting has changed faster and harder in the last century than the other european languages.

  44. Andy Miller: >>“the estonians have a similar problem with he/she — they have no gender-specific 2nd-person pronoun.”
    >Why should that be an issue, as English hasn’t got one either? Do you know a language that does?

    :)
    how about “he” vs “she”? (in english, btw)

    arg no wait, good point (albeit poorly expressed) — that should have been “3rd-person pronoun”, and that should have been the error you pointed out.

  45. Haroldo Jardim: >I honestly believe that the principle of communication is to get a particular piece of information across.

    !?!?
    you’re talking CRAZY talk here, haraldo!!!!1111oneone

  46. Shenpen,

    I disagree that the scientific way is highly specialized perfection. Good scientists need lots of cross specialty general scientific capability or else they produce bad results. In programming, the more languages you know the better you do. In linguistics (a science) it is the same. I’m not sure what causes the propensity to highly specialized perfection, but I bet it’s the same personality trait that comes across in control freaks.

    Yours,
    Tom

  47. Frank: >BTW, to sound US-American, write “phenomena” even if you mean the singular “phenomenon”… :-P

    heh. true.

    which reminds me, in vaguely related previous context of jumbling plural with singular: agenda is plural (of agendum) but is treated in modern english as singular. 100 years ago, anyone saying “agendas” would have been regarded as a halfwit.

    having said that, in modern usage agenda has acquired an emergent additional meaning conflating the old (pre-postNapoleonic) meaning of “design”.

  48. Shenpen: >I’m really angry at all of my English teachers: they helped me almost nothing but harmed a lot.
    >They insisted on speaking and writing grammatically correctly, i.e. what they taught was “English as a science” instead of “English as a skill”, because it is the typical approach of the sciences that it’s better to know a little but fairly correctly than to know a lot not so correctly.

    absolutely. but rather than “English” teachers, i would substitute “language” teachers.
    i was taught german (in english) precisely (and as precisely uselessly) as you were taught english. i gave up pretty quickly as a result.

    and the estonian girl i mentioned above taught herself flawless spoken english, off subtitled tv. the only time you (or me, or any of my native-english-speaking (including engilsh) friends) realised the gap in her education was in her written english, when grammatical errors became (startlingly, having spoken with her at length) obvious.
    danish youths i’ve had a lot of contact with recently have shown precisely the same syndrome. effortless speech and communication (with occasional odd pronunciations), followed by surreal grammar and in their case even word mistakes (always based on homophonic similarities).

  49. ^^”german” — i should have pointed out there that i can now (after various time there) make myself understood (and often have a bit of a laugh) in germany in baby-vocab german after i’ve been there a week and got myself into the rhythm of the language/grammar.

  50. Shenpen: But you can’t make a teacher understand it. Teachers are by nature Rationalists. (That’s why they tend to lean Left, btw.)

    There’s probably a few other cultural factors at play there. State schools tend to be fairly unionised, and working for the government can induce a non-market-oriented mindset in most people. Also, if you’re teaching children, you’re probably going to have *some* kind of belief in the possibility of human progress, otherwise what would be the point?

    The idea that fluency precedes accuracy is well understood in most places. However, fluency is hard to test, and accuracy is easy. Guess what gets emphasised?

  51. >The idea that fluency precedes accuracy is well understood in most places.

    Wow. It never occurred to me that anyone could think otherwise. But then, I was a crib bilingual (English and Spanish) who subsequently had to pick up enough Italian and French to get by in.

    The funniest thing about this was that I disliked learning new languages, so I thought I must be bad at it. It gradually dawned on me as an adult that I actually have a pretty strong knack for language acquisition compared to most people who try, especially most adults; while I experience it as unpleasant mental effort, I also do it with unusual speed. And yes, fluency comes before accuracy.

    I think I’ve recently found out why I have that knack – there’s new research indicating that crib bilinguals get the language-processing areas of their brains wired in a slightly different way than most other peoples’. This makes total sense to me; it might explain things like my ability to hear and reproduce accurately speech distinctions that are not found in any language I actually know (until I was in my teens I didn’t understand that most people can’t do this!). Like the time I went to Taipei and learned to hear and reproduce Mandarin tone contours in a day and a half of immersion.

  52. >agenda is plural (of agendum) but is treated in modern english as singular.

    To all intents it is singular, and this fact is usually attested by dictionaries. English language changes. This reminds me of my personal bugbear: the hyper correctness of saying things like “The data are…” or “The die is showing a six.” To all practical purposes today data and dice are singular and should be treated as such. Datum and die as simply archaic forms nowadays. Hyper correction of someone else’s grammar is usually an indication that one does not have anything interesting or important to say. It is also, in my opinion, often a sign of elitism — a belief that the elite should prescribe grammar rather than describe the prevailing usage amongst the educated.

    >100 years ago, anyone saying “agendas” would have been regarded as a halfwit.

    Sure but 100 years ago anyone saying he brushed his teeth with toothpaste would get some strange looks too, since then it was known as Dentifrice. And anyone who did not know what “crossing the Rubicon” meant, or thought that “the die is cast” had something to do with molten metal would be considered a tomfool. I’d guess that, with the complete decline of Latin in schools, very few English speakers are familiar with these expressions, never mind their true meaning or provenance. They have been replaced by expressions like “past the point of no return”, or “no turning back now”, or “burn the boats”, all which have largely the same meaning.

  53. My last point wasn’t clear — I think it is perfectly OK that we burn our boats rather than crossing the Rubicon. I am in favor of a changing dynamic language. In many ways “the die is cast” encapsulates the essence of my argument: two of the words in this phrase are essentially archaic, and so the modern English reader does not read “the dice have been thrown”, and hence the meaning — we have taken our chances, burned our boats and now await the outcome. Rather they think: “the molten metal has been poured into a form and is now solidified”, that is to say our fate is sealed. This comes about because we are using archaic words that the modern reader does not understand, in fact, the words have different unrelated meanings in modern language. So, by doing so, we undermine the very purpose of language itself — communication.

  54. European in general: treating the name of a company like a plural. This also seems to apply in the U.K.: “Microsoft have a monopoly on desktop operating systems”, rather than American standard usage: “Microsoft has a monopoly on desktop operating systems”.

  55. Some years ago, I had the chance to review some business letters from a Puerto Rican who was truly bi-lingual, if that can be properly applied to written correspondence. Anyway, in Spanish, he would begin a letter something like, “My most esteemed colleague and valued friend, it gives me great pleasure to renew our correspondence … ” In English, he would begin, “Per our last correspondence, please …”

  56. On the subject of collective nouns, I think the British formulation makes sense. Consider “The Cowboys ARE the dominant team in the NFC East. Only Philadelphia IS a threat to them this year.” The British would use ARE in both sentences.

  57. “I think I’ve recently found out why I have that knack – there’s new research indicating that crib bilinguals get the language-processing areas of their brains wired in a slightly different way than most other peoples’.”

    I think I know what you mean – the ability to “intuitively” understand something without translating it to your native language, exactly because you have more than one native languages. Thus the concepts – and perhaps brain areas – of “understanding” and “expressing stuff in words” get more separated, you get more conscious of your sublingual thought processes, and you learn languages by translating them to your sublingual thought process and not to your native language. Monolinguals are often not conscious that this sublingual thought process even exists, which probably means the two areas of the brain are not very separated. It’s often hard to expalin to monolingual frie nds how comes I understand something perfectly well but that given expression is something hard to translate. How can you understand something without translating it? By translating it into the sublingual thought process which means becoming conscious this sort of thing even exists. This happens with later acquired bilinguiality too, it certainly happened to me.

  58. Andy Miller wrote:
    > Saltation wrote:

    >> “the estonians have a similar problem with he/she — they have no gender-specific 2nd-person pronoun.”

    > Why should that be an issue, as English hasn’t got one either? Do you know a language that does?

    Hebrew.

  59. esr: >Like the time I went to Taipei and learned to hear and reproduce Mandarin tone contours in a day and a half of immersion.

    !!

    Marco: your Puerto Rican friend seems even genuinely bi-cultural!

    but: >Consider “The Cowboys ARE the dominant team in the NFC East. Only Philadelphia IS a threat to them this year.” The British would use ARE in both sentences.

    no, they wouldn’t. they would use whichever of the plural or singular senses made most sense for the idea/sense they were trying to communicate. the only us-vs-uk tendency i’ve observed is a slight leaning in british public-writing toward the singular usage. ie, a status-aspirational brit journo will actually tend to do the opposite of what you suggest and write IS in both sentences.

  60. >>The other trend is that English spoken in India is highly influenced by local language and some of the local expressions are liberally mixed with English.<<

    Well, I imagine this is true in most places. I live in the North but my family is from the South (USA). Deep South. The differences in spoken language from where I live to where I visit family is pretty marked. Phraseology and local structure are pretty distinct and I tend to get a lot of ribbing from friends after a visit. I often don’t realize I’ve picked up Y’all again.

  61. “The idea that fluency precedes accuracy is well understood in most places. However, fluency is hard to test, and accuracy is easy. Guess what gets emphasised?”

    Damn. I just realized that applies to any kind of education, not just language education. That’s why I was surprisingly useless in *doing* pretty much anything useful after 4 years of business school: the set of well-testable skills (or, the set of well-mass-testable skills, as in: testing 600 people quickly) and the set of useful skills just don’t overlap enough. The obvious answer is that the only way to fix it (other than self-teaching, which is not for everybody) is to raise the teacher-student ratio radically (by an order of magnitude), which means expensive education, which means less university-educated people… which actually can be a good thing, by the way. Does the rest of the world have the same problem we have – too many people with a degree in psychology or marketing (without enough job opportunities) and too few plumbers?

  62. > I often don’t realize I’ve picked up Y’all again.

    Use of “y’all” is one facet on which I think dialectical English is a win compared to standard English. Distinguishing the plural form of the second-person pronoun from the singular form is a useful disambiguator. Unfortunately, it gets muddled up by the subdialects in which “y’all” is singular and “all y’all” is plural :-).

  63. Does the rest of the world have the same problem we have – too many people with a degree in psychology or marketing (without enough job opportunities) and too few plumbers?

    Dunno, I think there’s probably been a trend that way. The UK was getting short of plumbers a few years ago. They even had that “Posh Plumbers” thing where investment bankers and doctors were retraining because the money was better, until all the Polish ones turned up. I actually plumbed in my own sink before we sold our UK flat, it wasn’t so hard. Steer clear of gas though.

    Psychology and marketing are probably going to be in oversupply for a while for sure. OTOH, may not need that many plumbers either.

  64. Shenpen, Eric: >>“The idea that fluency precedes accuracy is well understood in most places. However, fluency is hard to test, and accuracy is easy. Guess what gets emphasised?”
    >Damn. I just realized that applies to any kind of education, not just language education.

    actually, it goes a lot deeper/broader than that. this “display/theatre” aspect of the ease of measurement of simple linear subsets/by-products of the notional goal is the very essence of most of the current problems with corporate america and civilservice uk, for example.

    interestingly, civilservice america and corporate uk have mostly escaped this acme of parasites’ routes. not sure why. altho i note that it’s gathering pace in corporate uk: great example is one particular spectacularly successful company owner took his company public a couple of years ago and is considering taking it private again, as the fatuousness of the blindly-applied metrics of The City are seriously pissing him off and are now in a position to threaten his company: the actual value he’s created.

  65. paraphrasing:
    “you haven’t provided quarter-on-quarter figures vs last year’s quarter-on-quarter!!!”

    “….
    ahhhh… if you understood this industry AT ALL, you would understand that no quarter is like any other quarter. graphing one quarter over another is somewhere between fatuous and fantasy, if you understand this industry AT ALL.
    AT ALL.
    you are presenting yourselves as industry specialist analysts.
    just to be clear: YOU GUYS HAVE NO FUCKING CLUE ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE PRETENDING YOU’RE EXPERTS AT!!!!!

    speaking as someone who resiled from the inside, i can only heartily agree and congratulate him on the swiftness of his apprehension. not to say applaud his sadly rare willingness to disparage them for their febrile attacks on him for nonconformity.

  66. >>Like the time I went to Taipei and learned to hear and reproduce Mandarin tone contours in a day and a half of immersion.
    >
    >!!

    Entertainingly, that one was relatively easy – I have a double advantage there, both the trick crib-bilingual ear for language and well-trained pitch discrimination (I’m a musician, too). It helps that the phonology of Chinese is actually very simple once you get past the tones.

    More difficult was learning how to pronounce Polish words correctly from their written forms during the .four or five days I spent in Warsaw. I remember I was making good progress, then got annoyed at myself because I was blocking on a particularly weird double affricate sound – felt better when one of my informants grinned and told me “many Poles cannot pronounce that one!”

    But the funniest part is still that until I was 19 or so it never occurred to me that other people couldn’t absorb the entire phonology and phonotactics of a language they hadn’t learned yet in a day or three of immersion. Wait…is this why people say learning languages is hard? I had had no idea. No clue at all.

  67. On the subject of collective nouns, I think the British formulation makes sense. Consider “The Cowboys ARE the dominant team in the NFC East. Only Philadelphia IS a threat to them this year.” The British would use ARE in both sentences.

    from the perspective of a working copy editor (among other things), the british collective-noun rule makes zero sense to me. “cowboys” is plural; the cowboys are. “philadelphia” is singular; philadelphia is, just like microsoft. the example given reads a little more elegantly if it’s constructed to be singular-singular or plural-plural anyway — dallas-philadelphia is, or cowboys-eagles are.

  68. > Use of “y’all” is one facet on which I think dialectical English
    > is a win compared to standard English.

    What Daniel attributes to different dialects I’d say is more a movement in the language of the south — that is to say the growing use of y’all as a second person singular pronoun along with the plural. This is definitely a sad loss. Unfortunately, I think y’all has become more of a shibboleth for southern culture rather than a real linguistic distinction (though that is often true of dialect variations.)

    However, I have also noticed a growing trend toward contractions with this pronoun, and a use of the genitive clitic too. So we get bizarre expressions like “Y’all’s dawg is barking in my yard.” or “Y’all’s in line for the checkout?” Is it legal to have two apostrophes in a word?

  69. But the funniest part is still that until I was 19 or so it never occurred to me that other people couldn’t absorb the entire phonology and phonotactics of a language they hadn’t learned yet in a day or three of immersion. Wait…is this why people say learning languages is hard? I had had no idea. No clue at all.

    I know exactly what you mean. Recently I was taken aback to hear from my mother that she had trouble learning French as a child because she couldn’t hear the difference between un and une. I don’t think I’ll ever grok that kind of inability in fullness. As for the learning of tones, I envy you your musical skill. I’ve never actually tried to learn a tone language, but from my experience dealing with tone in phonetics classes, I expect I would find it trickier than you did. I think we share the talent for picking up phonemic distinctions not present in our milk tongue(s), but music is something I have to work at.

    Is it legal to have two apostrophes in a word?

    I doubt you’d be arrested.

    Sorry :)

  70. “Is it legal to have two apostrophes in a word?”

    Yes, but only if it’s a Cthulhu Mythos novel.

  71. BTW, to sound US-American, write “phenomena” even if you mean the singular “phenomenon”…

    Doot-doo doodoodoo, doodoodoo, doodoodoo doodoodoo doodoo doot-doot-dooooooooo-doo.

  72. >Is it legal to have two apostrophes in a word?

    haven’t's difficult to write without them, as is i’d've. and the q’ran’s got nothing to say against it, so it’s kosher.

    >from the perspective of a working copy editor (among other things), the british collective-noun rule makes zero sense to me. “cowboys” is plural; the cowboys are. “philadelphia” is singular; philadelphia is

    you have other strings to your bow so please do not read this is as a personal attack but rather a chin-stroking observation of yet another instance of 100% conformity of one self-described group with a counter-intuitive realisation some years ago that surreally has since only ever been re-affirmed without exception. [tongue-in-cheek self-mocking deliberately protracted run-on sentence]
    i have yet to come across someone who describes themselve as a copyeditor who has a good grasp of writing, or one who does not have a strident insistence on B&W application of learned rules even where they’re mismatched with context.
    or more colloquially: i have never come across a copyeditor who is NOT a grammar nut; and i have never come across a copyeditor who does NOT have a poor grasp of grammar.
    here for example, you are muddling homophones. “cowboys” is the plural of “cowboy” but “The Cowboys” is a team. i can write “the team is playing next week” and i can write “the team are playing next week”. both are valid, but the sense of the second is that i’m talking about the people (in a group), while the sense of the first is that i’m talking purely about the “emergent” entity of the team in isolation from its constituents. if i’m talking about the team’s ranking in a league, i’d generally lean towards “is”; if i’m talking about the team members piling into a bus to get to the pitch, i’d generally lean towards “are”.

    eg “Barcelona is heading to the pub to celebrate” vs “Barcelona are heading to the pub to celebrate”.

    The Stepford Wives are films? no, The Stepford Wives IS a film.

  73. > or more colloquially: i have never come across a copyeditor who
    > is NOT a grammar nut; and i have never come across a copyeditor
    > who does NOT have a poor grasp of grammar

    When writing a grammar flame it is considered appropriate to carefully check your own writing for errors. Your comment is bristling with many, many very basic errors.

    Or, to put it more colloquially, He is rubber and you are glue.

  74. >i have yet to come across someone who describes themselve as a copyeditor who has a good grasp of writing, or one who does not have a strident insistence on B&W application of learned rules even where they’re mismatched with context.

    Exceptions to this rule do exist. I’ve worked with two of them. One of those two was Tim O’Reilly.

    Such paragons are rare, and I think about the only way to encounter them is to work with a really top-flight technical publishing house that is treating your book as a major effort requiring its A-list talent. Fortunately, this described both of my last two books.

  75. Your comment is bristling with many, many very basic errors.

    Apart from deliberate stuff, that one’s actually pretty clean. And the ‘flame’ is fairly subdued and defanged.

    I’d wait for another opportunity.

  76. “We deploy [that] always to this web server.” might as well be a Germanism; the grammar fits just as well as in Russian.

    Causal sentences are especially tricky for germans, because then often the verb at the end of the sentence comes.
    (SCNR, of course i know how it’s done right)

  77. “Causal sentences are especially tricky for germans, because then often the verb at the end of the sentence comes.”

    Yes, and the opposite is equally hard for everybody else learning German: often I have no idea what the verb is (or what the complete verb is: fang … … … … … … … … … an.), thus, I can’t even begin to understand the sentence before it’s finished because the most important part of the puzzle is missing right until the end, and then, at the end, I’m supposed to understand when I’ve already forgotten half of what was said in between :) I suppose the only way to fix it is by practice: I’ll have to learn to guess, and guess correctly, what the typical verbs are in typical sentences.

    I like the urban legend that High German arised as the commanding language of the Prussian army and most local dialects are a bit more like Dutch or Old English (that’s surely true around Chemnitz) but I’m not at all sure it is actually true, but this feature of the language actually fits into this interesting theory (or legend).

  78. agenda is plural (of agendum) but is treated in modern english as singular

    What’s the plural of Nissan Maxima?

  79. Yes. Guessing will probably be the best you can do :)

    As to the source of High German, Wikipedia says your story is only half right. What would later become High German came from the south (Bavaria, of all places!) and was later picked up and distributed by Luther and his translation of the bible.

  80. Adrian Smith: quite. the words “shoot” and “foot” spring immediately to mind.

    Eric: >>i have yet to come across someone who describes themselve as a copyeditor who has a good grasp of writing, or one who does not have a strident insistence on B&W application of learned rules even where they’re mismatched with context.
    Exceptions to this rule do exist. I’ve worked with two of them. One of those two was Tim O’Reilly.
    Such paragons are rare

    quite. and i’m glad you’ve found exceptions. but, you know, i’d be surprised if they DESCRIBED themselves as “copyeditors”, other than incidentally.

    ie, they don’t have their ego bound up in/with/as/validatedby a special status acquired by telling other people how to do things

  81. A former colleague of mine is Iranian; he dropped definite article from written sentences all the time, too. I asked him about it; like Russian, Farsi doesn’t have a definite article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> <pre lang="" line="" escaped="" highlight="">