What is a Romance Language?

The Romance Languages are often described as being the most beautiful in Europe and perhaps the world. What are they and where did they come from?
At the height of the Roman Empire in Europe, Africa and parts of Asia, Latin was widely spoken.In the Italian peninsular it was probably the mother tongue in most areas (the far south of Italy and parts of Sicily probably used Greek) and it would have also been so for all formal business around the vast empire. In the eastern provinces, Greek played a prominent international role too. It’s also possible that Latin was fairly extensively spoken as a mother tongue in many of the cities around the Mediterranean world, which had been founded originally as colonies and settled by retired soldiers, their families and perhaps business merchants.

However, it shouldn’t be assumed that everyone in the empire spoke Latin.  Very large number of people living within the empire would have continued to speak their normal ancestral languages (e.g. one of the Celtic tongues or Greek etc.).Even amongst those that spoke Latin as a mother tongue, we know that there was a major difference between the language as spoken and used by ordinary people (Vulgar Latin) and that of the relatively small number of members of the ruling classes (Classical Latin). Scholars still argue about the distribution but it seems as if Classical Latin may have been largely restricted to formal documents and events, with Vulgar Latin being the language of everyday use.They were mutually intelligible.

The End of Latin

Rome’s decline and fall, in the west, was relatively rapid.  The city was sacked by invaders in 410CE and the Western Empire is formally said to have come to an end in 476CE with the removal of the last emperor.Before these dates though, the empire had already been struggling to maintain any form of cohesion and as a result, two major changes arose for language:

  • Greek became increasingly the official language of government in the Eastern Roman Empire – formalising what was largely an existing reality.
  • In the West, individual areas of the Empire began to experience large-scale conquest and settlement by new peoples migrating from the east. As the imperial and commercial ties to Roman culture weakened and eventually collapsed, the old Vulgar Latin began to evolve into numerous different individual languages, including merging in some cases with elements of the new incomer (or ‘Barbarian’) languages.

Within as little as 200 years of the Empire’s passing, the Latin once spoken in many of the old ‘heartlands’ of Rome’s domains was no longer intelligible to the people living in them. Some continuity was preserved in Church services and administration, diplomatic levels and literature but broadly speaking, in a very short time, Latin had become a dead language.

New Languages out of the Ashes of Rome

In spite of the incoming populations having their own languages, some parts of what had once been ‘The Empire’, evolved languages that had a significant legacy from Vulgar Latin. Those languages are:

  • Portuguese
  • Spanish
  • Italian
  • French
  • Catalan

This excludes many smaller language groups such as ‘Dalmatian’, which are also regarded as being descendants of Latin.It is unclear why these areas developed languages with a relatively clear debt to Vulgar Latin whereas other ex-imperial domains, such as Britain, parts of Germany and North Africa, did not. It may reflect the extent to which Roman culture and language was assimilated over the centuries prior to the empire’s fall.

Collectively, the languages that evolved out of Vulgar Latin are called today ‘The Romance Languages’. Contrary to some popular misconception, this terminology is nothing to do with the romantic pre-dispositions of their speakers! In fact, it arises from the Vulgar Latin adverb “Romanice” meaning roughly “in the way of the Romans”.

Today’s Situation

Today, the Roman language group comprises around 35 living languages, though many of them are spoken by minorities. Technically, they are classified as Italic Languages within the Indo-European language family.The relationship between the languages is complex.For the most part, they are not mutually intelligible though some sounds, phrases and words are so similar that they are understood.

For example:

English:                     How are you?shutterstock_321415904

French:                      Comment vas-tu?

Catalan:                     Com estàs?

Castilian :                  ¿cómoestás?

Portuguese :             Como vocêestá?

Italian :                       come va?

Although a trivial example, from this it can be seen how in sound and spelling terms, the five above Romance languages are much closer to each other than they are to English, which is a Germanic language.

For Language Students

Many students, once they speak one of the main Romance languages, find it relatively easy to then move on to another. Many of the grammatical constructs are very similar, as are some of the words and sound-forms. The relationship between the languages is a big help!

Omotesando and Matsuri Experience

Omotesando and Matsuri Experience

The BentoLingo team travelled to Tokyo to attend the Tech in Asia Conference. Exciting as it already sounds, the team made the most of their visit to Tokyo and collected their experiences to use them in the language courses to give the learner the taste of authenticity of the Japanese culture and traditions.

Japan as we know is a country of rich cultural heritage as well as the hub of modern technology. So as the team walked around exploring the city of Tokyo, they experienced modern neighborhoods with posh shopping arcades, highly advanced tech gadgets and other technological wonders and also chanced upon some traditional flavors of Japan. One of such exciting avenues was Omotesando in the Shibuya area of Tokyo.

This road is a classic example of Japan’s old meets new. Traditionally, this road was created in the Taisho era as the frontal entrance to the Meiji Shrine and dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken. Omotesando literally means front entrance in Japanese where Omote is for front and Sando translates to approach.

Lined by the ornamental Japanese elm or keyaki, the road makes for a perfect setting for the posh locale that it has transformed itself into since the old Taisho era. The road is studded with multitude of luxury lines, high street fashion and flagship stores such as Chanel, Burberry, Zara. However, among these modern elements, what the team witnessed next was something traditional, ancient and exotic for foreigners.

Matsuri or festival are a beautiful sight in Japan. The most prominent part of a matsuri procession is the Mikoshi or the elaborate float which is usually decorated and people sing and dance around it in celebration. The matsuri spotted by the BentoLingo team was for good harvest. It was quite a unique experience watching the parade with men and women dressed in saffron clothes, singing and dancing around the Mikoshi.

Matsuris are sometimes based around temples and shrines and the Meiji Shrine being close to the Omotesando area, it could be assumed that they were from the Meiji shrine. However, matsuris can also be arranged by people from the same neighbourhood or machis sometimes. Hence, although it is most likely that this matsuri was from the Meiji Shrine, but it could also be a local matsuri arranged by the people of the nearby neighborhood.

Usually somewhere near the matsuri parade area there are food and entertainment stalls which the BentoLingo team enjoyed exploring on a pleasant Sunday afternoon.

Some famous matsuris of Japan are Aoi held in Kyoto, Kanda in Tokyo, AwaOdori in Tokushima and Tenjin in Osaka. It is highly recommended to experience such a happy and joyous celebration at least once while visiting Japan.

Post the joyous matsuri experience, the BentoLingo team were off to the nearby Harajuku area to buy bentoboxes for the booth visitors at‘Tech in Asia’. Yes, since BentoLingo is inspired by the concept of a Japanese bentobox, the team decided to present bentoboxes with language information to all the visitors.


The Alphabets

The Origin of the Alphabet

Where does the Alphabet come from? Who invented it? From where does the word itself derive? The alphabet is fundamental to our exploration of many languages today and its history is fascinating.

In the 21st century world, we take the idea of the ‘Alphabet’ for granted. Yet it’s origins go back deep into human history and it has evolved massively over the passing of millennia.

The Need to Communicate

Human beings have always needed to communicate.  Originally that communication would have been exclusively verbal and body-language based but early humans needed another mechanism too.

That’s because in their rituals, they needed to communicate both with their gods and also other people who would follow them.  These two things are very possibly the origin of cave paintings, the oldest of which goes back some 35,000 years.

Whether they were art, some form of ritualistic device or messages to other humans, it is clear that their creators wished to communicate something to somebody.

This introduced another key revelation to early societies – the concept of communication over distance. Yes, it was possible to stand on a hill and wave one’s arms to signify “danger – stay away” but what if others out of earshot thought the signal meant “good news – come quickly?”

Clearly early societies needed to develop ways of communicating unambiguous and standardised meaning over distances that were beyond visual and audible contact. This was self-preservation and a survival imperative – and it helped spur on the development of writing.

Early Writing Systems

It should be remembered that much of the origin of writing and alphabets is still the subject of fierce academic debate.

However, there is a degree of consensus that the first ‘proto-writing’ systems may have evolved as early as 6,000-7,000 BCE independently in several places around the globe. These were largely pictorial systems that did not convey language within them – as far as is known.

True writing seems to have first commenced in the Mesopotamian region of today’s Middle-East (roughly modern Iraq) around 3500BCE though some scholars dispute this and attribute its origin to Egypt.At this stage, it was still a largely pictorial representation.

For example, early cuneiform script from around 3,000BCE still used a symbol (e.g. a bird’s head) and a number of strokes alongside to indicate a number.  Typically, this was used in things such as inventory taking and receipts. These early writing systems usually consisted of what is typically (though not entirely accurately) called today ‘hieroglyphics’ and they’re best-known through those of ancient Egypt.

Slowly, the use of phonetic sounds began to arrive in writing.  A major milestone, agreed by most though not all scholars, was what appears to be the origin of the use of markers for sounds (consonants only) in the ancient Egyptian texts of around 1800BCE. This appears to have been influenced by the language of the Semitic peoples who were then workers in Egypt proper.This is important because once sounds start to be represented in writing and they’re standardised, then one has an alphabet.

Linguists know the early alphabets of this period as “Abjad”.  This is because they still do not represent vowel-sounds through unique characters.

Next Steps – Europe

Via mechanisms that are unknown, these early alphabets spread into the area once known as ‘Canaan’ in the region of modern Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Syria.  They were picked up and used by the peoples that became known as the ‘Phoenicians’ of the area and that provided one important evolutionary path.They were also used in Aramaic, used by peoples in the east of the area and in languages such as Hebrew. This became the second evolutionary path.

The Phoenicians were amongst the greatest sailors and traders of the ancient world and during their voyages around the Mediterranean, they came into contact with the Ancient Greeks who learned of their alphabet and quickly adopted it.  However, the Greek language meant that the existing Abjad Phoenician alphabet was cumbersome. So, with their usual inventiveness, the Greeks started to bring vowel-sounds into their own version of the alphabet.

This process formed the basis of the alphabet that would become the norm in Europe via the Romans and later much of the world. Today we call that ‘Latin Script’.Interestingly, the origin of the word ‘alphabet’ comes into English from Latin, where it came from ancient Greek and before that it goes back to its Phoenician origins and the first two letters of that alphabet,ʾālepand bēt’ meaning “house” and “ox”respectively.This is an extraordinary lineage in the history of language.

Next Steps – Asia

Through ancient Aramaic, the Abjad alphabet spread eastwards from the Middle East. Adopted by the Persians, it rapidly became the basis of most if not all west, central and possibly southern Asian language alphabets.

Over time, the Abjads reflected vowel-sounds through ‘long consonants’ or in some cases, evolved (or were revised) to reflect new vowel characters.

For many years, the model of the spread of alphabets out of the Middle East and then around the world, was favoured. However, more recently that has been challenged in several areas, examples of which include:

  • There is evidence to suggest that Chinese evolved independently around 1200BCE.
  • Many south-Asian scholars suggest that Brahmi (the ancestral script of many south-Asian languages) evolved from the still un-deciphered Indus Valley script. This is disputed by western scholars given the similarities between Brahmi and Aramaic and the known contact between the two cultures at the time.
  • Some pre-Columbian languages in South America, plus one or two in Africa, may have developed their own independent alphabets


As always, the history of the relationships between languages is complex and sometimes also sensitive.  Much work remains to be done in this area.





Is it Easier for English Speakers to Learn German?

Is it Easier for English Speakers to Learn German?

If you already speak English, it will be a big help in getting to grips with the German language given the shared origin of the two.
The English language evolved out of Old English, or as some prefer to call it, “Anglo-Saxon English”. That language itself had evolved out of Old German.

Although the evolution of modern English was heavily influenced by Danish during the period of the Vikings, Latin and Norman-French after 1066, it remains categorized as a “Germanic Language”.
So, how much assistance does speaking English provide to someone learning German today?

Modern English

It’s sometimes possible for English speakers and German speakers to understand odd phrases in each other’s language even if theydon’t speak the language concerned. Examples include:

  • Do you have? / Hast du (or Habensie)?
  • Where is the station? / Vo ist die station?
  • I have a hound/ Ichhabeeinen Hund.
  • I like fish :Ich mag fisch.

Many of these common sounds and word usages are directly attributable to the part-shared history of the two modern languages. However, that is as far as it goes. Apart from some simple phrases and words, the two languages are not mutually intelligible to their speakers.

Yet it can be very helpful to speak English if you’re trying to learn German and the reverse is also true.


One of the first points that should be obvious from the above is that English and German share, due to their evolution from a common root, many common and near-common words or as they’re correctly called, “linguistic cognates”. This is a huge advantage for students of German who are also Anglophone.  It simplifies the sometimes challenging task associated with memorising words in a language if they’re 100% different.

There are hundreds of words in English and German that are identical both in spelling and meaning. There are also a very large number where the spelling is slightly different but the meaning is identical (e.g. “Fish :Fisch”).

Another advantage for English-speakers is that of pronunciationb1

Now it’s true that there are certain sounds in German that either don’t exist in English or are slightly tricky for an English-speaker. One
such example is the ‘ü’ umlaut which is pronounced with a sort of long “oooweh” sound that is not usually found in English. Another is the back-throat “ch” sound as in “Ich”. That sound actually is found and used in Scottish English as in “Loch Lomond” but today many English speakers in England and the USA will use the hard ‘ck’ to pronounce it as in “Lock Lomond”.

It should be noted though that in terms of spoken skills, the “ü” and “ch” sounds in German (plus many others like them) are typically not hard for Anglophones to master – which is a big advantage. For example, the use of “ck” for the Scottish “ch” sound by English speakers south of the border is usually just linguistic laziness rather than the sound being hard to articulate.

This differentiates English speakers from say Francophones, many of whom find it very difficult b22to make the German “ch” sound and will usually pronounce it incorrectly as a long “ssh” as in “EesshLiebeDeessh”.

The bottom line is that most people who speak English well should have little trouble with most German pronunciation.

Finally, in spite of 20th century history, the United Kingdom, the USA and Germany share many aspects of a similar culture.  As culture is frequently reflected in the use of language, this means that there are many ways of expressing one’s self in German that have strong echoes in English and vice-versa.  That’s also why many native English-speakers feel, when visiting Germany, that it is somehow less ‘different’ and ‘foreign’ than say France or Spain.


If that is all encouraging, there are also many differences between the two languages that can cause native English speakers a problem.

The first of these is noun genders.  German has three (masculine, feminine and neuter) and they affect all aspects of sentence structures and articles. This does not exist in English and many English-speakers find this a difficult area to grasp, though it exists in many other languages too.

Another classic problem is German’s concatenation of words. This is the joining together of lots of words to form one very long word that in English would be a sentence or phrase.

For example, consider “Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän”. This word is actually “Danube steamship company captain“. The problem here for English speakers is not that the word is hard to pronounce but rather that, at a first glance, it’s hard to read and most importantly, it’s length is intimidating.

Word (subject, object, action) order in a sentence can also confuse. The English “I ask everyone to come here” in German is “Ichbittealle, hierherzukommen” or “I ask everyone here to come”.      .

This can be very tricky for English speakers to pick up though oddly, the ancient common roots of the two languages mean that echoes of this can be seen even today in formal archaic English, such as in a wedding service “I call upon those here-present…” (closer to German) rather than the modern English  “I call upon those present here…”.

Finally, although it is declining in use today, sometimes formal German is written in Gothic script (Fraktur or Sutterlin). Although formally abandoned in 1941, this script is sometimes still used by older Germans or for artistic/tourist purposes on signs etc. It can be very hard for modern Germans to read and exceptionally difficult for non-German speakers to understand, even if they are English-speaking!



Language Families

What are ‘Language Families’?

Today there are approximately 7,500 languages spoken in the world. These are categorized into 15 major Language Family groupings, showing how the constituent languages share a common ancestry. These are useful to understand if you’re studying languages.  The term ‘language families’ is often heard but it’s often also misunderstood.

Let’s examine the basics.

That Sounds Just Like…………

True, most people don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what languages were spoken 5,000 years ago! However, many of us have had that experience of hearing a new language for the first time and thinking “that sounds similar to”. It’s a common human experience and one that can yield some interesting results.

For example, it should be unsurprising that Dutch and German can sound similar even though they’re separate languages.  The countries are geographically close and share certain components of their ancient histories. So, it’s not stretching our understanding too much when specialists tell us that they are both examples of a ‘Germanic Language’.

Yet sometimes our ears can be misleading.

A good example of this is listening to Hungarian and Finnish.  The two countries are far apart and their languages sound totally different. It’s therefore a surprise for some to discover that they are, in fact, closely related and actually part of a very rare linguistic grouping in Europe.

Language Families

Scientific analysis over many decades has shown that it’s possible to identify where modern languages came from and their common ancestors that inevitably results in a tree structure, very similar to that used when developing a family tree of your ancestors. All that’s necessary is to identify the parents of your language, then its grandparents and so on. That also provides an interesting linguistic relationship insight, showing which modern languages are related to each other and how.

To take one of the above examples, it’s possible to show that four modern European languages (Finnish, Hungarian, Basque and Estonian) have a different ancestry to all the other languages spoken on the continent.  So, while all other languages such as English, German, French and Spanish (etc.) are part of the language family known as “Indo-European”, the Finns and Hungarians speak a language that has come down an entirely different evolutionary path from the “Uralic” family tree.

A Diverse World

Unfortunately, linguistic historians argue about categorizations and families. The “Niger-Congo” family tree has the greatest number of individual languages within it, at around 1500 distinct tongues. However, the greatest numbers of native speakers within a single language family are those under the “Indo-European”grouping.

The origins of this family have been tentatively identified as being around the Black Sea regions of Asia and Europe approximately 6,000 years ago.  From there, the language spread and evolved into many different tongues throughout Asia and Europe.

In all language families, including the Indo-European group, there were inevitably dead ends.

Today we’re familiar with the concept of dead languages. Some languages died out simply because they weren’t fit for purpose and couldn’t adapt to the changing world around them. That was, perhaps, a linguistic ‘survival of the fittest’. These core language families evolved into sub-groups as time passed.  So, using Europe as an example, today it’s possible to identify English, German and Dutch (plus others) as belonging to the Germanic sub-group of the Indo-European family.

Why this matters

Perhaps this is all starting to look a bit dry and academic but it’s relevant for today’s students.

As far back as the 16th century, European visitors to India were staggered to find similarities between Sanskrit as well as ancient Greek and Latin. They found, as many people today learning languages also find,that it’s helpful to understand where languages have grammatical and similar structural rules – a generic relationship between languages.

It can be a useful learning aid – an important thing in today’s global world.

Top 10 ways to learn Japanese


The Top 10 Ways to Learn Japanese

The Global Language

English – The Global Language

Around 1500 years ago, Anglo-Saxon English was a minority language in the British Isles. It was spoken by only a few small Germanic tribes that had migrated into the Eastern parts of the ruins of Roman Britain. Today the descendant of their language is the global tongue of the 21st century.  How did that happen?By the late 1500’s, English is still a minority tongue spoken only by the inhabitants of England, those in southern and central Scotland, in some parts of Wales and also some pockets of Ireland.

The major international languages of the time, in European terms, are Portuguese, Spanish, French, Latin and even Dutch.  English is largely irrelevant as a world language – so what happened?

The First Expansion of English

England (we should remember that the UK did not exist at the time) was slow to join in the exploration and colonisation rush that hit Europe in the 16th century.
Initially Spain, Portugal and Holland lead the way in developing large overseas possessions, colonies and trade networks (e.g. in South America). That changed when English explorers under Queen Elizabeth I started to sail the oceans – most notably to North America and the Caribbean.

The very first colonies in the New World were far from a total success but they did, for the first time, establish native English-speaking populations outside of the British Isles. Even so, English remained an unimportant language of a minor country on the fringes of Europe


The earliest English colonization was relatively small-scale.  Unlike in the case of some other countries, commercial and trade factors were often the prime motivation and there is little or no sense of conquest and ‘Empire Building’.
The first English explorers and colonists are not Conquistadores in the sense of the Spanish in South America but often ordinary people looking for somewhere to settle to escape hardship and religious persecution at home.
As the colonies spread and grew in these early areas, the trade they engaged in spread likewise, as did their language, English.


By around 1700, the wars between England and Holland for naval and trade supremacy had resulted in England (latterly Britain) replacing Holland as the main European maritime trading nation. As trade expanded and Dutch competition reduced, English spread further via this ocean trade and makes inroads into parts of coastal Africa, the Indian sub-continent and Asia.

As the 17th/18th centuries switched over, Spain as a great power was in rapid decline and in Europe it was replaced by France as the continental superpower. At this time, due to wealth and prestige, French had become the international language of science, diplomacy, the arts, literature and war. It’s far more important in global terms than English.

Rarely has a single war had such an effect on the distribution of a language though than the Seven Years War (1754-1763).  The first truly global war, the result was a massive defeat for France, inflicted by Britain and its allies.  As a result, Britain took possession of Canada, Florida, numerous islands and most of the French possessions in India.

Almost overnight in historical terms, Britain became a superpower and its language started to replace French as the global language of choice in some fields but most notably in business and trade.


The Industrial Revolution and Global Business

Another major milestone in the spread of English was the almost unimaginable explosion in science and technology that took place in Britain from around the middle of the 18th century.

For the first time, factories were set up on a mass-production basis and harnessed the power of initially water and latterly coal/steam to create vast industrial enterprises.  Between around 1750 and around 1825, Britain became the world’s first industrial nation and it simply out-produced all other nations on earth in most manufactured goods.

There was a vast global demand for British goods and that also helped yet again to push the language around the globe. British articles needed to be shipped to their destinations though and that led to the development of a massive global trading network and yet more acquisition of land to supportthat trade (e.g. Hong Kong and Singapore).

Colonial Spread and Empire

As the 19th century arrived, there’s a subtle and then rapid shift towards ‘Empire’ as trade imperatives start taking second place to a egocentric desire to “paint the map red” in terms of British possessions. The final defeat of France and Napoleon in 1815 made the UK the world’s first global superpower and it remained unchallenged as such for a century.
Massive areas of the planet were annexed directly or indirectly, until such time as roughly 25% of Earth’s surface and about 20% of the planet’s population was ruled from London (around 1920).

Inevitably, English proliferated throughout these lands as the language of imperial administration and trade.Even areas outside the Empire, notably China and parts of the Middle East, were heavily influenced by British trade, imperial power and therefore English. This is also the period of the great explorers and the settlement of countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada and they all later proved very important in also spreading the tongue.


The US colonies won their independence through war in the 18th century. Their expansion westwards and south took the English language ever further.As British military and trade power waned and finally vanished after 1945, the Empire vanished almost as quickly as it had been born.

However, a new wave of expansion of the English language had started in the 19th century with the exportation of British and also increasingly US culture.  The works of Jane Austin, the Brontes, Shakespeare, Kipling, Darwin, Shelly, Dickens, Tennyson and many others, flowed around those imperial trade routes and had a large impact.

All the old colonies contributed to this, most notably the USA and the process accelerated massively into the 20th century. Radio, Television and Hollywood movies, all helped spread the language ever further in partnership with trade and business.By the 1930’s, US English and culture became the predominant force here, rather than the UK.

The massive explosion of youth culture and popular entertainment in the 1950’s-60’s had its origins in the US and UK and that created yet another wave of English proliferation around the globe. Rock and Roll proved to be hugely attractive to youth everywhere and they wanted it in the original – i.e. English.

This tendency was matched and boosted again by the development of Information Technology, originally largely in the USA, which led to English being adopted as the common tongue for technology science.

One final factor is important here – the late 20th century business trend towards ‘globalization’. As technology made the world smaller, people needed a common language to do business in and due to the above history plus certain characteristics of the language itself, English was in the right place at the right time.

In history, things change but due to its fundamental links into science, technology and business, it seems as if English will continue to be the ‘international’ language of choice for the foreseeable future with perhaps Chinese and possibly Spanish on the horizon as rivals.

The Chinese Tones

The Use of Tones in Chinese

To speak Mandarin, it’s necessary to understand and use tones. These are generally used to differentiate between syllable sounds and therefore meanings.  Here is a brief explanation and some examples.

Many people trying to learn Chinese (here considered to be Beijing area Mandarin) find great difficulties with the language’s use of tones.

Let’s consider what these are why they’re important.

What is a tone?


Symbols for Tranquility, Harmony and Peace

Although many students of Chinese can sometimes panic when confronted with tones, at the outset it’s important to recognize that these are not unique to this language.

All languages use tones to differentiate meanings and some use far more complex and exotic mechanisms such as clicks – for example, the Khoisan languages of Southern Africa.

Even many widespread languages use such devices.  In British English, the “Tut-Tut” used to signify mild or jokey disapproval is pronounced as a click made by the tongue against the front roof of the mouth rather than as a word (usually).

In English and other languages, tones are also used.  For example, the simple English expression “Oh really?” can be used as:

  • I am genuinely surprised and this is believable
  • I don’t believe this and I’m letting you know gently that I don’t
  • A heavily sarcastic “I don’t believe you
  • You’re insulting my intelligence by telling me something I already know very well.

These various meanings are communicated by tonal qualities and subtle emphasis on vowels etc.  Yet tones are not really a formal grammatical part of many languages in the way that they are in Chinese.

The Use of Tones in Chinese

Unlike in many languages, Chinese has a formal tonal structure.  There are four tones in Chinese used (with many variations) and they’re called:

  • Yin Ping
  • Yang Ping
  • Shang
  • Qu

There is also a neutral fifth tone.

The way they’re used is important because Chinese contains numerous words that effectively share a spelling but are differentiated by the tonal quality, where it is used in the word and how it is delivered.

Once again, this as a principle shouldn’t be too alien. In French the word “Moule” can mean either the marine mussel or a casting mould.   In English adraft can be a minor wind current, a preliminary drawing or the displacement of water beneath a vessel (with some variations between US and UK English spellings draft/draught).

The way languages differentiate between such words is usually context or as in Chinese, the tones used.At this stage, it has to be acknowledged that it isn’t possible in a brief article to go into detail on the exact usage. This is an important area of study and it can take some time to understand and master the basics of tonal uses in Chinese.  However, some of the following example may help.

The Chinese word “da” (which sounds like ‘Ah’ in English) can mean:

  • to hang over something
  • to answer
  • to hit
  • big

The difference between the four meanings is given by the tone which rises or falls in different ways depending upon the meaning.

The reason tones are used is because Chinese doesn’t have as many syllables as many other languages. In fact, it has around 400 compared to the 12,000 of English. So, the comparative lack of syllables is compensated for by the wide and very varied usage of tones.

Don’t be Afraid

Yes, this is a complex concept to grasp and as a result, it can intimidate language learners planning to study Chinese.There is no need though. By using modern techniques and materials as well as technology support, many people quickly grasp the basics of the four main tonal groups of Mandarin Chinese.


Who Is A Linguist?

To answer this question, we may actually first understand who is not a linguist. From the word “Lingua” itself we somehow understand that it has something to do with languages. Language is a system of communication, a major factor in building a civilisation, a tool for literary expression, a way to express thought. We usually see a lot of interested faces when we start a discussion on languages. However, can we call all these interested people linguists?

Many people are fascinated by languages and learn a lot of languages as a constructive hobby, join language clubs, play different games and solve language puzzles, admire beautiful poetry written in good language. Does this mean that all these language enthusiasts are linguists?

Some people work in fields which require working with languages extensively, for example journalists and writers write books and articles, politicians use impressive language to attract audiences, translators use languages all the time to take ideas from one language and recreate them effectively in another language. Psychologists, sociologists, engineers, lawyers and many other professional practitioners find several points of interests in the functional properties of languages. Are all of them linguists?

A linguist’s role and work is markedly different from all the above mentioned roles. A linguist has no external motivation to use language as a tool to accomplish some other work. A linguist approaches these phenomena of languages from within to study language itself instead of completing some other task through the medium of language. A linguist is interested in finding out how we learn languages, how the brain works in learning different languages and how we retain the language in our minds. A linguist carries out a ‘scientific investigation’ of languages and understands the underlying principles of human languages by following every scientific research conventions including empirical and statistical convention.shutterstock_330784067

One may even wonder what a ‘scientific investigation’ is in this case. Science is a discipline that tries to explain why and how things are the way they are. Scientific studies involve having a hypothesis, data collection, analysis and explanation of the data collected, followed by statistical analyses and finally they accept or reject their hypothesis by ultimately culminating is making of a law or theory. Hence a linguistic study involves all these aspects of a scientific investigation and a linguist is usually highly interested in such enquiries. A true linguist is constantly engaged in discovering more about languages and improving their methods of research and constructing new theories.

So would you say that a linguist speaks lots of languages? The answer is no. A linguist may very well be monolingual. The discipline does not involve speaking these languages but studying the languages with the help of the above mentioned scientific conventions and understand the underlying structure of language or languages.

So, the next time you come across a linguist, think twice before asking “How many languages do you speak?”

Literature and Music in Learning a Language

The Role Of Literature and Music in Learning a Language

A Sunday In Bangalore

Today is Sunday. It’s a great day to take time off work and reflect on your past or plan for your future. For me though, Sunday is the day I get to see the city of Bangalore. I am still new to the city. However, I think if I am to follow the “signs”, Bangalore is a city that is willing to welcome me with open arms.
As I walk from my residence to the office everyday, I get a chance to see the lives of the people, very closely. The 20-minute walk can be divided broadly into three parts. The first part is a small lane with small shops across both sides of the lane. As I walk through this lane, I see the happiness on the face of the child who just bought a balloon from a street vendor. I see the pain on the face of this old vendor who is having a hard time selling fruits on the street. I hear the honking of cars who look desperate to beat each other to perhaps compete in the next F1 race. Who knows? And then, I see shops that sell traditional Indian clothes, right next to the shops which are selling contemporary and western fashion. It is a contrast that is hard to ignore.

Whether you like India or not, the smell of the food as you walk through the streets will grip you. The same happens with me, everyday. And just like how you can see the various layers of India at the same time, it is no different when it comes to the smell trying to seduce your olfactory senses. As you walk, you can smell the fresh fruit and vegetables which are being sold on the street and then the smell of a dosa which is being crafted in a nearby open restaurant somehow finds your nostrils. The fusion of various smells screams out to you to beg and take notice of what’s happening around you.

The second part is a street that takes you through a residential neighborhood. The homes here are particularly colorful. To imagine finding a home which is painted pink on the outside in US, is unimaginable. But I think, this is the beauty of India. It is so colorful. The Indian culture is colorful and imaginative, in every sense of the way. When I see these colorful homes wrapped in the arms of greenery, I feel calm and happy. I think it is one of the biggest advantages of being in Bangalore that it is still very green.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAQ2AAAAJDQ0MTk4YjhhLTQ5NWMtNGMxMi05NTdmLWMyZGJjODI0NTlhYQThe third part is the main road that leads to the office. On this road, you will find restaurants, café shops, gyms, snack hangouts and offices. You can see once again the fusion of western and Indian food concepts. As I am having my lemon tea and typing this segment out from this café called Talk Over Table, I look straight ahead and see the small entrance which is right off the main road. I see the cars, bicycles, scooters and people going left to right and right to left; the life flowing in fronting of my eyes, and I think that in the days to come, it will be Bangalore that will be India’s identity. It is a city that has shown remarkable flexibility in adapting to various cultures and subcultures which have come to define this city. This city has something for everyone.

So, as I am about to finish off my drink and head to the office, I am excited to see what the day has to offer for me. With so much happening at Linguavista, we are ready to take on the world with our base in Bangalore.

The 3 Pillars of Leadership (100-10-1 Rule)

When I started Linguavista at the age of 20, little did I know of leadership and conventional wisdom that governs leadership. Almost four years into it, I still don’t think of myself as the perfect leader. Well, perfection is hard to fathom in the convoluted world of leadership. The same person can be a messiah and a devil to different people in the same organization. However, history doesn’t beckon the merit of a leader by taking the headcount of people standing behind the leader. History remembers the deeds of the leaders who dared to dream and in the process, achieved a landmark significant enough for the mankind to aspire and look up to.

As a leader, I have often faced adversities which were the consequences of my decisions and are precursors to periods of uncertainties. I have my own way of handling the tougher moments in my leadership and over time, that will define how I am as a leader. However, if I were to accrue my drop of wisdom about leadership and split it among three pillars, I would list the following as the most important tenets of a leader.

VISION (100)

The very first principle and an often underestimated aspect of being a leader is that the leader must possess a clear vision. Behind the creativity of Steve Jobs, the careless genius of Richard Branson, the charisma of Elon Musk; is a vision that has made these men successful in their own right. They, among other distinguished men and women, are the flag bearers of the ship in which mankind is sailing today. They are the people who dare to dream of a new world. They are the captains of the great ships that are marshaling fearlessly amid the torrid waters of economy and competition to reach greatness. There is a difference between a vision and an illusion as much as there is a difference between love and like. It does not cost you a penny to come up with an idea that can potentially change the way things work in this world. Hundreds of people, ordinary and extraordinary, chance upon the glimpses of a vision that when realized, could truly be priceless. However, it takes effort to take the pieces of the vision and put together the complete puzzle of what exactly you envisioned. And that takes creative energy as much as it takes dedication and commitment. You have to write down the vision in bold letters in front of you. You have to remember it while you eat, sleep, run, work. It should run through you as how electricity runs through a copper wire. You have to be brave enough to trust your vision and back it to the helm. Without a clear vision, you are just a supervisor –not a leader.


What good is a vision if it sticks around in your head? A leader can be forgiven for being an introvert. However, he can’t be forgiven for not speaking out his mind and pushing his vision through his team. In my short life, I have seen some of the better leaders who don’t speak a lot but speak what is required. I have also seen leaders who tend to make their life an open book (but well, I doubt if there is really such a thing). The funny thing about a leader is that almost 99% of the work is being a thinker and a communicator. It doesn’t matter what technical skills you have, honestly. If this were true, then we would never have Apple Inc (I am not discrediting Woz here. Without him, its hard to imagine how Apple would have started) or for that matter the VirginGroup (The journey from being Richard Branson to Sir Richard Branson is amazing for someone who didn’t go to college). I am not stating that education is not important. It would be foolish to assume how far we could have come had we not used our intelligent brains in pushing boundaries and discovering new things from the micro to macro level. My insistence here is that when it comes to leadership, no matter how good you know your stuff, you can only inspire people around you so much if you don’t communicate your goals and ideas to them. As a leader, you have to understand that you have a big vision to accomplish and you need people around you to help you achieve that. For that to happen, they need to see where they fit in the scheme of things and for how long. Some leaders write with maturity and clarity, while some speak with the words of raw and childlike passion. It doesn’t matter how you get the message across, but the message must be loud and clear. It should resonate within the organization. The vision should be the heartbeat of the organization. Without a heartbeat, all we have is a dead body. And, we certainly don’t want that. It is also equally important that you communicate well to your stakeholders and investors. Remember, hundreds of people may have the same idea. But, only 10 of them will actually take it to the next level of articulating the idea, convincing the stakeholders, forming a team and translating the novel thought into identifiable actions.


Last but not the least, a leader must act. A pretty vision and some charismatic words are not enough to transform your vision into a concrete reality. A leader must be active. A leader is the brain of the organization. If the brain stops working, the body dies. Laziness and complacency are the two biggest enemies of a leader. The third biggest enemy is uncertainty. The common thread between these three “enemies” that they are totally internal in nature and doesn’t arise out of competition. It is very easy to be complacent as a leader. When things are going great, a leader should worry. When things are going worse, a leader should be confident to get out of the rut. I can’t imagine a single successful leader who, in the long run, became satisfied with what he had and yet had his legacy unscathed as a successful leader. A leader is a human. And, as all humans, they are fallible. If you are a leader, you will go through phases of laziness, complacency and uncertainties. Just pray that life gives you a wake-up call sooner than later. A good leader learns from these mistakes and vows to never repeat them. A great leader understands the value of time. Time is an illusion. There is no yesterday and there is no today. There are these moments that we live in, what we call as “present”. The present is where all the action happens. The present is also where we should relax and rejuvenate. When and how, that’s the big question. A perfect leader understands the complexity of balancing work and relaxation and simplifies that into an equation where work, personal life and the journey toward the grand vision lie in harmony. You can see why perfection is hard to achieve being a leader. Its because of the great conflict that lies in front of the leader in achieving harmony among the various aspects of his life and yet see his grand vision unfold the way he planned. The good news is that you don’t have to be a perfect leader. Life is not perfect. Things seldom go the way we plan. We fall, we rise. We learn, we adapt. However, lest we forget that we are the flag bearers of humanity, we must act. Leaders must act with honor, pride and conviction. It is important to be decisive when taking an action. It sends a strong message of confidence to your team and the stakeholders. It is also important because of the 10 people who managed to communicate well, it may be just one who will be the last person standing in the furious but glorious battle to realizing the vision, with magnificence and the attention from the world, that the leader truly deserves.

The True Cost Of Localizing A Name. Ask Pikachu.

For anyone, who has been integrated into the Chinese culture as closely as I am, I have been particularly sensitive and curious to any thing related with China. After my first visit to the country half a decade ago, the country and the depth of Putonghua orMandarin continues to amaze me.

So, when I came across this news concerning how the translation of our beloved Pikachu (wait, do you know who or what Pikachu is? If not, check here) has left a bad taste among the residents of Hong Kong, it was quite fascinating. I use the word “fascinating” because this goes on to show that customers indeed value how something is translated and whether the translation reflects their culture in the right way. In this case, a section of the protestors went on to protest outside the Japanese embassy, which I think was stretching it a bit too far.

Pikachu or Pikaqiu or Beikajau

When the Pokémon series was created in 1995 by Satoshi Tajiri, no one could fathom the popularity, love and the success this series would attain in the decades to come. The only thing that seemed to remain constant apart from Ash Ketchum’s age was his ever loyal friend, Pikachu.

Before we knew, Pokémon was a household name not only in Japan but also in other countries around the globe. One successful TV series followed another and subsequently they were localized in various languages to suit the taste and pronunciation of the regional audience. Therefore, Mainland China and Hong Kong have adopted different ways of saying “Pikachu” in their local languages. In Mandarin (Mainland China), Pikachu is referred to as “Pikaqiu” whereas in Cantonese (Hong Kong), it is referred to as “Beikaciu”. Everyone seemed to be happy in their own space in as to how they refer to Pikachu.

That is, until Nintendo’s decision in only using the Mandarin version throughout its games angered the audience in Hong Kong. The dispute between the usage of Mandarin and Cantonese in Hong Kong traces back to the differences in cultural and linguistic identity that is prominent in Hong Kong. Whether it’s a good or a bad thing, that is up for debate. However, by ignoring the Hong Kong audience in favor of using optimum languages for its new Pokémon game, Nintendo has opened a box of “Weedles(read worms). The same characters in Mandarin written in Simplified Chinese script can be read in a different way in Cantonese. Therefore, when you write Pikaqiu in Mandarin and when you read it, it sounds as Beikajau instead of Beikaciu.

The disappointment among the Pokéfans in Hong Kong stems from the fact that they deserve to call Pikachu the way they have called since the time Pokémon was introduced to them. Why are they forced to call Pikachu as Beikajau? Is it because the audience in Hong Kong is smaller in size and therefore considered insignificant as compared to that in Mainland China? Or is it because Mandarin is more widely spoken than Cantonese? Either way, it has touched a sensitive chord with the Hong Kong fans of Pokémon.

It is a small but significant fix and this incident perfectly goes on to show that, proper translation is often cheaper than mistranslation or no translation at all. I hope that Nintendo takes this as a token of love and appreciation that people in Hong Kong hold for Pokémon and soon release a version suited for the Hong Kong market.

Pika Pika Pikachu. 🙂

Reflection On The iFX Expo 2016

The iFX Expo is one of the key events in our calendar. It is undoubtedly one of the biggest B2B expos for Forex and Binary Options. I have had the chance to speak at the iFX Expo Asia in Hong Kong earlier this year and I was looking forward to this event in Cyprus. Now that it is over, I am reflecting back on the five things that I have learnt in this iFX Expo.

At these events, we always see the new and familiar faces blending with each other in the crowd. As a businessman, you need to be on top of your game to interact with others, promote your brand and develop meaningful communication that will translate into actual business in the near future.

This time around, Linguavista was pushing for developing key partnerships rather than simply building business relations with prospective clients. To that end, it was quite a successful expo. It was also very nice to see some of our friends and clients stop by our booth and say hello. We are excited to see how the follow up to the leads will unfold in the coming days. That, indeed, is the most exciting part of business.

As for the iFX Expo, I feel that with each year, it keeps on creating a new benchmark. It keeps on becoming grander. But at the same time, I feel that there is a need to innovate. We keep on seeing similar faces around the world at different events and apart from local business contacts in Cyprus, it gives us little initiative to exhibit at the iFX Expo, year after year. However, at Linguavista, we acknowledge the importance of iFX Expo to our business and we can’t wait for the next edition.