Pop Quiz! Which language do you hear?


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One of my favorite things about writing this blog is getting to listen to the audio clips of our Featured Speakers.  I am always looking for additions to this feature, so if you speak a language that I haven’t had a chance to spotlight yet, or you know someone else who does, please get in touch with me!  We love hearing other languages!

Today’s pop quiz comes directly from our speakers, but I’ve made it a little trickier – each clip is only about ten seconds of the original audio (wouldn’t want it to be too easy, would you?)  See if you can recognize the language, and then check out the links to hear the original and read the interviews with the speakers!

MATCHING: Which language is being spoken in the following clips?  Your choices are:

  • Azerbaijani
  • Chinese (Mandarin)
  • Danish
  • German
  • Hebrew
  • Indonesian
  • Irish
  • Italian
  • Japanese
  • Spanish
    (note not all of the choices will be used!)


  1. Azerbaijani
  2. (Mandarin) Chinese
  3. German
  4. Danish
  5. Irish
  6. Italian
  7. Japanese
  8. Hebrew

How did you do?  Have you studied any of the languages in those clips?  Do you speak a language you’d like to share?


Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

Child language acquisition


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Two years ago, one of my dearest and oldest friends had a baby, a sweet little boy born in the summer. He was the first child of my friend group, so I made sure to go visit him that fall, even though school had started back up again and I was already swamped with work. That semester I was taking a psycholinguistics class, and as my friend rocked her infant to sleep, I sat up reading about first language acquisition. It was fascinating to read about how quickly and ingeniously children learn to speak their first language, and it has been even more fascinating watching the process display itself in the speech of this little guy.

Here is a list of some of the milestones of child language abilities[1]:

  • 12 weeks – smiles and coos when talked to and nodded at
  • 18 weeks – responds to human sounds by turning head and eyes to search for speaker
  • 6 months – changes from cooing to babbling sounds
  • 8 months – begins to have distinct intonation patterns; begins to make sounds to signal emphasis and emotions
  • 10 months – appears to wish to imitate adult sounds (but is not quite successful)
  • 12 months – begins to be able to replicate common sounds; simple words (i.e. mamma, dadda) start to emerge; shows signs of understanding some words and simple commands
  • 18 months – has definite repertoire of 3 to 50 words; still babbles but now babbling has several syllables and an intricate (language-like) intonation pattern
  • 24 months – has vocabulary of more than 50 words; begins to spontaneously join words in original two-word phrases
  • 30 months – fast increase in vocabulary; no longer babbles; becomes frustrated if not understood by adults
  • 3 years – has vocabulary of about 1,000 words; “produces utterances with grammatical complexity comparable to that of colloquial adult language, although mistakes still occur”
  • 4 years – well-established vocabulary; “tends to deviate from the adult norm more in style than in grammar”

Researchers have noted that “one remarkable thing about first language acquisition is the high degree of similarity which we see in the early language of children all over the world.”[2] Babies from every different speech community – even deaf babies – begin by babbling, playing with their vocal tract. Experiments have shown that babies begin to distinguish between different sounds in adult language very early, long before their own babbling starts to distinguish itself. After a few months, though, babies begin to develop “accents” in their babbling and cooing:

Ruth Weir and Jean Aitchison have reported research that demonstrates this tuning. Recorded babbling of an American, a Russian, and an Arab baby was played to mothers. The American mothers could often identify the American baby, the Russian mothers the Russian baby, and the Arab mothers the Arab baby. But none of them could distinguish between the remaining two babies. So the babies, even though they weren’t saying anything meaningful, were evidently making noises that sounded like the language they had been hearing around them.[3]

After this early stage, language acquisition really speeds up. By the age of twenty months, children are really talking, though usually just in single-word utterances (my little friend’s current favorites are “cookie” and “helicopter.”) Around two years old, they start to be able to put words together into two-word utterances that start to look like sentences (I’m imagining phrases like “more cookie” will soon appear.) This is all very basic grammar, and there is ample evidence that even at this early stage, children are beginning to grasp the grammar of their native language. Then they start acquiring vocabulary at lightning speed. Most researchers estimate that the average five-year-old has a working vocabulary of 10,000 words, which means that in the three years between the ages of two and five, they have averaged almost one new word every hour they are awake.[4]

I’m sure any parent who has observed this kind of rapid acquisition in their small children has been amazed (and possibly befuddled.) Linguists, particularly psycholinguists, are pretty fascinated by it as well. There are so many things child language learning can tell us about the human brain and cognition, and the question of how children know what they know has sparked endless debates that won’t be solved any time soon.

Children know much, much more than they are able to say (the same is true for adults, by the way!) If only these astonishing little creatures could explain to us just what’s going on in their heads! Since that doesn’t seem possible, all of us grown-ups will just have to settle for watching, and listening, and trying to understand.

[1] Adapted from Bergmann, Hall, & Ross (2007). Language files: materials for an introduction to language and linguistics (10th ed.). pp 325, 332. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press.

[2] Lightbown, P. M. & Spada, N. (1999). How languages are learned (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press USA.

[3] Jackendoff, R. (1994). Patterns in the mind: language and human nature (p. 102). New York, NY: BasicBooks.

[4] Jackendoff, p. 103.


Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

One Hundred Years


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Много лет спустя, перед самым расстрелом, полковник Аурелиано Буендия припомнит тот далекий день, когда отец повел его поглядеть на лед.

Years ago, I was studying abroad in St. Petersburg, a little overwhelmed by culture shock and homesickness.  It was hard to find books in English, and though my Russian was improving every day, I was intimidated by the prospect of tackling a major Russian work.  I would come home at the end of a long day, exhausted enough from trying to make my way in a difficult language, and I didn’t want more hard work – I wanted something familiar.  Familiar and beautiful.  So I found a Russian translation of my favorite book, a book so stitched into my heart that even in Cyrillic, I felt like I recognized every letter.

Here is that same sentence in the original:

Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.


It wasn’t until I had gotten to college that I realized what a sadly narrow version of “world literature” I had been exposed to in my earlier schooling.  I had taken an advanced-level World Lit course in high school, but over time it began to dawn on me that the “world” we were exposed to consisted entirely of Anglophone books, plus an obligatory nod to Beowulf.  My reading world was very small indeed.

I made a friend across the hall in my dorm freshman year.  I admired her so much – she was bold, confident, and creative.  As we grew close I asked her the question I try to ask all my friends: “What is your favorite book?”  She named a novel I had never heard of, by a Colombian author I had never heard of.  Truth be told, until I had that conversation, I had never given any thought to Latin American fiction at all.  Why on earth had it never occurred to me that there were great writers living and working in the vast spaces just to the south of me?

So I read that book, and as I read it I wondered how I had been a reader before I read these words.  How was it possible this book had lived longer than I had and we’d never been introduced?  How would I ever be the same after reading the language, the images, in which I had immersed myself?  There’s a technical term for the genre this book belongs to – it’s called “magical realism.”  I love that term, and I love the genre, but I didn’t know any of that as I read for the first time.  But I did understand that it was magic.

Here is the first sentence from that book, as I read it:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.


One of the things that constantly fascinates me about languages is that they are an concrete way to see inside the minds of humans.  The way people speak tells a story of who they are and where they came from; the myriad complexities of each language show that we are all human, and remarkably intelligent, and creative.

Literature can do that too, of course.  Literature can reach across almost any barrier.  The best literature manages to say, at the same time, “This is who we are,” and, “This is who you are.”

The world is far richer, and more magical, because of the language and literature of Gabriel García Márquez.  I certainly am richer for it, and grateful.  Rest in peace sir, and muchas gracias (and спасибо большое).


Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

Pop Quiz! Languages of ancient civilizations


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Over the years, I’ve been attempting to read all seven volumes of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  At first this started merely as an exercise, a way of proving something to myself.  I thought it would be edifying.  And it’s actually turned out to be more than that – from time to time it’s downright entertaining.  It’s a slog, but my goodness what an interesting slog it can be.

As I read accounts of the many civilizations whose histories overlap with Roman history, I find myself wanting to know much more about the languages of the people involved.  A language is such an important part of a people’s story, and I spend time digging around learning about the Scythian and the Parthian languages, or realizing I had never before considered just what tongue Attila was speaking when he ransacked Europe.  (The answer, rather simply, is “Hunnic.”)

How much do you know about the languages spoken by ancient civilizations?  Take today’s quiz to find out!

QUESTIONS: What is the name of the language spoken in the place or by the people listed below?

  1. the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires
  2. Rome
  3. the pre-Roman civilization located in what is now Tuscany, and parts of western Umbria
  4. the civilization whose capital was the city of Susa, located in parts of modern-day Iran and Iraq
  5. the cities of Thebes, Pergamum, and Ephesus
  6. the cities of Thebes, Memphis, and Amarna
  7. the civilization known for their seafaring merchants, whose capital was the city of Byblos (later Tyre)
  8. Hattusa, an ancient city on the Anatolian peninsula of Turkey, and its surrounding empire
  9. the late Iron Age confederation of tribes in eastern and northern Scotland
  10. the ancient Mesopotamian civilization recognized as the first to invent writing

BONUS: Which of the languages in these answers was written in cuneiform?


  1. Akkadian
  2. Latin
  3. Etruscan
  4. Elamite
  5. Greek
  6. Egyptian
  7. Phoenician
  8. Hittite
  9. Pictish
  10. Sumerian

BONUS: Akkadian, Elamite, Hittite, and Sumerian


If you love ancient languages, be sure to check out some of my other posts on the topic!


Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

Monday Inspiration: How to become a linguistics professor


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Recently I came across an interview conducted by the website How to become a professor with Professor Kai von Fintel of MIT.  The interview is called “How to Become a Linguistics Professor,” but I found it to be even much more than just instructions on getting a faculty position.  Professor von Fintel offers really sound, specific, and practical advice on how to be a scientist (of language, and in general), how to be a good researcher, how to publish, and how to stay current in your particular field.   I love what he says about the kinds of questions good scientists should ask, and about the nature of inquiry and discovery.

It really is worth twenty minutes of your time!  Watch the interview, and check out the original page which has some further thoughts and helpful links.


Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

What makes a language difficult?


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When I was researching for last week’s Pop Quiz, I came across this article from the Economist, subtitled “In Search of the World’s Hardest Language.”  The author examines different ways that languages can be difficult.  For instance, English spelling is pretty irregular, but French “gives it a run for it’s money” – no one who has ever studied French would argue for a one-to-one correspondence between spelling and pronunciation.  Latin and Greek get a nod for being much more highly inflected than English (remember that scene from Monty Python?)  Then there are difficult sounds, such as the Scottish “ch”, the German umlaut, or the “much more exotic vowels” of Chinese.  (I would like to point out here that he’s getting “vowels” and “tones” mixed up in his discussion – tones are of course difficult for nonnative speakers, but they’re linguistically a separate issue than vowels, strictly speaking – see the discussion here if you’re interested.)  The author also lists languages with difficult consonant inventories, such as Ubykh with its purported 78 distinct consonants, and of course my favorite, the languages with a glorious array of click consonants.  There are languages with complex morphology, for instance marking for not only gender, number, and case, but also noun class; there are agglutinating languages such as Turkish, where single words can contain dozens of syllables as the morphemes pile up.

I bring this up because I am curious as to what each of you would say makes a language “difficult,” in terms of learning them as non-native speakers.  I have a strong suspicion it depends on each person’s unique skills and personality.  Some people have a musical ear and can pick up pitch and tone much easier than others.  Some people are analytical and can sense, and then use, complex grammatical patterns, while the rest of us scratch our heads.  I also imagine it has a lot to do with your native language(s) and with your previous language learning experience.  The author of the Economist article notes that “Languages tend to get ‘harder’ the farther one moves from English and its relatives,” which seems like a fairly intuitive rule of thumb for monolingual Anglophones.  But if you grew up in a bilingual English/Tamil household, that could strongly affect what you find “difficult” about learning a third language.  And if you’ve already taken some courses in, say, Arabic, the intricacies of related languages like Hebrew are probably a lot less daunting.

The author of this article selected Tuyuca as the “hardest language,” mostly as a consequence of its detailed and complex system of marking verbs for evidentiality – in Tuyuca, you have to add a bit at the end of each verb to indicate how you came to know the information you are sharing in the sentence (did you see it yourself?  did someone tell you about it?)   That’s certainly a lot to deal with every time you utter a sentence, especially if you’ve never had to do it before.  But does that make it the hardest?

What qualities do you find the most difficult about a language?  What’s the most difficult language you’ve tried studying?  What features do you find aren’t so difficult for you, that might present problems for other people?

I’d like to write more about difficulty in language learning, but first I wanted to get your thoughts!


Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

Pop Quiz! Endangered language projects


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The Endangered Language Fund was founded in 1996 and has been providing grants to individual researchers, tribes, and museums, with the goal of supporting language documentation and preservation projects.  Looking through their list of “Language Legacies Project” grants awarded over the years demonstrates not only how geographically diverse (and numerically daunting) critically endangered languages are, but also how intelligently and creatively individuals can be when confronting the problem of language loss.

In honor of the fine work of the Fund and its grantees, today’s Pop Quiz focuses on the grants awarded in 2013.  (Try not to click over and cheat!)

Question – In which countries will the work of these grants be conducted?

  1. “The Hupa Language Materials Project”, which will help digitize existing documentation and produce new digital media productions in the Hupa language, which has fewer than five native speakers remaining?
  2. A project to generate a trilingual ethnobotanical database in French, English, and Ménik, the language of the Bedik people?
  3. A project to build a vocabulary corpus and audio recordings in the understudied Zihuateutla Totonac language?
  4. A project to record naturally-occurring speech patterns in conversation in the Cahuilla language, a member of the Uto-Aztecan family?
  5. A study of the current status of the severely endangered Bantu language known as Dhaiso?
  6. “An Introduction to Linguistics for Community Members of Valley Zapotec”?
  7. A project to document the Xikrin dialect of a language (sometimes called Kayapó), which will include interviewing speakers who were born before contact with Western civilization?

BONUS: The project titled “Phonetic Features of Hatkoy” will be conducted with speakers of a dialect of the East Circassian language.  Originally native to the North Caucasus region, this dialect is now only spoken in diaspora, and is under pressure from which dominant language?



  1. The US.  The Hupa (or Hoopa) tribe lives in northern California.
  2. Senegal, near the Senegal-Guinea border.
  3. The Puebla State of Mexico.
  4. The US, in the mountains and valleys of southern California.
  5. This study will be conducted by visiting five villages in northeastern Tanzania.
  6. This work will be the culmination of a five week field trip to Oaxaca State, Mexico.
  7. Mato Grosso state in central Brazil.

BONUS: Turkish.  Due to the large number of diaspora Circassians in Turkey, the Turkish state broadcasting company has aired programs in a dialect of Circassian for ten years.


Take a look at the descriptions for each of the 2013 grantees – if you’re anything like me you’ll find them pretty inspirational!  And if you do feel inspired, maybe consider supporting the fund!


Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

A Polyglossic reading list


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Are you as much of a bookworm as I am?  A few years ago I joined Goodreads, and I’ve started having that infinitely-increasing to-read-list problem.  You know, the problem where for every book you read, you discover three more that you simply can’t live without?  Not that it’s a very bad problem to have…

I’m pretty obsessed with lists, and with books, and I’m also pretty obsessed with languages.  So I came up with a great idea – I started a listopia list of language books!  I called it “Books for Language Lovers,” and I started it with ten books about everything from creoles to invented languages to language endangerment, and even included a really nice little book about language and mind that I was assigned for a psycholinguistics class.

If you’re on Goodreads, you can add your favorites to this list!  You can also vote for books you’ve already read that are on the list, so over time the books will get a rank-order – we’ll be able to see which book is most loved!  And of course, my hope is that you’ll find some recommendations and new discoveries, and that your additions will cause my own to-read list to grow as well.





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In my last post I talked about some of the differences among the world’s languages that I find fascinating.  So now let’s mix things up and examine something that the world’s languages might have in common. An article in last month’s Smithsonian Magazine highlighted new research coming out of the Max Planck Institute for Pscyholinguistics.  The researchers’ findings?  The word “huh?”, with a bit of pronunciation variation, is common to a wide variety of languages from communities all across the world.

Here are the audio samples they gathered for the ten languages they studied in depth:

Pretty interesting, right?

The researchers have put together a website breaking down the main points of their research, as well as a very clear FAQs section (the original research report is here.)  They address questions about language contact (did speakers just pick up this sound from other languages?), language inheritance (maybe all of these languages are related and that’s why they have the same word?), sampling size, and whether or not the sound is really just a grunt, rather than a real word in a linguistics sense.  I think their answers and their research is pretty compelling, especially since the languages they investigated are so diverse, both genetically and geographically.  There must be some other explanation for the similarity.

What the researchers themselves suggest is that this is evidence of “convergent cultural evolution” – we all independently evolved this nice little word because we all needed a word to fulfill the function of a quick request for clarification, and “huh?” is a simple and convenient choice for many reasons (the Smithsonian article does a great job summarizing these reasons).

A couple of interesting things to note:

  • first of all, the researchers did NOT claim that huh? is “the universal word” as many writers have suggested.  They are careful to note that they did not, of course, gather samples of this word from all 7,000+ spoken languages in the world, and the title of their article is specifically in the form of a question (“Is ‘Huh?’ a universal word?”)  Making absolute claims like “In fact, they’ve found, huh? is a “universal word,” the first studied by modern linguists“, as the author of the Smithsonian article does, is something the researchers were careful to avoid (though they do think their hypothesis is very strong.)
  • secondly, the research is talking about a specific usage of the word “huh.”  English uses this sound/word in a lot of different contexts, such as:
    -an exclamation of surprise or interest (“That word is the same in 31 different languages? Huh!”)
    -a request for confirmation or solidarity (“This research is pretty interesting, huh?”)
    What this research focuses on is the function of “initiating repair” – you misheard something your interlocutor said, or misunderstood something, and immediately respond “huh?” in an attempt to repair the communication error.  That is the function that is common across all the languages studied.

Check out the research and the article, it’s really interesting to read about the possible implications of the findings!

(Incidentally, the magazine article’s author is Arika Okrent, who wrote a delightful book called In the Land of Invented Languages.  I loved that book so much I based one of my pop quizzes on it!)


Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

Pop Quiz! The things languages can do


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I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago with a linguist I really admire.  We were in a group discussion about a theory of syntax, which involved talk not only of grammar but also of neurology, cognition, the evolution of language, and the evolution of humans as a species.  She said to me that one of the things she loves the most about language is that at the very basic level, we’re all doing the exact same thing.  Languages have surface differences but when you get right down to it, the differences are precisely superficial, not fundamental.  She loves that language is what we humans all share.

What was interesting about that conversation is that it was clear that she takes as much delight from language similarity as I do from language difference.  I don’t disagree that much of the difference is on the surface, but to me, those “superficial” differences are what create the rich texture and contour that characterizes the world as we live in it.

I was thinking of that this week because I picked up and started reading R.M.W. Dixon’s Basic Linguistic Theory (Volume 1: Methodology).  I have long admired Dixon’s extensive and trailblazing fieldwork and documentation, especially with underdescribed Australian languages.  And I know that Dixon himself staunchly insists that no society is “primitive” (he fiercely defends the sophistication of Australian Aboriginal society).  So I’m sure he would agree that at some important level, we are all similar.  But as a lifelong describer of languages, he is obviously also fascinated by the differences, and he uses a wealth of them in this book.

I think maybe you all would find the differences pretty fascinating too.  I am always amazed at the things that languages can do.  And since it’s the middle of the week, how about a POP QUIZ!

True or False – Somewhere in the world right now, there are people speaking a language that:

  1. has fifteen grammatical cases, including specific ways of saying “towards the inside of,” and “towards the outside of”
  2. has six different verb tenses
  3. has different 2nd person pronouns for singular, dual (“you two”), paucal (“you few”), and plural (as we would say in Oklahoma, “all y’all”)
  4. has only one 2nd person pronoun
  5. doesn’t have any pronouns at all
  6. has eight different forms of the imperative, including “do at a future time,” “make sure that something which should be done is being done,” and “do what a third person has ordered you to do.”
  7. has 43 different click consonants
  8. does not have any nasal consonants (sounds like ‘n’ and ‘m’)
  9. has different forms of suffixes for nouns that are downriver, upriver, uphill, downhill, across the river, or a long way off
  10. does not have any verbs

N.B. Almost all of these examples are taken directly from Dixon (2010) Chapter 1.


  1. True.  Finnish noun cases also distinguish between “with” and “together with,” among other fine distinctions.
  2. True.  Dixon cites a report from Bani and Klokeid (1971) that says that the West Torres language actually utilizes five different past tenses, bringing the total of possible verb tenses up to eight.
  3. True.  Dixon cites Hill (1992) in his description of Longgu pronouns.
  4. True!  Unless, like me, you believe “y’all” and “all y’all” are acceptable second-person forms :)
  5. False.  One of the few accepted linguistic universals is that all languages have pronouns.  Unless you want to argue that pronouns aren’t really a distinct grammatical category…but that’s a longer discussion.
  6. True.  Dixon cites Barnes (1979, 1984).
  7. True.  Oh, how I love click consonants!
  8. True.  If you want to get really technical, you can say that they do make nasal sounds but they are not phonemically distinct, which is what counts in terms of language sounds.
  9. True.  Dixon himself has done extensive work on the fascinating Dyirbal language for decades.
  10. False.  This is a pretty uncontroversial linguistic universal – all languages have verbs.  It’s hard to conceive of communicating without verbs.  Then again, it can be hard to conceive of fifteen distinct noun cases!


How did you do on the quiz?  Which is more interesting to you – the way that language is common to all humans, or the almost endless ways that human languages are different?

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.


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