Correct these mistakes for Christmas

‘Tis the season to be jolly, and there’s nothing jollier than knowing your vocabulary. Therefore, today we’re learning about two Catalan words that foreigners tend to get wrong.

Now that the tió tradition has gone properly international thanks to Kate McKinnon (see video below), it’s time to debunk the belief that tió means uncle. ‘If you know basic Spanish’ some people say and even write on their blogs ‘you’ll know that tío means uncle’. Well, yes; but we’re talking about a Catalan tradition, hence a Catalan word. Tió—not tío—means log, as Kate explains. And isn’t it obvious? I mean, just look at the bloody thing.

What Kate doesn’t get so right is calling it cagatió. However, there is currently a debate among natives about this issue (trending topic included: #EsDiuTió). As the song to make the tió poo presents starts with ‘Caga tió’, which literally translates to ‘poo [imperative] log’, some use this as the log name and that’s wrong. Conversely, cagatió is indeed a word that means the act of making the tió poo, the event. So you’ll say: On the evening of the 24th we’re doing the cagatió and the tió will poo lots of sweets and presents for us.

It's only Barcelona, BCN or Barna

It’s only Barcelona, BCN or Barna

A not-so-festive issue, but relevant any time a foreigner mentions Barcelona, is what you can call the Catalan capital. Barcelona is the official name, that’s easy. BCN is a well-known and correct abbreviation. There is only one more alternative: Barna, from Bar(celo)na. Barça (pronounced ‘barsa’) is just a name for the football team. So calling the city Barça or Barsa is utterly wrong. Mispronouncing the wrong term and calling it Barca (‘barka’) is even worse, as barca means boat.

So you finally know it and you can sound a bit wiser this Christmas. Now go, deck the halls and don your gay apparel, unless you live in an extremely religious country. Ah, the irony!

Interesting facts about the Catalan language – 2015

Just like last year, the same week of the Diada, the Catalan national day, I want to talk about my language. Here’s a visual selection of the 50 facts about the Catalan situation nowadays published in the InformeCat 2015 by Plataforma per la Llengua.

Adapted from the InformeCAT 2015 by Plataforma per la Llengua

Adapted from the InformeCAT 2015 by Plataforma per la Llengua

Yes, I’m still studying Polish

And my Polish friends find it hard to believe.

I haven’t told you about my progress with the Slavic language since October. Before Easter I spent two weeks in Poland. But why? What’s in there? Apart from Poles, there’s my progress test.

Wouldn't you like all your exams to be like this? [foto©: Rafał Rzepeckl]

Wouldn’t you like all your exams to be like this? [foto©: Rafał Rzepeckl]

Once again some friends hosted me. Friends have, nevertheless, no educational obligation and Polish is used occasionally since English allows for proper communication, which is better than guessing each other’s message. However, I found a way to stimulate my friends to speak more Polish to me: meeting their friends.

At first everybody loves that crazy guy who’s learning their language and introductions and first contact are made in Polish. Thanks to that, the conversation continues like this and now I’m a lot more able to join in than last summer.

There are still lots of gaps, but my fake understanding face is convincing enough to keep the dialogue going so that I get immersed in Polish. At some point I’ll say more than three sentences in a row in English and they’ll swap to it to save me a headache.

So much have I improved that I understand radio announcers a lot better. Such is my progress, that back to Barcelona I went to a pub with a Polish friend and some Slovak acquaintances of him and I could even understand some of their sentences. I’m on fire.

English at international events — be patient

Last year I reported the basics of a kick-off meeting for a European research project. At some point I hinted at a post on the English spoken there. Here it goes.

Should you need to face an audience in English at an important international event, you’d prepare thoroughly what to say. However, the way you say it is so important that proper content can sound silly in the wrong words. Here are some common mistakes committed last year.

Or we 'pretend' to [photo: Tom Blunt]

Or we ‘pretend’ to [photo: Tom Blunt]

It’s not weird to hear sentences like ‘We pretend this platform to be universal’. And it’s not that those researchers are planning to fool the scientific community; it’s that pretend is a false friend for a word that in Romance languages means intend. They genuinely wanted that platform to be universal.

The problem with these words is that the speaker doesn’t know they’re not what they seem. To avoid misunderstandings don’t just guess words but check them. If, on the contrary, you’re an English speaker, prepare for next time and try to learn what they mean when they mean something else.

There will also be literal translations from other languages expressions and structures such as ‘Let’s go to continuous’ instead of ‘Let’s continue’, or ‘Can we stay with your presentation?’ instead of ‘Can we keep [a copy of] your presentation?’. These examples come from Spanish and the second one was written in a form.

Literal translations can be hard or even impossible to understand. If you’re on the receiving end, there’s not much you can do. If you’re the source of the message, check and double-check expressions that are likely to be repeated. Pay special attention to text on paper—even hire a professional. Once it’s printed, it’s there for the whole event.

Finally, although a native accent is not required, you should prepare the key words. Report, research, deputy, deliverable or develop will be pronounced differently even by the same person. Look them up in a dictionary for the right pronunciation or warn your colleagues they’re saying it wrongly.

To sum up, don’t take any chances. Choose your words carefully as you do with clothes, for both are your image and can help or destroy you. On the other side, be patient if you’re an English speaker. After all, everyone is making an effort.

Babbel: learning languages online

When I wrote about how I got my survival level in Polish, I mentioned the Babbel site to learn languages and promised to post an extended review that’s available now.

Babbel is a tool for learning up to 14 languages online (and on mobile devices)—but you might not want to go for all at the same time. It’s also my main tool for learning Polish and I survived in Poland with monolingual Poles, so it must be good. Let’s have a look.

Right after logging in, there’s the home page with the activities of the day and a menu bar at the top. The language of the interface and the lessons can be chosen and even changed, but that may affect the stored vocabulary.

Evidence that I do study Polish

Evidence that I do study Polish

There’s a warm up activity called Daily Challenge (below the welcome message). Some words are shown with proposed translations and the user has to agree or disagree. It’s simple and boosts your self-esteem.

My advice for a second step is to review vocabulary with the Review Manager. In fact, for short sessions that’s my only exercise. All the words, expressions and phrases in the lessons are added to the Review Manager. On the right of the home page there’s a button to review them in groups of 10. The Manager classifies them in 6 levels depending on your performance. Each level has its own frequency of revision: daily for level one, twice a year for level 6. All vocabulary items and their levels can be checked in the Vocabulary section of the menu above.

Select courses according to your needs and interests

Select courses according to your needs and interests

Courses can be selected in any order from the Courses section of the menu. The basic types are grammar and vocabulary, but there are others. Different languages may have different courses. The selected one will show in the home page with the appropriate lesson on display, but they can be taken in a different order and as many times as the user desires. Grammar lessons tend to start with short explanations with examples and vocabulary ones show the items to study together with a picture and with audio to learn how to pronounce them. Both situations are followed by brief matching or filling-in exercises. After the completion of every course a certificate is awarded—it’s up to the student to decide the real value of it.

Regarding quantity and level of the content, I’d say it’s directly proporcional to the popularity of the language. On the other hand, it’s enough for, at least, the first years of a new language or as a support. Babbel is not a tool for preparing official exams.

Finally, there’s a People section in the menu for interacting with other users, either for linguistic exchanges, group study, simply socializing or even fight for the top 5 scores (climb up the list by reviewing vocabulary and completing lessons).

Babbel is not for free; the quality/price ratio is, nevertheless, more than satisfactory for a committed student. Four subscription options are available from 1 month for 9.95 € to 1 year for 59.40 € (4.95 €/month). I bought and recommend the annual subscription, not only because of its wonderfully ridiculous cost, but also because if you’re not devoting at least 12 months to a language, you should find something else to do.

Were you curious about Babbel, you can take a course for free for each language. Additionally, for having read this far, here’s an invitation for a free week for one language without content limits. However, I don’t know if there’s a limit of invitations, so don’t hesitate. The only thing I’d ask for in return is a comment about your experience and, if you finally subscribe, tell Mr Babbel that I sent you—if I’m lucky, I might get paid a commission.

Linguistic experiences in Poland (2014)

A promise is a promise: here are the details of my summer experience with Polish in its country of origin.

After many months studying the language, I set of on that seventeen-day journey to visit my Polish friends in their country, learn about it and, especially, test my linguistic skills.

My first conversations were like reading this [Resio]

My monolingual friend—the one who provided me with my first conversations in Polish on his weekend in Barcelona—hosted me for the first days in Warsaw. Having spent some time talking, he knew my limits and adapted his speech to what I could understand and slowly introduced new vocabulary. He’s not aware of it, but he’s a great teacher. And in the end, we didn’t have a choice; we couldn’t speak anything else.

Moreover, the friends of his I met spoke English like I speak Polish. Dinners and Saturday night with them were pure linguistic immersion. Saturday night was also the one I spent introducing myself with ‘I speak Polish. I come from Barcelona’. There’s no way to resist a foreigner who fumbles with your language, yet they try even when it’s not a worldwide useful language? I should know; I’m Catalan.

My friend had to work a couple of days, which allowed me to experiment without mitigating circumstances because of friendship or alcohol. I first met a waitress with no linguistic empathy. When I addressed her in Polish, she spoke at native speed and I realized there might be something wrong with my pronunciation of slowly since she ignored my request. She probably saw the indignation in my eyes and decided to speak English instead of slowly. The guy at the bar was more helpful and even assisted me with some word that didn’t come out quite properly.

Unlimited journeys from Friday at 7 pm to Monday at 8 am [source]

On my other free day, I needed to locate a place to buy a transport ticket for the weekend as the closest tram stop had no machine. My enterprise led me to a newsagent’s where a boy gave me a puzzled face, the directions to the right place and a thumbs-up—of course he couldn’t resist my fumbling with his unpopular language.

Mi next host had been on Erasmus to Spain, so we swapped between his language and mine depending on the complexity of the topic. One member of the couple who took me in later could speak proper English and the other could just speak it. I got excited when the latter didn’t know a word and I was able to provide a translation for the Polish word he said.

The fun part was that afternoon when his parents visited with a couple of friends. I found myself in the middle of a family meeting, trying to keep up. I probably seemed to succeed because the mother’s friend looked at me the way you’d look to someone who’s following your story. Later, she and the mother commented on my black eyes and dark skin and the mother added—I’m not sure why—‘And he’s clever!’ and I replied ‘Yes, I am’ and they fell in love with me. Their flatmate wasn’t that talkative, but he helped with my education one evening.

The last days were less fruitful. My last host’s linguistic empathy was close to that of the waitress. I took advantage, nevertheless, of his working hours for my deeds. After all, learning a language requires practising, putting shyness aside and not fearing mistakes—which are necessary to learn—, because even native speakers start making them.