Singing is the best way to learn a new language

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If you want to learn a language, music is the answer. According to a study, carried out a few years ago by French investigator Daniel Schön and his team, singing and listening to songs helps people to learn new languages.

The study went a long way to proving that foreign language students are more likely to learn a new language much faster and much more effectively if they are taught through music and song. It appears that those students who are only encouraged to practice their language skills through general conversation and ordinary speech won’t reach the same levels of success as quickly as their singing counterparts.

Schön and his team conducted an experiment which focused on the use of the following made-up words, Gimysy, Mimosi, Pogysi, Pymiso, Sipygy y Sysipi. The words, which have no meaning, were repeatedly spoken over and over again for the duration of seven minutes into a recording device. The recording was then played back to a group of 26 native French speakers who were asked, at the end of the recording, to identify the words that they had heard and could remember from the recording.

The activity proved to be a complete flop, as predicted, with the entire group of 26 racking their brains, trying to remember the words they had heard as if they were actually trying to guess them from scratch.

Schön then played a second recording of these made-up words to a second set of 26 French speakers under the same conditions. The only difference was that the words were sung, using a clear intonation throughout, in the second recording. At the end of the second period of seven minutes, 64% of the second group of 26 French speakers were able to remember, identify and repeat the words that they had heard.

Schön and his team believe that humans use the same part of the brain when listening to music that we use to learn a language. There’s something about the characteristics of musical intonation and rhythms which help us to learn languages much faster and more effectively.

So, next time you think about studying a foreign language, make your first language study activity a musical one.

History of the letter eñe

Most people associate the letter eñe with the Spanish language. Yet it is actually present in no less than nine different alphabets spanning the globe, including the modern Latin alphabet, Galician alphabet, Asturian alphabet, Filipino alphabet and Guarani alphabet, among others. Additionally, it is currently used to represent the [ŋ] in the Tartar and Crimean languages, along with the Chamorro, Mandinka, Mapudungun and Tocharian languages. Considering the usage of eñe, it quickly becomes clear that the letter is present in a variety of geographical locations, and is used in languages stemming from different language families.

The tilde that sits atop the n to form what is now a separate letter in its own right, originally began as shorthand. It represented a double letter, in this case nn, which was used more frequently in Old Spanish. The word año, for example, was formerly anno and derived from the Latin word annvs. While this usage spread to many languages at the time, most of them eventually dropped the tilde. Meanwhile, Spanish retained its usage as shorthand for a double letter.

As far back as Medieval Latin usage, that tilde came to represent a nasal sound following a vowel (then also used on the letter m). The presence of eñe in Spanish has since expanded to all instances in which the palatal nasal sound is present, even when it does not represent a former double letter, such as with señor.

More recently, there has been cross-linguistic usage in native languages located in or near predominantly Spanish-speaking areas. These languages include Aymara, Quechua, Basque, Leonese, Yavapai, and Tetum. The orthographies of these native languages and others with cross-linguistic usage of eñe all have some basis in Spanish. It is also present in English words borrowed from Spanish, such as jalapeño, piñata, and piña colada.


Spanish Keyboard Layout – Latin America. The letter eñe is on the right of the L.

Alt key code for the letter eñe: ALT + 0241.

The Origin of the Word “Carnival”

The term Carnival (or Carnaval, in Spanish), has an etymology that can find little accord among those who explain its origins. Perhaps beginning with the question of whether the roots of the word date back to latin, and which terms they seem to derive from, several theories about the origin of Carnival persist, each with its own explanation.

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 The timing of Carnival celebrations around the world also plays an important role in these theories, in particular as it relates to Christianity. Taking place in February, Carnival occurs just before Lent, a time in which Christians all over the world choose to fast, involving the avoidance of eating meat as dictated by the Church. In this context, one theory claims that the term is derived from the latin carne and vale, literally, saying goodbye to meat. Others who support this theory link it to the Italian expression, carne levare, with the same meaning.

In this explanation — often referred to as “folklore” by proponents of other theories — Carnival represents the final blowout before saying goodbye to eating meat. More broadly, a similar theory also states that it could represent a farewell to matters of the flesh, or carne, in general. The essence of the celebrations of Carnival, in their displays of excess and letting go, contrast with the mood of Lent in which the matters of the spirit outweigh the importance of worldly things.

An alternate origin involves the Roman festival Navigium Isidis (ship of Isis). In this traditional festival, the image of Isis was carried in a procession to the shore in order to bless the beginning of the sailing season. The procession involved elaborate masks and a wooden boat that was also carried. These characteristics could be the precursors of modern Carnival tradition involving floats and masks.

The etymological connection with this last theory rests in the term carrus, meaning car, as opposed to carne. The festival mentioned above was known by the latin term carrus navalis. It should be noted, however, that this festival was associated with both agricultural seasons (taking place just before the beginning of spring) and sexuality. As a result, it is also possible that when the festival became Christianized some time later, these two aspects were simply replaced by carne vale, a more appropriate beginning to Lent.

The Origin of Hashtag

This week we’re starting a new blog series called “The Origin of …” In it, we’ll be discussing the origin of a new word each week, including it’s translations or adaptations in other languages. We begin the series with a word that has become widely recognized among Internet parlance in a short amount of time: hashtag.

Going Viral

Most people recognize the hashtag (#) as a symbol used on Twitter to introduce a topic or conversation so that other Twitter users may search for, follow and contribute to the conversation. Of course now it is so popular that it’s not uncommon to see the symbol pop up on other social networks as well, but without the corresponding search function. Yet the hashtag was not an original creation from Twitter’s founders. The concept was originally thought up and given its ubiquitous symbol by a user experience designer working on Google+. That designer, Chris Messina, pitched the idea to Twitter’s guys in August of 2007 as a way to organize groups on the social network, giving him the nickname “hash godfather.”

Some reports indicate that the first time the hashtag was actually used was in relation to the miraculous landing of Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in early 2009. Among the many tweets flying around in relation to the event which had temporarily taken over the country’s news cycles, one user included #flight1549 at the end of their tweet. After that it was picked up by others tweeting about the incident, and quickly went viral.

Hashtag in Other Languages

There is always the question of whether new technology terms will be translated into other languages, or simply adopted as they are. As is to be expected, the French government has chosen to introduce their own word meaning hashtag in French. That word, mot-dièse, is not a literal translation, but rather means word and sharp — as in the designation of pitch in music, represented by a symbol similar to the pound (or hash) sign but without its inclination to the right.

It should also be noted, however, that not all French-speaking countries follow the lead of France when it comes to language developments. In francophone Quebec, Canada, for example, they prefer the term mot-clic.

But just as the French have done what they usually do — declare a new word to avoid adopting the English term — Spanish speakers have also done what they usually do in these situations. That is, they adopt the word with slight variations in spelling and pronunciation, effectively making it their own. Other words related to Twitter stand as examples of this: tuit (tweet), tuitear (verb of “tweet”), tuitero (a person who tweets), etc. In the case of hashtag, the literal translation would be etiqueta de almohadilla. And while this Spanish phrase is used in some areas, others choose to simply go with the original English term, adapting it to their own accent. As with French, it just depends on the region or the individual.

Cocoliche and the origins of a regional dialect

Regional differences in the way Spanish is spoken can usually be attributed to either the influence of native languages that exist in a particular area or the languages brought by immigrants that blend with Spanish to create a unique regional dialect. The Spanish spoken in Buenos Aires, as we have discussed in our series on Lunfardo words, is no exception.

Another example of a language influence is Cocoliche, which takes its name from Antonio Cuculicchio, a theater worker in the Podestá theater company established in Argentina and Uruguay towards the end of the nineteenth century. An Italian immigrant, Cuculicchio’s accent was apparently often mocked by others, giving rise to the comical caricature of a figure called “Cocolicchio”, representing a southern Italian.

Cocoliche is a hybrid language that arose from the meeting of Spanish in Argentina and Italian brought to that country by immigrants around the turn of the twentieth century. The result was a pidgin — an oral form of communication that blended elements of two languages to foster communication between diverse groups of people, in some cases simplifying the grammar and lexicon of each language.

Over time, as the Italian immigrants in Argentina spread out geographically and blended more into their new culture, Cocoliche began to disappear. Yet as it became more and more rare to hear the language spoken, per se, its remnants were left — and still remain — in the form of surviving words and turns of accent. Indeed, Cocoliche is the origin of some characteristics commonly associated with the Argentinian accent of Italian immigrants, such as the “ch” sound in “diche” (dice).

Italian family arriving in Buenos Aires

Some cocoliche words:


A Call to “Erase” Racism from Spanish

Uruguayan Musician Rubén Rada supports the campaign

A new campaign is picking up steam to eradicate instances of racism in the Spanish language. The contentious phrase, “trabajar como un negro” (“to work like a black person”), is unifying musicians, famous athletes, and officials in a call to Spain’s Real Academia Española (RAE) to eliminate the phrase for being discriminatory and outdated.

The RAE is a royal institution responsible for regulating the Spanish language including its lexicon, grammar, orthography and other linguistic aspects. The institution received an open letter signed by several figures which was then published and disseminated around the Spanish-speaking world by various media outlets.

The phrase has roots in the history of African slavery on the continent, and is sometimes compared to the expression “to slave away” in English. Proponents for its eradication from common speech argue that it recalls a time of discrimination, inequality and subjugation which Uruguay — and the Spanish-speaking world as a whole — would best leave in the past. They also argue that removing it from the Spanish language would help break the cycle of using pejorative language in reference to certain ethnic groups.

The petition can be viewed at Those who would like to add their name to its list of supporters can also sign the petition at the same web address.

Do Children Benefit From Language Mixing?

More information continues to come out about the challenges and benefits of young children learning two or more languages simultaneously. Studies in recent years have largely focused on how early bilingualism or multilingualism affects learning in other areas, as well as the effect on a child’s vocabulary both short-term as well as long-term.


A recent study in Canada looked at the specific issue of language mixing — borrowing words from one language while speaking in another, often resulting in individual sentences with two languages. Children who were raised bilingual from birth were found, as toddlers, to have slightly smaller vocabularies as a result of their parents engaging in language mixing while communicating with them or teaching them new words.

There were a few reasons for mixing languages thus which many parents cited, such as the nonexistence of an exact translation for a particular word, not remembering the equivalent of a word in the language they are using, or difficulty with pronunciation. It was also noted in the study that parents will often mix languages when teaching new words, so their child could learn the word in both languages at the same time.

Yet while the study pointed to resulting vocabularies that were smaller in the short term, the researchers noted that it is likely that a bilingual child’s vocabulary would expand at a faster rate later on. The short-term challenge of categorizing and distinguishing between two different languages when they were so mixed would eventually be counterbalanced by the learner’s increased ability to compensate for such challenges in reasoning and other cognitive skills. These skills include, for example, an increased ability to switch between strategies as well as the ability to learn two new rules at the same time.

Spanish Is Second Most Used Language On Twitter

According to Spain’s Cervantes Institute, Spanish has officially become the world’s second most used language on Twitter after English. With the most speakers of any language globally, Chinese is in third place. And while China does have its own version of Twitter, Weibo, it is undeniable that Spanish is currently seeing a growing presence on the internet in general.


With more than 500 million Spanish speakers worldwide, and counting, the language currently occupies the place of third most used language online. And even with that, it is estimated that roughly 60% of Latin Americans still have not joined the web. In the non-digital world, the Cervantes Institute reports that the number of people learning Spanish globally is witnessing an 8% increase year on year.

Much of that growth is taking place in the U.S., which is estimated to have the largest Spanish-speaking population in the world within three or four generations, but it’s also happening in Asia. Indeed, the demand to learn Spanish in China currently far exceeds teacher availability — resulting in many applications to learn it being rejected. The Asia-Pacific region as a whole is seeing an increase in Spanish language instruction spurred by economic growth and close ties to another region making strong economic gains — Latin America.

Meaning of “la migra”

Following the last post on US Border Patrols, we’re taking a look at a term widely used in immigration contexts – La Migra. The term is more often heard in states along the border with Mexico than any other region of the U.S., although it can be heard just about anywhere that Spanish slang is used.

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A derivative of the Spanish term migración (migration) or related to migraciones – the offices dealing with immigration issues in Spanish-speaking countries – the term has become shorthand for both agencies and individuals that deal with immigrants and immigration. Both the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol agencies can be referred to as La Migra, as well as the personnel who work for them, including immigration officers and agents who perform inspections of cars crossing the border or in search of illegal immigrants in places of business.

While the term is not only used by immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, if you hear La Migra come up in conversation, chances are someone is complaining about an encounter with immigration officials – much the same way a person might complain about having to deal with the law.

Did a bad translation put horns on Moses’ head?

Many translators are familiar with the controversy surrounding the horned Moses and his sometimes-amiss translator. Although that translator, commonly known as Saint Jerome, concerned himself with biblical analysis, theological debate, history, correspondence and translation, he earned his place in history mainly through his translations and revisions of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

Jerome translated these texts from the original Hebrew into Latin, and was humble enough to admit ignorance when warranted and to revisit parts of his translations when it became apparent that he had made a mistake. Nonetheless, his Latin translation of the Bible was later recognized by the Council of Trent as the official version, and to this day he remains a widely respected and studied biblical translator.

The controversy in question concerns part of the text in Exodus 34. The original Hebrew version can be read idiomatically as stating that Moses had “rays of light” coming from his head when he descended from Mt. Sinai. However, the same word for ray of light also meant “horns” depending on the context. And in what some may consider a classic case of mistranslation, Jerome chose the latter meaning.

The result of his possible mistake was a horned Moses appearing in the official Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. And as a lesson to students of translation and art alike, Michelangelo secured that image in our collective consciousness by basing his 1515 sculpture of Moses on Jerome’s translation—along with a list of other contemporary and subsequent artists.

More recently, scholars have attempted to justify this transgression by citing the metaphorical relevance of horns to “glorification, strength and authority”, in an attempt to align them with the meaning of light emanating from Moses’s face. Similarly, some artists such as José de Ribera in his 1638 interpretation, have tried to visually combine the light rays and horns to be essentially the same. Students of translation, however, will likely take from this a reminder to always look into the meaning behind the words and their historical context.


Michelangelo’s Moses with horns


José de Ribera’s Moses with rays of light