Minimal Pairs

In Linguistics, minimal pairs are pairs of words (or phrases) in a language which differ by only one element.  They can be as useful for learning/practicing the phonology of a language as they are for confusing learners of that language.

As I’ve taught English to international students, I’ve learned that students from different language groups will tend to have different problems with certain sounds.  I’ve used minimal pairs to great effect in combating this.

Arabic speakers, for example, often have trouble with the sound |p| as it doesn’t exist in Arabic.  Thus, they will often pronounce path and bath the same way.  Japanese speakers will often have trouble with l/r or th.  Thank and sank will often be pronounced similarly.  (To work on this, I try to get them to stick out their tongues.  They love this.)

Here are a small handful of the countless minimal pairs in English:

  • sit / seat / set
  • grid / grade
  • too / toe
  • pen / pin
  • path / bath
  • thin / sin
  • thin / thing

There are, of course, many (many) more.  The next time you learn a new language, try finding minimal pairs in that language.  Not only will it help you with phonology, but also vocabulary acquisition.

Endo and Exo

As you might already know, I loves me some endonyms and exonyms.  Go ahead… refresh yourself.  I’ll wait.

Many countries call themselves something different from what we (in the English-speaking world, from my perspective) call them.  The same can apply to cities, natural landmarks, etc.  Well, someone built a cool new tool to give you a bird’s-eye glance at endonyms and exonyms all over the globe.

Check out: EndonymMap!


Excuses, Excuses

For as long as I can remember, the prevailing ‘wisdom’ in language learning has been that children are far more capable of easily learning a language than adults.  In linguistic circles, this notion is know as the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH).

In a non-academic nutshell, CPH suggests that there is a certain period, generally thought to run from early childhood until the early teen years (the exact period seems to vary, depending on whose work you read).  This period is said to coincide with the state of physical plasticity of the brain that starts to wane as adulthood approaches.  As such, it should be harder for adults to learn new languages than it might’ve been for them in youth.

CPH is, however, somewhat controversial in linguistics circles.  Some evidence exists to prove that it applies more to acquiring one’s First Language (L1) than to Second Language (L2).  Other evidence suggests that CPH implies that adults learning a language will never quite get the pronunciation/accent of acquired languages right, but that it doesn’t impede the learning of vocabulary, idiom, etc.  CPH definitely seems to have some implications.  Exactly which implications?  The jury still seems to be out on that.

Personally, CPH has always rubbed me the wrong way.  I learned 3 of my languages after the CPH had already run its course on me.  Professors have dismissed me, saying I’m an “outlier.”  Yet, I’ve known a lot of people who have acquired a second language well into adulthood and learned to speak it rather well.  Anecdotal evidence aside, a look at the current literature on CPH also seems to suggest that I may have been on to something.

I’ve always argued that adults have more language learning tools at their disposal than do children.  Adults already have a grammatical “matrix” built up upon which to “hang” new languages.  Adults already have life experience and the ability to recognize patterns.  Children are having to create (or discover) this “matrix” as they acquire their L1.

Children definitely have an advantage in that they don’t really see what they are doing as “learning.”  No stress = ease of acquisition and retention.  Adults can get hung up on perfecting grammar and pronunciation, while children don’t mind that their utterances aren’t perfect.  “Why can Superman can fly?” is still a perfectly valid question that makes perfect sense, even though it suggests that the child uttering it hasn’t figured out deletion yet.  An adult might be horribly embarrassed to make such an error.  Such embarrassment and stress can definitely adversely affect learning.

NewScientist has published a new article which states that new research may suggest that, under certain conditions, adults may actually be better at learning languages than children:  Age no excuse for failing to learn a new language.  Potentially very interesting stuff.

What are your thoughts?  Do you have any anecdotal evidence of your own that seems to debunk CPH?

I’m Published!

My hometown paper, the Daily Times Herald in Carroll, Iowa, did me the honor of asking me to write an Op-Ed piece on why I think we should learn other languages. It’s a bit long, but they decided to run the full version with very few, minor cuts.

I hope you enjoy it! As always, I welcome any feedback you might have.

Why You Should Know More than One Language



"In my world there are only ponies. They eat rainbows and poop butterflies."

If you’re a Russian learner, but bored with textbooks, why not check out the Russian version of LOLCats?  Don’t expect to see Vanya asking for directions to the movie theater, though.  Some of these pictures do to the Russian language what LOLCats did (and continues to do) to English.  If your Russian slang helmet is a bit rusty, fear not.  Each comes with its own English translation and, if it exists, a cultural or historical explanation.

European (Whoa) Radio

Do you study (or speak) a European language?  Are you worried about losing it?  Why not try listening to radio broadcasts your target language?

Countless radio stations all over the world stream their content over the internet, but it can be hard to find some of them if your Search Fu isn’t strong.  Well, the folks as have taken care of that.  Need to work on your Russian?  French?  Italian?  Icelandic?  All you have to do is go to their website and search by country.  (They even have Vatican State!)


Niemals – Farin Urlaub Racing Team

As I mentioned in Learning Languages Tip #1, watching videos can be a great way to supplement your language learning experience.  Here’s one of my favorites from a German band called “Farin Urlaub Racing Team.”  The song is “Niemals (Nothing).”  Both the original German lyrics and an English translation are below the video.  Enjoy!


Ich wünsch mir, dass ich dich vergessen kann,
Ich würd dich gerne einfach ignorieren.
Ich bin mir sicher, irgendwann,
Wird das auch einfach über Nacht passieren.
Bis dahin wird einige Zeit vergehen,
Bis dahin muss ich noch geduldig warten.
Ich werd versuchen dich nicht anzusehen,
Weil meine Blicke mich verraten.

Doch mir ist klar,
Dass da niemals etwas sein wird,
Weil da niemals etwas war.

Vielleicht liegts daran,
Dass ich zu oft allein war,
Als ich klein war.
Oder dass mein Vater gemein war.
Nein, dass soll keine Verteidigung sein,
Ich wüsste nur selber gern,
Woran es eigentlich liegt,
Dass ich auf Wolken geh,
Wenn ich dich seh.
Mein Kopf ist JWD,
Und es tut mir weh,
Dass du nicht weißt,
Wie es in mir aussieht.

Ich lege dir mein Herz zu Füßen,
Was soll ich noch damit,
Bitte tritt es nicht kaputt,
Es litt bereits genug.

Mir ist klar,
Dass da niemals etwas sein wird,
Weil da niemals etwas war.

Du sagst du willst nichts von mir,
Ich träume trotzdem von dir,
Was ich nicht habe,
Kann ich auch nicht verlieren.
Du sagst es hat keinen Sinn,
Wenn wir zwei etwas beginnen,
Zu spät, denn ich steck mittendrin.

Die Zeit vergeht langsam,
Es vergeht kein Tag,
An dem ich nicht an dich denke,
Mit jedem Herzschlag.
Es vergeht kein Tag,
Es vergeht keine Stunde,
Ich denk jetzt an dich,
Jetzt, in dieser Sekunde.
Und immer und ständig,
Bei Tag und bei Nacht,
Was ist bloß mit mir los,
Was hast du mit mir gemacht?

Mir ist klar,
Dass da niemals etwas sein wird,
Weil da niemals etwas war.


I wish that I’m able to forget you,
I’d simply like to ignore you.
I’m sure, some time
This will simply happen overnight.
Until then some time will pass,
Until then I still have to wait patiently.
I’ll try not to look at you,
’cause my glances will betray me.

But I’m aware of it
That there will never be anything,
’cause there was never anything.

Maybe it depends on the fact
That I was too often alone
When I was a child.
Or that my father was mean.
No, that shall not be any defense,
I’d like to know myself,
What actually the reason is
That I have my head in the clouds,
Whenever I see you
My mind is far away,
And it aches
That you don’t know
How it’s like within me.

I lie my heart down at your feet,
What else shall I do with it,
Please don’t tread on it to smash it,
It had been already suffering enough.

I’m aware of it
That there will never be anything,
’cause there was never anything.

You tell me that you don’t want anything from me,
Nevertheless I dream of you,
What I don’t have,
I also cannot lose.
You say that it makes no sense,
If the two of us have an affair,
Too late, ’cause I’m right in the middle of it.

Time is passing slowly,
No day is passing,
On which I’m not thinking of you,
With every heartbeat.
No day is passing,
No hour is passing,
I’m thinking of you now,
Now, in the very second.
Always and permanently,
By day and by night,
What’s going on with me,
What have you done to me?

I’m aware of it
That there will never be anything,
’cause there was never anything.

[Lyrics courtesy of]