Transparent Language Library Spotlight: Jacksonville Public Library

Posted on 25. Mar, 2015 by in Language Learning, Product Recommendations, Reference/Usage Tips

In 2011, things got a little brighter for the Jacksonville Public Library system in sunny Jacksonville, Florida: they subscribed to Transparent Language Online, providing their customers free language-learning resources in more than 80 languages.

Inspired by his friends’ New Year’s Resolutions to learn a new language, Eric Soriano, a member of the library’s e-services team, began developing classes for library customers: “Learn a New Language for the New Year”. The class was offered several times throughout 2014 as a way to introduce customers to Transparent Language Online, including a demo of the features, a guide to signing up for an account, and time to explore the online learning platform independently. Turnout was decent, but trailed off throughout the year.

To better leverage the resources in Transparent Language Online, Eric collaborated with fellow e-service specialists Kat Minor and Flory Martinez to create language-specific classes. In December 2014, Jacksonville Public Library launched a 3-part French course, and a similarly structured Spanish course kicked off in January. The reaction was so exceptional that the library actually added 5 additional laptops to their classrooms, which already seat 15 students. Even with the additional support, the library had to turn away some interested customers.

Kat Minor gives an overview of the different features of Transparent Language for the French class.

Kat Minor gives an overview of the different features of Transparent Language for the French class.

According to Eric, customers are thrilled with the classes, particularly that access to Transparent Language Online is free to anyone with a library card. “Our instructors also like the language learning approach of the product in integrating culture. So we made sure to make that a big part of class. They like the discussions on French cuisine, Spanish telenovelas and for the last class, we  even did an interactive dance session using the steps of Merengue—a popular Latin American dance.”

Flory Martinez shows a video of a Latin American delicacy as part of the cultural immersion portion prior the start of the class.

Flory Martinez shows a video of a Latin American delicacy as part of the cultural immersion portion prior the start of the class.

They’re not stopping there. Believe it or not, Jacksonville is the largest city by area in the United States, so the branches of the Jacksonville Public Library have a lot of ground to cover, literally. To meet the needs and interests of such a large community, the library is expanding their language courses to new branches in new languages, including:

If you’re in the Jacksonville area—lucky you! Be sure to stop by your local library branch and sign up for your free Transparent Language Online account. Not in Jacksonville? We partner with hundreds of libraries throughout the country, so give your friendly librarian a call and let them know you’re interested in a Transparent Language Online account!

What’s the Greatest Topic of Conversation Ever?

Posted on 23. Mar, 2015 by in Language Learning

Itchy Feet: Le Typicàl Convèrsatiòn

As language learners, we hope to find ourselves in conversations on a wide variety of topics. That’s really the point of all these conjugation tables, vocab flash cards and grammar drills, isn’t it? Sure, reading a foreign newspaper is great, watching TV shows and movies in their original language is rewarding and all that, but for most of us I imagine the ultimate goal is to express one’s ideas, ask intelligent questions, and tell stories; to converse.

But when starting out your language learning odyssey, we quickly learn that not all conversation topics are created equally.

The news, for example, can seem at first like tempting, low-hanging fruit for the budding second-language conversationalist. No need to translate “Boko Haram” or “Hillary Clinton,” after all—you’ll feel you can just dive right in. But once you’ve started down the topical path, you’ll find it quickly ends in a bramble of unpleasantly specific vocabulary, such as “court case,” “election campaign manager,” “quarantine” or “state censorship.” No problem if you’re already a seasoned speaker, but not the biggest confidence-booster for a beginner.

Politics has a similar problem of specific vocabulary (“sanctions,” “military dictatorship,” “economic downturn”) required for even a cursory discussion, with the added drawback of carrying an emotional charge. Don’t get me wrong; good-natured arguments over politics, religion, and other tinderbox topics are brilliant for taking away your worries about word choice and pronunciation and focusing your attention on just speaking. But you want to have enough rhetorical ammunition to defend and attack, otherwise you’ll just be left in the corner, burning with something to say but no way to say it.

Are we then cursed to discuss the weather? Ugh, the deadest dead end there ever was. It can only begin with what the weather currently is, and end on how it might be different. Not exactly scintillating conversation, and it leaves both parties wishing they were speaking to somebody else.

So what, then, are we to talk about?

I submit for your consideration my nominee for the Greatest Topic of Conversation Ever: food.

Like tasting wine, talking about food starts simple and builds steadily to more advanced complexity, all the while being thoroughly enjoyable. Everyone likes food, so it’s difficult to alienate the other person by stumbling on your grammar. Every culture and sub-culture on the planet has their own unique way of preparing, eating, and growing food, and everyone’s got their own stories about or relating to food, so there’s an infinite number of conversational roads to take.

Best of all, you can learn nearly everything a beginner needs to learn through the topic of food alone. You’ll learn simple vocabulary at first (“soft,” “yellow,” “turkey,” “soup,” “salty,” “burnt”) and smoothly work your way up to the more detailed (“bottled,” “oven-baked,” “farmland,” “preserves”). It’s hard to discuss food without discussing its origins, so geography will play a big part, and you’ll find yourself practicing all the important verb forms (“is produced,” “will yield,” “has been fermenting”).

You simply can’t go wrong talking about food. Or maybe I’m just hungry.

What do you think the Greatest Topic of Conversation Ever is?

How Language Changes Our Perception of Color

Posted on 18. Mar, 2015 by in Language Learning

Recently, the Internet has been abuzz with discussions about color, thanks to a now-notorious dress that some people perceive as gold and white, and others perceive as black and blue. There have been several explanations offered for this disparity, the most popular being that our perceptions vary based on how our brains interpret the amount of ambient light in the background.

color perception

Image via swiked / tumblr

There’s something else, however, that influences our perception of color, and it has nothing to with how our brains process light. In fact, recent studies have suggested that the language we speak can influence how we perceive color. The idea that language could affect a phenomenon so fundamental as color perception — something that we tend to think of as absolute and unchanging — taps into fundamental questions about the cognitive influence of language on thought.

To investigate the relationship between language and color, psychologists from the University of London tested how speakers of English and Himba — a language spoken in northern Namibia — categorize colors that were presented to them on a screen. The Himba language groups colors differently than English. For instance, Himba does not categorize green and blue separately (both use the word buru), whereas English does. Further, Himba uses different words to distinguish between various shades of green (dambu and zuzu refer to light and dark green, respectively), whereas English does not, instead classifying both dark green and light green as members of the same overarching “green” category.

The researchers found that, indeed, this linguistic difference translated into a perceptual difference: when shown a circle with 11 green squares and one blue square, Himba speakers had a hard time indicating which one was different from the others. However, when presented with 12 green squares, one of which was slightly lighter green than the others, the pattern reversed: Himba speakers readily identified the different shade, whereas English speakers did not. Check out this video to watch the experiment in action, and see if you can differentiate among the different shades of green.

himba colors

In other words, speakers of both languages were better at distinguishing between colors that had a linguistic distinction in their language. That is, English speakers, whose language classifies “green” and “blue” separately, easily differentiated between the two. Similarly, Himba speakers, whose language encodes differences between shades of green, had no trouble distinguishing various green hues.

This experiment challenges the notion that color categories are absolute, and instead suggests that our perception of color is a social phenomenon — it’s influenced by categories that are arbitrarily imposed on us by the language we speak.

The research on color perception in Himba contributes to a larger body of experiments in linguistics and psychology which suggest that language can have a profound impact on how we perceive and understand the world. For example, Guugu Yimithirr, an aboriginal language spoken in North Queensland, describes spatial relationships in a way that’s very unfamiliar to English speakers. Rather than using egocentric spatial descriptions (e.g., “The book is to my right”), speakers of Guugu Yimithirr use cardinal directions. Thus, instead of telling you to move “a few steps forward”, they’d ask you to move “a few steps to the southeast”.

As a result, speakers of Guugu Yimithirr seem to have internal compasses that surpass those of English speakers, even those who have an excellent sense of direction. They simply have an intuitive sense of what is north, south, east, or west, much like how English speakers have an intuitive sense of what is to their right and left.

Theoretical linguists have traditionally dismissed the idea that language can shape thought, in favor of ideas based on Universal Grammar, which claims that all languages are, at their core, effectively the same. However, studies of color in Himba or direction in Guugu Yimithirr certainly seem to suggest that the language we speak has some influence on how we think and perceive the world.

What do you think about the relationship between language and thought — can the language we speak really change the way we think? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!


PM4Paul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. You can check out their free language level tests and other language-learning resources on their website. Feel free to visit their Facebook page or contact paul@languagetrainers.com with any questions.