Language Learning Tip: Learning is Your Own Job

No matter how good your teacher is, learning a new language is something you will ultimately have to do for yourself. Nobody can simply log into your brain and install new words and grammar, and even if you diligently complete all of the assignments in a language class — even if you get a good grade — it’s still entirely possible to finish without actually improving your ability to speak that language by more than an infinitesimal fraction.

Thus, you ultimately have to be your own teacher. Pay attention to what does and doesn’t work for making new information stick, and which words you contantly have to look up over and over again. Also notice which topics you can already speak relatively fluidly about, versus those where you still have to pause and hunt for terminology or consciously construct sentences, and then concentrate your practice on the areas that you have trouble with. Simply following a teacher’s instructions as to how to practice your language is better than nothing, but more often than not, you will end up wasting a lot of effort on strategies that don’t work for you.

It’s also worth remembering that the grade or other evaluation you receive from a class may not be indicative of your actual ability. This can swing both ways, and you should be on the lookout for both possibilities (either the grade being significantly better than what your ability would warrant, or vice versa). I personally will often get good grades in upper-level language classes while still having very poor listening comprehension (especially when recordings or any sort of noise are involved), since most exams are written and even explicitly oral exams are generally given by careful speakers in idealized sonic conditions.

Even if you have had great experiences with language classes so far, it can never hurt to invest some time in studying the language on your own outside of class. You might discover something that works even better than what you’ve been doing in class, or at the very least simply get ahead.

Hungary (part 3)

I’ve now been here two and a half weeks, and I feel like I’ve started to adjust to my surroundings to a greater extent. Some of this is just increased language ability — using only Hungarian with just about everybody except for my beginning-level suitemates will do that — but I also suspect that I’ve gotten used to some of the more frustrating parts of living here, such as the taste of the water. It probably also helps that, when an extra room opened up in another suite, my roommate decided to move into it, giving me a room to myself for the rest of the program.

Also, if anyone reading this has heard my complaints about some of the infrastructure problems at the Univesity of Pécs last year, I should point out that many of them have been (mostly) solved. My dinner has only been forgotten once so far (which I will accept as a simple mistake), there have always been forks and knives with the food, and the dorm staff in general seem nicer. I wouldn’t say that everything is perfect yet, but they’ve certainly learned from the problems we had last year (and possibly other years before), and are striving to make the summer university an enjoyable and educational experience.

I have a bunch of homework to do tonight, and I really should try and sleep as well (it’s been hard the last few nights due to heat and lack of exercise), but I intend to try and explore the city a bit more tomorrow afternoon. There’s a lot to see here, and while the official excursions are fun, they only cover so much — and I will probably get more out of walking around at my own pace without having to stick with a group.

Language Learning Tip

This will be the beginning of a series, with no definite endpoint, in which I will share things that have helped me learn languages in the past. I can’t promise that everything suggested here will work for everyone — I am a very visual learner, and also a rather strange individual in a number of ways — but hopefully someone will find something useful. At any rate…

One very important part of language learning is making sure you get the material you need to learn — be it vocabulary, morphology, or anything other relevant aspect — in the format that your brain can most easily process, internalize, and recall. For me, this means that I prefer to see new words and expressions written down, since I’m much more likely to remember them that way. If learning the language in a classroom setting, it is extremely helpful if the teacher writes new material down on the board — or just provides it on a handout — so that I can get it in a visual medium without having to be stress out about remembering and trying to write down words that were said once or twice, but that I never actually saw.

In the same vein, I tend to find textbooks and learning materials that expect the student to fill in the definitions for new vocabulary based on classroom discussion rather frustrating. Most of the time, I don’t manage to write down even half of the definitions that were provided, and I end up having to use a dictionary to find them later — why couldn’t the book have just provided a mini-dictionary right there, with the information that I needed to learn the new vocabulary? While there’s definitely something to be said for having to remember and reproduce a new phrase or its definition, there are much better ways of exercising this skill that don’t risk leaving some students in the dark without ever having even seen the material they were supposed to learn (a favorite of mine is simply devoting some classroom time to defining words as a game — but that’s a topic for another post).

If you’re unsure what the most effective way to format new material for your own mind is, it’s worth trying a bunch of different language learning methodologies and keeping track of which ones work and which ones don’t. If, for instance, you’re having trouble recalling vocabulary after staring at each word and picturing the thing is refers to next to it (something that works well for me with words that have relatively concrete meanings), try saying the word and its definition aloud, or making flashcards, or anything else you, your teacher, or your friends can come up with. Eventually, something will work, and then you can switch to that.

In general, if you’re in a class and you feel that some aspect of how the class is being taught is making it harder for you to learn, you should feel free to ask the teacher to try and accommodate you (by, say, writing words on the board). It won’t always be possible, especially if there are a number of students with different learning styles in the same class, but it never hurts to ask. Also, regardless of whether your learning in a classroom setting or solo, make sure that when you’re studying on your own (and you should be doing this even if you’re in a class), you’re putting the material you’re trying to learn into the format that best suits you.

Hungary, part 2

At this point, I’ve been in Pécs for about a week and a half. Unfortunately, for four of those days I was sick enough that I didn’t feel up to doing anything besides going to class and sleeping (and I had to skip a couple of classes), so I haven’t gotten out nearly as much as I had after a similar amount of time last year. Fortuntely, this time around I have a bit more time, so it’s not the end of the world.

At any rate, although I do enjoy the lessons here, sometimes they are a little bit frustrating. The group I’m in is probably a little bit too advanced for me, but that itself is just a challenge, not a problem. The real issue is that, as a very visual learner when it comes to new vocabulary and expressions, I’m receiving most of the new material in a format that I’m not as well equipped to process — it’s hard enough when the teacher gives us a word or phrase verbally without writing it down, but when the only person to actually say the new phrase is a student on the other side of the room with a fairly quiet voice and a strong accent, I more often than not simply don’t hear it. And I’m only comfortable saying “what?” so many times during a class session, not to mention that if I take the time to write one phrase down, I will miss whatever gets said next.

This, of course, isn’t to say that I’m never guilty of mumbling in class myself, although I’m been trying very strongly to kick the habit after noticing how hard it can be for me when other students do it. Part of the problem, though, is just the fact that non-native students of a foreign language are going to have accents different from that of a native speaker, and there’s really no way around that. However, it would certainly help if our textbook actually gave definitions/explanations of new expressions (they’re generally listed, but you aren’t told which expression corresponds to which definition, since you’re supposed to try and figure that out as an exercize — which is all well and good, except that your choices are only ever verified verbally in class).

Besides all of that, though, I am learning a lot more of the language than I knew previously, so that’s good. Also, at this level, I generally only speak to my classmates in Hungarian, so we get a bit of practice outside of class as well (although roommates are not assigned according to language level, so I often have to speak English with my roommates). Now if it would just cool down a bit, that would be awesome!

Hungary, part 1

For the next four weeks, starting today (Monday), I’m going to be studying Hungarian at the University of Pécs, on a scholarship provided by the Tempus Foundation ( This is not my first time with this program — I attended last year as well, on the same sort of scholarship, and thus most of what we’re doing this year is fairly familiar: I know most of the teachers, many students have been coming for more than one year, and I can get from the dormitories to the building where we have our classes without getting lost.

There isn’t all that much to say about how the program is going at this point, since we’ve only had one day of classes (and not even a full day at that), but they seem to have fixed some of the more annoying issues from last year — for instance, we no longer have to walk far, far away from the university to eat lunch (last year lunch was served in a restaurant that was maybe a 10-minute walk from the main class building), and they’ve made it easier to choose between vegetarian and meat lunch options on a day-by-day basis, rather than having to simply elect one for the duration of the program.

I was originally placed into a class that in my opinion was far too easy, but switching to a higher-level class for a few sessions to try it out was extremely easy. Although I feel a little bit behind in the higher-level class, I will probably end up staying there if they let me, since I tend to do best at language learning when I can just jump off the deep end and start talking to people who know the language better than I do.

I unfortunately can’t promise that I’ll write about this program with any regularity, but I will try. Some future posts may be written in Hungarian, but I will include an English translation at the bottom.

Nonbinary Kinship Terms Survey Results 1

A couple of days ago, in a conversation I was in, the question came up of how to refer to one’s nonbinary relatives. While it’s true that there exist gender-nonspecific terms for most relations (e.g. “sibling”, “parent”, etc.), there don’t appear to be terms in common use that refer explicitly to nonbinary people, even in queer parlance.

Thus, being the conlanger that I am, I decided to come up with a few such terms on my own, and to try to make them similar enough to the existing English kinship terms that they would be recognizable as referring to the relationship that they did, even to a person who was hearing them for the first time. I ended up creating terms for five categories (a nonbinary parent, sibling, child, sibling’s child, and parent’s sibling), and ran a brief survey on Tumblr to determine if English speakers could identify which terms referred to which categories.

Of the 78 people who took the survey, 88.5% indicated that they were native speakers of English, and 55.1% indicated that they felt they knew how the novel words were supposed to be pronounced (39.7% said they only felt they could tell sometimes). Below, each group of words is discussed in greater detail.


Pronounced /’vɛðəɹ/, this word was intended to refer to one’s nonbinary parent. I actually coined this one long before the conversation that led to this survey, after reading an exchange where a person* suggested that the term “baba” would be a good choice for what a baby might call their genderqueer parent; I then backformed that to a hypothetical word that shared the “-ther” suffix found in “father” and “mother”, and began with the one labial fricative that didn’t already begin a kinship term in English, i.e. /v/.

A solid 65.4% of respondents got this one “correct”, identifying it as referring to one’s parent. However, there was a substantial minority (14.1%) who voted for “parent’s sibling”, and smaller minorities who chose the other categories, as well as variations on “I don’t know” and one freeform response.

Sether, Sebber, Sither, Bruster

All of these were intended to refer to one’s sibling. Respectively, they are pronounced /’sɛðəɹ/, /’sɛbəɹ/, /’sɪðəɹ/, and /’bɹʌstəɹ/. All are essentially portmanteaus of “brother” and “sister”, with “sebber” also being influenced by the word “sibling”.

Although a majority of respondents chose the “sibling” option for all four of these, that majority was largest (87.2% and 84.6%, respectively) for “sither” and “bruster”. Only 65.4% of respondents chose “sibling” for “sebber”, with the rest divided between the other four official options and a number of (sometimes humorous) freeform responses. Interestingly, although a majority of individuals (56.4%) got “sether” “correct”, a large minority (21.8%) indicated that it referred to one’s parent.

Tozzer and Tother

I intended for these terms to be pronounced /’tɑzəɹ/ and /’tɑðər/, and refer to one’s child. However, in neither case did a majority of respondents choose this option (although “child” did represent the largest group of responses — 24.4% — for “tozzer”; “parent” and “sibling” received 16.7% and 14.1% respectively). “Tother” received a clear majority of responses in favor of it referring to one’s parent (52.6%), with another large chunk of responses (19.2%) in favor of “sibling”. One freeform responder indicated that they thought “tother” should rhyme with “mother”, which may have contributed to the preponderance of “parent” responses.

One complication that I, as an American, did not anticipate is that the word “tosser” is apparently an insult in Great Britain. This was pointed out multiple times in the freeform responses to both of these words. I did notice that “tozzer” sounded a bit like “tosser” while creating these words, but was not aware that it was an insult. Both terms come from playing with the sounds in “daughter”, adding elements from “father”, “mother”, and “brother”, plus a healthy dose of random variation.


Prnounced /neɪθ/, and referring to a sibling’s child, this is the term that I hypothesized would produce the most confusion among respondents, but it seems to have been clearer than I expected: 61.5% of answers went to the “sibling’s child” option, with minorities of 15.4% and 11.5% for “child” and “parent’s sibling” respectively.

I coined this word by playing with the vowel in “niece”, and then changing the sibilant /s/ to /θ/ in order to resemble, but not match exactly, the /f/ (written “ph”) in “nephew”.


A portmanteau of “uncle” and “aunt” with the stressed vowel changed to /ɛ/, and pronounced /’ɛntəl/, this word was meant to refer to a parent’s sibling, and 78.2% of respondents agreed. Of the remaining answers, about half chose “child”, with the rest being split between the remaining options and freeform answers of “grandparent” and “grandchild”.


Most of the terms I created produced the desired associations in readers, although there was a lot of uncertainty with some of them. “Tozzer” and “tother” were totally off the mark, but this is probably explainable by their similarity to “tosser”, and the fact that “tother” can be read as rhyming with “mother”, neither of which I anticipated when I coined those two terms.

I’m probably going to start using “vether”, “naith”, and “entle” when I need them. I would also like to work one of the “sibling” words into my vocabulary, but choosing one is going to be difficult, since my personal aesthetic favorite (sether) is also the least obvious of the four options surveyed.

Finally, it’s very clear that we need a new word for one’s nonbinary child. I’m currently at a loss for ideas — I thought about trying to derive a term from the Proto-Indo-European *dʰeh₂ylios, but couldn’t come up with anything that felt like it would evoke the concept of a child, at least not to my own brain.

Further Analysis

I’d like to see how much of a correlation there is between getting the “correct” answer for a particular word, and being a native speaker of English. This isn’t conceptually that hard to do, but I’ll need to play with the data a bit, and I’m exhausted and wanted to get *something* posted tonight. I’ll try and post an update in the next couple of days. I’d also like to provide actual charts with the data I received, but Google Forms doesn’t provide an easy way to export them as images without going through at least one WYSIWYG editor.

*If the person in question sees this and asks me to cite them by name, I will do so. I’ve decided to keep them anonymous for now for privacy’s sake.

Kem and Doy

In modern English, there do not appear to be any generally accepted terms identifying people by their genital configuration and secondary sex characteristics without having to invoke gender and the social convention surrounding it, as “AMAB” and “AFAB” do. While those terms (and a few others) allow discourse to function to a certain degree, they continue to feel a bit awkward for the task at hand. It would seem useful to have unanalyzable terms for each of these categories.

Thus, let the word “kem” /kɛm/ refer to a person with traditionally Y-chromosomal physical traits (both in terms of genitalia and in terms of secondary characteristics), and the word “doy” /dɔɪ/ refer to a person with traditionally X-chromosomal traits. These terms are intended to be used as adjectives, but could be repurposed as nouns if necessary.

Now, of course, there are a lot of people who have traits from both categories, often with one of them being dominant. That’s okay, since there’s no need for these two words to be mutually exclusive — one can be mostly doy but have a couple of kem features, or fairly equally distributed between the two. The important thing is that these words refer to aspects of physical bodies, rather than gender identities. Additionally, they refer to aspects of a person’s physical body regardless of how they came to possess it — thus, a kem person is kem even if they were born doy, and vice versa.

Etymologically, the word “kem” is at some level inspired by the term “kemmer” in Ursula Le Guin’s work, although it isn’t clear whether that was conscious, or whether it only became apparent after the word had been coined. The word “doy”, on the other hand, is entirely a priori, with no known source of inspiration other than the need for a new word that didn’t already mean something in English.

Michael Burnham: Missed Opportunity?

This post is spoiler-free.

For those of you who haven’t been watching it, Michael Burnham is the main viewpoint character in the new television series Star Trek: Discovery. Although female, she was given a name that, in our era, is traditionally male, which appears to be a signature move of her creator Bryan Fuller’s. However, given when the series is set, it would not be at all surprising for the name “Michael” to have become a woman’s name.

As languages evolve, it is entirely natural for names to switch which genders they are associated with. Due to sexism (and possibly other factors), it is far more common for traditionally male names to be adopted by women than the other way around, and at first glance, that is what appears to have happened in Michael Burnham’s case: since Star Trek: Discovery is set at least two centuries in the future, it would make sense for the name “Michael”, and probably a number of other names as well, to have become female names (given the egalitarian nature of the Star Trek universe, you might also expect a number of female names to have switched to male, and possibly a much larger number of names being entirely gender-neutral, but the absence of those particular changes is not in and of itself surprising from a linguistics perspective in the way that no change at all would be).

Alas, this was not to be. Within a couple of episodes, it is established that Michael Burnham is one of a very small minority of women bearing the name “Michael”, if not the only one, when her roommate correctly guesses her identity from her first name alone. And while it isn’t that surprising that the producers of Star Trek would miss a minor linguistic detail such as this, it is a bit disappointing. All they would have had to do is to write one scene slightly differently, and possibly add a couple of minor characters with names corresponding to the “opposite” gender in modern English.

Perhaps if I ever try to write futuristic science fiction, I’ll get a chance to show how future names might actually look.


To start off with a couple of potential biases: I’m a polyglot. I learn languages for fun. While I definitely understand how sharing a native language makes communication easier, I probably will never truly grasp the mindset of a person who is okay with remaining monolingual. There are languages that are more or less of a priority for me, but I would never be able to give up all foreign languages.

Secondly, at this time I would prefer not to comment on what the linguistic situation on Earth will look like in two or three centuries. That would require a lot more research than I’m willing to do for one blog post, and even then predicting the future with a high degree of certainty is usually impossible. The one thing I will say is that we are just about guaranteed to see a major die-off of languages over the course of the next century, and there is little we can do about it other than supporting extant speaker communities and recording as much information about those languages as we can.


This post, and a number of people whom I have spent time with, have argued that in the long run, it would be better if the world had only one language, so that all people could communicate with one another more easily. While I personally am very strongly in favor of preserving linguistic diversity, this post is not here to argue that point, so much as to show that linguistic diversity and ease of communication need not be at odds with one another.

To me, there is an obvious way to allow nearly everyone to communicate without unnecessary difficulty, while preserving the world’s languages: diglossia. For anyone unaware, the term “diglossia” refers to the situation in which two (or sometimes more) languages are used side by side in the same community. Typically, each language is used in a particular, well-defined domain — for instance, German-speaking Swiss use Standard German in written work and in education, as well as when communicating with people from Germany, but speak Swiss German (which is not mutually intelligible with Standard German) just about everywhere else.

The aforementioned diglossic system in use in Switzerland is probably a good model for what an ideal worldwide diglossia might look like, although there would probably be need for a few changes — for instance, every local language would retain their own literature and written language, and schooling would be conducted bilingually through secondary school. Universities would probably end up having a mixture of classes taught in the local language and those taught in the global one, much as modern European universities will occasionally offer classes in English. The result would be that almost everybody would be natively or near-natively bilingual in their local language and the global language, and could communicate with people across the globe without having to sacrifice their native culture.

One issue with multilingualism brought up in the blog post I cite is the existence of people who have little to no ability to learn a foreign language. While I personally am not particularly familiar with the science behind how common this is, or whether learning two languages natively would obviate this issue, it stands to reason that a generally bilingual world would probably have little trouble accommodating such a person. If a child were clearly struggling to acquire both languages even with extra help, they could prioritize the common language in order to ensure their ability to communicate in the larger world, without having to worry that they would then be unable to communicate with their (bilingual) family. And if they chose to prioritize the local language, there would be no shortage of bilingual citizens who could serve as impromptu interpreters and translators as need arose.

At any rate, there is no reason to assume that global communication requires everyone to give up their heritage languages. Multilingual societies have been around for a very long time, and it would serve us well as a global community to emulate their model.

The Future

When I was little, I would watch Star Trek and other science fiction movies and TV shows, and imagine what the future would be like.

I thought it would be awesome — it was the future, after all. Everyone would be driving a flying car; every wall would have an intercom and video phone in it; the buildings would look like something out of The Jetson’s.

But then, the future started to arrive. It didn’t feel much different, and I hardly realized what was happening until much later. Time ticked on, years went by, and new inventions came, but nothing really changed. We got smartphones, faster computers, drones — but cars still drove on the ground, buildings looked the same as ever, and nobody went around installing shiny new touchscreen intercom panels in every wall. Why would they? Everyone had a smartphone!

As a child, I always thought the future would replace the past. But in the end, the past didn’t go anywhere. The future just got grafted on top.