• Bridging the languages

    Don’t talk, listen

    Speaking a language fluently is a task that requires a lot of effort. Understanding one is easier, though, and that might be something we can put to good use in the future.

    How well do you understand a language that’s from the same family as your own? For instance, Swedish for a Norwegian and German for a Dutchman. Associate Professor of Linguistics Charlotte Gooskens and three of her PhD students want to find out. Their research might change the way languages are taught, according to Stefanie Voigt, the PhD student who is researching Romance languages.‘Imagine a Dutch and German company trying to doing business’, says Femke Swarte, the PhD student researching Germanic languages. ‘The people representing the Dutch company might be able to express themselves almost perfectly in German, but they are not fully aware of the subtleties of the German language. Therefore, they might come across as quite rude to the Germans without being aware of it and so might jeopardize the chance of doing business with them. This is why most people speak English in these circumstances.’

    Mother tongue

    ‘Where’s the problem, say people in the border regions of Denmark and Sweden’

    Most Dutch people are able to understand a little German and French, but most communication with German and French people will be held in English. Where French used to be the lingua franca in most of Europe, now English is the language to fall back on when your knowledge of a foreign language is insufficient. However, most non-native speakers will never be able to express themselves in the same way as in their mother tongue.

    So where’s the problem, say people in the border regions of Denmark and Sweden. Danish and Swedish are pretty similar, so Danish is easily understandable for a Swede and vice versa. A conversation between the two is therefore held in two different languages. Both speakers express themselves freely while still being able to understand what is said by the other and everybody is happy.

    Mutual understanding

    However, is it possible that this method could also work for other countries and languages? That is the main question being researched by Gooskens’ team. ‘There are a lot of languages in Europe, which is important, but we also need to be able to communicate in them, so how can we improve on that? In order to research this mutual understanding, I was awarded a €1 million grant by NWO, which has enabled me to hire three PhD students and two postdocs.’

    The PhD students took the three largest European language families (Germanic, Romance and Slavic), explains Jelena Golubovic, the Serbian researching the Slavic languages. ‘Within these families we’re researching a total of 16 languages and we’re trying to find how well, for example, someone from Poland can understand a Bulgarian or a Czech.’

    ‘We have been collecting data for two years now’, continues Voigt. ‘We do this by asking people fill in a web application. It’s a sort of game. The person playing the game gets a language from the same family and has to either fill in missing words in a text, understand a text and point out what it was about, or translate given words into his or her own language. From that data we hope to be able to extract a score.’

    50 Danish words

    ‘Even though I don’t speak Danish, I could still understand parts of it’

    Martin Kroon, a linguistics student, took the test. ‘I first had to fill in my estimated level of proficiency in the four other Germanic languages. After that I was ask. It’s funny to see that even though I don’t speak Danish, I could still understand parts of it. For me as a linguistics student it’s also really interesting.’

    Gooskens points out that there is still a lot of data to be collected. ‘For each language combination we need at least 1,500 results, but preferably about 10 times more than that. Right now we have about 30,000 participants, mainly from the Netherlands and Denmark, but we still need a lot more, especially from smaller countries, like Portugal, which are hard to reach, so we need every possible bit of interest.’

    Basic knowledge

    That is interest they hope to receive from international staff and students at the University of Groningen. It’s not often you find so many different nationalities together.

    ‘In the end we hope to extract results that point out to what degree other languages can be understood and what factors contribute to that understanding, such as education level, age and residence’, says Swarte.

    Voigt continues: ‘That way we can tell if it’s better to just speak your own language, instead of learning to speak another one. We are already using it here. I speak German to Femke and she responds in Dutch. It works pretty well if you have a basic knowledge of the other language. This research might just change our way of teaching linguistics.’


    Want to try it out? Play the game on www.micrela.nl/app