Welcome to Wes’s Language and Linguistics Page
Hi there Netcruisers, and welcome to the personal language page of Wes Ulm. Learning foreign languages has been a near-obsession of mine for almost 15 years, and on these pages I’ve distilled over a decade’s worth of nifty learning tricks and insufferably goofy mnemonics to help you master the foreign tongue of your choice. Over the years I’ve learned a dozen foreign tongues for one odd reason or another, and my purpose in this section is primarily to impart valuable skills to assist you in organizing and making sense out of the language of your choice, enabling you to acquire fluency as efficiently and painlessly as possible. Learning a foreign tongue is one of the most challenging endeavors a person can undertake, but it’s much less unnerving if you train yourself to master a language’s internal logic and learn to recognize the connections that link language’s together—using your own native tongue as a cue to learn another. My system here might be termed “practical linguistics”—I delve into some of the esoterica of languages’ origin, evolution, and structure, but I do so in a manner that yields valuable information and background for you in the practical challenge of mastering a foreign tongue. There are also a few articles in here that tackle linguistic history, etymology, and policy, but for the most part I’m providing a “user’s guide,” a manual to help you acquire rapid proficiency in a foreign language and speak, hear, read, and write it with facility. I’ve written these articles with a particular audience in mind, namely native English (esp. USA) speakers who are learning a foreign tongue in school, but these essays also double as a resource for linguists, philologists, and curious folk in general who like to delve into the ways in which distinct languages relate to each other and build themselves from the ground up.
More on practical linguistics, my own foreign language background, and the central challenge of retention in mastering a language over the long term.
Another introductory article which provides some general unifying principles for you in organizing and guiding your foreign language study. Check this article out first, since it furnishes the nuts-and-bolts tips which will facilitate your language-learning effort in general.
This, by popular demand, is a short list of languages that I feel are most valuable for a native English-speaking American to dive into these days. There are a few surprises here, and as I emphasize I’m not trying to advocate a peremptory set of languages to learn at the exclusion of others; we need people capable of speaking in many different tongues! However, based on current economic circumstances, political situations, and trade relationships, there are some languages that are especially useful to acquire. Spanish is obviously on here and I give that language special attention, but there are many others which you might not expect at first. Check it out.
One of the most vexing challenges in tackling any language is the sheer drudgery of imbibing thousands of new words, phrases, and idioms to express what you intend. There’s no terribly simple or straightforward way around this. Nevertheless, there are some steps you can take to make the process more logical and efficient. You can use etymological relationships between the vocabulary of the new language and English (or another that you happen to know), or trace the internal logic of the language and its metaphorical style to divine how new words are created from simpler components. However, the most valuable step at the outset is simply knowing which words to focus your attention on. There is a subset of vocabulary that we encounter on a daily or weekly basis in any language, the backbone of regular speech in which even minor gaps can pose frustration in basic conversations. To address this issue, I’ve compiled an alphabetized list here containing “must-know” vocabulary arranged in easy-to-discern categories that enable you to logically the words together. Study this list systematically and learn the words one-by-one, reviewing them in conversation and dialogues. From this foundation you can then begin absorbing more complicated phrases, idioms, and formal vocabulary. You have to walk before you can run, though, and this list should put the spring in your step.
Before I dive into the individual language sections on this site, here’s an appetizer on an especially popular linguistic topic these days:
This is a brief article on the Chinese character system as utilized in the writing schemes of the Chinese and Japanese languages. It’s an effort to make the sometimes-intimidating Chinese script both comprehensible and useful for you. I dispel some myths here but my primary objective is to demonstrate how the Chinese script, far from being a painful labor of mental exertion for a language-learner, can actually be a powerful, efficient, even elegant tool to aid you in concisely conveying ideas and learning new vocabulary. I’ve also supplied two tables which illustrate the linguistic liaisons between Chinese and Japanese as borne in the character compounds that form many of their words, and the phonetic similarity of much Japanese vocabulary relative to Chinese, as a result of borrowing that stretches back centuries. By the time you finish this essay, the Chinese script should seem less like an abstruse, enigmatic amalgam of symbols to you and more like an intelligible, remarkably adroit system to express your ideas, thoughts and emotions.
Going Native with your Native Tongue
Most of us don’t spend too much time delving into the history and intricacies of our native tongue. We acquired our first language as young children, before our memories of people, events, and places had begun to congeal, and thus in our mind’s eye our native tongue feels as if it were “always there.” Nevertheless, this innate, deeply imbued perception we have of our native tongue doesn’t work with a foreign language, where we have to devote conscious attention to the details of grammar and vocabulary. As I emphasize throughout these pages here, it’s a myth that children somehow have a special faculty for language which is lost in adults. In fact, studies have demonstrated that adults tend to learn new languages much more rapidly (since they do not need to learn both concepts and the symbols and sounds that represent them, as children do); children seem to learn more efficiently merely because language acquisition is a full-time job for them. As an adult, you simply need to take a different approach to language learning. The first step in doing this for a foreign tongue is to better grasp the construction of your own. For English, this yields many further practical dividends in part because English has drawn from numerous sources, which you can in turn use to expedite your mastery of a related language.
A brief article on the Germanic, Romance, and Greco-Latin source streams that furnish the backbone of the English tongue (no anatomical pun intended). As I emphasize here and elsewhere, English is a fundamentally Germanic language in its basic grammar and vocabulary, which must be appreciated when using it as a springboard to latch onto foreign tongues of interest.
The Germanic Basis of the English Language
This section’s articles detail the Germanic source streams of the English language.
English originated as a series of “Low German” dialects spoken by German tribes in northern Europe fronting on the North Sea, prior to the fall of the Roman Empire, and was carried to the British Isles by tribes like the Jutes, Saxons, and Angles (from the region of Angeln in modern Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, from which English acquires its name). This Germanic “proto-language,” the grouping of northern Germanic dialects, is referred to as “Anglo-Saxon,” and it supplies the framework—the basic grammatical and syntactical matrix as well as the phonological system and basic vocabulary—of the English tongue. Many articles remark on the changes that the English language has experienced since Anglo-Saxon times and the relatively small remnant (about 5%) of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary still present in modern English. However, this emphasis vastly overstates matters. Almost all modern languages differ markedly from their Roman-era (or before) predecessors; the world, after all, has changed substantially since the 4th century A.D., and much of the original vocabulary has lapsed into desuetude. Moreover, although Anglo-Saxon’s percentage of the word total in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary may be slight, but it constitutes the most fundamental stratum of English vocabulary, the essential constituent of speech that is uttered on a daily basis. As such, over 80% of the words that we will use in a given day are of Anglo-Saxon derivation, and the essential structure of the language still owes its lion’s share to this ancient source.
The ferociously energetic, militarily adept Scandinavian raiders of the Middle Ages—known to modern ears as Vikings, Normans, or Norsemen—left their mark on civilizations across Europe, from Norse settlement-states in England and France (the Danelaw and Normandy, respectively), to the very name and foundational cities (Kiev and Novgorod) of Russia, to the beginnings of Dublin in Ireland, to mastery of trade routes linking the ancient Byzantine Empire with the icy waters of the North. They also influenced Europe’s languages, particularly English. Although the Anglo-Saxons were bitter foes of the invading Vikings and suffered from their invasions more than any other nation, the Scandinavians fundamentally influenced British society in its institutions, language, even in the blood of its people following an extensive period of intermarriage.
Perhaps the most surprising contributor of Germanic vocabulary to English is French—yes, French. Although French is a Romance language like Castilian Spanish, Catalan, Italian, and Romanian, it is perhaps the most Germanic of the group, owing to dense settlements of Germanic language-speaking Franks, Burgundians, Visigoths, and even Vikings (the Normans) in the five centuries following Rome’s collapse. In the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the many other major periods of French infusion into English (owing to the prestige status that French historically enjoyed, facilitating its contributions to many European tongues), most of the novel infusion of vocabulary into Middle English consisted of Latin-derived vocabulary (which in some cases was also of Greek derivation, since the Romans had borrowed extensively from ancient Greek). However, a perhaps surprising contingent of the French-derived vocabulary is Germanic in origin, and in fact this “Franco-German” source is a major contributor to English’s Germanic lexicon. This source stream is detailed here.
The most recent Germanic additions to English stem from infusions of Low German (including Dutch and Flemish) and modern German (i.e., High German) vocabulary. English merchants prospered in the wool trade from the Middle Ages onward and swapped their wares for goods on the Continent, in the process enjoying frequent contact with Dutch-speaking merchants of the Netherlands and Flanders and the closely-related Low German-speaking traders of the Hanseatic League in northern Germany. From the 17th century onward, speakers of High German (the current official language of Germany, Austria, and other lands) began to make their mark in music, the sciences, invention, food, architecture, and many other fields. Although these languages had progressed to relative to maturity, they still had much to learn from each other and exchanged vocabulary, and English absorbed a new cohort of Germanic words from its Germanic language cousins on the European Continent.
The Greco-Latin Contribution to English
Schoolchildren are inculcated with the results of 1066 and all that,
the transformation of Old English to Middle English largely by the introduction
of a significant stream of Latin-based vocabulary to English via Norman
French. However, the infusion of Latin
into Germanic English is ancient and predates the Norman Conquest by many
centuries. Even before the Anglo-Saxons
departed the forests of northern
The best-known purveyor of the ancient Romans’ tongue to English,
Norman French actually had begun to change English even before the Norman
Conquest. Following 1066, contrary to
popular perceptions, English was not immediately affected much by French, and
the period of the heaviest importation of French vocabulary was in the late 14th
century—ironically over 150 years after the
A bit of a detour but an essay I decided to post up out of popular
demand. If you’ve been learning Spanish
in school, you can rapidly notch another two or three languages under your belt
by using the patent similarities between Spanish and its Romance language
cousins: French, Portuguese, Italian,
Romanian, Catalan, and many others.
Since all of these evolved from the Vulgar Latin spoken in the
From here on, I’ve classified my articles on my Languages page based on the language classification (Germanic, Romance, Semitic, East Asian) for the foreign tongue for which I’m giving hints and suggestions.
This family will sound familiar to you because it’s the home of the English language, along with Dutch, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, Scots, Frisian, Low German, and several others. Outside of Icelandic, the languages in this family have been heavily influenced by French, Latin, and Greek over the past millennium, but they also share similar ancestral roots in a “proto-Germanic” progenitor language. You can exploit these linguistic relationships to make better sense out of the languages and learn—and retain—your foreign tongue at a much faster pace.