What is Qu’est-ce que c’est?

Qu'est-ce que c'est Qu'est-ce que c'est?

Qu’est-ce que c’est « Qu’est-ce que c’est » ?

The very commonly used French phrase Qu’est-ce que c’est ? is the contorted way in which the circumlocutory French ask ‘What is it?’.

Or as the French would say ‘What is that which it is?’.

Let’s break it down into its six contingent words and take a closer look:

(1.) Qu‘ + (2.) est + (3.) ce + (4.) que + (5.) c‘ + (6.) est

  1. Qu’ is an abbreviation of the interrogative pronoun que meaning ‘what’.
  2. est is a conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ – in this case ‘is’.
  3. ce is a demonstrative adjective meaning ‘it’ or ‘that’.
  4. que is the relative pronoun. also mean ‘that’ or ‘which’. Taken together ce que is an indefinite relative pronoun and means something like ‘that which’.
  5. c‘ is an abbreviation of ce which as we saw means ‘it’ or ‘that’.
  6. And also once again est is a conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ – in this case ‘is’.

So reassembling we have ‘what’ + ‘is’ + ‘it’ + ‘that which’ + ‘it’ + ‘is’.

And now we know what it is. Or to put it in a way the French might: Nous savons ce qu’est « Qu’est-ce que c’est » !

Ça y est !

Oh – and here is how it is pronounced:


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● Step-by-step introduction to French grammar in 224 topics.
● Over 4,000 annotated examples.
● High-quality audio pronunciations via the app.

Which is the easiest language to learn and why?

what language is the easiest to learn - the tree of languages

The answer to the question “what language is the easiest to learn?” is “well, it depends…”. Or more explicitly it depends firstly on where you are starting from – that is to say, how dissimilar the target language is from your native language. And secondly it depends on how novelly complex the target language is. Let me explain.

Learning a language is like climbing a mountain. The effort required to reach the summit depends firstly on how far away the mountain is from where you are setting off. And secondly how high the mountain is. A Spanish person learning Italian has not far to go – the mountain is not far away. But a Japanese person learning English has a much further distance to go linguistically. Though the (English) mountain is (arguably) not that high. But for an English person learning Japanese the mountain is both distant and high – Japanese is linguistically distant from English and is also inherently complex.

Relative Linguistic Distance

Relative linguistic difference is how far away the mountain is. However quantifying linguistic difference is not easy. Languages are complex and differ in many ways including vocabulary, grammar, written form, syntax and myriad other characteristics. This makes for difficulty in the formulating a measure of linguistic distance. That is not to say however that people have not tried – they have.

A taxonomic approach is the Automatic Similarity Judgment Program (ASJP) method. This method measures the ‘distance’ between words with similar meanings across languages. The list of words to be compared are selected to be culturally independent and for which there are representations in all of the world’s languages. The list comprises basic words of human communication (e.g. I, you, one), body parts (e.g. eye, nose, tooth) or environmental concepts (e.g. water, stone, night). To assess the similarity of a pair of words with the same meaning in two different language, a distance is calculated based on the number of sounds that have to be changed, removed or added to transform the word in the first language into the same word in the second language. The result is the ASJP linguistic distance index.

Obviously this is not going to be a good poxy for the difficulty of learning a language. While having similar vocabularies – like English and Dutch for example – does indeed make a language easier to learn, there is much more than that in assessing linguistic distance from the perspective of learning a foreign language.

Measuring language-learning difficulty empirically

A better approach is that taken in a 2005 paper by Chiswick and Miller which constructs a measures for linguistic distances based on how rapidly migrants to the United States and Canada from various linguistic backgrounds gained proficiency in English.

According to their index, Korean and Japanese are linguistically the most distant from English based in the observation that Korean and Japanese migrants have the least success in English language acquisition. At the opposite end of the spectrum Afrikaans, Norwegian, Romanian and Swedish are linguistically the closest languages to English.

There are of course obvious several problems with this as a language learning difficulty index. Firstly notice that languages from wealthy countries are ranked easier. This is likely because people from these wealthy countries benefited from an effective English-language education even before arriving in the US and Canada. This is most starkly illustrated by the case of Finnish which is undisputedly one of the most linguistically distant languages from English and yet it scores medium difficulty. Secondly migrants from ex-British colonies where English is still widely (and effectively) taught also benefit. Hence perhaps contributing to the low difficultly scores for Malay and Swahili. The different difficulty scores for Bahasa Indonesian compared to Malay – even though they are essentially the same language – would seem to suggest the migrants from the ex-British colony of Malaysia arrived already with an advantage. Though having said that the high difficultly score for Hindi contradict this ex-British colony argument.

Another issue is that of directionality. While positing that Russian is only moderately distance from English based on the finding that Russian speaking migrants are relative successful in acquiring English, it does not mean the opposite is necessarily true.

Measuring the time to learn a language

Perhaps the best metric of the relative difficulty of learning particular languages can be arrived at by consulting the language learning experts – those that actually teach it. The United States Foreign Service Institute is ideal in this regard. It is the institution that trains US diplomats and its School of Languages Studies teaches around 70 languages. The FLI structures its language courses based on its experience teaching Americans the languages it offers. The duration of each language stream differs according to the Institute’s experience with getting the average student to a proficient level. So the duration of their courses range from 24 weeks to 88 weeks. That is to say that, in their experience, some language take over 3.5 times longer that others to learn. That is quite a difference.

According to this metric the easiest languages for English speakers to learn are Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish and romance languages (Italian, Spanish and Portuguese) . The most difficult are Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Korean.

Here are several post discussing the ‘difficulty’ of some of the more popular languages that English speaker learn in French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, German, Korean, Japanese and Chinese.

Ranking of Language Difficulty for English Speakers
  1. Dutch – easiest
  2. Norwegian – easiest
  3. Swedish – easiest
  4. Italian – easiest
  5. Spanish – easiest
  6. Portuguese – easiest
  7. French – quite easy
  8. German – quite easy
  9. Indonesian – medium difficulty
  10. Malaysian – medium difficulty
  11. Swahili – medium difficulty
  12. Russian – difficult
  13. Turkish – difficult
  14. Finnish – more difficult
  15. Hungarian – more difficult
  16. Thai – more difficult
  17. Vietnamese – more difficult
  18. Arabic – most difficult
  19. Korean – most difficult
  20. Japanese – most difficult
  21. Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) – most difficult

Bootstrap Korean Grammar

We just released the Korean edition of Bootstrap Grammar:
https://www.amazon.com/dp/0645531480

Bootstrap Korean Grammar is a new way to learn Korean grammar. Starting from the beginning, the idea is progress in small self-contained steps (called ‘topics’). Each topic builds on the last, by incrementally adding new grammatical patterns, new vocabulary and lot of useful examples.

In total there are 185 grammar topics and 3,200 examples phrases.

The companion mobile application is now available called “BootStrap Korean Grammar”. The app contains all the content contained in this book – including 185 grammar topics and 3200 example phrases. And in additional, there is high quality Korean native-speaker audio for every example.

The companion iOS mobile app is available here:
https://apps.apple.com/app/id1633765066

How well does Johnny Depp speak French?

Johnny Depp does speak French. But not fluently. While his accent is great, he is clearly not confident speaking French in public. His fluency is seriously constrained by a lack of a broad working vocabulary hence his nervous halting manner.

Johnny-Depp-and-Vanessa-Paradiss-French-Actress
Johnny Depp and French actress Vanessa Paradis

However there is no doubting that Depp adopted an excellent strategy for learning French – as the French themselves say: “La meilleure façon d’apprendre une langue étrangère est sur l’oreiller.” (‘The best way to learn a foreign language is on a pillow’). When Depp was 35, he started dating the French actress Vanessa Paradis. The relationship lasted 14 years, during which time they had two children – Jack and Lily-Rose. Both children are reportedly bilingual in French and English.

Despite the extended period of exposure to French, we most definitely can’t say that Johnny Depp is fluent. It is however interesting that he has a very good accent. This contrasts with his small French vocabulary which severely constrains his fluency. This is a classic sign of an adult who has been immersed in a foreign language but has not made an effort to actually learn it. Unlike children, most adults do not organically accumulate vocabulary purely through exposure, and must make a concerted effort to expand their working vocabulary.

It also should be mentioned that at 35 years of age – the age Depp started dating Vanessa Paradiss – the returns to immersion have waned considerably.

Depp’s good accent but limited fluency contrasts with Bradley Cooper who has a great vocabulary but just an OK accent. He studied French academically and only profited from a six-month stint with a French host family in Aix-en-Provence to acquire a French accent. And of course in terms of accent Johnny Depp also benefits from being musically inclined which most definitely helps in acquiring a foreign language accent.

This clip of a good example of his excellent accent but limited fluency – though the French crowd obviously greatly appreciate his efforts.


Ready to learn French Grammar step-by-step?
Bootstrap French Grammar

A 550-page book and accompanying mobile app.
● Step-by-step introduction to French grammar in 224 topics.
● Over 4,000 annotated examples.
● High-quality audio pronunciations via the app.

French, Korean and Russian Phrases Lookup

We have just released a new resource for foreign language learners. It’s a site that allows users to search for a word and get back examples phrases that use that word.

All the example phrases have English meanings and audio recordings of the phrase.

We have initially published the site for French, Korean and Russian:

French : https://declansoftware.com/examples/french/french_examples_search.php
Korean: https://declansoftware.com/examples/korean/korean_examples_search.php
Russian: https://declansoftware.com/examples/russian/russian_examples_search.php

Russian Grammar : Gender and adjectives

BOOTSTRAP RUSSIAN GRAMMAR
Learn Russian Grammar step-by-step

TOPIC 8: Gender and adjectives

All Russian nouns (things) have a gender.

Russian has 3 genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.

  • Most masculine nouns end in a consonant, «-й» or the soft sign «-ь»
  • Most feminine nouns end in «-а» or «-я». And occasionally with the soft sign «-ь».
  • Most neuter nouns end in «-о» or «-е».

The form of the adjective must agree the gender of the noun it modifies.

  • Typically a masculine adjective ends in «-ый» or «-ой»
  • Typically a feminine adjective ends in «-ая»
  • Typically a neuter adjective ends in «-ое»

More details and examples with audio here: http://www.declansoftware.com/grammar/russian/gender_and_adjectives.html

Involve me and I learn

Tell me and I forget,
teach me and I may remember,
involve me and I learn

This quote, well known and much repeated by foreign language teachers everywhere, is attributed to the American statesmen Benjamin Franklin. And it echoes the sentiment of the 3rd century BCE Chinese philosopher Xunzi (荀子).

The point of the quote in the context of language learning is that getting in and having a go is a critical element in successful foreign language learning. Over the years I have found that those people who are most afraid of making mistakes and embarrassing themselves are the people who have most struggled to make progress in mastering a foreign language.

How did Summer Rane learn Japanese?

Summer Rane (Summer Sensei) is a 32 year old American YouTuber and author (and TV personality in Japan) who does English language teaching videos for her large Japanese audience. She is very fluent in Japanese. Summer was born and raised in Seattle and did not have any family or other initial connections to Japan as a child. But she says that she was attracted to the Japanese language and culture from an early age.

In a recent video she offered tips on how to best learn a foreign language based on how she was so successful in learning the Japanese language.

Here are her five top tips:

1.) Don’t be shy to imitate

Immerse yourself in the language – surround yourself with the sounds of the language as much as possible.  And don’t be shy to imitate what you hear.

2.) Balance study of grammar textbooks and exposure to natural language

Summer talks about being obsessed with Japanese and seemingly spending every waking hour immersing herself in the language. She took Japanese class everyday at school and in the evening she studied books and watched Japanese dramas. She emphasises that exposing yourself to the sounds of the language as it is spoken colloquially is critical.

Further on this point, there is also a video of an interesting discussion between Summer and Dogen – another expat in Japan who is extremely proficient in Japanese and who learned it as a foreigner – that is, not within a family situation. In the discussion they talk about the most efficient language acquisition strategies for foreigners and Dogen (only half jokingly) says that watching the same movie over and over again is an idea that worked for him.

3. Seek out all opportunities to practice

Summer talks about her family hosting Japanese exchange students, participating in Japanese speaking competitions and going on Japanese (summer) camps.

4. After learning the basics, go and study and live in the country

Summer enrolled at university in Japan and ended up staying on in Japan for 10 years. She initially taught English there. Obviously living and working in Japan maximized her opportunities to interact with Japanese people and use her Japanese functionally as much as possible.

5. Never give up.

Small steps every day is progress.

Here is video where Summer gives this advice:

Bootstrap Russian Grammar – UPDATE

We have just released an updated version of *Bootstrap Russian Grammar* – the book/app combo that teaches Russian grammar step-by-step.

The BOOK is 535 pages packed with 200 grammar topics and over 3000 annotated examples.

And the APP now features high-quality native-speaker pronunciations for all the 3200 example phrases.

The book is here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0646861433
And the iOS app is here: https://apple.co/3wVybhY

FREE sample of the first 10 topics of Bootstrap Russian Grammar is available here: https://www.declansoftware.com/russian/brg_SAMPLE.pdf
And the same first ten topics are also free in the iOS app.