LinguaMania Episode 1: How ‘foreign’ are ‘foreign languages’?

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Welcome to the LinguaMania podcast. Produced by researchers from Oxford University-led Creative Multilingualism, the series explores some fascinating perspectives on languages and language learning, asking: Do we really need human translators? Why do we use metaphors and what do they teach us about other languages and cultures? How much of an unfamiliar language can we understand? Would creative language teaching make the subject more popular? Can languages help protect the natural environment? And so much more, so stop what you’re doing and start exploring the wonderful world of multilingualism!

Episode 1: How ‘foreign’ are ‘foreign languages’?

Summary: It’s probably fair to say that many people think foreign languages are alien to us, unless of course we’ve spent years studying them. But is this really the case? Or can we actually understand some words in a different language – even if we’ve never studied that language before? Professor Martin Maiden suggests that languages aren’t always as foreign as we think, especially if we have some tricks up our sleeve to help us decipher them.

Listen and download the podcast on Apple Podcasts or University of Oxford podcasts.

Podcast transcript



Welcome to the LinguaMania Podcast…presented by the Creative Multilingualism team. We are a group of people who love languages. We think languages are an essential part of being human… they’re part of our identity… and part of our culture.  And we think they should be celebrated at every possible opportunity! So our podcasts shine a light on some fascinating aspects of languages and language learning which you might not have come across before… 

I’m Professor Rajinder Dudrah from Birmingham City University. I’m also a researcher at Creative Multilingualism. We’re exploring the links between languages and creativity.

(00:58 – 01:30)

Rajinder Dudrah: Now, it’s probably fair to say that many people think foreign languages are just, well, alien to us – unless of course we’ve spent years studying them. But is this really the case? Or can we actually understand some words in a different language – even if we’ve never studied that language before?

In this episode of LinguaMania, Professor Martin Maiden – from the University of Oxford –  suggests that languages aren’t always as foreign as we think, especially if we have some tricks up our sleeve to help us decipher them.

(01:31  - 02:38)

Martin Maiden: It’s ‘double Dutch’, ‘It’s all Greek to me’ – we often hear expressions like this, and they reflect the widespread feeling that foreign languages are just that, they’re spoken by foreigners, they can feel like locked rooms that don’t have the key to. People can even feel threatened when they hear foreign languages spoken around them.

Now it’s interesting that in Britain tracing your family tree is all the rage nowadays and we can often be very surprised to learn that people we thought were strangers are actually long-lost relatives. This can be true of languages too. If your native language is English, meet some relatives…

First, here’s some German, read by Sandra Kotzor. You’re going to hear a description of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, telling us when and where she was born, and about her family, her university studies, her dedication to politics, and her planned retirement in 2021.

(02:39 – 03:17)

Sandra Kotzor: Mein Name ist Angela. Ich wurde neunzehnhundertvierundfünfzig in Hamburg geboren aber meine Familie zog in die DDR, als ich noch klein war. Mein Vater und meine Mutter sind tot, aber ich habe einen Bruder und eine Schwester. Ich war zweimal verheiratet, habe aber keine Kinder. Ich habe an der Universität Physik studiert und dachte, ich würde Wissenschaftlerin werden. In Wirklichkeit habe ich aber mein ganzes Leben der Politik gewidmet.

Manche Leute sagen, daß ich die mächtigste Frau der Welt bin. Ich arbeite sehr hart, werde aber zweitausendeinundzwanzig in den Ruhestand treten.

(03:19 – 03:32)

Martin Maiden: Now let’s hear some Italian, read by Chiara Cappellaro. It’s about Italy as one of the founding states of the European Union, the country’s geography, and its language.

(03:32 – 04:15)

Chiara Cappellaro: L’Italia è uno dei sei stati fondatori dell’Unione Europea. La sua capitale è Roma. Geograficamente, l'Italia è costituita da tre parti: la parte continentale, con le Alpi a nord e gli Appennini a sud; la parte peninsulare, che si allunga nel Mediterraneo in direzione nord ovest-sud est; e, per concludere, la parte insulare con le due maggiori isole del Mediterraneo, la Sardegna e la Sicilia. La lingua ufficiale è l’italiano ma non è raro avere come lingua madre un dialetto locale. Mio padre di esempio era nato in Lombardia (regione che si trova ai piedi delle Alpi), e parlava solo dialetto in casa.

(04:17 – 05:52)

Martin Maiden: If you don’t already know these languages, probably not much of what you heard made sense to you, although you may have recognised the odd word, and we’ll come back to why later. These languages are actually linguistic relatives of English. German could be said to be a sister, in that both languages are descended from a common ancestor language spoken maybe two thousand years ago called ‘proto-Germanic’. When you hear the German phrase ‘Mein Name ist’ it still sounds practically identical to English ‘My name is’, doesn’t it? And words like ‘Vater’, ‘Bruder’, ‘Schwester’ sound pretty much like English ‘father’, ‘brother’, and ‘sister’, and you can easily guess what ‘Mutter’ means.

Italian is also a more distant ‘relative’ of English. It is descended from Latin, and Latin in turn was descended from a language called ‘proto-Italic’. And in turn this ‘proto-Italic’ and ‘proto-Germanic’ share a common ancestor which linguists call ‘proto-Indo-European’, spoken some four to six thousand years ago. This ‘Proto-Indo-European’ is actually also the ‘great-grandmother’ of other modern language families, such as Celtic, Slavonic, and many of the languages of India. All of these languages and language families are relatives.

(05:54 – 06:07)

Rajinder Dudrah: Well then, many languages are part of larger family trees, but how can we spot our linguistic relatives? Martin Maiden has an example of the kind of trick we can use to help make the unfamiliar familiar.

(06:08 – 10:17)

Martin Maiden: We can quite often recognize our own relatives because they look like us, but sometimes we have to resort to quite sophisticated methods to realise that resemblances exist, and so it is with languages.

Over time, what was originally the same word can drift apart in different languages and end up sounding like words that have nothing to do with each other. This can happen because sounds just tend to change. The good news is that they don’t change randomly but in regular, predictable ways. This means we can play detective, by realising that a sound in a word in one language may have a predictable counterpart in another language. And suddenly, an unfamiliar word can become a familiar one.

For example, where English has 't', German often has the sound 'ts' (spelled 'z'), and vice versa. This pattern of regular difference occurs again and again. In the date ‘zweitausendeinundzwanzig’ (2021) in the German passage you heard earlier, you can easily make out the words for ‘two’ (zwei) and ‘twenty’ (zwanzig). And now you will have no trouble in guessing what number ‘zehn’ is, or what part of your body the ‘Zunge’ is. There are other patterns too, such as, English 'th' the T-H sound tending to correspond to German 'd', or English 'd' tending to correspond to German 't'. In the passage Sandra read earlier, we heard ‘ich dachte’ (I thought) or words like ‘der’, ‘die’ or ‘daß’, which correspond to the English definite article ‘the’ or ‘that’.

You’ve probably heard German-speakers saying ‘danke’, and that corresponds to English ‘thank’ or ‘thanks’, and it’s pretty easy to guess what the number ‘Drei’ is. In the phrase ‘mein Vater und meine Mutter sind tot’, (my father and mother are dead), ‘tot’ corresponds to English ‘dead’ and shows how German ‘t’ often corresponds to English ‘d’. After that, it’s not difficult to guess what colour ‘rot’ is, or what the verb ‘trinken’ means or what part of a house a ‘Tür’ might be. These sound resemblances don’t always work, by any means, but it’s striking how often they do and how much they can help.

Similarities of the kind we have seen for German are harder to spot between English and Italian, because the two languages are much more distantly related, but the resemblances do exist. In the phrase ‘tre parti’ (three parts) we have the numeral ‘tre’ (three) and an example of a common correspondence between ‘t’ and English ‘th’, the T-H sound. The numeral ‘due’ (two) reveals a correspondence between ‘d’ and ‘t’, so it is less surprising that the Italian word ‘dente’ is actually the same as the English word ‘tooth’, or that the numeral ‘dieci’ is the word for ‘ten’, or that the word ‘piedi’, in ‘ai piedi delle Alpi’ (at the feet of the Alps) means ‘feet’. And the ‘p’ at the beginning of ‘piedi’ corresponds to English ‘f’ more generally as we also see in the phrase ‘mio padre’ (my father).

(10:17 – 10:44)

Rajinder Dudrah: So it can be easier to work out the meanings of some German and Italian words than you might have thought. Next up, we’re going to look at how languages can come to resemble each other through borrowing, just as people belonging to one culture may borrow things and ideas from another, so the words for those things and ideas may also be borrowed. Here’s Professor Martin Maiden to explain how this works.

(10:44 – 13:25)

Martin Maiden: You may have been able to recognise a few words in the German and Italian passages we heard, not particularly because these languages are related to English, but because German,  Italian, and English have all borrowed them from a common source, usually Classical Latin or Ancient Greek: for example German ‘Universität’ for ‘university’, ‘Physik’ for ‘physics’, Italian ‘capitale’ for ‘capital’, ‘parte’ for ‘part’, ‘concludere’ for ‘conclude’,  ‘direzione’ for ‘direction’. The Italian names for the points of the compass, ‘nord, sud, ovest, est,’ ultimately came from Old English in the Middle Ages.

In fact, word borrowing can build bridges between languages that aren’t otherwise related to each other. People belonging to one culture borrow, or simply take, things and ideas from another culture, and they often borrow the words for those things and ideas as well. The result is a kind of smoothing out of differences, even between languages that are not related. Some examples are plain obvious as with the word ‘spaghetti’ from Italian, or ‘bar’ from English, which can be heard in languages all over the world.

The older an international borrowed word is, the more likely it is for its identity to have become veiled by the pronunciation habits of different languages. Take ‘tomato’: this word comes from an indigenous language of the Americas, and was introduced into Europe via Spanish, but the differing pronunciation habits of different languages mean that its identity soon became obscured, so you have to unravel the differences. Compare the pronunciation of Spanish ‘tomate’, French ‘tomate’, British English ‘tomato’ and of course American ‘tomato’!

Now let’s take Japanese, a language which absolutely isn’t related to English. In recent times, Japanese has borrowed a lot of words from English, but the pronunciation of Japanese is so different from that of English that familiar words can end up sounding impenetrably alien. Here Ikuya Aizawa reads out some modern Japanese words. Can you recognize them? You’ll have to concentrate very hard.

(13:26 – 13:44)

Ikuya Aizawa:


(to ma to)


(ch o ko rē to)


(a bo ka do)


(kō hī)








basu sutoppu


(13:45 – 14:51)

Martin Maiden: Could you work out what Ikuya was saying? It was: ‘tomato’, ‘chocolate’, ‘avocado’, ‘coffee’, ‘spaghetti’, ‘sport’, ‘film’, and ‘bus stop’.

These words are all borrowed from English, although some of them, such as ‘tomato’, or ‘spaghetti’ are words that English itself borrowed from other languages, as we said earlier. Here English speakers need to learn to penetrate the ‘veil’ of Japanese pronunciation, to learn for example that ‘film’ is ‘firumu’ because Japanese replaces ‘l’ with ‘r’, because Japanese syllables nearly always end in a vowel so that extra vowels get added to words, and so on.

Sure, learning and understanding a foreign language always involves some very hard work, but the door is rarely completely shut, and that means that sometimes things that sound very different may just turn out to be old friends in disguise.

(14:51 – 15:35)

Rajinder Dudrah: Thanks for listening to our LinguaMania podcast. The series is produced by Creative Multilingualism, a research programme led by the University of Oxford and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Our aim is to make languages more visible, valued and vibrant! If you’ve enjoyed this episode, have a listen to the rest of the series. You can find out more about Creative Multilingualism at or follow us on Twitter @creativelangs.


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