A Thai delight

Last month I spent two weeks on the island of Koh Tao, Thailand. I went diving (did my Open Water Course yeyyyy), had a few Thai massages and ate amazing food. I didn’t know that eating out would turn out to be so much fun. The menu translations out there are incredible, you can spot errors, letters omissions and misspelling pretty much every time you turn a page. Pannels on the streets are also quite funny to read. And all Westerners keep asking one another “who the heck translated this?”, no one really ever has the answer so people laugh, move on, and the same question arises again 5 minutes later when you see another misspelled or mistranslated English name.

I saw tons of these and feel a bit guilty not having taken many pictures of them to post them online. I know how much people like these, particularly language lovers like me. I managed to find one little pic in my folder which I hope will make you smile. Next time, I promise I’ll compile everything I see.


Happy weekend everyone and if you have similar pics of previous trips, post them and let me know ;-)




My interview with a Croatian learner…

1Croatian is not a common language. I mean, apart from Croats themselves, I don’t know many people who would decide to take up Croatian unless they are planning to live there, have a Croatian partner, or both. My friend Katarina’s motivation when she decided to learn Croatian was neither of these, which makes it even more intriguing to me. Katarina is a young translator and interpreter from English/French into German who is currently living in Croatia. She’s one of the most hard-working people I know and a great source of inspiration to me. I thought I would share with you the interview I recently conducted with Katarina, I hope you like it, that it will inspire you and motivate you to learn languages that are considered not that common! Remember my post about personal adoptive language :-)

When did you start learning Croatian and where did the idea come from?

I took a course at uni for one semester in 2009. I had toyed with the idea of taking this class for some time, I was interested in learning Croatian as it is a Slavic language and therefore different from the other languages I had learned until then. It promised to be a challenge. I had also read a lot about the Homeland war and was intrigued by the contemporary history of the country and the region in general. And finally, I figured it would be a smart move to learn the language of a country that would soon join the EU.

Does Croatian grammar and vocab look like any other language you know?

At first glance it looks very different and difficult. But once I got started, I saw quite a few similarities. There are quite a few lean words from German that you do not recognize immediately because the Croatian spelling is phonetic, which means that words are spelled as they are pronounced. As a native German speaker I am also familiar with the concept of cases, even though Croatian has 7.

The most difficult part of the Croatian grammar so far is the verbal aspect. A verb in Croatian is either perfective or imperfective. A perfective verb describes a completed, finished action, an imperfective verb describes an action that took place, at a certain moment, regularly, etc. It’s tricky, but understanding how other languages function and how they differ is the fun part of learning a new language.

On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = easy and 10 = difficult), where would you place Croatian? To give us a better idea of your rating, where would you place French, English, German an Swedish, which are the other languages you know?

Croatian is definitely the hardest language I have learned until now. But I don’t know how I would rate them. Every language has its difficulties. I would say the Swedish is an easy language, and when I went to Sweden I was confident about my skills. But it turned out I had no clue of the correct pronunciation, so I could not understand the people and they did not know what I was trying to say. English seems easy at first, but gets harder and harder the more you advance. I could converse in French pretty quickly, but they have all these tenses and exceptions that are frustrating to a non-native speaker. German is my mother tongue, so I cannot really judge, even though I am glad I do not have to learn it now. I think Croatian is very difficult in the beginning, but once you are done with the grammar of a B1-level, there will be no bad surprises. So I guess, in one way or another, every language is a 10. It is up to you to make it easy.

Kat, you’re currently in Croatia, what is a typical day for you?

I am very lucky, my class starts at 11 o’clock every day, so if I don’t have to work, I can sleep in and wake up without alarm. Class ends at 1.30 and afterwards I work and do the homework. The free time I spend with trips to the museum (I set myself the goal to go to all the museums Zagreb has to offer), festivals, theatre and other. I also try to travel around a bit. I want to be active and see as much as possible of the country.

What are you hoping to achieve once you have learned Croatian?

It will be a huge achievement to have learned Croatian. I want to have a C1-level so that I can add it as a working language for my interpretation and translation work. I hope it will help me to get into the European institutions, I am especially interested in the Court of Justice. But I am open to anything that will allow me to put my language skills to good use.

How would you describe Croatian people?

My first impression was very positive. The people were very friendly and helpful, no matter if it was my landlord, my neighbour or people on the street. I appreciate that, I feel very safe here. Croats are also (which I think is true for the other countries of the former Yugoslavia too) very nationalistic and proud of their country. This was particularly visible on the day Ante Gotovina was acquitted of war crimes last autumn.

Finally, once you’re done with Croatian, what language(s) would you like to learn?

The first step would be to look into Bosnian and Serbian as they are so close to Croatian. I also would like to work on my Swedish which is completely gone. And after that? I think I will have some brain capacity left to have a go at Czech. Again a Slavic language, so hopefully that would not be too difficult. And if I need a challenge after that, I find Turkish very intriguing. But these are long-term plans, my goal is to fluently speak the languages I learn. It is more about quality than quantity. But if I could, I would continue to learn new languages my whole life.
If you need any German translation or interpretation services, drop me a line at mariehelenemahy@gmail.com and I will put you in touch with Katarina. She’s one of the best German linguists on the market – no kidding.

In What Language Do You Dream?

IMG_0046 (Copier)Today I was talking to some friends and as usual we ended up talking about languages. My friend, who is American, asked me and an Austrian girl why we kept counting in our mother tongue though we have been living in London for a while and our English is quite good. We didn’t really know what to respond, though we said that it was probably because counting is one of the first things you learn as a child.

This conversation made me think about dreams and the language I hear and speak when dreaming. And I suddenly realised that up until recently, I only dreamed in French, no matter who I spoke to. Even if the person I spoke to couldn’t speak a word of French, they would always do in my dreams.

For the past few months though, the language I speak has changed depending on the context and who I speak to. If I speak to someone I speak English with in real life, I would speak English with that person in my dream. Likewise, if that person was a French speaker, they would also speak French in my sleep. I even surprised myself speaking Arabic when addressing to my Syrian friends!

I am not entirely sure what it means though. Does it mean we can only dream in a language we can actually speak fluently? Looking for the answer right now.

And you, in what language do you dream? ;-)

Bye for now,


What Would Be Your Personal Adoptive Language?

kidsHave you heard of Amin Maalouf? If you haven’t studied Arabic or the Arab world and know this author, well done you! If you don’t, this article is for you.

I haven’t read anything by him in a while now, but I though I’d give you a brief idea of what I like about this writer who, through his books and essays, made me see life differently and think outside the box.

Amin Maalouf is a Labanese author, sociologist and journalist born in 1949 in Beyrouth, who fled his country in 1975 to go to France and escape the war. Since then, he has written a wide range of books, from fiction to non-fiction and essays, and the topic found in a large part of his work is identity, as well as the differences between what we would traditionally call the Western and the Arab civilisations. I would personally describe him as a sort of “bridge builder” between these two worlds, a person who raises awareness about the current issues mankind is facing but who also believes in its future. His most famous book is In the Name of Identity and I would recommend it to any person willing to understand the gaps between modern civilisations.

The purpose of this post is not to draw a portrait of this author, though, but rather speak about a concept he put forward a couple of years ago and which hasn’t really been taken seriously enough in my opinion.

In 2007, Amin Maalouf was appointed by the European Commission to advise on the role of multiculturalisme within Europe. Through the research he and his team performed, he developped a new concept which he named “Personal Adoptive Language” (PAL).

A Personal Adoptive Language can be defined as the second language a citizen would learn because he has particular affinities with it (culture, religion…). The learning process of this language should be intense enough so the learner reaches a very high level of fluency, and this language should be different from their language of international communication (in most cases English).

In other words, a German speaker would choose Croatian as a PAL and English would come in the third place as there is a high chance it would be the language of international communication of this person.

This mindset is incredible and also vital. Let me explain myself. First, it would encourage people to speak at least 3 languages fluently (or very fluently), thus broadening their minds and giving them a better understanding of cultural differences and how to overcome these barriers. Secondly, it is probably one of the only ways to avoid that some languages and dialects progressively disappear, since little by little, all these languages would be spoken by a portion of the population of each country.

Two years ago, I had the chance to attend a conference in Brussels during which Amin Maalouf explained the concept of Personal Adoptive Language in detail – he even signed one of my books :-). For some reason, his speech really appealed to me and I promised myself that I would work hard on my Arabic so it progressively becomes my PAL, English being my language of international communication. So far, I still feel like my Arabic comes in third place but I haven’t given up – I know one day this will happen!

If you wish to read Amin Maalouf’s full report about Personal Adoptive Language, click here!

Bye for now,


Bye Bye, Rabat

My stay in Rabat is almost over – tomorrow I’m flying back to London and on Monday back to work :-) Have a look at my pics which I took with my brand new camera. The result is not yet what I want but I feel like I have made some progress since I bought it.

From my learning perspective, I managed to get a lot of things done in just five days, not exactly as much as I wanted to but I now feel like Arabic is part of me again. Do you know what I mean? :-))

So on Monday I bought that book called “Al-Kitaab fii Ta’allum al-‘Arabiyya, Part 3”  and managed to complete 2 units out of 10in a bit less than a week. I could have got a lot more done if my morning teacher had based his classes on the book but well, 2 units in around 10 hours is not that bad.

My new goal once I return to London is to complete the textbook and watch the DVD too. I haven’t set any deadline yet but will do once I’m back in my daily routine.

Now, time to go to the Souq one last time and bargain with the locals!