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The Devil is in the Minimal Pairs

Communicating in any foreign language can be an arduous task, especially when the language you are trying to speak contains phonemes 1 that are absent in your L1 2. This is the case and struggle of Spanish speakers when they learn English, and my dad is no exception…

Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, Language comics, languagecomics, Spanish, Foreign, English phonetics

These amusing happenstances occur because the devil is in the minimal pairs: two words that have a very similar pronunciation, but differ from one another by one phoneme in the same position in each word:Expat Gone Foreign, linguistics comics, phonetics, IPA, English, phonology, language

Whereas Spanish has one phoneme for <i>, English has a long /iː/ and short /ɪ/ one. No wonder Spanish speakers are confused when they start learning English. This madness would the phonetic equivalent of going to bed with two feet and waking up with four. One needs some practice to figure out how to navigate the world with additional extremities – or extra phonemes one had never had before.

To make matters worse, you will stumble upon words that contain the same graphic vowels, yet each one is pronounced differently:Expat Gone Foreign, linguistics comics, phonetics, IPA, English, phonology, language

But don’t fear, dear language learner! All it takes is a bit of practice, and you can train your ear to the different phonemes of the English language with online resources like this super cool interactive phonemic chart. If you are unsure how one word sounds, look up the pronunciation in dictionaries that include the IPA transcription and sound clips, like WordReference.

In conclusion, I think English learners should get more credit for their Herculean efforts.Expat Gone Foreign, linguistics comics, phonetics, IPA, English, phonology, language

In fact, anyone who stumbles upon words like these ↑ and doesn’t give up, deserves a standing ovation.

Duolingo Meets the Natives

Last month I embarked on the journey of learning a new language from scratch: Italian!

I opted for an autodidactic approach, so I tailored the weekly units using online resources 3 and combined them with a touch of reality by watching shows, listening to songs and getting in touch with natives in my area. I also set up Duolingo to add a playful component whenever I have some minutes to kill, and that’s when the cross-cultural awkwardness began. This is me attempting to talk to a native after a few Duo lessons:Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, language comics, Duolingo, language learning apps, foreign languages, Italian

If you think I made these up, scroll down!


“I am a turtle”. Expat by day, turtle by night. Capisci?

“The monkey reads a book”. Monkeys are pretty smarty-pants at Duo.

“My snake eats your cakes”. Can you blame it? Your cakes are pretty delicious.

“Mario and Luigi are plumbers”. Badum-tss!

Click here for some ambiance.

And that’s not all! Here are some other screenshots that I have collected over the past few weeks. They range from funny to mildly distressing. Fair warning, Duo gets a bit insulting at times:

“You are the pig”. Remember, not just any pig. You are THE pig. Watch your manners.

“I speak with the turtle”. Wait, I thought I was the turtle!?

“You are mine until I die”. Bit possessive, aren’t we?

“Why do we die?” Duo gets philosophical in the late hours of the night.

“My sandals are in the hat”.  Good to know you have your Diogenes syndrome in check, buddy.


Despite the somewhat useless but hilarious sentences that Duo throws at you every once in a while, I’m pleased with the app and the concept. I’m not going to get into detail, but here’s a trusted review of both Duolingo and Memrise. 2

I’m documenting my language progress on Twitter 3 using the hashtag #ilmioviaggiolinguistico. If you are learning Italian, join this linguistic journey!

Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, learning Italian, imparare italiano, lingua italiana, vocabulary, che ora è

What about you? Do you use language learning apps? To what extend have they boosted your language skills?

Arrivederci, amici!


The Geordie Accent

Before relocating to Britain, I truly believed that getting around would be a piece of cake, mostly because I already spoke English – or so I thought. Then the Geordie accent happened. From being greeted with “Alreet wor kid?” to deciphering my roommates’ conversations, the accent in Newcastle certainly posed a few challenges that I hadn’t anticipated.Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, Geordie, Newcastle, British accents, language comics, linguistic diversity

– “I’m heading to [my] bed, I’m really exhausted, mate.”
– “You are kidding, man! We are going down town tonight to get wasted!

In addition, there’s an interesting phenomenon when it comes to accent diversity in this country. Brits happen to change their accents depending on who they are talking to. John Doe could be talking to their colleagues in RP 4, switch to Cockney when he phones that friend from London and later on chat up his neighbors in Geordie.  Linguistic chameleons at their finest.

This skill certainly makes communication much easier, since most Brits will rapidly switch to RP when they notice that you are not from town. Besides the occasional befuddlement when Geordies interact with one another, you’ll be just fine getting around.Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, expat comics, expat humor, uk, tea time

If you liked this strip, check out British Sinks.

The Language Tandem Predator

If you had any doubts by now, let me tell you that I love languages: from the analytic modern English with its changeable moods and unpredictable phonology, to the fusional Romances with their graceful inflections and clingy morphemes; from the agglutinative wonders of Uralic languages with their sesquipedalian utterances, to the intriguing logograms of Hanzi, Kanji or Maya glyphs.

But I digress. With such linguistic amalgamation swirling around in your head, it becomes necessary to actively keep your language skills in shape. That’s why every once in a while I pick one of the dormant languages and go on a reactivation mission: reading books, watching shows, listening to music, and so on. As far as passive skills go, we are good 2. But we all know that one doesn’t get better at a language through osmosis. It requires active practice of both written and oral skills 2. And that’s where the quest for a tandem partner comes in.

Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, Language Tandem Creeps

A language tandem is one way to boost said skills. It’s fun, it’s intense and it’s free of charge. It basically consists of one native speaker of X and one of Y who meet up in a coffee shop or alike in order to practice each other’s languages. There are many ways to find a tandem partner, from bulletin boards in your local library to online platforms aimed at linguistic and cultural exchanges. So far, so good.

The conundrum starts when language partners out there are more keen on the partner bit than the language exchange itself. This species of tandem partner, which I’m eloquently naming “the language predator”, desperately seeks a foreign partner for amorous or sexual purposes, and will immediately pull the plug as soon as he discovers that his female pray has no interest beyond the linguistic exchange 3.

Cognizant of the online language predatory fauna and its modus operandi, I’ve come up with a strategy myself: letting potential language partners know that I’m in a happy relationship within minutes of our first exchange. Ain’t nobody got time to waste. This is how it goes 9 out of 10 times:
Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, Language Tandem Creeps

Look, I get it. In all likelihood, you are into a language because you feel attracted to the places where it’s spoken, their people, their culture or their idiosyncrasy; and let’s be honest, having a romantic partner who is a native speaker of your target language is kind of the dream – I do, and it’s wonderful 4.

Still, dear language predators out there, you need to chill. Try dating sites, go to a club, join macrame camp. Anything you need until you come to the realization that finding a foreign partner could be a lucky happenstance, but shouldn’t be the goal of language exchange sites.

Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, John Doe, the Language Tandem Predator