Bilingualism Around The World

12 Celebrities Who Speak Many Languages

Many of us look at our heroes or celebrities with a curious fascination.

We ask, “How did they get there? I could never do anything close to the things they’ve achieved.”

Good news is that’s not completely true!

What’s something many successful people have in common? You’ve probably never made the connection, but it’s multilingualism! Who knows, there just might be a correlation somewhere! Speaking multiple languages won’t necessarily turn you into a celebrity, but it will make you more interesting to talk to, and that’s basically the same thing right?

Let’s see a few examples, shall we?

1. Johnny Depp

The state of Kentucky is *never* the first thing that comes to mind when Johnny Depp is mentioned.

We all know him for his role in Pirates of the Caribbean. You wouldn’t think it of an alcoholic pirate but Johnny has mastered another tongue. He speaks the language of romance due to a relationship he had with French actress Vanessa Paradis. Despite having a reasonably high level in the language, he’s adorably self-deprecating.

In most award ceremonies around the world, acceptance speeches are a commonality. When Johnny Depp received a César Award in 1999, he shrewdly avoided giving a speech by having it pre-recorded. He then played it for the audience from the microphone. But rest assured, his French is *good.*

You can watch that speech here:

2. Natalie Portman

This beautiful actress is fluent in multiple languages. Being of Israeli-American heritage, she had an early exposure to multiple cultures.

But she didn’t stop there. Her curiosity blossomed and she decided that one other language isn’t enough. She saw the value in connecting with others and where languages can bring you.

According to the internet, she’s gone on to learn French, German, and even Japanese at varying degrees of fluency. Mazel Tov.

3. Jackie Chan

“War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!”

It may have been written to protest war in Vietnam, but it’s good rhythm. Everyone loves to dance to it, especially Jackie Chan, at least when Agent Carter shows him how in the movies.

Jackie Chan is from Hong Kong which means he’s a native Cantonese speaker. In order to build connections and work with those from mainland China, he had to learn Mandarin which is a completely different language. And of course Jackie speaks English. If he didn’t, the Rush Hour series would never have existed.

Here’s Jackie singing “I’ll Make a Man out of You” in Cantonese. 謝謝 Jackie!!

4. Charlize Theron

As famous as she is, there’s a high probability that you’ve been pronouncing her last name wrong.

Charlize is from South Africa of an Afrikaner background meaning that her native language is Afrikaans. This vibrant language is a descendant of Dutch brought over from colonial days past. Her last name is pronounced with a rolled ‘R’ and sounds more like like Tron.

5. Novak Djokovic

Whether you watch tennis matches religiously or not, you’ve heard of Novak Djokovic. Or is that because I shop at Uniqlo?

The tennis king speaks five languages. In addition to his native Serbian, he speaks English, Italian, German, and French! He even quoted this folk proverb during an interview: “Learn a new language, get a new soul.”

6. Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Other than his smile and acting career, Joe’s got a love for another country. He fell in love with the French language and culture in college and followed to fluency. Definitely not the typical case, which shows this is definitely something admirable about him.

7. Mark Zuckerberg

Everyone knows speaking a language is nerve wracking. Imagine doing public speaking in another language?

A few years ago, I remember scrolling Facebook when this video went viral. The CEO of Facebook took the plunge and demonstrated his command of Mandarin at an event at China’s famed Tsinghua University.

We gotta give it to him. Zuckerberg knows how to win a crowd, but also get vulnerable! If he’s allowed to make mistakes, so are you.

8. Christopher Lee

A legend in the world of acting, we know him as Saruman, Count Dooku, etc… But what is often not mentioned is his various other talents. He was part of a metal band and sang into his 90’s. He even released an album just before his passing. Like what, who does that? Especially at his age.

I’ll only slightly mention his language repertoire. The beast of a man spoke French, German, Italian and is rumored to have proficiency in others. Just as impressive is how he’s one of the few actors that managed to stay married with a clean record.

R.I.P Christopher Lee, we miss you.


9. Queen Silvia of Sweden

Queen Silvia may not be an elected official but she is integral to Sweden and the world. German by birth, she speaks three Germanic languages and three Romance languages. Her marriage to King Carl-Gustaf XVI led to Swedish and her own mother spoke Brazilian Portuguese. French, Spanish, and even Swedish Sign Language comprise her majesty’s repertoire. You can only imagine how this helps in diplomatic relations and maintaining world peace.

If you think that royalty is pointless, I sympathize. But you might be surprised that their money goes to more causes that we hear about.


10. Pope Francis

If there’s one world leader that’s been trending for awhile now, it’s Pope Francis! The first Pope of South American heritage was born in Argentina of Italian ancestry. It’s estimated that around 60% of Argentines have Italian blood which has even influenced their accent to an extent. Being the Pope, he speaks Italian, is conversant in Latin, German, French, Portuguese and bits of English.

Here’s a video by LangFocus that discusses the Pope’s language skills.

## 11. Trevor Noah      

Before he became the host of the Daily Show, this young South African was known for his crisp stand-up comedy. Born during apartheid to a Swiss father and African mother meant he had quite the diverse upbringing. According to an NPR interview he speaks Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Tsonga, Afrikaans, and English. Not bad eh? If you want to hear him speak in various African languages, you should watch his “It’s my culture” DVD. Though hysterically funny, it will be hard to understand unless you’re familiar with South African culture, politics and sports.

“Here’s a video of Trevor unintentionally seducing Stephen Fry through the Xhosa language on the show QI.”

12. Viggo Mortensen

Our last celebrity is no joke. He speaks to Elves in Sindarin and knows Middle Earth like the back of his hand.

The King of Gondor had a crazy childhood in multiple countries. He was born in the states to Danish and American parents and partially raised in South America. In addition to English, Danish, and Spanish, he also speaks French, conversational Italian and bits of Catalan. You can see him act completely in Spanish if you watch the historical fiction film Alatriste.

Here’s a video of him speaking Danish:


No Matter Who You Are Learning a Language Is Important

Isn’t it great? You don’t have to be a celebrity to charm people. Sometimes all you need is to care for others and love conversation. Oftentimes, languages are the best key to the doors of people’s hearts. Take it from the people above. 😃

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4-editA breaker of every stereotype one can give (except that he loves rice and wears glasses), Indonesian-American Fiel Sahir is the author of hailing from New York City. He passionately teaches empathy through cultural exploration and conversation. A classical guitarist by trade, he is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Classical Guitar performance in Düsseldorf, Germany. He is also the Director of Int’l Outreach and Partnerships for Polyglot Indonesia. You can contact him directly via and get a conversation started.



The joy of languages

European Spanish and American Spanish – what’s the difference?

¡Hola! ¿Qué tal? Or should I say, ¿Qué onda?? Or maybe ¿Diay?? Or ¿Cómo estái??


With millions of speakers, Spanish is one of the largest and most-spoken languages in the world, and is an official language in 20 countries. Like with many languages though, the Spanish spoken in one country is often so different to the Spanish spoken in another that it can lead to lots of funny misunderstandings.

Let’s take a little look at some of these differences!


Spanish, or Castilian, has its origins in central Spain, and by the end of the Reconquista in 1492 it was the main language of central and southern parts of the Iberian Peninsula.

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Nowadays, Spanish is spoken and understood by almost everyone in Spain, although in some regions such as Catalonia, Galicia, and the Basque country, the traditional languages of those regions are still widely used in all areas of society.

Naturally, this mix of different languages makes the Spanish spoken within Spain very diverse. One of the most distinctive features of Castilian Spanish is the ‘th’ sound (with your tongue between your teeth) for ‘z’ or ‘c’, so most Spaniards would say ‘grathias’ rather than ‘grassias’ which is was you’re more likely to hear in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world.

cat th tongue.gif

The dialects spoken in the southern region of Andalusia, however, are very unique and Andalusians are well known for cutting off bits of words, so you might hear someone say something like “‘cucha ‘quillo” (¡escucha chiquillo! / listen up, kid!). Two other features of these dialects are: 1) ‘s’ sounds at the end of syllables becoming ‘h’ or even being dropped completely, and 2) ‘z’ / ‘c’ being pronounced as ‘s’ unlike in most other areas of Spain – ¿Qué hassehh? / What are you doing?

Some places like Seville go the other way with the ‘th’ sound and use it to replace lots of ‘s’ sounds, and so they might say, for example, “Thevilla” (Seville).

Across the seas to America

In 1492, Spain explorers and missionaries started crossing the Atlantic and took the Spanish language with them, setting up colonies and countries often forcing the people they met to learn and speak Spanish through violence and coercion.


Many of the ships that set sail for the New World left from Seville and other cities near the south coast of Spain in Andalusia. At that time, the following words were pronounced like this:

In northern and central Spain:

brazo – bratso (this later became ‘th‘)
decir – dedzir (this also later became ‘th‘)
pasa – passa
casa – kaza (this later became ‘s‘)

In parts of Andalusia, all of these sounds had were pronounced as ‘s’:

brazo – brasso
decir – dessir
pasa – passa
casa – kassa

And this is the main reason why, even today, Spanish-speakers in Latin America still say “grassias” and not “grathias” like in Spain.

Oh, there are people over here – let’s talk to them!

When the Spanish arrived on the American continent, they discovered cultures and empires with flourishing cultures, bustling cities and unsurprisingly, their own languages, such as Náhuatl, Mayan, Arawak, Chibcha, Quechua, Aymara, Tupí, Guaraní, and Mapuche to name just a few.

All of these languages had their own effects on Spanish in the regions where they are (or in some cases ‘were’ 😞) spoken. Not just changing the way that Spanish is pronounced there, but also enriching Spanish vocabulary with their own words and expressions. Take a look at this article to find out more about how Mexican Spanish was influenced by Náhuatl and Mayan.


Paraguay is a country with a very unique linguistic situation in the Americas as it is the only country where the majority of the country still speak a language indigenous to the country itself, Guaraní. In Paraguay, it is very common to hear people mixing the two languages saying things like: De gua’u nomás era (It was just a lie).

Argentina and Uruguay

Besides the influence of native American languages, Argentina and Uruguay also have strong influences from Italian dialects, and if you have ever heard an Argentinian speak, you might have noticed a very distinctive intonation reminiscent of Italian.

A couple of other distinctive features of the Spanish spoken here (but also in many other areas too many to mention) are the word “che” used like “hey!” or “mate/dude” (this is where Ernesto Guevara’s nickname came from!), and the word “vos” for the singular “you”, so instead of “¿Tú qué haces?“, you will probably hear “¿Vos qué hacés?” instead – this is actually a very old form of address that has been kept from Medieval Spanish and still used in a few Latin American countries.



Cuban Spanish has many influences including from the Canary Islands (thanks to historic migration) and the US (due to close proximity). So you might hear a Cuban say “guagua” instead of “autobús”, which is an onomatopoeia describing the sound of a bus horn from the Canary Islands, or “chor” for “pantalones cortos” from the English word “shorts”.

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13694631_292778811075862_1070688213_n(1) Rob is Memrise‘s English Language Specialist, teaming up with the other language specialists to create language courses that will help you explore the world by unlocking your language superpowers. He also works with Memrise‘s Marketing Team to make fun videos and blog posts to inspire all the language learners out there.

In his spare time, he can usually be found learning languages – currently Hindi & Greek – and exploring the wonders that the London theatre and comedy scenes have in store.

The joy of languages

Why Do People Code-Switch?

Ce moment when you start penser en deux langues at the same temps… ever had it?

When people start switching words from different languages into and out of their sentences, it turns out they’re not just been pretentious. Well at least, not all the time.

You might, in fact, be “code-switching”. Code-switching is a totally natural phenomenon that occurs in bilingual and multilingual people, especially when they speak to people who speak the same languages as them. And here are some reasons why people might do it:

The Topic

People who speak different languages sometimes feel more comfortable speaking about specific topics in specific languages. That might be because that topic requires specific vocabulary that they don’t have in the other language, or because they’ve never spoken about the topic in that language.

One classic example is people who move to the UK or US after completing their studies to work. They may never have experienced working life in their native language, so it’s easier for them to talk about meetings, leave requests, and other work jargon in English – even if they’re talking about their work in their native language!

Quoting someone

For a multilingual person, it’s much more natural to repeat exactly what you heard someone say rather than have to think about how to translate it first. People who speak multiple languages are hyper-aware of how much can be lost in translation. If they’re telling an anecdote, it’s easier for them to quote someone in the language they used.


We all develop different levels of emotional attachment to different languages. We can also be more or less sensitive to the things that we are saying, depending on how strongly we feel about a certain language, which is one reason why people might tend to swear more in languages they do not speak natively.

When expressing gratitude, sorrow, or other strong feelings, people might subconsciously switch into other languages in which they feel that they can express themselves better.


Sometimes if people code-switch, it’s to make themselves better understood. Maybe the person they’re speaking to doesn’t have such a wide vocabulary, and so they need to use a word from their stronger language to communicate what they’re trying to say better.


The language we speak is inseparable from our identity. Sometimes code-switchers will start using another language to gain more or less social status, or make a different impression. Other times, they might switch to a different language to introduce someone to a group when that person doesn’t share the same language as them.

Commands and Requests

Some people code-switch into a different language either to sound more authoritative or more approachable. This is particularly common for parents bringing up children multilingually, who might end up using specific languages for different interactions.


Sometimes speakers are worried that if they translate a word, saying or expression, that it will become distorted. For some people, words in different languages have totally separate and different connotations, depending on where they end up using them.

For example, a Spanish ‘cervecería’ is quite different to a British ‘pub’, even though you’d be tempted to translate them like that. A cervecería doesn’t have the swirly beer-stained carpets of your British pub, while in a pub you wouldn’t expect to sit at the bar and eat plates of potato omelette or get a full three-course meal for €8…

Is it good or bad?

Code-switching is a totally natural phenomenon. So is feeling more proficient on certain topics in one language or another. So there’s nothing innately bad about doing it.

As a result, though, there can be some negative side effects. If you find yourself losing your ability in your native language, because you’ve become so unaccustomed to talking about certain things in it, that might be something you want to address. Try to find out what words you’re missing, and get in the habit of talking to other people who share your native language.

Also, remember that for some people code-switching isn’t just a fun side-effect of being multilingual. People might deliberately do it to try and hide their social identity, religion, class or assimilate into different groups. Whether that’s good or bad in itself is a grey area and very dependent on the circumstances.

So people code-switch for a variety of reasons and motivations. But mainly they do it because whatever the reason, it feels right at the time!

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Culture around the world

22 Must-See Spanish Films

Watching films is a great way to learn a new language. Just sit back, enjoy the story and let the language wash over you.

If you’re learning Spanish, you’re in luck! Between Spain, Mexico, Argentina, and all the other countries of Latin America, there is an extremely rich array of films in the Spanish language that you’re just going to love.

To get you started, we at Memrise have put together a list of 22 of our favourites that you must absolutely watch!


Country: Spain/Mexico
English: Pan’s Labyrinth
Year: 2006

El laberinto del fauno is one of the most successful Spanish language films ever made. A joint production between Mexico and Spain, this film is set in Spain in 1944, five years after the Spanish Civil War. The story is based on several different myths and fairy tales, that serve as a complex and hard-hitting allegory for life under Spain’s fascist regime.


Country: Mexico
English: Y Tu Mamá También (Sometimes: And Your Mother Too)
Year: 2001

Arguably, there is no greater coming-of-age story than this. Two teenage boys (played by Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal), embark on a road trip with a woman in her late 20s (Maribel Verdú), set to the backdrop of the political and economic upheaval of modern-day Mexico. The film is infamous for its explicit sex and drug use and was opened in the US as a limited release under its Spanish name, earning $2.2 million in its first weekend in June. That made it the largest box office opening in Mexican cinema history.


Country: Spain
English: The Skin I Live In
Year: 2011

La piel que habito is a psychological thriller by the Spanish cinematographic giant that deserves a film list all to himself: Pedro Almodóvar. It tells the story of a plastic surgeon who is developing a special type of artificial skin that is resistant to insect bites and burns, and his test type: a young woman he keeps captive on his estate against her will.


Country: Spain
English: The Sea Inside
Year 2004

Starring Javier Bardem, this film written by Alejandro Amenábar was the Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s based on the true story of Ramón Sampedro (played by Bardem), who was left quadriplegic after a motor accident and his 28-year struggle and campaign for the right to end his life.


Country: Spain
English: The Flower of My Secret
Year: 1995

This is a slightly lesser known Almodóvar film, but arguably it’s one of his best. It follows Leo Macías (Marisa Paredes), a depressive and alcoholic popular fiction writer living in Madrid, who writes under the nom de plume of Amanda Gris, and her difficult relationship with her absentee husband Paco (Imanol Marias), a military man based overseas who is emotionally and physically distant.


Country: Mexico
English: (Unreleased) “Tired of Kissing Frogs”
Year: 2006

Don’t let the fact that this is a super cheesy chick-flick put you off! Cansada de besar sapos is the story of Martha (Ana Serradilla), an attractive 27-year-old interior designer and the search for her prince charming, with all the joys and disappointments that she encounters along the way.


Country: Mexico
English: Duck Season
Year: 2004

This Mexican classic is about two 14-year-old kids, Flama (Daniel Miranda) and Moko (Diego Cataño), who’ve been friends since childhood. Left to their own devices one afternoon when Flama’s mother is not at home, Moko comes round to play video games, order pizza, and enjoy being home alone. But then the power goes out…


Country: Argentina/Spain
English: Elsa and Fred
Year: 2005

This touching movie is the story of Elsa and Fred, two elderly neighbours and their unlikely love affair. Fred retires to an apartment in Madrid, where he meets Elsa who is of a similar age but from Argentina. Elsa is a chronic liar and a life lover. The two fall in love and Elsa teaches Fred how to “live life and not death”. In 2014, this movie was remade into the US blockbuster Elsa and Fred.


Country: Spain
English: The Bar
Year: 2017

The latest film to hit Netflix, El bar is a Spanish thriller directed and co-written by Álex de la Iglesia. A group of people are trapped in a bar in Madrid. Every time one of them tries to leave, they are shot by a sniper. The atmosphere becomes unbearable as tensions rise and people’s true colours emerge.


Country: Argentina
English: Wild Tales
Year: 2014

Violence and vengeance are the common themes uniting each of these six stand-alone short films, all written and directed by Damián Szifron. A man gathers everybody who’s ever crossed him on one plane that he’s flying. A road rage incident erupts into an explosive row. A parking fine and the corruption of local government ruin one man’s life and push him to drastic action. A politician tries to cover up for the disastrous consequences of his son’s drunk joy riding. And a wedding doesn’t go quite to plan. Relatos Salvajes will have you on the edge of your seat from start to finish!


Country: Mexico
English: My Mexican Shivah
Year: 2006

Moishe dies at the age of 75, and his family gather in Mexico City to sit shivah – the seven-day Jewish mourning ritual. The Angel of Light and the Angel of Darkness watch over them, but are visible only to the camera, as each family member’s agendas and ulterior motives begin to emerge.

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Country: Spain
English: Spanish Affair
Year: 2014

Six weeks after its release, Ocho apellidos vascos became the second biggest box office hit ever in Spain after Avatar. This light-hearted comedy about cultural differences in Spain shows how Rafa, a full-blooded Andalucian who has never left Seville, travels to the Basque Country for his love of a girl called Amaia, where a series of misunderstandings leave him forced to adopt eight Basque surnames and pretend that he is Basque in order to get his way.


Country: Spain
English: Spanish Affair 2
Year: 2015

The sequel to Ocho apellidos vascos, this time the focus is on Catalunya. Rafa and Amaia have parted ways and she is now dating a Catalan called Pau. But for her father, who had made peace with the idea of his daughter marrying an Andalucian, this is a step too far. He leaves the Basque Country for the first time in his life and heads to Seville to find Rafa and convince him to win his daughter’s heart back.


Country: Spain
English: Julieta
Year: 2016

Julieta is one of Pedro Almodóvar’s latest films, based on three short stories from the book Runaway by Alice Munro. Julieta is about the past, and how it has a funny way of cropping up again just at the right moment in the present to ruin your plans for the future. Julieta has amassed more than $22 million in the box office worldwide.


Country: Argentina/Spain
English: The Secret in Their Eyes
Year: 2009

El secreto de sus ojos follows a non-linear narrative, and depicts a judiciary employee and a judge in the 70s, investigating a murder and rape case. The affair turns into an obsession for everyone involved in it. The film follows the characters 25 years later as they reminisce over the case, and rediscover the romance between them.


Country: Mexico
English: Herod’s Law
Year: 1999

La ley de Herodes is a black comedy political satire film from Mexico, which attracted plenty of controversy and interference from the Mexican government at the time. It’s focus is on corruption in Mexico, and in particular the long-ruling RPI party. It was the first Mexican film to directly criticise and name the RPI party specifically. The Mexican Academy of Film gave it the Ariel Award for Best Picture.


Country: Mexico
English: Hell
Year: 2010

Following the lead of La ley de HerodesEl infierno is another political satire about drug trafficking, organised crime and the Mexican drug war. The protagonist, Benny, is deported from the US to his hometown in Mexico. Unable to find an honest job, he gets involved in the drugs trade, where his life becomes awash with cars, women and lots of money. But as he soon finds out, life in the drugs trade is not as flashy or as fun as it might look.


Country: Mexico
English: Killing Cabos
Year: 2004

Matando cabos is one of the highest budget Mexican films of all times, with awesome action scenes and car chases. The film tells the story of Jaque (Tony Dalton) and “el Mudo” (Kristoff Raczynski) who have to find a way to get their boss home safe and sound, after finding him locked in his car in his underwear.


Country: Mexico
English: Gimme the Power
Year: 2000

Directed by Fernando Sariñana, this film is a comedy about corruption and crime. After being mugged so many times, a documentary maker starts investigating a policeman to find out who is behind these crimes. An unemployed actress helps him un unwrap a complicated web of corruption dedicated to crime.


Country: Mexico
English: The Tequila Effect
Year: 2010

The Mexican Stock Exchange collapses, destroying the lives of millions of people in this film about the devastating consequences of the “December Mistake”.


Country: Argentina/Spain
English: Bombón: The Dog
Year: 2004

Set in Patagonia, Bombón: El perro is a neo-realist tale of a man and a dog. An unemployed man’s luck changes when he helps a woman on the highway, and is given a new companion: a dog named Bombón.


Country: Spain
English: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Year: 1988

Arguably this was Pedro Almodóvar’s breakthrough film, bringing him international fame and acclaim. Pepa’s lover, Iván, leaves her. As she tries to find out why, she confronts his wife and son, who are as clueless as she is. Meanwhile, her friend Candela is worried that the police are after her because her ex-boyfriend is a Muslim terrorist. They soon find out that their lives are more intertwined than they could ever have imagined…

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The joy of languages

Chinese, Japanese and Korean – how different are they really?

Chinese, Japanese and Korean are the three most studied Asian languages, but how similar are they? How much can learning one help you master the other two?

Where do these languages come from?

There are various theories about the origins of Korean, Japanese and Chinese languages, but nearly all linguists agree that they don’t share the same historical roots, but were three unrelated languages that have shared some features between each other over due to their prolonged contact and exposure over the centuries.


When it comes to pronunciation, Japanese is probably the easiest of the three. It only has five vowels あ/a, い/i, う/u, え/e, and お/o just like Spanish.

Korean gets a bit more creative withㅏ(a), ㅐ(e), ㅓ(eo), ㅔ(e:), ㅗ(o), ㅚ(ue), ㅜ(u), ㅟ(ui), ㅡ(eu), ㅣ(i).

Chinese throws in an extra level of fun with tones! This isn’t uncommon in the world’s languages; lots of languages like Thai, Vietnamese, Yoruba, and Mayan all use tones to distinguish between different words.

In Mandarin,  this can lead to fun sentences like this石室诗士施氏,嗜狮,誓食十狮。Shí shì shī shì shī shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī. A poet in a stone room whose surname was Shi, loved lions, and swore to eat ten lions. This is from a poem written by a Chinese linguist who wanted to show how difficult it would be to read Chinese if they switched to using an alphabet.



Japanese grammar and Korean grammar actually work quite similarly. They both put the verb at the end, and use particles to show what function each word has in a sentence. Chinese sentences, on the other hand, have a structure much closer to English.

For example, this is how you would say “Every day, I feed bananas to the monkeys at the zoo“:



watashi-wa mainichi dōbutsuen-de osarusan-ni banana-no esa-o yatteimasu.

I-‘wa’ zoo-at every day monkeys-to banana-‘no’ feed-‘o’ give.


나는 매일 동물원에서 원숭이에게 바나나를 먹여요.

Na-neun maeil dongmulwoen-eseo woensungi-ege banana-rul moekyoeyo.

I-‘neun’ every day zoo-at monkey-to banana-‘rul’ feed.



I every day at zoo give monkeys banana.



So you probably noticed in the examples above that Japanese, Korean and Chinese all look pretty different.

Chinese uses characters which each represent a meaning, and these can be mixed together to create new words, as in the word for ‘zoo’ 动物园 (animal [lit. ‘moving thing’] park). Learn more about Chinese characters here! In order to read fluently in Chinese, you need to know around three to four thousand characters, but the characters you need to know might be a little different depending on where you are. In China, they use a simplified set of characters developed during the 20th Century, whereas in Taiwan and Hong Kong, people still use traditional characters, so in China “zoo” is written 动物园, but in Hong Kong and Taiwan, is would be 動物園.

Korean used to write using Chinese characters, but over the past few centuries, Koreans started using an alphabet called Hangul, which was developed for writing Korean in the 1440s. They put different letters together to make syllables and use spaces between words. Can you work out which letters represent which sounds in the word ‘banana’ – ‘바나나’?

The Japanese also used to use Chinese characters, or in Japanese, ‘kanji’ to write, but after a while, they decided that wasn’t working and decided to create a set of letters to write sounds and use together with ‘kanji’. And why have a set of a couple thousand Chinese characters plus a syllabary, when you can have a set of Chinese characters and two syllabaries?! They actually created a set of letters for Japanese words called Hiragana ひらがな and another for foreign words called Katakana カタカナ.

In modern Japanese, these scripts are all mixed up in sentences, just like in the sentence we saw before: 私は毎日動物園でお猿さんにバナナの餌をやっています。The word ‘zoo’ (動物園) is written in kanji, the word ‘give’ (やっています) is written in hiragana, and the word ‘banana’ (バナナ) is written in katakana.



Both Japanese and Korean have very different ways of saying things depending on how polite or respectful you want to be. Verbs even have different forms depending on who you are speaking to. Let’s look at a simple example: the word ‘to eat’.


Normal: 食べる taberu –> 食べます tabemasu (more polite)

Respectful: 召し上がる meshiagaru –> 召し上がります meshiagarimasu (more polite)

Humble: 頂く itadaku –> 頂きます itadakimasu (more polite – this is also the word used by Japanese people before they eat!)


Normal: 먹어 meogeo (informal) –> 먹어요 meogeoyo (normal) –> 먹습니다 meogseumnida (formal)

Respectful: 식사해 (informal) –> 식사해요 (normal) –> 식사하세요 (polite)

Very respectful (when talking about old people): 진지 드세요 (formal)

And that’s just the tip of the Korean politeness and respect iceberg!


In Chinese, you can forget about all that and use 吃 chī for pretty much all situations. Easy, right?

Now you have an idea of the differences between them, why not start learning one? Or even all three?!
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13694631_292778811075862_1070688213_n(1) Rob is Memrise‘s English Language Specialist, teaming up with the other language specialists to create language courses that will help you explore the world by unlocking your language superpowers. He also works with Memrise‘s Marketing Team to make fun videos and blog posts to inspire all the language learners out there.

In his spare time, he can usually be found learning languages – currently Hindi & Greek – and exploring the wonders that the London theatre and comedy scenes have in store.

Culture around the world

9 Things You Should Know about Mexican Day of the Dead

In Mexico, the “Day of the Dead” or Día de Muertos is one of the biggest dates in the calendar. Here are nine things you should know about it:


1. There’s no such thing as a “Day of the Dead parade” in downtown Mexico City


At least not until 2015. Thanks to the James Bond film ’Spectre’, people outside of Mexico believed that the parade was a staple of the Day of the Dead celebrations when in fact, it was just part of the film’s production. However, it was such a big hit that the next year, another one actually took place.

2. It’s not a morbid celebration, nor does it translate as the Mexican “Halloween”


The Day of the Dead is not about trick or treating or any of the kinds of things you’ll see north of the border. In Mexico, November 2nd is all about remembering and commemorating the lives of friends, family and loved ones who have passed away.

3. The orange flowers placed in altars are Marigolds


The smell of marigold flowers is exactly what many Mexicans think of when they think about the Day of the Dead. In Spanish, they are called ‘cempasuchil‘, which is a Nahuatl word that means ‘twenty flowers’ or ‘flower of 20 petals’.

4. Day of the Dead altars are all about symbolism


Why the skulls? Why the flowers? What about the beads and the flowers? These things are not placed there randomly, but each of them contains a deep significance and carries great symbolic meaning, dating back to pre-Hispanic times. Check out more here, here and here.

5. Día de Muertos hasn’t always been in November


In Prehispanic times, what is now known as Day of the Dead used to be celebrated on the ninth month of the traditional calendar, at the beginning of August. However, after the Spaniards arrived, the date was moved to make it coincide with the Christian festivities of Día de Todos los Santos.

6. Most schools, universities and even workplaces traditionally hold altar competitions


Some competitions have a theme, whereas in others the participants can decide to whom the altar is dedicated.

7. The popular image of “La Catrina” is often attributed to Diego Rivera, but was in fact created by José Guadalupe Posada


The portrait was created in 1910 and was originally called “La calavera garbancera”. ‘Garbancero’ comes from ‘garbanzo’ (chickpea), was a term used for indigenous people that wanted to be more European.

8. Friends and family get together to drink chocolate and eat pan de muerto


Chocolate is native to Central America but unlike today, people used to drink it spicy instead of sweet. Pan de Muertos is a round, sweet bread with shapes on the top that look like bones. You may also find sugar skulls (calaveras de azúcar) and candied pumpkin (calabaza en dulce).

9. People usually write little rhymes called “calaveritas” (little skulls) 

Although at one point this tradition looked like it was nearly extinct, Twitter and social media have to some extent brought it back. Check out #calaveritas for more!


The joy of languages

Learn Authentic Japanese With These Films

Different social groups in Japan all use very different language to communicate: just by changing the way you say things you can sound more masculine, girly, scary, young, or even samurai-esque! Let’s watch some Japanese films to learn how to sound like your favourite character.


1. ステキな金縛り[Suteki na kanashibari] (2011)
Once in a Blue Moon

What if you were accused of a murder you did not commit, and what if the only witness of your alibi is… a ghost? Well, then you’ll find solicitor Hosho very reliable! She is willing to go far to have a ghost testify in court for her client’s innocence. This is also a great film to compare the sound of polite language in courtrooms with the more casual language used amongst friends and family.

Polite Japanese


Mō ichido kikimasu. Ni-gatsu nijū-yokka no yoru, anata-wa kono dansē no ue ni matagatte imashitaka?

“I will ask you again. Were you or were you not floating above this man on the night of 24th of February?”

Desu (です), masu (ます), masen (ません) and mashita (ました) are sounds of polite speech. They appear at the end of sentences, so hear out for the “s” sounds (su, se, shi) there!


2. 桐島、部活やめるってよ [Kirishima, bukatsu yameru tteyo] (2012)
The Kirishima Thing

A student in your school left the volleyball club. You may not even know this guy. What effect could that possibly have on you? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot! School hierarchies and rules about relationships between students can be subtle, but are very powerful at the same time. Based on a novel written by a Japanese 19 year-old, this film brings a fresh and authentic perspective on how high schools in Japan work.

Casual Japanese


Kirishima-kun, kyō yasumi kana?

Do you think Kirishima is off school today?

In casual language, a lot of things get missed out. In more formal Japanese, you usually put particles after each word to clarify their meaning in a sentence, but in casual speech you can leave out almost all of them. So to sound casual, do the same! Just string together single words and see if they make sense! For example:これ、今日食べる?(kore kyō taberu?), literally “this today eat?” is a casual way of asking: “Do you want to eat this today?”

3. アウトレイジ [Autoreiji] (2010)

This full-on Yakuza film is a great chance to immerse yourself in strong, Yakuza language. The film is about super complicated Yakuza politics and rules, but Takeshi Kitano’s rhythmical directing style makes the film engaging and even comical. You probably won’t want to use any of this kind of language when you’re in Japan, but if you hear anyone talking like this, run for your life!

Gangster Japanese


Kono yarōōōō!!

You b*****!!



Hey you!!

These are some phrases the Yakuza add to the end of their sentences to sound extra scary… (not that they’re not already scary enough!)



Shibakuzo, mono yarō!

Yarō, I’ll bl**dy kill you!


Buchi korosuzo, koraa!

I’ll f**king kill you!

4. おくりびと [Okuribito] (2008)

Funerals are a place for families and friends of the deceased to condense and compress their strong emotions and feelings. Sometimes, that requires a gentle help from the undertakers in loosening and being prepared for the send-off in the most peaceful way as possible. The art of compassion is embodied in the language they use, and this is a great film to observe how respect is conveyed in Japanese communication.

Respectful Japanese


Soredewa, o-karada o fukasete itadakimasu.

I will now humbly wipe the body.

You can convey respect by adding お(o) or ご(go) before a noun. からだ(karada) on its own means body, but if you are talking about the body of the other person, you can say おからだ(o-karada) to mean your body.


5. 電車男 [Densha otoko] (2005)
Train Man

When people from specific hobby groups talk to each other, they often talk like the characters or professions that that group likes or looks up to. If you are a ninja-otaku, you might copy the speech of a ninja, and if you are into trains, you might want to talk like how the train staff talk to passengers, and so on… You will get to see a lot of such variations in this film, which is famous for the romance story between an otaku and daughter of a rich family.

Otaku Japanese




A lot of the interactions in this film are also used on online chat platforms, and the above is a common phrase you might see. Notice the emoji face in the middle? Before the yellow smiley face emojis, we used to put together symbols to build faces between brackets. We call them kao-moji. e.g. ヾ(=^▽^=)ノ (lll ̄□ ̄)!!


6. 用心棒 [Yōjinbō(1961)

A classic samurai action film, directed by Akira Kurosawa. The title translates to bodyguard, and that’s what Sanjūrō suggests he will be for the village that has come under attack of nasty Yakuza groups. Sanjūrō has skills, style, and the samurai soul that allows little room for injustice. Want to sound like a samurai hero? Then Sanjūrō is your man!

Samurai Japanese



See ya!

This is a cool way of saying goodbye with samurai flair. Say it with your best handsome face!


Start speaking Japanese now with Memrise!

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13694631_292778811075862_1070688213_n(1) Rob is Memrise‘s English Language Specialist, teaming up with the other language specialists to create language courses that will help you explore the world by unlocking your language superpowers. He also works with Memrise‘s Marketing Team to make fun videos and blog posts to inspire all the language learners out there.

In his spare time, he can usually be found learning languages – currently Hindi & Greek – and exploring the wonders that the London theatre and comedy scenes have in store.