Welcome to John Whitlam’s Language Blog

Welcome to my blog! My name is John Whitlam. You may be familiar with my work, either as an author or as a teacher. I’ve been fascinated by languages since I was a child and have been lucky enough to study and work with a number of different ones over the course of my career. Apart from the ten years I spent as a staff translator at the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels, most of my professional life has been devoted to bilingual lexicography, though in recent years, I have also branched out into writing grammars and other language-learning materials. I am now at a stage where all the different strands of my professional experience are coming together and feeding into one another, resulting in some interesting conclusions about language and languages.

The first foreign language I studied was German, which I taught myself in the early stages. I grew up in a time when French was still a compulsory subject in Britain and my particular school also obliged us to study Latin and Ancient Greek. With hindsight, I consider myself very fortunate: most of what I know about grammar today I learnt from studying Latin and Greek. I continued with German up to university level, opting to study it in tandem with a new language, Modern Greek. A chance encounter while at university and a subsequent trip to Brazil brought me into contact with Brazilian Portuguese. It was love at first hearing, and when I later started working in the field of bilingual dictionaries, a series of happy accidents led to Portuguese dictionaries becoming my particular area of expertise, although I have also worked on bilingual dictionary projects involving various other languages. During my time as an EU translator, we were encouraged to learn less-studied languages and I took the opportunity to acquire a translating knowledge of Danish and Finnish. My time in Brussels was also when I started learning Japanese, something I had always wanted to do since childhood. This challenging experience culminated in an MA in Advanced Japanese Studies from the University of Sheffield and a job as managing editor on a major English-Japanese dictionary project (the Longman Eiwa Jiten here). Apart from the languages I have studied in depth, I have also taken an interest in several others, including Chinese, and this has enabled me to make certain observations about the similarities and differences between languages and about language in general. Figuring out how a language works gives us insights into our own and other languages, as well as revealing features common to them all.

In 2004, I decided to move to Brazil and have been living here ever since. It has been enormously stimulating for me as a linguist to live a foreign language on a daily basis and to be able to observe it at first hand. Through my job as a visiting lecturer on a postgraduate English translation course, I have begun to take an interest in the particular difficulties experienced by Brazilians in learning English and how these can be attributed to the influence of Portuguese. My approach is not to pretend that students might be able to stop thinking in Portuguese, as so many commercial English courses would have us believe, but to embrace the mother tongue and integrate it into language learning, making the student aware of equivalences between the languages and when and why the mother tongue may generate mistakes in the other language.

My work in bilingual lexicography, especially the three years on the Japanese project, introduced me to the field of corpus linguistics and the profound way in which it has revolutionized not just lexicography, but the study of language in general. Corpora have now become an indispensable tool in all aspects of my work, even as an aid to writing emails and other texts in various languages, including English.

In 2009, I was commissioned to write a reference and functional grammar of Brazilian Portuguese (here) and accompanying workbook (here) for English-speaking students. This was an important milestone in my career: not only was it my first work as sole author, it was also my chance to write the Brazilian Portuguese textbook I had always wanted but never found when I myself started learning the language. I am pleased to say that the two books have been very well received and a new, second edition of both has just been published (here). They are my own small way of conveying my love of Brazilian Portuguese to others and helping to promote the culture of my adopted country.

In 2010, I started work on my first solo dictionary project, the Webster’s Escolar dictionary of English and Portuguese for Brazilian schools (here). It took three years to complete and a further two years to bring to publication, but it’s one of the achievements I am most proud of.

I have started this blog to bring all these strands together: different languages, language itself, lexicography, translation, corpus linguistics, language teaching and learning, English for Brazilians, Brazilian Portuguese as a foreign language – the things I am interested in and see as different interrelated aspects of the same phenomenon – to air my thoughts and ideas, raise questions and maybe draw some conclusions. I look forward to your comments!