The Seven Sieves, a Multilingual Gateway to the Romance (and Germanic and Slavic) languages

1. Introduction

1.1 The wealth and variety of European languages

Never before, even in the “international” Middle Ages or under the Roman Empire, has Europe experienced such a boom in mutual exchange and contact in trade and travel, as well as in entertainment and information media. European language communities are coming ever closer together, and instead of just theoretically knowing about European language variety we are actually meeting more and more Europeans speaking other languages.

Using a third language (lingua franca), which in itself is a distancing process, cannot produce the increased closeness that we expect from such contacts: since none of the communication partners are using their own languages, no one is really able to “meet” their opposite numbers on home ground.

Europeans are becoming more and more aware of the importance of people’s native languages for relating to them meaningfully, but tend in general to shy away from expending the time and effort required to acquire communicative competence in several of the languages of the fellow Europeans with whom we come in closer contact, so that we tend to give up–with regret–any attempt at real language diversity.

Of course all the nations and language communities of Europe continually emphasize how much the international presence of and respect for their languages means to them, but they lose heart when it is a matter of teaching these languages in European schools, which seriously hinders any deeper communication between Europeans. Freedom of movement and the right to settle in neighbor states are often limited by a lack of the necessary linguistic preparation.

1.2 EuroCom multiling

The aim of the new EuroCom strategy is to facilitate European multilingualism in a realistic way:

(1) with less rather than more learning effort;

(2) without making excessive demands in terms of competence (by recognising the value of partial linguistic competence for purposes of communication).

EuroCom should be understood as a necessary complement to the language teaching provided in schools.

The majority of European schools do of course provide many of their students–with varying degrees of success–with competence in one language (usually English), some even offer a second (French, German, Spanish), but we still have not reached a situation which reflects the linguistic variety of Europe and might lead to some kind of pan-European competence, as well as a complement to conventional language teaching.

EuroCom can also be seen as encouraging a reform of the system, to make language learning much easier.


The main barrier to a spread in multilingual competence is psychological and motivational. It certainly is not a problem of ability or intelligence, nor even one of economies of time. It is a twofold barrier: first in terms of the individual’s fear that learning will probably involve a great deal of effort, and second in terms of the public perception of multilingualism as being an anomaly rather than the norm.

EuroCom is aimed at radically lowering the effort barrier, in order to remove the mental barriers that exist, particularly in the larger monolingual states where the social and educational systems tend to regard multilingualism as a sign of underdevelopment, an almost unconscious assumption which distorts the real situation and should be countered by education.

The European Union, together with regional and national governments, should try to influence attitudes to multilingualism positively, and help to bring about change, particularly in the larger countries. But a linguistic “Europeanization” programme can only be effective if the discomfort involved in approaching other languages is decisively reduced.

This is what EuroCom is trying to do:

The Beginning

Seen from the perspective of the leap or transition from a known language to a new one, the beginning, the first intentional step towards making contact with the new language, is the decisive point on which anxieties and resistance focus. A strategy which can offer a way of reaching this point without demanding too much initial effort would be a sensible prerequisite for the realistic and pragmatic success of a programme of linguistic Europeanization. This is precisely what EuroCom offers.

In the initial phases EuroCom only gives learners things that are easy–in other words, what they know already, even if they were not aware of knowing it. Experience with EuroCom shows that it provides a very efficient basis for starting to acquire a language: the educational and psychological intention of our teaching method is to prove to learners that they already know an unexpectedly large amount about the new language, which gives them greater self confidence in starting to learn the language.

The learners first discover how much they do not need to learn. They see that they have not taken full advantage of the linguistic capital that they already possess, and that they only need to take this and invest it in the new language.

EuroCom is receptive.

We do not demand productive linguistic effort (competence in speaking and writing), and in the entire initial phase, which is the core of EuroCom, we concentrate on reading competence. Reading competence is, for younger and older adults alike, the easiest, and therefore most effective, foundation for the later development of aural, oral and written competence.

Reading competence is also of great value in a world where both information and decision-making processes are increasingly based on written documents, and even computers normally require language to be fed in in written form.

1.3 No foreign language is totally unknown territory.

Conventional language teaching presents learners with the demotivating impression that they are starting the language from square one without any previous knowledge whatsoever. They are initially taught to say things that are far too simple. In contrast, EuroCom begins by showing learners all the things that they can deduce from a simple practical text in the new language. EuroCom activates competences that were previously there, but unused.

This discovery of the familiar in the unknown takes place on two linguistic bases:

(1) linguistic relationships,

(2) international words and expressions of similar lexical origin that are used in many social, professional and technical areas.

The first principle is given priority, because it enables learners to recognize structural elements they already know in the unknown language, over and above the lexical material, in terms of sounds, morphology, word-formation and syntax.

Optimized Deduction

We are enabled to discover the familiar in the unknown by activating the human ability to transfer previous experience and familiar meanings and structures into new contexts. EuroCom trains the learner to use this ability systematically when moving into a new language.

Our aim is Optimized Deduction. Once again, nothing is demanded of the learners that they cannot already do; all they have to do is make the best of what they already have and know.

To make this deduction and association of ideas as efficient as possible, EuroCom provides all that is necessary to help you deduce as much as possible with as little effort as possible. EuroCom helps you to help yourself.

Unlike conventional beginners’ teaching, which is a matter of judging linguistic effort as right or wrong, and where everything that is not completely correct is stigmatized as worthless and needing to be corrected, EuroCom values every effort that makes even the smallest approach to understanding, which is extremely important in terms of motivational feedback.

EuroCom’s main principle is: anything that contributes to the recognition of the general sense of a text and to effective communication at even the lowest level is already a worthwhile achievement, encouraging the learner to positive improvement and further practice.

Mistakes are not simply wrong: most mistakes and erroneous deductions are often simply the result of misdirecting intelligent effort. When this effort is encouraged, learners remain motivated and, being unafraid of making mistakes, are confident of future success.

I already know a lot.

Every new language, as long as it belongs to a similar language group, contains familiar material. EuroCom organises this material into seven fields, called the Seven Sieves. This book deals with the Romance languages (EuroComRom), but the same model could be applied to the Germanic (EuroComGerm) and the Slavonic (EuroComSlav) language families.

(The EuroComRom that we have here is based on an English-speaking learner’s school knowledge of one Romance language, which in the British school system is likely to be French [or nowadays increasingly Spanish], while of course English itself, which is lexically a ‘Romance’ language to a large extent, can also be very useful.)

Like prospectors, the learners extract the gold from the new language by passing it through seven sieving processes, gold that is already theirs because they know it from their own language.

After sieving through the language seven times in search of familiar material, it becomes clear that a newspaper article in the new language (about foreign affairs, for example) can be understood in terms of its main information, and that starting from that point one can go ahead to make a reasonable approach to the meaning of the rest of the text.

The division into seven fields is aimed at making the material easier deal with. The learner can clearly see which individual fields contribute most to producing overall understanding. The sequence moves from the areas where recognition is relatively clear to those where closer study or a certain amount of practice are necessary.

After the initial learning phase, however, the practical work of deduction makes use of all seven sieves without distinction as required in each individual case.

1.4 The Seven Sieves

With the First Sieve we extract words from the International Vocabulary [IV] from the text. This vocabulary, present in most modern European languages, is derived largely from Latin or Romance, which benefits the learner of the Romance languages a great deal in this first sieve.

Adults normally have about 5,000 of these easily recognizable words in their vocabulary. Taken together with internationally known personal and institutional names and geographical concepts etc., these words provide that part of a newspaper article on, say, international politics that can be immediately understood: this vocabulary usually forms the larger part of such articles.

The Second Sieve then extracts out the words belonging to the vocabulary that is common to the Romance language family, the Pan-Romance Vocabulary [PV]. This sieve shows how knowledge of just one Romance language can open the doors to the others. Learners who have already ‘invested’ in one Romance language can very simply cash in on their earnings with the other Romance languages. There are about 500 words from the Latin past that are still current in the elementary vocabulary of the majority of Romance languages.

With the Third Sieve we then use the lexical relationships between the languages by turning to the recognition of Sound Correspondences [SC]. Many words, particularly some that occur very frequently, do not look related at first sight, because they have undergone different sound changes over the last 1500 years.

This particular phase provides learners with all the essential Sound Correspondence formulae, so that they can recognise the relationships between the words and therefore their meaning. The discoveries that all learners make when learning related languages, but which they often do not know how to apply usefully, are shown clearly and systematically.

So without a great deal of effort, and using the pattern provided (if Fr. “nuit” corresponds to Spanish “noche” and Italian “notte,” then Spanish “leche” and Italian “latte” correspond to French “lait”) a large number of historical changes can be understood and the word recognised in its new “clothing”.

The Fourth Sieve concentrates on Spelling and Pronunciation [SP]. While the Romance languages generally use the same letters for writing the same sounds, some spelling solutions are different and can hinder the recognition of the relationships between words and meanings.

EuroCom shows these differences very clearly, describes the logic of the spelling conventions and removes any stumbling blocks. The learner only has to concentrate on a few specific phenomena. Some of the conventions of pronunciation are also demonstrated and used to point out the relationships between words, as words which are written differently may well sound quite similar.

The Fifth Sieve is concerned with Pan-Romance Syntactic Structures [PS] and makes use of the fact that there are nine basic sentence types which are structurally identical in all the Romance languages. If we are aware of this, we can see immediately how much our syntactic knowledge of one Romance language can help us in learning the others, in terms of working out the position of article, noun, adjective, verb and conjunction etc.

The word order even of some subordinate clauses (relative, conditional) can also be clearly understood. Against this background of great syntactic similarity, the particular features of the individual languages can be isolated and briefly explained.

The Sixth Sieve looks at Morphosyntactic Elements [ME] and provides the basic formulae for recognising the different ways different grammatical elements have developed in the Romance languages (“How do we recognise the first person plural of Romance verbs?”) This makes the grammatical structure of the text easy for the reader to recognise. These morphological and syntactical elements are among the most common elements of any text, so that being able to recognise them is particularly rewarding.

Finally the Seventh Sieve [FX], with lists of prefixes and suffixes, enables us to work out the meaning of compound words by separating affixed elements from the root words. We only have to remember a relatively small number of Greek and Latin prefixes and suffixes to be able to decipher a large number of words.

At the end of this process, the learner has, in seven ‘sievings’, found out what a large store of familiar knowledge s/he already had, or has become available in extremely productive formulae. And this not just for one language, but for eight other languages as well.

EuroCom’s achievement here is of strategic importance: we do not have to move doggedly from one language on to the next and then the next, but rather use the one set of principles to open the door to all these related languages. Limiting your multilingual ambitions would only be a waste of all the advantages gained from the system.

1.5 The individual languages

It is in the second phase of the EuroCom-Strategy that the learner is enabled to concentrate on areas of personal interest within the language family treated by the seven sieves.

Here EuroCom provides Miniportraits of six Romance languages, which between them are spoken by three-quarters of a billion people. These miniportraits systematise and expand on the linguistic knowledge gained with the help of the sieves.

The miniportrait begins with details of the geographical distribution and the number of speakers of the language, gives a short survey of its historical development, and lists the most important dialects and varieties.

An important part of the miniportrait is the way it clearly presents the individual characteristics of the language, especially pronunciation, spelling and word-structure, thus focussing the diffuse impressions gained by the learner in reading and hearing the language more sharply.

In this way each language is distinguished from the others, so that, having gained the knowledge of the similarities and relationships between the languages from the Seven Sieves, the learner can now concentrate on the individual features of this particular language.

This is then followed by a Minilexicon divided into word-types (including a mini-grammar) which gives the 400 most common lexical elements in a systematic way: numbers, articles, prepositions, most important nouns, adjectives, conjunctions, pronouns, adverbs of place, time and quantity, as well as the twenty commonest verbs and their forms, both regular and irregular.

This provides an ordered list of the words which can already be deduced from the Seven Sieves as well as words that are important but exist only in the individual language. As an appendix there is an alphabetical list of the (commonest and) structural words of each language, which make up 50-60% of any normal text.

Words which could not be deduced by the sieving method can be extracted from this list and memorised individually. Fortunately these special “profile words” are very few in number: on average, twelve per language.

The miniportraits are deliberately set out in a concentrated manner: a minimum of reading and learning input (a dozen pages per language) should produce the maximum output in terms of usefulness for deductive reading.

Armed with this the learner has a solid basis for developing receptive competence which can quickly be increased by intensive and gradually diversifying reading in the chosen language(s), thus facilitating the leap to the understanding what is heard and the transition to productive speaking and writing competence. We should, however, emphasize that even the development of merely receptive competence in several languages is a goal in itself, and one which is important on a European level.

1.6 EuroCom as a textbook

This book is suitable for use as a textbook for universities, adult education establishments and schools. It should be seen as a complement to the vast range of teaching material that is available for each individual language, and which each learner can use according to his individual needs and tastes: courses in the individual languages can then be run more simply and quickly. This saves time, and makes it possible to offer a wider range of languages.

Those who “teach” do not need to be competent in all the languages dealt with in this book: if there are languages that are unknown to them, they can follow the EuroCom strategy and take up the challenge of deciphering a newspaper article in the new language together with the other learners.

It is also possible to use this book in groups without a “teacher”, if the learners all come from different language areas and can offer themselves as experts in individual languages. If you use this book to teach yourself, you should acquire some recorded material to get an impression of correct pronunciation.

1.7 Language learning and motivation

Using the relationships and similarities between languages in a consistent and logical way provides a method of simple access to multilingualism never previously exploited properly. However, as we have already suggested in section 1.2 above, personal motivation is also a decisive factor.

Being ready to attempt multilingualism depends to a large extent on previous successes and failures in the field of language learning and experiences in dealing with different languages. So it makes sense to describe the various fears and prejudices that surround multilingualism before starting on EuroCom, in order to remove any subjective barriers to learning success.

The five fears

In countries where people are not used to multilingualism from early childhood, there are five particular fears or motivational problems that hinder the learning of other languages. We should try and make these conscious, and defuse them or, insofar as they are simply excuses, prove them to be unfounded.

(1) “I am too old: you can only learn languages as a child.” This underestimates adult learning capacity. The advantages a child brings to language learning (plenty of time and energy, the delight in playing with and identifying with language) are at least balanced by the advantages adults possess:

With their fund of linguistic experience and knowledge in general, adults are likely to make much quicker progress in learning than children, especially when they commit themselves to learning a language intensively. For the adult, even hearing and pronouncing correctly is more a matter of attitude and being prepared (and self-confident enough) to fit into a different linguistic environment.

(2) “I’m no good at languages.” There is no such thing as not being able to learn a language, except in the case of actual brain malfunction. Everybody has learned their native language, and can therefore also learn other languages.

We tend to forget that acquiring our native language was a complex and long-drawn-out process that took many years, and that, in comparison, learning a foreign language can often be a rather quicker process. The excuse “I’m no good at it” normally comes from either insufficient motivation or a lack of the confidence required to adapt to new situations.

(3) “I’ll get confused if I learn another similar language. I’m afraid of mixing them up.” This seems to assume that there is a limited amount of space in the brain: there’s not enough room in one’s head for several languages. But it is the same with languages as it is with other human abilities: the more languages you have learned, the easier it is to learn others.

As far as mixing up languages is concerned, you should look on the bright side: how good it is to be able to recognize words immediately because of their similarity with those of another language without investing any learning effort in the process.

Just think how hard it is to learn languages like Arabic or Japanese, because there are hardly any points of lexical contact. Don’t worry about your uncertainty about the exact forms of words. In the course of ever more intensive contact with the new language you will automatically develop a feeling for which words, structures and sounds belong to which language.

To put it in a nutshell: being able to use words from a related language in the initial stages of learning a language is a great help, not a hindrance.

(4) “If I learn a new language, I won’t be able to speak my other foreign language(s) any more.” When learning a new language, you concentrate completely on the new medium, especially if you are in the country where it is spoken.

It’s normal not to be able to change to a previously learned language ad lib when you are intensively working your way into a new language. If you know that this is likely to happen, you can relax, and after a few minutes the stumbling conversation will become more fluent, and you’ll soon feel at home in the previously learnt language.

This is also true of languages that have not been used for some time. The brain puts them in a kind of ‘reserve store’. All you need to call them up is the right stimulus.

It is important not to become blocked by your own anxiety. Trust in your own abilities when coming back into contact with one of your ‘old’ languages–you can be sure that in the context of a lively conversation or of intensive reading all the old skill will return.

(5) “I’m not confident enough to speak a language if I can’t do it correctly.” This is the fifth of the fears that interfere with language learning: the illusion of perfection.

Imagining that a language should only be used when it is spoken and written absolutely correctly blocks any attempt to use it playfully or experimentally.

Most of us have experience of school, where red ink and the desire for good marks encourage self-censorship, something we must free ourselves from if we are ever to take up a new language in a relaxed and confident way.

If we aim for communicative competence in concrete speech situations, any utterance, however “incorrect” it is, can be seen to be effective as long as the person spoken to can understand you.

Having the confidence to speak incorrectly and acquiring strategies for gradual self-correction is the best way to get from a modest active command of a language to ever increasing competence.

If we are aware that we also perfect our skills in our native language all our life long, then we can allow ourselves to speak foreign languages experimentally, with at first many and then fewer mistakes. Improvement is always possible and necessary. That should not put anyone off beginning in the first place.

These five anxieties are the major subjective barriers to language learning, but they can be overcome by making learners aware of them.

1.8 The EuroCom principles: the EuroCom strategy

New languages that we actually already know: EuroCom shows that language learning is easy where there is a relationship between the languages learned. EuroCom proves that the person who speaks one European language already knows a lot about most of the others and does not begin from square one, but actually has an unexpectedly large quantity of linguistic knowledge that is relevant to the new language.

Learners discover that the languages of their neighbors are not foreign languages, but rather to quite a significant extent their own language already, which boosts confidence and provides motivation.

EuroCom also makes learners aware of their ability to work out the meaning of unknown texts by the use of analogical reasoning and the logic of context, and to optimise this ability.

EuroCom sets realistic and attainable goals. Instead of striving for an illusory perfection in one or two languages, EuroCom aims to increase partial competence in many languages, since truly European linguistic diversification only begins when we get past the old standard foreign languages English/French/German. Thus EuroCom complements traditional language teaching provision at its weakest (particularly from a European perspective) point–a lack of diversification.

EuroCom aims to counter the dispiriting influence of the old aim of near native language competence by recognizing and promoting the value of partial multilingual competence.

EuroCom makes it possible for Europeans to value their native languages once again, and helps them to avoid using a third language or a lingua franca as the only way out of the problems produced by linguistic diversity.

Finally, EuroCom makes people aware that European cultures belong together, and share more things than those that ‘divide’ them.

It’s easy to get started.

In the initial phases EuroCom presents the learner with all the things that are easy in the new language, thus avoiding anything that could cause anxiety or be discouraging.

We concentrate on acquiring receptive (reading) competence, which makes for very quick progress. Learners find out how quickly they can understand the new language by using all the positive elements–fun and curiosity, “detective” skill in solving clues–that arouse motivation and keep it fresh.

Instead of a long-drawn-out, wearisome process of acquiring one language after another, we have linguistic multiplication. In this way we avoid the school dilemma where the choice of one or two languages excludes all the others.

In terms of educational psychology, EuroCom makes the effort to re-evaluate “mistakes” as partly successful attempts at deduction, which simply need to be built on. In this way the positive side of guesswork is placed in the foreground. The aim is learning without fear of sanctions.

EuroCom helps you to help yourself: you reflect, and think about how you learn languages, which produces a sense of security and familiarity when beginning other new languages.

Practical results from the very beginning

The partial receptive competence that learners acquire, with or without a teacher, by further reading (and occasional help from a dictionary) and can then turn into solid knowledge produces real communicative bonuses: we are able to read information from and about another country in the original language.

EuroCom creates cultural awareness, since from the very beginning receptive competence leads to a wealth of cultural insight through reading authentic texts from the relevant country. EuroCom creates multilingual readers who are no longer dependent on the availability of translations.

Moreover, reading competence is, for adult learners, the simplest foundation for quickly acquiring hearing competence by the use of other media, such as radio or especially television.

We can also understand fellow Europeans who speak these languages directly, using our own native language ourselves, if our conversation partner has also developed receptive competence in our language.

It only takes a few minutes for this type of conversation to start working very well, and makes it possible to replace a conversation carried on in Pidgin business English. (We obviously do need to use a lingua franca, however, when the linguistic competence of conversation partners does not overlap.)

This form of conversation with each using their own language could become a European programme with the motto “being able to listen”. This kind of tandem communication is also the easiest way to prepare for active use of a language.

In our younger days we have no idea what language area life or our jobs will take us to. If we have diversified receptive competence in one or more language groups, we will be able to achieve productive competence in a very short time in any country that professional necessity might land us in.

European linguistic competence

Europe will only really become truly linguistically European and not exclusively English- (or to some extent French- or German-) centered when a large number of Europeans know several European languages. The experience of simultaneous similarity and difference in the languages of Europe will provide a model for the experience of simultaneous closeness and ‘other’-ness.

In this way it will be easier to preserve our own identity, while at the same time being open and sympathetic to people of other nations, cultures and languages.

Seeing how easy it is to become receptively competent in one language family (Romance) will motivate people to try the method with other language families (Germanic, Slavonic).

EuroCom can be adapted to any combination of groups: EuroComRom for English speakers, EuroComRom for Romance speakers, EuroComGerm for Germans or Romance speakers and so on.

It would be possible to build up a EuroCom network which would enable members of the three major language families in Europe to access the languages spoken by the majority of the 700 Million inhabitants of Europe.

EuroCom turns language learners into Europeans.

The book: William J. McCann, Horst G. Klein, Tilbert D. Stegmann, “EuroComRom; The Seven Sieves, How to read all the Romance languages right away. (ISBN 3-8322-0437-7) is available at the publishing house Shaker Verlag.


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