Last month, Linda of expateyeonlatvia wrote an impassioned piece about a number of vexatious statements put forth by her students, which had made her blood boil. One of her hapless tutees opined, for instance, that “English wasn’t a rich language”. [Click here if you want to see the post].
I commented on Linda’s post that a Spanish friend of mine had once said something very similar. The general consensus in expateye’s comments section was that if you didn’t speak a language very well, then, of course, you wouldn’t be able to express yourself eloquently. A vocab of a paltry 3,000 words may be enough to communicate your basic wants and needs and let you spout a few fusty opinions about the latest Matt Damon flick, but, well, it doesn’t compare to what a fairly well-educated native speaker can expound on with their 60,000 words. And then there is a wealth of expressions, colloquialisms and cultural references, which even an advanced learner, who’s never lived in the country of their target language, hasn’t got a cat in hell’s chance of mastering, no matter how many episodes of How I Met Your Mother he submits himself to.
All good and well… but then… after ruminating over this for several weeks, I’ve now come to a seemingly contrary conclusion: The “you just don’t know enough” rebuff is far too simplistic. In fact, I concede that you may not be able to express all of your sentiments in another language, no matter how proficient you are. And herein lies the crux of the gripe voiced by these pesky students, prompting them to vent infuriating pronouncements at their long suffering teachers about the woeful inadequacy of whatever language they happen to be grappling with.
Let me give you an example. Spanish (and this is also true for other romance languages) makes a huge great big deal of diminutives, and the opposite, namely augmentatives, are equally as important. Spanish diminutives are achieved by adding -ito, -cito or -illo suffixes to a noun, and the augmentative is formed by tacking on -azo, -ato or -orro, for instance. To illustrate: “Beso” means kiss, besito is a little kiss, and besazo a great big smacker.
English doesn’t really do diminutives (nor augmentatives). Instead, you’d have to opt for an entirely different word, employ an adjective like “little”, or turn “dog” into “doggy”. And that’s just not a good style. Ahem… 😉
German, on the other hand, does have proper diminutives, constructed by furnishing its nouns with -chen and -lein endings. However, these should be used very sparingly. They have the (intended) effect of infantilising the language, and overuse will make you sound like you’re talking to Forrest Gump.
Spanish, though, slots diminutives and augmentatives into sentences left, right and centre. And they don’t just work with nouns, you can even tag them onto adjectives, which is outright impossible in English or German.
Therefore, it is entirely understandable that a native Spanish speaker will feel somewhat bereft to find that a whole linguistic dimension of how he expresses himself on a day-to-day basis, how imbues his statements with humour, warmth, ridicule and exaggeration, amongst other nuances, is pretty much a no-go zone in English and German.
I suppose that each and every language has seams of glittering richness as well as areas that are a bit more on the threadbare side. English, for one, sports an inordinate amount of synonyms, which, more often than not, differ ever so slightly in their connotations. English also lets you have great fun with homonyms (words that sound the same, but differ in spelling and/or meaning), which introduces an entire universe of humour inconceivable in Spanish or German.
While both English and Spanish lend themselves fairly well to creating portmanteaus, in German, you can really go to town when it comes to fabricating entirely new words by merging any number of nouns into fancy compounds. You can make them stretch all the way to Mars and back, if you’re so inclined.
Compound noun mania does not only afflict German speakers with a sense of linguistic hilarity. A machine designed for producing a certain type of liquorice sweet is called a Lakritzschneckenaufrollmaschine (four nouns fused, not at all uncommon), and a (now defunct) law dealing with the supervision of beef labelling is termed Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (seven nouns joined in holy matrimony!).
Returning to my original point, the upshot is this: Every language learner will, at some stage, make a frustrated attempt at using their target language in the very same way as their native language. If it can’t be done, then of course they end up feeling like they are being censored, and that the language is, therefore, “deficient”.
Chances are, when learners hit a language’s inherent limits, and then rail on about how “unexpressive” it is, they will not yet have discovered its richness.
Learning to express oneself in a new language, which features alien cultural and linguistic concepts as well as uncharted facets of expression that do not exist in one’s native tongue, requires a high degree of competency. You actually have to be able to “think” in the new language, rather than just translate from one to the other. It’s like going fishing in a new lake: By the time you realise that your familiar fish don’t live there, you’re still a very long way from discovering the oysters at the bottom, never mind getting at their pearls.Now, I’m very curious to hear from those of you who are competent in more than one language… which features do you really enjoy in one of your languages that are tricky to convey in another? Any thoughts, whether from a learner’s or a teacher’s perspective, are very welcome 🙂
[For a short post on German compound noun craziness, click here.]