Tag Archives: learning Spanish

Language Matters: Gender Benders On The Rampage

If there’s one thing that really vexes native English speakers when embarking on learning a second language, then it’s the curious feature of grammatical gender. The concept that nouns can be feminine, masculine or neuter is most baffling to them. English is one of the few Indo-European languages which do not have gendered nouns. Or, rather, it no longer has them.

Since English is the haughty offspring of an ancient variant of German, it once boasted three genders, just like its parent. But sometime after the Norman conquest, the genders bit the dust. German and French genders were clearly no love match and battled it out until total annihilation.

In my observation, the biggest hurdle for native English speakers is not the existence of grammatical gender per se, but all the mental energy they waste in their futile attempts to find logic in it. So, once and for all: THERE. IS. NO. LOGIC. It’s just like the weather. Or taxes. Or what happens to pairs of socks in the laundry.

It would probably be a bit harsh to imply that native English speakers are the only numpties in this regard. I have witnessed several curious reactions when speakers of a gendered language are confronted, for the first time, with another language whose genders don’t match theirs. I remember one instance, in a Portuguese class a few years ago, when my Spanish classmate, a builder in his early fifties about to start a job in Brazil, was dumbfounded by the discovery that a Portuguese ballpoint pen (caneta) was FEMININE, when, to his mind, pens (bolígrafo in Spanish) were MASCULINE.

“Look, Pablo,” I said, “if it ain’t got a dick or a cunt, how do you know what sex something is?!” (Note to aghast US readers: In Spain, such evocative vocab does not usually cause affront*)

But even this seemingly convincing line of argument has to be approached with extreme caution: In German, for instance, while man (Mann) and woman (Frau) are respectively masculine and feminine, the German word Weib, which is an outdated (and in modern usage a vulgar) term for “woman” closely related to the English “wife” is, in fact, neuter and NOT feminine.

The German word for “girl”, Mädchen, is also neuter, although there is at least some logic to that one, as it’s the diminutive of the (also outdated) feminine noun Maid (maiden), and all diminutives are neuter in German.

And, returning to our colourful vocab once more, it gets even more paradoxical: In Spanish, for example, the aforementioned naughty words for male and female genitalia are feminine and masculine, respectively, not the other way around, as you might expect.

In the native English speaker’s mind, this sort of thing causes mayhem. Let me illustrate: I respond to queries on language learning forums, and a few weeks ago, a Brit had a minor existential crisis over the fact that person (persona) is feminine in Spanish, and that, when referring to himself as a person, he would – shock horror! – turn into a GIRL! Oh, the indignity of it! Just imagine what will happen the day he finds out that the…erm… most masculine of his male parts is a feminine entity in Spanish. At least grammatically speaking.

Taking the genders of nouns in one’s native language to be universal brings some interesting problems. A Spanish friend of mine told me once that he had encountered some toilets in a German restaurant labelled not with the internationally recognised stick man and woman, but instead with a sun and a moon. In German, the sun (die Sonne) is feminine, while the moon (der Mond) is masculine. In Spanish (and all other Romance languages, I believe) it happens to be the other way around. I leave it to you to imagine the rest of the anecdote…

As a native German speaker, the concept of gendered nouns gives me no trouble, but I am nevertheless experiencing a maddening – and unexpected! – predicament.

I speak Spanish fairly well by now and know the genders of most nouns. I cannot, however, for the life of me, get my adjectives and pronouns to consistently agree with my nouns. This is not so much of an issue when the adjective either immediately precedes or follows the noun: una chica gorda, un buen hombre, etc. easy peasy.

But if the adjective or pronoun appear in a different part of the sentence at some distance from noun they refer to, or in another sentence altogether, I find that my brain will often revert to the GERMAN gender rather than the Spanish one, because that’s how genders were first installed on my hard drive.

On some primal level, a table will always be masculine to me rather than feminine as in Romance languages , and, hence, it takes an immense amount of concentration to maintain gender agreement in my Spanish/Portuguese/French sentences. When I’m tired or my attention slips for just a few seconds, my brain will go straight to its native-language default setting – how could it be any other way? Since I’m pedantic to the extreme conscientious in my linguistic exploits, I find this insanely frustrating.

Messing up difficult grammatical constructions and features, such as the subjunctive, is one thing, but coming to terms with the fact that I probably won’t ever be able to get something as basic as adjective-noun gender agreement down to a pat, is, quite frankly, a crippling blow. Just how am I going to get over it?!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ah yes… something like this sure dulls the pain 🙂

[*For those interested in colloquial language, you may enjoy reading about how the most worstest of bad words in the English language is part of everyday parlance in Spain: Language Matters: C-Words of Difference]

 

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

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Language Matters: C-Words of Difference

A while back, I had a facebook chat with an American friend who left the US about a decade ago and settled in Costa Rica. It went something like this:

Her: So, now you’re in Spain… how’s your Spanish coming along?

Me: I’m getting there. Curious though that no sentence seems to be complete if it doesn’t contain either culo*, mierda** or coño.

Her: What is coño?

Me: Uhm… CUNT.

Her: ?!?

[*arse **shit]

soap

The fact that my American friend, who’s certainly no prissy, had not encountered this term, despite having lived for many years in a Spanish-speaking country (and being fluent in Spanish), speaks volumes. Latin Americans, on the whole, aren’t given to peppering their soft, mellifluous language with expletives.

The Spanish, on the other hand, have a reputation for being straight-talking and potty-mouthed. Since I’m quite partial to this communication style myself, I fit right in, but, I must confess, even after four years in Spain, I’m still a bit shy of the c-word.

I should get over myself. Cunts get dropped into conversation left, right and centre. It’s no big deal. You could be showing someone an infected mosquito bite and they’d exclaim, ¿Qué coño es esto? – What the hell is that!? Or you might have had a glass of wine too many at the expense of coherence when your still relatively sober drinking buddy confronts you with ¿De qué coño estás hablando? – What the hell are you talking about? 

¡Coño! as an exclamation by itself can mean a million different things, like “Are you shitting me?”, “What the hell were you thinking!?”, “WOW!” and “FFS!”. You get the idea.

If something’s “a big bloody hassle”, then it’s a coñazo – literally: a BIG CUNT.

So, there you have it. The Spanish are comfortable with their cunts.

Until they move to an English speaking country and discover that not everyone else is.

A Spanish friend of mine, who’s been living in London for more than two decades, avoids the ubiquitous little English word “can’t” at all cost.

The subtle differences in English vowel sounds are a real coñazo for Spanish speakers. Spanish only has five vowel sounds, while English has more than twenty. For Latin Americans living in the US, this is not so much of an issue in this particular case, but in British English pronunciation, can’t and the ‘unmentionable’ are dangerously close. Too close for comfort for my friend, who painstakingly resorts to “cannot” instead.

 

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

How To Start Reading In A Foreign Language

Two of my Spanish teachers have come to the same conclusion: there’s one determining factor which divides the mediocre student from the outstanding one, and it’s whether they read books or not.

This may not strike anyone as an earth-shattering insight. I’m sure we can all agree that reading is the best way to expand one’s vocabulary.

However, as I’ve discovered through years of trial and error, it’s not a matter of “just read whatever comes to hand” – a pernicious piece of advice that just refuses to die.

I believe that the choice of reading material can make or break someone’s motivation. Picking up a foreign language book with the best of intentions, only to throw in the towel after ten, thirty, fifty laborious pages is a pretty common experience. Not only is it disheartening, but it can dissuade some people from ever having another go.

So, I thought I’d share a handful of my homespun “rules” meant to minimise frustration and maximise endurance, so to speak. A wedge of cake,  a slab of chocolate or similar armaments have also known to aid in the endeavour.

1. Stay away from The Classics

If you’re passionate about reading, you’ll probably have ploughed through a quantity of highbrow literature in your native language. And you may even have enjoyed it. There are many good reasons why some works come to be regarded as “classics”: The language is beautiful, the insights are profound, the plot is enthralling, the characters are vivid and the author probably transgressed the social taboos of their time.

It’s hardly a surprise that those of us who love to read are itching to access the unadulterated literary riches of any other languages we are trying to learn.

Unfortunately, choosing a classic as your reading initiation is just about the worst possible strategy. I mean… poetic turns of phrase that fell out of use when automobiles had to be jump-started by rolling up your sleeves and cranking a big screw? Long-winded descriptions of items of clothing that you’ll only ever encounter in a period drama? Words so ancient that Google Translate starts to spit out runes?

C’mon. Get real. If your level of comprehension is below that of the average five-year-old native speaker, wrestling with a worthy tome is much like hobbling along an eight-lane highway on a pair of rickety crutches. You are going to run aground on the hard shoulder way before you even see the first signpost that reads “pretentious git”.

Sure, your ultimate goal may well be to enjoy the same kinds of books in your new language as you do in your native language, and maybe even to delve deeply into classic literature, but you’ll have to get on your tricycle first. With an extra pair stabilisers, if need be.

2. Build your reading muscle

Reading a book in a new language, even a fairly short one, is like embarking on a marathon. And it needs to be tackled in the same way. Before you even think about taking a “proper” book to bed with you, you should be capable of reading things like news items, magazine articles, blog posts, etc.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t always understand everything. The point is to try, to get through it and to glean as much as you can on the way. In any case, you should be at the higher end of the intermediate level before you have a serious go at a novel or a biography.

If you’re not quite there yet, start with books aimed at young children. Also, there are bilingual books, which give the text in two languages on facing pages – these can be an excellent way of easing yourself in.

3. Start with short stories

I’m just over two thirds through my first book in Portuguese. (And I’ve been at it for three months – how embarrassing is that?!) It’s a book of short stories, some of them just a couple of pages long. At this stage, I don’t get the point of each and every one of them. But that’s OK. I do understand most of the sentences, and I helps me consolidate grammar structures and vocab. By the time frustration makes me want to eat my socks, I’ve already reached the last paragraph of the tale.

The trick is to counterbalance the growing aggravation caused by wobbly comprehension with the satisfaction of having got to the end of the story. And if you get to the end of enough stories, you’ll eventually get to the end of the book.

Spanish Short Stories

My first book of Spanish short stories. It may look like highlighter pen, but it’s all blood, sweat and tears, believe me!

4. Read what’s useful to you right now.

When I first started to read books in Spanish, I picked a well-researched historical novel by a reputable author, because historical fiction is one of the genres I absolutely love to lose myself in. After all, whatever you read, it’s got to hold your interest, right?

Big mistake.

I had only recently moved to Spain, and what I actually needed at that stage was the appropriate words to dissect assorted family problems with a friend over coffee and complain about water leaks to my landlady, etc, not vocab denoting the constituent parts of ox carts used in 14th century southern Spain. What the hell was I thinking?!

Well, I very quickly got off my ox cart and turned to the very stuff that I’d never touch with a barge pole in English (or German): Romance novels and inane chick lit, where people talk about relationships and domestic disasters in everyday language. Oh, but how useful that trash proved to be in real life conversations! In fact, I’ve discovered that I don’t much mind if the plot is stultifying, because it’s very much like being on a treasure hunt. As I comb through the dross, I keep stumbling across pearls of handy vocab and nifty expressions.

And just a couple more things – in the beginning, choose books that are no longer than 250 pages, and before you commit yourself to any book, sample at least a couple of pages of it. If it’s impenetrable, put it back on the shelf. It’ll keep.

*    *    *    *    *

Let me be clear: Starting to read books in a new language is not going to be a twirl across the village green on a dewy spring morning. The first few books, even if well-chosen, may well make you want to re-grout your bathroom tiling (or engage in any other activity that doesn’t involve looking up yet another unknown word) or turn you into a compulsive gobbler of cheese toasties. There is no way round that. Stretching yourself is always going to hurt a little.

As a rule of thumb (though this varies strongly from language to language), once you’ve heroically dragged your weary eyes (and your even wearier brain cells) through five books, the magical “joy of reading” factor should kick in. You’ve made it out of the swamp and into the open water. Now you just need to keep on reading to patch together your sails and you’ll be off to discover a whole new world.

[If you liked this, you might also enjoy Language Matters: Do You Sound Like Yourself?]

Language Learning: You’ve Got To LIVE IT!

Every language I’ve ever tried to absorb just from books, classes, and, in recent years, the internet, I’ve forgotten. Sure, there may still be some linguistic remnants floating about in the murky Everglades of my brain – rotting limbs of Russian, Japanese and Chinese trapped in the undergrowth – never to be re-assembled again in a futile attempt of making conversation.

It comes down to this: If you want to speak a language, and I mean REALLY speak it, it’s not enough to allot it a fenced-off little corner of your consciousness and shine a torch on it every once in a while. Language is the most sophisticated communication tool ever devised by the human mind; it is designed to allow people to share complex thoughts, infectious ideas and a laugh, to convey their feelings, to empathise with each other. Language needs to be taken out to play, it needs a human connection to really thrive.

As enjoyable as it is to be totally hooked on a book or engrossed in an epic film, language acquires a whole other dimension through person-to-person interaction. When you’re using your verbal and your listening skills to build a relationship with another human being – whatever the nature of that relationship may be – that’s when language really comes alive.

With one’s native language, this happens naturally, but, as most of us will have experienced, when we try to learn a foreign language in an environment where real-life exposure is limited, our enthusiasm usually peters out way before anything resembling fluency is achieved.

Going to class once a week, reading the occasional newspaper article, spending a holiday once every while in a country where the target language is spoken, although useful parts of the learning process, these sporadic activities are not going to push anyone beyond tourist-level competency.

If you want to get more out of it, you need to put more into it, and I’m not just talking more of your precious time. You need to let the language mesh with the fabric of your life, to entice its little tendrils to find their way from your head into your heart.

In practice, this means creating firm links with the country where the language is spoken and/or building and maintaining mutually enriching friendships with native speakers. In this way, you create an emotional dimension rather than limiting yourself solely to the intellectual domain. The former is much more permanent than the latter, it stays with you for life, it doesn’t just slip from your memory banks like a dried-up verb table.

A new language - a door to a whole new life

A new language – a door to a whole new life

As I’ve already lamented, a number of languages I had spent some time learning in the past never made it beyond the launch pad, because I failed to integrate them into my life in a meaningful way. My three main languages, German, English and Spanish, on the other hand, are firmly rooted in my psyche. They are not just something I “do” twenty minutes or so each day. They are part of who I am. If one of them were taken from me, it would be like losing an arm.

German is my native language, and although I left Germany back in 1991, I still have family and friends there. As for English, I lived in the UK for over two decades, virtually all of my adult life, and so I maintain a rash of personal and professional connections with this country, which, incidentally, I still consider to be my home. Also, my day-to-day work life takes place in English. English is, if you will, my main operating language.

And Spanish… well, Spain is where I live right now, so my attachment to this country is growing deeper by the day, as I’m slowly crawling towards greater proficiency in the language. I guess I should point out that my primary reason for moving to Spain was, in fact, to get to grips with Spanish, a desire I’ve been harbouring ever since I was a teenager.

Besides tinkering with my Spanish, I’ve embarked on another linguistic challenge, which is Portuguese. I started learning just a bit over a year ago, and I guess it’s time to start thinking about how I’m going to weave those loose strands of Portuguese into my world. Moving to Portugal is not an option right now, that would be too much of an upheaval too soon, and my level of Spanish still leaves much to be desired.

The good thing about being in Spain is that Portugal is right next door, and that flights are pretty affordable. Before I packed my bags to come to Spain almost three years ago, I signed up for a couple of week-long stints with a language school here. They arranged accommodation for me with a local couple who I’m still friends with, and I made my first few contacts from that base. Seeing as that strategy had already served me so well, I was thinking of taking the same approach with Project Portuguese.

When I started thinking about this a bit more in detail, however, I had a realisation: I don’t actually want the language school bit. The truth is that I don’t enjoy spending hours and hours in a classroom. I’m often left so worn out, that all I want to do afterwards is lie flat on a bed with a wet flannel over my eyes. Plus, I do have a great Portuguese teacher who I see every week, so I’ve got the teaching part covered. The whole point of being in Portugal is to get some practice, to interact with Portuguese people, not have a forced conversation with a Dutch classmate.

Well, I thought, why not try and find someone in Portugal prepared to rent out a spare room to me for a week or so? That would give me the chance to talk about everyday domestic stuff, exchange a few opinions over breakfast, and maybe do some grocery shopping together. After all, I don’t need a 24/7 babysitter nor a full-time tour guide, I can entertain myself and, as a roving freelancer, I shall bring my laptop and my work with me.  I can also offer a language exchange, if they wanted to practice their English or their German.

So, this is going to be my new project 🙂

A friend of mine has already passed me a potential contact, which I still need to follow up. If anyone out there has any useful suggestions or knows someone in Portugal who may be interested, please get in touch.

*    *    *    *

[What does it take until you finally “sound like yourself” in another language? Here is a post I wrote on this topic.]

 

Language Learning: Darn Interference!

Teresa, my Portuguese teacher, harbours a dark fantasy. She would love to get hold of one of MemoryEraserthose Men-In-Black memory eraser sticks and expunge every trace of Spanish from her students’ brains. Then she could finally teach us proper Portuguese from scratch.

Sadly, since this fantastic gadget doesn’t exist in the real world, her little fantasy is doomed. She’ll just have to keep on rolling her eyes every time we say “pequeño” instead of “pequeno”, and sigh in quiet desperation over us pronouncing what should be a mellifluous sing-song language in the machine-gun-like staccato characteristic of Peninsular Spanish.

But it’s not just poor Teresa who suffers.

My brain is no blank canvass. Besides being littered with useless factoids, it comes with two languages fully installed that don’t always play very well together, a third one is running at 72% (and still loading), and now I’m attempting to pour another one into this turbid pond.

In general, I guess it does hold true that the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn another one, but the downside is that they interfere with each other in menacing ways. For instance, the similarities between Romance languages are both a blessing and a curse. Because of their considerable lexical overlap, if you’re a laid back kind of a person and just want to “communicate”, you’ll do great by kidnapping Italian words to plug the gaps in your Spanish, but if you’re a stickler like me and you care about getting it right, it’s the road to insanity. Verbs are among my biggest headaches, as I’m still battling with the fifty or so versions that exist of each Spanish verb. With Portuguese thrown into the cauldron, the putrid, gurgling broth isn’t going to turn into a bowl of translucent consommé any time soon.

More of a messy stew...

More of a messy stew…

...than a clear broth

…than a clear broth

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some people I know have given up. One of my Spanish friends, while living in Barcelona years ago, attempted to learn (the local language) Catalan. She abandoned the attempt, because every time she tried to speak it, Italian (acquired during a year studying abroad in Rome), shot out of her mouth instead. An old college friend of mine keeps insisting that all those years studying Italian as a youngster have prevented her from communicating in coherent Portuguese to her Portuguese husband’s family.

I follow this blog http://myfiveromances.wordpress.com, owned by “Bernardo”, a very witty Australian guy, whose personal challenge lies in tackling Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian simultaneously. I believe he spent last summer in Romania to get to grips with the latter. His grammar posts from back then made my head spin. I’ve no idea how he maintains his sanity, I really don’t.

It’s not just closely-related languages that cause an interference problem. During the early-to-intermediate stages of language learning, it’s a very common phenomenon that our brains, while labouring hard to retrieve the required vocabulary, dredge up the corroded remnants of languages we haven’t used in years. When I first started learning Spanish, what kept popping into my head was my long-forgotten Russian from half a life-time ago.

Green thicket

Interference can manifest in many ways. For instance, I seriously struggle with gender agreement in Spanish and Portuguese. It’s not too difficult to match nouns with adjectives that directly follow them, but if the adjective or a pronoun refers to a noun, which occurred in a previous sentence or even further back, I tend to get it wrong. And it’s not my fault. It’s my German that’s doing it.

Grammatical genders are, for the most part, entirely arbitrary, and so German and Spanish genders don’t usually coincide. Since German is my native language, its genders are indelibly etched into my brain stem. I never realised this would lead to so much trouble.

Naively, I thought I had an advantage, because I was, at least, familiar with the concept of genders. Unlike native speakers of English, Japanese, Chinese, etc, I didn’t have to go through the futile questioning stage: “How can a table be male/female – it makes no sense!”

In the early phase, the gender issue creates some minor problems for Germans learning English. We may refer to inanimate objects as “he” or “she”, but this usually doesn’t persist for very long. Everything is “it”, and even for animals sporting discernible genitals, you still get to resort to the convenient choice of “it” – now if that ain’t an easy rule, I don’t know what is!

I never thought I would keep jumbling my Spanish genders about in such a dilettantic fashion after all this time, but, as it turns out, overriding one’s primal programming is harder than herding cats with firecrackers up their butts through a dog pound.

As always, I’m curious to hear from my readers – how does language interference play out for you? Which “cross-contamination issues” are you struggling with? Were some of these unexpected?

Language Learning Strategies: Less Complacency, More Input

About a decade ago, the house I grew up in was to be torn down and my parents had to move. Although they are not hoarders, their possessions had accumulated over space of three decades, and my mother, daunted by the enormity of the task, said to me, “Imagine… I will have to handle each and every single item contained in this place at least twice, once packing it up and then unpacking it again.”

Much later, it struck me that there was an obvious parallel with regards to language learning. If you want to be truly proficient in a language, you’ve got to tackle all the contents of every wardrobe, cupboard and shelf, working your way with a fine-toothed comb through all the rooms of the “linguistic house”, including the dingy basement and the dust-ridden attic. And wouldn’t it be nice if you could remember vocab, phrases, verb forms and expressions by coming across them merely twice? As if…!

Like my mother at the point of moving house, I often feel totally overwhelmed by my self-imposed task to learn Spanish “properly”. It seems to me that I’ve lost a couple of toes to frostbite already, toiling up the frozen slopes of Mount Everest in air so thin I can barely breathe, only to find that I’ve dragged myself no further than Base Camp. After two and a half years in Spain, I’m reminded every day that I’ve still got such a long way to go.

During my first year in Spain, I was in perpetual linguistic panic mode. Despite having studied Spanish off and on for years, I understood precious little of what was being said to me. The prospect of having to make a simple phone call, where there was no body language to go on, was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat.

To fix the comprehension problem, I bought a radio and lugged it around the flat with me like Linus his blanket, so I could listen to it while performing mundane tasks like hanging out the washing. Every morning, with my eyelids still stuck together and before I even remembered who I was, I would flick on the little black box and let my eardrums be bombarded with the country’s economic woes (no end in sight), last weekend’s traffic accident death toll (shocking) and today’s weather forecast (mostly sunny).

This way, making the most of every spare minute, I racked up between three and five hours of listening time a day, and, within the space of four months, my comprehension improved sufficiently so I’d no longer have gremlins wrestling in my stomach before every appointment with my accountant.

Salamanca Poppies

The language learner’s number one enemy, in my opinion, is complacency. Once the red alarm light stops flashing, once you can sort of function in daily life, it’s very tempting to just settle in your comfort zone. A lot of people stop pushing themselves at this point, it’s all they strive for.

My own objectives, however, were set a couple of notches higher from the very outset, but this doesn’t mean that I’m immune to laziness. As communicating became more manageable, I gradually let my daily radio routine slip, preferring soothing silence over the constant witterings about corruption scandals, royal hunting accidents and La Merkel’s cracking of the fiscal whip.

Trouble is, when learning a language, input is absolute key. Good comprehension is one thing, but building a sizeable active vocabulary and verbal eloquence quite another. We’ve all heard people say things like, “Oh, I understand [X-Language] just fine, but I can’t really speak it all that well”. Well, I’m sorry, but this is no good to me. No good at all.

To be able to produce language in a natural manner, to synthesise its components into fluent and flawless speech, without the need to translate or awkwardly dodging your way around tricky constructions, you need A HELL OF A LOT of input.

Language is, first and foremost, a copy cat endeavour. You need to hear the same words and phrases being said over and over again, in different contexts, to be certain of how to use them appropriately. Even being “original” requires that you know the rules before you start mucking about with them. Listening to the radio is an excellent way of receiving input, so I re-committed to this strategy four weeks ago, and I’m going to stick with it.

Whenever I get too bogged down with the seemingly unfathomable Spanish subjunctive, the tricky conditional and the pesky prepositions, I remind myself that, instead of letting these persistent trouble spots wrench all the joy out of my learning, I just have to “trust the process”. Instead of kicking the skirting boards, I need to let it seep in naturally and allow my clogged-up brain to assimilate the information in its own time. It will happen, eventually, I firmly believe in this (because I’ve done it before), even it it takes a lot longer than I had originally anticipated. For someone as impatient as I, accepting this is half the battle.

What Does Your Language Suck At?

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!).

Lakritzschnecken (= liquorice snails)

Lakritzschnecken (= liquorice snails)

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.

Language. Levels. Layers. Depth. Perspective. New Horizons. [Pic taken last week at Algeciras seafront]

Language. Levels. Layers. Depth. Perspective. New Horizons.
[Pic taken last week at Algeciras seafront]

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.]