My Language Right Is!

I hope you’ll forgive me for going off on a slight tangent today.  It has nothing to do with books, but everything to do with language, which is another topic that I am immensely interested in.  Currently I’m taking a Linguistics course called “Teaching English as a Foreign Language,” and it got me to thinking about a lot of things.

Now, there’s no way to say this without sounding like I’m bragging, but I’m honestly not trying to do that.  For one thing, this is information that is relevant to this post.  Secondly, let’s face it, my family reads this blog, so I think they’ll probably be quite happy to read that my Linguistics professor called me a “Language Genius” the other day.  Her words, my capitalization.  Apparently my Japanese teacher reported that she’d never had a student like me before.  The fact of the matter is that my Japanese teacher was fascinated that I had picked up as much of the language as I did, and the reason she is fascinated is because there is a critical period (many Linguists would say) for learning languages, and it is much younger than 18-20.  So it’s rare to see an adult pick up a new language that they weren’t exposed to as a child.  This is all relevant, I promise.  It’s all leading up to this observation I’ve made about language learning, and I feel that it is worth thinking about, and worth sharing.  So what better place to share it than here?  Seriously, I have no other options.

Anyway, here’s what I’ve observed: People (in this case native English speakers) tend to fall into two traps when learning a new language that inhibits their acquisition of that language.

Trap 1: They assume that their native language is “right” (with reference to grammatical structure) and that the language they’re learning is somehow “wrong” if it does not follow the same structures as the native language.  Which leads to…

Trap 2: They assume that their native language is related in any way to the new language they’re learning, when really the two are almost completely unrelated.

Allow me to explain.

I think that language teachers should emphasize a difference between translating one language into another, and expressing the same or similar meanings in two different languages.  Take the following two sentences, for example.  (The Japanese will be written out phonetically in English as well, so you can read it)

  • 私はスーパーに緑りんごを買いに行きました。

Watashi-wa soopa-ni midori ringo-oh kaii-ni ikimashita.

  • Yo fui al mercado para comprar unas manzanas verdes.

If you take these two sentences and translate them into English, you get:

  • Japanese: I supermarket to green apple(s) buy to went.
  • Spanish: I went t’the market in order to buy some apples greens.

Now, it is important to recognize that the above translations do not make sense in English, but that they do make perfect sense in their own languages.  Both of those sentences mean the exact same thing as “I went to the market to buy green apples.”  And I feel like people do fall into these traps where they try to directly translate from English to the language they’re learning, which is where you get problems with false cognates, for one.  (“Embarazada” is not Spanish for “Embarrassed.”  It means “Pregnant.”)  And then another problem is that of direct translation, where you assume that every language will follow the same rules as your native tongue, so you say “Yo quiero a comprar una manzana” because you know that “a” in Spanish means “to” and “comprar” means “buy.”  What you wanted to say was, “I want to buy an apple.”  What you said was, “I want to to buy an apple.”  Why?  Because Spanish has one word for the infinitive of verbs where English has two.

To Buy – Comprar

To Eat – Comer

And so on.  But we (English speakers) are used to seeing two words there, so we assume that Spanish has to have two words there, too, in order to make sense.  It doesn’t.  Because languages that aren’t English don’t have to make sense in English.  They only have to make sense in accordance with their own rules and structures.  I feel like I’m making a mess of this.  It was all so clear in my head, and now I feel like it’s very muddled.  Maybe I should quit while I’m ahead.

I’ll finish with this: The title of my post is incorrect English, but if that were Japanese, then it would be A-Okay.  So, in conclusion, your language is no more or less correct than any other.  Languages all express the same meanings, just in very different ways.  So when you’re learning a language, you have to approach it as an infant would – as if you have no previous exposure to anything like it.  Because learning a new language really should be like starting fresh, learning to talk all over again, not learning how to say good English in something that’s not English.

Word of the Day: Cognate (n) –

Hmm…None of these dictionaries are saying what I want them to say.  “Cognate” apparently has a lot of possible meanings, but the one I’m referring to is this: Words that sound similar across two or more different languages and have the same (or similar) meanings.  e.g. Telephone and Teléfono (Spanish).  And “false cognates” are two words that sound really similar but have different meanings.  These usually throw people off when learning new languages because drawing associations between words like that is a pretty common tool for memorizing new vocabulary.  An example of a false cognate is the embarrassed/embarazada thing or “pan” and パン(pan), which is the Japanese word for “bread,” not a pan.  Interestingly enough, that was taken from Portuguese, I think, so the Portuguese word for “bread” and 「パン」 are probably cognates.  Ok, that was officially the longest Word of the Day ever.  Sorry I couldn’t find an official dictionary definition.  You can look it up if you’re still confused.

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1 Comment

Filed under Grammar, Humor, Language

One response to “My Language Right Is!

  1. I got the same types of comments from teachers in high-school. The student that translate in their mind can never achieve full fluency. They will get stuck, they hinder their skills from developping, they don’t take advantage of the new type of freedom their new language will give them. You have to immerse yourself in the language, think IN it, not translate INTO it.
    Hats off for taking on Japanese though, I almost did in high-school instead of Spanish, but the school that offered it was too far… No regrets though!

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