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Learning language concepts from other languages

February 13, 2012

While I’ve never tried the full language laddering approach (where you use your second language to learn your third, and your third to learn your fourth, etc), I certainly take advantage of the languages I’ve previously learned when studying a new one. Each language has its own set of grammatical methods and concepts, and while I don’t believe any two are quite the same, most individual concepts are used across more than one language. This gives the (partially) polyglot an advantage, since we don’t expect our new language to work exactly like our first, and given a new idea in language D can just  think, “Oh, that’s the same as in language B”, rather than having to get our heads around it all over again. Here are some examples of when I’ve consciously used this approach.

I think the first time I really noticed how helpful even an unrelated language could be was in my second year of secondary school, learning German. All those of us in the second-year-beginners-German class had been doing French from first year, so that when bei was introduced, we could easily equate it to chez, rather than having to explain the usage from scratch all over again.

Looking back, I can’t understand why our teacher made such a big deal over German ob and wenn, since Hiberno-English, which we were all speakers of (including her), unlike standard British English (which may have been what our textbook expected),  pretty much only uses whether in whether or not contexts and otherwise uses if. Just telling us that wenn meant if and ob meant whether would have saved a huge amount of confusion and second-guessing, and any wrong usages could have been corrected later.

Hebrew, like Irish, distinguishes between the question-word when  (“When did you go to the bank?”) and the conjunction when (“I saw Tracy when I went to the bank.”) Therefore my little notebook didn’t say מתי = when = כאשר and then give some complicated explanations, it said מתי = cathain, and כאשר = nuair and had done with it. No matter how badly I may have learned to speak Irish in school, I’ve understood the difference between cathain (question when) and nuair (conjunction when) since I was a child.

Hebrew is also similar to Irish in that both conjugate prepositions, so this wasn’t a new idea to me either.

The reason all this came to mind again that the Russian usage of пожалуйста seems a whole lot closer to the German bitte than to the English please, so I will take advantage of the similarity, and not have to learn the contexts for using пожалуйста as a whole new idea.

I hope some of these thoughts can help other language users. Obviously the examples you come up with will depend on the languages you know. I’d love to hear about some of them.

  1. I will never be a polyglot. I lack some facility, but more than that, I lack the courage to stumble about trying to express myself in a language in which I am not fluent. That, of course, means that I never give myself the chance to become fluent.

    I did find, however, that studying Spanish in school definitely taught me things about English. When you speak only one language, you take things for granted. It was a revelation that Spanish sometimes just did things differently. (A double negative is not incorrect in Spanish, just more emphatically negative. A triple negative even more so. And Spanish has two different verbs “to be”, one for describing the nature of a thing and the other for its condition.)

    A brief excursion into Japanese was even more of an eye-opener. Compared to Japanese, English and Spanish are twin sisters. Japanese is just alien. I honestly have trouble seeing how the Japanese understand each other, though obviously they do. Thinking shapes language, but language also shapes thinking.

    (Thanks for visiting my site. I’m flattered that you actually linked to my “You can’t get away from grammar” post.)

    • You’re very welcome. WordPress suggested the link and I thought it seemed relevant. I definitely agree that studying another language, even if you don’t get to speak it well, teaches you about both English and differing perspectives. That’s why I’d say it’s worthwhile for kids to study languages in school, even when they don’t learn them as well as they should. (I’d still prefer they be better taught, though.) I haven’t tried any of the Far Eastern languages yet, just wending my way around representatives of the European and Middle Eastern families.

  2. Do you find that having to deal with a different alphabet slows you down?

    • The first few days of learning Russian were entirely focussed on the alphabet, and I spent a similar amount of time on the Hebrew alphabet at different times as well. It certainly makes reading and transliterating slower at first, but I get over it.

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