July 19, 2024


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Teach Yourself Languages – Tip Number 3, Part 1 – Different is Not Wrong

Teach Yourself Languages – Tip Number 3, Part 1 – Different is Not Wrong

Anglo-Saxons are often accused of seeing themselves as the center of the universe – particularly Americans. And yes, this is to some extent true. But no matter what our ethnicity or nationality, all of us are naturally inclined to view the world through the lens of our cultural upbringing and experience. Since language and culture are inseparable, we grow up believing subconsciously that our way of expressing things verbally is THE way to express them, and that anything else is merely an inferior attempt at imitation. (I am of course using hyperbole to make a point.) So when we learn a different way of expressing an idea than we would express it, it seems strange, and sometimes downright silly.

The talenknobbel, or “language bump”, mentioned in Tip #1, is a perfect example: how silly to say that we have “bumps” on our brains! This of course comes from the notion that different parts of our brain control certain faculties of learning, which, it turns out, is true.

There are millions of other examples we could cite. In most Romance (Latin-based) languages, rather than saying “I’m hungry,” they say, “I have hunger.” Portuguese is the exception, where they say, “I am with hunger.” In all these languages, age is expressed using the verb to have: “I have 21 years, our country has two hundred and fifty years,” etc.

What is important to remember is something we have taught our children since they were toddlers – a truth that any 21st century world citizen should know: DIFFERENT, WRONG….or weird, as some of my students would say.

This may be the single most important point of this entire book: if you do not approach a foreign language with an attitude of curiosity, teachability and humility, you can expect to have limited results, at best. It is not only a matter of teachability, however; a simple, mental shift is in order. You move from trying to relate everything back to your mother tongue to accepting the fact that the new language system you are learning is a legitimate system that stands on its own and has no obligation to your mother tongue. Most language students are constantly trying to find a literal translation for the new words or expressions they are learning. Again, this is normal. A good teacher or method will encourage the student to assimilate the concept represented by the word or expression rather than a literal meaning.

WARNING: This will be frustrating at first! We are talking here about building muscles you didn’t know you had, and it will be that much easier once you are able to jump the hurdle of needing to translate everything literally.

Here’s an example: the Spanish verb “gustar” trips up countless students. What is tricky about it is that, in English, we express our likes and dislikes in the active voice, i.e. “I like apples.” In Spanish, however, the same idea is expressed in a more passive way: Me gustan las manzanas, which, translated literally, would mean “Apples please me.” “Apples” is therefore the subject, and not “I”. Anglophone students of Spanish are always trying to make “I” (yo) the subject, which cannot be done with the verb gustar. What is necessary is to get used to the idea of expressing likes and dislikes in the passive voice.

Idiomatic expressions can actually provide more than a few chuckles when you do translate them literally, and this can be a welcome reprieve from your hard work. Here are some examples (you’ll be able to guess the meaning of at least the first few):

French: J’ai un chat dans la gorge. (« I have a cat in the throat. »)

Cela m’a coûté les yeux de la tête. (« That cost me the eyes of the head. »)

Je ne suis pas dans mon assiette. (« I’m not in my plate » – I’m not feeling so well.)

Dutch: Ik heb een appeltje met jouw to schillen! (“I have an apple to peel with you!”)

German: Er hatte so ein Hals! (“He had such a neck!” – He was so angry!)

Du hast nicht alle Tassen im Schrank. (“You don’t have all your cups in the cupboard” – we have several equivalents in English: “You’re one taco short of a combination plate”; “you’re not playing with a full deck,” etc.)

Spanish: Él está meando fuera del tarro (“He’s peeing outside the pail” – he’s saying something wrong)

Un cuento tirado del pelo (“A story pulled by the hair” – a far-fetched story)

We could go on – and we will in future articles! What is important to remember is our main point, stated above: to teach yourself languages, you must approach them with an attitude of curiosity and teachability.