Tuesday 23 February 2016

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About Socially Awkward Linguistic Situations)

Learning a foreign language is not just about skills and dedication; it is also about context. Determining one’s context is as important as decoding complex grammar structures or incomprehensible syntax. I learnt this lesson the hard way as a newly-graduate English language teacher more than twenty years ago. There I was, fresh from uni, talking about phonetics and phonology to my students, when all some of them were interested in was to find out how to say “your rent-car is ready, sir”.

It is this contextual aspect that came to mind recently when I read the now-customary section in The Economist called “Johnson”. This was a regular feature years ago that has made a much-desired come-back.

The phases one goes through foreign-language-learning are not dissimilar to the ones one undergoes when taking the first steps in one’s native tongue. There is much to decipher, digest and interpret. The difference is that when presented with a vessel of new words the foreign-language learner will immediately hang on to primary meanings. They are the equivalent of a life-saving piece of wood in a shipwreck.

It takes a while for second-, third- and multiple-meanings of a word to take hold. I always knew that “baby” was an infant or very young child. But the “baby” who just cares for Nina Simone is of a different variety. Same with the “baby” whom (repeatedly) Robert Plant is gonna leave in Led Zeppelin’s monster hit. That baby had nothing to do with youth (even if she was young).

Thus, from primary-meaning acquisition the learner moves to a nuanced zone where the context defines the meaning of the word. We, those of us who have studied a foreign language, begin to think in that target lingo. It happened tome halfway through uni and it is one of the reasons why I am able to write a blog in English despite the fact I am a native Spanish-speaker. At some point, through hard work and skills-building, I managed to create a personal structure based on the English syntax, semantics and grammar.

I mentioned semantics in that paragraph. Semantics can be misleading sometimes. When we are learning a foreign language we not only adapt to unusual patterns (and make them familiar to us) but also we adopt linguistic tics in the same way a native speaker would. How many times have I not heard a fellow Cuban nowadays start a sentence with the word “like”, just like a US or – come to think of it – a British teenager?

In the same way, we, non-native speakers, sometimes appropriate language we rarely give a second thought to. Some of this language could come across as socially awkward. The Economist’s “Johnson” section had a wide selection of words that describe men and women but that tend to favour mainly the former over the latter. For instance, I am guilty as charged of using the word “chatty” for women whilst for men is, “says a lot”. I used to use the word “bossy” to describe a woman I knew until I realised that I was unconsciously patronising her and boxing her in. It also works the other way around. I have been called “articulate” on a few occasions, which used to bring a smile to my face until I noticed that it was usually accompanied by a look of surprise on my interlocutor’s face. At a higher level, our Prime Minister, David Cameron, used a put-down in Parliament a few years ago that no one has forgotten about. In addressing a female colleague, he told her to “calm down, dear”. Well, at least, I have the excuse of being a foreign-born non-native speaker. Oxford-based Cameron has no such excuse. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Who are you calling bossy?

Which brings me back to the start of this column tonight. Learning a foreign language does not depend on innate skills (believe me, I was not born with an MFL gene), but on hard work and dedication. It also depends on the context the learner decides for themselves. Is it communication they are after? Is it specialist translation they need? Is it the whole shebang? In more than twenty years I still have not found the answer. I’m still learning.

© 2016

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Friday 26th February at 6pm (GMT)


  1. Hopefully we are all still learning. I firmly believe that when we stop our lives are over.
    You are so right about Cameron's put down. He did indeed know what he was doing. Patronising nastiness.

  2. A little learning each day goes a long way. Very true too, anything can be twisted depending on how it is said, so good words may not be so good.

  3. I'm impressed by anyone who speaks more than one language. In school I studied Latin and now I wish I'd studied a language people actually speak.

    1. I took Spanish in high school, but regretted that I didn't take Latin!

  4. On the one hand, CiL, I agree with you and applaud your zest for gaining a solid set of skills in a variety of languages. Whether the use is for career, scholarship or personal reasons, I would imagine, determines the goals and the levels of expertise the learner wishes to accomplish.

    On the other hand, sometimes the line/sentence between political correctness and deliberately attempting to hurt someone through insulting words must be parsed. Political correctness, I think, is a literal curse, and in that regard many people need to develop thicker skin and to lighten up and to understand that they are not the center of the universe.

  5. Yes, learning another language is all about context, practice and determination. There are still times when I'm suddenly exhausted by speaking Swedish even though I've lived here for 17 years!

  6. I wish I could join in the debate... sadly my ability to learn a different language was laced by idleness. I would get so far then tire of the whole thing. Why, I asked myself, do I need another language? Of course, I found out when I got older. As for the word 'like' .... it is a good word but misused and thrust into that silly dialogue teenagers love to use. So irritating!

  7. I agree with your point that you need dedication to learn a 2nd language. My daughter is learning French, which we in our family all agree is odd, simply because one, Spanish is more desirable as a second language (most businesses salivate over a bilingual speaker and Spanish is the #2 spoken language here in the states); and two, my in laws are bilingual and she would've had an instant tutor, so to speak, for the language.

    Father Nature's Corner

  8. Si aprender un idioma extranjero es complicado, enseñarlo mas aun, saludos.

  9. Hi ACIL - having 'tried' to learn another language and various of them ... I still as an English born-speaker would not be able to talk about "English syntax, semantics and grammar" ... as I've never understood them. Wish I did - thankfully mostly I manage quite well with my speaking and writing skills ... but I have no idea how!

    Cheers Hilary

  10. Lo mejor aprender los idiomas lo más jóvenes posible ya que se tiene la facultad del aprendizaje, luego si no es por necesidad de ello, siempre hay que tener mucha voluntad o que verdaderamente te gusten mucho los idiomas.
    Un abrazo.

  11. Well I dont know..i do three languages..the american i almost forgot..The spanish i speak read but when it comes to..learnig it away(My son is having spanish at school)the grammer!I dont know anything!(i learned spanish in the street playground)

  12. Another thing is how different people can take to different languages with more or less ease. I really struggled to learn Spanish and still can't speak more than a few words (though I can understand it reasonably well) but I found Italian really easy to learn, despite it being so similar to Spanish!

  13. I know exactly what you mean - I've been struggling with my Spanish, but can generally be understood, although everything is in the present tense. But nuances escape me, and I'm certain I miss a lot of things people say to me.

  14. I work a lot with foreign attorneys who are very good at speaking English, but being able to write in English is a whole other level of skill--or any foreign language. My own foreign language skills are limited, so I don't mean to be dismissive. You do a great job, and you are right about context. I think what is incredibly confusing are the uses of various prepositions--there is so little rhyme or reason to this in English--to, of, by, at, about--using them in a metaphoric, contextual, or simply traditional way--really difficult1 I think you really write well! And I am sure your Spanish is as good! k.

  15. Which is why I'm so impressed that you blog so eloquently in a second language. I'm rather intimidated about learning Japanese next year, but I've signed up for a first year class on the campus where my husband teaches Japanese politics. It will be a lot of hard work!

  16. I have never mastered another language with the exception of Morse Code (even thought I've studied three).

  17. English is my second language, and i learned it in school because science and maths and the other subjects were all taught in English. i am a Chinese, and i can speak Mandarin, and a host of other dialects reasonably well, but when it comes to writing and reading it, it becomes a struggle. wished i had paid more attention to it in school. i think learning speaking and reading/writing a language requires different skill levels. it is easier to learn speaking, there are so many places you can pick it up, the playgrounds, the work place, the forces. writing requires much more motivation. :)



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