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