Language

Second Language Probs

As I’ve mentioned before, learning a language is really tough. You have to learn the grammar and vocabulary, memorize sentence structure, and get a grip on the different tenses (ugh)…that’s a lot. Even when you get to be pretty comfortable with the language, you still make a thousand mistakes that a five year old, native to that language, wouldn’t. That’s just the way it goes…so, why is making those mistakes such a big deal?

If someone’s talking to someone else whose first language isn’t the same and they make a few flubs, why do people get exasperated and complain about it to their friends and family or – worse – Facebook?  I mean, if someone works in a store and someone else comes up to them asking for directions to the “sinkroom” instead of the “bathroom”, why do they roll their eyes and give them some kind of flip answer? Why is there so much anger and disdain in those kinds of situations?

Just think about it as if the roles are reversed (as I’m sure many know from firsthand experience when speaking a second language); You work up the courage to ask someone a question in a language that you’re still learning, only to be cast aside or maybe even laughed at if you make a mistake. It can make you angry, embarrassed, and deter you from practicing the language outside of the classroom again. Laughing at someone who is trying hard to communicate with you can be scarring for that other person.

There are many people out there that are understanding of the situation, of course, and they will be patient with someone struggling to get a question or comment out, but there are just as many people who are nasty and condescending.

So what if someone makes a mistake that creates a funny sentence? Once the speaker realizes the mistake, they’ll probably have a laugh too, and correct themselves. There’s no need to make them feel stupid or annoying for their mistake. It helps nobody to act that way.

Learning – and successfully using – a second language is a huge accomplishment, and the work that you put into creating a sentence should be applauded, not made into a nasty status on Facebook that highlights your failed attempt.

My personal feeling is that everyone should learn a second language at some point in their life. Even if you aren’t fluent in it, or you only use it a few times a year, it teaches you a lot about how language works and gives you an appreciation for the language skills that you do have.

What are your thoughts on the subject? Share them below!

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Language, Writing

The Power of Language: Part III

Now for my final thoughts on language and the power it has. I’ve talked about how the power works and what it means, but I haven’t really explained how it applies to writers.

Our job is to tell the stories that we care about, be it through short stories or novels. No matter what language we’re writing in, words are critical to doing that job. We can have the best characters and the most exciting plot ever seen, but if we use the wrong words to tell the story, no one is going to read it. As you can imagine, that puts a lot of pressure on us.

We spend years writing books, rejecting draft after draft because something just doesn’t “feel right”. There is a craft to writing, sure, a necessity in learning what makes a good story, strong characters, etc. But, a lot of the “real skills” of writing come from trusting your gut. You’ll get this niggling somewhere inside that something in that chapter isn’t working. Or, maybe you’ll get the sense that the last sentence you just wrote isn’t quite right.

These are frustrating moments because we are the only ones that can get that chapter/sentence just right. Other writers may be able to offer a word or two of advice, but they have their own nigglings to take care of. The entire perfection of the novel is sitting on our shoulders alone, and it is no fun what-so-ever. In fact, not being able to perfect that one sentence is a huge contributor to the terrifying writers block. Sometimes that niggling even gets so bad that we scrap the novel entirely. So, you see, using the right word could save a character’s life, maybe even a whole world.

There is a silver lining, though. It’s that instant when we finish a perfectly executed cliffhanger, or create the best scathing line of dialogue. Those little shivers that zap down our spines and leave us with the thought, “Yes, that’s it. Perfect!” These moments may be rare, but they’re powerful and leave us on a high for hours after. These are the moments where we feel like real writers, the moments where we feel as though we’ve conquered language and its power, even if it’s just for a little bit.

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Each writer uses words differently; each spins a different tale, telling stories of their own characters in their own worlds. The power of language – of the written word – unites us all, though, in a quest to construct the perfect sentence and novel. Having an appreciation and understanding of the language and the power it wields makes us better writers.

Learning another language, as I mentioned way back in Part I, has helped me understand and respect the power of language a lot more, making me a much better and more confident writer.

While writing gives me as much trouble as the next person, I trust that the words will lead me to the right place when the time is right and all will be right with the world.

Language, Writing

The Power of Language: Part II

Last week I talked about how words have deeper meanings that can’t be translated to another language or explained fully. The words have lives of their own and, when used correctly, can gift you with a really beautiful expression or sentence. Now, I want to look at how words can mean multiple things at the same time, especially to a writer. This isn’t in the context of definitions, but rather, how words can be used to make a sentence mean thousand different things by understanding their different levels. Confused? No worries, it’ll all make sense. Keep reading!

The whole “different levels” idea makes a lot of sense when I put it into the perspective with a quote from the book The Golden Compass, the first book of the His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman. This is a personal favorite series of mine and is known to be stuffed full of subtle (and not-so-much) hints and images over a variety of sensitive subjects.

The trilogy focuses on 12-year-old Lyra, a rough-around-the-edges tomboy who is destined to save the world. To help with her journey she is given a truth telling device called an alethiometer. It’s a large compass-like object and has a series of images on its face. In order to use it Lyra has to move the three hands to different symbols that form a question and the fourth hand will swing from symbol to symbol on the compass to give its answer.

As you may have already guessed, each symbol has multiple meanings so that any question can be asked and answer given. There are thousands of meanings, and the user of the alethiometer must go through various encyclopedias to get the right meaning. Lyra differs in that she can look at the alethiometer and hold all of the meetings in her head, knowing where to move the hands to ask the question and how to interpret the answer:

“And how to do you know what these meanings are?”

“I kind of see ’em. Or feel ’em, rather, like climbing down a ladder at night, you put your foot down and there’s another rung. Well, I put my mind down and there’s another meaning, and I kind of sense what it is. Then I put ’em all together. There’s a trick in it like focusing your eyes.”

Image Credit: www.gotchiworld.de (via Google)
Image Credit: http://www.gotchiworld.de (via Google)

In the same way that Lyra talks about the symbols having different “levels” for different meanings, words have that same power. When we, as writers, construct a sentence, we have to make sure that we are using to correct words on the right “levels”. Using the wrong word and/or level would lead to a different meaning entirely.

To me, words have the same magical power as the alethiometer has to Lyra. Sometimes I’ll go back and forth between three synonyms for hours in the back of my mind because using the wrong one really does change everything. A lot of the time to read or may not be able to notice the “small difference” of a sentence that has the wrong word, from that with the right one, but they will feel it, whether they are aware of it or not. It’s my job to make sure they don’t misinterpret the sentence by ensuring and using the perfect words.

If you’re still following, keep an eye out for Part III, the final section, of this idea net week. Also, feel free to comment with alternative comparisons to complex/deep levels of words, I’d love to hear them!

Language, Writing

The Power of Language: Part I

The most challenging thing I’ve learned in my time as a writer is that words are not just dead pieces that make up a sentence, they have life to them that make each one unique. No, seriously stay with me. Each word that we use carries a specific meaning and, shall we say, power, that none of its synonyms have. You can see this when using the word “shrieked” instead of “yelled,” sure, but my point becomes much clearer when looking at different languages and word translations. This is where I truly understand how each word is so individual.

When you’re in the beginning stages of learning another language you learn how valuable a translation dictionary is. You’ll be looking up words as you move between languages in reading and writing, gaining a bigger vocabulary as you go. Then, there comes that magical point where you can write a complex paragraph or read a chapter with little to no help from the dictionary and recognize the words in the language you’re reading/writing in. This is exciting for two reasons:

  1. You’re remembering the vocabulary, yay! You’re one step closer to fluently speaking a foreign language.

  2. The words in the foreign language for taking on the meaning of their own instead of simply being a translated word.

This is the nugget right here. A word in one language doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in another. Okay, literally speaking, yes it does, but work with me! Once you’re accustomed to the foreign language, you start to see its words differently. They take on a deeper, more complete meaning that you’ll notice when you finish a well written paragraph and think “Wow…that was powerful.”

The expression “lost in translation” is another way to understand it. Say you love that well-written paragraph so much that you want to share it with your best friend who doesn’t speak the language. You translate it using the best word you can think of, but it still loses something no matter how hard you work. This is how we can understand the power of each word.

For this reason I’ve really come to be in awe of words and language in general. As a writer, it’s my job to pick the best word for each sentence, and knowing what I do about words, I’ve discovered that sometimes even the best words still fall flat. Sometimes you need to throw in those foreign expressions, like “je ne sais quoi,” or “bon appetit,” to name a few of the most popular ones. They are so much more powerful than their English equivalents and can’t really be translated to carry the same weight and significance.

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So, words have a lot to them, much more than you would think at first glance. Learning another language has really helped me understand words and the deep, profound impact they can have. As a result, my appreciation of great writers has really grown. I’ve got more to say about this, so keep an eye out for next week’s post where we will explore part II of this topic!

Language

Gaining the Right Skills

When learning a language I believe that the teacher chooses the pace. This is because the student doesn’t have a starting point, it’s given to them by the teacher. The language could be started off by the student being given a bunch of vocabulary words, they could begin learning how to put a sentence together, or maybe even start off with how to conjugate some verbs. A lot of teachers do a combination of all of these things, and the student is able to get their first understanding of the language through this teaching method. However, both reading skills and oral skills must be developed together for a complete understanding.

When I first started learning Spanish, I was reading short paragraphs by the end of the first semester, and so my reading skills were at par with my oral skills. When I moved to the higher levels, however, the classes were split into Grammar classes that focused on speaking, and Reading classes that focused on researching and writing papers. I took both because I wanted as much immersion as I could get, but it wasn’t required. I found this strange, because reading and speaking are both so vitally important to being able to function in the language.

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In the grammar classes, I learned various verb tenses and different ways to string a sentence together, and this aided me in my reading skills. I would be reading a sentence, and maybe didn’t know what the verb tense was of a certain word, but I did recognize the verb and knew what the sentence was saying. Reading helped increase my vocabulary, too, so when I would be writing practice sentences in my grammar class, I was able to have more options in word choice. These seem like minor elements, but when you combine them all together, it really increases how well we function in a language.

For example, when having a conversation, I (like a lot of people) can understand a lot more than I can speak. So, if I hear that strange verb tense, I don’t know what tense they’re speaking in, but I can understand the conversation, and reply back in the wrong tense, but I can reply accurately and contribute to the conversation. Alternatively, with my increased vocabulary from reading, I can talk about more things in my life and enjoy speaking.

Basically, a combination of reading and oral comprehension increases knowledge of the language, which translates (no pun intended) to being more confident in the language. So, why are reading and writing classes not both required in upper levels? There are practical reasons, like not enough time in class to cover both, but the teachers in oral and reading classes assume you’re taking both classes, so they will teach their own class to compliment each other, which includes reading skills in grammar classes, and grammar skills in reading classes. So it makes sense that they both should be required. Thoughts? Arguments? Opinions? Please share them!

Language

Native vs Classroom

Learning a second language is challenging for everyone, though some more than others. Something that I have always wondered in learning a second language is the difference between being taught by someone whose mother tongue is the language, and someone who learned the language in a classroom like the students. In learning Spanish, I have been taught by people in both categories, and they both have pros and cons.

Being taught by a native speaker can be very hard in an immersion setting for students at any level. This is because the native speaker has an accent that, depending on how thick it is, can make understanding more difficult. Another factor is the fact that native speakers tend to be, understandably, faster speakers than the teachers who learned the language in classroom. This is due to their comfort in the language, and even though they would think they were speaking slowly and clearly, in reality, it is much faster.

A native speaker can also have difficulty in explaining some of the basic concepts in the language, such as verb conjugation for example. The teacher would simply know the conjugations and be able to rattle them off without difficulty in remembering them. This can be frustrating for students who are still tying to grasp those same conjugations because they aren’t naturally knowing the rules and tricks.

The benefit of having a native speaker as a teacher is that students are exposed to “real life experience” in using the language. Outside of the classroom, speakers will have accents and speak fast, and this gives the student a chance to practice hearing and understanding the language that way. As well, these teachers would be able to show the students a more colloquial version of the language to go along with the classroom version, such as slang or abbreviations.

Having a teacher who learned the language the same way the students do has a lot of benefits as well. They would teach the students based on their own experience in learning the language. They would know to speak slowly and clearly, aware of the time it would take to process the language at first. They would remember which words they struggled with, and perhaps know to emphasize them, or explain their significance more in-depth. In the the example of verb conjugation, the teacher would be able to provide acronyms or rhymes that the student could memorize in able to be able to learn the endings of the verbs.

What it “boils down to” is that a native speakers gives the student a real life version of how the language would be used, whereas a teacher who learned the language is able to give the students more guidance on confusing rules or concepts. Personally, I believe the best option is a combination of the two. Students need the reassuring, clear guidance of a teacher who learned the language like they did, but they also need the exposure to accents and speed that the native speaker gives them in the classroom.

What do you think? Is one better than the other? Are there pros and cons that I haven’t pointed out that are important? Go ahead and chime in!

Welcome and Bienvenido on Chalkboard
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Language

Experiencing the World

As someone who studies a second language, it’s clear to me how important it is to know other languages throughout life. This is especially true when travelling, of course, but it is also important in our hometowns. This is because, as I mentioned in a previous post, there are many people living around us that speak and understand different languages than us. Knowing another language is not just about being able to get through a conversation, that is only one part of it. The bigger and most important part in learning a language, is becoming acquainted with another culture. Other than classroom learning, the best way to learn about a different culture is to immerse yourself in it through travel, which is one of the reasons that travelling is so popular!

When travelling, knowing multiple languages is best, but knowing one and a half is better than nothing. In my experience with learning Spanish, I’ve had a couple opportunities to use the language outside of school, and it really helped me appreciate the importance of the skill. For example, I was in line at a coffee shop and there was commotion with the people ordering ahead of me. It turned out they were trying to place an order in the handful of words that they knew in English. I figured out they were speaking Spanish and I introduced myself to them, offering to translate for them. It was pretty complicated for me, as I wasn’t used to the thick accents, but I got through it. I felt great about what I did, but the most memorable part of that experience was that I was able to help out someone that was living in an environment that was totally foreign to them. They were grateful for my help, and that was the best part of the entire experience. It is something that I still think about, even years later.

That proved to me that knowing another language is so important, because when you don’t understand what is going on around you, or if you aren’t able to connect with what is happening, you feel alienated and very alone. Even knowing how to say “please”and “thank you” in multiple languages is enough to make a vacation work. That being said, knowing the basics of a language before you travel to a new location is a sign of respect for the people living there. Even if, when ordering a coffee, you make a big mistake and order something completely different from what you wanted, it isn’t a big deal because the waiter or waitress knows that you don’t know a lot of the language, but the fact that you are attempting to speak it anyway means you are trying to connect to them.

Being human is all about connecting with the people around you, and knowing multiple languages (and not being afraid to use them!) enables you to interact with a bigger pool of people. Essentially, operating in more than one language allows you to be part of a bigger, more fulfilling world.

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Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com (Google) “Everyone smiles in the same language” (Spanish)
Language

I Can Understand You!

You never know what you will encounter when you venture to the grocery store or a movie theater. In a lot of places, we all hear languages other than our own being spoken. It may be confusing, intriguing or annoying (depending on your point of view) but most of us are used to it.

The most amazing thing about living somewhere like that is how much comfort we take in thinking we are alone in our own little world. Specifically, it’s shocking how we assume that no one can understand us if we are speaking French while the other people in the crowd are speaking Spanish. We feel like we are superior to the other people around us and that no one can touch us in our little French bubble.

The truth is, a growing number can understand and just because someone may not be speaking French, it doesn’t mean that they don’t understand French. Despite this common knowledge, however, we still feel safe in speaking other languages in public. Specifically, insulting other people.

Imagine you’re in a grocery store, debating between two wonderful tomatoes, when some random person elbows you out of the way. They are angry that you have been standing in front of the stand for five minutes picking which ones you want. Sure, we can all understand where they’re coming from, but we all do it! This angry person stomps away, grumbling in Spanish, about how stupid you are and that you should learn some manners. Though you live in a French environment, you can understand Spanish quite well, and you find this person offensive. Understandably, you throw the tomato at them, and soon there is a full-on food fight that is only broken up by the security guards ten minutes later.

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As in this situation, we all think that no one around us can understand what we say if we say it in a different language. But, languages are moving around the globe. The odds are greater that someone will understand whatever language you speak, because languages are becoming more popular in school systems. Even if someone doesn’t speak the same language you speak, they may speak one similar that allows them to understand you.

Take an example from my life: I was waiting at the bus stop and a car stopped beside me, asking for directions to the local mall. They spoke to me in French, which I don’t speak, but I do speak Spanish, so I was able to understand most of what they said. I explained that I didn’t speak French (which is the only bit of French I do know) and then proceeded to direct them in Spanish. There was some minor confusion and complex hand motions, but it got the job done.

My point in all this is that no matter how uncommon your language may be in any given area, the odds are good that someone will understand you. So, next time you want to call someone stupid, or gossip about what they’re wearing, make sure you do it out of ear shot, otherwise you may find yourself covered in tomato juice.