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!

language-clipart-languages
Image Credit: http://www.clipartpanda.com/clipart_images/world-language-clip-art-59735143 (via Google)
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.

clipart bolt 1
Image Credit: http://www.clipartsheep.com (via Google)

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 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.

dictionary-page
Image Credit: bookriot.com (via Google)

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

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.

51
Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com (Google) “Everyone smiles in the same language” (Spanish)