Why does the language have to be so weird?

This post was originally part of my introduction e-mails for the Language Hacking League (which you can sign up for on the right to get similar tips or links twice a month in your inbox after an introduction series).

Considering how I use Turkish as an example (but you can apply this tip to all languages), it seems appropriate to mention it on the blog now that I’m learning that language :)

Basically, one of the blog’s readers, Steve, had asked me how to get around having trouble translating to Turkish in his head because of it’s “strange” way of phrasing things. He told me that “I have a car” is actually expressed by saying “Arabam var” which is literally “a-car-my exists” or “My car exists”.

This issue of rephrasing and trying to translate directly from English exists in learning many languages, so this was my response to him over a year ago, with no knowledge of Turkish and now advice that I’m applying for real myself:

Put the foreign language on a pedestal, with your native language being wrong

There are turns of phrase that don’t work at all in other languages when translated from English. Even Irish for example would actually phrase “I have a car” as “There is a car to me” (word for word) from the example he gave me.

I find that trying to phrase the sentence in your mind in English and then translating that will always make it sound weird. You have to see things entirely from within your foreign language and get used to flowing through that language without word-for-word translations from English.

“My car exists” may sound strange at first, but when you think about it, it isn’t logical in English either!

How can the same verb be used to have a car, a cold, lunch, to have to do, to have the house painted and to have seen. It’s silly when you think about it! So in that case, a car existing as mine is way more practical than “having” it. I prefer to put the other language on a pedestal and see it as the better way to phrase the sentence ;)

Why do they have to have a masculine and feminine in French and other languages?

Forget the linguistic / historical reason that languages have noun genders. This is not so helpful to many learners. I have a different answer to the question:

It helps by adding in handy redundancy information; for example, if you are in a noisy bar or speaking on the phone and hear “la X verte” you are genuinely helped in narrowing down what that X is that you didn’t hear clearly, when you combine it with context. It’s more likely to be a car (la voiture) than a bus (le bus / l’autobus [m]) if the conversation is about modes of transport.

Anyone who studies digital communication or electronic engineering knows that data transmission uses redundancy in a similar way to combat noise and losses in systems – it’s just more efficient in non-ideal transmission environments. Most places I use languages are noisy and distracting so this trick has genuinely helped me on many occasions.

In English if you don’t hear the one word, the sound of other words around it (apart from a vs an) may not help indicate what it is. So having gender can be reframed as being “better”.

Why do adjectives have to come after nouns in Latin languages, and not before them like in English?

Well, surely the noun is the most important thing in the whole sentence! It should come first! If you say in English “I want to buy a big shiny new cheap….” while hearing all these words you still have no idea what the person is talking about, but in Spanish it’s “Quiero comprar un [noun] barato nuevo…” No unnecessary waiting!

These aren’t actually the linguistic reasons why the languages differ, but they are purely inventions I came up with to justify why the other language is better and exist just in my mind. They are not actual arguments to have with people (since you can retort them with why English or some other language is “better”). I’ll argue with people about why a language is easy because it can be a great motivator to realise this. Replying that it’s the hardest language in the world is wasteful and totally unproductive.

Whining about how different it is will get you nowhere. Rejoice the differences! Stop comparing it to English (or your native language) in an unhelpful way, and start trying to think in that language.

Reframe the language as being the most logical clever and beautiful way of phrasing things and with that positive mindset, you will find it a lot easier to get through it than when you had your filter set to pessimist.

Any thoughts on this? Share them with us in the comments!



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