Why does the language have to be so weird?

Why does the language have to be so weird?

Benny

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!

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 […]

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  • http://www.facebook.com/rajithv Rajith Yashodha Vidanaarachchi

    The world would have been such a boring place if everything was the same! These differences are the main force driving me towards new languages.
    Let’s put it like this.
    Occasional similarities are like meeting a dear old friend in an unknown land. I love it when that happens. But if that land was full of dear old friends, you’ll soon lose the excitement of exploring.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Well put!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Well put!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Well put!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Well put!

  • Guest

    Another example is Hebrew. There is no word for “have.” To say “I have a car,” in modern Hebrew one would say “yesh li mkhonit,” which roughly  translates to “There exists to me a car.”

  • Guest

    Another example is Hebrew. There is no word for “have.” To say “I have a car,” in modern Hebrew one would say “yesh li mkhonit,” which roughly  translates to “There exists to me a car.”

  • Guest

    Another example is Hebrew. There is no word for “have.” To say “I have a car,” in modern Hebrew one would say “yesh li mkhonit,” which roughly  translates to “There exists to me a car.”

  • Guest

    Another example is Hebrew. There is no word for “have.” To say “I have a car,” in modern Hebrew one would say “yesh li mkhonit,” which roughly  translates to “There exists to me a car.”

  • Catherine

    I once read a really interesting theory about the loss of genders in English. According to this idea, when the Vikings invaded Britain their language was fairly similar to the Anglo Saxon of those already living here, but the grammatical differences made it harder for them to understand each other. When the grammar was simplified they could communicate with ease! Not sure how true that is, but it’s definitely an interesting idea…

  • http://lettersofgreenfinland.blogspot.com/ Ekaterina

    Because I’m totally obsessed with Japanese language and culture, all these differences are so interesting and help me understand how Japanese people think. 

    Sometimes I struggle with making a sentence in my native Russian, because in my head there’s a better way to say it in English, for example :)

  • http://twitter.com/AitorMB Aitor MahiquesBatall

    I want to do my little contribution. In russian doesn’t exist a simple present form for the verb to be, then for say: I’m rich you must say Ja bagati (lit: I rich) even more for exists a verb like “to have” but russians say something like (I have a car) U minya est mashina that literally is, on me exists a car. That’s the beautiful thing of languages, they tell us about the mind of countries. Sorry for mistakes.

  • http://twitter.com/AitorMB Aitor MahiquesBatall

    I want to do my little contribution. In russian doesn’t exist a simple present form for the verb to be, then for say: I’m rich you must say Ja bagati (lit: I rich) even more for exists a verb like “to have” but russians say something like (I have a car) U minya est mashina that literally is, on me exists a car. That’s the beautiful thing of languages, they tell us about the mind of countries. Sorry for mistakes.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      There’s no “to be” in Turkish either. ;)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      There’s no “to be” in Turkish either. ;)

  • http://twitter.com/AitorMB Aitor MahiquesBatall

    I want to do my little contribution. In russian doesn’t exist a simple present form for the verb to be, then for say: I’m rich you must say Ja bagati (lit: I rich) even more for exists a verb like “to have” but russians say something like (I have a car) U minya est mashina that literally is, on me exists a car. That’s the beautiful thing of languages, they tell us about the mind of countries. Sorry for mistakes.

  • Fernanda

    Hi, Benny. My name is Fernanda. You have a very interesting site, and you now my hsband ( from Brazil Road Trips blogs and the article about funny things Brazillians say) I’m going to use your tips to learn Dutch (but I thin Dutch doesn’t like me, so hard to understand it). Thanks for sharing your tips. Boa sorte com o blog e o Turco.

  • Fernanda

    Hi, Benny. My name is Fernanda. You have a very interesting site, and you now my hsband ( from Brazil Road Trips blogs and the article about funny things Brazillians say) I’m going to use your tips to learn Dutch (but I thin Dutch doesn’t like me, so hard to understand it). Thanks for sharing your tips. Boa sorte com o blog e o Turco.

  • Anonymous

    I like way you flip things around, Benny

    Learning a foreign language is like looking at a familiar room while standing on your  head. It gives you a new perspective, a fresh look at something well known.

    Suddenly the objects that you felt you knew so well become different, unusual and interesting.

    If you say  the words and phrases you are learning as if they are new sounds or rhythms, you can avoid the temptation of translating.

    “Tudo bem?” isn’t “Everything well?” It’s just one set of sounds you can make when you greet someone in Brazil.

    Let the sounds go through your head like a song. Nobody wants to repeat a phrase over and over, but everyone loves to listen repeatedly to a good tune.  If your knew phrases are songs, you’ll learn faster and have more fun doing it. Sing it!

    I think it’s cool that you can make a couple sounds and someone in Germany will hand you a beer.

    “Ein Bier, bitte!”

    Not knowing the literal translation of those words doesn’t make the beer any less refreshing.

    It’s a beautiful tune…

  • Anonymous

    I like way you flip things around, Benny

    Learning a foreign language is like looking at a familiar room while standing on your  head. It gives you a new perspective, a fresh look at something well known.

    Suddenly the objects that you felt you knew so well become different, unusual and interesting.

    If you say  the words and phrases you are learning as if they are new sounds or rhythms, you can avoid the temptation of translating.

    “Tudo bem?” isn’t “Everything well?” It’s just one set of sounds you can make when you greet someone in Brazil.

    Let the sounds go through your head like a song. Nobody wants to repeat a phrase over and over, but everyone loves to listen repeatedly to a good tune.  If your knew phrases are songs, you’ll learn faster and have more fun doing it. Sing it!

    I think it’s cool that you can make a couple sounds and someone in Germany will hand you a beer.

    “Ein Bier, bitte!”

    Not knowing the literal translation of those words doesn’t make the beer any less refreshing.

    It’s a beautiful tune…

  • http://yetanotherlanguage.blogspot.com/ Crno Srce

    You’re right – you need to get a feeling for the new language’s natural word order, and you can’t do that by thinking of word-for-word translations, though I find that comparing parallel translations helps you develop that feel without too much interference from your native language.

    I’m looking forward to a one month update on your turkish mission, Benny – keep up the good work!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      There are only 3 weeks left so I may save it for just one big update, followed by my usual summary of the language etc.

      • http://yetanotherlanguage.blogspot.com/ Crno Srce

        Fair enough… Though I was looking forward to some progress videos. It would be interesting to see how the end ability evolves over time to help de-mystify it.

        Then again, the two months mark is probably what I might consider my first progress checkpoint on a somewhat longer road :-)

      • http://yetanotherlanguage.blogspot.com/ Crno Srce

        Fair enough… Though I was looking forward to some progress videos. It would be interesting to see how the end ability evolves over time to help de-mystify it.

        Then again, the two months mark is probably what I might consider my first progress checkpoint on a somewhat longer road :-)

  • http://brookevstheworld.com Brooke vs. the World

    You are so right about putting the other language on the pedestal.  One of the biggest frustrations for me when I studied Russian a few years ago (besides the alphabet… and the sounds… and the irregularities!) was the construction.  You have to just forget your own language and take to learning it like a child.  I’m actually heading back to Kyrgyzstan for a month in November, and will be taking language lessons again (they’re so cheap there!), so I will be scanning your blog for tips that can help me get back in the swing of things while I’m there :)

  • http://brookevstheworld.com Brooke vs. the World

    You are so right about putting the other language on the pedestal.  One of the biggest frustrations for me when I studied Russian a few years ago (besides the alphabet… and the sounds… and the irregularities!) was the construction.  You have to just forget your own language and take to learning it like a child.  I’m actually heading back to Kyrgyzstan for a month in November, and will be taking language lessons again (they’re so cheap there!), so I will be scanning your blog for tips that can help me get back in the swing of things while I’m there :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Best of luck Brooke!! :)

  • http://brookevstheworld.com Brooke vs. the World

    You are so right about putting the other language on the pedestal.  One of the biggest frustrations for me when I studied Russian a few years ago (besides the alphabet… and the sounds… and the irregularities!) was the construction.  You have to just forget your own language and take to learning it like a child.  I’m actually heading back to Kyrgyzstan for a month in November, and will be taking language lessons again (they’re so cheap there!), so I will be scanning your blog for tips that can help me get back in the swing of things while I’m there :)

  • Jay_Belgium

    In Spanish there’s also a difference when putting the adjective before or after the noun:

    Eg. un gran cantante = a very good (big/popular) singer
    un cantante grande = a very big (size-wise) singer

    For me the subjonctive in French/Spanish was frustrating because it doesn’t exist in English nor in Dutch. But after a while you start appreciating the richness and nuance it can provide when expressing something.

    I agree with your suggestion: don’t “translate” too much back and forth, or compare with other languages. Just accept the new constructs as “normal”. With enough exposure and practise you’ll get a feel for the language and it will start feeling more and more natural.

    • Gus Mueller

      Ummmm, yeah, but. English does have a subjunctive, both jussive/exhortatory and the other kind.

    • Gus Mueller

      Ummmm, yeah, but. English does have a subjunctive, both jussive/exhortatory and the other kind.

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    The best way to get over this in my experience is pure exposure–if you’re only hearing the language for 10 minutes a day or something, of course you’re going to be translating it into your native language in your head.  I’ve found that I’ll do this initially for the first minute or two I’m listening to something and then I kind of “switch over” to Spanish and I’ll “just understand” what’s being said AS it’s being said, instead of having to translate it.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    The best way to get over this in my experience is pure exposure–if you’re only hearing the language for 10 minutes a day or something, of course you’re going to be translating it into your native language in your head.  I’ve found that I’ll do this initially for the first minute or two I’m listening to something and then I kind of “switch over” to Spanish and I’ll “just understand” what’s being said AS it’s being said, instead of having to translate it.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Someone else asked me that question on the forum- search for it! Basically I don’t have a set plan, but try to be open and make sure as many opportunities to practice come.

  • Chia Brain – Add knowledge and

    Great post. 
    I’ve been dabbling in Hindi lately which uses an SOV (subject-object-verb) syntax:

    English syntax: “I – ate – a pizza”
    Hindi syntax: “I – a pizza – ate”

    While this seemed strange at first I made sense of it by thinking of it as setting up the “actors” (the subject and object) on a stage before describing the action (verb) that took place.

    English syntax: “Romeo – kissed – Juliet.”
    Hindi syntax: “Romeo – Juliet – kissed”

  • Chia Brain – Add knowledge and

    Great post. 
    I’ve been dabbling in Hindi lately which uses an SOV (subject-object-verb) syntax:

    English syntax: “I – ate – a pizza”
    Hindi syntax: “I – a pizza – ate”

    While this seemed strange at first I made sense of it by thinking of it as setting up the “actors” (the subject and object) on a stage before describing the action (verb) that took place.

    English syntax: “Romeo – kissed – Juliet.”
    Hindi syntax: “Romeo – Juliet – kissed”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=31112322 Kyle Corrie

    Speaking of guess work… Why does the verb or separated prefix have to go at the end in German? :) They make me wait until the end to know exactly what action is being taken.

    I’m being facetious, of course. However, I would be interested in hearing from you about its practicality/impracticality.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      You know English also has separable verb-preposition combinations, right? It doesn’t go to the end of sentences necessarily, but it is separated by several words and this can be quite confusing. In this sense I find English and German to be very similar, but German is much more consistent in how it does it.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=31112322 Kyle Corrie

        Sure, I’m aware of them in English and their counterparts in German (fragen nach, denken an, etc.).  However, I didn’t mention verb+preposition combinations at all.

        I was just curious if you had any comments concerning separable verbs. For example, “Er sah sehr gut aus.” To me, this is one of the stupider aspects of German grammar (a far second to weak nouns).

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

          English does have separable verbs. Not just verb+preposition, but the preposition actually separated from the verb, like
          “Work hard, and get your examination over with
          Switch the light off
          and many more examples. The only crucial difference is that German will put the preposition further away if there are more words in the sentence. So as far as I’m concerned both German AND English are equally illogical in this sense. Using it as an argument that German is weird is like saying German is weird because it uses the Latin alphabet too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=31112322 Kyle Corrie

    Speaking of guess work… Why does the verb or separated prefix have to go at the end in German? :) They make me wait until the end to know exactly what action is being taken.

    I’m being facetious, of course. However, I would be interested in hearing from you about its practicality/impracticality.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=31112322 Kyle Corrie

    Speaking of guess work… Why does the verb or separated prefix have to go at the end in German? :) They make me wait until the end to know exactly what action is being taken.

    I’m being facetious, of course. However, I would be interested in hearing from you about its practicality/impracticality.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=31112322 Kyle Corrie

    Speaking of guess work… Why does the verb or separated prefix have to go at the end in German? :) They make me wait until the end to know exactly what action is being taken.

    I’m being facetious, of course. However, I would be interested in hearing from you about its practicality/impracticality.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Constant practice means you won’t lose fluency ;) Search the site for “Any language anywhere” and you’ll see several posts that explain how to practise no matter where you are – and this is what I do!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Actually I wrote the body of this post for my e-mail list BEFORE I started learning Hungarian ;)
    But Hungarian structure is indeed helping me with my Turkish!