Learn Words, Not Languages 3: Syntax

By now, you’ve seen many examples of words shared across different languages, both related to one another (i.e. German and English) and not. However, despite the title of these blog posts, helpful similarities between languages are in no way limited to words. If anything, syntax — the rules governing the order in which words must occur in a sentence to convey a particular meaning — is much more likely to be shared between any given pair of languages, even if they are only distantly related, or not related at all.

The best examples of shared syntax between languages are the ones that we generally don’t even notice: for instance, most romance languages allow you to mark possession using a preposition (usually de, or something similar), in exactly the same way as in English (this construction is used more widely in the romance languages than in English, but we can ignore that for the moment and focus on the similarities). When languages work this way, English speakers — native or otherwise — can simply follow the rules on the use of prepositions that they already know from English, without having to learn an entirely new set for the new language. The same thing goes for other languages with constructions that aren’t common in English: mastering the use of postpositions (i.e. prepositions that go after the noun) in Finnish will be much easier for a speaker of Hungarian, which uses them regularly, than it will be for someone who has never studied a postpositional language before.

Another good example is the “V2” word order seen in German. For those who aren’t familiar with it, in German, the verb of a finite clause must always occur second in the sentence — that is, after the first word or noun phrase, but before any others. However, what many people don’t realize is that this word order is also used in Icelandic — and although Icelandic follows V2 word order more often than German does, it will be much easier for a person already familiar with V2 word order as used in one of those languages to learn to use it properly in the other, or vice versa.

Even more so than with vocabularly, when you learn a new “exotic” syntactic pattern in a language you are studying, one of your first questions should be whether it is actually similar or identical to one you already know how to use fluently. Don’t assume that the language your teacher is using to communicate with you doesn’t include this construction in some form or other — it’s easy for speakers to not realize that a “new” construction is actually in use in their native or C2 languages, especially if it has a much more limited use in that language than in the target language. Just because a construction would be most accurately translated by a particular other construction doesn’t mean that that’s the comparision you should make to learn it — in many circumstances it also helps to compare it to familiar structures that don’t mean exactly the same thing, as long as you remain vigilent about not confusing the meanings.

In general, languages tend to have more in common than not syntactically. Don’t assume that the language your learning will use the same word order as the ones you already know, but rest assured that most constructions will probably have an analogue in your L1. And as always, practice makes perfect!

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