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!

Learn Words, Not Languages part 2: Loanwords

Loanwords get their own post, because there are so many of them. Remember how many languages in a particular region are often related, with much of their vocabulary either shared or semi-transparently related? Languages also have a strong tendency to “borrow” vocabulary from other (even completely unrelated) languages that they are in contact with, further reducing the amount of novel vocabulary to be learned from scratch in many new languages. Converting between the form of a word in one language and the borrowed form in another language is often simply a matter of applying a formula, and can sometimes be done on the fly in a pinch.

This is, of course, not a perfect solution, but nothing here is. You will still encounter numerous false friends, and sometimes the formula to get from one form of a word to another will be less obvious than it could be — a good dictionary is still an essential tool when starting a new language, and you shouldn’t rely solely on your instincts to determine a word’s meaning, even if you are a linguist yourself. But in a pinch, reaching for an international word that might have been borrowed into your target language in some form can be a solution if you aren’t sure how to say something.

Note that a lot, although not all, of the international vocabulary discussed in the previous post falls into the loanword category. Many of the traits of loanwords can also be applied to cognates and other types of international vocabulary, and many of the “international” words that you will come to recognize became international by being borrowed from one language into another over a relatively short period of time. This is especially true with scientific terminology, which is often coined in a particular language — often English nowadays — and then exported whole cloth or as a calque to other languages. It can also pay to keep your eyes open for familiar brand names that may have become genericized in your target language, even if the original generic word would have been unfamiliar.

At a broader level, though: regardless of what anyone may tell you, linguistics and language learning are not unrelated, even though they are not simply two branches of the same field. Linguistics, and especially historical linguistics, is an incredibly useful tool when studying a foreign language, and even a little bit helps. One purpose of these posts is to teach a tiny bit of basic linguistics to language learners, in the hope that it will make their lives easier.

Now, a word of warning before you go out and assume that every familiar-looking word is a loanword with a familiar meaning: so-called “false friends” are very real, and words that resemble one another may have different meanings, even if they are ultimately related. For instance, the French verb demander is related to the English verb demand, but the former simply means ‘ask’. However, as the example reveals, you can often find at least some connection between the meanings of related false friends (i.e. demanding is arguably just a more forceful form of asking), so don’t discount etymology!

And one last thought: you should be looking not just at words borrowed into your target language from languages you already know, but also the converse — words in languages you already know that originated in your target language. Think about all of the French vocabulary that has made its way into English (often with a somewhat altered meaning) — if you dig deep enough, learning about those words will make learning French vocabulary much easier.

Learn Words, Not Languages, part 1: International Vocabulary and Structures

First things first: there are many, many words out there that have been borrowed into a wide variety of languages, making them almost universal in some parts of the world. Orange (the color), for instance, is recognizable in many of the languages of Europe, and the name of the fruit is common to a smaller but still significant number. Pineapple is almost always a variation on ananas in the West (with English being a major exception). Tea is some variation on tea or cha(i) almost everywhere, and many (although not all) scientific and medical terms are also in this category. If you get a sense of which words these are, and learn the ones not used in languages you already know, you can start a new language with a surprising amount of “free” vocabulary.

In a similar vein, figures of speech and other expressions are often shared across multiple languages. For instance, French and Spanish speakers (among many others) express their age by saying how many years they have, and language can be grouped based on whether they have a distinct verb to have or use a locative or possessive form with the verb to be instead. You will also run into calques and/or compound words that are formed similary in multiple languages — for instance, Finnish, German and Swedish all call a dictionary a “word book”.

If etymology is your thing, note that words that appear similar and have the same meaning aren’t necessarily related. For instance, the English verb to have and the Latin verb habēre both have the same meaning, and look very similar, but are ultimately unrelated etymologically. However, don’t let that deter you — if the similarity in shape makes one of those words easier to remember, take advantage of it! Learning the etymologies of such words, and the coincidental nature of their similarity, can even help strengthen the words in your memory, although if you aren’t interested in etymology and the technical side of linguistics, this may not be the approach for you.

Now, before you go off and start learning, a word of warning: don’t fall prey to false friends! There are plenty of words out there that sound similar, but have totally different meanings — or, worse, subtly different meanings that will distort your message in certain contexts. When in doubt, always check a dictionary or other reputable source to be sure of what a word actually means. Don’t say you’re pregnant when you’re just embarassed!

Learn Words, Not Languages: Intro

Having spent a lot of time learning various languages, I’ve decided to write up my somewhat unorthodox thoughts on the best language learing strategy for someone who ultimately intends to learn more than one language. While I hope that what I say here will also be useful to people who only care about mastering their second language, and don’t expect to ever study another after that, do bear in mind that my target audience is aspiring polyglots.

At any rate, my advice is this: if you want to learn a large number of languages, you should stop thinking in terms of learning whole languages, and start thinking in terms of learning parts of languages (which first and foremost refers to words, but includes grammar as well). Instead of studying French or German, learn how a French or German person would express the concepts that are important to you, and whether they would use vocabularly and syntax that you already know, or that you still need to acquire.

The reasons for this are manifold: in the modern world, many languages — even those that are in no way genetically related — have a certain amount of similar vocabulary due to borrowing, and many unrelated languages share similar grammatical constructions regardless of their relatedness or level of contact with other languages. Additionally, learning a new language requires you to break down that language and learn its component pieces (to some extent) separately, and if you can apply a piece to a new language that you’ve already mastered when studying another, that’s all the more effort that you won’t have to put in. Languages aren’t monolithic entities that have to (or even can) be learned in isolation, and there’s very little to gain by treating them as if they were.

Obviously, there will always be something new that you have to learn when starting a new language — it wouldn’t be a different language if it were the same as one that you’d already studied — but over time, you will reach a point where you start off on a new language already knowing most of the material that you will have to apply to speak it, having to learn only a subset of the vocabularly and a smattering of novel constructions and grammatical features.

Over the next few posts (no promises about the schedule at this point, unfortunately), I’ll be delving into each aspect of this in detail. Stay tuned!