Lessons from Learning Languages

Courtesy of ASU

By Bryce Bower, Co-editor

According to John Algeo and Thomas Pyles, authors of The Origins and Development of the English Language, if one includes scientific terminology, suffixed and prefixed words, technical jargon and some foreign terms, the English language contains upwards of 1 million words. Compare this with the German dictionary that has 330,000 words, the Royal Academy of Spain’s dictionary with 93,000 words, and the Hànyǔ Dà Cídiǎn’s (Comprehensive Chinese Word Dictionary) 370,000 words. If you are looking to learn another language these numbers may seem scary, but I promise you they aren’t. Many foreign language acquisition books and websites say that you only need to know around 3,000 words (depending on the target language) to understand 90% of communication.

I did my undergrad in International Communication, and in a few of my classes we discussed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This is probably my favorite thing I learned in college (even though it isn’t considered a bona fide scientific theory). The hypothesis states that “the structure of a language determines or greatly influences the modes of thought and behavior characteristic of the culture in which it is spoken.”

Location of the Amondawa Tribe. Courtesy of The Daily Mail

For example, the Amondawa tribe in Brazil has no language that describes the past or the future. There are no words for the passage of time or quantity of time. Therefore, they don’t have an “age,” but refer to themselves using different names depending on what stage of life they are in. As the French scientist and writer François Le Lionnais wrote in “The Orion Book of Time,” the language of Hopi Native American tribe has two words for time, “sooner” and “later.” They view life as a single event.

One of my professors in undergrad spent over 2 years in the Philippines working with the Peace Corps. On the island where he lived with his family, people never said “goodbye.” They assume they will see each other again soon, so saying goodbye is seen as insulting– implying you do not want to see them again. Learning about a foreign culture and understanding the language behind it gives you another way to look at life.

A Shield Toad. Courtesy of Buzzfeed

I groan internally when Americans insist that they have no reason to learn another language because “everyone else in the world learns English.” There is beauty in learning another language that cannot be found in English. In French you don’t say “I miss you,” you say “you are missing to me.” As if the person you miss is a part of you — a physical longing. German has my favorite way of naming animals. A tortoise is “Shield Toad,” a sloth is literally the words “Lazy Animal,” a porcupine is “Spike Pig,” and a slug is called a “Naked Snail.”

Being at Thunderbird and hanging out with people from other countries has taught me a lot about the English language. I was watching a movie with people from America, Iran, the Netherlands, and Taiwan. In this movie, a psychologist and her patient are on a date at the harbor, and they jump into the water and kiss. My friend from Arizona shouts, “That’s illegal!” (referring to the unethical practice of a doctor being romantically involved with her patient). The other three were very confused by that comment, saying, “Is there a rule in America that you cannot kiss in the sea?”

The “illegal” scene in question. Courtesy of Ace Showbiz

Even though English has so many words and is considered a low context language, there are still situations that absolutely need context. I personally have made so many mistakes learning other languages abroad that it is easy to empathize with international students who occasionally make mistakes in English. People often hear stories of those wanting to learn Spanish and trying to say “embarrassed.” “Embarazada” actually means “pregnant” in Spanish; this is what linguists call a false friend or false cognate — two words that sound the same in different languages but mean completely different things. Along the same vein, the English filler sound “um” in Turkish is a very vulgar term for an aspect of female anatomy. Mistakes like these are easy to make, but can be pretty serious.

While embarrassing, making mistakes is also one of the best ways to remember a word. One day when I was in France, the pastor at the church I went to was driving me and some friends into town. It was a warm autumn afternoon. While wanting to ask if I could lower the window in the car, I accidentally asked the pastor if I could fornicate with the window. He was very surprised, and questioned if I was sure I wanted to do that in front of everyone else in the van. I didn’t. The difference was as simple as switching a “z” sound for an “s” sound in the middle of the word.

In Germany my friend asked me if I wanted to eat dinner. “No thanks,” I replied, “I am going to snack on these condoms.” Despite “Kaugummi” meaning chewing gum and “Gummibaerchen” meaning gummy bears, saying “Gummi” by itself is a slang term for condom — not a generic term for gummy candies. Who knew? In Spain I was trying to ask this girl if she was single, but I mixed up “soltera” with “soldada” and ended up asking her if she was “military service payment”. She wasn’t. (But she was single!)

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