On other languages…

February 2, 2015

So, having eulogised the English language the other day in this blog, I need to write a few words about my fascination with other languages. I have the kind of brain that is interested in the small details of similarities and differences, whenever these catch my eye (or ear). I read about languages, and attempt to learn them. So far, French is the only other language I can read and speak more or less fluently, and I’ve always marvelled at the ability to do this, and the picture I get of another country and culture because I can do it.

I love the way that, as one becomes more fluent in a language, one ceases to think or translate before speaking: the words just come out in the target language. One even begins to dream in the language. I think I’m approaching this stage with my German. I tell myself that I can get by in Polish, probably Italian and Dutch, and I have just begun learning Spanish, which is an interesting challenge as it keeps getting mixed up with the vestigial Italian…

Latin I learned at school, and I think the rigid grammar and the variability of word order have been most helpful in my wrestlings with other languages. It taught me that there was a grammar – a very different one – to English too, and linked me into the wonders of etymology.

French was challenging in terms of the sounds and pronunciation, being so different from English; just as that ‘th’ sound is so hard for non-English speakers, the slightly rolled ‘r’ in French was fun getting to know. German sounds so different, and the genders are a killer for me. I’m always amused by the ways the French and the Germans try to tame and regulate their languages, the Germans with their spellings and the French with trying to keep out alien (read English) words. Fortunately, we don’t, and couldn’t.

I love the liquid sound of Italian, and so far I love the straightforwardness of Spanish, though they do confuse themselves in my memory. Spanish pronunciation – particularly the b/v sounds – has reminded me of the ways certain languages just do not make some distinctions: the Japanese apparently find r/l difficult, and Russian makes little distinction between g/h, giving us a wonderful Shakespeare play called Gamlet… The spreading of the ‘schwa’ sound (sorry, cannot do phonetic symbols yet!) in English causes problems, both for us speaking other languages and for foreigners learning English.

I’ve made many attempts to learn Polish – as I should – and have failed thus far, for lack of a good teacher, partly. Polish pronunciation is actually very easy and logical once you know the sounds, it’s the grammar which is horrendous, making classical Greek (which I also failed at) look simple. There are genders, several cases, no articles, complex rules for plurals, and a verb system using perfective and imperfective rather than tenses, depending on the nature of the completion or not of the action, which can result in two totally different verbs to the same one in English… I was astonished to learn how many cases there are in Hungarian, but then discovered that it’s explained by the fact that they don’t do prepositions.

Alphabets based on Latin or Greek are relatively straightforward, but anything outside just looks bizarre. I am humbled when looking at a newspaper in Arabic, for instance, which says absolutely nothing to me, realising that millions of people can interpret it as easily as I can the front page of The Guardian. Scripts can look beautiful, especially some far Eastern languages like Thai; I find it astonishing that printed and written Russian use two quite different scripts; print I can transliterate, but written, no.

There’s been a lifetime of fascination and learning here, and I have realised that it’s important to me because language is about communication which is about being human. In my next existence, I think I would like to be a linguist.

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