Learning a second language (1)

[When you get older you know you have less time so you cut corners. In this case, the corner being cut is any attempt to follow up assertions with references. For the record, there are several articles on this subject in back-numbers of New Scientist, as there will be in several other journals.]

It seems to me that language is more essential for mental development than is sometimes recognised. For example, can concepts exist without language? We can see a dead body, if we are unlucky we can smell it too, but we cannot see death. Death is a concept. Without language it could not exist. This concept is not one likely to trouble the young child as she develops, but how about this one heard recently in a café? Sit nicely, Stephanie! What will young Stephanie make of that? Should she take the cake out of her ear?

If we compare the development of a child born deaf to one born blind we find that the deaf child develops more slowly as measured by the tests used in education. While the blind child will have certain limitations – colour words being an obvious example – he will otherwise pick up language in the normal way from his parents. This will not be the case with the deaf child who is born to hearing parents.

[A deaf child  born to deaf parents may well learn ASL or BSL which, though non-verbal, are clearly languages in their own right. The main disadvantage of this comes when dealing with the hearing, very few of whom have any knowledge these languages.]

And the hearing child can learn a second language, or a third. I have seen it suggested that this may cause confusion, but the evidence seems to indicate otherwise. If I could go back in time many years and choose to grow up in a bilingual household, that is what I would do. And not just because two languages are potentially more useful than one.

I would argue that the structures and vocabulary of a given language provide a frame of reference for understanding the world. The French speaker has one frame, the German speaker another. The bilingual person can try the picture out with one frame but replace it with another if she finds the world looks better on the wall. Or that the world appears to make better sense. And we take ourselves too seriously anyway: take away the frame and the world still exists.

Can being bi-lingual really change our perception? That well-known language scholar George W Bush certainly thought so when he astutely observed that the problem with the French was that they did not have a word for entrepreneur!

Or take this simple indication. Two groups of people were asked whether certain statements were grammatically correct or not. For example:

Apples grow on noses

People from both groups thought that this sentence was not grammatically correct, but fewer people in the bi-lingual group made this mistake. The fact that the sentence is nonsensical does not mean its grammar is wrong. (Think politicians.) With their experience of two grammars, bilinguals took more account of the structure of the sentence than their single-language counterparts.

There will no doubt be Inuit who have ninety-seven different words for snow. But leaving that to one side, here are some examples I have been faced with by others, three from German, one from Swedish.

I have heard it said that the German word ‘schadenfreude’ tells us something about the German character. In English we don’t have a word describing the joy we take in the misfortune of others but the Germans do. Fine, but while this may tell us a little about the German character it does not account for the Third Reich. After all, the same idea could be expressed in English using a phrase.

Which brings me to Adolf Hitler. My German teacher revealed to us, his long-suffering class, the secret of Hitler’s success. In German the custom is to put verbs at the end of the sentence. So when Hitler was addressing the massed ranks they had to listen all the way through each sentence because, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t know what the verb or verbs at the end referred to. German grammar assured him of an attentive audience. Is there any substance to this? I have no idea, and can see no way of putting it to the test.

On the off-chance a German reader chances on this post, here is a more positive example. In English we have the word ‘collapsible.’ This is not always a good quality in an object. Depending on where your arms are at the time, sitting in a deck chair when it collapses can be a painful experience. Our German friends, on the other hand, express the same concept from the other direction. For them the deck chair is zusammenlegbar – ‘put-togetherable’. Does that not indicate a better way of looking at it? Our German friends are so keen to put things together they keep making Volkswagens, Mercedes and BMWs.

Moving on to Swedish, perhaps my most provocative example. Look away if you are likely to be offended or, alternatively, switch off your set. In English we might say ‘The woman kissed her husband’, and listeners would be suffused with a warm glow at the thought. Nice woman. Friendly woman. Matrimony. Nothing to beat it it. The Swedes, however, realise that there might be a problem here. ‘The woman kissed her husband’ does not tell us whether she kissed her own husband or someone else’s. (For further compromising details, refer to volume three of my autobiography, I Married A Swedish Masseuse.)

So these cunning Swedes have two ways of expressing this:                                          Hon kysste sin man –  She kissed her husband (her own husband)                                 Hon kysste hennes man – She kissed her husband ((some other woman’s husband)

It is always good to be precise, don’t you think? For the avoidance of confusion.


5 thoughts on “Learning a second language (1)

  1. Lots to interest me here. Bi-lingualism is most definitely good for the brain. Infants being reared bi-lingual are marginally slower to produce speech, but quickly catch up and have two complete languages to hand. The bonus is that they also have a marginal protection against some forms of dementia. That is they show a significantly delayed onset in comparison with matched mono-lingual subjects. The reasons were not fully understood when I last read up on the subject, but is likely to be to do with the enhanced number and complexity of the connections and perhaps with reduced pruning of spare capacity in the infant brain. Personally, I don’t think you need to know or use words to create or understand concepts. Although we (as hearing individuals) think of non-verbal languages as matching verbal ones, they are actually word-free, but yes, I agree that they are languages. Fascinating subject, but I’d better stop.

  2. Great comments, Hilary. But please don’t stop. I have had a second part on the stocks for some time and hope to complete it before I die.

  3. I’ve been immersed in language learning since starting at the conservatoire, I really wish I’d started a lot earlier, I have friends from Russia, Romania, and Germany to mention just a few and their English is fabulous which I think is part of the problem for us. I had a four hour drive back up to Glasgow this afternoon and listened to my language cd broken up with music for a couple of hours, lots of catching up to do.
    I enjoyed your post 🙂

    • I’m assuming the languages you’re learning are probably music-related: French, German, Italian?
      I hope it all goes well.

      • Yes we do Italian first year, German second year and French third year. I also sing in Czech and need to get my head around Spanish but I thought that would be a little easier after learning French next year as they both have a Latin base. Thanks Rod 🙂

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