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Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Niche Thoughts for the Lingo-Hobbyist


You probably remember the seismic event that was my blog post on prepositions. You probably think of your life in terms of Before and After the Preposition Post. But if you missed it, it’s still here on the interweb. And if you don’t care about grammar, this post will bore you, so bail now!

But if not, I’m about to rock your world with Ancillary Thoughts on Language Acquisition.

Definitions first! A language is a distinct way of conceptualizing and expressing relationship. If you’ve never thought of it this way, consider the word “on.”

If I tell you I am “on” a horse, you can probably picture that. I am not under it, or in it, but above it, and not hovering over it, but resting upon it. All those prepositions.  

On? En?عَلَى?

If I tell you I am “on” a mission, though, or “on” methamphetamines (God forbid), it’s actually less obvious what my actual relationship to missions or drugs is. “On” denotes a particular kind of relationship: a physically concrete one when it means “atop.” But it also includes a set of more abstract ones in the latter examples.

As I said in my preposition article, these relationships are not absolute. They don’t usually carry over into other languages as an immutable set (horses+missions+drugs). Particularly when the assignation is pretty arbitrary, there’s a good chance another language conceptualizes the relationship differently. So the full set of meanings will not transfer from the English “on” to its counterparts like “en” or “su” or “上に” or  “عَلَى.”

So you just have to memorize them, and my Preposition Post can help.

But I have another magical idea in store for you! And it works because the English language has so, so, so many words.

New Obscure Tip for Translation: 

When a foreign language expresses an idea differently than we do in English, find a closer English construction and use that every time. This will equalize the way you conceptualize the relationship in the language so that you more quickly assimilate the usage.

Two examples will help.

1.     1. Sometimes words are fungible. English expresses liking or enjoyment with ME at the center of the experience: I like hockey, I enjoy sushi. Many other languages put the likable thing at the center: hockey is liked by me, sushi is enjoyable to me. This means you have to flip your thought to translate it. What has always baffled me is that textbooks translate these constructions to the standard “I like hockey” form even though English offers better options. We have a less common, but understandable construction that perfectly parallels these languages (since it’s derived from them). If you were to translate “Mi piace gelato” or “Me gusta helado” as “Ice cream pleases me” you would never be confused again, at least about where I stand on ice cream. What a simple step that textbook writers never take!

(This post didn't lend itself to pictures. Please enjoy this sushi.)

2.      2. Sometimes which words take prepositions is idiomatic, not intuitive. In English, you may be able to find a better equivalent translation that helps you think more easily in the second language. In English, we usually say “I look at books,” and therefore expect something like “at” to connect you to the books. Or to put it differently, you would expect “books” to be the Object of a Preposition in this sentence, and “look” to be intransitive. But you could also say, “I observe books.” It would mean the same thing, eliminate the preposition, and make “books” a clear direct object. In Japanese, this is how the verb “to look” operates. So translating “look” as “observe” every time means equalizing the relationship so that you can assimilate meaning more naturally. 

      (I would at least do this early on, where general proficiency is probably more important than nuance. In some cases, nuance will eventually matter.)

I don’t know why textbooks don’t offer this kind of odd-but-direct translation, and the instances where they help are hard to anticipate or categorize, which is why this post is a lot more complicated than the trick itself. But the thing to take away is this:

If you are learning a language and the translate doesn’t work word-for-word, or pictures the relationship in a way that feels strange, don’t just trust the textbook translation. Shop around your English thesaurus. You may already have a construction in your vocabulary that makes quick sense of that foreign phrasing!


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