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Build a basis for language learning.

September 4, 2014

1. Introduction

My first advice to anyone wishing to learn a number of languages (or in fact any more languages at all) would be to know and analyze one’s native language thoroughly. A person’s native language will serve as his or her most basic tool in language acquisition, and the better the person knows that language the better equipped he or she will be.  Vocabulary allows for cognates, and often true cognates may involve words which are obscure or archaic in one or the other language. Without a solid command of the grammar and syntax of one’s native language, understanding of the grammar and syntax of foreign languages will prove far more difficult, even if not entirely impossible. Basic grammatical concepts are clarified and comprehended more readily via concrete example which will tend to be clearest in one’s native language. The notions of linguistic context and language evolution will also be best exemplified by one’s native language.

English is my native tongue. Clearly I do not remember learning English. From watching my own children, I have come to the view that children when learning to speak are simultaneously forging new mental pathways; they are leaping a mental gap between creatures who cannot think in words and those whose thinking is dominated by the vehicle of language even while using that vehicle to encompass broader ways of thinking.

2. Vocabulary

A native speaker of English is at a relative advantage in learning languages compared to native speaker’s of many other languages. Not only is English a global language so that many languages borrow words from it, but it also borrows much more frequently than a number of other languages. Thus, for any given language, the probability that at least some true cognate words (i.e., ones where the connection is real and not merely misleading) will exist in that language, either natively or by virtue of borrowed words going one way or the other. Of course, more often than not, borrowed or otherwise cognate words will have differences in in meaning, sometimes fairly subtle and other times not. The more and finer shades of meaning one knows for a word, the more likely one is to make a mental connection which may not be obviously. While attempts to quantify the number of words in the English language given a ball-park figure of a million (give or take a quarter million) the typical amount of vocabulary used in daily speech is closer to two thousand. Hence a person familiar with most of the words in the modern English language has far more words with which a connection might be made than a person whose vocabulary resembles typical day-to-day speech due simply to numbers.

An example can be found in the differences in meaning for the word Mentsch in German and in Yiddish. In German, the word Mentsch means simply a human being or a person. The classic short story by German author Hermann Hesse Ein Mentsch mit Namen Ziegler has an evocative title because the word Mentsch in its title suggests simultaneously that the title character Ziegler is an everyman and that perhaps the most or best that can be said about Ziegler is that Ziegler is a human being at least. By contrast, in Yiddish, the exact same word Mentsch means a good or admirable person. A common Yiddishism in English-speaking (Ashkenazic) Jewish circles is to say, “So-and-so is a real mentsch!” as praise of the person referred to’s character. (One should notice therefore that the Yididsh word exists in English too.) On that basis, I have more than once heard people contend that the word Mentsch is either Yiddish or German is a false cognate. They are in fact as close cognates as one can possibly get in that they derive from the same word in the same language (Middle German). In English, human being is most often used only to refer to a member of the human species, but in less common it is also used to praise someone. One might say, “So-and-so is a genuine human being,” admiringly. Without the vocabulary to know the less common usage of the phrase human being in English, one could not make the connection.

Grammar and syntax

Some words with hwair (Ƕ, ), from Grammar of t...

Some words with hwair (Ƕ, ), from Grammar of the Gothic Language (1910) by Jospeh Wright (1855-1930). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Grammar and syntax are ways of describing a language. If grammar explains how to link words together to form clauses or sentences, syntax then explains how to link clauses or sentences together to make paragraphs, discourses, etc. Many people think of proscriptive grammar when they think of grammar, the kind which aims to tell people how a language should be used (e.g., rules like “No dangling prepositions” or “First person pronouns go last in a series”). Linguists and philologists more often use descriptive grammar which aims to characterize the patterns people actually do you in a language rather than want by some standard they ought use. Naturally such descriptions may not be unique, but they are useful if they work.

For example, as a boy in American schools, I was taught that English has eight parts of speech: 1. nouns, 2. pronouns, 3. adjectives, 4. verbs, 5. adverbs, 6. prepositions, 7. conjunctions and 8. interjections. Within the category adjectives, articles– both definite and indefinite articles— were treated as a special sub-category. Nouns represent people, places, things and ideas. Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns. Adjectives describe nouns or more rarely pronouns. Verbs describe the action or state of being of the nouns or pronouns. Adverbs describe verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. Prepositions are words that take nouns or pronouns as objects and make phrases which then act as either adjectives or adverbs. Conjunctions link a series of words of the same type or clauses together. Interjections are particles mostly (in English) used for emphasis. Growing up in Ireland, my wife learned a different system. Yet I find that with some modification, the system I learned as a child works remarkably well for every language I have encountered. One major modification is that I would use the term particles in lieu of interjections. Also in many languages it is helpful to group adjectives and adverbs as modifiers but also to distinguish between articles and other adjectival modifiers; articles are often treated differently for one thing.

A foreign language textbook is going to talk about nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc., and if a person does not know and thoroughly understand these terms one will quickly get lost. Studying a foreign language without thoroughly understanding grammar can be compared to trying to study algebra without knowing one’s multiplication tables.

Language history

Knowing the history of one’s own native language and one’s target language helps tremendously with identifying false cognates and hence with knowing when to trust cognates to be genuinely related. English in its most ancient form, Old English (sometimes called Anglo-Saxon, although this is regarded as referring to a population group anymore), was originally mutually intelligible with Old Norse, a Germanic language of Scandinavia. As Old Norse developed into those dialects which became the modern Scandinavian languages, Old English was sometimes itself regarded as such a dialect, albeit perhaps a more radical one. (The influence of the Celtic languages previously dominating England is remarkably small under the historical circumstances.) After a time, a group of Danes came and settled in what became known as the Danelaw and so added the Danish dialect evolving out of Old Norse to the mix which was Old English. Finally, the Normans imposed Old French as the language of government and culture, bringing with it influence of Latin and Greek.

To see how this knowledge can be useful in language learning one considers a true and a false cognate with the English word (a noun) man. German has the pronoun man which is used like the pronoun one for an arbitrary person, as well as the word Mann which means exactly the same as the English noun man. Spanish has the noun mano meaning hand, which has counter-parts in virtually every Romance language. Now let’s imagine our language learner has difficulty remembering which of these similar words is which. German is far more likely to be cognate with English for a common noun like man than is Spanish because English and German are both Germanic languages and share a common history to a far greater extent than English does with Spanish. (Within German, one might remember that nouns are capitalized but pronouns aren’t.)

Final remarks

Formal study of languages in descriptive terms allows a person to use one language to better help learn another. This kind of study uses linguistic patterns.If one understands these patterns, one should naturally be able to see how they apply to the language one naturally knows best, one’s native language. Hence conversely not knowing how those patterns apply to one’s own native language implies that the patterns are not as well understood as they should be. The purpose of grammar, etc., is to make learning languages easier but one does need to put in the effort to learn the grammar in order to benefit.

Vocabulary is a pool of words to draw on when learning vocabulary. The more words one can mentally recognize as essentially familiar, the less work one has to do learning vocabulary. The catch of course is that one reduces the work of learning foreign vocabulary by learning English vocabulary. The latter should be easier to do though.


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