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  • Writer's pictureCarlie Sitzman MA, CT

5 Myths About Foreign Languages

With their native tongue functioning as a major lingua franca worldwide, many native English speakers have long enjoyed the luxury of not needing to learn another language to get by. As Tom Freston once said, however, “As your understanding of other cultures increases, your understanding of yourself and your own culture will increase exponentially.” The same is true if you replace “culture” with “language” in that statement. A monolingual life tends to obscure a person’s understanding of how language works and this is fertile soil for myths to take root. Read on to learn the truth behind five common myths about foreign languages that proliferate in the English-speaking world

1. Each English word has an equivalent

It is commonly believed that all English words have a direct equivalent in each foreign language and translation is reminiscent of a mathematical formula. If you plug in German word A, you get English word B every time. The reality is that language simply does not work this way. Language arises in the human brain and is as complex as the humans who use it. A word is merely a cluster of meaning and people in different cultures around the world frequently bundle meaning differently in their own languages. Whether or not snow is desirable or a personal home is considered a public place is entirely up for interpretation and different cultural viewpoints can be reflected in word definitions and usage.

This unique clustering of meaning is often the engine behind word borrowing. After all, if you find a word in another language that expresses something your language doesn’t have words for, why not just use it yourself? This phenomenon is seen in German, for example, with the use of the English word “sorry”. In German, you can either say the rather dramatic, heartfelt “es tut mir Leid”, meaning “it causes me pain” or polite and clinical “Entschuldigung”, meaning “excuse me”. The English word “sorry” is frequently used in German to mean something between “excuse me” and “it causes me pain”. Similarly, the German word “Schadenfreude” meaning “joy derived from damage or destruction” has been borrowed into English with its original meaning. The German word is pretty great already, so why invent a word out of thin air?

2. People are talking about me behind my back

Sometimes people do indeed switch to a foreign language in an English speaker’s presence to mask what they are saying. It is much easier to discuss annoying behavior with your friends when the perpetrator doesn’t understand what you are saying. It is important to acknowledge, however, that English speakers are not the focal point of every foreign-language conversation held in their presence.

One major reason foreign language speakers switch to another language in the presence of English speakers is that they are simply more comfortable using their own language. No matter where you are in the world, odds are that you will feel as if you are on shaky ground communicating in a foreign language. Speaking your own language is like coming home.

All of this will start to make a lot of sense if you consider that language is nothing more than a tool for communication. If everyone you want to communicate with speaks your native language, there is no reason to use a more difficult, unfamiliar language. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world. And it is simply a fact of life that most healthy people do not spend extended periods of time fixated on the shortcomings of others. So there is a good chance that the group of people speaking French nearby or the Spanish speakers at the grocery store are just minding their own business in a way that is comfortable and familiar to them.

3. Everyone speaks English

A large proportion of the world’s population does indeed speak English as a first or second language. What many native English speakers do not seem to realize is that there are also many people who do not speak English or who have learned it, not used it, and forgotten it. Among those who do speak English, some have very limited fluency. Furthermore, people are always much more comfortable using their native language for communication.

When you go on vacation to foreign countries, it may seem that everyone in the world speaks English. This is due to English’s status as a global lingua franca. Employers hiring in many touristy areas know they need employees who speak English, since you can’t really count on everyone having a knowledge of German, Portuguese, Italian, or whatever the local language is. English is a much safer bet. English speakers venturing off the beaten path will likely have difficulty communicating at all if they do not speak the local language.

4. People talk really fast in other languages

Many who do not speak a foreign language or who are just learning comment that people seem to speak especially fast in other languages. Although I am not aware of any definitive scientific studies on the subject, the experiences of language learners as they advance in their studies suggest that this is not the case. Speakers using another language just seem like they are speaking faster, because your brain is taking longer to process the words than it otherwise would with your native language.

5. Everything is worded exactly the same

In addition to many words lacking a direct equivalent in other languages, it is also important to recognize that words are often arranged and implemented very differently in other languages. Direct, active writing is preferred in English, for example, while indirect formulations are preferred in German writing. The wording of idioms will frequently differ considerably between languages, so where English speakers may say “I won’t beat around the bush”, German speakers might say “I won’t speak through the flower”. Expressions of time may even vary between languages. German speakers, for example, will often speak of the future using the present tense. In English, you must add a signifier such as “going to” or “will” in order to discuss future events.

Haven’t taken the plunge and started learning a foreign language yet? Contact me to learn how I can help you communicate more effectively in German and English.

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