Category Archives: Language Learning

Useful Words English Doesn’t Have

Anyone who’s ever started learning another language has come across words that just don’t translate into English. My favorites are ‘saudades,’ from Portuguese (meaning a feeling of longing, melancholy or nostalgia), and ‘gezellig,’ from Dutch (meaning a nice atmosphere, but also belonging and time spent with loved ones). Today, Slate published an excerpt from Lost in Translation that lists many more.

My favorite is ‘tretar,’ which apparently means a third refill of coffee in Swedish. This sounds like a very useful word! Go check out the original article to find some more useful words we don’t have in English. The accompanying artistic diagrams are very sweet too.

What’s your favorite word that doesn’t translate? Are there any words from English that don’t translate well to other languages?


Filed under Language Learning, Randoms & My Life

Is it a Language or a Cultural Problem?

“A speaker of variety A who is dismayed or annoyed because speakers of variety B do not talk like the folks back home does not have a linguistic problem but a cultural one, which can only be solved if one is genuinely willing to work to develop the ability  – which does not come naturally – to understand the other.”

– Milton M. Azevedo, in Portuguese, A Linguistic Introduction

This explains why people from different cultures get so frustrated with each other, and blame it on the language. It’s not always just the language that’s the problem 🙂

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Filed under Language Learning, Quotables

Surviving a Language Immersion, in 3 Steps

The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. [PD]

I write about languages because I’m interested in them. So yes, this post is kind of a general interest post, rather than a writing post, but I will start by putting in a plug for writers to learn a little of the languages of the countries they are writing about. After all, you wouldn’t want to be like Dan Brown, who reportedly mutilated French in the Da Vinci Code. (Though it was still a best-seller in spite of that – I guess the French just got a few chuckles at his expense!)

Anyway, here are three important things to do if you want to survive in another culture where you don’t know the language. I won’t claim these things will make you fluent, because it takes time and effort to make language come completely automatically. But following these tips will help anyone get a basic grasp of whatever language they’re immersed in. And if you happen to know any other hints, please share!

Without further ado, here’s what to do:


Step 1: Pre-Study:

Many people think it’s easier to learn a language by going somewhere that speaks it. They’re right, it is easier, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take work! And it’s even easier if you prepare a little beforehand, or you risk getting overwhelmed and giving up in the first couple days.  Do try to learn a little bit ahead of time, even if it’s just grabbing a couple CDs from the library and listening to them on the way to work. You will be surprised at how vocabulary you thought was useless actually is used by people who speak the language. It’ll give you such a comforting feeling to know you understand something, even if it’s just one word out of fifty. And it gives you a handy structure for you to slot in all the future vocabulary you will (hopefully) pick up in the country. It certainly helped me! For example, before I left for Brazil, I learned a bunch of tourist vocabulary, including the word for ‘change,’ as in, money. The word is ‘troco.’ And I thought, okay, might be useful when talking to cashiers and stuff. But when I got there, I discovered the verb for ‘I change’ is ‘eu troco’ – just like in English, change is a noun and a verb! That surprised me, because languages don’t always work that way. But it meant I learned two words instead of just one, and I never forgot those two words either.

Step 2: Take Courage: Okay, so you memorized the Spanish-English dictionary before you left for Mexico (not a strategy I’d recommend, but let’s say you did). Despite knowing all these fabulous words, chances are you will be filled with nervous apprehension when faced with the opportunity to actually use these words in front of a native speaker. After all, they’ve spoken this language way longer than you. You remember how you laughed at that recently-immigrated clerk back home who was completely confused even though you used very simple English. What if this Spanish-speaker laughs at you? Sniggers about that gringo to all his friends? Or worse, just stares at you blankly? How will you ever pluck up the courage to actually use the words you learned?

This is probably my weak area in learning Portuguese. I would probably know more Portuguese if I tried to use it more often, but I tend to revert to English whenever humanly possible. Or made-up sign language, if English isn’t possible. But a bucket of courage and a willingness to make a fool of yourself is a great advantage when learning a language.

Step 3: Listen: What, you thought learning a language was about forcing your mouth to spout foreign phrases? That’s certainly part of it, but it’s not much use if you pronounce them so badly no one can understand you. Just because a word is spelt with an ‘a’ in it, it doesn’t exactly mean the ‘a’ is pronounced the same as an English ‘a’. And how do you learn the difference? By listening to people who actually know the language, of course! This is so important, some language theories actually recommend only listening to the language phrases you are trying to learn for several days, before attempting to pronounce them yourself. By hearing it correctly in your head before you say it, you have a far better chance of being understandable. That said, everyone will always have an accent, unless you devote endless hours to training yourself to reduce it. But at least you can reduce your accent until your pronunciation is not painful to native speakers’ ears.


So there you have it. Any tips to add?


Filed under Brazil, Language Learning

How to Learn Languages

Why do we do it wrong?

Three languages


Knowing another language is a “good thing.” People love to emphasize this to the kids complaining about having to learn French/Spanish/whatever in school. Languages have frustrated and confused travellers and students ever since the Tower of Babel, and being able to communicate with other is always a useful skill. It makes you look sophisticated as a writer too, if you’re always inserting foreign phrases in your dialogue. However, you really want to know what you’re doing with this, or you could end up looking like Dan Brown, whose French and Italian in the Da Vinci Code is reportedly atrocious.

One major problem, as I see it, is that it is far too easy to go to a million language classes and never pick up the language at all.

The Problem, A Solution

This problem is especially obvious in Canada. Ever since our lovely Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, decided it would be nicer if everyone in Canada could speak both English and French, kids all over Canada have been given French in school. Our cereal was re-labelled Corn Flakes/Flocon de maïs, and our teachers promised us the possibility of a cushy government job if we ever mastered the language. Despite this attempt at immersing the country in bilingual labels, almost no one I know can speak French. Why is this? Because out west where I live, setting eyes on someone who speaks French is about as common as sighting a blue heron. It can happen, but not often.

See? The key to actually learning a language is using it.

Another example – in university, large numbers of students take Spanish because they never did manage to learn French in school, and the university makes you take upper-level French courses whether you actually absorbed any French vocabulary in your highschool days or not. Despite this, no one can speak Spanish either. I am currently taking Spanish, and the problem I see is that it consists mostly of equally clueless students talking to each other in broken sentences, interrupted by long English passages of, “is that right? I don’t know” or “What’s the verb conjugation for ‘estar’ again?” Which means, of course, that even though we use more Spanish in class than in we used French in French class, we’re probably just perpetuating each others’ horrible pronunciations and mistakes, because a professor with thirty students doesn’t have time to make sure each student has it right.

Then, by contrast, take my mother, who as a good little European, learned German, French, English and Dutch in school. She is by no means fluent in all of them. But the ones she had to actually use, she knows more of – meaning she could actually speak a little English before moving to Canada. In Europe, you’re far more likely to run into a German or French person who can’t communicate with you, than you are in North America. And then you actually use the languages you are supposed to know.

Creating Context is Crucial

Now, it would be ridiculous to suggest that no one can learn a language unless they know someone who speaks that language. Instead, what you have to do is find ways to make up for the deficiencies of your environment. Languages are learned best in some sort of context, so you have to create that context. Language recordings help, because you actually get to hear the language and not just your mangled mispronunciations of it. Music, TV shows and Youtube videos are great too, even if they’re incredibly difficult to follow at first. (If you do enough searching on Youtube, though, you can find songs with only about four lines, and the English subtitles underneath, if you really need too). You really need to decide what is important enough that you want to say it, and then figure out how to learn to say it. You may not, despite how many classes teach you this, actually want to describe your dog or your summer vacation in this new language. Maybe you’d rather know how to catch a bus, find things in a grocery store, or understand the vague directions to the nearest hostel. Or maybe you just want to write Spanish poetry, I don’t know. Start with what’s useful to you. Then, of course, you have to commit to putting enough time in every day using it, until you’ve actually got another language stuck in your head. The key is using the language, even if it means a lot of talking to yourself.

Language classes all too often are completely unrelated to the context of your life. When you walk through that door you speak Spanish, when you walk out you don’t think about the language again until you have to do homework. They love to teach you what everything in the classroom is called, and other long lists of vocabulary that is completely useless to you (when are you going to say ‘overhead projector’ to someone in Spanish?), but when you create your own context you decide what words you need to know. Not to say you can’t learn a language in class, because obviously people do. But, equally obviously, people don’t, too.

I’d say going to another country that speaks the language you are trying to learn is incredibly useful, because you’re surrounded by what you’re learning, and you’re always in context. However, it’s better to have a basic grasp of the structure of the language before you go, to prevent drowning in the language the first couple days you are there. It’s easy to show up with big goals and get absolutely overwhelmed at understanding nothing right away.

Most of all, I’d say that while printing off long lists of random words with their translation beside them, and memorizing them all, will teach you the language eventually, it’s not incredibly efficient.

Despite my endless list of problems and advice, I have to say that learning languages is fun. Obviously, I already am a person who loves words. But getting a whole new set of words to express your thoughts in – is there any greater excitement for a writer? Even if it makes you feel like you’re in kindergarten again!

Have you tried to learn a new language? Any tips and tricks that helped you?

As a side note, here is a video of some guy in England who absolutely astounds me by having mastered eleven different languages. I have so far only mastered a handful of words in three languages, and am completely un-fluent in all three. He insists, of course, that it gets easier the more languages you know:

How Do You Become Fluent in Eleven Languages?


Filed under Language Learning, Randoms & My Life

Un Bon Mot – Language Learning is Hard…

No language is justly studied merely as an aid to other purposes. It will in fact better serve other purposes, philological or historical, when it is studied for love, for itself.

– Tolkien, English and Welsh

 I’m thinking this is true, as my Spanish and Portuguese “fluency” languishes… It’s tough to learn languages, and I like doing it. It must be harder if you hate it and only do it because someone tells you it will be useful (as thousands of Canadian schoolchildren are told each year as an explanation for why they are learning French). Knowing languages is probably a useful skill for writers too, so that the foreign phrases they insert are grammatically correct – as well as teaching us what un bon mot means. But if you don’t enjoy it, you might not get far.

 Anyway, I’ve probably just hit the bottom for this semester, and that may be a reason for my lack of progress language-wise. It’s sad – I start each school year fresh off vacation and full of confidence, which always evaporates by November. But I always do survive. 🙂


Filed under Language Learning, Quotables