As a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about language. It’s something writers do. One thing that’s helping me think about language right now is thinking in a different language.
People in high school or college language courses say, “I really didn’t learn English until I tried to learn (insert foreign language).” In a lot of ways, that’s true. As a high school or college student you’re working on the mechanics of English and learning another language makes you think about the basic mechanics. But there’s a deeper level.
The basic mechanics “learn English by learning another language” method is great for reminding you what a noun is, what a verb is, and maybe even the clinical definition of an adverb or gerund. There’s lots of “Ok, this piece goes here…” But if you want to really learn language and learn to use your language, take the next step. This piece goes here, but why does it go here.
I’m not quite six months into learning Japanese. One difference between Japanese and English is that in Japanese you don’t use you or I as a sentence subject unless it’s really needed for clarity. Which leads to asking “Why is it necessary in this case but not that one?”
Japanese uses different accessory words. It takes a while to figure out why you’re using HA in one instance and GA in another. ‘O’ is easy to cope with (at first) it replaces HA in some situations and you just go with it until you realize there are other situations where O is correct and you’re not sure why.
Learning a new language can strengthen not just our basic understanding of the mechanics of language, but add to our thinking about why we use particular words in particular places. It helps us consider which word to use, in which place, and why we’re doing it.
To really understand a language, you need to learn to think in that language. Learning a new language gives us a basis for comparison for thinking about and thinking in our old language(s). it helps us to do the meta thinking about how our language works and primes us to think about different, and possibly better ways of saying what we want to say?
Better ways? Yes, better ways; ways of saying what we mean in the best way possible. That may mean being more succinct. It may help us paint word pictures with increasingly evocative imagery. It may help us find ways of communicating that stand out from what everybody else is doing.
When we learn a new language, we think about words, communication and how they work. When we ‘get out of the house’ and learn a really different language (one that has a different alphabet maybe) we expose ourselves to true diversity in thinking. When we explore ‘close to home’ languages (say a Spanish speaker learning French or Italian) we strengthen our ear and ability for fine grained nuance, for the things that are just slightly different but make such a big difference.
Leaning a new language is an excellent tool for expanding and refreshing our understanding of the words we use every day. That said, I should get back to learning Japanese. Good luck in your language adventures dear reader. I’ll see you next post.
(Now seriously… why does Japanese use a different numbers when you’re counting glasses versus when you’re counting forks…?)