Friday, October 9, 2009

Language Barrier

I never knew how much meaning I attach to the very syllables of the English language, until I started to learn French. I took two years of German and a year of Latin in high school, but this is my first language course where I have endeavored toward the eventual end of fluency. To speak by translating every word in my head is utterly inefficient, and could not lead to knowledge of the language, so I have been working to skip the step of mental translation and associate pure meaning directly with the words.

But how difficult this is! I did not know how much is held on the word, that single-letter word "I," until I tried to move that weight to the French "je." Such a heavy weight on such a deceptively tiny word! The prepositions cause less trouble, such simple words with simple meaning. But "room" I cannot reconcile. Those four letters create four walls before my mind's eye. "Salle" does not, to me, compare, does not build that tiny architecture in my head. It is abstract, it falls flat, it is meaningless. And never mind "word" itself! "Mot" is not "word." "Mot" is applesauce. "Mot" does not at all say "I am a tiny mess of letters that can mean so very much if you properly understand me."

I see why it is that as people get older, languages are harder to learn. It is not a lack of memory, some failing of the brain or tongue. It is simply too many years of colors and people and places and lines, too many years of habitual and unconscious association, to copy from every word of their mother tongue to the sister words of another tongue.


Scaevola said...

The key is you must forget English in its entirety. No more must "sun" be "sun" or "moon" be "moon" - they must just become objects in the vaults of the mind without word associations. It is difficult to do, but is a skill worth acquiring or else acquisition of language will become nearly impossible to a desired degree. Try this for as long as it takes, and soon "Salle" will mean "room" more than "room".

Rae Botsford said...

But then, how would it be possible to know multiple languages fluently?

Scaevola said...

Because the words, while still having direct links to words in other language, represent concepts. In English, we say "the chair", in French, we say "la chaise", in German we say "der Stuhl" - they all mean in English "the chair", but the French and German concept of "chair" exists without needing English to be present.

So, you think in terms not of "La chaise? Oh, yes, that means 'the chair'", but rather in terms of the concept. A chair is a chair whether or not there is a word attached to it. Ergo, think in terms of chair - not in terms language, per se.

It might just be how my mind functions, but to successfully learn another language, the brain must be like a computer that contains multiple operating systems. You have to partition the mind so as to think in only a certain way when needed. That way, when you're speaking in French, you don't necessarily translate in your mind into English to understand meaning. Rather, you piece together concepts and ideas that words represent in the mind in French.

The easiest way to do that is to take things which you can vividly imagine in the mind. Take the French word "nuage" meaning "cloud". Think not "nuage equals cloud", but rather imagine the object of the cloud itself when you say "nuage", removing any English wanting to enter telling you that "this is a cloud!" Or think of a butterfly! The word "papillon" is the French word which represents what we know as butterfly. However, when imagining "un papillon", think not "un papillon - that is a butterfly!", think simply "le papillon" and let it fly into the that certain realm of mind!

Rae Botsford said...

Gotcha. That is, indeed what I have been endeavoring to do! It has been harder than I expected though haha

Scaevola said...

Haha, just give it time. You didn't learn English in a day (in fact, I find myself still learning the language even after 18 years!), so just give languages the time they deserve to grow. It might be onerous sometimes, but at least it's not odious!