Language learning is a curious personal journey through the mind of each individual speaker who you interact with along the way. There is a funny thing about the importance of changing your way of speaking not only in different situations, but for different people who you speak with. This is something that I’ve found to be necessary in effective communication. Even in your native language, if you aren’t speaking the ‘lingo’ then you could be misunderstood.
(This is the third article in the week series leading up to International Mother Language Day.)
I find that this notion plays out in a number of different ways. There are the most fundamental of things such as basic phrases that do not translate so well. In an earlier article, I told the story of a friend who was traveling in a place and walking with a person whom she had met from CouchSurfing. When having difficulty finding a post card stand, my friend said something to the extent of, “In the last place I visited, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a postcard stand, and here there are not any.” The girl who was showing her around looked at her in shock and somberly said, “Why would you throw a rock at a post card stand?”. That is lost in translation in real-time.
Communication is as much about adaptability as it is knowing the words. Effective communication requires one to be flexible and versatile by situation. I remember when I had just arrived to the UK and was exploring the city of Brighton while waiting for my ferry to France. I needed to use the bathroom and stopped in a café to ask if they had one. I asked the host, “Excuse me sir, do you have a restroom?” I thought I was being polite and effectively communicating what I was looking for. He looked at me with a blank stare for a few moments, then it came to me. I metaphorically reached into my brain and dusted off the old archive for Standard British English, then without thought turned on an accent and exclaimed, “Where’s the loo mate?” Without hesitation, he smiled and pointed to the back hallway.
In Spanish, there are a ton of words that just do not make sense if used in different contexts or out of the native country that they are spoken in. Perhaps, not even outside of a specific city at times. Spanish is a hugely diverse language in terms of how ‘living’ the language is by region. The dictionary for Spanish is definitely not sealed. There is a really clever song on YouTube called Que difícil es hablar el español (‘How difficult it is to speak Spanish‘ in English) that illustrates this perfectly. In the song, the singers walk you through the various accents and word changes by their country. I’m sure the same could be said for French, Portuguese, even Arabic as languages that are spoken in many countries geographically.
When I first began to learn Spanish I was using a program that happened to be written with a Mexican dialect. I thought I was using this proper word ‘tienda de abarrotes‘ to describe a grocery store, so I would always try to use it when I could. However, after using it with several people, in Spain and the US, I quickly realized that absolutely no one outside of a select few people in Mexico actually who use it, would know what that means. Words like ‘supermercado‘ or just ‘tienda‘ are much more universally accepted.
There are other words that could be extremely inappropriate if you are changing countries and still speaking Spanish. Like for example, the verb ‘coger‘. In Spain and some other countries it means ‘to take’, as in to take a bus or metro. However, in some Latin American countries the verb would be inappropriately out of context as it means the more vulgar version of ‘to have sex’ (that begins with the letter F :)). These are comically laid out in Que difícil es hablar el español song linked above.
In the south of the United States, we have our own way of speaking at times. There are some extreme dialects like Appalachian that are difficult for even a native English speaker to follow, but on average there are a few terms and words that distinguish a southerner from their northern counterpart. For example, we use a word to describe a group of two or more people called ‘y’all’. It is a contraction of you + all. Although it seems to be catching on in popularity, it is still predominately a southern thing. Other examples of things that we say are ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, profusely at times. I use it always when talking to someone older than me by at least 15-20 years out of respect for their age. However, when you say it to people who aren’t accustomed to it, they can get offended and think you are saying that they are old.
Localizing your speech does not have to only be verbal either. There are ways that one must localize their actions also. I had a long conversation with a friend once who happened to be a feminist. I in many ways agree with the feminism movement, but did not realize that chivalry would be offensive to a feminist until we had our talk. I am very used to opening the doors for women, giving up a seat for them, et cetera as that is a part of my native culture in Louisiana. If we do not do that, then we are being rude and/or disrespectful. However, to her, it was a sign that I wasn’t treating her as an equal. She did say that she had an appreciation for it because she understood my intentions, but said in other circumstances, it could be considered to be an inferior act.
The main goal of this article is a point of adaptability. Learning a new language is not just about mechanically learning a language. We often think, “how do you say this” in X language, but it isn’t always a matter of just inserting words. It is just as much about context and allowing a language to live. If it were about translating directly, then languages wouldn’t be so diverse, but they are. As a friend once told me, “every language has its rhythm you just have to find it.” I’d say the same thing about cultures.
Have you read my other articles on language learning?
Did you see these interviews with language lovers and polyglots?