Eskimo Nebula

Eskimo Nebula
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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Lookout for those language traps!

I love language and culture. I've studied a handful of languages over the years including: Spanish, French, German, Hebrew, Kiswahili, Japanese as well as smatterings of many others. As I said in my first post, I grew up bilingual and I guess it was from that moment in Kindergarten where I realized that most other people didn't speak two languages at home. It was probably one of the reasons why I always loved language/culture. I understood that there were many different worlds to explore and that language was the key to gates of the world.

It's definitely intimidating speaking to native speakers sometimes, but you cannot really learn a language until you practice conversing in the language. Whenever I would start learning a new language from scratch I would do my best to have some sort of immersion in the culture. I found literature and movies and music in that language and really listened. I've always felt that once you felt comfortable enough to joke in a language that you have achieved a great success.

It's really funny and sometimes embarrassing when you're learning a new language and your first attempts to converse lead to titters or looks of shock. There are some things that do not translate into other languages word for word or may not even exist at all. Even the most seasoned speakers do make mistakes and it's only fair to point out that to speak a language 'fluently', is a bit misleading because almost everybody makes mistakes in their own mother tongue. If you are a native speaker of English and have ever taken an A.P. English course you know the deadly list of grammatical 'sins.' Here's a link to a wikipedia article about commonly misused English words:

I admit that I am sometimes the 'grammar police' when I read/hear what other people write/say, but I do not have absolutely perfect grammar or punctuation in every situation myself; so I really shouldn't be so up in arms about it. There are still some sentences that I've heard that make me cringe though =p

If you're currently learning a new language or perhaps traveling to a different country; here is some information about 2 language traps that can lead to some interesting blunders.

Two language traps to which everybody falls victim are:

Homophones & Cognates


[hom-uh-fohn, hoh-muh-] Show IPA
1.Phonetics . a word pronounced the same as another but differing in meaning, whether spelled the same way or not, as heir and air.

2. a written element that represents the same spoken unit as another, asks, a homophone of x in English.

I can recall sitting in a middle school Spanish class listening to my teacher talk about her husband making blunders while he was at a restaurant in Mexico. She relished in the fact that he had once ordered jabón instead of jamón. Those are two very different things indeed. Jabón is the word for soap in Spanish. Jamón is the word for ham in Spanish. I know that from that time on, her husband never made that mistake again =)


[kog-neyt] Show IPA
1.related by birth; of the same parentage, descent, etc.
2.Linguistics . descended from the same language or form:such cognate languages as French and Spanish.
3.allied or similar in nature or quality.

You can say some pretty silly things when you are overly confident when using cognates. There may be some words in a language that exist, but they do not mean the same thing. Take for example the time when a few friends in France were at a fairly ritzy restaurant and one of them said apparently being very conscious about their dietary intake and insisting that they wanted bread without any preservatives 'Je voudrais du pain sans préservatifs.'

Their waiter's face had a look of shock and bewilderment because the term for condoms in French is 'préservatifs.' Oops! =o Indeed the patron would have been better off changing their phrase to
 ' Je voudrais du pain sans additifs.'

I don't know whether or not they made the patron leave or the if the waiter might have had some fun, but I'm fairly sure that if this person had some native French speakers sitting at the same table. They probably either hurriedly excused their friend or burst out laughing much to the chagrin of their blundering friend. =)

Despite the facts of high likely-hood that you will make mistakes while speaking your non native language; that should not be a deterrent for you to keep going. You will definitely learn from your mistakes and end up having a funny story to tell somebody someday.

'To have another language is to possess a second soul.'

                                                           - Charlemagne

When we travel or visit with different cultures; they really do appreciate it when you make an effort to speak to them in their own language. You may not say it perfectly, but it will make them smile and who knows you may make a new lifelong friend along the way =)

1 comment:

  1. Ah, homophones and cognates - either a plague or a pleasure. :) Agreed that nothing ventured, nothing gained. Making mistakes is necessary to master any skill.