My daughter and I were talking today about the things that have been sent back and forth on my blog about speaking in foreign languages today, and she had some really good insights that I decided to share with you. To begin with, she spoke Romanian before she spoke English, and then she switched to English, and English took over, and Romanian became something she loved, but was in the back of her brain. She speaks a little Japanese that she picked up from playing with Japanese children and because I gave her a Ferbie that spoke Japanese, a kind of furry toy that is supposed to slowly learn to speak. She is also fluent in Korean. She has gone as far as a foreigner can go in Korean, level six. She attended a language school at one of the Ivy League universities in Korea, Seoul University. When I enrolled her there, I had no idea the reaction that people would have to her having attended Seoul University, but I have found out that if you go there, in Korea, everyone thinks you must be smarter than everyone else. She had some very interesting observations to say about language today that I thought were worth sharing because I knew she was right.
She says that when she speaks Korean, it doesn’t matter how well she has done on paper or how well her Korean teachers say she speaks Korean or how good her grammar is. She has discovered there are Koreans who still don’t want to speak to her in Korean even though they can’t speak English. They still prefer a translator. They want to hear a Korean speaking Korean, not an American speaking Korean. I have noticed that too. They are being honest about their feelings. They are just not used to foreigners speaking Korean, and it is strange for them. The difference between a foreigner speaking Korean or some other language and a foreigner speaking English is that lots of people speak English, but very few English speakers learn obscure languages, especially ones like Romanian and Korean. When I was in Romania, I was talking to an old woman in Romanian and she was just ignoring me, and then all of a sudden she looked at me, and her eyes got really big and she said in Romanian, “You are speaking Romanian!” It was a shock to her system to realize I was speaking Romanian because she knew I wasn’t Romanian. Koreans just call for a Korean who speaks English to translate because they don’t want to deal with a foreigner speaking Korean. It takes patience to listen to a foreigner speak your language.
Anyone, no matter how good they are in a foreign language, is going to do something funny to the language when they speak it. It could be pronunciation. It could be grammar. It can also be categories of thought and thought patterns. When you speak in a foreign language, you are not thinking like someone who speaks that language as a first language, and even if you get the grammar and the pronunciation right, you are still thinking like someone who speaks your mother tongue. English speakers are used to people butchering our language, and we have patience and just put up with the funny pronunciations and the grammar slip ups, but people of other languages are not as used to other people learning their languages. I have actually appreciated the attitude of the Spanish speakers on my blog because I know that Mexicans get really aggravated with Americans who study their language in high school, travel to Mexico, and then butcher their language, but the people who speak Spanish on my blog have been very kind to me. No one has said anything rude, and they don’t criticize me.
As for Japanese, I used to have a friend in Japan, and we wrote back and forth all the time, and I wrote to him in Japanese, and he wrote to me in English. I know that at times, my Japanese becomes difficult to understand because he would write back to me saying, “I think I understand what you wanted to say.” However, he really didn’t want to speak English or do anything in English even though he could. When we were together, he was so lazy he taught me a lot of Japanese just by chattering on in Japanese to me. There was an American preacher in Japan who could preach in Japanese. The Japanese loved what he had to say, but they hated to listen to him. They said he made their ears hurt. He was making himself understood, but the Japanese wanted more. The funny thing is that for English speakers, we are just happy that someone can speak English and communicate with us regardless of their accent, word choice, or grammar. The only time we demand more from them is when they decide to go to the university or to high school in America and want to compete with native speakers of English. At that point, we ask them to clean their English up on the page, but if they are not competing, but just communicating, it is fine. In my blog, I am not competing with anyone. I am just communicating.
In Nigeria, to hear the Nigerians speak English is quite an experience!! You see, every Nigerian you meet speaks a different first language, and then when they go to school, they all have to learn English because all their schools are taught in English. Besides everyone coming from a different linguistic background, they learn to speak British English with a British accent. They mix their native accent with a heavy British accent, and if you are a native English speaker, you really have to work hard at learning to understand them. You adjust after a while, but in the beginning, you really have to listen hard. It was like when I met a plumber from Yorkshire, England. His accent was so thick that I had to listen closely until I got adjusted to his accent, and he was a native speaker of English. English speakers are used to people speaking strange in English whether they are speaking English as a second language or as a first language. I actually found myself translating between two people who spoke English as their first language once in the London subway. The woman was from Wales, and the man was from the Ohio Valley in the United States. They wanted to have a conversation, but neither could understand the other, but I understood them both, so I helped them.
Very often, I meet Koreans who just don’t know how to communicate with foreigners in Korean. The Korean categories of thought are so different from the native speaker of English! On top of that, our word choices are completely different. Often, when a native speaker of English would use a “be” verb, the Korean is using another verb that we don’t think of as “be” at all, but if you get back to basics, that is what they mean. If you communicate it in any other way except with their different nuances that they want to give the “be” verb, they don’t quite get it. For example, if I simply wanted to say, “He wants to be a teacher,” if I used that word choice in Korean, it would make no sense to a Korean. They need you to use “become” for “be,” and on top of that, they would use constructions of words rather than separate words like in English. In Romanian and Spanish, they have subject pronouns embedded in the verbs, and when they leave the subject out you know what the subject is anyway, but in Korean and Japanese, they will leave the subject out, but there is no subject in that verb. You have to guess from context what they are trying to say. If you are thinking differently than they are, you could very easily guess wrong.
In fact, in Spanish and in Romanian both, they have stressed and unstressed direct object pronouns and reflexive verbs. Other languages I have learned have no concept of stressed and unstressed direct object pronouns and reflexive verbs. In Spanish, Romanian, and English, if we want something, we use the word “want,” but in Japanese and Korean, they both have special constructions they add to their verbs to express that they want to do something, and if they want a specific thing rather than to do something, that is a whole other construction and even word order. As for the concept of what a sentence is, that varies from language to language too. In some languages, you must have a subject and a verb to make a sentence. In others, all you need is a verb. You can’t use a double negative in English, but you can use it is Spanish and Romanian. If you use a double negative in Japanese, you are being adamant. However, just to express a negative in Hausa, you must use a double negative.
In Romanian, there were several words for the one word in English. We have “snow,” but the Romanians want to say more than just “snow” because they get so much snow. They have a word for if the snow is on the ground or a completely different word if it is falling from the sky. There is a difference in the categories of thought and the words needed to express those thoughts. In Nigeria, I went to the library and picked up a book written by a Nigerian in English, and it was so crazy that it was almost impossible to understand because of the different categories of thought, thought patterns, and word choices.
We all actually need to realize that no matter how good we think we are in a foreign language, we are not going to be native speakers. We only have one mother tongue, and if we want to communicate, we need to learn to give one another a break and understand that we are different. We need to appreciate the fact that we can communicate. If someone goes to school to learn a language, it is their teacher’s job to correct them, not every Tom, Dick, and Harry who think they are smarter than others. Let’s just be happy we can communicate and have patience with one another. We learn other languages for communication, not for competition. I liked the discussion I had with my daughter today about language, and we all need to think about it.