One more time! Second Languages, le premier part…

Though I’m technically still on summer break from teaching duties, it’s definitely time to start gearing up for the semester and plan my courses. However, I’ve been having a hard time transitioning my ‘summer brain’ back into activity, and so I decided to throw down a gauntlet at my own feet.

They are completely ignoring my gauntlet! What's so interesting about a camera strap, anyway?

This is a post that I originally published on 26 January 2010. It’s a piece about how learning other languages may or may not have influenced the way I think. As I was writing, I realized that it was growing beyond the confines of a single post, so I published when I’d gotten to what felt like a natural stopping point. I finished relating my experiences with languages and left off when I started exploring the question of their influence on my thought.

As you can see, that was a year-and-a-half ago. The second part of this post has been languishing as I was researching and getting distracted by the thousand other topics I’d love to write about, not to mention being occupied with teaching and, you know, general living. This then will be the challenge I give to myself this week: finish Part Deux!

So here’s ‘le premier part’ once more to get things rolling (I’ve made a few minor edits and added some pictures.) And then, finally, we’ll get to the long overdue sequel by the end of this week. Hopefully after meeting this challenge, the mental transition will be complete and I will have awakened my brain from its estival hibernation.


When people ask me how many languages I know, I always say “One – just English.” I have been fortunate enough to have studied and learned a lot about other languages, but I never feel that I truly know languages other than English. Our native tongues always feel like home, and while we can learn to be comfortable in other houses, towns, even countries, nothing ever quite feels like home. I can speak other languages to varying degrees, and I’ve learned about even more languages beyond that, but do I really know another language? Does that question even have an answer? Can I know a language even without being perfect in the grammar and vocabulary? I don’t have the answers for the moment, but I’ve been wanting to start learning another language (methinks it’s going to be Arabic) and so I’ve been reflecting on the languages that have been important to me over the years.

The first language I studied was French. The sounds of that language were so different and felt so strange in my mouth, but they sounded so smooth and sophisticated. There are vowels in French that we don’t have in English that require us to purse our lips, as if we are constantly about to kiss someone or always holding a lit cigarette in our lips: the /ü/ in “tu” and “jusqu’a” and “une,” or the /ö/ in “jeune.” It made switching back to English feel like moving from a featherbed to a wooden plank. The delicate French vowels made English sound so harsh and cold.

It made me wonder what English would sound like if I didn’t understand it. Barring severe head trauma (fingers crossed!), I will never know what English sounds like to an outsider, but I still wonder. We seem to have a lot of /sh/ sounds, and of course there is the theta – voiced /δ/as in “the,” and voiceless /θ/as in “think” – that almost no other languages have. Greek is in the elite theta club, but they are sounds that have plagued many a non-native speaker trying to master the pronunciation of my abrupt, guttural, Germanic native English.

How about my knee? Would that be okay?

Though thoroughly in love with French, I eventually made my way to other Romance languages. I found that studying one Latin-based language made learning others easier. French, Italian, Portuguese – they all like to drop their subjects, put their adjectives after the nouns, use reflexive verbs (that still confound me!) and make their nouns choose a gender. It was amusing to me to say something like, “I hope that I not myself was not broke the leg right!” (“J’espère que je ne me suis pas cassé la jambe droit!”)

Of course there were false friends, as there always are. The false friend that betrayed me the most often was the Portuguese word “puxe,” which sounds like “push” but which means “pull,” (this will please those with a sense of irony.) After slamming my face into many a public door instructing me to “puxe” when in fact I had to pull, I finally came up with a mantra to avoid further bruising. “Puxe means pull!” I would repeat to myself whenever I came up to a door. This worked fine in Portugal, but I had problems the first few times I repeated my mantra when approaching a door back here in the United States. No noses were bruised, but my ego was slightly colored when I would walk up to a door, repeat “Puxe means pull!” and then proceed to pull and keep pulling despite the big sign clearly marked “Push.”

Then I needed a challenge. I moved to Turkey knowing how to say “Hello’ (Merhaba) and “Thank you” (Teşekkur ederim), which were quite useful for my first day or so in Istanbul, but wouldn’t hold me for much longer than that. I needed things like, “Filter coffee, please, not Nescafé,” and “Can you tell me why I keep getting on the wrong bus?” It was time to attend language classes. In the first four weeks, I mostly learned the words for many different types of alcoholic beverages, courtesy of my flask-toting instructor who was never far from the halfway mark of the proverbial bag. I also learned that Turkish was English backwards and that everything depended on word endings that strung along on verbs and nouns like a freight train. “Dükkana gidiyorum” would transliterate into “store to go –ing am I.” To make matters worse, the progressive suffix would come in two different forms depending on the vowel in the verb stem: vowel harmony! Sometimes it was just a two-option harmony, but other times, such as with the possessive marker, there would be 4-option harmony: the suffix that means “my” was realized as either –im, um, Im, or üm. It wasn’t just vowel harmony; there’s consonant harmony as well. The [t] in “gitmek” becomes the [d] in “gidiyor” between vowels.

Thanks to Funda's trick, this is how I look like in all of my pictures now. (Image courtesy of ky_olsen via Flickr.)

Like in French, there were times when you barely had to move your mouth. My friend, Funda, used to say “three hundred and thirty three” instead of “cheese” when having her picture taken. Why? In Turkish, that number is “üς yüz otuz üς”. Just try saying that without looking like Marilyn Monroe!

The last language that has figured in any major way in my life was American Sign Language. I have always loved making and doing things with my hands: knitting, cooking, playing piano, wrapping presents, and even finger painting. I must have gotten that – along with my talent and interest in languages – from my father, who was both polyglot and mechanic. The language of ASL perfectly merged these two loves of mine. I absolutely fell in love with the fact that twisting, clenching, tapping, waving, folding, curving my hands created meaning and did so in such a beautiful way. I would tie my fingers into knots trying to increase the speed of my fingerspelling and practice in the mirror to make sure my movements were fluid, not too big (don’t want to shout!) but not too small (who likes a low-talker?). I loved how subtle movements, even without changing the shape on the hand, could create the difference between, for example, “grandmother” and “vomit”, or “thirsty” and “horny.” I also was so impressed how emotion or extra dimensions of meaning were conveyed with movement. The sign for friends could be altered to signify “acquaintances” (alternately tapping index fingers), “friends” (alternately hooking index fingers) and “close friends” (hooking index fingers and not letting go). The closer the friendship, the harder you would clench those hooked fingers together. The closeness was literal and beautifully symbolic at the same time.

My other studies led me to brief forays in Italian, German, Latin, not to mention the countless languages I learned select rules for during my linguistic studies. (Go ahead, ask me about tones and syllabic nasal consonants in Luganda! I dare ya!) Throughout it all, I wondered how it was changing me, this constant attention to other languages. Okay, I’ll occasionally throw in a Turkish hedging technique (şey, yani) and I apparently believe that lights and computers are now open or closed rather than on or off, but apart from that, did my relationship to English or thought change?

That discussion has to wait until Part Two, Deux, Dois, Due, Zwei, Iki…

11 thoughts on “One more time! Second Languages, le premier part…

  1. I have often wondered that too…what English sounds like to foreign speakers. Interestingly, several said it sounds like we’re whispering…note the size of the volume S of an encyclopedia (yes, I still have one of those)…several said it sounds like Hebrew. I keep asking and adding their answers to my unscientific survey.

    • Some of my students tried to describe it to me, but I don’t remember what their descriptions were. There were comments about the /s/ sound. I’ll have to remember to ask the students in my ESL college writing class in Sept.

  2. Because Melbourne, where I live, is one of the most multicultural cities in the world colloquial English has absorbed quite a number of words from foreign languages into common usage, mostly as slang. I don’t know any other language than English but from my contact with so many immigrants I can get along in six or eight languages and can recognize many more when they are spoken to me. Many non-native English speakers have told me that English is difficult to learn but much better to use than their native tongues.

    • That’s interesting about the comment that English is “better to use” than their native languages. I wonder if they mean in practical terms (English being a global language) or if they find it’s easier to express certain things in English.

      You make me want to visit Melbourne. Well, I wanted to before, but now it’s been moved up on The List! :)

      • Asians tend to tell me that English expresses things more accurately whilst Europeans use English as the middle language so it’s a bit of both I think. Even though there are no laws or customs here that force people to learn English most immigrants learn to speak Aussie which is a different thing altogether.
        I am sure that you would love Melbourne.

      • That’s really interesting. I hope I have some Asian students this semester (my classes are usually dominated with South Americans) so I can do a little unscientific polling and interviewing.

        Speaking of Aussie, I thought I had seen an article about Australian slang, but it turns out I remembered it wrong – it was about New Zealand slang. (if you’re interested: ). I had two colleagues a few years back – one from Australia and one from New Zealand. I learned a lot about the differences from them (loved every minute of it, of course!) I can’t wait to visit, though the reversed seasons is probably going to unsettle me at first! :)

  3. Well presented ASL is beautiful – like a dance. And hey, my French must be coming along… I had no idea what “I hope that I not myself was not broke the leg right!” meant until I read the French version.

    Looking forward to part II, my friend.

    • I might be a bit concerned if you could understand that in English ;) And good job with the French!

      I hope Part Deux doesn’t disappoint. You were the brave soul who made her way over to that original post and even commented. I knew that I had to finally write the second part for you! (See your inspiring influence? :)

  4. I speak German and Mandarin and feel strongly about how learning languages changed the way my brain worked and may have affected my creative thought process, but may have also limited my English writing abilities as well.

    • Oh my God, your blog is written using limited writing skills? Perhaps this is good. If you were at full power, you might just kill someone.

      It’s an interesting paradox, though, to consider that other languages could both expand thought but limit expression.

  5. Pingback: Second Languages, Part Deux | As a Linguist…

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