On Language

I usually like to learn a bit of the language before visiting a country, even if only a few words although it would be great if I were more adapt at learning languages quickly. It takes a great deal of effort for me to learn a foreign language, but then things easily done do not provide as much satisfaction as accomplishing a difficult task.

But no, I am not interested I learning Gaelic, not even a few words in preparation for a trip to Ireland. I suppose I could look at Ireland as a country where they speak Gaelic, but learning a language only spoken by a small population, practically all of whom also speak English on a daily basis is something for either those with a very deep interest in it and the culture or language-learning addicts. The effort is out of proportion to the effort. In addition, a survey titled EUROPEANS AND LANGUAGES and published in 2005 reported that only 9% of the Irish speak Gaelic. I mostly learn languages because I enjoy joking with people from other countries and for travel purposes. Otherwise, I look at language from an occupational viewpoint, since I am a translator (for French and German, occasionally Spanish—but I haven’t really explored that market, since I fear that there is too much competition there with all the bilingual Spanish-English speakers in the States—and very rarely Chinese, since I do not have the technical or legal vocabulary that I need in my other work). As a result, I would never consider learning a language such as Dutch, since practically everyone there speaks English and many German and French too. In the survey cited above, 91% of the Dutch reported ability to speak another language. There’s just no market, and the demand for Dutch-English translations is just too small. And not Russian either, since business prospects seem rather dim there, and Putin is doing all he can to return Russia to the 19th century (but I do enjoy reading Gogol and a few of the others from that time). I traveled shortly in Ghana a year ago, and there are many different languages there depending on the area. One language okay, and it is polite to learn a few phrases in the language of a country you are visiting, but several different languages just for a vacation of couple of weeks did not seem worth the effort to me either, especially since English is used throughout the country. I did take a short hike along the beach to a small village with two Belgians and a local guide one day, and the guide suddenly began demanding exorbitant fees for his services. The Belgian woman had previously spent a year in Ghana in a development project and was able to speak one of the more common languages, which came in quite handy when she explained our situation to the villagers. As a result, she immediately established rapport with them, and they were soon all on our side against the “guide.”

Sometimes I wonder whether my fascination with learning languages is not a sickness, an escape to another culture until I know it well and then quickly away to another where I am a total stranger. It is an addiction for me: I need it and it controls me. Jhumpa Lahiri in her entertaining book about learning Italian put it this way: “Why am I fleeing? What is pursuing me?”

But she also writes: “Learning a foreign language is the fundamental way to fit it with new people in a new country. It makes a relationship possible. Without language, you can’t feel that you have a legitimate, respected presence. You are without a voice, without power.”

However, language is my profession too, so I have another reason at least for German and French. Still, I can’t agree with Ms. Lahiri’s contention that “… translating is the most profound intimate way of reading. A translation is a wonderful dynamic encounter between two languages, two texts, two writers. It entails a doubling, a renewal.” Perhaps she is only referring to fiction, but I tend to agree with Franz Rosenzweig that “Translating means serving two masters, in other words, no one can do it”, which I even quoted at the beginning of my Master’s thesis. But I also agree with “…Walter Benjamin [who wrote] in his seminal text ‘Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers’ [The task of the translator] (BENJAMIN, 1968 [1923]) that the translator succeeds where the individual reader fails. The latter establishes a simple relationship language-subject, whereas the translator poses him/herself at the service of language respecting its role and its goal: moving towards the pure and unique language. A language now unattainable but from which all languages descend and that makes possible each translation.” (Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, Vol 14, No 2 (2013), Volume 14, No. 2, Art. 6 – May 2013, Translating and Doing Grounded Theory Methodology. Intercultural Mediation as an Analytic Resource by Massimiliano Tarozzi. Again Mr. Tarozzi: According to DERRIDA “translation is another name of the impossible” (1998a, p.74)

I have to agree with that, because you can translate basic meaning, but a translation can never convey the atmosphere, the different feeling, which another language expresses. Each language also expresses an underlying world view, a different perspective on life, which is lost in translation. When I am with French friends just chatting about some nonsensical matters, I have a totally different feeling than when speaking to fellow US Americans in English. I wish that I could put my finger on exactly what the difference is, but my intellect fails me at that point even though I am convinced that it is so.

I might mention that faced with Derrida and deconstructionism in graduate school, I had no clue what the whole issue was about, one more reason for giving up the idea of becoming a university professor.

I loved reading the book called Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners by the linguist Michael Erard. Some of my favorite passages from the book:

Babble: “…. the more competent an insane person was in a language, the higher their degree of psychosis.”

“Mezzofanti, the renowned Italian hyperpolyglot, could not read Chinese.” What a relief!” (Note: He was credited with speaking at least 30 languages fluently.)

“The great Mezzofanti himself suffered a nervous breakdown after struggling with Mandarin Chinese in Naples and lost every language he knew except his mother tongue, Bolognese.”

Claire Kramsch, linguistics professor: not how many languages do you speak, but “How many languages do you live?” “… people could do, at the utmost, four or five languages.”

Scientists also speculate that a lifetime of living with two languages may protect people from the effects of cognitive aging. Children growing up bilingual often have an intellectual advantage in life, because they grow up with two different perspectives on life that they can compare.

In the book, Mr. Erard related how Koreans and Japanese will praise you if you speak a bit of their language, but become uncomfortable if you speak it very well. On the other hand, the French belittle you if you can only speak a bit of their language, but are very happy if you speak it well and then want to practice their English (which they do not know at all if you cannot speak French). Often when I have traveled to Alsace, when I spoke French, they answered in German, and when I spoke German, they answered in French. I only learned a few phrases of Korean despite many hours of study, but it is always fun to say my few sentences when I meet a Korean and watch their astounded expression. I understood words in a Korean song for the first time when I was in a taxi leaving the country after working there for 2 ½ years. A woman sang (with my poor transliteration), “gachima” or something like that, which means “Don’t leave.”)

The question of what constitutes command of a language is rather complex, especially with respect to people who claim to be (hyper)polyglots. I translate technical and legal texts from German and French, which many native speakers do not understand (although the poor writing ability of the authors is often the reason), but I cannot write flawless German or French. To receive a very high grade on US State Department language tests, you need to be able to read more Chinese characters than most Chinese can (who can read approx. 2,000 characters), but they are native speakers nonetheless. Millions of Americans are illiterate or functionally illiterate, but they are also native speakers who would not pass the TOEFL English language test.

I taught English many years ago and was accustomed to correcting students’ English while they spoke. On trips home to the US during that time, I sometimes inadvertently corrected the grammar of Americans while they were speaking, which was rather embarrassing. Even the NY Times contains grammar mistakes (often confusing “few” and “less” although it is done so often that I wonder whether it has not become acceptable); does that mean that the editors do not have mastery of the language? At any rate, I fear making such mistakes (and I do make them), because that can mean not getting paid or only getting partial payment for a translation.

I recently had an unpleasant dispute with a British proofreader of one of my translations. She changed all of my sentences to the passive. I replied that she unfortunately did not have a proper command of good style and cited with one of my favorites, Good Style: Writing for Science and Technology by John Kirkman, who is British (i.e., not just a difference between American and British dialects), and not just for science and technology. Mr. Kirkman provides numerous examples of why the passive is poor style, but the woman was adamant that she was correct, stating that she even teaches people preparing for college entrance exams in Britain, as if that were an argument. I could have retorted that I had taught English writing to those already in college, but that is a nonsensical argument too.

Other good examples are provided by the US government publication OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL – REVISED EDITORIAL GUIDELINES

“The subject of an active sentence is the person or entity taking an action; the subject of a passive sentence is the recipient of an action. Passive sentences often do not clearly identify who is responsible for doing what.


“During the audit, seven properties were identified as underutilized properties.


“The audit identified seven underutilized properties.”

Germans seem addicted to a modified form of the passive with the word “erfolgen”, which more or less translates as “is carried out.” They have sentences which would translate word for word such as “The repairs on the building were carried out by X company” instead of the clearer statement “X company repaired the building.” They often use the phrase “so-genannt”, i.e., “so-called”, and cannot understand why I do not translate it, since a “so-called friend” is not one, but they just think it denotes the term employed.

Lots of people contributing their two bits on the internet with a plethora of horrible grammar, and some people think that just because a mistake is repeated a million times, it qualifies as being correct. Which brings me to A World Without Whom by Emmy Favilla, a style guide for BuzzFeed. I believe I had seen the name somewhere but had no idea what it was. Apparently, it is some kind of internet platform for bored people, but I can’t imagine anyone working a full-time job and with a modicum of other interests in life having time for it (and they appear to be a lot of such people). She has some good suggestions, but can be very arrogant with those who do not spend half their life surfing the internet, e.g., “I can’t even: If I need to explain this one to you, you may consider supplemental reading material in the form of literally everything on the internet.”

Well, I use the internet daily for research in my work as a translator, but have never come across this expression. Perhaps because I don’t look at the sites designed for pubescent minds but depicted outwardly as worthy of adult attention. Favilla hates the word “whom”, but I can only surmise that the reason is because she grew up not using it; I like the sound of “whom”, and could you imagine For Who the Bell Tolls? Sounds awful!

Contractions are fine for her, but then her audience is not mine. People reading directions and descriptions of technical manuals, year-end financial reports or software programming instructions need clarity and not cute internet jargon (or any jargon for that matter). However, I suspect her book is just a marketing ploy for her company: “This is how it’s done today, and we are the ones who dictate style! Follow us or else you are nothing more than an old fogey!”

I’ll stick with one of my favorites, Good Style: Writing for Science and Technology by John Kirkman, and not just for science and technology. Imagine a German engineer emailing his Chinese contact about robot components for an automated assembly line (and they most likely would be corresponding in English), for both of whom the industrial Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, cloud computing and big data are everyday matters, and then the German engineer writes “I can’t even” in his email. Rather a silly idea, isn’t it?

Her list of most-know words reminds me of the hobo terms in Wikipedia; amusing, but not really something most of us need to know.

Excerpt from Wikipedia:

Expressions used through the 1940s

Hobo term Explanation
Accommodation car the caboose of a train
Angellina a young inexperienced child
Bad Road a train line rendered useless by some hobo’s bad action or crime
Banjo (1) a small portable frying pan; (2) a short, “D” handled shovel, generally used for shoveling coal
Barnacle a person who sticks to one job a year or more
Beachcomber a hobo who hangs around docks or seaports
Big House prison
Bindle stick a collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick

She repeatedly threatens that if you don’t follow her rules, you will never be her friend or invited to her place. Ha! Fat chance anyway if you are not a BuzzFeed nerd! Creative language OK, but not to the extent that only the “insiders” understand. She references sundry cultural aspects peculiar to the USA as if they were universal values. For example, I have heard of the name Kardashian, but have no idea what is behind it except something about US American television and certainly no interest in learning more. No, I do not have a Netflix account, but I doubt whether they have any of the movies in the original that I would like to see and recently were honored at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards (but be sure to let me know if they do). Favilla writes as if anyone not familiar with Kardashian and sundry others as well as does not have a Netflix account is just out of it, a hopeless, helpless case. She is nothing more than an example of American cultural imperialism and a high degree of arrogance. English is now a global language, and speakers of other languages need not be familiar with adolescent aspects of US American culture to use it despite her insinuations to the contrary.

Kató Lomb, sometimes referred to as one of the first simultaneous interpreters in the world (but perhaps in reference to interpreters working in closed cabins with audio equipment) told us about “Pico della Mirandola. It was reliably recorded about the ‘admirable Pico’ that he spoke 22 languages by the age of 18. His career—like that of many other child prodigies—was short….” (POLYGLOT HOW I LEARN LANGUAGES). One of my professors when I was an undergrad also told us about him, but he then related that he died at a young age of 31 to console us with regard to our lack of linguistic abilities.

Another gem from Ms. Lomb: (p. 179) “Of the linguists of the past, my favorite is Tom Coryat, the ancestor of all hippies. This delightful tramp lived at the end of the 16th century and never worked. His official trade was vagrancy: he set off at the age of 16 and walked 2000 miles, acquiring 14 languages in the process. According to his pledge, he never rode a cart and never changed his shoes—an example worth bearing in mind for our comfort-loving youth and also for our shoe manufacturing companies. By the way, he hung his much-weathered shoes on a church gate in the English village of Odcombe when he returned from wandering; the tatters are said to be still visible today.” (Wikipedia has a slightly different description of him and also includes this tidbit: “He is often credited with introducing the table fork to England, with “Furcifer” [Latin: fork-bearer, rascal] becoming one of his nicknames. His description of how the Italians shielded themselves from the sun resulted in the word “umbrella” being introduced into English.”)

Wonder whether I should start studying a new language? But if so, I think I will choose an easier one.

2 thoughts on “On Language

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