Your head start in learning other European languages…

Blog Author: Jonathan Telfer

This is the first of (hopefully!) many guest blogs on the site. 

It was written by my friend Jonno Telfer who is the ying to my yang when it comes to language learning. Whilst I have focused almost entirely on speaking and listening Jonno has worked consistently to improve his reading and writing in a range of European languages. As a result, he has become something of an expert when it comes to spotting patterns and understanding the similarities and differences between European tongues. In today's blog he discusses why English people have much more of a head start in learning other languages than we often think. 

Thank you so much to Jonno for offering to write this and for the countless fascinating language based conversations over the last few years. You're an absolute legend mate. I hope the rest of you enjoy this blog as much as I have! Jonny

Jonno's blog:

English is a hybrid language. Due to the Norman Conquest, not only is wine seen as a higher quality drink than beer, but the English language changed quite dramatically from being a solidly Germanic language (just to be clear, Germanic does not equal German) to one where two thirds of the words are of French or Latin origin.

This is however very much a quality v quantity situation. Words from French/Latin might greatly outnumber those of Germanic origin, but the most essential words in English are all of Germanic origin. You might be able to get by without using a single word of Romance origin, although your conversations would become severely dull, functional affairs as you wouldn’t be able to describe virtually any abstract concept, and your list of adjectives to describe anything would be ultra bland. However you couldn’t form a sentence without words of Germanic origin.

What does this have to do with learning a foreign language? Well, English speakers are in an unusual position. Unless you regard Scots as exemplified by Rabbie Burns as a language (although the question of where the line is drawn between a language and a dialect is never clear), then there is no mutually intelligible language with English. But due to the fact English is a Germanic language with heavy French/Latin influence, you have a useful starting point if you want to learn any other Germanic or Latin languages. You won’t find any of them extremely easy, but you will find plenty of cognates in either family of languages.

What’s a cognate? It’s a word from the same origin in another language. It might be slightly different and there might be a serious of regular and consistent patterns, but it’s still recognisable, and usually the context is identifiable. Examples are usually the easiest way to explain linguistic differences, so let’s focus on this.

Germanic languages then. I’m going to focus on German as it’s the only other Germanic language I have any knowledge of, and I suspect this will be the same for most readers of this blog. If you’re part of a large Faroese contingent enjoying these blogs, then I am wrong and apologise now.

Let’s take the sentence ‘Die Katze ist im Haus’. Any idea what it means?  It refers to felines being within dwellings. If ‘im’ is explained as a contraction of ‘in dem’, it’s not hard (to my mind at least) to see its resemblance to the translation ‘the cat is in the house’. Another example of how similar to English German can be is ‘Das Wetter is sehr kalt’. If you think it might be a comment that the current temperature is a tad low, again you’d be right.

Sometimes words are similar but without a direct link. In ‘Wo ist der Hund?’, questioning the whereabouts of a canine, ‘Hund’ is the German word for dog. It may not look like ‘dog’, but it does look like ‘hound’. The German love for compound words can also allow you to recognise certain concepts from the words forming the compound. Hospital is ‘Krankenhaus’. Why? Krank means ill and equates to cranky, which doesn’t have the exact same meaning  but is recognisable, so essentially you have ‘ill-house’.  Ambulance is ‘Krankenwagen’. You can probably work that one out. Neither are immediately recognisable, but when you know what they mean, you can see the pattern.

Longer sentences in German, particularly involving abstract concepts are however an entirely different matter. ‘Has the economy recovered following the recent decline in performance of the currency?’ is ‘Hat sich die Wirtschaft nach dem jüngsten Leistungsabfall der Währung erholt?’ ‘Can you provide me with the details of the precise terms and conditions of the agreement?’ is ‘Können Sie mir die genauen Vertragsbedingungen mitteilen? Not exactly recognisable to an English speaker are they?

Moving onto Latin derived languages, essentially the opposite occurs. Taking each sentence in turn that I mentioned above, here are some direct translations, first in French, then in Spanish. Again I’m going with these languages partly because I have some knowledge of them, and partly because I suspect the majority of readers are more likely to have some. But again this blog could prove surprisingly popular with Romansch speakers.

French:

Le chat est dans la maison.

Le temps est trés froid.

Oú est le chien?

L’économie s’est-elle redressée après la baisse récente des performances de la monnaie?

Pouvez-vous me fournir les détails des termes et conditions de l'accord

If you don’t speak French then obviously none of those sentences will make sense to you. In the first three, ‘chat’ is similar to ‘cat’, but not much else. However you might recognise in the second set of examples cognates with economy, redress, recent, performance, money, details, terms, conditions and accord. They might not all have the exact same meaning but they’re all from the same stem. Now the Spanish versions.

Spanish:

El gato está en la casa

El clima está muy frio

¿Donde está el perro?
¿Se ha recuperado la economía tras la reciente disminución del rendimiento de la moneda?

¿Puede proporcionarme los detalles de los términos y condiciones precisos del acuerdo?

In the first three, ‘gato’ can be interpreted as ‘cat’ and you might correctly guess ‘clima’ is linked to ‘climate’, but not much else. In the latter two, recuperate, economy, recent, diminution, rendering, money, proportion, details, terms, conditions, precise and accord have cognates. As you can see, diminution, rendering and proportion have rather different meanings but the context is still recognisable. Compare this to ‘Rückgang der Währung’ and ‘Vertragsbedingungen‘.

What does this mean in practice? Germanic languages will probably look fairly easy to begin with compared to Latin based languages, as much of the vocabulary is from the same root. However once you get past the basics, Latin languages will become much clearer. Indeed German has some very difficult concepts to master, whereas once you know the basics of Spanish, it can be possible to pick it up very quickly.

There are a few basic rules to look for with each language. For instance,  short  and frequently used words in English which start with ‘th‘ usually have a cognate in German which begans with ‘d‘ e.g. the – der, das or die, this – dies, think – denken. In Spanish, English words ending in ‘ity‘ can usually be found ending in ‘idad‘ e.g. trinity – trinidad, opportunity – oportunidad etc.

Obviously it‘s not an exact science but hopefully you get the point. There are also numerous ‚false friends‘ i.e. words which look like they have the same background, but don‘t and usually mean something different. (There's a book on this here if you're interested. Editor) ‘Embarazada‘ in Spanish for instance means ‘pregnant. Confuse those and the Spanish word you‘d be looking for is ‘avergonzado‘

Incidentally, if you have any interest in what English might have looked like without the Norman Conquest, there is an Anglish movement  i.e. a group who suggest we should replace loanwords from French/Latin with offerings from Old English. If you want to read an example of this, then here‘s one: http://anglish.wikia.com/wiki/Foroned_Ricks_of_Markland

You can probably work out from the flag what it‘s about. It‘s an interesting concept although I can‘t see it taking off. I can‘t find any unpleasant political connotations (possibly because I can‘t recognise the words being used due to them having been out of use for centuries), but if you spot any, please let me know and I‘ll remove the link.

In summary, you won‘t be able to pick up any language that easily as a native English speaker, but you will recognise quite a bit of any Germanic or Latin-based language, which does give you some help. In contrast a German speaker may struggle to understand Spanish or a Dutch speaker Italian, and vice versa, as there‘s very little shared between the two.

Hope this helps with your language acquisition. The bottom line is that you‘ll swiftly be able to ask where cats and dogs are in Germany or the Netherlands and comment on the weather, but if you want an in-depth economic discussion on quantitative easing with the locals whilst abroad, you‘ll probably be able to do that sooner in France or Spain.

Thanks again to Jonno for writing today's guest blog. If you have a language or language learning related topic that you'd like to write a blog on drop me an email at Jonny@kickstartlanguages.com or contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

Finally, if you are interested in finding out more about cognates across European languages this dictionary looks phenomenal. I don't owe a copy yet but looking at it this morning I'm certainly going to get one! 

Thanks again for reading the blog! 

Jonny

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *