Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Linguistics of Love Part II: Learning Another’s Language

Sometimes, learning English, I felt heady with victory at comprehension or making myself understood. I could lick the words “Zamboni machine” at the ice rink the way the other kids relished an ice cream cone. Other times, the process made me an unknowing object of derision and filled me with rage like a wild animal on a choke leash. But now I speak English, nay - LOVE English- and everything's tops.

Since Babel, every one speaks a language unto himself, and we long for someone to speak our soul fluently. Luckily, language can -with effort- be learned. The best way to acquire a new language is to learn it in terms of itself, without translation, just as monolingual native speakers acquire the language as children. Once, I found myself on Lan Yu aka Orchid Island, off the coast of Taiwan where the Yami people live; they do not speak English. When the first old man I met would point to the sky, I would try to figure out if the word he uttered meant sky, cloud, up, or grey. Rock was straightforward, as was "drink up." Usually, I got him right; sometimes, I gladly learned that I had mis-learned. But mis-learning isn't the same as NOT learning. Hell, in America, I mispronounced the verb “to iron” (I spoke it just as it’s spelled ire-run instead of i-urn) until I was 23, and I still can never remember whether I should cry over spilt beans or not.

When learning a new language, one often encounters "false friends," words that sound the same but don't mean the same thing. A well-known one is embarasada in Spanish. It means pregnant, not embarrassed. Often, there are false friends between the language that Men speak and the one that Women speak. When my brother says, "Man, my USB mouse isn't working," my boyfriend understands to help him fix it. When I say, "Man, my USB mouse isn't working," it sounds the same, but roughly translated into Manspeak, I said, "Empathize with my frustration, while I fix my USB mouse.*" (*Technology terms are the same across many languages.) I am able to translate this false friend because (a) I observed them having this conversation among their own kind and (b) I have spoken similar Woman idioms and received similarly perplexing replies in Man. (Most only have to make the mistake a few times to learn that "to be embarrassed" is "se dar vergüenza.")

Without these confrontations with confusion, comprehension cannot emerge.

Linguistics of Love Part I: Confusing the Language
Coming up:
Linguistics of Love Part III: Developing Dialects


  1. He is thinking: I am so bored. Please sleep with me.

  2. Nail, this is hammer...

    The distance between language and communication- it's really astounding, and you don't even have to venture into love relationships to get into some big, glorious tangles. But since we're here- I'm glad you're doing this series, Ivy!

  3. I'm committed to polishing my Spanish, learning French and Portuguese. Don't know how I'm going to do it, though. Then I have to learn how to speak woman in all three of those languages. I'm screwed!



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