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three things i learned about english by learning other languages

lost in translation :: one spine
in the continuing adventures of kate fulfilling her lifetime wish to learn every language ever more languages than the two i already know, i've found that there is a parallel system by which i am learning a great deal about my mother tongue. [spellcheck just suggested i change that to "my mother's tongue". spellcheck, you are officially creeping me out.]

most of us learn how to speak our native language in the same way: we're taught general rules, but because we're speaking the language all the time, we don't tend to reflect on what those rules are on a regular basis. but when you're force feeding yourself a high-grammar, high-vocabulary diet, you start to notice things about your linguistic diet up to that point. and here are some of those things that i, as a native english speaker, have noticed.

1. we do something awful to the letter 'r'. we will often snicker, or mimic with great exaggeration, the rolled 'r' that we here in spanish, thinking it's a bit weird that so many people find it necessary to do a drumroll with their tongue in the middle of a word. but once you've fumbled your way through pronunciation exercises in a few different languages, you realise the horrible truth: we're the screwed up ones.

first of all, that extended trill that many anglophones ascribe to spanish isn't how they pronounce the letter 'r' most of the time; it's how they pronounce it when there's two of them. nevertheless, there is still a slight flutter of the tongue used when there's a single 'r' and it's used by virtually everyone who isn't english. we know it's there in spanish and italian, but it's also present in slavic languages like polish and baltic languages like lithuanian do it too. our close cousins german and dutch are even in on the game.

english speakers pronounce the 'r' with the lower jaw and the lips. everyone else pronounces it with the lips and tongue. people who've worked hard to develop flawless accents in foreign languages will tell you that nothing betrays anglophone origins our 'r'. so go ahead and smirk at the rolling "barrio" or "corrido". the joke is on us.

2. our vowel system is bizarre. when you're learning english, they teach you that there are five [and a half] vowels: a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y. [fyi, no one ever bothered to specify when 'y' was a vowel when they taught me that. it was just out there that 'y' would sometimes switch sides. over time, i realised that it's a vowel when it's voiced and a consonant when it's not. but i had to figure that out for myself. thanks public school system.] once they've drilled that into our coconuts, they tell us that each vowel can be pronounced as either a short or a long sound: lamb/ hay, set/ evil, fill/ kite, mop/ stove, fuzzy/ yule. seems simple, and it's complete malarkey.

first of all, even our words don't work that way. if they did, we wouldn't have love/ glove/ dove, where the short 'u' sound masquerades in the clothing of a long 'o'. or trying explaining put/ rut.

for most people, short and long vowels are exactly what you'd think they'd be- the same sound held for a shorter or longer period of time. sounds like our long 'a' aren't seen as a single vowel sound at all, but as a combination of vowels. many other languages are constructed based on phonemes: the tiniest units of sound used to form words. vowels are one of those sounds, stripped down to their bare essence. to get more complex sounds, other languages string them together. english does that too, but it's just confusing, because we don't distinguish between a combined vowel sound like in 'bait' and what we call a long 'a', like in 'kate'. [the tendency of english words to use different letters to create the exact same goddamned sound is one of the things that drives learners to distraction. why does 'horror' require 'rr' but 'unrequited' and 'barometer' don't? what purpose is served by that distinction, other than annoy people?]

in order to accommodate the range of vowel sounds a human can make, many languages have adapted by extending the number of vowels. they do that by adding diacritical marks or accents to letters, and sometimes they even add them to consonants to account for common sounds like 'ch' or 'sh' in a single letter. but oh no, we decided that there are only five and a half vowels, and we'll jam every sound into our system, no matter what. failing that, we'll just pretend certain sounds [like the german 'ö'] don't exist. [ notice that i used the word 'accommodate' there. it includes two double letters 'cc' and 'mm', which sound exactly the same as their single versions do in the word 'coma'.]

so in short: our versions of long and short vowels make no sense, because they're not long and short versions of the same sound. we use different letters to create the same sound and the same letters to create different sounds. and when we come across a sound that doesn't fit in our model, we either ignore it [put/ rut] or pretend it doesn't exist.

3. our annunciation game is weak. remember what i said in point #2 about other languages using combinations of vowels to come up with the sounds we think of as "long vowels"? the truth is that we flatten those sounds, like the 'ai' in 'bait' or the 'ei' in 'weigh', so that they come out the same as the vowel sound in 'kate'. as a result, certain subtleties of pronunciation are difficult for us. the lithuanian words 'sveikas' and 'kaip' [both used in greetings] have a subtle difference in pronunciation, because of the different letters. our ears are sharp enough that we can actually perceive the difference, but we're not used to pronouncing two vowel sounds like that unless we do it really slowly. everything comes out of our mouth sounding like 'hay'.

we've found ways to get around our annunciation troubles like splitting up 'a' words and 'an' words. by any standard, it's a simple rule: one goes before consonants and the other goes before vowels and whichever one you use in front of a word starting with 'h', someone will tell you you're wrong. the reason we invented that isn't just to be confusing, but because it makes certain things easier for us to say: 'a apple' is a lot more awkward for us than 'an apple'. [and in defence of english, we're hardly the only language to do this. italian allows you to use 'ed' instead of 'e' if the word falls between two vowels. french insists you change 'je' to 'j'' to get around the difficulty of saying 'je étais'.]

our limited ability to create sounds would seem hilarious to native speakers of languages as far flung as finnish or hawaiian, where words can be three miles long and you pronounce every single letter. seriously:

hääyöaieuutinen

and we don't even consider the implications of tone. for us, it's all about the meaning of the words. we can shift emphasis through tone [e.g., why are you reading this blog? why are you reading this blog? why are you reading this blog? why are you reading this blog? all mean the same thing, but with clues as to the specific information sought by the questioner], but in languages like mandarin chinese or vietnamese, the entire meaning of what you're saying can be different. so not only do you have to know spelling and pronunciation, but you get to explore the new language with the knowledge that the wrong tone of voice could be the difference between asking someone what the soup of the day is and asking them the size of their mother's vagina. have fun!

our lazy pronunciation turns language learning into an actual workout: if you want to nail the sound as well as the words, you need to train your mouth to do things it's not used to doing. your jaw muscles and tongue will actually feel like your thighs after leg day. stop thinking those dirty thoughts.

those are a few of the things i've noticed, and since i'm given to being a bit long-winded, i'll let you off with those three. but trust me, i have never learned so much about english as i have learning how to not speak it. 

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