Why you should learn another language (or two or three)

For about as long as I can remember, I’ve been a major language nerd. I think it started when I was about seven years old and discovered that the stationary aisle of the local grocery store sold pocket dictionaries meant for travelers and I wound up buying the entire set because they were within the means of my first-grade allowance. I remember for sure that I had Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Russian. I think that Latin was another one, although I’m not as sure.

This began a life-long adventure, and I collected dictionaries and books on foreign languages left and right. I remember one dictionary that translated twenty-six languages side-by-side, and at its biggest, my library covered everything from Arabic to Vietnamese and nearly everything in between.

Sadly, I lost most of that about a decade ago in an abrupt move. However, all of those same resources are now online, so I didn’t really lose as much as I thought. And, since languages evolve, books may not be the best resource anymore. For example, when I first started learning Spanish, Ch, ll, and rr were considered separate letters, something that the Academia Real Española changed a few years back.

Speaking of school, when I found out on the first day of 7th grade that we had to take a language class and I was assigned to Spanish, I was ecstatic. I studied it for the next four years and when, after my junior year of high school, I had satisfied my language requirement, I said “What the hell?” and took a year of German, followed by another year of German as a Freshman in college. Fun fact: I swear that we learned more in the first two weeks of college German than I had in an entire year of high school German.

Other languages I’ve toyed with over the years, in no particular order: Italian, French, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian, Gaelic, Japanese, and ASL. However, I wouldn’t consider myself fluent in any of them, although (for reasons that will become obvious below) I’ve actually become pretty good at being able to understand a lot of French, Italian, and Portuguese when I read it, and a lot of Italian when I hear it.

After school ended, I really didn’t keep up with studying or using Spanish or German, and so over time they faded — German more so, because I’d studied it less, obviously, but a lot of the Spanish as well and, while I could still understand more of it than the average gabacho, the finer points had escaped me.

Flash forward to about six years ago, when a play I’d written much closer to my high school years got produced, and a big part of it was set in Mexico City, meaning that there were two police characters who spoke a lot of Spanish. When I first wrote the play, that language was a lot fresher in my head, but because we were doing a lot of development and I was doing a lot of rewriting in rehearsal, it became necessary to write new dialogue for them. Fortunately, I had two native speakers in the cast who helped, but I realized that it was probably time for a refresher course, so I dove back in.

Six years later… I am surprised at how fluent I have become. I’m actually able to have conversations with people without getting lost and, it probably goes without saying, that in America’s current climate, being a white guy who speaks Spanish is probably as much a political statement as it is a cultural one. Apoyo ciento por ciento nuestros hermanos y amigos de Latinoamérica. Somos una gente y una familia todas conjuntas. And if you can understand that without running it through Google translate, good for you. (Oh, by the way… do not trust Google translate.)

So… about six years after I started to relearn Spanish as an adult, I’m at the point where I’m tackling an entire book in the language, and I’ve been reading the Spanish version of “Ready Player One.” Oh… one other thing. A few years ago, I tried to read «Rebelión en la granja», the Spanish translation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” and I couldn’t even get through the introduction. Now, I’ve been breezing through the Spanish version of “Ready Player One,” and I’m really enjoying it. It’s funny and entertaining and all the jokes are coming through. I’ve also gotten to the point where I’m not stopping to look up words and I’m not translating into English in my head, and I am picking up new vocabulary by the bucket-load.

This isn’t a humble brag or anything. Rather, it’s encouragement. Americans whose first language is English are notoriously terrible when it comes to other languages, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are tons of resources online for learning another language, as well as groups of learners and speakers helping each other all over the place. And it is never too late to learn or to relearn. I had forgotten enough Spanish that I’d really dropped to near Peggy Hill levels of literacy. Now, I read the news in Spanish every day, I’m plowing through a YA novel in Spanish, I watch TV shows and movies and YouTube videos in Spanish, and I’m doing just great with it.

Can I pass myself off as a native and get away with it? Oh, hell no. I know that I make stupid mistakes all the time, like forgetting to plop the pronouns in the right place or messing up the gender of nouns or using present tense when it should have been preterit or imperfect, and being clueless on subjunctive and por vs. para. But… in making the effort, I find that native speakers are just as forgiving to me as I am to someone who is clearly not a native English speaker but gets the idea across. “Ooh, I can’t understand this person because they said ‘I has’ instead of ‘I have’ said no one with any empathy ever.”

And that’s really what it’s all about. The story of the Tower of Babel is a metaphor, but it is a very powerful one. It probably wasn’t a god that created all of those languages, but rather human nature, because we love to word play and make stuff up and create tribes based on common knowledge and in-jokes. But the end result is the same: We have turned different languages into a divisive thing when they should not be.

It never ceases to boggle my mind that so few Americans whose first language is English ever learn any other language. The figure is around 20%. And I know from experience — because I like to use other languages in my writing — that a lot of American Anglophone’s heads explode on sight of anything that isn’t English. And that’s just ridiculous.

Fun fact: Some of the founding fathers wanted to make America’s official language Hebrew instead of English. And when it comes to how languages work, Hebrew, like all the other Semitic languages, is about as different from English as you can get. They’re the Wheel of Fortune of Languages — “I’d like to buy a vowel.” (If you get that joke, I love you.)

If you speak more than just English, chime in in the comments and let us know which languages you speak and whether you’re American or not. If you are American but only speak English, then here’s my challenge to you. Think of a language you would like to learn, then go and learn it, and also tell me in the comments which language it is and why. And remember, like I said above: It is never too late to learn, and learning a new language is nowhere near as hard as you think it is.

After all — you learned your first language when you were a baby, right? And you probably spent at least the first four or five years with no official training other than people speaking it at you. See? That’s how easy it is to learn.

 

It’s usually “its”

Even Microsoft Word’s spell-check gets this one wrong sometimes, but you shouldn’t. Here’s the scoop on possessives that don’t take apostrophes.

I could write tons and tons on the use of apostrophes, but there are already plenty of guides online. So, instead, I’m going to focus on one area that causes a lot of confusion: Possessive pronouns that do not have apostrophes.

There are eight of them, five of which end in an S and one of which ends in an S sound, although the mistake is most common with only two of them — and it’s a very common error. I’ve even seen it happen on presumably professional sites like CNN and the Huffintonpost.

Here are those eight possessive pronouns:

My
Your
His
Hers
Its
Whose
Ours
Theirs

The most obvious thing about them on sight, of course, should be that there are no apostrophes to be seen. They aren’t necessary because these words are always possessive. For some of them, that doesn’t seem to cause any problems. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone use hi’s or her’s or our’s or their’s. That doesn’t mean this hasn’t happened; just that I can’t remember seeing it.

But I see “it’s” and “who’s” get misused all of the time — probably because both of them are perfectly legitimate words. It’s just that these two are contractions and not possessives. They just happen to look a lot like possessives, hence the confusion.

At least in the case of its, it’s a very easy typo to make, and I’ve caught myself doing it accidentally from time to time — hence the importance of proofreading. Of course, before you can proofread, you have to know the rules.

For “it’s” and “who’s,” the easiest way to remember is to always read them in uncontracted form. It’s helpful that the apostrophe even sort of looks like a little letter “i.” (Well, only sort of, but go with me on this one.) So, when you see “it’s” or “who’s,” read them in your head as “it is” and “who is.”

This makes it easy to spot their misuse:

The cat licks it’s paws.
The cat licks it is paws.

Oops. Wrong word! “The cat licks its paws.” Conversely:

It’s time to go.
It is time to go.

Right word!

Yes, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that we have these words that are possessive but don’t use apostrophes, but I never said that English does make sense. However, it is a fairly standard feature of a lot of languages that possessive pronouns work a little differently than regular possessives.

English used to have — and many languages still do — an entire grammatical case to show possession, so at least take heart in that fact: You only have to learn a few apostrophe exceptions instead of a completely new set of inflections for nouns!

A pair of pet peeves

Two particular English expressions are becoming more and more common — but if you use either or both, you can risk sounding like you don’t know the language very well. Here’s why that opinion is not off-base.

I’ll make this short and sweet: The proper expression is “based on.” You’re not looking for “around,” and you are definitely not looking for “off” or the even more heinous “off of.” Just look at the words. What is a base? Something that supports something else — so nothing can be “based off of” something else, because then it’s not standing on that base at all.

See why that is?

Something can most definitely be spun off from something else — but then it’s based on the thing it was spun off from. It starts on the base, and then goes off to wherever it’s being spun.

To recap: It is always based on and never any other variation.

Expression two

The other word combination that always grates is the mismatch of “how” and “like.” You’ve probably seen this little abomination all over the place: “This is how it looks like.”

Nope. “How” is self-contained. It’s the one question word in English that cannot ever go with “like” in a statement. Contrast that with things like “This is who you look like,” or “This is what it sounds like (when doves cry),” or “Where does it seem like we’re going?” I’ll trust you to come up with your own examples for when, which, and why.

Each of those words has a single, specific answer. “How” does not. “How” is something a little more elaborate than a simple response:

“What does it look like?”

“A loaf of bread.”

“How does it look?”

“Like someone threw a Jackson Pollack painting into a blender and left the lid off.”

But even when it’s not in the form of a question, you don’t need the “like” with the “how” because you’re either going to leave it as a simple statement, “This is how it looks,” or you’re going to answer it with another clause, “This is how it looks when you drop fifteen watermelons out of a hot air balloon.”

Since we’re describing the actual experience we’re going to show you, it doesn’t look like anything else. It looks exactly like what it is — making this one online “like” you’re going to want to avoid.

Better seen than heard?

If you’ve ever tried to learn Gaelic, then all those silent letters may have stopped you. But there’s apparently a method to that madness. Not so much in English, where there’s only one letter that is never silent.

First, a quick quiz to be answered later. Without cheating in Google translator or something, how would you pronounce this Gaelic surname? Mudhean. Hint: The answer is not “mud hen.”

Now, I’d mentioned previously that I’m glad I learned English first because it’s the hardest to pronounce. However, I’ve tried several times to learn my mother’s family’s mother tongue, which is Irish Gaelic, and have failed completely for exactly that reason: It is impossible to pronounce!

Seriously, look at these Americans trying to pronounce common Irish first names — and trust me, I once watched my own father being totally clueless on how to pronounce the very common name “Sean.”

Now look at this liar of an Irishman (because all of us are liars!) claiming that it’s so easy! Right. Maybe if you get rid of all those damn extra H’s and silent letters and dipthongs that bear no resemblance to the vowels in them!

But… this brings me to the point of this article. As difficult as Gaelic pronunciation can seem to English speakers, our language is still weirder because almost every letter in it can be silent. In fact, Miriam-Webster only found one and a half exceptions in their very fascinating article. The first is kind of a cheat because it comes from a direct borrowing from Spanish, and it shouldn’t exactly be unpronounced. I’ll give it to you here as a freebie: it’s the “J” in marijuana. And it isn’t silent, it’s a “y” sound, but hey, I don’t expect gabachos to know that.

The other letter might surprise you, though, and I’ll give you a free hint: It’s not a vowel, so you’ve only got 21 guesses. Well, make that 20, since we’ve already eliminated J. So… which letter in the English language has no examples (to date) of words in which it is silent? To find out, you’ll have to read the Miriam-Webster article.

And, to answer the original question, the name “Mudhean” is pronounced like “Moon,” but with a very, very liquid “u” sound in the middle. Imagine it like drawing that “oo” out a couple of syllables.

The importance of being multilingual

If your first language is English, congratulations — you learned one of the more difficult languages as a kid. What’s stopping you from learning another as an adult?

One of the things I strive for in my dramatic writing is verisimilitude, and this often involves writing dialogue in other languages in order to be authentic. Now, in the process of developing my works, I do a lot of readings in order to hear the pieces and get feedback, so there’s one thing that I’ve learned about a lot of Americans.

Y’all totally suck when it comes to anything that isn’t English, and, as a total languaphile, this absolutely mystifies me — and yet I’ve watched actors’ eyes glaze over and their tongues tangle into knots at the merest hint of words not in the language Shakespeare created.

You want to know a secret? If you grew up with English as your first language, you’re kind of blessed, because it is harder than hell to learn as a second language. For one thing, our spelling and pronunciations make absolutely no sense at all.

Now, from what I’ve gleaned as a lover of languages, Asian, Semitic, and Cyrillic languages might be harder to learn than English, but not by much. But if you want to go from English to any Romance language or any Scandinavian language or any Germanic language, come on — you’re playing with the same family.

Para casi cinco años, he sido aprendido español de nuevo, y ahora soy bastante fluido. Si me dejas en un país hispanohablante, podría sobrevivir sin problema. Todavía no puedo escribir en un nivel profesional, sino puedo comunicar y también tengo amigos en todos partes del mundo por mi conocimiento de un idioma extraño. ¿Quién supo?

Translation: For about five years, I have been learning Spanish again, and now I am fairly fluent. If you left me in a Spanish speaking country, I would be able to survive with no problems. I’m still not able to write on a professional level, but rather I can communicate and also have friends all over the world because of my knowledge of a foreign language. Who knew?

Anyway, here’s my challenge. Pick a language you think you might like. Maybe it’s a country you’ve always wanted to go to, or you have a favorite director who’s from there, or you have ancestry there, whatever. Now, go learn it. There are places like Duolingo that can help you, and a simple google search will also give you tons of resources no matter what language it is. Don’t be afraid, because remember this: You learned one of the harder languages in the world when you were a little kid. Surely you can learn something easier as an adult, right?

Bonus points: You will set yourself apart, you will be able to impress people of the gender you prefer, and you will make your fellow Americans look less cultured.

I love this irony: Out of all of the world’s languages, English is probably the one that has borrowed the most from others, and yet English speakers are notoriously monolingual. Well, let’s change that, okay? Broaden your horizons, improve yourself, and remember: ¡Sí, tú puedes!

Yes, you can!