In this article I explain one reason that learning a new language is hard.
Imagine that you read a book, as simple as something by Tom Clancy or as seemingly sophisticated as something by Dickens or perhaps something as needlessly complex as Ulysses. These books have descriptions of characters, scenes, events, thoughts and feelings.
Ok, you know that.
Here is an extract from For Whom The Bell Tolls, By Ernest “Saildog” Hemingway.
“How do you say Golz in Spanish, Comrade General?” “Hotze,” said Golz grinning, making the sound deep in his throat as though hawking with a bad cold.
“Hotze,” he croaked. “Comrade Heneral Khotze. If I had known how they pronounced Golz in Spanish I would pick me out a better name before I come to war here.
Now think about the last time you told a friend a story. How much did you have to describe? Did you describe the precise distribution of paint chips on the baseboards? Did you describe the clothes the personages in your story wore –down to the cut, color, brand and stains? Did you describe the air temperature, the precise hand motions of the people you describe?
In the example from For Whom the Bell Tolls, we have some description, but only an infinitesimal sliver of what could be described that surrounds the characters, including their full histories. Hell, Hemingway does not even have the linguistic tools to describe how Golz makes the “j” sound of Spanish!
In every conversation, and in every re-telling of the happenings of our human lives, we are forced to describe certain things and in fact only a tiny fraction of the details that could be described.
Not only is this true, that the very act of adding details is painfully hard. You’ll note that when we speak to those who know us well, and are up-to-date on our lives, we give few details. When we speak to those who “have the details” we give only short facts, often in the “past tense.”
Frustratingly, as we get older, meeting new people is difficult because we have to give so many details that anyone who has known us for a long time should have already. We never feel as though we do our own stories justice because “you just had to be there.”
In language we are asked to give certain details and omit others. What do I mean?
In English, to give a classic example, we are required to reveal the sex of third persons in our stories. Consider this contrived example:
“He did this, she did that, he gave him this and she stole the other thing from them.”
Fun Quiz: Based on the above sentence, how many characters, minumum are involved in this senstence? Answer to be found at the bottom of the article.
Much to the chagrin of many San Franciscans, English requires us to divulge the gender of third persons when talking about them. Sure, we have the plural pronouns “they, them, theirs” but, excessive use of these makes it seem as though we are hiding something. Why does English have these much maligned gender pronouns? Well because it doesn’t have other things. How did this come to be the state of affairs? That’s an interesting question, without a definitive answer and a topic for another article. However, what if I told you that in Turkish there is no simple tool to describe the gender of third persons?
O gitt. — she left.
O gitti. — he left
*Gitti. — (she) left
*Gitti. — (he) left
*Note: Assuming your listener knows what is going on, we are not required to use 3rd person pronouns in Turkish.
Each language gives us tools and expects us to use some, while failing to give us tools that are commonplace in other languages. For example, in Turkish we are required to disclose what sorts of actions and states are hearsay as opposed to things we know as fact. You say, sure no big deal! But in Turkish we have to mark EACH verb and adjective with an ending meaning hearsay –if indeed it is. EVERY VERB. In English all we do sometimes is simply say, at the beginning of a conversation “So, Bob tells me that…” or “I heard that…” and there after no more need to disclaim anything. Failing to mark things appropriately, in Turkish, means telling a different story. Sometimes, when humans tell stories different from what is expected/true, those humans get killed. Playing by the rules can be important.
Languages have all sorts of necessary marking not found in English.
In Arabic we have to mark all second person verbs with gender. I don’t know Arabic, their script is opaque to many of us, so here is a contrived example of English as it would be if it were structured as Arabic is (in this one regard).
A: How are youk?
B: I am well, thanks. So, did youm go to L.A. Last week?
A: No, Harry was sick. I had to watch him. What did youk do?
B: Oh, I am sorry to hear youm didn’t go. I had fun at home
The –k ending is used when the addressee is female, and the –m ending is used when the address is male. Kinda hard to keep track of, huh? Well English has all kinds of stuff that others find hard to keep track of.
In English, we traditionally must report when an action is an activity or habit and when it is presently ongoing or a recent development. –But only in the present tense!
I go rock-climbing (every day)
I am going rock-climbing (new habit, right now or in the near future).
Failing to conform to this structure, in English makes us doubt the sanity or -nativeness of the speaker. A dramatic enactment:
A: Bob, what are you doing tonight?
B: I go rockclimbing!
A: What did you smoke, dude?
B: I ate tide pods at lunch today.
A: Ah, ok, classic Bob…
You will note that we don’t have that distinction in the past tense.
I went rock-climbing (everyday).
I went rock-climbing (last week, once).
Sure, English has a periphrastic “I used to…” but, if you listen to others you will see/hear that we often feel no need to use it. We use it for clarification or emphasis.
Spanish also has this neat habit (adjective) vs. unfinsihed/ongoing alternation however it has it in both tenses, though it can be omited in the present. Why? Because we dance better.
Hago escalación (todos los días, los miércoles).
Estoy escalando (ahora)
Hacía escalación. (cuando aún tenía cabello)
Hice escalación (ese día, ayer)
Turkish does not have it in the present (but has4 levels of distinction in the past!).
Tırmanış yapıyorum (şuan) [now]
Tırmanış yapıyorum (her gün) [everyday, these days]
Tirmanış yapardım [every day]
Tırmanış yapıyordum [everyday, in that moment]
*Tırmanış yaptım [finished (recently or at one specific moment)]
Tırmanış yapmıştım [a long time ago, prior to some other event]
*Technically not a past tense, Turkish does not have a past tense. But hell, that is a whole can o’worms.
This lack in the present made me nervous for the first three years in my career as Turkish speaker. I was raised to make this distinction habit/adjective VS. currently unfinished/ongoing very clear in English and Spanish present tenses. Suddenly, I am asked to let the person I am speaking with figure it out? I can’t trust them to do that!
What all languages do share –and share well- is the fact that humans all over the world whether they belong to a hunter-gatherer society, or whether they be Android or Apple users (God forgive them), evolved to handle the same sorts of stories –human stories!
Humans talk about to one another, talk of others, pay attention more to moving things and things we believe to be alive or “animate.” In conversation we try to understand if the person across from us is: threatening us; serious; making a joke; insulting us; complimenting us; speaking of the past or the future; talking about a world that exists or one that does not. The list is very long. In a future article, I will describe some of these differences.
Each language requires us to be very clear about some details, and leave others to be guessed at by the listener –and yet, of all possible items to be described, most are ignored. Why? Can’t fit so much data into little space. Our brains are small in comparison to the describeable universe.
Long story short:
When you learn a new language you learn 4 things:
- To give importance to new details, while not mentioning details that are important in your other language(s) but no longer important in the new one.
- To re-organize the details to be shared.
- To do so with new muscle movements (hands, arms, tongue, jaw, diaphragm, etc.)
- You learn the names of all sorts of objects events and feelings, some familiar, some new (see photo examples).
Same bullet points restated:
When you learn a new language you learn to tell stories where different parts of the story may be more important, are presented in a different order, with different muscle movements (tongue, vocal “cords”, hands, etc.). If this sounds daunting, it is. It takes kids 20 years to do so well.
Thats all folks! Make sure to comment if you don’t understand something.
Answer to above question: 3 people minimum.
him =/= he because they appear in the same clause (in English), therefore, him =1
them could be he + him, or more people.
1 + 1 + 1 + ? ≥ 3.