➡  How to learn 📆 23 March 2022 ✍️  Nina Malinowska

Have you ever heard the phrase “if you know English, you will get by everywhere”? I’ve heard it many times, along with the question: “Why are you learning another language? You know English.” The real question is: “Is it really that easy in every country to get by with English?” Well, the answer is not that simple! There can be various linguistic differences that can lead to misunderstandings!

My first greatest cultural and linguistic misunderstanding

I was about to start a 3 day trip to Beijing. It seemed to me then that Beijing would not cause me any language problems. It was a large touristic city, so I could get by using the English language. However, it turned out to be quite a challenge. Of course, at the ticket counters of tourist attractions in the center of Beijing, where they dealt with foreign customers, it was possible. However, if you wanted to travel by bus or metro, ask for directions, order something to eat, or live in a cheap hotel, English just did not exist! You had to know Mandarin.

The bus timetable and tickets were in Chinese characters ONLY. The only place I could only find a transcription of stops was in the subway. However, at the ticket booth I couldn’t buy a ticket by myself. For over half an hour, I had to look around for someone who would help me buy the right ticket. It was a similar situation with a self-guided trip to the Chinese Wall. As a result, this motivated me to learn Mandarin in the future. 

It was only during my first Mandarin lesson that the owner of the school, who was there to welcome new students, answered my question and solved the mystery. He said that the Chinese are not confident about their level of English. Therefore, they will simply not speak a word. They consider it as a loss of face and a loss of honor when they make linguistic mistakes in a foreign language. Consequently, I remembered that young students and even the policemen whose attention I tried to get did not want to help me.

Facing a totally new reality

When we look at most European countries, we are able to at least read something. We know the numbers and we can rely on many similar words like “hotel, restaurant, toilet”, which are similar in many European languages. However, when we visit a country where there is a different alphabet and a completely different culture, we might then feel completely lost. In my case, the Chinese English translator on my phone  came to the rescue for those 3 days!

In addition, when we are in a very exotic country compared to our own home country, we often can become a tourist attraction because of our height, skin color or eyes. For example, in Beijing I was often approached by people who wanted to take a photo with me.

Other popularly spoken languages ​​can also surprise you!

I’ve had the luck of travelling to various Spanish speaking countries! As a result, I know Spanish quite well and I’m able to communicate without any problems. During one of these trips, I got to visit three different countries in Latin America. This is when I learned that the word “sorry” is different depending on the country. Until this trip, I was used to the form “perdón”, which is the most commonly taught form for “sorry”. However, in the second country, I was in a store and I wanted to pass by someone, so I said “perdón” and they corrected me saying that I should say “con permiso”, which means “with permission”.

As a result, when I visited the third country, I used “con permiso”. However, someone replied that I didn’t do anything wrong, so I don’t need to say that. In my defense, I explained I just wanted to politely say “sorry”, so they told me that “disculpa” is the form they use there. Consequently, based on this experience, I know now that it is important to be aware of cultural differences in order to avoid conflicts and misunderstandings, which will not result from ill will, but from the fact that we perceive expressions having the same meaning in different ways.

In such situations, it might happen that someone who comes from another region will want to correct you, unaware that what you’re saying is correct in the region you’re in, or vice-versa. Nowadays, thanks to the power of the Internet, this problem is certainly much smaller than it used to be. However, it can still occur. Consequently, it’s good to just “humour” them and politely accept their suggestion for the duration of this conversation, as they most often mean well, and you will then build a positive relationship with people during your travels.

linguistic misunderstanding
Photo from the pedestrian crossing at the Bolivia – Peru border (October 2019)

You might think: “…but that’s how I was taught to say it?”

Well, the Spanish language is a good example as there are many countries that use this language. In each of these countries, there are differences in the pronunciation, grammar forms, as well as vocabulary. Usually, in school, you learn this “standard Spanish”, called “castellano”. If you’ve never heard another Spanish dialect, then you might not understand anything. The best way is to first learn the structure & vocabulary of “castellano”, then once you are very comfortable with it, you can start learning another dialect. 

However, sometimes it’s quite difficult to find books that teach, for example, “Mexican Spanish” or “Andalusian Spanish”. Consequently, a really good way to learn these “other versions” is by listening to the pronunciation of this country or region. For example, to learn Mexican Spanish, we can watch Mexican TV shows, listen to radio programmes or read local articles or blogs. This all helps us to learn everyday vocabulary.

Learn not only the language but also the culture of a given country

When learning a new language, it is also worth getting to know the linguistic and cultural specificities of that country, and sometimes a bit of history. It is worth getting to know their customs and, above all, to be open to what is different and what is new. 

For example, when I was initially learning Spanish, I decided to travel to Barcelona and Madrid to practice Spanish. In Barcelona, whenever I tried speaking Spanish, I would get a response in English. This was a surprise to me, but I later learned that they prefer to use Catalan instead of Spanish, or English if the person doesn’t understand Catalan. Next, when I got to Madrid and something was more complex to ask, I would ask in English not in Spanish. However, here they were only responding to me in Spanish! It was quite a funny experience for me.

As a result, I learned a lot about the complexities of the different languages and cultures present within Spain, and their relationships between each other. This was a big contrast for me coming from Poland where everyone speaks one language: Polish.

Adapting to new versions of the same language

Traveling around the world, I had the opportunity to hear mainly English, Spanish and Portuguese in many different varieties, accents and dialects. I realized it’s important to learn these different versions of the same languages. Otherwise, it can contribute to linguistic misunderstandings. If we look at Spanish in Madrid, we deal with a clear language known from courses, radio and television. Whereas in Andalusia, a region in the south of Spain, word endings disappear and the language sounds more like rustling paper, with “sh” sounds at the end of words.

During my first visit to Peru, I participated in a tour for Spanish speakers, which had people from different countries. On the bus, there was a talkative family beside me. After listening to them, I was wondering for a very long time which country they were from. I figured it was a country I had never been to, given I was unfamiliar with their accent and their pronunciation. Finally I decided to ask them. To my surprise, it turned out that they were from Spain! They were from Seville specifically. Consequently, apart from studying a language in books, it’s important to have contact with the daily language too. You need to surround yourself with it and accept differences between different regions or countries. Sometimes it might be difficult, but sometimes it can be very fun and enlightening!

Apart from vocabulary and grammar, we get to know a different view of the world through pronunciation. Each language describes the world around it in its own way. Therefore, it’s impossible to translate everything word for word. For example, if we translate literally the English expression “that’s cool” to another language then they might wonder why we’re saying that something is “cold” – when in fact we mean that it’s “great”! Consequently, trying to translate things literally can cause a lot of misunderstandings, especially at the beginning of learning.

Open your mind and start thinking in another language

It’s easy to say, harder to implement … I know that! But, this approach takes time. As usual, a lot depends on the course materials used and the method of learning. The most important thing is to be in constant contact with the language, to be surrounded by it and to learn it with the accompanying context, not individual words or sentences taken out of context. For example, a great way to do this is to listen to music in this language, to watch movies, or to read articles – every day!

For me, the moment I can say a sentence in a different language, without having to think about it in my native language first, is a huge turning point. It’s a sign that I’m becoming more comfortable with this language. Sometimes, an interesting phenomenon happens. Once I know a language better, I sometimes even have problems with finding the equivalent in my own native language! That’s why it’s a good thing to open your mind to a language, and you’ll start thinking in this language in no time!

And you know what? You don’t even have to wait until you have a “B1 level” to do this. It can happen during the initial stages of learning, in small steps, with the vocabulary or sentences you know. You can feel great satisfaction when you understand a sentence said in a foreign language without trying to translate it in your head first.

“Don’t children learn faster?”

Well, yes and no. They take several years to learn their first language! In fact, they only learn the grammar rules properly once they’re in school. So at first, they only learn from the environment. After all, no one teaches a young child grammar. At first, a child listens a lot and is surrounded by the language even when it cannot speak yet. It begins to slowly connect repeated words to their contexts. Thanks to this, the child begins to react to these words. Next, it starts speaking by starting with single words and repeating a lot after its parents. Only once children start school, this knowledge is systematized and mistakes are eliminated.

If we apply this to us, as adult language learners, we can still start speaking and communicating in everyday life in the language we’re learning whenever we can. Given we’re already aware that our own language has a structure, then it’s easier for us to understand a new structure. We can do this either by comparing or drawing conclusions as to what is different.

As a child, we absorb language through the pronunciation and accent of our closest parent, whom we listen to on a daily basis. This is why 2 people living in the same country, but in 2 distant regions, may express themselves slightly differently. As such, we might encounter differences that are surprising. In such a situation, it is impossible to say that one version is correct and the other is not, because both are correct. Only, they come from a different part of the country.

Every new foreign language gets easier to learn and helps with understanding others better

Regardless of our motivation, there is one overriding goal: we want to understand something or to communicate with someone. Luckily, once we know at least a couple of languages, this can help us with learning additional languages.

For example, I am a native speaker of the Polish language. I know several other languages, and I’m learning a few more. Every new language that I learn is kind of an adventure for me. If I’m learning Russian, then I can draw upon my knowledge of Polish to learn Russian faster, given there are many similarities. Also, I can do the same when learning Italian – I can draw upon my knowledge of Spanish.

Furthermore, sometimes there’s “cognates”, which means there’s words that are transferable between languages, like the words: hotel, restaurant, etc. They might change slightly, but we can easily pick up the meaning. This means we don’t start completely from scratch when learning a new language. Also, the more languages we know, the more cognates we have as our base.

Each of us has a reason or a motivation to learn a language. It might be a trip (as it usually is in my case), maybe a job, a new addition to the family (like a new son-in-law or daughter-in-law), a new friend from another country, or maybe interest in a given book from another country (e.g. maybe we want to read Don Quixote in Spanish)? Ultimately though, this helps us understand other people, other ideas and other ways of thinking. It helps make our minds more open.

Photo from own collection, 2022

Similar or different? Well, let’s use the similarities and love the differences!

Let’s begin with “How are you?” It’s one of the first phrases we learn in any new foreign language. For example, in English, Hungarian or Romance languages ​​it is expressed with the verb “TO BE” (i.e. “How ARE you?”). Whereas in Polish, Czech or Slovak, it is expressed through the verb “TO HAVE” (i.e. “How do you HAVE yourself?”). While in Chinese, there is no verb in this phrase at all!

For people who are only used to one way of expressing “how they are”, it can be a very abstract concept to use a completely different verb to express the same idea. In a way, “how are you” shows that how we feel is a state of being. Whereas in the case of “how do you have yourself?”, how we feel is expressed through the concept of belonging. Quite abstract, right?

Not every word has a direct translation in every language.

Now, let’s continue by looking at the verb “TO HAVE”. This verb alone can cause many linguistic misunderstandings. For me, it is one of the basic verbs that I’ve learned quite quickly in any language. However, it DOES NOT exist in Hungarian. They express belonging completely differently and don’t need this verb in their language!

Let’s look at the following two phrases:

1. I have a sister.

2. I have two cats.

In Hungarian, these are the translations:

1. Is sister-my

2. Is two cat-mine

Therefore, we define something or someone by pointing out whose it is, but we cannot directly say that we have it. The second example is my favorite, because it shows the difficulty of this language, as well as its uniqueness and beauty. We have a few more elements in this sentence that are difficult to understand:

A)   “Two cat” – when counting a noun, the noun remains singular. In other words, we don’t pluralize the noun. So, we say: two cat, three cat, etc.

B)   We use a singular verb form because the noun is in singular form, whereas the “number” in front of it is just extra information.

C)   In English, the subject of the sentence would be “I”, whereas in in Hungarian it’s “sister” or “cat”.

Ah, those personal pronouns! They can cause linguistic misunderstandings too!

Another thing to keep in mind when learning a new language is the use of personal pronouns (or in some cases, not). In English and French – it is mandatory. If the pronoun is not mentioned, then it can be confusing, given the verb forms are often the same (e.g. je peux, tu peux – I can, you can … so if we take out the personal pronoun, we don’t know if we’re talking about “I” or “you”).

On the other hand, we have Polish or Romance languages (like Spanish or Italian), in which we omit the personal pronoun. The use of a personal pronoun is optional for the speaker, and sometimes only used to reinforce a sentence (e.g. like saying “Me, I like ice cream”). 

For example, in languages like Polish or Spanish, each verb form is different based on the pronoun, which means you can omit the pronoun. Therefore, for speakers of these languages, whether there’s a pronoun or not, they understand the meaning. Also, whether they learn another language with or without pronouns, it will be easier for them to learn with either option.

Here’s another example of how pronouns differ. In English, “you” is a great example, because it can mean “you = 1 person” or “you = many people”. Only the context will indicate which one we mean, given in both cases the verb form is the same (i.e. “you are”). Many other languages have two different pronouns for “you” to make it easier to communicate, like “tu” and “vous” in French, or “ty” and “wy” in Polish. 

Articles… with genders? Definite or indefinite? Masculine, feminine… and neutral? What? Please help!

Another thing that can contribute to linguistic misunderstandings is the article. In German, we have ”der, die, das” which are definite articles (like “the”), which have 3 genders (male, female, and neuter). For someone who knows a language without genders like English, this can be mind boggling! Male and female, we can still understand, but how can something be neuter (or let’s call it “neutral”)? In Polish, there’s 3 genders as well, just like German. However, we express them with the ending of nouns and adjectives (not with articles – given we don’t use them). In comparison, in Spanish and Portuguese there’s only 2 genders (male and female), so they’re much easier to learn. 

In contrast, Hungarian doesn’t have genders either. As a result, you can read a fiction book in Hungarian, and not really know the gender of the characters. Imagine if you grew up in a language and culture without “genders” in the language, how different the thought process can be? Also, imagine how challenging it can be for them to learn or memorize genders, when they’re learning a language that has 2 or 3!

In Polish, given we don’t really have articles, learning the difference between definite articles and indefinite articles (like “ein, eine” in German or  “a, an” in English) can be quite a challenge! In English, it is significantly simpler, but if we use the wrong article in German, it can lead to confusion.

Looking at all these different complexities, we just have to accept it all when learning a new language. We have to listen, and slowly assimilate these concepts by looking at a lot of examples.

Cases, or in simple terms… word endings that change based on the context!

A big challenge for people learning German or Slavic languages (like Polish) are cases, given these do not occur in many languages. In modern English, there’s only a few exceptions where we see cases. For example, “who” becomes “whom” or “whose”, and we can see other examples in Old English, like “you, yours, thy and thine”. 

However, in languages with cases, the case of the word delivers a lot of information. For example, in German, there’s 4 cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. In Polish, there’s up to 7 cases, and this means that a pronoun, noun or adjective changes depending on the case (but at least there’s no articles!), as well the number (singular vs. plural) and gender (female or male). This can be very abstract and is a lot to learn for someone who doesn’t have cases in their language. Also, it can obviously lead to linguistic misunderstandings if you use the wrong case in one of these languages.

The order in a sentence – is your language flexible?

Another element that strongly reflects the character of the language and hence the culture of a given nation is the approach to sentence order. In French or English, we have everything in one order: pronoun, verb, direct object, indirect object, etc. There’s inversions in questions, and constant elements are always in their place. 

On the other hand, there are very flexible languages, such as Polish, where the statement and question may often look identical and the only difference between them is the intonation and the question mark. Beside that, the same sentence or question can be presented in different ways. For example, the word order can be in several different variations, because the cases provide all of the information that we need to know in order to understand the function of the word. Although learning the cases is harder, creating sentences is much easier. 

For languages like German or English, it is harder to catch the rules and verify that the sentence is correct, if you’re not used to how the order of words should be. This is likely a common “linguistic awkwardness” for native English speakers when they hear the words in the wrong order.  For some, they might still understand the meaning given the words are there, but for others who’ve only ever heard other native speakers speak their language, this might be a bigger adjustment to get used to.

Conclusion – there’s many causes for linguistic misunderstandings, but learning new languages can be fun!

As you can see, every language has some unique characteristics that cannot be translated directly into other languages. This is what makes learning foreign languages ​​a great adventure where we can discover a lot of new things. It is a great journey to get to know other cultures, people, customs, traditions and preferences. 

I learn new languages ​​mainly because it brings me pleasure. It allows me to communicate with people from other countries while traveling. It even helps me communicate with some people at work (but that’s just an added bonus!). The fluency in every language doesn’t need to reach a high level. It’s the process of learning a new language itself that gives me a lot of satisfaction. I think that having an open mind and enjoying learning new things is essential. It can help give us all good results when learning a new language! I wish you as much pleasure and excitement when learning your next new language.

If you’ve now decided that you’ve gathered the courage to learn a new language, you can sign up to a new language course here. I’d also love to hear about any interesting linguistic misunderstandings that you’ve experience in the comments below.

Nina Malinowska

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1 year ago

That was a nice read – very well written.Thanks.

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