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Studying Foreign Languages To Better Understand Your Own

Written By: alex_klevan on December 11, 2007 2 Comments

The one pet-peeve I have that I just cant seem to get over is hearing people use the word “good” as an adverb. I usually catch myself before correcting people when I hear the mistake (I know it’s a pet-peeve of most people to be corrected on grammatical errors), but on the occasions when I do correct people, I find the most common response to be, “what’s wrong with that?” In fact, I find that, particularly among older people long-removed from school, most do not even know the general difference between an adverb and an adjective! Of course, most people you meet on the street would agree that the sentence “he paints well” sounds better than “he paints good,” most people would be hard pressed to say why. What I’ve found though, is that those people who do tend to remember their grammar tend to be at least bilingual. I don’t think this is a coincidence. At least from my own experience, I’ve found that studying foreign languages has drastically aided in my understanding of English.
I began learning foreign languages when I was pretty young. When I was in first grade, I began studying Spanish, and at the same time was beginning to learn the Hebrew alphabet and some basic words. Although I did not continue to study Spanish, I did continue to study Hebrew for the next eight years. However, I did not gain any insight into grammar or language in general from studying Hebrew. I think this is because I was not exposed to a formal treatment of the language, but was instead expected to learn through immersion. It was not until I began studying French in middle school that I was taught grammar from a formal perspective (as the amount of English grammar taught in school is very limited). Around the same time, I began studying Japanese at a local community college. It was, in fact, through my study of Japanese language that my understanding of English grammar, and grammar in general, was essentially solidified. That English and Japanese are essentially unrelated languages only increased the degree to which understanding Japanese grammar aided my understanding of English. The reason for this conclusion is that, when studying a language which shares essentially no vocabulary of common etymology with one’s native tongue nor any real historical grammatical influences, the teaching of grammar in the foreign language is in an essentially abstract setting. It is this semi-formal abstraction which I think is missing from Elementary and Middle school English courses in the U.S. I later studied Latin for three years in high school which further helped to solidify my understanding. I am currently taking an introductory Russian class, and am finding my past experiences with foreign languages to be very useful. Although I have never really been completely fluent in any language other than English, I have found that being exposed to many different languages and systems of grammar is very rewarding in my everyday life.

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2 Responses to “Studying Foreign Languages To Better Understand Your Own”

  1. katie_k on: 12 December 2007 at 7:41 am

    I definitely agree that learning a foreign language helps in learning grammar. Until Spanish in middle school, I had no idea how complex English grammar is. Having to learn past participle forms and verb tense agreement made me realize that I was lucky in already unconsciously knowing that information about English, especially because English is full of irregular verbs that don’t follow rules!

  2. daveski on: 12 December 2007 at 9:35 pm

    I agree with your feelings about how learning a foreign language can help with developing a meta-awareness of grammar in your native language(s). I grew up speaking only English, studied Spanish in high school, and then Japanese at Cal as an undergraduate. I actually felt the language with a more similar structure to English (Spanish) really helped me more with the explicit awareness of grammar in English, because I remember the direct parallels between verb forms for example that were drawn in our Spanish textbook. Importantly, the names of the actual tenses were the same or similar, or made me think about what their analogues were in English. Spanish has a “pasado” just like English has a “past” tense. But then what’s the “pluscamperfecto” in English? The common use of these categories in class really got me thinking.

    Meanwhile, I feel like exposure to languages like Japanese has forced me to a higher meta-awareness of the arbitrariness of grammatical and lexical structure at a more abstract level. What does it mean that the subject can remain unstated in a sentence? How do counter words force us to regroup the ‘classes’ of things in the world (like “hon” in Japanese is used to count both pencils and trees, since they’re long, round objects). How does the constant decision-making about what degree of honorific language to use change who I am in society? Is my relationship to something I eat (or other objects transformed by my action) similar somehow to my relationship to the paths I move through? (are those paths transformed by my movement?) Like in 「ピザ(を)食べる」 and [道(を)歩く」.

    By the way, does anyone know any good sites for learning (very) introductory Hebrew online?

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