Friday, 25 September 2009


I write a lot about languages here but I generally avoid talking about the big elephant crouching silently on the dining room table: my own native language, English.

And I'm not going to talk about it now: I'm cheating. Strictly Come Dancing finished, I have no plans tonight and I'm still awake, so I decided to flick through the Ted talks (disappointingly, all in English), which is something I've been meaning to do for a while. Running the mouse over inventions, philosophy, neuroscience, finally I came to a section on words.

The result is a short video that describes learning English as a mania.
I concur. My entire living is based on the fact that English is my mother tongue. As a translator, interpreter, proofreader, my added value is the fact that I do this automatically: I have natural style, linguistic grace: when I do it, it just sounds right. At least most of the time. Better still, I am British, and that holds an added premium (although most people's cultural contact with English is of the US variety, I believe the majority of schools - at least in Europe - are still teaching Received Pronunciation phonetics and therefore it carries a certain prestige).

Just think of the flood of capital pouring into the coffers of anglophone states simply from the export of TEFL teachers, interpreters, translators, copywriters and multilingual ex-pat Brits who are hired for good client relations. I read an article on this - it took me ages to find it - but unfortunately it's old enough to require an Economist on-line subscription to actually read the thing.

Personally I'm disappointed when everyone speaks English. However frustrating it is - and believe me I know - to have those moments when you simply can't say what you want to say and when the waitress for heavens' sake gives you that withering look as if you were an illiterate child, I still think it's fun to mix it up, I still like learning, I love the complexities, the similarities, the beautiful broken jigsaw puzzle of it all. I love borrowings, calques, sound shifts - all ghostly traces of long-forgotten human migrations.

I will never speak a foreign language with perfect confidence and fluency: I started learning far too late for that. But I love to try, to play, to dip my toe into the deep well labelled 'foreign'.*
I think that's important, don't you? I think we - anglophones - are becoming too complacent about our silent pachydermatous companion perched on the table top, and we're letting opportunities pass us by (see this article, also from the Economist - sorry).

Where was I? Oh yes. Here's the talk:

*Pinolona's theory of adult language acquisition (and a jolly good excuse for using Polish words in Italian): language is a deep, dark well of words. The human brain recognises two such wells: mother tongue and foreign. The most recent foreign language bobs closest to the surface of the well, and when the right word is lacking, you plunge in and fish out a word from another, deeper down. (Disclaimer: the language professional known by Pinolona's real name never fishes at work and she always knows the Right Word. She just may not pronounce it correctly. Especially if it happens to be French.)


Bartek Usniacki said...

I've just taken a break from translating (this time the allegedly correct direction - EN->PL), popped in and saw a post with very apt diagnoses.

There's a common belief, dated back to the medieval ages that translator should translate it only into their native languages. Basically the assumption is right, but what if the target language is much more complicated than the source one, like in case of Polish (turgid) and English (plain)? Probably almost only native speakers have the skills necessary to produce texts in a natural style, etc. But it's a big mistake to claim that by virtue of being a native speaker one has such ability. When comes to me, I surely lack that skills in Polish. I feel much more comfortable and the outcome sounds better for me in my second language (EN), which at least sounds naturally, not like Polish. Today I've noticed that a sentence in Polish, which is a translation of an English sentence is about 40 per cent longer - cause Polish needs more words to include the same message.

PS. Your view on adults' language acquisition squares with my observations. If you start learning too late, it impinges on the upshot of the whole process. You might be excellent in passive command, but you'll still make mistakes when speaking or writing. That's not the (lame) excuse, that's home truth!

I'm so thankful translating is only my hobby and whenever something gets on my nerves I can just give it up (with all extra money I get for it)

katy said...

I know what you mean, native English speakers are allowed to be pretty lazy when abroad (myself included). But paradoxically, since I work in communications (and both companies I've worked for in Europe requested native speakers), English is what allows me to be here at all! So what is one to do about the guilt? Alors, time to go listen to a French podcast...

OH and not sure if you've heard yet but there's a TED event coming to Brussels in November...I'd love to go but why did they have to put it on a Monday? Anyway, here's the site in case you're interested...