Thursday, August 11, 2011

Outdated Language and Relationships - Vocabulary

Once upon a time, all boys and girls automatically met (or were matched) somewhere between the ages of 16-20, got married, and lived happily (or not) ever after.  Needless to say, those days are over, replaced by divorced once or multiple times, latch key kids, being single to 30, 40, or more, and even two father or mother households. Life is not so simple anymore.
Many languages, alas, are behind the time.  For example, English has a nice pair of words: girlfriend and boyfriend.  These are very adequate words until somewhere around 30 when the “boy” has a pot belly, expanding face, and a salary higher than the father while the “girl” may be a high-level executive who has already given birth.  They are clearly not “16 going on 17” as the song says.
So, faced with this challenge, English has come with plethora of alternative words.  There is the more adult versions lady friend and male friend.  There is gender and relation ambiguous partner (the one I am currently using) or, slightly more specific, life partner.  For invitations that want to ignore legal status issues, significant others includes everybody.  I feel obliged to mention She-who-must-be-obeyed, although I would never actually use it. 
The problem with all these terms, many of them quite appropriate, is that the speaker has to think which is the most politically correct to use.  They all have some gender/legal status/age context.
Contrast this with approach taken by Hebrew.  There, we have חבר [haver] and  חברה [havera], which mean simply friend, masculine and female.  The voice inflexion and context let you know how friendly they are, but that really isn’t your business, is it?  Older couples can use the terms בן זוג   and בת זוג  [ben zug / bat zug], which means male and female of the pair, a bit like spouse without the requirement of marriage.  The beauty of these words is that there no connotation of age or status, just stating the essential: friendship and togetherness.  Those are never outdated.
I would be interested in knowing how other languages deal with the older friendships.

My next post will be at the end of the month.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Why Read in a Foreign Language – Not because it’s there

The hardest task in a foreign language, even harder than talking on the phone, is reading books in that language.  Even many long-term residents of a country never read books in the language of their adopted country, no matter how well they speak the language.  In this sense, a person can live 50 years in a country and not become completely bilingual.
There are many good reasons for this attitude to foreign language books.  Many people read at night in bed.  This activity is supposed to be pleasurable and relaxing.  Straining your brain and using a dictionary are definitely not fun and restful.  Also, the learning curve for reading is very long and steep.  In other words, it takes a lot of practice before you can read a book in a foreign language as easily as in your mother tongue.   Finally, depending on your native tongue, there may be plenty of reading material available as is.  For example, if English speakers have no problem finding reading material wherever they are.  There are always English books in libraries and second-hand stores, not mention English books in retail book stores.  Therefore, it is clearly very easy not to avoid reading foreign language.
However, if you ever really want to master a language, whether you live in a country that speaks that language or not, you have to read it all the time.   Passively but effectively, reading a book in the language adds vocabulary, understanding, and nuance.  You see many words than you will never hear.  Moreover, over time, the reader intuitively understands what they mean without looking at a dictionary.  Differences between similar words suddenly become much clearer and easier to remember after you have seen them used hundreds of times. You learn like a native.  Also, the connotations of words sink in without any formal explanation. 
To reach this stage is like climbing a tall mountain.  The first part of the journey is hard and tiring, not to mention frustrating at times.  However, when a language learner reaches the peak, effortless reading of a foreign language, it all seems worthwhile.  You can understand Goethe, Zola, and Orwell in the original, or anybody else who wrote in that language.  That is a natural high, like climbing a mountain.  However, unlike Sir Hillary, you never have to go down.  You can enjoy the view all of your life.  That's a good reason to learn how to read in a foreign language.