Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Non-OEM language learning


[brain in four parts*]

Sammuel Beckett is the exception proving the rule. While he only learned French at the university, he wrote many of his works in French, including En Attendant Godot, Waiting for Godot for those that only read English. Try to find another person, not even an author, that is equally fluent in a language only learned as an adult. My personal experience with this challenge is having lived in Israel for some 35 years in a Hebrew speaking house and having a French mother that has lived in the United States for over 70 years. As fluent as a second language can be, it is not native.  An acquired language is different from a mother tongue in terms of crossover, vocabulary retention and confidence. A second language learned as an adult is not the same as your mother tongue.

Most second-language speakers suffer from  having syntax and grammar elements from their first language incorrectly entering their adopted language. My personal bugaboo is common weather expressions in English, specifically “it is cold outside” (or hot)  because I frequently forget that Hebrew does not require the it is, i.e., the Hebrew expression translates as "cold outside".  Another example is many Israelis never switch the future to the present in future clauses, such as “when I wake up, I will call you”, which comes out “when I will wake up” as in Hebrew. Russian speakers have no intuitive understanding of which article (the and a) to use in writing English and seemingly use the lottery system in English. Even after years, language interference never completely disappears.

Over time, there is one struggle that only worsens, specifically the ability to remember words at night or at times of stress. It is amazing how difficult it is to speak a foreign language at 11:00 at night or when a customs official is asking pointed questions. Suddenly, all of your vocabulary goes into hiding, leaving you talking like an idiot (and being treated as one also). Of course, it is a rare person that can do mental arithmetic in a foreign language. Apparently, foreign languages don’t like clutch time very much

Psychologically, the greatest difference between native and acquired languages is assurance. I will dispute (and confidently do so with pedantic editors when they mark up my translations) the correctness of my English, my native language. On the other hand, it seems that the default mode with acquired languages is that the native speaker is correct, which is not always true, even when the foreigner actually studied and understands the formal rules. This feeling of “what do I know” is generally stronger than the academic knowledge of language rules. When it some to acquired languages, when in doubt, a person doesn’t know. This lack of confidence does not disappear or even dissipate with age.

Knowledge and study are two different matters, including in regard to foreign languages. What people absorb in their early years is a certainty, even if incorrect, while what they formally studied later on is a matter of doubt, even if exact. Please do not take me wrong. To acquire a language is a wonderful experience. Even if the native languages contaminates it, words seems to run and hide and we lack trust in our judgment, conversing with a person in their native language makes you a superstar and a citizen of the world even if we don’t reach the level of Sammuel Beckett.

* Picture captions help the blind fully access the Internet

Picture credits


  1. I came to Israel at 22, knowing most of the alphabet and 3 words. At 40 I wrote my first of 20 plays in Hebrew. When I translated one into English I found some sentences that were written with painfully English syntax and others that defied easy translation into English.

  2. As I understand, you "suffered" from second language interferenvce on first language, a subject onto itself. See https://tip-o-tongue.blogspot.com/2021/06/native-disturbance-first-language.html. As for semi and completely untranslatable words and phrases, that is the fun of translation as far as I am concerned. What is your most well known play?

  3. Thinking in another language gives u a taste of a different culture, perspective, way of being. Each language has their qualities similarly each musical instrument play a flute and play a trumpet you feel different qualities. These can affect the speaker/performer.