Learning a New Language — The North Star Reports – by Kathryn Marquis Hirsch. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal
[Photo 1: Russian State Library– largest in the nation and 4th largest in the world. The statue out front is of Dostoevsky.]
Editor’s Note: We are pleased to note that this is our 200th article. A remarkable feat for an all volunteer staff of dedicated student editors and writers. Professor Liang.
As countless many have expressed before, learning other languages not only allows one to converse with more people, it also gives a deeper understanding of other cultures because so much is lost in translation. Spoken language expresses much more than simply noun, verb, tense, and other elements which can be easily translated. (This is why excellent human translators are essential and cannot be replaced by software. Idiomatic speech, nuance, and situational context are largely lost on computers.) To respect the whole of another person or people requires an attempt to understand these elements of language that are less obvious but not insignificant.
In college, I had one professor who insisted that all thoughts are framed in language. All thoughts. Period. Many of my fellow students nodded in ready agreement, or perhaps in the hope our professor would move on, but he would have had better luck convincing a wall than me because I know from my own personal experience as well as from discussions with many others that this is just not true. Some of the thoughts, feelings, and dreams that defy words’ constraints are not only failed by my native English, but are outside of the framework of language. Others, however, are the sort of concepts that “words cannot express,” though it seems like it should be possible if only I could find the right words. One of the great pleasures of learning other languages has been finding such words and terms.
My resistance to my professor’s declaration aside, I do not dispute that languages reflect and influence ways of thinking in an endless circle– this is why they provide an invaluable window into the deeper culture of a people. Certainly my own thoughts have been shaped by English. But a wonderful benefit of learning other languages has been gaining new ways of structuring ideas. From time to time I will learn a concept that exists in Russian or Korean that is so delightfully apt, so perfect, that I wish it existed in English but as it stands it would require paragraphs of explanation or just does not exist at all. It was only possible for me to learn them incrementally, learning vocabulary and grammar and cultural context until I could think in the right steps to lead all the way there.
I do not mean to be a show-off by touting the wondrous expansion of my mind through foreign language study; I imagine those who have lived their entire lives multilingual would find my observations trite. This desire to find the right word is behind the adoption of foreign words found in almost every widely spoken language, and it seems these words or terms are often learned and incorporated rather than translated because they are so suitable just the way they are. Larger concepts are similarly easy to learn and incorporate into one’s thinking, given the foundation to do so. However, I don’t want to minimize the amount of work that I have put into studying other languages, because it does require dedicating one’s effort and time, and I have felt overwhelmed for moments at every stage. People seem to forget what they went through and often ignore what can be observed in young children: learning a language takes years and years of constant work and daily tutoring from every older person around you. It has often been frustrating and humbling, but in spite of starting in my thirties (well past the point where I could hope a nice Russian or Korean couple would adopt me and immerse me in their language), I have been able to progress and I am convinced that this is possible and worthwhile for anyone who wants to learn.
My practical advice would be to mix methods of learning rather than trying to do a strict regimen of only immersion or textbook study. Starting out when you’re older (not a baby), you won’t have time to go through another childhood of learning first to understand then speak then read, and being able to read facilitates the self-study that real progress will require. I’ve found it’s best to take an analytical approach, examining existing habits and ways of thinking about language and comparing these to the language being learned. For example, I think many people whose first language is English are intimidated by the concepts of formal and familiar speech or of masculine and feminine words. But actually, this isn’t entirely foreign to native English speakers. In English, even for a singular “you,” we use “you are” and “you were” instead of the “you is” or “you was” that would fit the overall structure of English. This is counterintuitive and something that native speakers often take some time to pick up on, but by the time we’re older, most of us don’t even realize how irregular it is. Among English speakers, saying “you is” is a common mistake, usually made until the speaker acquires the habit of using plural forms for “you” after of hearing and reading the proper usage. But it’s such a logical mistake to make that no one should beat themselves up over it.
Once you begin to study a different language, it’s not only interesting to see how other languages address these sorts of questions in their system, but also to gain a new perspective on what we do in English and how it works together. I was struck at first by how in Korean, each concept is a root word that is then conjugated into a noun, verb, adverb, or adjective simply by use of the appropriate suffix. It’s really neat and efficient and makes learning vocabulary somewhat easier (in a way). It eventually dawned on me, however, that this isn’t really all that different from what we do in English. Take the word “red” for example- it’s an adjective, right? But in Korean, it would be listed in the dictionary in a form that is at once adjective and noun. “Red” the color: noun. “Red” the attribute: adjective. But in English, it is the same! What does it mean if the apple is red? It exists in a red way. It is in a red state of being. Things can be reddened, or they can redden of their own accord. (Realizations like this please me far too much.)
[Photo 2: A lighting shop in Russia, has nothing to do with the U.S. president, but an interesting false cognate.]
This all goes back to the time and effort factors in learning a language, which would be hard to overstate. If you are a native English speaker like I am, unaccustomed to masculine/feminine/neutral, that’s okay– if your new language uses this concept, you’ll just learn it. Perhaps more important that dedicating time and energy is a willingness to make mistakes and even to make a fool of oneself from time to time with the inevitable misunderstandings and failures you will experience when it comes to actually using a new language. I accept that I will have to spend the rest of my life trying to improve in Russian and Korean, and that I will never master either language. This is also okay– few people ever do. Decades into daily use, I certainly can’t claim that my English is flawless. I will gladly admire the greatest writers and orators in each language along with everyone else.
Learning new languages is a rewarding and enjoyable show of respect. Of course, it would be impossible for any one person to become conversant, let alone fluent, in the language of every person they’ll ever want to interact with in their lifetime. And knowing another language is unlikely to result in some sort of magical meeting of minds; people who share a native tongue are not of a single mind. But it certainly goes a long way toward understanding, and where it falls short, the effort made demonstrates one’s recognition that others have intellectual value and a willingness and desire to connect.
Kathryn Marquis Hirsch serves as the Managing Editor of The North Star Reports and is a JD candidate at The university of Minnesota – Twin Cities Law School.
Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at) css.edu
See also, our Facebook page with curated news articles at http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports
The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, The College of St. Scholastica and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal’s online learning community and outreach program with undergraduate and K-12 classes around the world. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:
The North Star Reports publishes edited essays from our students, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. Students have reported from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, Colombia, Norway, northeastern China, Nicaragua, Micronesia, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, El Salvador, England, Finland, Russia, Cyprus, and Haiti. We also publish student reviews of books, documentaries, and films, and analysis of current events from around the world. We will post their dispatches, and report on their interactions with the North Star Reports students and teachers. We thank The Department of History and Politics and the School of Arts and Letters of The College of St. Scholastica for their generous financial support for The North Star Reports and The Middle Ground Journal.
Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports; Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal; Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica.
Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports.
(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy http://NorthStarReports.org ISSN: 2377-908X The NSR is sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact editor-in-chief Professor Liang at HLIANG (at) css.edu
19 responses to “Learning a New Language — The North Star Reports – by Kathryn Marquis Hirsch. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal”
You have a very interesting have unique sense of language; it’s refreshing! It’s also something that is difficult to understand for those of use who haven’t been seeing language through that lens. I had a professor, here at CSS, who taught me the inner workings of English before he would allow us to start taking the journey towards understand the language we had all been expecting to learn on the first day of class. This, to me, opened my eyes to the way we as native English speakers allow ourselves to become lazy instead of truly understanding the language we speak. Then, we move forward to speak other languages and are lost and confused and don’t understand, there is definitely a deeper meaning to understanding your native tongue…
Wonderful article, it made me think about the language(s) I speak and attempt to learn.
Reblogged this on The Middle Ground Journal.
Reblogged this on Professor Liang 梁弘明教授.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I really enjoyed this article because, I too, also have a love for learning languages. I think there is so much to learn not only about linguistics, but also culture and human behavior when learning another language. I completely agree with you that when one cannot truly say they are “fluent” in another language, at times even their own native tongue. I studied Spanish for 12 years (from Kindergarten until junior year of high school), and then I have taken four years of American Sign from senior year of high school until junior year of college. Even after all of these years and all of these classes, I still am not confident saying I am fluent in either language. Aside from learning the language, you begin to see how cultures can be shaped around language. It makes me wonder why some people in America seem to focus on only wanting other Americans to speak English. Yes, English is a common language spoke in America, but it is not the only language that exists in this culture. Thanks again for sharing!
Your second-to-last paragraph raises an interesting point and question– is it actually possible to master any certain language? English is the native tongue of nearly all Americans, so most assume we are basically experts with it. But, languages are constantly evolving and adapting to current times, so it is really possible to stay caught up? Not to mention slang and lingo, but that’s another story. Do you think you’ll limit yourself to Russian, Korean, and English? Or ideally, would you have no limit?
What an interesting read, all I could think about was my time trying to learn spanish. Especially, when you brought up the masculine/feminine aspect of it. It’s a difficult thing to process and understand at first, because I wasn’t use to looking at the English language that way. I was so used to speaking my native language that I didn’t realize the difficult steps along the way.
This was an interesting read and got me thinking about my time in Spanish class. Trying to remember the differences between masculine and feminine terms was difficult. I wasn’t used to learning something that I normally did fluently each day with the English language. It just makes you reconsider the difficulty of learning in a different way than normal.
I think it is extremely amazing how languages differ in expressions. It is wonderful that there are phrases used to describe things in one language that do not exist in another. There are many beautiful and perfect expressions that are created The development and usage of language is fascinating and I agree that to fully understand a culture, understanding differences language and communication is of the utmost importance. As I study other languages I find much of what you wrote in this article to be true. However, I find that learning a new language is a difficult process. When these connections are made, they always encourage me to continue!
I totally agree about all the things you can do with learning a second language. I’m currently attempting to minor in Spanish as I travel to central America a lot. It’s great reading about all the experiences you’ve been able to have with your second language. I’m curious to what your thoughts are on when children should start being able to take language classes?
This is such an insightful article! I especially liked your point that learning a new language is a sign of respect. It always baffles me that there are so many things that other languages have words or expressions for, yet English leaves the speaker to try to find an eloquent way to put it.
People often talk about the difficulties and rewards of learning another language, but I have not read an article even remotely similar to this making it very interesting. Learning Spanish with the feminine and masculine version of the words was difficult for me, explaining how english may have the same kinds of words that just aren’t as recognizable made a lot of sense. The in depth look at the word red and how that can be perceived as a state of being was another thing I had never thought of. You have managed to make me look at not just foreign languages in a different way,but also my native. Thanks for sharing!
I think it’s so important to be able to understand that our brains take different pathways when using different languages, or even different dialects or vernaculars of the same language. I grew up with a form of English (a vernacular, perhaps) that is not seen as standard. My mom calls it rez talk. However, when I started school I learned an entirely new way to use English. I also soon started learning Spanish, and shortly thereafter began Ojibwe. Because both of these were short lived, I didn’t retain much. To this day, I still catch my speech dipping in and out of the sing-song bad poem style of talking that my mother uses.
This is a great article that truly makes us think about the power of language and how important it is to be able to learn and fluently speak more than one. My native tongue is Spanish and I learned English at a very young age because I attended a bilingual school so I can relate to what you are saying. Even though I am fluent in both languages, when I am speaking English there are expressions or words in Spanish that don’t have a direct translation that would perfectly express what I am thinking or feeling. You can try to explain what they mean but if you don’t know the language it is truly hard for you to truly grasp the totality of its meaning.
This is a great article about how different and surprisingly similar languages can be. I am only fluent in English but I studied Spanish for four years. There were times when I would ask my instructor how I would say, certain ways I was feeling, into Spanish. At times, she had a hard time being able to translate certain feelings or words that were in English and not in Spanish. I always thought this was an interesting concept because I figured their would be words in Spanish for every word in English. This is obviously not the case.
This is a very interesting article! I really like how in the third paragraph you said that knowing multiple languages allows you to learn multiple different ways to structure, this just shows how powerful language is. I did try to learn Spanish in middle school and high school and I agree that it is hard to find a specific word but i feel if i was born multilingual it would be even harder. I agree with Logan’s comment above at what age should children learn multiple languages? Great article!
This a very interesting article, and all the more relatable for me as I had the pleasure of taking French Immersion all throughout elementary and high school. Although I would not consider myself as bilingual, I have often found it very useful being able to speak french. Being from Canada, French is a very common language so having this knowledge has allowed me to communicate in many environments where others would struggle. Further, French and Spanish have many similar root words, so knowing French has allowed me to understand some basic Spanish words, which has been incredibly helpful in travel. All in all, the usefulness of knowing another language cannot be emphasized enough and it is a skill I would recommend to anyone.
Really neat article showing the benefits of learning another language. I’ve always wanted to learn another language, but haven’t been able to stick through with it. I see the potential and benefit, as studying Russian History there are some Russian terms that have no equal in the English language. Thank you for sharing!
I wholeheartedly agree with the point you made about gaining an appreciation for aspects of one’s native language studying other languages. As a student of Russian I’ve found that I’m learning things about English as I keep studying, things that I’ve never necessarily needed to be able to describe in terms of grammar because I just “know” what’s right and wrong. Working towards fluency in another language has really made me appreciate the knowledge language instructors have and the difficulty of truly understanding foreign languages, especially well enough to teach them effectively.
I think that this article talks a lot about the article of language we read at the beginning of the semester. It talks in detail how different languages allow you to experience different feelings and moments. I am not able to speak any other language than english so I feel like I have a lot of life to experience yet.