Transparent Language Blog

Appreciating the Little Things about Language Learning Posted by on Aug 19, 2015 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Phocine VulgarityI love the way that learning languages, like learning anything I suppose, slowly strips away the fog of ignorance. If you don’t speak French, it might sound to you like some kind of sugar-whipped vocal pastry, a pretty but unintelligible alien tongue. As you learn, however, gently the veil begins to lift, and what was previously opaque becomes clear.

As in the comic above, what’s opaque can easily be mistaken for something else entirely. These so-called false friends, these words which sound the same in another language but are in fact completely different words, have led to more than enough embarrassing situations (speaking of which, embarazada in Spanish does not mean “embarrassed,” but “pregnant,” so next time you’re around your Spanish boyfriend’s family dinner table and want to announce how embarrassed you are, think before you speak. You’re welcome). But once you learn it, particularly if you learn it the hard way, you’ll not likely forget it again.

To me, there’s nothing better than stepping into a foreign country with an incomprehensible written language – perhaps not even in Roman lettering – and slowly deciphering it over the course of the trip. Sure, I won’t become fluent in reading it, but if I knock at it with my little hammer, it cracks, and that’s enough to reveal that yes, it is potentially comprehensible. It is not impossible. It can be done (a moment of grim silence for those who are attempting to translate Linear A. How frustrating would that be? Like trying to solve a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle which you’re not even sure can be solved). Before I embarked on a family vacation to Israel this past May, I endeavored to learn a bit of Hebrew. I only had a few weeks, so I didn’t learn much, but I learned a little. When I arrived, I was amazed by how much I understood. No, not full sentences – but just the fact that I could understand anything at all was a revelation! I took the first step down the path of comprehensibility – and that made all the difference. It makes it possible.

Sometimes, however, you don’t want to lift the veil. Sometimes the mystery itself is more interesting than solving it. That’s fine, too, as long as it’s your choice – don’t be ignorant for ignorance’s sake! Venture down every learning path offered to you, even for just a little bit. There’s nothing you can learn in this world that is a waste of time – everything matters, it might just matter a tiny bit. In the case of learning the word phoque in French, however, it might matter a great deal.

What about you? What little things do you appreciate about language learning? No need for grandiosity here, just give us something that perks you up. Maybe it’ll help out someone in a rut.

Challenge for readers learning English: catch the mixed metaphor I used in this article, and you’ll get a doodle!

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.

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