A few thoughts on language acquisition

I knew someone who claimed to speak 13 languages. Well, good for them, you’ll say. The phenomenon of (hyper) polyglots is well-known and well-documented. Articles and books have been written about people with the extraordinary ability to learn and store multiple languages and retrieve them whenever required. Even I could be said to belong in that group: Greek, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, German, and Dutch are all in my language arsenal. There’s always a niggling doubt at the back of my mind, though (which, I’d like to believe, has very little to do with the impostor’s syndrome that plagues me): how qualified am I to claim that I “know” all these languages? And, by extension, what does it actually mean to “know” or “speak” a language?

According to Michael Erard, linguist and author of Babel No More (Free Press, 2012), speaking a language “requires literacy, as well as experience with the culture and education”[1]. That has been the guiding principle in my language learning, as well. When it comes to Greek, English and French, I can, with all confidence, claim to be tri-lingual. I was raised in Greece and was exposed to English and French early, at home and in school. Since those early language-immersion experiences, I have actively maintained and added to my knowledge of these languages by reading extensively, consuming other cultural products (films, plays, songs, and, as of late, podcasts), immersing myself in their social and cultural aspects, as well. Much as I am convinced that grammar is a solid base on which to build linguistic knowledge, I would never discount the value of cultural references. Yes, “The Times” is an excellent tool for learning/improving English, but how is one to become familiar with language as it is spoken without reading the tabloids (political opinions aside) or “Smash Hits” (showing my age, here)? Equally, “Le Monde” is wonderful for beautifully written French; but can one claim to really know French if they are unaware of phenomena such as “verlan”? Or English without at least understanding what Cockney rhyming slang is all about?

My partner, a native speaker of Italian, is fluent in English. We are currently watching “Life on Mars”, a 2006 BBC series, and I find myself having to pause the DVD (we’re old school in our household 😊) often to explain why a senior police officer would be “Guv” to his/her subordinates and what “a pint of Gold Top” is. He has to do the same for me when we watch Italian TV: I am fluent in Italian (we speak it at home and it’s one of my most-used source languages) but there are subtleties of Italian culture that are interwoven in everyday language of which I am completely unaware (to my great annoyance).

That’s why I’ve always maintained that learning a language is a lifetime commitment (not an original idea, I’m sure). When, a few years ago, I did a training course for the CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), we were taught to go beyond grammar and investigate the social and cultural aspects of language learning.

Never have I been more aware of that than now, as a multilingual translator. The translation of legal and medical texts, demanding as it in terms of terminology and concepts, is rather straightforward, in that there is very little interference of the cultural aspects of the language (having accounted for the differences between the various legal systems, of course). Commercial translations and transcreation, not to mention literary translation, however, are very different beasts. Translators who specialize in this type of texts come across what Mona Baker calls the “problem of non-equivalence”[2] on a daily basis. I may be bringing coals to Newcastle (or owls to Athens, as the Greeks would put it), but I certainly am not alone in feeling frustrated (often) or elated (rarely) when something as culture-specific as an idiom needs to be translated. A few months ago, I came across the expression “il lato G” to refer to the legs; perplexed, I asked my partner for help. Turns out, the convoluted answer is that this is a term coined by the author of the specific article and which refers to the expression “il lato B” (for buttocks), in turn coined by a member of the Miss Italia jury many moons ago. How is a fluent speaker of Italian as a foreign language supposed to translate this without awareness of its long and complicated cultural history? And how could a former boss of mine, whose English was very good indeed, know that you can’t just transpose the Dutch idiom “Kijken als een aap in een roestige horloge” into English as “looking like a monkey in a rusty clock”?

I could go on. As far as I’m concerned, however, this is the beauty of language. Well, it certainly doesn’t reside in the 4 grammatical cases of Greek, in the long table of irregular verbs in English or the aspect of Russian verbs, and it can’t be found among the pages of the Bescherelle. It’s the small things, the secrets that you have to winkle out of a language that invariably put a smile on my face when discovered. Like the fact that English has as many ways of saying “drunk” as there are ways to get to that state 😊

I waffled on for this long to make just one point: learning/speaking a language entails much more than just familiarizing yourself with its grammar and vocabulary (I wish I’d known that when, aged 14, I tried reading the German teen magazine “Bravo” armed with a dictionary). It entails becoming intimate with its quirks and curiosities, most or all of which will, in some way, harken back to the way language is actually used by a group of people, bound by a common culture, to give voice to their experiences.


[1] “Are You a Hyperpolyglot? The Secrets of Language Superlearners”, TIME magazine, 30 January 2012, https://healthland.time.com/2012/01/30/are-you-a-hyperpolyglot-the-secrets-of-language-superlearners, retrieved on 28 April 2020.

[2] Baker, M. In Other Words. A coursebook in translation., London, Routledge 1992, p. 17 ff

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