Learning to Love What Your Language Can’t Give You (and What it Can)
Guest post by: Laurie Melin
Today I spent five hours in a doctor’s office waiting room. During those five hours, my ears worked on overdrive. I overheard people talking about their illnesses, I listened in when the secretary explained the billing process, I tried to catch patient names called over the loudspeaker, I blocked out the music coming from the headphones of the guy sitting next to me, and I watched the news drone on and on from a TV in the corner. Once my name was finally called, I talked to a nurse about my symptoms and met with a doctor, who advised me about the prescriptions he was writing for me.
It was a pretty normal doctor’s office experience with one major exception: everything took place in Spanish, my second language. If I paid close attention, I could understand most things said around me and to me, although I had to ask people to repeat themselves more than once. But gone are the days of easily eavesdropping, casually picking up music lyrics, or watching the news while multitasking. In my second language, listening to the spoken word is work. It is usually tiring, and sometimes it is discouraging.
Despite the frustration involved in learning Spanish, the process has taught me to appreciate the ease with which I use English. When I write or speak in English, I am not usually aware of the thought process behind my words. Speaking is as natural as walking. When I write, speak, or listen to Spanish, I pay a lot more attention to the nuances nestled within the language.
Lost in Translation
I teach ESL, and my students often want to translate their thoughts directly from Spanish to English (think of the literal Puerto Rican translation of “I’ll call you back” – “te llamo pa’trás”). Not everything translates that way, though. Sometimes Spanish and English align nicely, but often the students have to learn a new way of saying something rather than translating sentences word for word.
That is a good thing! Together, we learn more about the richness and variety offered by languages other than our own. The words, phrases, and syntax that cultures use to express themselves provide a window into the complexity behind spoken thought. When I have to learn how other people say things, I discover a new way to express myself. Sometimes I like the new way better than any way I have known before.
Words and Idioms
For example, at the language institute where I work, my Puerto Rican colleagues often refer to the students’ style of speaking as “pausado.” There are English words that I can use to describe the same idea – slow, halting, jerky, filled with pauses – but I find pausado to be a better descriptor than any English word I know. Lists online compile words like this from a variety of languages that describe feelings and experiences that English can’t quite capture in one word.
In every language, we blend our words into sayings and idioms that are often fun and always nuanced. Idioms take time to learn in a new language, and behind them often lies real history. Lately, my Dominican students have taught me that “the devil gives you nieces and nephews,” and Colombian students have taught me that “love plus distance leads to two happy couples.” English sayings do not offer exactly the same meaning: think of “out of sight, out of mind” – it does not have the same offhanded humor as “amor de lejos, felices los cuatro.”
Music and Literature
Music and literature blend words in a beauty that usually cannot be equaled in translation. After moving to Puerto Rico, I tried to help a friend translate the lyrics of a song she wrote, but I found that I could not capture the poignancy and perfection of her Spanish phrases within the same time signature in English. Growing up, I remember noticing that Shakira’s songs in English were not direct translations of the Spanish lyrics, and I wondered why. It is hard to grasp the undertones and intricacy of a meaningful thought when translating it.
In literature, translations also lose the tone of the stories’ speakers, especially the accents and sayings that illustrate characters’ personalities and backgrounds. Many of my Spanish-speaking friends prefer to read English-language novels in the original language rather than read the translation into Spanish.
Now when I use English, I am grateful for the effortlessness involved in manipulating my words and sharing my thoughts. As I continue learning Spanish, though, I love the way new vocabulary and idioms add to my understanding of other people’s experiences and cultural history. I am more aware of both the fun and the challenge that are part of using any language – or combining languages – to express myself.
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