Language Learning Trip: think meaning, not words

By | October 19, 2015

When studying your first foreign language, there are many things you have to get accustomed to: new sounds, different characters, and grammar rules, to mention only a few. During this process, the longer you study, the more tricks you pick up to help speed your journey towards fluency.

One such trick I’ve learned is to think in terms of meaning, in terms of specific words. This is something we all already do, albeit not consciously, even for those who know only a single language. For example, if I say that somebody is “driving me crazy”, of course I am not referring to actually being crazy, as in insane to the extent that I need to get checked out by a doctor. Instead, this combination of words has a much tamer meaning that means someone is annoying me or bothering me. In English, such an exaggerated statement can be called a Hyperbole.

When trying to formulate sentences in a foreign language, generally you want to try and think in terms of the meaning of what you want to say, rather than the words you would say it in your native language. In English we have the common expression “wait a minute!”, which is also a type of exaggeration, and can be used to refer to waiting a much shorter period of time (say, seconds). It can also deviate further from the original meaning, and rather than indicate someone should wait, it expresses surprise or shock towards new information (ex: “Wait a minute! Did you just say you won the lottery?”).

I remember once when I was trying to ask someone to wait in Japanese and I ended up saying “1分待って” (ippun matte!) which literally means “wait one minute”. But since I was only intending to ask the person to wait a few seconds, I should have said the common phrase “ちょっと待って” (chotto matte), which means “wait a little” or “wait a short while”.

The more you learn a foreign language the more you get into thinking about the “meaning” of things and the less about the exact words, especially the exact words in your native language which are not relevant to the foreign language you are using.

As a side note, when you are learning expressions like “drive me crazy” in a foreign language, you should aim to learn both the meaning in practice, as well as the original meaning for each individual word. This is because there can be wordplays or puns which allude to this and are supposed to be funny or at least catch one off guard. For example, take this joke:

“The first time I met my wife I knew she was a keeper. She was wearing massive gloves.”

This is funny because of the double meeting of the word “keeper”, used to mean someone who is a good long-term partner, and someone playing the “keeper” position in a sports game (like soccer).

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