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Multi-Lingualism

May 1990

The other day I thought about something a colleague in the U.S. whose native language was not English had told me about — how a new foreign language he learned displaced an older one. I find the same thing is happening to me, at least on a conversational level. Not that I am conversationally proficient; I havenít had as many lessons as I thought I would have by now, what with time in Sweden, system tests at the ATC school outside of Frankfurt and meetings — and holidays and some vacations — causing cancellations.

But on the level of asking for a room or a restaurant reservation or discussing a wine in a tasting room, in Alsace, that I used to be able to do in French, I find German coming out instead! Itís not that I canít understand hearing or reading it, at least at the same level as I used to, but speaking it isnít easy anymore — sometimes I canít even think of what a simple French word is; when I look it up, I say "Of course!" Now Iím even more impressed by guides and travel agents that Iíve heard who can instantaneously switch among several different languages.

However, going to France does make me wish I had as many Berlitz lessons in French instead — I think I could get good at it. Although it did turn out to be useful when we went to Budapest — of those people who didnít know English, most knew German. German is really difficult to speak, at least correctly. I donít think it would be that difficult if you were content to be ungrammatical in certain areas — the verb conjugations and tenses arenít very difficult. The grammar involving nouns, however, is incredibly complex. I donít know if you are at all familiar with the problems (maybe Iím telling you what you already know, but I didnít know it before) but there are three genders and the definite articles for each (may) change after (certain) prepositions, or if the noun is a direct object, or if it concerns movement towards something (but not movement from it or within it) or with some other condition that I havenít gotten to yet. A similar, but not identical, thing happens to adjectives that follow. And the endings are again different for indirect articles and their following adjectives. For example, "the large car" has four different words for "the" and two different endings for "large," while "a large car" has four different words for "a" and two different endings for "large!"

So you could use the same noun in four consecutive sentences and each time the article could be different! Actually, I guess you could use it four times in the same sentence, with the use of various clauses. And speaking of clauses, the word order changes to something very unlike what weíre used to when certain types of clauses are used, and to a lesser degree even in straightforward sentences, — you can end up with several verbs at the end, all of which must be in the "proper" order of course, and only some of which are conjugated. Of course, when you hear it, you donít know what action is occurring to the rest of the sentence before you get there and then you have to reassemble the phrase to figure out what it means. Obviously, itís normal to Germans so it makes you ponder about the way we consider to be the logical way of thinking.


I have since heard that the Japanese language also has a trailing verb placement and that the sensitive speaker may change the verb from what he originally had in mind depending on the reaction the first part of the sentence is having on his listener!

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