Years ago I studied Spanish at Queen’s University in Belfast. The class was very intense, getting you from beginner to translator level in 10 months, or that at least was the theory. We weren’t the usual bunch of students in that each of us had pressing, but different reasons for learning the language – two priests were taking up posts in Spain, I was supposed to be taking over a Bolivian hospital, one lady had a Spanish boyfriend, another wanted to be able to talk to her Mexican daughter-in-law and grandchildren. So we all tried hard and our tutor was excellent.
The problem was that, like English, Spanish has many ‘false friends’ i.e. words we think we recognise and know, but which can actually mean something very different. A friend of mine once introduced a very important Bolivian lady in Argentina. The Argentineans understood him to say ‘Venerable lady’, but unfortunately where she came from the words meant ’Old Cow!’
It is the same with German. Although my daughter has taught in Germany I have never tried to learn, but I do know that it can be full of pitfalls for English speakers.
Hut for instance in English is a small building, in German a hat. The English wear boots, the Germans sail in them. We take the rind off an orange, in Germany to take the rind would be to move a cow. If a German gives you rat he is giving advice. We eat kippers, but to them a kipper is a dump truck. This is only the beginning.
There are phrases that just don’t translate in every tongue. ‘It’s black over …( the next words depend upon where you come from but ‘our mother’s’ is one version. It actually means ‘It’ll rain soon.’ Earlier on this afternoon I quite literally ‘put the icing on the cake’, but that phrase usually means the something extra that makes something really special. ‘To tie someone in knots’ means to confuse them – which is probably how you are feeling by now. I have a friend who has been in England for three years who, if I’m speaking to her one to one, manages to communicate very well, but recently we have been meeting in a larger group where idiom is used a lot and she is struggling. As she and her husband only have English as their common language it can make conversation a little stilted, but we get there. They now have a son of about 18 months. I have assured Carlotta that when her son starts school his English will be perfect and hers will improve in leaps and bounds – which bought another puzzled look until I explained that I meant very quickly. She now writes down phrases that she doesn’t understand and either asks for an explanation at the time or we work it out later. Recent examples have been ‘Beat his brains out’, ‘going to seed’, ’a trump card’, ‘a bad apple’, ‘one pencil short of a box’. I’m not going to tell you what they mean, but leave it as a puzzle for you. If you get really stuck ask someone. It’s as good a way as any to make new friends.
Whichever language you speak there will be similar examples - so take care out there, but be bold, and if you get it wrong, just laugh. I do.
I studied linguistics at university. The emphasis was on how language changed over the years from Beowulf to hip-hop.
We are decorating at the moment so old books have been moved and I have in front of me ‘Historical Slang’ - some 50,000 terms, many of them quite crude, that are no longer used by English speakers. Elsewhere I have ‘Hobson, Jobson’ a book of words used in British India – some of which are still in use both by Indians and Brits, but most of which are obscure to say the least.
I was born only a few miles from the geographical centre of England. My cousin, the daughter of my mother’s twin, was born a few weeks earlier only 18 miles further south. Throughout our childhood we saw each other several times a month. You would think then that our accents would be similar, but even in this relatively small island there are numerous differences – few men from Cornwall would understand first time round someone from Tyneside in the North East and vice versa. My cousin and I are quite similar in lots of ways, we even look alike and in early photographs it is difficult to tell her children from mine. However, we pronounce many words rather differently. She has always lived below the line that differentiates those who use a long vowel and those who cut it short. – She says ‘BARTH’ and I say ‘BATH’. She says ‘PARTH’ and I say ‘PATH’. My children, who spent their early years in the south and grew up near Manchester, have combined the two - They have a ‘BARTH’ in the ‘BATH’ or even a ‘BATH’ in the ‘BARTH’, while hers are definitely southerners.
The English language has a rich history within the theatre. From the plays of William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, to those of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Lerner and Loewe, among others, the variety is endless. With so many great dramas, comedies, and musicals to choose from there is ample opportunity for anyone to build their English vocabulary through plays and the theatre. On top of the classics are hosts of modern contemporary plays that one can choose from to learn new words and phrases. Plays and theatre are truly enjoyable tools for learning English.
I don’t know about you, but I get a little confused at times as to who exactly I am and even what to call myself. It depends upon the circumstances and who I am with to some extent: In a shop I may be ‘Madam’ or ‘Love’. In other parts of the country it might be ‘Duck’, ‘Pet’, ‘Luvva’ or ‘Hen’ At home I can be Margaret, Maggie, or Mom. Elsewhere I might be Mrs Watson or John’s wife, Jo’s Mom, Brenda’s sister or even occasionally myself. I have been identified as Alf’s daughter, Lizzie’s niece, Eric’s cousin – I could go on. I am a wife and mother, a daughter, sister, cousin, neighbour. I am a cook, a midwife, a gardener, a writer, a preacher, the lady at number 60 and a woman. Sometimes I take on several of these roles in one day and even more than one at once.