Learn your language

A clever guy once said that you don’t know your own language before you learn another one. How can that be?

I did learn grammar at school, about subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs, simple or complex sentences, and about the many ways to conjugate a verb in all tenses, moods or conditions. Endless lists…

And yet, I only realized that my language was hard to learn when I picked up the ABC in Norwegian. That it tended to use abstract names of actions, like German, and unlike English. That it had – thank god! – eliminated some ‘subjunctive’ forms when I learned Spanish. That it had mixed in its pot too many word loans from Balkan languages for me to easily learn Italian. That it was ‘laid back’ in terms of specifying meaning when I found that Germans use about 15 words for different views of the notion of ‘claiming’, for example. That it was just as ‘laid back’ in terms of placing events in time when I had to teach people how English tenses reflect subtle relations between events. Or that it had created different words for what the Anglo-Saxons and Germans had achieved by adding small particles to the same basic word.

I don’t really know – and I try to keep my students clear of it – if one language is more ‘specific’ than another, or if it is ‘richer’ than another, or if it is ‘better’ than another. I wouldn’t know which of these labels were meant as a good thing and which not. A language that is more specific is harder to speak accurately, and if it is richer it may take longer to use fluently. But what I have learned by learning languages is that they are somehow like people: each with its personality, each with its priorities, with its strengths and weaknesses; you can’t appreciate – and know – one before you’ve met some others.