Language preferences

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Language preferences

#1  Postby Scar » Feb 19, 2011 9:09 am

There's something that's been bothering me for a while and I would love some insights into it from a scientific point of view and from that of fellow non-native speakers.

The thing is, I am German and my mother tongue and the language I use in everyday life obviously is German. English is my second most used language and also the only other language I have a good grasp of (I did have French in school, but I never got into it and have since lost most of it).
I actually got most of my English skills not at school, but on the Internet through posting on forums like this, or in chat-rooms and while playing online games.

Now, for some reason, I like English much better than German and in fact catch myself thinking in English regularly, even when not on the Internet. I even catch myself on a regular basis being unable to express something in German, but having no problem doing so in English, or being unable to find the proper German word for something in English, although I am sure I know it (it's like you know something must be in a dictionary but you just can't find the page).

It's rather weird really. I at times even think my grasp of German is getting worse, increasingly finding myself in situations when I have to stop and think for a moment because I just can't find a way to express something properly, which makes me feel awkward in conversations. That never happens in English (except for when I genuinely lack a word. Even then, I find it easier to get around that problem by just describing what I mean than I would in German). I could swear I was more sophisticated in my mother tongue a few years ago. I am by the way not one of these geeky Internet guys without real life friends or other social contacts (so I am not just missing practise in German).

Is that some sort of known phenomenon?
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Re: Language preferences

#2  Postby katja z » Feb 19, 2011 2:00 pm

It's down to how much you use which language, and for which purposes. If you have learned about certain subjects only (or predominantly) in English, it's not strange that you find it easier to think about them in English. I myself find it easier to discuss all manner of sciencey stuff in English than in Slovenian because I've mostly learned it from English books (and RatSkep). The same goes for my own field of study, where it's often easier for me to express my thoughts in English and French. It takes a conscious effort to find (and sometimes invent) ways to speak about this in my mother tongue, even though I am in other respects a very proficient user of it. It's normal for bilinguals and multilinguals to use different languages this way, in different areas of their lives and activity. People can even shift from their mother tongue to another one as their main language when they move (geographically or socially) away from their social group of origin.

FWIW, I'd say that your general grasp of German is not getting worse, it's your grasp of English that has improved and it's probably given you a ground for comparison - we become much better aware of how our language works (or fails to) when we learn another one. Plus, if I understand correctly, you use English online and German in RL, yes? This means a) you probably use English more in written form and German in speaking, and the constraints are different in these forms of communication; b) you probably use German in socially more complex interactions (with more speakers etc.), hence the need to "stop and think for a moment". Finally, your own attitudes towards the languages you speak are a huge factor in how you use them, and how you perceive your use of them.
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Re: Language preferences

#3  Postby Zwaarddijk » Feb 19, 2011 2:06 pm

How does this play out in a situation such as cooking, gardening, skiing, describing the flavor of beer?

Probably, most of the technical (not necessarily technological) vocabulary you've learned, you've learned in English - hence, it's likely English actually is stronger in contexts where you haven't read German sources, or German sources form a minority.

However, things like, all the names of utensils and things in a kitchen are generally things you don't learn from a book in English first and only then pick up in German.

I would guess this is the explanation, altho' some proper linguist could probably add details, or even point out mistakes in there.

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Re: Language preferences

#4  Postby Blip » Feb 19, 2011 2:13 pm

This is a really interesting topic :coffee:

ETA I was lucky enough to study several languages at school and to this day, I find that if I am struggling to think of a particular English word in one foreign language, other languages' translations of it often come to front of mind. It does suggest to me something about the ways language is stored and recalled, which may be relevant to the OP.
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Re: Language preferences

#5  Postby Scar » Feb 19, 2011 3:58 pm

katja z wrote:It's down to how much you use which language, and for which purposes. If you have learned about certain subjects only (or predominantly) in English, it's not strange that you find it easier to think about them in English. I myself find it easier to discuss all manner of sciencey stuff in English than in Slovenian because I've mostly learned it from English books (and RatSkep). The same goes for my own field of study, where it's often easier for me to express my thoughts in English and French. It takes a conscious effort to find (and sometimes invent) ways to speak about this in my mother tongue, even though I am in other respects a very proficient user of it. It's normal for bilinguals and multilinguals to use different languages this way, in different areas of their lives and activity. People can even shift from their mother tongue to another one as their main language when they move (geographically or socially) away from their social group of origin.

FWIW, I'd say that your general grasp of German is not getting worse, it's your grasp of English that has improved and it's probably given you a ground for comparison - we become much better aware of how our language works (or fails to) when we learn another one. Plus, if I understand correctly, you use English online and German in RL, yes? This means a) you probably use English more in written form and German in speaking, and the constraints are different in these forms of communication; b) you probably use German in socially more complex interactions (with more speakers etc.), hence the need to "stop and think for a moment". Finally, your own attitudes towards the languages you speak are a huge factor in how you use them, and how you perceive your use of them.



I think you're right. Recently, I was discussing alternative medicine with some friends of mine and it was almost painful trying to properly express myself because I practically never discuss things concerning scepticism in German.
Blip wrote:This is a really interesting topic :coffee:

ETA I was lucky enough to study several languages at school and to this day, I find that if I am struggling to think of a particular English word in one foreign language, other languages' translations of it often come to front of mind. It does suggest to me something about the ways language is stored and recalled, which may be relevant to the OP.


As I said, it often happens that I try to find the proper German translation of an English word but I simply can't. I know what the English word means and I can describe it in either language and I am also cocksure that I know the German word but I simply can't put my finger on it. Seems to me like our brain somehow stores words and their meaning separately and you don't always have a link between different words from different languages that mean the same thing.
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Re: Language preferences

#6  Postby Delvo » Feb 19, 2011 4:40 pm

I know this is sacrilege because we're practically required in all anthropological/sociological matters to accept the premise that "all cultures are created equal" and its corollaries that all religions, languages, dances, customs, and so on are all created equal... but sometimes, one language is simply, generally better or worse than another. And German is a particularly bad one. Pronouncing its sounds distinctly is physically harder work than in most other European languages. That, combined with the fact that the range of phonetic variation that it really routinely uses is more limited than usual (at least in Europe), makes spoken German prone to melting into an impenetrable auditory goop, like what happens to most other languages only when spoken by somebody with an impediment or a mouth full of food or lingering effects from a dentist's mouth-numbing drug. It's also inefficient, taking more time to say or more text to write, unless you start amputating words, which just introduces structural awkwardness and ambiguity. And its grammar is no saving grace either, with "genders" that aren't used as genders at all and an almost complete lack of any regular verbs outside the present tense.
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Re: Language preferences

#7  Postby katja z » Feb 19, 2011 4:56 pm

Zwaarddijk wrote:
(EDIT: katja z - my old nemesis! Again you thwart my plans to appear as the sole source of wisdom in this part of the forum! :grin: )

:tongue: :cheers:

Scar wrote:
As I said, it often happens that I try to find the proper German translation of an English word but I simply can't. I know what the English word means and I can describe it in either language and I am also cocksure that I know the German word but I simply can't put my finger on it. Seems to me like our brain somehow stores words and their meaning separately and you don't always have a link between different words from different languages that mean the same thing.


Well, to start with, "meaning the same thing" is a thorny concept. Meanings of words in different languages don't, as a rule, overlap completely - languages cut up the world in slightly different conceptual chunks. So when you learn foreign-language words not from bilingual dictionaries, but by actually using language in real-life situations (that is, from context), you can be perfectly capable of expressing yourself correctly and exactly in either language, but because there is no one-to-one correspondence, finding a suitable "translation" for any one word may still be a difficult task - or even an impossible one. You can certainly express the same idea - the same meaning - in two languages, but often you have to work on larger segments not just single words. That may be one reason why you can't put your finger on it - maybe you are looking for one word where you should be looking for two; or (more likely) you should rework the whole sentence. There is a reason why translation demands special training, not just the ability to speak two languages! ;)
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Re: Language preferences

#8  Postby Blip » Feb 19, 2011 5:12 pm

katja z wrote:There is a reason why translation demands special training, not just the ability to speak two languages! ;)


Ah, katja, yes. And even someone like me, who only had to translate (as such) at school and in exams, can see that a 'loose' translation - as it was called in my day, meaning one that carried the sense rather than being literal - is surely better than a literal one.
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Re: Language preferences

#9  Postby Zwaarddijk » Feb 19, 2011 6:43 pm

Delvo wrote:And its grammar is no saving grace either, with "genders" that aren't used as genders at all and an almost complete lack of any regular verbs outside the present tense.


Pretty much all indo-european languages have such gender, though - it's been reduced a bit in some exceptional ones. Such gender systems do contribute to understanding, though - they provide a lexically conditioned extra bit of redundancy, which is very useful - we genuinely don't hear every sound when someone speaks (nor do we generally read every letter) - a few redundant bits here and there ensure we hear/read correctly more often.

Also, in a somewhat randomized fashion, it makes it more likely for ease of disambiguation as far as anaphora goes. An utterance which refers to two different things, the likelihood that they will be of different genders is fairly good, and that makes it possible to use different pronouns for them. There's two ways of doing that - one is by having some kind of regular way of assigning any noun to either pronoun (which does happen in a few languages), the other is noun-class systems. Noun class systems have the other advantage I already mentioned as well, which may be why they're not that uncommon.
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Re: Language preferences

#10  Postby katja z » Feb 19, 2011 8:07 pm

Delvo wrote:... but sometimes, one language is simply, generally better or worse than another. And German is a particularly bad one.


Nonsense.
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Re: Language preferences

#11  Postby MathieuT » Feb 24, 2011 7:01 am

I don't know about German, but French usually have like 4-5 synonyms for like every concepts of life (with each their own little variation upon that concept), where English really only have... one, most of the time. That is at least in the commonly spoken language. When I went into English immersion for 1 year, I felt like my French lexicon had been reduced to about the same amount of word as of English.

It might be one of the issue you are facing.


katja z wrote:

Well, to start with, "meaning the same thing" is a thorny concept. Meanings of words in different languages don't, as a rule, overlap completely - languages cut up the world in slightly different conceptual chunks. So when you learn foreign-language words not from bilingual dictionaries, but by actually using language in real-life situations (that is, from context), you can be perfectly capable of expressing yourself correctly and exactly in either language, but because there is no one-to-one correspondence, finding a suitable "translation" for any one word may still be a difficult task - or even an impossible one. You can certainly express the same idea - the same meaning - in two languages, but often you have to work on larger segments not just single words. That may be one reason why you can't put your finger on it - maybe you are looking for one word where you should be looking for two; or (more likely) you should rework the whole sentence. There is a reason why translation demands special training, not just the ability to speak two languages! ;)


Expression come to mind.
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Re: Language preferences

#12  Postby Zwaarddijk » Feb 24, 2011 2:03 pm

MathieuT wrote:I don't know about German, but French usually have like 4-5 synonyms for like every concepts of life (with each their own little variation upon that concept), where English really only have... one, most of the time.

What English have you been learning?
(Seriously, that's the exact opposite of how most advanced foreign learners would describe English.)
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Re: Language preferences

#13  Postby Corneel » Feb 25, 2011 5:37 pm

Scar wrote:There's something that's been bothering me for a while and I would love some insights into it from a scientific point of view and from that of fellow non-native speakers.

The thing is, I am German and my mother tongue and the language I use in everyday life obviously is German. English is my second most used language and also the only other language I have a good grasp of (I did have French in school, but I never got into it and have since lost most of it).
I actually got most of my English skills not at school, but on the Internet through posting on forums like this, or in chat-rooms and while playing online games.

Now, for some reason, I like English much better than German and in fact catch myself thinking in English regularly, even when not on the Internet. I even catch myself on a regular basis being unable to express something in German, but having no problem doing so in English, or being unable to find the proper German word for something in English, although I am sure I know it (it's like you know something must be in a dictionary but you just can't find the page).

It's rather weird really. I at times even think my grasp of German is getting worse, increasingly finding myself in situations when I have to stop and think for a moment because I just can't find a way to express something properly, which makes me feel awkward in conversations. That never happens in English (except for when I genuinely lack a word. Even then, I find it easier to get around that problem by just describing what I mean than I would in German). I could swear I was more sophisticated in my mother tongue a few years ago. I am by the way not one of these geeky Internet guys without real life friends or other social contacts (so I am not just missing practise in German).

Is that some sort of known phenomenon?

Absolutely normal. I'd be hard pressed to talk about my job (development aid related) in my mother tongue (Dutch) because I never learned the equivalent in Dutch (if they even exist) of the many very specific terms in French (and before in English) I use on a daily basis.
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Re: Language preferences

#14  Postby Scot Dutchy » Feb 25, 2011 6:56 pm

Corneel wrote:Absolutely normal. I'd be hard pressed to talk about my job (development aid related) in my mother tongue (Dutch) because I never learned the equivalent in Dutch (if they even exist) of the many very specific terms in French (and before in English) I use on a daily basis.


I had the same problem in reverse. I worked for the Traffic and Transport department of a large Dutch consultants. There was so much Dutch jargon involved finding translations was very difficult. It was also a culture difference a Dutch view of what a road is and its function is different to other country's view.

BTW I always have had computers with the Dutch version of Windows and Office. It was a Dutch company so why not. Even Dutch computer jargon exists. When in Britain I worked on a machine with the British version. So many things were different. Menu's were different I was quite amazed. :o I think in Vlanderen they have taken it even further.

I also get stumped in English after speaking Dutch. The Dutch have words which are not readily translatable.
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Re: Language preferences

#15  Postby Corneel » Feb 25, 2011 9:34 pm

Scot Dutchy wrote:I also get stumped in English after speaking Dutch. The Dutch have words which are not readily translatable.

Well every language has those words. And even language variations. Like Flemish "goesting", there's no real (northern) Dutch equivalent. Ah, how to translate that expression (paraphrased) from "In de Gloria": "Ja, dan staat hij daar met een broek vol goesting" in any language...
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Re: Language preferences

#16  Postby Wiðercora » Feb 25, 2011 10:16 pm

I frequently confuse Spanish and Japanese. It's like my brain has one section for 'English' and then another which is simply 'Not English'.
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Re: Language preferences

#17  Postby Kazaman » Feb 25, 2011 11:07 pm

MathieuT wrote:I don't know about German, but French usually have like 4-5 synonyms for like every concepts of life (with each their own little variation upon that concept), where English really only have... one, most of the time. That is at least in the commonly spoken language. When I went into English immersion for 1 year, I felt like my French lexicon had been reduced to about the same amount of word as of English.

It might be one of the issue you are facing.


English has the most expansive vocabulary of all languages, so I'm not quite sure what you mean there. Could you please cite some examples?
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Re: Language preferences

#18  Postby Corneel » Feb 25, 2011 11:14 pm

Kazaman wrote:
MathieuT wrote:I don't know about German, but French usually have like 4-5 synonyms for like every concepts of life (with each their own little variation upon that concept), where English really only have... one, most of the time. That is at least in the commonly spoken language. When I went into English immersion for 1 year, I felt like my French lexicon had been reduced to about the same amount of word as of English.

It might be one of the issue you are facing.


English has the most expansive vocabulary of all languages*, so I'm not quite sure what you mean there. Could you please cite some examples?

*[citation needed]

ETA
Comparisons of the vocabulary size of English to that of other languages are generally not taken very seriously by linguists and lexicographers. Besides the fact that dictionaries will vary in their policies for including and counting entries,[85] what is meant by a given language and what counts as a word do not have simple definitions. Also, a definition of word that works for one language may not work well in another,[86] with differences in morphology and orthography making cross-linguistic definitions and word-counting difficult, and potentially giving very different results.[87] Linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum has gone so far as to compare concerns over vocabulary size (and the notion that a supposedly larger lexicon leads to "greater richness and precision") to an obsession with penis length.[88]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_vocabulary#Number_of_words_in_English
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Re: Language preferences

#19  Postby Kazaman » Feb 25, 2011 11:28 pm

Corneel wrote:
Kazaman wrote:
MathieuT wrote:I don't know about German, but French usually have like 4-5 synonyms for like every concepts of life (with each their own little variation upon that concept), where English really only have... one, most of the time. That is at least in the commonly spoken language. When I went into English immersion for 1 year, I felt like my French lexicon had been reduced to about the same amount of word as of English.

It might be one of the issue you are facing.


English has the most expansive vocabulary of all languages*, so I'm not quite sure what you mean there. Could you please cite some examples?

*[citation needed]

ETA
Comparisons of the vocabulary size of English to that of other languages are generally not taken very seriously by linguists and lexicographers. Besides the fact that dictionaries will vary in their policies for including and counting entries,[85] what is meant by a given language and what counts as a word do not have simple definitions. Also, a definition of word that works for one language may not work well in another,[86] with differences in morphology and orthography making cross-linguistic definitions and word-counting difficult, and potentially giving very different results.[87] Linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum has gone so far as to compare concerns over vocabulary size (and the notion that a supposedly larger lexicon leads to "greater richness and precision") to an obsession with penis length.[88]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_vocabulary#Number_of_words_in_English



Touché. English has one of the most expansive vocabularies, then. Regardless, I still want some examples from Matthieu.
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Re: Language preferences

#20  Postby Corneel » Feb 25, 2011 11:45 pm

Kazaman wrote:
Corneel wrote:
Kazaman wrote:

English has the most expansive vocabulary of all languages*, so I'm not quite sure what you mean there. Could you please cite some examples?

*[citation needed]

ETA
Comparisons of the vocabulary size of English to that of other languages are generally not taken very seriously by linguists and lexicographers. Besides the fact that dictionaries will vary in their policies for including and counting entries,[85] what is meant by a given language and what counts as a word do not have simple definitions. Also, a definition of word that works for one language may not work well in another,[86] with differences in morphology and orthography making cross-linguistic definitions and word-counting difficult, and potentially giving very different results.[87] Linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum has gone so far as to compare concerns over vocabulary size (and the notion that a supposedly larger lexicon leads to "greater richness and precision") to an obsession with penis length.[88]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_vocabulary#Number_of_words_in_English



Touché. English has one of the most expansive vocabularies, then. Regardless, I still want some examples from Matthieu.

Oh, just to illustrate what they are saying about the difficulty of comparing vocabulary and what counts as a word:
hottentottententententoonstelling could be considered as one word in Dutch, but would you consider "exhibition of hottentot tents" as a single English word?
So in that sense languages that make extensive use of compound words or agglutinative languages would quickly overtake English in word count because of their possibility to generate many composite words which in English would be expressed as combinations of several words.
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