Language Learning, Article 16: Communicate faster when speaking a <br> foreign language: Learn to simplify. By David Bolton
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Communicate faster when speaking a foreign language: Learn to simplify 

Imagine this situation: you have been living in Germany for a few weeks, trying to learn the language. Some people you know mention a party they are going to attend at Jochen's house, but Jochen isn't there with you and the others now, and he hadn't given you a previous invitation to the party. Therefore, you don't go. The next day, you see Jochen on the street, and he says to you:

"Hallo! Wie geht's? Warum bist Du nicht zur Fete gekommen? Du hast uns gefehlt!"

(Hi! How are you? Why didn't you come to the party? We missed you!")

   You would like to answer, in German, "I would have come if I had known you wanted me to."

   The only problem is, your conditionals and subjunctives are somewhat weak at best, and you can't seem to get the sentence together in your mind, let alone actually say it.

   Such cases cause foreign language learners a lot of grief. They first think of a possible response in their own language, but since they tend to think in more complicated terms, and want to say exactlywhat is on their minds in the other language, they stumble, and often fail.

   The solution here is to learn to simplify. This requires more mental flexibility than you may think, but it can be practiced. I myself have a certain talent for simplification when speaking other languages, and this has helped me a lot over the years. There were times when I've been able to give the impression that I knew the language much better than I actually did, which of course has the disadvantage that people will then tend to speak to you more quickly, and you may not be able to follow what they're chattering about! On the other hand, simplification definitely helps you to get your message across more quickly, and almost as efficiently as would more complex sentences.

   In the case above, for instance, the most exact translation of what you want to respond would be:

"Ich wäre gekommen, wenn ich gewusst hätte, dass du es wolltest."
(I would have come if I had known you wanted me to.)

But you can convey the same idea in a considerably simpler fashion:

"Ich wusste nicht, dass du mich einladen wolltest." (I didn't know you wanted to invite me.)

   Here, you're only using past tenses, no conditional/subjunctive constructions.

   Or how about simply: "Schade! Ich wusste es nicht..." (That's a shame! I didn't know...)

Though not the same as your original thought, it does get the message across.

Of course, you could also say:

"Niemand hat mich eingeladen." (Nobody invited me.)

..but you should be careful here, since Jochen might think you're criticizing him for not inviting you!

   I can read in French, but depending on the book, there may be a lot of vocabulary I don't understand. This is one reason I love to read the works of Voltaire: he was a great master of expressing even complex ideas with delightful simplicity. (If you are studying French, I recommend you get a volume of Voltaire as soon as you can - even if it's one of his philosophical works, you might be surprised at how much you can understand!)

   A good way to practice simplification is to first try it out in your own language. In everyday situations, just after saying something to someone, ask yourself how you could have said it even more simply. Also, you can use sentences in your foreign language book: read a rather long sentence, figure out its meaning, and then try to express (in the target language) that sentence's content in another, simpler way. Break down longer sentences into two or three separate ones. Omit words that are a bit superfluous. See if you can get the same meaning across using simpler verbs, whose forms you already know, or by using simpler tenses. Remember, your goal here is not to create literature, nor to work out a worthy paraphrase of the original sentence: it is merely to acquire practice saying the same thing in a much easier way.

   Naturally, when you've been in the foreign land for a longer time, you will want to express yourself in a more precise, and perhaps even refined, manner. Take your time. In the beginning, the main thing is to make yourself understood, and if you master the art of conveying even complex ideas in a clear, simple way, not only will you be able to get your message across - you might even find that people perceive your clarity and simplicity of expression as being rather elegant!

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  Heinrich Schliemann's Method of Language Learning


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