Language Learning, Article 22: Second-Language learning Challenge: Word Order. By David Bolton
Learn a Foreign Language by speaking




Second-Language learning Challenge: Word Order

When are learning a second language, one of the first things we must get used to is the syntax - that is, the rules that govern the sentence structure - of that language.

As we think or speak in our own language, we put the words in a certain order, depending on the thought expressed, and the words we use to express it. The word order we habitually use seems perfectly natural to us, which is why we often have difficulties adapting to sentence structures in different languages.

Take the following sentence in English: "I can't go because I am ill."

In Spanish, the order is roughly the same (the pronouns - in this case, "I" - are not usually used in Spanish :

"No puedo ir porque estoy enfermo." Word-for-word translation: "No can go because am ill."

This isn't too hard to understand, or to get used to. Yet in German, it's a bit trickier:

"Ich kann nicht gehen, weil ich krank bin." (WfW: word-for-word): "I can not go, because I ill am."

The use of "weil" (=because) requires that we place the conjugated verb in that clause at the end. When you try to learn German, this is something that takes some getting used to!

Nonetheless, many European languages are similar enough in their word order that we can generally grasp the meaning of the sentence, as long as we understand the individual words in it.

Since moving to Japan, I have, for the first time in my life, taken up the study of a non-European language, and believe me, it can get very confusing indeed!

To show what I mean, let me take a short sentence, that we will first analyze in English, German and Spanish: "I will go, even if it rains." German: "Ich werde gehen, sogar wenn es regnet." WfW (word-for-word): I will go, even if it rains. (Just like English!)

Spanish: "Voy a ir, incluso si llueve." WfW: "(I) am going to go, even if it rains." (Also like English)

Japanese: "Ame ga furu tomo ikimasu." WfW: "Rain - falls - even if - go."

There's another way to say this same thing in Japanese:

Japanese: "Ame demo ikimasu." WfW: "Rain - but - I go."

I don't know about you, but when I see a sentence like that, even if I understand each word, I still have trouble guessing what it actually means.

When studying Japanese, I often see such sentences - one whose words I understand, and yet whose total meaning leave me clueless. The word order is simply so strange (from the perspective of someone who is used to the syntax of common European languages) that try as I may, I am often forced to ask my (Japanese) wife to tell me what the devil is being expressed by the sentence!

Thus, logic - that is, the "logic" we use to construct our sentences - is of little or no help when tackling a non-European language. The solution? Repetitive practice of the sentences in the foreign language, along with the use of the imagination, to connect word groups with meaning, instead of merely translating into your own language.

Using the Japanese example above:

"Ame demo ikimasu." First, say "ame" and imagine "rain". Then, say "demo" and think "even if/but". Then repeat: "Ame demo", but do not translate (to "rain even if/but", for this would make little sense to you). Instead, think "Ame demo" and imagine being in a situation where it might rain, and then imagine the concept of "even if". In other words, you will be saying (or thinking) the words "Ame demo", but you will be imagining a situation in which "it might rain, but even if it does....". Imagine that situation, not the English words we would use to describe that situation.

Finally, add "ikimasu" (the "I go" part) when thinking "Ame demo":

"Ame demo ikimasu." Repeat it to yourself, imagining in turn the rain, the concept of "even if", and the concept of "I go".

If you deal with the sentence in this fashion, it suddenly seems rather easy: the initial difficulty was obviously merely caused by our tendency to think in terms of the syntax of our own language, instead of adapting our minds to the word and thought patterns of the Japanese.

If and when you learn a non-European language, you will avoid a lot of trouble if you use this sort of approach when faced with sentence structures that puzzle you no end!


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Next article:   Getting a Grip on Subjunctives in English

North American Martyrs

These are the North American Martyrs: the Jesuit priests who went to America in the 17th century to convert the Indians. What do they have to do with language learning? Quite a bit, for these men faced the challenge of learning new, and extremely difficult languages without even the help of a dictionary, or any written texts at all!

You can read about how they did it, and much more, in my new book...

"Language Learning - Outside the Box!"

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