Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Literal interpretation in a foreign language

In everyday language, we regularly say things we do not mean literally. Native speakers know better than to interpret everything literally.
However, there is a tendency to interpret more literally in a foreign language.
For example, when someone is angry and says "I would kill him", people usually do not visualise the speaker killing someone. Rather, they know that they are conveying the depth of their anger. When heard in a foreign language, on the other hand, one might first think of the meaning of the word "kill" and feel a bit of a shudder upon imagining the outcome of the sentence.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011


It is easy to forget that others are having a conversation when they are speaking in a language foreign to you. The result is that the "foreigner" may interrupt at will with a new topic of conversation, as if the other conversation was not taking place.

This is true whether the "foreigner" is actually able to speak the language of the original conversation or not. However, this only happens when the "foreigner" is not following the original conversation. Nevertheless, given that it is difficult to follow everything that others say in a language foreign to yours - even if you have become fluent in that language - you may still find yourself interrupting conversations without meaning to, when you are already fluent in that language.

I said "foreigner" because I do not mean that you have to be in a foreign country to do this. You may interrupt foreigners as they are talking in their native language, or even people from your country who are speaking in a language foreign to you.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Feelings attached to words

One thing I have realised is that swearing does not feel as wrong nor as strong when I hear it in a foreign language as when I hear it in my own. For that matter, saying 'I love you' does not have the same connotation in my language than in a foreign one.

We associate words with the experiences that we have experienced them in. It is different learning a word in a foreign language classroom from learning it in a real-case scenario. We associate words with the feelings that we have experienced as they have been used all along our life by our family, friends and acquaintances. We have also learned about their connotations as we have read them in books, as we have heard them used in films, etc. When those words are learned in a classroom setting they do not hold the same emotional weight. We simply do not have enough experience to associate to those words.

One example of this is my cousin's experience of learning the word 'wheel-barrow'. He used to have difficulty remembering it - it did not have any link to real life. However, after he helped me shift a big amount of soil in my garden he will never forget it, particularly because he can remember how heavy and burdensome a 'wheel-barrow' is. This is quite different to his previous experience with wheel-barrels. The most notorious one being our granddad's wheel-barrel which is disused and it is a feature of his cherished allotment. My cousin has typically associated the Spanish word for 'wheel-barrow' ('carretilla') with our granddad's 'wheel-barrow'. Whether he will think of his new experience with a 'wheel barrel' in England when he hears the word in Spanish, I do not know. It will be interesting to ask him.

Talking about the efficiency of learning in a classroom I must add, though, that I do remember the tenderness that my English teacher transmitted to us when she was describing the meaning of the words 'cuddle' and 'cuddly'. She pretended to cuddle a teddy bear. Even though I do not have the experience of my family saying 'cuddle' as they tenderly hugged me as a child, I can remember how tender a word it is because of my teacher's explanation. So it is possible to attach feelings to words as they are learned in a classroom setting.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011


A few years ago I had a conversation with my father. He unexpectedly said to me: “How strange! We are speaking in Spanish”. Having only ever spoken in Spanish with my father, really astonished, I responded: “Strange? We always speak in Spanish. What do you mean?”, to which he replied: “I speak in Valencian with the people I love, and I love you, so it is strange that we’re speaking in Spanish”. My father had never used Valencian, his mother tongue, in the home, except to call his parents and siblings on the phone. He speaks native-like Spanish and it had never occurred to me that he may feel strange speaking in Spanish with me. This event led me to the realisation that languages are associated with feelings and emotions. It made me wonder whether my father would have found it easier to share his emotions and his culture, his heritage, and whatever is meaningful to him, had I spoken his language.

I have since completed a dissertation on the topic: "The Impact of Language on Relationships: The Case of the Interlingual Couple". However, I would like to research the topic of multilingualism and emotions further. I will post some of my thoughts regarding this topic and perhaps you can provide feedback.