Meaning, not words

I found this post in my drafts, and decided to finish it! Started writing it waaaaay back in 2012! Enjoy!


You know, many people have trouble understanding that knowing words in a language is not enough when it comes to learning a language. “Weird” languages like Japanese show us how wrong that idea is.

In Japanese, there are different ways to say I want something versus you wanting something or him or her wanting  something. To illustrate:

I
食べたいです。
tabetai desu
I want to eat.

You
食べますか。
tabemasu ka
Will you eat?

He/she
食べたがっています。
tabetagatteimasu
He/she feels like he/she wants to eat.

Based on the pragmatics of Japanese, it could be impolite and even could be considered ungrammatical to use the simple ‘want’ expression for someone else. I remember my teacher correcting me about that, and even today, I have to think to say the right thing.

I remember one time during a sign language class, a classmate wanted to say that someone kept getting sick. And that’s what she signed: the signs associated with the words “keep get sick”. The Deaf teacher didn’t understand. What made more sense to him was the use something like: “continue again again sick”. Here’s both ways to sign it, in order:


(Man… It’s weird looking into the past at how I used to sign…)

And then, more recently, I realised that the Deaf here community uses the sign for “boring”/”bored” to mean something like “can’t be bothered”.

Learning a language isn’t simple. But, in a sense, it is. The trick is to focus on meaning, rather than trying to match words to once that you know in your own language. Paying attention to how words, phrases, and grammatical forms are used is important, because many times they are used differently.

People who live in diglossic or otherwise multilingual societies, especially a creole language environment, have the unique ability to see those differences lived out in our day-to-day lives. Take a look at this.

Mi riet da man de!
How would you rate the song?

The Jamaican Creole word “riet” came from the English word “rate”, but it’s used differently, often meaning “to like/have respect for”. And I’m sure many of us in Jamaica have heard and even uttered the definite Jamaicanism found in the sentence “The food what I was eating,” (Patwa: “Di fuud we mi did a nyam.) which of course comes from the Jamaican usage of “we”/”wa” (“what”) used like the English “that”.

I’ve seen this sort of thing happen so often among people learning languages, so I try to keep my eyes and ears open to them to avoid making such mistakes.

Do you have any similar experience?

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