Wednesday, October 18, 2006

What it takes to speak a (foreign) language...

Here's an anecdote which illustrates quite well how communication between Americans and French can be tricky, even when they master foreign languages:

A very good friend of mine (who happens to be French) is currently in the US for work. He likes to stay in shape and sometimes uses the gym at the hotel. One day, he went down to the gym but the only treadmill there was being used by two Americans. Not knowing how long they'd be using it, he decided to ask them and said:

"Hi, how long are you staying here?"

To which they answered,

"For several weeks"

Obviously they understood a question about how long they were staying in the hotel. Most English speakers in this particular context would have no doubt understood the same thing. Why is that?
My friend was obviously disappointed (his English is quite good) and he thought he must have said something wrong so he asked me to teach him a thing or two about grammar. Well, the problem was that there was nothing wrong with his grammar, and even though I could "feel" that his question was off, I had to think about it for a while to figure out why and what to tell him.

The problem was a combination of context and vocabulary. In the context of a hotel, it is the verb "stay" that comes mind. It is associated with a location and in this particular context, with the hotel rather than the gym in the hotel. The other reason might also be that most Americans would probably not be so straightforward. The two Americans at the gym probably thought my friend was just trying to strike a conversation.

What was most important in this case though was a key concept, which is sometimes not given enough consideration by both those who learn and teach foreign languages: the context. Languages are not all about grammar and vocabulary - they are also about a context and that's the tricky part. Cultural contexts are highly subjective and involve intuitive understanding of an unspeakable nature - something that cannot be taught in books or in class. That's why if you want to learn a language well enough, you need to go and "stay" where that language is spoken.

Here are some suggestions of things my friend should have said to avoid any ambiguity in what he meant to ask:

  • How long do you think you'll be on the treadmill?
  • Are you going to be much longer?
  • How much longer do you expect to be using this?
  • How much time do you have left?

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