language learning 3 2 1

I keep trying to get my students
to appreciate the profundity of the following principles,
but I’m not convinced that they are really taking them to heart.
Anyways, I think both their significance and simplicity make them worth
outlining here:


1. Semantic associations: For instance, food is delicious, but it’s a lil pervy if you refer to a person that way. Also, in Chinese, wind can be big, but in English it sounds better to say strong.

2. Syntactic contexts: For instance, what verbs are followed by what kinds of prepositions or V-ing or to V?

3. Morphological forms: For instance, ‘hit’ is both a noun and a verb, but ‘transform’ needs to become ‘transformation’ to act as a noun.

If you know these 3 things about new words that you learn, as opposed to just how such a word translates into your mother tongue, you will be far more likely to use these new words correctly.


1. Reading is not remembering.
I learned this fact from trying to memorize musical pieces; No matter how many times I read a piece, if I didn’t practice little by little freeing myself from the visual clues, I never could actually recollect the whole piece without them. I believe language students also need to habituate themselves to mentally accessing target phrases without relying on visual cues.

2. Speaking in your mind is not speaking with your mouth.
If you’re only speaking in your mind, you are not actually exercising the muscle movements that will be required when you really need to speak. I suspect far too many students (including myself) spend too much time studying without ever opening their mouths.

Different languages may use entirely different methods for similar ends.
In other words,
Word for word translation just doesn’t work very well.

This is a well-known fact,
but is so important that it requires restating here.
Students may either not appreciate it sufficiently
or just not have much other choice when they are not yet aware of
the language specific methods to communicate particular ideas.

Lexical items often slice up the world differently,
as in the way Chinese has different words
for younger and older brothers,
where English only has one,
while Chinese conversely uses the same sound
for he, she, and it.

Grammar can also impose requirements
that other languages may leave implicit,
such as the way that English marks tense and aspect,
while Chinese only uses certain aspect markers
in its own way.

Or a word like “lightning”
may be a noun in some languages,
but a verb in others,
or adjectives may actually be verbs
in Chinese.

Or perhaps one would say “have you eaten?”
where another would say “how are you?”
[and a good many kung fu treat this
as the most salient translation].

And the list could go on and on.


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