30 Jun 2011

Lost in Translation.

I recently became aware of how much of my waking time I spend thinking and writing in English, even though my native language is Flemish – the variety of Dutch that is spoken in Flanders, the North of Belgium.

I love languages, foreign ones as well as my own, with English as my absolute favourite. They were my favourite subjects at school, and I went on to study linguistics and literature in college.

EU-BelgiumBelgium is an interesting country to live in for a language enthusiast. It's tiny (about 30,000 square kilometres), has 11 million inhabitants and we have no less than three national languages:
  • Flemish (spoken by 59% of the population)
  • French (40%)
  • German (less than 1%)

On top of that, many people still speak one of the numerous local dialects, which can vary greatly even over a small distance.

Our country is located right in the centre of Western Europe and we're surrounded by countries with a distinct identity, culture, cuisine and language of their own: France, England, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg. Cities such as Paris, London, Amsterdam, Cologne, Bonn and Luxembourg are only a couple of hours away.

This means that, from an early age onwards, most of us come in regular contact with other languages, and – as Dutch isn't spoken widely in the world – we're quickly confronted with the need to learn a language other than our own.

I was raised in Flemish and our local dialect, learnt French and Latin in school, studied English and German at university and took 2 years of Spanish evening classes afterwards.

To me, the biggest benefit of speaking a foreign language is that it gives you access to other cultures in a way you would never get if you have to rely on other people to speak your tongue.

Using the local language – even if you're not fluent – is often perceived as a token of respect for local culture (and its people), and it allows for more personal and often more interesting connections and experiences.

An article I recently read reminded me of another benefit of knowing other languages: it gives access to more shades of meaning, partly through the typical 'untranslatable words' each language has.

Words like the magical Spanish 'duende', the subtle German 'Fingerspitzengefühl', the yearning Russian 'toska', the all-too-human Scottish 'tartle' or the tender Brazilian Portuguese 'cafuné' (see the article) have the power to evoke feelings and memories, to enrich our lives and our way of thinking.

We're diverse and fascinating creatures and our languages reflect that. With each new one we learn, we open up another piece of our universe – and possibly ourselves.

What's your favourite 'untranslatable' word? Which language(s) would you most like to learn?

Image 1: 'EU-Belgium.svg' - Wikimedia commons
Image 2: 'De liefde in het Duits-Nederlands woordenboek' by marie-ll, available under a creative commons license. © 2006, marie-ll.
Image 3: 'graceful intensity' by Kristy, available under a creative commons license. © 2004, Kristy.
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  1. 'It's often perceived as a token of respect for local culture (and its people), and it allows for more personal and often more interesting connections and experiences.'

    For this reason alone, I should like to acquire a greater facility with other languages.

    A very nice post, K. C.

  2. I had no idea that English was not your native language! So you are like Joseph Conrad whose native tongue was Polish but he wrote Heart of Darkness in English, and I believed he lived in France or some other country besides Poland. Impressive! This makes me want to read your book.

  3. Belgium is such an interesting place. You are surrounded by so many distinct cultures, as you say. I assumed Flemish was your native language, but had to think you also knew French. I think it's wonderful you studied so many languages. I've only studied Spanish, and I'm not very good at it anymore.

    BTW, how's that government thing working out over there? Anyone in charge yet? =)

  4. Suze: I really believe this. I've noticed it in several countries: as soon as you speak to people in their own language, you get to know a completely different side of them. It's so worth the effort. :-)

    KarenG: Wow, I always feel it's totally obvious and in my worse 'writer-moments' I think I'm just fooling myself. Your comment helped to make me want to finish my book soon. Good thing I have long summer holidays coming up! :-)

    L.G.: still no government and still holding the world record ;-), but in spite of all that, I'm happy I was born here with all the opportunities and adventures Belgium has to offer - like any country, of course, each in its own way. :-)

  5. I also love languages and wish I'd had the opportunity to learn more. In America, people think everyone speaks English, and a few speak English and something else, usually Spanish. I've been to Europe and admired the culture of learning many languages and easily visiting other countries.
    We say, "Uff-da" here, which they say comes from our Scandinavian roots. A word that sums up sums up your reaction to something, usually a set of circumstances that didn't go smoothly. Like this: The cat got out, so I ran out and chased her, in my pajamas, and once I finally caught her, I discovered that I'd locked myself out of the house. So, I had to go to the neighbor's, still in my pjs, to use the phone to call my son to come home and open the door. Uff-da! What a morning.

  6. when is Belgium finally getting their government? :)

    I also speak, think, sing, swear, and dream in English even though I do not live in an English speaking country. Sometimes it's easier for me to say many things in English than in my native Serbian.

    I also love languages, like you KC, and I speak about five or six of them.
    Please send us some Belgium chocolate :)

  7. Fascinating post! I wish I could speak more languages (I only speak two). I suppose my favorite untranslatable word is "gezellig." :D

  8. Mary: that's a great word! Uff-da really sounds like the feeling behind it. =)

    DEZZY: I don't dare hope we'll get one any time soon .... Life goes on, though. You'd think one would/should notice the lack of a government more. Chocolate production hasn't ceased, fortunately! I'd love to send you some but it's not the best season for it. It'd be a shame if it'd arrive as a pile of chocolate spread, gorgeous as that might be. ;-)

    Sam: great choice! :-) 'Gezellig' is a word we use a lot here, and it's used even more in the Netherlands, but the atmosphere we'd use it for is slightly different.

  9. I love this post and envy your immersion in various languages. WHen traveling I try to speak in the country's native tongue... I am sure I butcher it, but most folks seem appreciative of my attempt.

  10. Munk: so right. My Spanish is awful, but even then people appreciate the effort. Sometimes even a couple of words can make a difference.

  11. "Using the local language – even if you're not fluent – is often perceived as a token of respect for local culture (and its people), and it allows for more personal and often more interesting connections and experiences."

    I've never progressed beyond the very basics of any language, just hello, goodbye, how are you etc etc. And I'm not proud of that at all. I believe that native English speakers ought to make far more of an effort than they do. We're always the first to start hopping up and down if a sign has been mistranslated or if it's a blatant Google job instead of a professional translation agency. Yet most of us don't even bother to learn so much as a few words before going holiday. I don't think anyone's expecting you to become fluent just for a week's holiday, but learning a few little things shouldn't be beyond anyone.

    I can't say I'm talented in the language department but if I were to try to pick up a language and take it seriously, it would be Italian. It's such a beautiful language but I somehow doubt that I could roll my rs properly. Whenever I've tried, it's always come out as an "l" and it sounds ridiculous. I'm not entirely sure I could get the emphasis right either. In my experience, there's a very thin line between placing emphasis and taking the mickey.

  12. Jodie: it's a bit like writing, isn't it: if we think too much about the perfection we'd want to achieve, it's so daunting we risk never starting to write. Like most things we learn, we take it one step at the time, with - hopefully - a bunch of small successes in between to keep us going. :-)


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