How to learn seven languages (and five Dutch words)
Receiving a book is always a pleasure — even when it is written in a language you don't understand. A few days ago, I received this in my mailbox…
Just spend a few seconds looking at the cover. You’ll find an expression in seven different languages. You’ll probably understand it in all seven versions.
Before talking about the book, I should mention that this article represents a bit of a concept change for this newsletter.
It will now be focused on words from around the world found in books.
I will talk about words and books using my translator glasses, which means as someone who loves languages and works with them every single day. It will also be a way of recommending interesting books to my fellow translators and translation students. We all need to read as much as professional athletes need to practice.
Articles won’t be written solely for translators, though. Any language lover will find something interesting here — at least, that’s my hope.
And now, let’s look at the book I received, using five Dutch words to guide us…
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1. Zeven (seven)
This is the title of the book I received from Gaston Dorren: Zeven talen in zeven dagen.
It is not impossible for an English speaker to glean the meaning by squinting their eyes a bit. “Zeven” is a barely disguised “seven”. With a bit of German in our brain and a bit of luck, we may guess that this book intends to teach Seven languages in seven days.
The method is quite serious, although I am sure the book is also entertaining, at least judging by the other books by Gaston Dorren I’ve read (not in Dutch): Lingo and Babel. The book uses what readers already know about their languages and some common foreign languages to propel them to understand a bit more of these seven languages, showing how each of them helps understanding a bit more of the others.
You won’t start speaking those languages in seven days — you probably won’t even understand a complete sentence if spoken aloud. But you will start understanding texts in these seven languages very soon — provided you are a Dutch speaker, of course (something I’m not, unfortunately).
2. Mijn (mine)
Any Portuguese speaker intuitively understands the concept of language intelligibility. Most of us can understand a text written in Spanish pretty well (and would gain immensely by using some passive learning techniques), even if we find it difficult to follow a quick conversation between two Spanish speakers. As any Portuguese will gladly tell you, it seems Spanish speakers find it even more difficult to follow our conversations. Portuguese and Spanish have asymmetrical intelligibility, to our (meaning Portuguese) advantage.
We also know our language has a degree of systematic similarity with other Latin languages. A common example is the tendency of Portuguese words ending in -ção to have Spanish counterparts ending in -ción and French cousins ending in -tion… There are quite a number of exceptions and meanings tend to be much less connected than word forms — but there are many of these underground connection between Latin languages below the obvious differences.
Most connections are more visible in writing, but there are some of them which are clearer if we read them aloud. This applies to all subfamily of languages. An English speaker will probably find the Dutch word “mijn” very intimidating, but when read aloud it becomes somewhat similar to “mine” — and it means the same…
3. Talen (languages)
Look again at the title: Zeven talen in zeven dagen.
The word “talen” is the plural of “taal” and means, in this context, “languages”. Plural marker -en also exists in English: “children”, “oxen”... The word “taal” is much more difficult to understand than “zeven”, but has the same origin as “tale” and “talk”. Words move, but some of them don’t go very far.
European languages are all connected. Most of them have the same Indo-European roots — and even those with other origins (like Basque or Hungarian) have been exchanging words with Indo-European languages for some centuries now. (These connections don’t stop at Europe’s borders — which are a bit fuzzy anyway.)
Gaston Dorren’s book includes many enjoyable word tables and charts to make us understand more of those connections, making it increasingly easy to understand texts in the other languages. Even Portuguese readers who don’t read Dutch (as is my case) will learn a bit about the relationship between the three Latin languages included in the book by looking at the tables showing systematic differences and similarities. This is also possible with Germanic and, I’m sure, Slavic languages, as with any other group of recently divided languages — recently, as in the last 2000 years.
Linguistic borders are not as clear-cut as most people believe. Languages from the same family have many words and constructions in common. Even when they differ, they tend to differ systematically. Not always, of course. But frequently enough to allow us to tame them…
4. Temmen (to tame)
Gaston Dorren’s book takes advantage of language continuities, their often-hidden proximity, to teach Dutch readers how to read seven standard languages, in three layers: first, Frisian; then, three Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Danish and Norwegian); finally, three Latin languages (Portuguese, Spanish and Italian).
These seven languages were chosen because of the specific position of Dutch among the languages of Europe. English and French are not covered, I imagine, because most Dutch already know them.
So: the aim is not to turn you into a speaker of seven languages (you may take a bit more than seven days to accomplish that). The aim is for you to tame (a word used in the first sentence of the book) the incomprehensibility of those languages into something you read and use for your advantage — at least inside a book.
Even you don’t read Dutch, you’ll find this book very interesting, provided you have an inclination for languages. I could spend hours just looking at tables of Scandinavian words...
5. Avonturenboek (adventure book)
Unfortunately, I'm not going to learn Dutch any soon because I don't have the time, but I’m trying to read bits of the book, slowly uncovering this bit and that. It’s a challenge — but this is, after all, an adventure book, as stated on the cover: “een avonturenboek”.
And, piece by piece, we start understanding more than we thought we could. Using just the words I presented above, you can already understand these Dutch expressions:
In the middle of the Dutch text, I find some words I can understand quite well, either because Dutch is not completely opaque to me or because there are words and sentences in other languages. (Full disclosure: there are even a few paragraphs written by me, an excerpt from a book I wrote a few years ago about my language; it is there to allow Dutch readers of the book to read a little Portuguese.)
Right at the beginning, I find two sentences in English. The first is by Mark Dingemanse:
The pleasure of mastering different languages is something humankind will never lose.
Then another, by Nicolas Evans:
We study other languages because we cannot live enough lives. It's a multipler of our lives.
Multipliers of our lives: this applies to languages — and to books.
So, let’s keep talking about languages and books.
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