Thanks to Andrea for the inspiration for this blog post!
“Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen” is the original quotation from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and most linguists would probably agree.
Each language has its own peculiarities, and sometimes a really useful linguistic feature of one is not available in another, but understanding the building blocks of another language does expand the brain and is highly recommended!
Some of what is used in one language is just not translatable – “bon appetit” is an example, a great phrase with no direct translation.
Examples of great ideas in other languages that do not apply in English:
In Japanese, rather than having an additional word to express the concept of being able to do something, as in many European languages: “I can sing”, “je peux chanter”, just add a nice neat ending to the verb and you’re done.
“Ganbatte kudasai” – what a great expression! Directly translated into English as “please try hard” or “please do your best” it’s more like “good luck” or “break a leg” – an expression of encouragement and sometimes sympathy over a hard task.
Sometimes those who know no foreign language will try to argue that the presence or absence of a word reflects the society. Ronald Reagan famously argued that the Russians had no word for “freedom” and therefore did not understand the concept (“svoboda” is the word in Russian). Unlike the Japanese, we have no word for “suicide of a parent with their child” but sadly that does not mean that English-speaking countries are immune to those tragedies.
Experiments with tribes who have only a small number of words for colour showed that this did not affect their ability to identify as many shades of colour as people from countries that had many more words.
Learn a foreign language and you’ll be amazed at the funny things you pick up – and you’ll find that it teaches you about your own language, too.