On Learning Two Foreign Languages

In September, I finally began learning a language I was virtually yearning to get my hands on for ages; Español. Now that I have completed the first level- it has brought me closer to the process of learning a language, for myself. I have always been fascinated by languages. I can attest that learning a language is almost impossible without understanding its culture. For, every language is a result of the continuous mannerisms of civilisation. You have to learn a little about regional and cultural behaviour along with your grammar. I know it might sound overwhelming- but frankly, it makes the learning process easier and more intriguing.

For those who are new here, I have been learning German for the past 8 years. I also teach German, which for me has sped up the process of comprehension even more. Staying in such close quarters with German ever since I can remember, has made me more aware of structures, patterns and grammar that exist within any discourse. If I am being honest it has also given me the gift of confusing prepositions in English and having a mental dialogue with myself every time I am about to use one. 

As for Spanish- I soon came to know that the language shifts and changes from region to region, in that the Spanish spoken in Latin America (very loosely speaking) is very different from the one spoken in, let’s say in Spain. That is not to say that it is homogeneous everywhere in Latin America, too. However- that alone made me feel both overwhelmed and excited. I am trying to convince myself that my invincible powers can fight through all the variations and I can perhaps learn all of them. No matter how invincible and powerful I feel though, my rationale knows that I will first have to learn AT LEAST one. 

Learning two European languages has been nothing less than thrilling and stimulating. To streamline the similarities and contrasts, I am going to make a list of the said features:

1. Nouns

Even in most Indian languages, we have a division of nouns based on gender. That is to say that all common nouns are assigned a gender and they retain this characteristic in every structure. This system does not exist in English, which is why you will find language educators urging students to not translate in English as a lot of these structures have no equivalences in English. Understanding conceptually is at first more important, after which translation can help in understanding it secondarily. 

German has three genders- Feminin (feminine), Maskulin (masculine) and Neutrum (neutral). These genders have three different articles- die, der, das respectively. They change in every case (the third point of this blog). However, if we were to translate any noun in English, we would only say “the” for all the nouns (of course with the exceptions of vowels and indefinite articles). For instance:

Der Kuli ist teuer (Masculine)

Die Kamera ist schön (Feminine)

Das Foto ist toll (Neutral)

When writing them in German we have to speak of the gender, but if I were to translate these, I would say-

The pen is expensive

The camera is nice

The picture is amazing

Now even Spanish has two common genders like German- Masculino (Masculine) and Femenino (Feminine). It also has a different gender which was very new for me- Masculino y Femenino (Masculine and Feminine). Spanish has categorised the nouns based on the endings of their endings (for the most, there are exceptions to this too). Most of the nouns ending in the letter, ‘O’ are masculine and those ending in ‘a’ are feminine. For instance: El caramelo (candy), la cama (bed) and el/la periodista (journalist). This is something that a lot of German language learners would LOVE to have. I mean- although there are endings that take a particular case and they are categorised too- that list is almost always overshot by exceptions.

Made by yours truly

It is also worth noting that both these languages have different articles for plural nouns. German uses ‘die’ to denote the plural too. For instance:

Die Frau (The Woman)- Feminine

Die Frauen (The Women)- Plural

However, in German, there is no distinction between feminine and masculine in the plural as in Spanish. For example,

Las camas (the beds)- Feminine

Los caramelos (the candies)- Masculine

Apart from these technical details, German also capitalises all nouns, irrespective of them being proper nouns or not. In Spanish, only selective and rare nouns are capitalised. For instance: May (English), Mai (German) and mayo (Spanish). So if you happen to see my notebook and ask me why I have cancelled the same word and written it again, almost on every page: I capitalised it (through no fault of my own). 

2. Tenses 

When I started with Spanish, my teacher began by teaching the verbs in Presente Simple (Simple Present Tense). After teaching the regular and irregular verbs and their forms we moved on to do the same with Present Continuous Tense. 

Now, this at the time seemed a little new to me, not the tense but learning it and I kept thinking why. I know the tense in English since I am using it. After a lot of pondering (which ideally shouldn’t have taken as long), I realised that there is no present continuous tense in German. However, before I could let myself believe my “discovery” I called one of my friends- an award-winning teacher to confirm this. 

It sort of brought along a lot of epiphanies for me. How had this never crossed my mind when I was learning German? How did I miss this? Talking in the sense of fiction let’s say- most of the crime fiction novels/ detective fiction in contemporary times or even after Modernism use the present continuous tense. The tense allows for the action to unfold as suspense as opposed to a linear plot. So the plot unfolds as a surprise for both the reader and the narrator of the story. Apart from its fictional advantage- how do you convey that something is happening? That it keeps happening for an undefined period? 

However, in all honesty, even when I speak in German, this “hypothetical problem” does not ever bother me, as I am sure it does not bother other speakers. This alone has made me realise that no language is universally uniform even in the sense of grammar. It is also why you cannot have a set of standards that regulates and governs languages. It made me realise that identifying differences should not result in architecting a “standard” for all languages to meet. You basically cannot have a checklist of criteria for languages to “qualify” as coherent. 

3. Cases

Anyone who begins learning German knows right off the bat that German has cases- Nominativ (Nominative), Akkusativ (Accusative), Dativ (Dative) and Genitiv (Genitive). These cases refer to the subject, direct object, indirect object and indicating possession respectively. As the function of the noun changes, the case and their articles change. For beginners, this is a little tedious to process, however, once you get the hang of it, it comes very naturally. 

Taken from: https://www.clozemaster.com/

From what I have learnt so far (granting the fact I have only completed one level), Spanish does not have a formal distinction like German in the cases, but it does have a change in the pronouns according to its function in the sentence. I learnt that when I was taught the Objecto Directo (Direct Object) concept, which changed the pronouns.

Source: https://arche-ele.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/pronombres-OD.png

It is also worth noting that Spanish changes the order of subject-verb-object to Object-Verb (since most of the time the subject pronouns are eliminated). For instance,

cocino el pollo (I cook chicken) — lo cocino (I cook it)

como los huevos (I eat eggs) — los como (I eat it)

The same structure in German would look like this:

Ich esse den Joghurt (I eat the yoghurt)

Evidently, in German, the direct object switches its article to fit the Accusative case as its functioning in the sentence. (der Joghurt changed to den Joghurt)

Completing the A1 level of any language is still as good as being the neonatal stages of the process to me. There’s so much that comes along with the later levels that one cannot anticipate. The grammar advances slowly, you develop the habit of understanding the meaning of new words in the same language you’re learning. It’s all a very exciting journey, I am only looking forward to learning more and having such pleasant epiphanies. Such realisations at once make you aware of the power and importance of language and at the same time make you feel astonished by their structures. 

Thank you for reading, see you very soon!