Sep 11, 2012

European Languages

written by Kelly Smithson

It is amazing how knowing even one mainland European language can help a native English speaker learn others. As exemplified below, it was useful for me to know German when studying French and Russian in college. This made the languages easier to learn than for other American students who did not have a solid European language background.

When it comes to French, German can be useful for grammar and pronunciation. Like German, French has a commonly used present perfect verb tense consisting of the same basic building blocks – noun + auxiliary verb in the present tense + past participle. The auxiliary verbs (given in the infinitive) for German – “sein” and “haben” – and for French – “être” and “avoir” – have the same meaning in English, respectively – “to be” and “to have”. The present perfect tense in both German and French can be rendered into English as various past tenses. For example, German “Ich bin gegangen” and French “Je suis allée” can mean “I have gone” (present perfect), “I went” (simple past), and “I did go” (past emphatic).

When it comes to pronunciation, German vowels can be used to produce French vowels. The German umlauts “ü,” “ä,” and “ö,” in particular, are applicable for the French vowels “u/û/ü,” “é/ê/è,” and “e,” respectively. Also, the German “r” and French “r” are both formed at the back of the throat, unlike the English “r.”

German grammar and pronunciation can also be useful for Russian, even though Russian does not have any present tense forms for the verb “to be.” In certain instances, the Russian dative case mimics the German dative case in its use. In both languages, the case is applied to denote feelings, particularly those associated with well-being, temperature, and boredom. Thus, German “Mir ist schlecht/kalt/langweilig” (personal pronoun in the dative case + third person neuter singular present tense form of “to be” + feeling) translates into Russian as “Мне плохо/холодно/скучно” (personal pronoun in the dative case + feeling). This in turn means “I feel sick/feel cold/am bored.” In the past tense, German “ist” changes to “war,” while in the Russian phrase, “было” (third person neuter singular past tense form of “to be”) is added after the personal pronoun.

When it comes to pronunciation, certain consonants in German are similar to consonants in Russian. The German “ch” can be used to produce the Russian “х” (transliterated into English as “kh”), and the German “l” is the same as the Russian “л” (soft “l”) that precedes the front vowels “я,” “е,” “и,” “ё,” and  “ю” (transliterated respectively as “ya,” “e,” “i,” “yo,” and “yu”) and the soft sign “ь.” While the German “r” does come closer to the Russian “р” than the English “r,” the Russian consonant is really more similar to the Spanish “r.”

Were it not for its status as the world’s most dominant language, English would not be a priority for Europeans; it would make much more sense for them to learn other European languages, especially given the geographic isolation of English to Great Britain (away from the mainland), the US, and Australia. By sharing a continent, including its history, the European mainland languages have come to be more related to each other than to the English language. No wonder, then, that knowledge of a mainland European language helps you learn others.

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