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Learning English

Posted on 29 August 2017 by James Cowan in English language

I recently proofread some work created by a native speaker of a language which was not English. I am sure I could not have done as well as he did in a foreign language (least of all his – I have tried), and I found only a few errors (far fewer than I usually find in English-first-language writers' work!). But it set me to thinking about the differences between English and a number of other European languages. The main one relates to gender. In English, we do not ascribe gender to an object which does not breed, such as a car. In the languages I have studied with more or less success over the years, that is rare; it seems commoner outside English that more or less every noun has a gender – even if the default value can be altered with knowledge. Thus a French car is female, whereas a French cat or dog may be male or female depending on the sex of the actual animal.

This has two consequences in such a language. When gender is attached to a noun, it often alters the form of any adjectives applied to that noun (e.g. colour or size), and of verbs describing what they are doing. And the second is that when we speak of "ownership" or "possession", the items being owned determines the form of the determiner, the word defining the relationship. In English, this is based on the gender of the owner – "his father", "his mother" – whereas in French it is based on the gender of the target – the form of "his" differs when referring to father and mother. I don't know if this makes English lazier or more efficient, but it does make word-selection simpler by reducing the options!

Another point of amusement, particularly when translating or editing a translation, is that the source language may differ in other ways from English. For example, in Russian there are apparently only three tenses ("done", "doing", "will do"), but in English I understand we recognise 16! Though I admit I struggle to list them all.

These two examples are indicative of the benefits a native-English speaker can bring to translated writings - we understand the idioms, the conventions and the structures of our own language which someone who was brought up in another language-area, speaking English part-time or even as a second language, will often have difficulty with. I even have a reference book on the issue, so that if I see a particular construction that is not general English, I can tell where the writer comes from. More importantly it tells me, if I can guess the writer's native tongue, what some of their failures to communicate in English were an attempt to say, and emend the work accordingly; for when you trespass into an unfamiliar area of a foreign language, the only option is to fall back on the constructions of one you are familiar with.

Changing the subject, slightly, I was recently confronted with a column written by an excellent public speaker. Read out loud, with appropriate emphasis and gestures, it was eloquent. Read on the page it was hard work. It was a prime example of how the spoken and written versions of English are different languages; as an editor, if I have to bring something to the process of reading, then the writing is deficient and I try to suggest ways it can be improved. I had to suggest so many changes that the author gave up (the edit process took so long we missed deadline!).

(PS. "Emend" is in fact correct: Oxford defines it as a verb meaning "to correct and revise written material". "Amend", by contrast, means "to make minor changes or improvements to", with what is changed having to be specified separately.)

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