Idiosyncrasies Between Languages

I think English might be a prank pulled on people who expect internal logic.

It’s been about two weeks now that I’ve spent a portion of each day using Spanish to answer questions about English on the Duolingo forums.  English is a subject I know quite a bit about and have long held a fascination for, in all its weird, nonsensical guts and conventions, and explaining some of its weirdness to people on the outside looking in has proven to be both challenging and fun.  Even with a fascination for its inner workings and strange standards, there are things that you end up taking for granted as just “the way it works,” that you don’t end up seeing unless someone points it out to you.  Working through how best to explain these things in Spanish is its own unique challenge, and I’ve been pleased to find it getting easier over time, as writing last week’s blog in Spanish felt like less of an undertaking after only a week of answering questions, but the part of it that’s more interesting to me intellectually is thinking through why English is the way it is in the first place.

Here are some examples of explanations I’ve had to consider that I found especially interesting:

For a sentence that translated to English as, “One day, an unusual necklace was found in the desert,” someone thought that “found” ought to be conjugated as “founded” for the past tense.  Looking at it as an English native, this is wrong, but why is it wrong?  Well, “founded” is a word, but it’s the past tense conjugation of the verb to found, as in form an organization, not find as in locate an object.  Which leads to the question, why did this happen?  Well, to find is a Germanic word derived from a root that extends all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, while to found is a Latin word.  To found has a cognate in Spanish, fundar, while the word used for locating something is encontrar, which English also has a cognate with: to encounter.  As the English language changed and evolved over time, to find and to found grew together to where the past tense of one looks exactly like the present tense of the other and you have two totally different ideas that share a common word.

When confronted with the sentence, “I used too much salt,” someone asked when it was you used too much vs. too many.  Obviously, “Too many salt,” sounds wrong, but why?  Salt is an uncountable noun.  When you have a quantity of it, you don’t refer to the individual parts as one or two “salts,” if you want to break it down into something countable, you have to use a countable noun, like two grains of salt, or two salt shakers.  Uncountable nouns use ‘much’ and ‘less,’ while countable nouns use ‘many’ and ‘fewer.’  Too much salt, too many eggs, I want less ice cream, I should eat fewer cookies.  Spanish has countable and uncountable nouns, but doesn’t have distinct words for judging amount.  Demasiada sal means too much salt, and demasiados huevos means too many eggs.  And interestingly, this rule is something that native English speakers often get wrong in specific circumstances, usually distinguishing when to use less or fewer.  It’s really obvious that too much eggs is wrong, but ten words less looks right to most people, even though it is supposed to be ten words fewer.

On the sentence, “What properties does it have?” the question was raised about why it was have, the present tense conjugation of to have for I/you/they/we, when the conjugation for he/she/it is has.  It clearly looks right as have, even if the answer could be, “It has three properties,” and it works that way because it’s a question, which means the sentence is in the interrogative mood.  A few months ago, if you told me that English had an interrogative mood, I would have stared at you blankly.  The whole concept of moods is important for wrapping your head around Spanish, where moods play a much bigger role in sentence construction, but they all exist in English in some limited way (often being used incorrectly by the average speaker) and change the way sentences are constructed.  I’ve had a strong enough grasp on English that I knew the rules and constructions for those moods implicitly, I just never knew the names for those moods until I started learning Spanish.

There are several more weird, hinky rules about English I’ve had to think about and try to codify for people (you’re at an airport and in a Starbucks, but you’re on a boat?), and I’ve had a good amount of fun doing that, but there’s another aspect of all the questions that I’ve been noticing as I go that I think is an important stumbling block for a lot of beginning language learners.  A lot of the questions raised on Duolingo aren’t really answerable.  Often that’s because the users don’t always pay attention to how the system works and just say stuff like, “My answer should have been accepted,” without providing any details, but many of them aren’t answerable because the only answer to give is, “That’s just how English works.”

Like, there isn’t a good answer to give for why it’s a tip in the context of “Did you leave a tip?”  In Spanish, the construction is, “¿Dejaste propina?”  Why is there an indefinite article on ‘tip’ in English?  Why isn’t there an indefinite article on it in Spanish?  What grammatical purpose does the article serve for distinguishing meanings between tip, a tip, the tip, or the waiter’s tip?  There really isn’t one, nor is there a clear rule beyond saying that in English ‘tip’ is a countable noun, and therefore needs an article attached to it to be grammatically correct.  No real answer, just, “That’s how English works.”

Between English and Spanish, as between basically every language, there are so many examples of idiosyncratic differences between how ideas are formed and stated.  In English, you borrow something, in Spanish, you tomar prestado that something, literally to take lent.  In English, it’s green grass, in Spanish, césped verde, or grass green.  Different languages have conventions that operate in fundamentally different ways.  Is one better than the other?  No (though some might be more appealing to you, aesthetically or logically, like I think it makes much more sense for the adjective to come after the noun, since then a listener would know you’re talking about a dog first, which is much more vital information to know before whether or not it’s fuzzy), they’re just different.

Beginners get hung up on these little idiosyncrasies all the time and are left wondering why this? over and over again, which I don’t think is a valuable question to be asking.  Now obviously if the problem is that you’re not understanding how the working pieces of the language are interacting with each other and the “answer” looks like gobbledygook, it’s a good idea to look things up and ask questions until you’re clear on what’s happening, but once you understand that, getting hung up on why things work that way is missing the bigger picture.  Languages are different and get expressed in different ways.  Not every idea is going to be expressed in exactly the same manner in another language, with its centuries of different culture and traditions backing it up, and there’s no sense worrying about why those differences exist.

After all, while it’s been fun figuring out how to quantify and explain these crazy English rules to people, I didn’t need to know what they were called or how they worked to use them in English, I already knew them implicitly from using and understanding English naturally.  Having curiosity about a language you’re learning is great, and often vital to really learning it, but sometimes you just need to let things be and accept that there are a lot of mysteries where the only answer is, “Because that’s the way it works.”

Now then, let’s look at this week’s numbers.

Tuesday 6/18

  • Duolingo: 24 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of La Verdad, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Aggretsuko, ~15 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 6/19

  • Duolingo: 24 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Ladrón del Tiempo, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Aggretsuko, ~15 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 6/20

  • Duolingo: 24 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Ladrón del Tiempo, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of No Hay Tos, ~25 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 6/21

  • Duolingo: 24 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Ladrón del Tiempo, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of La Zona Cero, ~15 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 6/22

  • Duolingo: 24 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Ladrón del Tiempo, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of La Zona Cero, ~15 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 6/23

  • Duolingo: 24 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Ladrón del Tiempo, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Aggretsuko, ~15 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 6/24

  • Duolingo: 22 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/3 of El Asombroso Mauricio y sus Roedores Sabios, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Aggretsuko, ~15 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes 
  • Total Duolingo: 166 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total reading: 1 and 1/2 books, 1260 minutes
  • Total watching/listening: 2 youtube episodes, 1 podcast, and 4 tv episodes watched, 115 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 22 hours 55 minutes

Holy Numbers, Batman!

So a pretty good week overall.  I finished La Verdad, which has been my favorite of the one-off Discworld books so far—probably helped along by the fact that it heavily featured characters from the city watch subseries—and read Ladrón del Tiempo, one of the Death books.  I really like the Death subseries as well, and this one was interesting.  It seemed to feature Death himself a bit less than some of the previous ones, especially Papá Puerco, though it heavily featured Susan, his granddaughter.  The other featured characters in it were also fun to follow, and I had a good time going through it.

I’ve started in on El Asombroso Mauricio y sus Roedores Sabios, which is another One-Off, this time aimed at a younger audience than the previous books.  I can tell in reading it that it’s a bit of a step down in complexity to read, and is also overall shorter, so I should be through it rather quickly.  I’ve liked the first chunk so far quite a bit.  Really, I like these books quite a bit.

For those familiar with the Discworld series, you might have noticed that I skipped a book between Ladrón and Mauricio, El Último Héroe.  It’s a book in the Rincewind subseries and, unfortunately, isn’t available.  It’s a larger format illustrated novel, so as such hasn’t been released as an eBook, just print books.  It’s available in English, but apparently hasn’t had much of a range of printing translated into Spanish.  The cheapest I could find it was as a used copy from Spain…selling for $300+ dollars.  And while I’m certainly willing to spend money on this project—I do the accounting for it with the monthly updates, after all—I’m not quite $300-for-a-single-book willing.  I’ve been assured by a friend that it’s not vitally necessary, so I’m skipping it for now.  Maybe I’ll read it in English at some point.  Or it’ll get a Spanish reprint.

I’ve been getting in a lot more light, daily watching/listening practice this week, which I’m largely chalking up to getting fully back in the groove of work/life balance after that big illness.  I’m nearly out of new episodes of Aggretsuko, which is bumming me out, but I’ve made it last a long time now, changing it up with a No Hay Tos podcast and a couple of new La Zona Cero videos.  I have no major “breakthroughs” to report on the listening side of things, though it does feel like I’m catching more and more of La Zona Cero and No Hay Tos than I used to.  I don’t know, I wish everything was at my reading comprehension level.  If it was, I’d feel like I’d achieved the goals I’ve set for myself.  I very, very rarely get hung up on anything when reading anymore.  I definitely feel like I’m almost there, which is its own flavor of frustration.

Outside of the helping people in the forums, I’m still working through the new story lessons added to Duolingo.  The new sets added are all at the super-beginner level, which would make them feel like a waste of time if it wasn’t the case that everything on Duo is pretty far under my level.  I did shrink its daily focus down to something I can round off for a reason, after all.

I’m feeling good about the extra writing I’m getting in on the forums, but I still have no clue how to quantify it.  I think I’m averaging somewhere around 20 minutes a day with it, but it’s so broken up that it’s hard to even say that.  On the one hand, that’s annoying for trying to codify everything the way I am with this blog.  On the other hand, it’s exactly the sort of thing that I want to be doing: using Spanish in a non-focused, day-to-day sort of way in my life.  A lot of language learning techniques and strategies boil down to creating a bubble of simulated immersion in some way, and if I’m just immersed in Spanish language things as a result of the way I’m living my life, most of the work’s already done for me.

I’ve been tossing around the idea in my head of shaking things up again and doing a mini-runback of the experiment I ran earlier in the year of focusing exclusively on reading, this time for watching/listening.  I was quite happy with my results after the reading-only version, in that I did see a substantial increase in my listening comprehension afterwards, but I haven’t had the same results in the following months, and I’m curious how flipping the script might go for me.  I don’t know that I want to commit to a full month of it, especially not July, which will involve a trip out of state that’s going to eat into my project time enough as it is, but maybe a full week or two would be interesting.  I don’t know, it’s something I’ve been considering.  Maybe I’ll kick off July with it and see how things go.

Anyway, that’ll do for this week.  TTFN.

3 thoughts on “Idiosyncrasies Between Languages

  1. I definitely think you would see a lot of positive results from increasing your listening, but I’m not sure if you need to choose between reading and listening.

    I’ve been listening to a LOT of Spanish over the last few months, and what’s nice about it is how I can do it virtually anywhere while I do other things. I wash dishes and listen to No Hay Tos. I load up my kids in the wagon and take them for a walk while working through Juego de Tronos. I make dinner while listening to Radio Ambulante. Whenever I exercise I go through a lot of Spanish YouTube videos or I binge through a Netflix show in Spanish.

    When I have time to actively study Spanish I read, do Anki, and do Clozemaster. But for every hour where I’m doing nothing but Spanish I can normally find 3-4 hours where I can passively listen to it while doing other things. I’m sure my comprehension isn’t nearly as good as if I were doing nothing but listening, but I think I still get a lot out of it regardless. So maybe instead of choosing between reading and listening you can find other parts of the day where you can incorporate passive listening.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a valuable thought, but I’m not sure how well I could take advantage of it. I’m rather terrible at passive listening in English, let alone trying it with Spanish. My hearing is slightly damaged—not enough to where I’m whole or even partially deaf, mind you, but hearing isn’t one of my sharper senses—and as a result I naturally tune out noise that isn’t “relevant” to the task I’m focusing on. Driving’s the only thing I’ve found where I can “multitask” and manage to listen to something else and actually process it as information, and I only have free listening time while driving sporadically, usually it needs to be background music. Most of the time when I try to listen to something while doing something else, I end up not listening at all and just having noise go on around my head. I’m basically incapable of listening to audio books, I’d need to sit and do nothing more complicated than, like, play solitaire in order to not immediately get lost, and if I’m devoting that much focus to something I’d rather be reading it anyway.

      Still, though, I wouldn’t be dropping reading entirely during an experiment, just cutting it back, and it might be nice to change things up for a little while anyway. I’m really digging these books I’m reading, but some days it does feel a bit like a chore to get through THAT MUCH reading.


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