Communication abhors a vacuum

by Brian George Worthen

The saying “nature abhors a vacuum” is a bit odd, isn’t it? We native speakers of English use it fairly frequently, though very few people drop “abhor” into casual conversation. With the exception of said saying, naturally, where “abhor” collocates with “nature” and “a vacuum.” You may ask yourself what on Earth that period is doing between quotation marks – especially if you’re accustomed to seeing full stops outside of inverted commas. And if you are a nonnative speaker of English, you might find yourself asking “Just what is this fool rambling on and on about?” However you might express that in your native tongue, that is. I, for one, would certainly insert a swear word or two.

Such (seemingly?) incoherent musings are merely par for the course for me and my fellow language geeks. Some people are obsessed with film. Others simply cannot get enough Formula One racing. And yet other folks are downright enamored with cooking. My passion for enjoying food aside, it has long been language that gets my creative juices flowing, my engine revving, and my mouth watering – proverbially, at least.

Brian Worthen

Translating: more than meets the eye

People eager to add to their language repertoire might look up how you can express “Nature abhors a vacuum” in other languages. As I just learned, it’s “Die Natur verabscheut das Leere” in German. But only a language geek would immediately obsess over a curious difference. The saying in English contains a zero article and an indefinite article, whereas its German counterpart has two definite articles. And now in English: there is no “a/an/the” before “nature” and the indefinite article “a” precedes “vacuum.” In the German, both “die” and “das” are rendered simply as “the” in English. The former is reserved for feminine nouns and the latter for neuter nouns in German. It is precisely this attention to detail – as well as an unslakable thirst for knowledge and awareness alike – that separates people with a passing interest in language from professionals who make a living working with language(s).

And that ties into one of my favorite words, largely because it is an essential concept to understand regarding language acquisition and fluency as well as the worlds of translation and interpreting: “sprachgefühl.” The dictionary website Merriam-Webster.com defines sprachgefühl (yes, it’s a loanword from German) as “an intuitive sense of what is linguistically appropriate.” This succinctly describes the language usage of native speakers, who rely on their gut feeling – rather than conscious reasoning – when they speak, write, listen, and read in their native tongue. Language acquisition is far more challenging in a foreign tongue. This should come as no surprise: people acquire a native sprachgefühl, irrespective of language, only if they use it in everyday life with (preferably native) real people for many, many years. A ten-year-old’s command of their native tongue is infinitely better than a two-year-old’s. But the former’s language skills will improve dramatically once again in the second decade of life. So why do so many people expect to master a foreign language in mere months – or even weeks? It is impossible to master any foreign language simply by spending time in a classroom.

Photo credit: Wokandapix

Foreign language: it’s an acquired taste

Why does any of this matter? It certainly matters to me as a language geek. But also as a linguist. And most certainly as a professional translator since 2004. I must admit that it irks me – no, wait, it vexes me – that so many nonnative speakers have an inexplicably inflated sense of their proficiency in my native tongue. Good grades in English courses a native speaker simply do not make. That nonnative speakers make mistakes does not bother me. On the contrary, even native speakers make mistakes of different sorts all the time. To err is human, after all.

At the risk of digressing, the ten-year-old native speaker I mentioned above never would have acquired native fluency if she hadn’t committed untold thousands of errors in her native tongue. Just think of the things toddlers and young children say. Their vocabulary is limited, their pronunciation a bit iffy, their syntax subpar, and their grammar, well, childlike. All of which adds up to adorable language, I might point out. But I call attention to their many mistakes with good reason: too often the emphasis in foreign-language classrooms lies on avoiding mistakes at all costs, memorizing so-called rules, and slaving over arbitrary lists of vocabulary that often exhibit only a tenuous link to contemporary mainstream usage among native speakers. But I digress …

I simply want to argue that only native speakers of English have a native sprachgefühl. What do I mean by that? Well, no native speaker would confuse custom with customs, for they are entirely different things. As are costumes, which are neither regional attire nor traditional dress. A cocktail dress is fancy attire, but not fancy dress. That would be British English for what Americans call costumes. It is, for example, common in the United States to dress up as a vampire for Halloween. Many Bavarians wear traditional dress – note the zero article! – at Oktoberfest, where wearing a costume is not a custom, although drinking beer is. A liter of it, out of a glass mug – not a stein, which is made of earthenware. But just try explaining to my American compatriots visiting Munich that a “Maßkrug” made of glass is not called a stein in German. They are often incredulous upon hearing such insights. Which is unfortunately typical of humans: the more convinced we are that we’re right, the less willing we are to acknowledge that we’re actually wrong.

Your culture or mine?

At BVIW, we cannot always be right about everything. But we are native pros. Those of us who translate into English have been at home in the house of English all our lives. Which is good for our customers, because native fluency in a language as well as native awareness and expertise in our respective home cultures mean that we hold the keys to unlock the door to communication(s) with other people. In other countries. Your foreign language is our native language.

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