You Have to Be Open-minded to New Ways of Doing Things


In a post a few weeks ago, I mentioned several characteristics that determine how successful a person will be in learning languages.  One of the points I mentioned was that you’re more likely to learn, and to have quicker results, if you’re able to understand that the way things are done in your native language – i.e. grammatical structures, sayings, prepositions, etc. – are not the default, most logical way of stringing morphemes (essentially words) together to create a meaningful utterance.

Some people seem to think that we say things the way we do in English because that is the most logical way to arrange ideas into a string of words. Any other way of doing things would just be incorrect thinking.

Believe it or not, most people around the world don’t actually think in English. All natural languages developed over the course of thousands of years, and have different ways of converting thought to language, and to each of them, their way is the most logical, because that’s the way they’re used to doing it. Some of them will be very different from anything you’re used to.

As an example, prepositions, for example, are notoriously fickle about meaning. In fact, the way a given preposition conveys meaning will vary significantly even within a single language. In New York, people don’t wait in line, they wait on line. In some parts of the English-speaking world, apples are different from oranges, whereas in other parts, apples are different to oranges.

English puts adjectives before nouns; Spanish puts them after. English puts relative clauses after nouns (e.g. “the boy who is eating ice cream”); Chinese puts them before (e.g. “the eating-ice-cream boy”).

I’ve found that a person’s ability to dissociate the meaning from the words they’re used to is one of the biggest predictor of a person’s future success. Conversely, people who, for example, just can’t get past the fact that a different language has two different words for the concepts that we in English tie all together with the word “to be,” such as Spanish and Portuguese, are much more likely to give up because “it’s too hard.”

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