Language pairs

I like watching foreign movies with English subtitles, because at the back of my mind, I’m always trying to learn words by guessing which pronounced word corresponds with which English word. That, plus having picked up a few other languages through life has made me fascinated with languages.

Somehow I’ve come to categorize language in pairs. With each pair, I think that knowing one will help me know some of the other, because I think they should be similar. Where I do confirm the similarities, I’m delighted. Where I find they’re different, unrelated; I’m disappointed.

French and Spanish
My elementary school, being British, taught French as the foreign language. When I came back to the US for high school, I continued taking French. I wanted to also sign up for Spanish, but my mom was worried that it would be too confusing. I wish I hadn’t listened to her. But I took one quarter of Spanish later in a local community college; where I probably picked up as much Spanish as I would have in one year of it in high school. In California of course, Spanish is more widely used; French is pretty useless here. French is a little more similar to English than Spanish; the grammar and some of the vocabulary. French and Spanish both have those gender nouns (ugh, memorization), and conjugation of verbs. But in Spanish, the pronouns get dropped a lot, which took me a while to get used to. Now I know enough of each just to confuse the two; when I try to speak French or Spanish, words of the other creep in.

Thai and Vietnamese
These are two rival powers in South East Asia today, similarly matched in size. Even though they don’t share a border (Laos and Cambodia are buffers between the two) I think of them as a matched pair. During the Vietnam War, Thailand served as a base for US military operations, and was where many GIs came for R & R, which helped seed Thailand’s current sex industry. I know Thai, but I don’t know Vietnamese. But here in Silicon Valley, the latter is more prevalent, and Thai is not useful, so in some ways, I wish I knew Vietnamese instead of Thai. There’s very little in common between the two languages; they sound different, they use different script. I’ve found no vocabulary in common. But they are both tonal: when I tried to learn some Vietnamese, I could write the sounds phonetically accurately using Thai. (In reality, Thai and Lao are paired as similarities; the script and spoken language are almost the same on either side of that stretch of the Mekhong River.)

Thai and Hindi
Thai includes a lot of Pali and Sanskrit (India), as well as Khmer (Cambodia), and Lao. (It’s like how English has a lot of roots in Latin and Greek, but also in Scandinavian/Germanic languages.) Some of the words are exactly the same in Thai and Hindi (ek, do, dteen: one, two, three) or exactly the same in Thai and Khmer (jan, pleng: dish, song). Thai words and names having to do with religion/mythology; you can easily pick out the Hindi equivalents, like the cast of the Ramayana/Ramakian.
In watching Hindi movies, it seems a little easier to pick up vocabulary, because they seem to speak slower.

Spanish and Portuguese
In listening to more Brazilian music now, I pick up more words in Portuguese, and subconsciously compare them to Spanish, which I’m more familiar with. I can pronounce Spanish words I see, but not Portuguese ones. Portuguese has more words with ‘sh’ ending sounds. As much as Spanish dominates in California, there are pockets of communities especially in the Central Valley farming communities where there’s a lot of Portuguese still widely spoken. I went to a bullfight in Gustine recently. All around me in the stands, everyone spoke Portuguese. (It was like traveling to Europe without having to leave the Golden State!) Somehow it was disconcertening, because they looked like people whom I’d expect to speak Spanish: men with cowboy hats and boots. And then I associate spoken Portuguese with Brazilian people; but these people didn’t look ‘Brazilian’ to me. I think my ideas of what Portuguese-speakers look like is based on the Brazilian soccer team!

Chinese and Japanese
Knowing Chinese is helpful in navigating around written Japanese (the kanji bits). Having watched a lot of movies has given me a familiarity with the way it sounds. It’s almost like an East-Asian Spanish in its poly-syllables! And I can almost understand the gist of things, without having ever formally studied Japanese. Of course, it’s also helpful that the Japanese language incorporates a lot from the Chinese originally.

Korean and Japanese, Korean and Chinese
As mentioned in my recent post, I haven’t had much exposure to Korean, until recently. I subconsciously compare it to Japanese, both being foreign-to-me East Asian languages that have a basis in Chinese. Knowing Chinese is not as helpful in trying to pick up written Korean, because the hangul script uses almost no Chinese (Chinese characters only show up in archaic/historical/literary stuff.) But in the spoken language, where you can often hear the Chinese root of the Korean word: palace, country, time. (I think there’s a similar relationship in Chinese-Vietnamese, where you can hear the Chinese root of the Vietnamese words: bamboo, south, etc)

English and Russian
When I was a little kid, someone taught me about codes: how you could create codes by tweaking the order of alphabet and establishing a key to code. I always think of Cyrillic as a code that I can convert to English; after all some of the letters look and sound the same (a, m, t) in both languages, and then there’s the ones which look the same but sound different (c, h, p). So in traveling around the former USSR, I’d try to decipher signs, and sometimes the words sound the same in English and Russian: café, restaurant, internet, avant-garde: kafe, pectopah, ihtephet, avah’g’ap’d’. (I can’t do Cyrillic here.)

Languages are fun!


One thought on “Language pairs

  1. English subtitles for a Japanese movie can be distracting because of the differences in sentence structure. While English is SVO, Japanese is SOV meaning that the verb comes last.

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