Learning languages by using them

The natural way to pick up phrases in a new language is to try saying something and see what response one gets. Think of how children learn. It’s a kind of active learning—say something, often in imitation of something you’ve heard, then see what your interlocutor says in response, if it was anything like what you expect. An embarrassing moment can be a powerful teacher. Soon the sounds you make start taking on meaning. This way of learning is hardly what one would call studying a language.

In this fashion, I make an avocation of asking foreign language speakers to repeat common phrases for me. We’re blessed in high tech in the Bay Area, that English is the lingua franca (ironic phrase aka, the ‘‘french’’) among a multi-lingual population for which English is a second (third, …) language. A native English speaker is among a minority—that’s grist for another time.


Take this exclamation in Mandarin:

不好意思 (Bù hǎoyìsi)

meaning; “I’m embarrassed to ask…”, roughly, literally:

Not Yes! Meaning/Desire! Think!

In context, this came about when my way was blocked along a bike path through a high-tech campus by a Chinese-speaking crowd having breakfast. So I asked a young intern what should I say to excuse me which translates idiomatically to “Feel(ing) embarrassed” according to Google Translate. The 1st 2nd & 4th idiograms are familiar from Japanese Kanji, roughly meaning No, Good (think ii-desu, also the second character in Mandarin “Ni hao” - Hello.), and think (as to introduce an opinion).

Excuse me

Take Google’s translation with a grain of salt. For “excuse me” Google-Translate specifically returns

对不起! (Duìbùqǐ!) At not (the) start.

Get up

Again the Japanese is helpful, where 起 means “get up”. (对, which works like a preposition in Mandarin, has no Kanji equivalent).

But what about 意, which she wasn’t sure has a Kanji equivalent? It actually does, meaning “idea,” or “desire” as in

意気地 (ikuji) “self respect” (Japanese)

The second kanji “do” as in Aikido, meaning spirit, the last “chi” (ON reading), meaning “ground”. Mnemonic - Desire-(my)-Spirit-(to_be_)grounded.

The charm in this free association is that the conceptual connections, wrong or right, assist associating meaning with the symbols.