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Learning Vocabulary 2



David Bond


This page is a critical reply to the page Learning Vocabulary 1 by Amorey Gethin, and Erik V. Gunnemark.

David is strictly speaking responding to part of the text in the book The Art and Science of Learning Languages, but this page is effectively a reaction to the web page Learning Vocabulary 1 as well, since that is for the most part an extract from the book.

The Editor invites articles in response to both Learning Vocabulary 1 and Learning Vocabulary 2.


  1 Two bad pieces of advice from A.G.  


  2 The fallacy of 'transparency'   


  3 My starting points; agreements and disagreements with A.G.    


  4 The need for patience; my French and Greek, new windows on the world     


  5 Learning French and Greek


  6 Translation is undesirable at any stage  


  7 The traps of transparency   


  8 Adult learners have to learn a world as well as a language


  9 This (8) is my basic disagreement with A.G.; the need for humility


 10 Preserving one's adult identity


11 Learning the foreign language's courtesies


12 Translation a form of linguistic impoliteness


13 To avoid or not to avoid 'marginal' areas of vocabulary


14 Imbibed with the mother's milk: the language of basic culture


15 Games, literature, music


16 An example of how dictionaries lead to error ane wasted time


17 Different cultures speak differently about the same things: illness, television


18 Bilingual dictionaries: weakness of A.G.'s and E.V.G.'s examples


19 Don't look it up; ask real people


20 Don't 'pidginise' by trying to express your own native ideas in foreign clothing


21 Internationalese pidgin


22 Language school pidgin


23 Dictionaries, translation, and learning habits


24 Only use language you have seen and heard


25 Learn how to speak and behave politely


26 Contrast words, don't compare them


27 Observe language in your special field, but not in the dictionary!


28 Cultural preparation


29 Good language-learning does not mean losing your personality


30 Adapting to a different culture


31 Yet remaining the same unique person


Editor's note on 'thinking in the foreign language'



1. Two bad pieces of advice from A.G.

My starting-point for this piece are two statements that I take to be by Amorey Gethin in the book The Art and Science of Learning Languages, regarding 1) the necessity of translation in the early stages of learning a language and 2) the practice of looking up words in one’s own language in a dictionary in order to find equivalents in a language one is learning.  There is, Amorey asserts, ‘only one practical way to take the first steps in learning a language, and that is to learn meanings through translation’. This, despite the general argument of the chapter in which it appears, and with which I wholly concur, that translation for many reasons (which he enumerates) is both dangerous and misleading for the language-learner.  Elsewhere, in a discussion of the use and abuse of dictionaries, he states, with specific reference to looking up words in one’s native language, that ‘the dictionary is the only solution if you have ideas to express that you do not know how to express’.  Again this is set against a general body of advice, with which I most whole-heartedly concur, to the effect that dictionaries are in many respects ‘the great enemies of word-learning’.  I would strongly contest both  the contention that translation is necessary (or desirable) at any stage of language-learning and the contention that looking up words in one’s own language in a dictionary to find supposed equivalents can ever be of value.


2. The fallacy of ‘transparency’

I am also unhappy with Gethin and Gunnemark’s emphasis on the notion of ‘transparency’ in language as an aid to learning a language. By ‘transparent words’ they mean those that are readily recognisable in one language because of their similarity to words in another language.  “There can be dangers lying in wait in words which appear to be transparent but are in fact not.” they write “But these dangers are very minor compared to the immense advantage that transparency in a foreign language can give to learners.” In my view the authors have this equation entirely the wrong way round. Most such ‘transparency’ is in my view misleading and the number of words that are genuinely transparent are very few, if indeed ‘transparent words’ exist at all. What is more, no learner of a language needs to be told about such transparency, which is immediately obvious, and every language-learner needs to be warned (or to warn themselves) repeatedly of its dangers.


3. My starting points; agreements and disagreements with A.G.

First let me put my cards upon the table. Amorey is a very old and dear friend of mine; it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that in the days, many years ago now, when we were colleagues, I learnt virtually everything I know about language and language-learning from the formidable Gethin. As a result, nor surprisingly perhaps, we disagree about remarkably little. An earlier piece I wrote on Playing with Words contained, I was later somewhat dismayed to find, phrases and expressions that could almost have been lifted verbatim from Amorey’s book even though at the time of writing I had not actually read the damn thing.


Disagreement between us, then, is a rare thing, and is perhaps all the more worthy of note because of that. Let me therefore say a few preliminary words about why I think we disagree in this instance. Amorey has always held, very properly, that adult language-learners have considerable advantages. As he expresses it  in the book,  “adults can get down straight away to mastering the meanings of a foreign language, many of them far more sophisticated than a native child would grasp.” So far so good, and I have no literal disagreement with a word of it. However I sense here, and elsewhere in what Amorey writes on the subject, what I would regard as a certain misplaced ‘impatience’. It is, I believe, the impatience of a man who lives by ideas, and by the word, and finds it difficult to abide the notion of being, even for a brief while and in a specific context, deprived of the full power of expression which that gives him. Naturally, for Amorey is that sort of man, he wishes as earnestly for his students what he wishes for himself in this regard.


4. The need for patience; my French and Greek, new windows on the world

“The key is to have the strength of mind to be patient”, Amorey writes elsewhere and I would agree with this entirely, but he is I believe sometimes less willing either to accept or impose this good advice with the rigour that is perhaps required.  I am myself no extraordinary linguist. Like the great majority of those learning a language, I have to bring to the task a great deal of will-power  and a certain amount of courage. When I say “will-power” and “courage”, I am actually here thinking of the French words ‘volontéand ‘courage’ or equally, in the latter case, of the Greek word, ‘koradjio, itself a borrowing I assume from Italian, but none of these translate very well into English, so “will-power” and “courage” will have to do although “willingness” and “good-humoured determination” might actually give a better idea of what I mean. The only two languages that I have learned to speak with any degree of proficiency and which I know well enough for them to have significantly affected my personal lexicon (as with ‘volonté’, ‘courage’ and ‘koradjio cited above) are French and Greek. These are the languages, if you like, which have provided me with new ‘windows on the world’, with new ways of describing the world around me, not available to me in my native language.


5. Learning French and Greek

My French I learned, as so many English-speakers do, in patchwork fashion – taught, sometimes well, more often badly at different schools and picked up from reading and from stays, short and long, at different periods of my life, in the country itself. I have a vocabulary, active and passive, in French that is probably not much short of my English vocabulary. I speak and read it fluently and even write it reasonably fluently, although, from lack of practice, I make many silly, careless errors when I write. My Greek I learned entirely in situ, first on the island of Crete, where I lived for a year, and later on the mainland, where I also lived and worked for about a year. My conversational Greek is, or at least, was (it is now very rusty) extremely easy and comfortable. I read Greek without difficulty but have a very limited vocabulary and I write it rather painfully.


By most standards of measurement my French is considerably better than my Greek as so it jolly well should be after all the years, off and on, that I have devoted to learning it, reading it and speaking it. I am nevertheless conscious to this day that my Greek is, in a sense, ‘better learned’. My French, even now, is still occasionally dogged by false notions picked up during my schooldays and, even with the extensive vocabulary that I have, though I think in the language and even speak to myself in it, ed.note I still have consciously combat at  times a temptation to translate from English.  I have never experienced either of these problems with my Greek. From the beginning I learned the language purely from listening, reading and observing and repeating what I had heard, read or observed. I have never consciously at any time translated  from English to Greek. Of course I must have often done so unconsciously ( I am not some kind of saint), but for the most part I was conscious of always speaking what I knew to be ‘Greek’. The only times I really made use of a dictionary was to check on the spelling of words or, in the days before the orthography was reformed, the form of accent used.


6. Translation is undesirable at any stage

I am therefore clear in my own mind that translation is not necessary even in the earliest stages of learning a language and I am equally clear in my own mind that is undesirable. In a way it is particularly undesirable in the earliest stages because it is precisely then that one is developing language-learning habits that will mark all the rest of one’s ‘life’ in that language. I repeat that I have still failed to eradicate entirely bad language-learning habits with respect to my French first developed over thirty-five years ago.


7. The traps of transparency

In this respect, I have always found the language-transparency to which Gethin and Gunnemark attach such value, a  real problem. One of the joys of learning Greek, as an English person, is the very lack of transparency. There are remarkably few temptations to suppose that Greek vocabulary or Greek usage will resemble that of one’s own language and as a result one relies, just as one should, almost entirely on one’s observation. With French, on the other hand, those temptations are continually there; the mistakes they draw one into are extremely difficult to avoid and, once made, are extremely difficult to correct. Examples are manifold and I am not, I should emphasise, talking here of ‘faux amis’ but of words that, by the definition given by Gethin and Gunnemark, should unquestionably be regarded as ‘transparent’. The word ‘prediction’, for instance, is often closer to the French word ‘prévision’ than to its identical English counterpart; ‘prédirein French, unlike ‘predict’ can take an indirect object and has the sense more of ‘tell before’ than ‘predict’; ‘révision’, which in French derives both from ‘revoir’ and from ‘réviser’ and frequently has the sense of ‘review’ rather than ‘revision’; ‘insist’ which can indeed be rendered by ‘insister’ but can also have the sense of  obstiner’.


For French people learning English there is the problem of a large area of French vocabulary (generally more abstract expressions) consisting of words, used quite commonly in French and having no other obvious translation apart from their ‘transparent’ English counterpart, whose English version is relatively rare and may even sound faintly ridiculous. ‘Serein’ and ‘sérenité’ (serene and serenity) are examples of this or the word ‘perennité’ (perennity).  Velléité’ is not perhaps a common word in French, but it is used; I have encountered it several times. How is a French person to know that the English word (which exists all right) is unlikely to form part even of the ‘passive’ vocabulary of very many well-educated English people. As an English person who lives in France, even I become confused over such things. Amorey will confirm that in a recent (electronic) conversation, I had to enquire (in parentheses) if the phrase ‘aliment a debate’ (a common-enough cliché in French) was a ‘gallicism  because I was not – and still am not – sure whether it was really used in English..


A considerable problem, when one falls into the ‘transparency trap’ is that the word or phrase one is using may not actually be ‘wrong’ as such and is therefore unlikely to be corrected by friends and acquaintances (I almost said ‘interlocutors’) and one may therefore go on for years using an ‘abnormal’ word or expression. The only way of dealing with this is to try scrupulously not to use such words until one has confirmed their usage in the second language from genuine experience. If there is any purpose in paying special attention to such ‘transparent words’, it should be so that one can painstakingly examine such words to see if they really are equivalents, assuming, until and unless one discovers otherwise, that they are not.


8. Adult learners have to learn a world as well as a language

Adult learners of language, Amorey says elsewhere “have the great disadvantage that they cannot be in at the beginning, so to speak, of a foreign language”. This, I believe, is supremely, almost tragically true, but not merely in the very obvious practical manner that Amorey goes on to describe. Childhood is all the things he says it is, but it is also of course the time when one imbibes an absolute mass of cultural information. Fairy stories, nursery rhymes, mnemonics, poems and songs learned by heart, children’s games, family rituals, communal festivities, the absurd palaver of school rules and regulations - the list is virtually endless - are all the means by which already, by the age of five or six, a playground full of little French people or a playground full of little Italians  is precisely that – a playground full of little French people or a playground full of little Italians.


9. My basic disagreement with A.G.; the need for humility

“A child has to learn about the world and a language, an adult only has to learn a language.” Here perhaps is the very heart of my disagreement with Amorey. In my view an adult learning a language has also to learn a world and often a very different world from the one with which he or she has previously been familiar. I do not believe that one can sail blithely in from one language to another, from one culture to another, and apply one’s adult skills just like that within the new environment. Language-learning requires, in my view – and this is the part of the process that requires most courage – a very great deal of humility. There is a real sense in which it is necessary to become ‘a child’ again and to be reborn, as it were, in the new language. Learners who attempt to ignore this necessity will not only experience a great deal of frustration, they will also limit from the outset the progress they can make in that language. They will in practice have all the hard work of learning the language but reap few of its rewards.


10. Preserving one’s adult identity

Of course, becoming a child again in this sense does not imply that one discards one’s adult identity completely. Far from it. Often one is necessarily concerned with areas of  vocabulary that would be unlikely to much affect a child (renewing passport visas, for example, purchasing preservatives and sanitary towels, getting the car repaired) and one acquires, very rapidly and without great effort, a whole range of language skills that correspond to one’s general life and experience as an adult person (ordering drinks, paying bills, listening to or relating off-colour jokes etc) and a great many of these life - and language - experiences have, broadly recognisable characteristics that cut across cultural difference.


11. Learning the foreign language’s courtesies

Sometimes it is necessary to pay immediate attention to such cultural difference precisely with a view to establishing one’s adult identity.  This is especially true with respect to the learning of ‘polite’ expressions in the new language – an absolute priority in my view. When, as often happened to students of mine, English families with whom they stayed would complain, as they might of some naughty child: “Don’t you ever say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in your language”, it was not of course ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ that was really missing. What the students were unable to do (as native-speakers are as children) was to use the more elliptical and sophisticated forms of language that adults use to indicate politeness (“Do you think you could…” or “I wonder if you could…”  instead of  Can you…”, “I would like to” instead of “I want”, “Would you mind if I…” instead of “Can I?”, “I’d love to” instead of “Yes, OK” and so on). Where language-learners need to be like children is in their preparedness to be ‘instructed’, not by teachers but by events and their own observation, in the ways of another culture.


12. Translation a form of linguistic impoliteness

Translation is in a sense another form of linguistic impoliteness. It is an attempt to impose on,  rather than learn from, the ‘donor’ language and culture. With patience, any student will establish in time their own ‘voice’ within that new language and within that culture but it cannot be imposed from outside. From the very outset, the ‘voice’ of the learner’s native language needs to be effectively gagged and all the components for a new ‘voice’ drawn from the new environment. There will be time enough, once that new ‘voice’ has established itself, to embellish it with all the splendours (or otherwise) of the student’s ‘own’ personality. Learn first, would be my motto, and ‘express yourself’ (an overrated virtue) when and as you can.


13. To avoid or not to avoid ‘marginal’ areas of vocabulary?

Amorey advises students to avoid ‘marginal’ areas of English , quoting a splendid  Malay proverb about 'poling downstream' being highly amusing to the crocodiles. Without wishing to encourage anyone to ‘pole downstream’ to the amusement of the local reptiles, students should, in my opinion, be wary of assuming that things are ‘marginal’.  Specific ‘fields of interest’ can be central  if not to vocabulary learning at least to the broader business of ‘learning a culture’. I have (and I am sure Amorey has too) had to endure somewhat petulant outbursts from students  who were ‘not interested’ in some aspect or other of the material provided for their edification and delectation. While I have a certain sympathy for anyone not, shall we say, wishing to immerse themselves too deeply in the vocabulary of football or knitting, I do believe there is a certain onus on the language-learner to be interested in anything and everything as far as a new language is concerned.  It is necessary, to some degree, to suppress or suspend in this regard one’s adult tastes and preferences.


14. Imbibed with the mother’s milk: the language of basic culture

Bear in mind all those many things ‘imbibed’ more or less with their mother’s milk by the native speaker. Remember how much catch-up is required of the adult second-language learner in this respect. Let me give some specific examples that affect the learner of French. Two subjects any would-be speaker of French would be completely crazy to ignore are those of wine and cycling. Personally I like wine without being any sort of connoisseur and have no interest whatsoever in cycling, but as a learner of language I may indulge the taste for one for all I am worth but should not allow my distaste for the other to blind me to the importance of le cyclisme in French culture. You wouldn’t have to go far to find a French person who does not like wine and drinks only beer (it is actually quite a fashionable affectation amongst the French these days) or to find a French person who, like myself, would not be seen dead on the saddle of a bicycle. But those French people will have already, before their tastes were formed, have collected all the necessary cultural information and can afford now to choose indifference. I, as an adult second language-learner, have not and cannot.


So, if I set myself to understand what is meant by a wine that is ‘vert’ or ‘bouchonné’, notions I would leave to the real wine-snobs in England, or if I trouble myself to find about “la Grande Boucle’ and to know what the ‘peloton’ is and what is signifies to wear a ‘maillot jaune, it is not because I have suddenly become somebody who likes to talk about wine in that way or who has discovered a love of cycling. It is simply that I know how important those things are in the culture and how strongly they run, if only as metaphor, through the language itself.  And one can also sometimes enjoy a little surreptitious revenge for one’s labour in these respects. One quickly discovers, for instance, that most French people are all mouth and carafe when it comes to wine. They water the stuff down, drink red wine chilled, are as easily hoodwinked as the English by absurd hype about Beaujolais nouveau and, in the part of France I know best, will ignore the very decent red wine to drink a white that is no better than an average homemade apple-wine and a rosé that is, to my mind, not fit for human consumption. As for cyclisme, the most important word to be aware of nowadays in this context is ‘dopage.


15. Games, literature, music

And remember too that very small things can often tell you a great deal about the culture in which you have chosen to live. If you have only ever played backgammon in the hushed atmosphere of an English club or as a quiet after-dinner entertainment, you will a learn a great deal about what it is to be Greek by playing tavli, preferably in its full version, in a Greek bar or taverna. I have never felt closer to the Czechs, even if I never did master their wretched language,  than when bypassing the (sadly) proliferating pool-tables to play a wonderful Czech variant of billiards called kolečnik. As a teacher, I always encouraged my students to take up darts.



The literature of a language would seem in some respects to lie poles apart from its games and pastimes, but in practice very much the same applies. It is quite difficult for instance for a learner of Greek to appreciate certain rather important aspects of the language (split for a long period of its history between a ‘demotic’ form and a ‘literary’ form known as ‘katherevousa’) without also experiencing Greek literature. Amorey’s anecdote of the student obsessed with the phrase ‘salad

days’ is a splendidly funny story, but it is wise nonetheless for a learner of English to be at least aware of the degree to which Shakespearian expressions (‘in my mind’s eye’, ‘winter of discontent’, etc) have naturalised themselves within the language or have otherwise become part of the cultural mindset of even the most ‘unliterary’ English people (‘my kingdom for a horse’ ‘Alas, poor Yorick’). Wide reading is not necessarily crucial to language-learning from a  purely linguistic point of view but, as an aid to understanding a culture, it is extremely valuable. A great deal about a people or a culture can also be learned from its music, both classical (to live in France without an awareness of Bizet’s Carmen  is unthinkable) or popular (the Greek tradition of ‘laika tragouthia’, for instance, or French ‘chanson’).  As a source of cultural information, even  television (generally quite worthless, in my opinion, as an aid to learning anything) has a small part to play..


16. An example of how dictionaries lead to error and wasted time

If learning a language is also, as I have argued, learning a culture, it must also be about learning a set of ‘ideas’, or at least a system of expressing ideas, that is largely exclusive to that culture.  The problem with looking up a word in a dictionary in your own language (and it is impossible to do this unless one presupposes an ‘idea’ of some sort  in one’s own language as well) is not, as Amorey suggests, simply that one may subsequently use the word or words one finds wrongly. It is rather that there is an enormously high risk (I would put it at least eighty percent) that you are actually in the course of trying to say something that is not actually said in the language you wish to speak and effectively making the dictionary an unwitting accomplice in that process.


Let me give a very simple example of how impossible it is to get “the right answer” by using a dictionary in this way, even when the language-situation one is facing seems entirely unproblematic and the dictionary bends over spinewards to be helpful. A French student wishes to take a few days off from her course because her mother is ill. In explaining this to her teacher, she looks for a suitable, slightly formal way of expressing herself. Psychologically this is her first mistake, but a natural one; French is a more ‘formal’ culture and a therefore a more ‘formal’ language than English in respect of such things. The French phrase she has in mind, an entirely normal one in the context, is “ma mère est atteinte d’une grave maladie”. The two French-English dictionaries I have available to me are not of the best, perhaps, but they are quite as good as , if not rather better than, an awful lot of dictionaries I have seen in the hands of students in my time.


If my student’s starting-point is the word ‘maladie’ (itself unwise, as she would have fared much better had she thought ‘adjectivally’, ‘à l’anglaise’ that is to say), she would find a host of synonyms in both dictionaries. One gives, in this order: “malady, illness, sickness, disease, complaint, disorder, distemper, infirmity, epidemic, sickliness, morbidness, inveterate habit, bad habit, weakness, foible, passion, mania”.  Her common-sense and knowledge of similar words in her own language would probably allow her to eliminate all but the first four or five, but even so the choice remains wide and she has no clue here as to how to distinguish the various possibilities. The second dictionary gives: “illness, sickness, malady, disease, complaint, ailment, disorder, distemper, passion, mania”, so adding a new possibility (“ailment”) without helping to eliminate the others.  Bearing Amorey’s advice in mind, the students could of course spend a happy half-hour or so looking up the words the other way around. This would enable her to eliminate “ailment” given as indisposition but all the rest, in both dictionaries, simply return the answer “maladie”.


I am cheating slightly, in that both dictionaries, in their limited sections of usage,  give ‘have an illness” for the French ‘faire une maladie’ and my student might have settled for this but then she could have decided in the first place to think as simply as possible (and quite probably within her own vocabulary in the language) and said “my mother is very ill”. She is however intent on ‘expressing herself’ and this natural (and reasonable) tendency is perhaps flattered by Amorey’s remarks on her ‘advantages’ as an adult-learner. So, bearing in mind that her original French was “ma mère est atteinte d’une grave maladie, she now has a go at the word “atteint(e)”. One dictionary does not list the word separately as an adjective at all but under the verb from which it is derived “s’atteindre” it says: “to be reached &c”. Since the “&c” here can be taken to refer to appropriate adaptations of all the meanings given for the transitive verb “atteindre” she would end up with the following possibilities: “to be reached, to be touched, to be hurt, to be overtaken, to be caught, to be come up to, to be come upon, to be attacked, to be affected, to be seized, to be infected, to be accused”.


My student is now in a fair old quandary. Should she say “my mother has been attacked  by a serious distemper” or would “my mother has been come upon by a serious malady” be more appropriate? Eventually dismissing both of these, she is just about to decide upon the very reasonable-sounding  “my mother has been affected by a serious complaint” when she remembers that she has not yet tried “atteint(e)” in the other dictionary. Here she has an incredible stroke of good fortune, for not only does the dictionary list “atteint(e)” separately as an adjective but it actually gives a translation of the very phrase she had in mind in the first place. It translates “atteinte(e) d’une grave maladie” as “affected with a serious disease”. All doubts cast aside, my student rushes off to say her piece, little imagining that the phrase she has spent so long unearthing, though syntactically and grammatically perfectly correct, is going to sound more than faintly ludicrous.


Whatever one may think of the dictionary’s performance on this occasion – and the entries are, I promise faithfully, exactly as I have given them; I will happily send photocopies to any doubters – it has failed her badly as well of course as wasting a great deal of her time. There is, as it happens, an almost perfect way she might have expressed herself, with the appropriate touch of formality she was seeking – “my mother is suffering from a serious illness” – but it is difficult to see how she could have ever have got there with the help of a dictionary. To have been in a position to use this phrase, she would have first to have “experienced” the English, to have heard somebody saying such a thing in short.  The compiler of the dictionary is not in any way inaccurate, it should be noted, in his rendering of the French phrase. The French does sound “more serious”, if I can put it that way, than the English expression I have just given and the lexicographer has faithfully attempted to reflect this. If my student were in a position to ring him up and ask his advice, this might not be what he would suggest but then no dictionary can hope to provide renderings of words for all conceivable circumstances.


17. Different cultures speak differently about the same things: illness, television

The truth is that, where matters of health are concerned, French and English are almost diametric opposites in their modes of expression. It is a common English affectation to be reticent in talking of illness, to make light of it and to use the plainest possible expressions to describe it. The French do just the opposite. They adore talking about illness and do so constantly. They are as obsessed with their blood-pressures as Americans are by their cholesterol levels. They almost invariably talk about their health in catastrophic terms and delight in using what to the English sound like technical terms (phlebite, ankylose, coryza, etc) in preference often to much simpler terms. Dictionary use of this kind almost always founders not simply on straightforward linguistic grounds but for wider cultural reasons. One comes back always to the verity, accepted by Amorey almost as fully as myself, that languages quite simply do not translate.


A favourite example of  mine in this respect – and one I have used elsewhere – is that of the word ‘television’. It is an example I like because it is one of those areas of vocabulary – to do, that is to say, with modern technology in a world supposedly become a ‘global village’ – where people are most inclined to assume a uniformity across different languages. It would seem to be an example of the phenomenon Gethin and Gunnemark refer to as ‘transparency’. But no such uniformity, no such transparency really exists. An English person learning French might be delighted to find that they can use the word ‘télé’ just as in English to refer both to the programmes shown (“What’s on tele tonight?” or “I saw it on the tele”) and to refer to the beast itself (“It’s over there – next to the tele”). However not only does this disguise syntactical nuances  (notice how in the two first English phrases given I have, without my being in the least conscious of it, used no article in one phrase and a definite article in the other) but it also ignores the fact that French also makes use of the words ‘téléviseur’ (television-set, monitor) and  poste’ (set) when referring to “a television” in a way English does not or only does very rarely. Of course it would be perfectly possible to get by always using the word “télévision and this is of course precisely the fatal temptation for the language-learner; to do so however is to risk “pidginising” the language being learned.


18. Bilingual dictionaries: weakness of A.G.’s and E.V.G.’s examples

Take for a moment the examples the authors give of words discovered in an English-French dictionary that he evidently regards as straightforward. They are nothing of the kind. ‘Paquet and ‘packet’, certainly, represent a reasonably straightforward correspondence, but, as ever, this disguises a more complicated linguistic story. In French packaging is frequently in practice described in terms of the material it is made up of (plastique, carton) and even when an equivalence seems totally ‘transparent’, in our authors’ terms, as for instance in the case of ‘a packet of cigarettes’, it is not really so. It is true that one would ask in French for ‘un paquet’ in this context at the tabac; but exactly the same item, sitting on a kitchen-table, is just as likely to be referred to as ‘une boîte’. This again highlights the fact that using a dictionary in this way encourages the student to think in terms of easy equivalences and thereby also encourages them (as with ‘television’) to use words that resemble those in their own language and to ignore other usages, which are precisely those of course that they need to observe and learn.


 To move on, ‘impôt certainly does mean tax, but not all taxes in the English sense are impôts, there are also ‘taxes’ and there are also ‘prélèvements’ and there are also ‘charges’ all of which could be rendered in English by the much more generic word ‘taxes’. The only real way of distinguishing these if of course by having to pay the buggers. Gethin and Gunnemark’s last example given is the most disastrous of all. 'Langage' can indeed mean ‘language’ in French, but only in rather specialised senses (the abstract notion ‘language’ for instance, although even then not always, or in the metaphorical sense as in ‘language of music’). The normal French word that translates English ‘language’ is of course ‘langue’. So if in even these straightforward cases, the dictionary had misled, or threatened to mislead Messrs Gethin and Gunnemark, what effect is it going to have on their poor students, attempting presumably to master an entirely mythical creature called ‘le langage français’!


Of course the authors do not for a moment intend any student to behave in the ways I have described above. Amorey is quite specific in emphasising that use of a dictionary ‘should always be a last resort’ and that students should not let it ‘steal’ the precious time that they ‘should be spending on the language itself.’ Nonetheless the principle, which I contest, that learners necessarily begin with translation and the notion that ‘the dictionary is the only solution if you have ideas to express that you do not know how to express’, when combined, can be seen as actually encouraging students to make the dictionary their first resort.


19. Don’t ‘look it up’, ask real people

In both instances my advice to the student would be to go out and find the language they are seeking, not in a dictionary, but in the big, wide world around them. Finding language even in an unknown country is a lot easier in practice than finding, shall we say, someone’s address in an unknown town and requires no map or compass. Luckily language is all around one.


Gethin and Gunnemark could of course have found very much better examples of the sort of occasion where dictionary-use might seem to be entirely harmless – the names of animals, say or of birds. But it is even here greatly preferable, and really not so difficult, to go and ask a real person. If there is no one around, be patient! Apart from anything else, it’s extremely difficult to remember a word that you’ve looked up in a dictionary in this way, so any ‘time-saving’ involved is more apparent than real. And it is most unlikely that you really need, to quote Shakespeare, to ‘tell a hawk from a handsaw’ (the last is sixteenth-century slang for ‘a heron’) today rather than tomorrow or next week or ‘when the wind is southerly’, so it is simply not worth getting yourself into bad learning-habits for the sake of it.


20. Don’t ‘pidginise’ by trying to express your own native ideas in foreign clothing

You may well also find that ‘asking’ brings considerably more information, in terms of cultural context, than ‘looking up’. You may, for instance, learn local names or slang names that do not appear in the dictionary. Such additional information is also important from a word-learning point of view because it acts as a mnemonic. Finally, even when you learn nothing, you can be learning something. I discovered that asking Greeks the names of birds is very often a rather thankless task. “What’s that?” I asked. “It’s a little bird” (poulaki ine) was the reply and the only reply I ever got. But note that, while I did not in this case learn the name of the bird, I learned something very significant about the way that Greeks view the world. One of the great pleasures of learning any language is the awareness that it can express ideas differently and perhaps even express different ideas. It is that ‘difference’ that the language-learner needs to observe and learn. Too often when language-learners talk of ‘expressing themselves’ they in fact mean ‘expressing themselves in the same way as they would in their own language’ and this may simply not be appropriate. It is also crucially important to be aware of, and to make use of, all areas where the new language has a richer vocabulary than one’s own. To fail to do either of these things is in effect to be talking one’s own language in the words of the second. This attempt to express, for example, English ideas in French clothing or vice versa is what I mean by ‘pidginisation’. And it is important to notice, as in examples of the “television” and ‘le paquet’, that it is possible to ‘pidginise’ as much by failing to use words in a language, when they are available, as by using words inappropriately or incorrectly.


21. Internationalese pidgin

One sees this sort of ‘pidginisation’ all the time with that useful but ugly phenomenon, ‘internationalese’ English. This has precisely been constructed, by people of different nationalities all over the world (with the Scandinavians way out in front) by, in effect, people looking up words in their own language and rendering them into English. They are engaged one and all in trying to express the ‘ideas’ of one culture in the ‘words’ of another. It is a parasitic form of language-use and inevitably it ‘deculturalises’ (and drains of all wealth of meaning) the language that it is a parasite on (mostly these days English). Eventually of course the parasite loses its grip and takes on an independent life of its own. Internationalese English is in the process of becoming a genuine ‘pidgin’, a genuine dialect, if you like, of English in its own right but it is not “English” (as it is spoken by native speakers) and is coming to resemble it less and less.


I am sure Amorey would agree with me that one saw this process in microcosm all the time amongst students at the language-school in Cambridge where we both taught in the 1970s. The process started with the name of the school itself. The school was called   “The Lennox Cook School of English” (named after its proprietor) but the students invariably referred to it as “the Lennox”, a phrase that in itself always sounded remarkably un-English although one was damned if one could quite say why, and yet, as a teacher, one fell into the same habit of speech. A similar process of ‘un-Englishness’ tended to infect a good deal of the students’ conversation and, by contamination, the teachers’ too.  I would, for instance, find myself perhaps saying to a student: “Have you got a cigarette for me?”, hardly conscious that I was using an expression learned from the students themselves which, while syntactically faultless, I would not have dreamt of using amongst English friends.  And I was just a sometime accomplice here in a process that went on all the time amongst the students themselves.


22. Language school pidgin

Such language schools were, and perhaps still are, very excellent institutions in many respects.; students from all over the world, most of them in their late teens and early twenties, mixed together in an atmosphere of great freedom and of the liveliest good-fellowship. Like Amorey, I have little doubt that for many students their days spent there were amongst ‘the happiest times of their life’.  However, in language-learning terms, such schools have great disadvantages and undoubtedly one of those is the tendency for students to develop their own patois, another form of ‘pidginised’ English that might be described as ‘language-studentese” and considered a sub-dialect of ‘internationalese’.


23. Dictionaries, translation, and learning habits

In all these respects, one is talking as much here of ‘learning-habits’ as of learning itself and this business of  “learning-habits” seems to me crucial to the whole question of whether to use or not use a dictionary and can be in itself just as important as the need to avoid misusing a word or inadvertently ‘pidginising’ the language. Let me give a very simple example of this from recent personal experience. I was talking the other day to my next-door neighbour (in French) and had cause to mention ‘eating turkey’ at Christmas. Since the experience I was describing took place in England it is perhaps not surprising that the English word ‘turkey’ popped into my head. Could I then remember the French word (which of course I know perfectly well)? Could I hell! Unfortunately my neighbour, who is French but ninety years old, couldn’t think of it either.


This sort of lapse has a ghastly tendency to escalate. Moments later my neighbour was off to feed the birds – sparrows. Again, now that the vicious pattern was established, the English word sprang into my mind. Even more irritatingly I could think of the Greek word too (second languages can sometimes ‘block’ a third in this way as well) but could I think of the French word? Could I hell! Now in both these cases, I could have resorted to a dictionary without running any of the risks I have talked about above. I would simply have been reminding myself of two words I knew perfectly well but, for whatever reason, could not for the moment recall. I could have done so, but I didn’t, because, in my view, to have done so would have been to encourage myself to repeat the same process on other occasions, to set up a  vicious circle of bad habits. Instead I just sat down, talked to myself earnestly in French, concentrated as hard as I could on the two wretched birds in question and – of course – the words came to me. Patience in this respect is a virtue, not merely in itself, but for the virtuous circle that it helps to establish.


24. Only use language you have seen or heard

My own advice to a language-learner, from the very beginning, would be extremely simple and straightforward. Never use language that you have not seen or heard and which, as far as is humanly possible, you therefore know to be correct. This is at first an extremely difficult discipline – but only, I would emphasise, at first; like anything else it will rapidly become second-nature if you stick to it. The student that learns this way – ultra-patient, some might think it – will perhaps proceed a shade slower at first but I  have no doubt at all that they will learn the language a great deal more satisfactorily and satisfyingly in the end as a result. With specific respect to dictionary-use, I would advise learners only ever to use a dictionary to look up things they already know, either to check spelling or to find a word (in the language learnt) that is on the tip of the tongue or simply to satisfy your curiosity as to what the dictionary has to say about it. Never use a dictionary as a means of learning anything. It isn’t any such thing.



25. Learn how to speak and behave politely

My second piece of advice, especially with the adult-learner in mind, would be to learn how to speak politely in a language. It is almost equally important of course to know how to speak impolitely and a very subtle and interesting adventure that can be too, but ‘politeness’, as I have suggested earlier, is absolutely vital. This also frequently involves a cultural understanding that goes beyond mere language. There was a bus that regularly brought students to the school where both Amorey and I used to teach. I hate to think of the times I have heard indignant bus-drivers or bus-conductors moan about students waving twenty-pound notes in their faces and expecting change. Two areas of cultural ignorance or misunderstanding were involved in this particular scenario. In the first place, students never knew how to request money from a bank (this was before the days of holes in the wall) in sensible denominations, so were always given large-value notes. In the second place it never occurred to many of them that presenting a bus-driver with a twenty-pound note was something the English normally apologised for.


Of course such things are trivial and silly, but this is all the more reason to get them right. It would be a very poor learner of French who did not quickly appreciate that, in France, you do not go into a shop or an office and immediately starting asking for this or that (as you might without offence in England) but that you should first always greet the shop-keeper or official. No one can live happily for long in Greece who does not appreciate that philoxenia (‘friendliness to strangers’ or ‘hospitality’) is not merely a pleasant characteristic of certain Greeks but is actually a fairly strict and formal rule of society. If you are in Greece with a baby you will always be given eggs (protein, I suppose). The ‘stingy’ person is not the one who gives you no eggs – that person doesn’t exist ; it is the person who gives you only two eggs rather than five, when they are well-off and could easily have spared the five.


These are not simply quaint customs; they are the ways people accommodate themselves within their cultures. There is nothing more peculiar about Greek egg-giving than there is about the invariable greetings in French shops or apologising in England for offering a large-value note for a piddling bus-fare. Respect for such things is the beginning of wisdom as far as language-learning is concerned.


26. Contrast words, don’t compare them

My third piece of advice to students would be to ‘think opaque’. Never assume that there is any ‘transparency’ between languages or between words. If there turns out to be, take that as a bonus, but always look as hard as you can to see ways in which similar words differ from one language to another, in usage, in range of meaning, in cultural association, in frequency of use, in resonance, in tone and in colour.  This ability not to compare words but to contrast them is probably the biggest single benefit one can derive from one’s own language – usually an obstacle – when learning another because it enables one to pinpoint the very things one needs to learn.  If, moreover, taking into account all the various criteria, a language learner ever manages to find a truly ‘transparent word’, I for one should be most surprised.



27. Observe language in your special field, but not in the dictionary!

My fourth piece of advice would be that students absolutely must concentrate on the business that Amorey so rightly emphasises as the first ( if not the only)  task of the language-learner – observation. Here, although I think Amorey and I would agree in being highly sceptical of all forms of “Language-Learning for Special Purposes”, there is perhaps something that the general language-learner might usefully seek to emulate in the practice of the professional person attempting to cherry-pick ‘relevant’ language in this way. Suppose for a moment that your were a professional musician learning French. Obviously you would pay attention to the necessary vocabulary (compositeur, interprète, chef d’orchestre etc); you would without doubt take special care to note the different pronunciations of the names of composers, conductors or performers (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Shostakovitch, Rostrapovitch are examples that come to mind where French pronunciation differs notably from English); you would be careful to observe that in French a “doh-re-mi” notation is used for the keys rather than the alphabetic notation used in English; you would surely make a note of French terms for the different kinds of singing voice (all in this case the same as English) or of the names for the different instruments. You would also be sensible to take careful note of the commoner critical terms used to describe music, bearing in mind here, Amorey’s important insights about languages and their ‘favourite words’.


Some of these things doubtless could be established from a dictionary, but most could not - not even all the items that come under the heading of ‘vocabulary’. An English person could easily find from a dictionary that “compositeur” was the French equivalent of ‘composer’ but how would they possibly know from the English-French section of a dictionary that the French commonly use ‘interprète’ to mean ‘someone who plays a piece of music’? Of course if they had heard the word, they could have looked it up the other way round, but, then of course if they had heard the word, they would be in no doubt as to its meaning.  And how much better in any case, from every possible point of view,  to spend an evening (or a week of evenings) listening to France Musique, the main radio-station for classical music! 


28. Cultural preparation

This process of ‘cultural’ preparation, which seems such an obvious thing to do in the situation I have outlined, is in effect precisely what one needs to do in every sphere if one is to learn the ‘world’ as well as the ‘language’, the one being in my view indispensable to the other. Suppose, for instance, that rather than a professional musician, you are someone with a passion for talking politics, that “you have” therefore, in Amorey’s phrase, “ideas to express that you do not know how to express”. It is no good simply relying on your knowledge of the world as an adult person or the sophistication of your ideas as developed over the years within your own culture and within your own language. No two languages discuss politics in the same way, any more than they use the same terminology or vocabulary when speaking of music. Just like the professional musician, you must do your homework and in a sense re-learn how to approach the subject from inside a new culture and a new language.


In “humbling” themselves in this way, the adult is in no way really demeaning themselves. It might be better thought of as a form of open-mindedness. The professional musician does not think herself any less a professional musician for being prepared to learn a new way of discussing her art and nor should the political “amateur” (in the French sense – a “lover”, literally, of the subject) feel that by discussing her pet-subject in a different way she is somehow throwing away all the thoughts and ideas of a lifetime. On the contrary. If she is a communist, let us say, or for that matter an anti-communist, her politics will not necessarily be altered by the appreciation that the word ‘communist’ has quite different resonances (and for very good reasons) for a French person and quite different resonances again (and for just as good reasons) for a Greek.  She will however need to have such an appreciation in order to talk sensibly to a French person or a Greek about the subject. The preparedness, seemingly, to start from scratch, to develop the means of expressing one’s ideas in a new way that may at first seem rather alien and only gradually to allow one’s prior experience of the world, one’s personality and one’s individual intuitions to infuse that new-found mode of expression is the hardest test of a language-learner’s patience and resolve but is, finally, in my view, the process that produces some of language-learning’s greatest rewards.


29. Good language-learning does not mean losing your personality

This, I believe, touches on one the strongest inhibitions experienced by language-learners, especially perhaps in the later stages of learning a language. It is the threat that the new language, and by extension the new culture, (new, that is, to the learner) can appear to pose to the very nature of their personality. I remember an Italian student once telling me, when we were discussing the question of pronunciation, that she could pronounce English perfectly when imitating the voice of her landlady. I asked the obvious question; “Why don’t you imitate her all the time”. But of course I knew the answer. Embarrassment and the sense that she would be ‘acting a part’, not really being herself. But a lot of language-learning is ‘acting a part’ and one goes on feeling that, to some extent or another, for a very, very long time. The important thing that students should remember, when this distresses them, is that you do eventually come through. You do not so much lose your personality in the process (indeed you do not lose it at all) as gain a kind of  ‘parallel’ personality. Eventually there will be a ‘you’ that speaks, for instance, Italian and a ‘you’ , say, that speaks English and they will both be equally ‘you’, informed by your ideas, your individuality, your sense of humour. But their manner of expressing themselves, those two ‘you’s’, will remain quite properly different.



30. Adapting to a different culture

If I were to compare my Greek and my French from this point of view, I would have to admit that, when speaking Greek, I remain strongly aware that I am ‘playing a part’. In case anyone should doubt the necessity of this, let me give a trivial, but at the same time rather crucial, example. When I was first in Greece and was offered a second or third helping of some sickly preserve that I had not wanted to even taste in the first place, I would respond with the sort of ‘No thank-you’s that would have sufficed in England to make my meaning clear. In Greek, they never worked at all; they simply gave my hosts the entirely erroneous  impression that I actually wanted more of the appalling syrop but was too shy to admit it. I learned – and almost any English person who has lived in Greece will be able to confirm the necessity of this from their own experience – that I had to refuse things in a Greek manner, which essentially involved raising a hand in a firm stop-sign, rolling the eyes with something almost amounting to contempt and simply saying gruffly “I don’t want it” (Then thelo). In doing so I was behaving in one sense artificially, ‘out of character’ but in another sense I was simply in the process of developing a new character for myself – one that would enable me to accurately communicate my desires and intentions – within the new culture. This sense of being a second person in my Greek identity was emphasised, as it happened, by the fact that I also used my second name (“Anthony” or “Adoni”) rather than my first (“David”). ‘David’ and ‘Adoni’ were (and are) two aspects – but distinct aspects – of the same person.


31. Yet remaining the same unique person

In French I have developed a ‘voice’ which is quite recognizably my own and with which I am almost entirely comfortable, but it has taken me many, many years to achieve that. It does involve a fairly considerable degree of linguistic skill (to express, for instance, an ironic sense of humour or to ‘invent’ words and expressions which I can do ‘authentically’ in French much as I can in English), but more importantly, I think, it involves a high degree of cultural self-identification. Acquiring that has been a labour of love but it has been hard work all the same. But it is well worth it. The satisfaction of knowing that, when I write something in French, it is, while remaining discernibly different from anything I would write in English, composed in an absolutely distinctive and idiosyncratic style of my own, is very great indeed.


I was very interested in this respect to hear, not so long ago, an interview on French radio with Sir Peter Ustinov.  I am not personally a great admirer of Ustinov as an actor or as a comedian, but of course the man is much more than that. He is a writer and a musician, a man of immense erudition and a phenomenal linguist. He speaks French, as he does English, completely fluently but with a slight (if undefinable) accent. I have no doubt that he speaks German, Italian and Russian in much the same way. What interested most, in relation to what I have been saying about ‘parallel’ personalities, is how differently Ustinov came over speaking French from the way he comes over speaking English. Differently, and, to my way of thinking, a great deal more sympathetically. He was still unmistakeably Ustinov, still unmistakeably the wit and raconteur that he is no doubt in all the languages he speaks, but there was a lack of “the star” about his French ‘persona’, an absence of the sort of buffoonery that he seems obliged to indulge in when interviewed in English. As a result much more of the man’s intellectual capacity, much more of his erudition was able to come through.


Ustinov is, to my mind, an immensely enviable man in this respect. Multilingual from birth, he has not had to develop these ‘parallel’ universes in the same painful way as the great majority of us, but he remains a splendid example of the richness and the increase that can be derived from learning languages well. Nor is he alone in this. Professor George Steiner, trilingual (at least) from an early age, describes in his Tower of Babel, if I remember rightly, a very similar awareness of ‘parallel’ personae. These may be relatively exceptional cases – exceptionally lucky, one might think – but they are also both examples of men with personalities that most would consider ‘strong’, highly individual, well characterised. So never imagine that by submerging yourself in a language, by ‘acting the part’ of something that at first you are not (how could you be unless born to it?) you will end up by losing yourself entirely. If anything, the opposite is true and you will emerge all the stronger for the experience.


Editor’s note

The note below is a copy of note 1 at the end of my own article on Vocabulary Learning 1.

It is important to be clear about what is really happening inside people who are described as 'thinking in the foreign language'. Strictly speaking nobody thinks in any language (see Gethin, Amorey, 1999. Language and thought: A rational enquiry into their nature and relationship, Intellect, pp.32-51). What an English-speaker (for instance) is really claiming - though he may not be aware of it - when he claims to think in French is that when he hears or reads French he turns the language directly into ideas in his head without going via English words; and when he speaks or writes French he turns his ideas directly into French, again without going through English words. There are several simple proofs that we do not think in language, but perhaps the simplest is to consider what we mean when we say we understand a piece of language, in the first place a piece, any piece, of our own language. We do not just repeat inside our heads the language we hear. We turn it inside our heads into something else that is not language at all. Let us call that something ideas, or pictures of reality - nobody has yet pinned down exactly what the something is, and we shall know a great deal more about ourselves if anybody ever does. But whatever it is, it is clear that if ever and whenever we cannot turn language into that something else, we do not understand. Not being able to make that conversion in our minds is what we mean whenever we say "I don't understand", whether our own or a foreign language is involved. Quite simply, we hear words but they don't mean anything to us – or at least, not the complete meaning that is intended.

Amorey Gethin


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