Welcome to Beth’s website. Check out the pages above, or see recent posts below.
Sometimes, you can have fun with the similarities between languages.
Right now, springtime is starting in the Netherlands. The word ‘spring’ exists in Dutch too – only it means ‘jump’, as in ‘ik spring over de sloot’ = ‘I jump over the ditch’. So jump > Spring.
The Dutch word for this time of year is Lente. And the word Lent also means something in English – it’s the period of fasting in the Christian calendar leading up to Easter. So jump > Spring > Lent.
The Dutch, in turn, have a name for this season: it’s the Vastentijd, or Vast. Do you see where I’m going with this? Take the word back into English, and you have ‘vast’, meaning very big, or in Dutch ‘enorm’ (enormous)… So: jump > Spring > Lent > vast > enorm!
The aim of the game is to make the longest string of words you can, each time making the next word have the meaning of the word before it, and the form of the word after it, in the other language. Will you send me your nicest strings?
Today I would like to address an issue that is ‘thorny’ (=difficult) for many language learners: how can you improve your level faster?
Well, the old proverb proves true: practice makes perfect. Or, to put it another, less positive way: if you don’t use it, you lose it. Language is a tool to be used, and we improve our skill with a tool by putting it to work.
So: practise, practise, practise! Take every opportunity you can to use your English. Do you read or listen to the news in your mother tongue? Switch to English! Do you post online? Find English-language forums to write on! Best of all, do you have English-speaking friends or colleagues? Find excuses to talk to them! (who knows where it might lead?)
By the way, have any of you spotted the peculiar spelling anomaly in this post? One minute I spell the word ‘practice’, the next ‘practise’ – did you notice? No, I’m not just bad at spelling. In British English, the verb ‘to practise‘ is spelt with an s, while the noun ‘practice‘ is spelt with a c.
As the Dutch would say: ‘weer wat geleerd’ (you learn something new every day)!
“Never a borrower or a lender be…”
That’s Shakespeare, but when it comes to languages, as we have seen, borrowing of words goes on all the time. And quite often, the words that get borrowed don’t always get treated in ways the owners would approve of. (Like if your neighbour borrows your lawnmower and then proceeds to cut his grass at midnight every night…)
Let’s take a simple example to start with: camping.
This word, in English, describes the activity of taking your tent or caravan, setting it up in a suitable holiday location, and enjoying a well-earned rest. I don’t think the English were the first to invent this pastime, but somehow or other the English word has travelled across the language divide into Dutch (and other languages).
Only it doesn’t mean the same thing any more! Camping in Dutch (and French, for that matter), no longer refers to the activity of setting your tent up etc, but to the place where most people go to do it: what we in English would call a campsite.
So the word has subtly changed its meaning, leading to some confusion for international holidaymakers.
But that’s not so bad, perhaps – at least the words still look similar and the meanings are closely related. Things get worse when borrowed words start referring to completely different concepts – a bit like your neighbour using your lawnmower to trim his hedge…
Take the word beamer. This may not mean anything in particular to an English person – we have a verb, to beam, which means to shine, like the rays of the sun, or to smile in a very happy way (”I’m going camping tomorrow!’ said Tom, beaming happily’). So a beamer would presumably be a thing or person that shines. It also happens to be British slang for a particular brand of motorcar whose name starts with the letters BM…
Trouble is, in Dutch the word has taken on a very specific new meaning: it now refers to a machine that can shine your powerpoint onto a screen, i.e. what we in English call a projector.
The bad news is: once borrowed, words can never truly be given back. Your lawnmower has now, for ever, become a hedge trimmer (or an electric razor, or a go-kart…).
I think I understand Shakespeare’s point better now…
Anyone who speaks Dutch can’t fail to notice that it contains quite a few words that have been ‘borrowed’ from English. And if you work for a commercial organisation in the Netherlands, the influence of English can be extreme. Business terms like Management Team, Human Resources, Account Manager, marketing… the list goes on. All these words have been ‘borrowed’ from English into Dutch. Why? Dutch has lots of perfectly good words for these and other concepts, surely? Why not just use the Dutch words?
Word borrowing is a common feature in situations of language contact. When people speaking different languages come into contact with each other, words from one language tend to ‘cross over’ into the other. The direction of flow, and the kinds of words that get borrowed, can say a lot about society. Prestige languages – languages which people consider it advantageous to know – tend to donate the most words. And words get borrowed earlier in areas of society where contact is most intense, or where there’s money and power involved.
These factors come together in the business world, where contact with English-speaking companies is intense, and people feel they need to speak English if they want to get ahead, make deals, earn money… The Netherlands is a trading nation, its success depends on profitable commercial relationships – so it’s only natural that it should show the highest level of borrowed words.
The trouble with lending things out, though, is you can never be sure that the things you lend will be treated properly… in another post I’ll talk about how borrowed words can change their meaning and take on a new life of their own…
One of the things that keeps coming back in lessons with Dutch speakers, or in texts written by Dutch people, is the problem of the Present Perfect tense. You know, the one in sentences like:
I’ve never been to China.
I’ve lived in the Netherlands for 10 years.
Why is it a problem? Well because Dutch has a tense that looks almost exactly the same as the English one, but which is used in significantly different ways. And when people try to translate their own, perfectly good, Dutch sentences into English, they run into trouble. Like this:
Hij heeft mij gisteren gebeld.
*He has phoned me yesterday. (NO! You should say ‘He phoned me’!)
Zij heeft daar vroeger gewerkt.
*She has worked there before. (NO! That means something quite different in English! You should have said ‘She used to work there’.)
And as if this wasn’t already enough of a headache, there are also sentences where English uses the Present Perfect, where for Dutch ears it would be crazy to use their equivalent. Like this one:
Hij werkt al 2 jaar bij ons.
He’s worked for us for 2 years. (Not: *He’s working for us for 2 years. That means he’s only got a 2-year contract and he’s going to leave when it runs out!)
So when I tell you that I’ve lived here for 10 years, please don’t think that I’m talking about when I lived here in a former life, or that I’m planning to leave. I just mean I came here 10 years ago (and it’s nice enough, so I’m staying!)
How do you keep going when things get tough learning English (or, for that matter, doing anything difficult but worthwhile)? Here are a few tips to help you keep going today:
- Break the job into smaller chunks. 10 minutes of English per day is more effective than an hour once a week.
- Remember your target. What was the reason you started learning English? Keep that in mind as you learn. The new study course, the change of career, the foreign holiday… This will help you to stay motivated.
- Be kind to yourself. Everyone fails from time to time. If you miss a learning target, don’t give up! Just try again today.
Best wishes with your learning!
Sometimes, if you’re Dutch, learning English is easy. Take weather words, for example: wind = wind, zon = sun, regen = rain.
What about ‘storm’? Today is what most people in the Netherlands would call a stormy day – strong winds of more than 100km an hour. And in English too, we call these winds ‘storm-force’.
But there does seem to be a difference. In English, the word storm is usually associated with thunder, lightning and rain, as well as wind. But Dutch has a separate word for that: ‘onweer’, so in the Netherlands a ‘storm’ usually refers only to wind.
Don’t get blown over today!