How Your Mother-tongue Sabotages Your Language Learning

What helps people to acquire a new language? Surprisingly, it is not adding something new to their everyday practice. It is getting rid of the unwanted help of their mother-tongue. When learning a second language, adult people use their mother-tongue as a middleman between them and their new language. It is unavoidable at some stage of the learning process. Yet, it may seriously hinder your progress when you go any further than language basics.

Language is way more than just words and grammar rules. Language is a mindset. Each language has its own logic, it’s own way of seeing and presenting things. When you try to acquire a new language, you are acquiring a new mindset. You have to let it take over your mind, so you can start thinking of things in the way your target language supposed you to.

What do I mean? Take a very simple verb “to run”, for example. In English, it can be intransitive (one runs fast) and transitive (one runs something). In comparison, in Russian, this verb (бежать) can not be transitive. You can run yourself, but you can not run anybody or anything. The Russian language does not suppose you to think about running as about an action that you can cause to other people or things. There are many other verbs that are both transitive and intransitive in English but are strictly intransitive in Russian.

Ok, verbs are tricky. What about nouns? Nouns should be simpler because they are mere names for things. Hair in English is singular, so English represents hair is a mass. In Russian, hair is plural – волосы. You have millions of individual hairsprings, so it is not singular, it is plural. Same is true for money. Money in English is singular, and in Russian, it is pluralia tantum.

Speaking of hair. In English, ‘thin hair’ is about not having enough hairsprings. If I had to translate this expression literally, I’d say “тонкие волосы”, which means ‘fine hair. And for thin hair, Russians use an expression “жидкие волосы”, which is literally ‘liquid hair’. When I first visited a hair stylist in Canada, I told her that my hair is “thin”, while I actually meant “fine”. She started telling me, “no, no, your hair is Ok, just a little bit fine”. We had a good laughter when the confusion was clarified.

So, now you see what I mean when I say that our mother-tongue sabotages our efforts to learn a new language. When you persistently appeal to the means of your mother-tongue, you simply can’t switch to a new language.

What helped me to get rid of the unwanted Russian prompter in my head and improve my English was my very first experience of spending a few days among people who didn’t speak a word in Russian. That inner voice that speaks everything in my mother-tongue first and leaves all the translation work to me faded away after a few hours of intense, meaningful communication in English. Ready-made English phrases started slipping from the tip of my tongue. It was a relief of overcoming a language barrier. Little by little, I learned to deliberately switch off my mental Russian prompter.

What can help you to stop relying on a help of your mother-tongue when learning a new language? Here are some tips. Forgive me if they seem too obvious to you.

  • Stop using bilingual dictionaries. Develop a habit to look up words in dictionaries of your target language. My English teacher often said, “If you use a Russian-English dictionary, you speak a Russian-English language”.
  • When writing, don’t start with drafting a new text in your mother-tongue. Write your essays in your target language from the very beginning.
  • Read and listen. The more “samples” you have in your mental dictionary, the easier it becomes for you to speak your target language. By “samples” I mean any segments – phrases, word combinations, regular expressions, regular suffixes – anything that you memorize along with the context when exposing yourself to your target language. Believe it or not, SLA experts today believe that this is the way we acquire our mother-tongue – by collecting and sorting out lots of such “samples” from other speakers.
  • When translating, try to convey the meaning of a sentence or a paragraph. A word is too small to be translated separately. Work with bigger segments, and work with meanings, not with syntax. structures and words.

Photo by Stefan