mother language and then (!) a foreign one

Discussion in 'Cultural Discussions' started by meeryanah, Mar 10, 2007.

  1. meeryanah Member

    I'm curious to know what people think about how important it is to know your mother language well before you try to learna foreign one? I'm aware how importatant it is for the translator, but what about people who just like learning languages?
  2. Macunaíma

    Macunaíma Senior Member

    Um ninho de mafagalfinhos
    português, Brasil
    Having a basic grasp of grammar is essential for learning a foreign language. I would describe grammar as the form and the language as the content. Grammar is about logics. If you know a little about grammar (you don't need to be an expert) you will more than likely learn a new language with relative ease, and there's no better way to learn grammar than learning your native language's grammar. I think that's why people say that it's important for students of a foreign language to know their mother tongue well first.
  3. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    If you never learned much grammar for your native language, don't worry: you can learn it from scratch when you learn a second language. And you probably will have to.
  4. I guess I don't really follow you: You don't need to have X capacity in your "Mother tongues" before you can learn another langauge. People often learn languages simultaneously (as is the case of children who grow up bilingually).

    Does thorough knowledge of the grammar of your first language help in second language acquisition? Maybe, but consider that grammar is generally learned implicitly: Without having to study anything, speakers learn the rules (although they may learn some incorrectly). No schooling required to "speak like a native".

    But having a solid base in the "concept" of grammar, knowing how to call a noun a noun, understanding what the subject/object of a sentence is, etc. - these things certainly would help if you're learning the language in a school-based setting, where you are going to be taught how to use the same parts of speech in a new language.

    But if you're learning a new language like you learned the first - "on the streets" or simply picking it up socially, I don't think it is a prerequisite at all.
  5. Macunaíma

    Macunaíma Senior Member

    Um ninho de mafagalfinhos
    português, Brasil
    Right, no schooling is required to speak like a native "on the street", but even native speakers need schooling to speak and write like an educated person. If you are learning a foreign language only to make yourself understood, grammar is not essential, of course_ although even in this case it would make things easier. But if you need to learn it for professional, academic or social purposes, you'd better get down to grammar and not rely on your capacity of picking it up. There's more to a language than grammar rules, but knowing beforehand how it woks in your native language gives you an advantage when it comes to assimilating new structures, syntax, etc. But, of course, you don't need grammar to learn vocabulary and pronunciation.

    In short, grammar helps. Even if you try to learn a new language without knowing grammar and succeed in your first steps, you will inevitably reach a point where you won't be able to advance further without grasping the logic of the language, and knowledge of grammar will provide you with the tools for this.
  6. CrazyArcher

    CrazyArcher Senior Member

    Knowing grammar is a huge advantage. It genreally doesn't take a great effort to learn grammar of a moth tongue, so I would advice on that. When I was studying English (oh I had an excellent teacher!), all my studies revolved around the parallel concepts in Russian, which weren't a piece of cake for a native Russian speaker either (participles and stuff like that).
    Knowing basic English grammar helped me a lot when I was studying Hebrew, since both languages are structurized, and I somehow succeeded to map one onto another. Without it, I would probably have to reinvent the wheel.
  7. panjabigator

    panjabigator Senior Member

    غریب الوطن
    Am. English
    My mother tongue is English, but my understanding of grammar was poor till I learned Spanish. Spanish supplied me with terms and I kind of learned English grammar backwards; for example, I learned what the subjuntive was in Spanish and then I learned to identify when it occurs in English.

    Panjabi and Hindi are also my mother tongues, but I understand their grammar as well as I do Spanish's.
  8. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish
    One might as well ask: When do you REALLY know your mother language? Probably not at the age of six. (That is when I started learning English).

    And why are translators of English mother tongue often writing better English-German translations than vice versa when they pass their Chamber of Commerce examinations here in Hamburg? (At least that is the info I have from Mr. Rance Cloyd, former teacher at the Staatliche Fremdsprachenschule, Hamburg.)
  9. Etcetera

    Etcetera Senior Member

    St Petersburg, Russia
    Russian, Russia (St Petersburg)
    I believe good knowledge of your mother language is very important, no matter what your work is.
    As a translator, you have not only to understand the original text fully, but also to re-write it in your native language.
    As a teacher, you need to be well aware of the possible difficulties the target language presents to your students, if they share the same first language with you.
    Your theoretical knowledge may not be excellent, but at least you must know how to write properly and have the unique "sense of language" which distinguishes a good author from a poor one.
  10. Lugubert Senior Member

    The more the earlier, the better is my theory. I can't imagine that it's important to learn one before another one for a translator or any other person. There are for example sufficiently many competent translators who have been brought up on two languages. I would rather think that starting early on language two, you will be more proficient in translating meanings, not words.
  11. palomnik Senior Member

    People learn languages for different reasons, and different uses.

    One needs to ask one's self how much knowledge is enough? Let's face it, most of us don't have to actually write anything in more than two languages, and for many of us we write 90% of the time in only one language. If you fall into that category, extensive knowledge of another language's grammar may not be necessary, unless that kind of thing interests you.

    As an English teacher I am convinced that students mainly learn what they need to know by osmosis. Knowledge of grammar rules are useful when you reach the intermediate level, but extensive knowledge is not necessary unless you intend to write a lot in the language you're learning.

    As for learning your own language's grammar first, I beg to differ. I studied English grammar extensively when I was a child, but I didn't really learn the most important things that a foreigner might need to know, like gerund usage and phrasal verbs (I never even heard of phrasal verbs until I started teaching English!). To learn the grammar of a language well, you need to set it off against the grammar of another language, and you don't do that until you start acquiring a second language.
  12. Honeypot New Member

    Rio Grande do Sul, Brasil.
    Brasil Portuguese
    I actually agree with badgrammar, that, indeed, is my case.
    I perceived learning portuguese AND english simultaneously encouraged me to look for answers to portuguese doubts in english and vice versa.

  13. Wow, Palomnik and Honeypot, I am surprised to see your agreement. I guess I think language is something that exists neither in black nor white - its real power is in the gray areas, beyond the gerunds...

    I really don't think that there is any point in one's learning of language A that it is too early to start learning language B. Of course in academic circles its nice to be able to analyze speech, and that can help is in learning the correct forms in another language.

    But do you need them in order to be effective in language B? Depends on wha you're doing. For pure communication's sake, I don't think you do.
  14. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish
    There research being done in Barcelona, dealing with the abilities of children who are raised bilingually - for those non-Europeans who may not know: Barcelona is in the autonome region Catalunya and has - despite dictatorship and other problems - maintained its own language over the centuries. So lots of children there are catalan/castellano speaking.

    Basically what they are finding out is

    a) a child of average intelligence really does not have any problem learning 2 or even 3 languages at an early age.

    b) bilingual children develop a higher ability than monolingual children to distinguish different aspects of other complex problems (that have no direct relation with languages)
  15. Honeypot New Member

    Rio Grande do Sul, Brasil.
    Brasil Portuguese

    Totally agree, and again, I'm an example.
    - I've scored 140 on (weschler scale) the new WISC IV. And that means Highly Gifted.
    But notice that my Verbal IQ is higher than my Performance IQ.
    Makes sense.

  16. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish
    Very impressive - although I do not give IQ tests that much credit. I once scored 75 on an IQ test. On a second one 110 and on a third one 129.

    They are never any better than the people who conceive them.


    And another thing: What ones native language is concerned, it is my impression, that most people don't really begin understanding the theory of their native language till they learn a foreign one well (if ever). And of course there is at good reason to this. Lots of aspects of your native language(s) are learned at an age where you do not yet have words to describe the principles and patterns that become automatic functions in your brain. People usually speak their mother language correctly and often cannot explain the simplest things. Sometimes they write or say things that are not correct and they know just as little how to correct this without yelling through the office "Do I write ... or ... ?" And they usually get a number of more or often less qualified answers.

    Once you learn a foreign language you need theoritical grammar as a tool - and this works just as well with your native language. I think most people who seriously study foreign languages have also improved their abilities in their native language in the course of doing so. They have NOT waited till they had abilities worthy of a prize-winning author, before they found themselves worthy of learning a second one.
  17. Etcetera

    Etcetera Senior Member

    St Petersburg, Russia
    Russian, Russia (St Petersburg)
    Yes, it's true.:)
    Well, we had quite a lot of Russian classes at school, but I only grew interested in Russian grammar when I had the opportunity to compare it with English grammar.
    Now, after almost 4 years at University, my theoretical knowledge of English is far superior than my knowledge of the theory of the Russian language, but I've eventually come to better understanding of how my native language functions.
  18. Ellie1 Member

    Isle of Skye, Scotland
    British English
    I believe that my ability to learn languages would have been much improved if I'd had a more thorough knowledge of the grammar of my native English. I can't get to grips with french verbs because I don't really understand the english equivalents (although I speak correct english without being able to analyse it).

    I also believe that a knowledge of Latin would have helped in learning European languages.
  19. karuna

    karuna Senior Member

    The planet Earth
    Latvian, Latvia
    I actually know the grammar of my native language quite well. Latvian punctuation rules are very complicated and pedantic that is impossible to write without thorough knowledge of grammar. But I never found this knowledge helpful in learning other languages. Maybe except for Russian because there are many grammatical similarities. But even then I was able to speak it only when I started to rely on my gut feeling instead of thinking logically in terms of grammar. Now I have forgotten most Russian grammar as well, I just speak it.
  20. Q-cumber

    Q-cumber Senior Member


    Excuse me, did you really mean to say "I started to rely on my gut feeling?"
  21. Zsanna

    Zsanna ModErrata

    Hungarian - Hungary
    "I'm curious to know what people think about how important it is to know your mother language well before you try to learna foreign one?"

    I agree with all those who emphasize that "it depends". On lots of things.

    Apart from those already mentioned (e.g. the aim for learning a language)it may also depend on the learner's age or what method he finds easier.

    Children as well as some adults are often better off without a lot of explanations when learning a language: they want to "use it immediately". They are the types who are not worried in advance about how to form the next sentence. They'll learn things "one by one", as they come.
    They can "function" wonderfully without any particular background knowledge of linguistics.
    (It is a "lucky" type in my view because they can accept things as they come and that can accelerate things.)

    Some adults are the opposite. They want to know the reason for everything. They'll be more likely to ask for explanations and if so, background knowledge (not only grammatical) about a language can be of great help. It is good to be prepared for the phenomenon of irregularities in a language (especially in its use); that often you cannot translate things word by word; the relativity of things (things you thought true may not be considered as such in another language or may be presented otherwise), etc.
    (This "type" usually prefers starting off learning the basic rules to be able to apply them afterwards freely. They can make a good use of all linguistic information available to them, including those about their own language.)

    One type is not better than the other, of course. The important thing is just to know how you "function" best and then do accordingly.

    In any case, everybody learns sg new about their own language(s - all of those they have ever learnt until that point) when learning a new, so it cannot be avoided.
  22. karuna

    karuna Senior Member

    The planet Earth
    Latvian, Latvia
    Yes, I mean it. Of course, it isn't out of nothing or something magical but based on long experience. What I mean is that when choosing correct form I am not thinking about grammar but rather saying out what seems the most correct way. I may make more mistakes in this way but it enables me to speak without inhibition and I can later correct myself and learn faster than by doing countless grammar excercises.

    For example, Russian verb aspect (sovershenniy and nesovershenniy vid) is rather unique feature. My teacher tortured me with all these rules and I knew them all by heart, yet I was not able to say even one sensible sentence in Russian. On the other hand when I was immersed in Russian speaking environment I simply imitated its usage in certain situations and soon I was able to deduce how to apply verb aspect correctly in most cases. And the most interesting thing is that now I am even able too see how Russian verb aspect can be compared to Latvian verbs. Verb aspect in the grammatical sense is almost non-existant in Latvian but on the lexical level it is almost as real as in Russian.
  23. Q-cumber

    Q-cumber Senior Member


    OK, got it, paldies. I never met this idiom before...just found it in a dictionary.
  24. Ellie1 Member

    Isle of Skye, Scotland
    British English
    Hi Karuna,
    Yes, I agree that when you become fluent in a language, you no longer have to think about grammar; it becomes instinctive. But an understanding of how your native language works must help when you are learning a language that has evolved from similar roots. I don't know how it would work if, for instance, an english speaker was learning chinese.
  25. jlc246 Member

    San Antonio
    English - US
    (Please see the post from Sepia for more information.)

    Regarding children who learn two languages at the same time while they are infants, rather than learning a second language after they have mastered the first:

    When my son was in preschool, we had friends who were raising their kids with two "native" languages in their home (English and Spanish). Our kids attended the same preschool, where the director knew about the current research in child development. At that time (about 8-10 years ago), the research indicated that children who learn two languages (at the same time) as very young children actually build different pathways in their brains for understanding/speaking multiple languages, compared to children who start learning a second language later. (I'm not sure what age "later" refers to -- I will ask.) According to the research, this often makes it easier for them to learn additional languages when they are adults. However, they sometimes do not start to speak or speak a lot in either language quite as soon as children learning only one language, and therefore sometimes they are labeled "developmentally delayed" by our school system. Once they do become comfortable speaking, they quickly catch up to other children and they have the advantage of knowing two languages. Parents can get scared, though, when they are not sure why their kids are slower to speak.

    At that time, the advice was that bilingual infants and young kids found it helpful to associate each language with a person. For example, they might hear both languages in their home, but one parent would only speak to/with them in one language and the other parent (or a grandparent, caregiver, etc.) in the other language.

    I don't know if these research findings are still supported by the more recent studies or not. I'm curious, so I will ask the director of the preschool.
  26. ColdomadeusX

    ColdomadeusX Member

    My family believes that a child should first learn their mother tongue and then their father tongue and then the language of the country they were brought up in before attempting another language.
    Personally I don't agree- I can hardly speak my mother tongue or my father's language and although I speak English fluently I am currently learning a couple of different languages. I don't think it's wrong or bad, it just complicates things. Although I admit that it is probably better to learn your parent's languages first, I don't agree that it's necessary. Most people would probably think differently depending on their backgrounds/personalities.-it also has a lot to do with whether or not someone want to srick to tradition or not.
  27. Etcetera

    Etcetera Senior Member

    St Petersburg, Russia
    Russian, Russia (St Petersburg)
    It also has a lot to do with the person's preferences. Some like the Germanic languages, for example, whereas others prefer the Romance ones. I, personally, believe that you should learn the languages you like.
  28. Q-cumber

    Q-cumber Senior Member

    ...unless otherwise needed under the circumstances. :)
  29. mplsray Senior Member

    On the subject of knowing one's own language's grammar in order to help learn that of another language: Here in the US, there is a publishing house, The Olivia and Hill Press, which has published a whole series of books whose titles begin English Grammar for Students of.... I first learned of this series after seeing English Grammar for Students of French. The idea behind the books is to teach grammatical concepts using English grammar, then relating that grammar to the grammar of the foreign language being studied.

    I've often heard from acquaintances who learned French as a foreign language that the first time they really studied grammatical concepts was when they first began to learn a foreign language (not necessarily French).
  30. eli7

    eli7 Senior Member

    Tehran; Iran
    Persian (Farsi)
    Hi. I have a question. "is it alright to base language learning on first language acquisition? why?"
    Well, of course there is some differences in L1 acquisition and L2. But I have no idea if it is alright to do it or not. Also I cannot privide a reason for it.
    Could you guys please clarify me?
    Thanks in advance.
  31. duvija

    duvija Senior Member

    Spanish - Uruguay
    Once you start learning another language, you start to compare. Basically, if you're monolingual, you don't know the grammar of your own language cuz you don't need it. When you learn a second one, then you start to understand the differences, and that's referred to as 'L1 grammar vs. L2 grammar'.
    It's much easier for a bilingual child to learn other languages. Actually, the more lang. you learn, the easier it gets. Why? because you start realizing what to pay attention to, and how NOT to translate. And you stop asking 'why...'

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