Tuesday, 22 May 2012

I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes...

...language is all around me and so the feeling grows.

As a non-native speaker of a language, how do you know if what you are saying or writing is correct or not? Do you base it simply on what your text or grammar book says or does it go beyond that into the realms of instinct or gut feeling?

Ever since I first started learning languages at the age of 11, I have relied heavily on gut instinct. I think this is mainly out of laziness. I have never been keen on learning grammar and I was lucky enough to be able to feel what was right. After 20 years of learning French and German, (I am always learning, it didn't stop when my BA did) I find myself wondering how much of what I now say and write is based on instinct. 

At the moment I am writing a lot of German, perhaps more than I ever have. My grammar is somewhat rusty, as I haven't used it in a business context for 5 years, but when I write a sentence I can often feel whether it is right or not. If I am unsure, I google it, but more often than not my initial feeling was correct. Where does this come from? Is it some long lost grammar memory tucked at the back of my brain or is it an inbuilt sense of the language and how it should be?

I find that French is easier to use based on gut feeling. Perhaps because the grammar is less complex than German - no cases, fewer genders, no declension. French has a lyricism to it, a musical quality that I can feel. German is more rigid, harsher, but also more amusing. I wrote in a previous post about how comedy can play a role in language learning.

How can instinct come into play in a brand new language, where the grammar is unknown? It has been interesting for me to learn Czech. I can rely somewhat on the German grammar I know, but as for the vocabulary, that is completely different. Interestingly, my teacher gave me a list of adjectives and asked me to guess what they might mean. The first one I guessed correctly. Now, this could have been sheer coincidence, but when I looked at the word, something inside me told me what it meant. It felt right - the sound of the word somehow resonated with me.

I believe it is possible to have an instinct about language use, even if it is not your native tongue. Too many learners get caught up in all the grammar and rules. Language is constantly moving, flowing, adapting. If you bind it too tight it suffocates and you constrict and freeze with it. I encourage everyone to open their minds and start feeling, breathing, absorbing the language. You might just surprise yourself.

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