Saturday 21 March 2015

Going native


When I’m teaching, I always tell my English students that vocabulary (the bricks) and grammar (the mortar) are the building blocks of language learning. A learner of English, or of any other language for that matter, must master these two aspects in order to communicate to a competent level in that language. In fact, the principle applies at whatever level of proficiency you operate: the more creative your communication, the better your command of the language’s vocabulary and grammar must be.

The most effective way to do this is through total immersion, where the learner spends time in an environment operating solely in the target language. But not everyone has this opportunity and even then complete immersion might last several decades before ‘total’ proficiency is attained. This is not to put language learners off of course: by no means do all students of a foreign language aim to achieve the highest possible standards, they may simply wish to use that language in a way which serves their purpose, possibly asking for directions or reading a recipe.

When we consider vocabulary, we immediately think of individual words, but these words by themselves do not unlock the door to successful language learning and usage. If learners and users of a second language wish to express themselves fluently and accurately in speech and writing, they must learn to cope with the vast wealth of word combinations and permutations (for instance, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions) that make up that language. A normal dictionary, an essential tool to learning vocabulary, splits up meaning into separate words. However, words in isolation are much less powerful when we are constructing a text.

A single word may have different meanings, depending on the situation in which it is used, but only becomes clear when set alongside other individual words to make a phrase or sentence. Take the word ‘work’, for example. It is both a noun and a verb. The noun itself has several different dictionary definitions, such as: the product of effort (as in, ‘it was back-breaking work’); a job (‘I do secretarial work’); an artistic creation (‘Beethoven produced some masterly works’); a building programme (‘major restoration work is being carried out’); or (usually in the plural) a factory (‘the works’ canteen’). As these examples show, only when the word is seen as part of a sentence or phrase, can its exact meaning be deduced. Context therefore, is the all important key. 

The examples I give here make the meaning of the words clearer because they ‘collocate’, that is, the words combine to produce natural-sounding speech and writing. So we refer to these word or phrase combinations as ‘collocations’. In English, we say ‘strong wind’ and ‘heavy rain’, not the other way round. For a native speaker ‘heavy wind’ and ‘strong rain’ sound completely unnatural, but early learners of English will not recognise this distinction. So whilst collocations – or chunks of vocabulary – may be highly predictable to native-speakers and used without a second thought, to language learners this is anything but the case. 

Roughly speaking, there are two categories into which collocations can be grouped: grammatical; and lexical.
Typical grammatical collocations in English include prepositional expressions: afraid (of); dependent (on); (on) the bus; (in) hospital. Prepositions are amongst the biggest obstacles to successful language learning because they are language-specific. A Dutch learner, for example, might unwittingly say, ‘afraid for’, ‘dependent of’, ‘in the bus’, and ‘in the hospital’ because they collocate with different, non-corresponding prepositions in their own tongue – and although they would be understood, it would single them out immediately as non-native.
A lexical collocation might be a typical construction such as: ‘to do your homework’; ‘to take a photo; and ‘(her message was) crystal-clear’. Here, even competent Dutch speakers of English might say, ‘make your homework’, ‘make a photo’ and ‘glass clear’, without realising that these are unnatural collocations. 

To illustrate the enormous diversity of collocations that are out there, let’s take a look at the language of work. Language learners and professional linguists beware! 

Often, I’m asked what line of work I’m in. Mostly, I tell people that I make a living as a freelance translator, but I also dabble in teaching. I have been plying my trade in this business ever since I was made compulsorily redundant 20 years ago. 
People who are unlucky enough to have their jobs axed may have to go on the dole for some time while they seek out pastures new, in other words a career change. This will probably involve scouring the classified ads and then writing a letter of application for a suitable position. Potential candidates may be called for interview at which they will be quizzed about their work experience, educational qualifications and personal qualities and perhaps questioned about their burning ambitions. The successful candidate taken on by the company - before being offered a permanent contract - will have to work a probationary period or follow on-the-job training to first earn their spurs. To get on in the world of business you may have to be prepared to assume managerial responsibilities. Rapid promotion may ensue for outstanding work and help you step onto the next rung of the career ladder. Ultimately, you might progress to a position in middle or senior management and perhaps enjoy fringe benefits, such as a company car, an expense account, private health insurance, annual bonuses and other perks. Alternatively, you may end up in a dead-end job doing run-of-the-mill tasks and find yourself having to get out of a rut. Having a job with no career prospects can be demoralising.
I must admit, working as a freelance translator – within reason – it’s possible to organise my work as I wish without having a humdrum nine-to-five existence. Yes, all the red tape involved in being self-employed, for example, sending off VAT-returns every month, can be a bugbear, but the diversity of assignments, the freedom of being able to work almost anywhere, not to mention being my own boss, gives me enormous job satisfaction

Whilst the correct use of collocations is just one way of achieving proficiency in a foreign language, I’m not arguing here that fluency is solely a question of applying grammar and vocabulary appropriately. It is much more than that. For example, pronunciation, proper use of punctuation, recognising the difference in and the correct use of formal and informal register, and apposite use of slang and swear-words - aspects of language that come naturally to a native speaker – all have to be learned as well, usually through trial and error. 

Concluding thoughts of a translator ...
When it comes to collocations, it’s not just beginners who make mistakes. In fact, far from it. However proficient you might think you are at a foreign language, unless you have undergone complete immersion, it is well-nigh impossible to build up the same wealth of collocative vocabulary as a mother-tongue speaker. I know this from experience: even after being in direct contact with the language for 30 years – many would call me fluent – I find myself tripping up over Dutch idioms and expressions. This is where translators who claim they can work ‘professionally’ into a second non-native language – working at the cutting edge of communication - can really get found out. That’s why I don’t do it. 
Indeed, I find it strange that a competent native-speaker translator would want to put their professional credibility at risk by translating into a second language they have not fully mastered, a phenomenon which is flabbergastingly prevalent in the translation industry.
The use of collocations is just one example of why native-speaker translators are invariably better at translating into the target language: they are simply more competent in recognising and using the natural-sounding equivalents of source-language collocations in their mother tongue.