Friday, December 13, 2013

The Nuance of Language

Now that we have moved on into the upper levels of German, we are venturing into the territory of language nuance. In this world, learning becomes less about straight forward words and definitions and more about how, when and why particular words are used to communicate feelings, thoughts and subtleties. 

For example, there might be a verb you can use to communicate the idea "I did my homework". But there might also be several other verbs to replace the verb "did" that sound better and add variety to your vocabulary. Some of those verbs might imply that you completed all of your homework, while others might imply that you simply worked on it. Some may imply how quickly or with what attitude you did your homework.

Another example is two words that overlap in meaning by 80 or 90 percent. We may be tempted to call these two words "synonyms" but in reality, that 10 or 20% of difference puts these words in different categories. That percentage of difference is more important that the similarity between the words. Sometimes, the words may be used interchangeably, but at other times, one word would be inappropriate in place of the other. 

The difficulty comes when the difference in meaning between two words is difficult, or even impossible, to explain. Here come the nuances. Some words you just need to experience over and over again in context to learn how to use them and when they are appropriate or not. You can't simply write the difference in definition down on a flash card and memorize it - you need to experiment with the word and then ask if you used it correctly. You need to listen for the word and mentally note the situation in which it was used by a native speaker. This requires patience, endurance and attention in social/language situations. This is especially true when we have just one word for something in English, but there are multiple words used in the foreign language you are learning.

It's encouraging to be at the stage where we have moved beyond basic grammar and vocab. However, this nuanced stage of language learning brings it's own challenges. It can be more difficult to notice and celebrate progress when the steps we take and advances we make are are now smaller and subtler. It requires a different level of focus and a less concrete learning strategy. It's another step in the long journey towards fluency. 

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