Sunday, June 17, 2007

English Speakers: Which Language to Learn Next? French or Spanish? Why not both?

I’m just a 51 year-old amateur student of cultures and languages, but here’s my simplified take on Western languages and where to start

If there are several stepping stones to cross a stream, pick the nearest one, then hop to the next. It’s easier.

By this, I mean that geography and history make German and French the two nearest relatives of English and the easiest languages to hop to from your existing English vocabulary. After some experience with French, it is easier to move to Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.

Because of the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and the next 250 years of occupation, then integration/absorption of the Norman minority elite into the Angle/Saxon masses, the English language is the child of Angles’ and Saxons’ Germanic and the Normans’ French.

Forgive that accents slid apart over generations, and writing, which came along later, makes the languages look cosmetically different. Recognize the sources of root words you already know, and, other language is easier to grasp.

Basic German

In September 1066, the conquered farmers in England didn’t change their basic, everyday language, and in large, the 1,000 or 2,000 most basic words of one- and two–syllable, everyday English are the same Germanic words of our conquered 1066 farmers.

Mother, Father, Sister, Brother = Mutter, F(V)ater (German now spell it “Vater” but the pronunciation is “F”) Schwester, Bruder (the sounds are much closer than the spellings, sorry.)

Trink Wasser = Drink Water

Bread = Brot

Beer = Bier

Hundred = Hundert

Thousand = Tausend

English animal names are usually the Germanic words, but the slaughtered meat is often the French animal name. Imagine the new conqueror demands “boeuf!!” (beef), The farmers slaughter a “buhl” (bull) or “kuh” (cow). “Schwein” (swine) becomes “porc” (pork), Schaf (sheep) becomes “mouton” (mutton).

Since they sadly fit our pattern of everyday words, even our swear words are Germanic. The S-word and F-word are the same. Listen to a German curse and you feel it viscerally. Listen to a Frenchman, Spaniard, or Italian curse and it’s comedy.

Basic and Advanced French

The first 1,000 or 2,000 everyday words are not the same as English, but an English speaker with a good vocabulary knows roots of words that are easily related.

Mother, Father, Sister, Brother are Mère, Père, Soeur, Frère. We recognize the similarities to Maternity, Paternity, Sorority. Fraternity

The big payoff in French is that a huge percentage of words three syllables or more are the same word or something very close. Gouvernement (government), politique (politics) and science (science) It really doesn’t take any extraordinary brain power, once you recognize it.

Advanced German

German starts easy, but gets harder the farther you go, because many longer abstract and scientific words developed from a German renaissance separated from our English/French/Italian one.

For example English “hydrogen” [hydro=water, “gen”... source of] in French is “hydrogène” In German its “Wasserstoff”, literally “water stuff”. An equally valid way of naming it, but just not the word we already use in English.


With the Roman Empire, Latin “hopped” (In the stepping stone example) from Italy to France, then to Spain.

Geographically, it is easier to hop from England to France then Spain. And the same is true linguistically. It is a longer stretch from English to Spanish, and why not enjoy the trip through French first? since much of the basic French and Basic Spanish are similar.

However, just as the Norman invasion of 1066 changed English, the Moors’ invasion of Spain and occupation/absorption for 700 years added Arabic words to Spanish. By some counts, almost 10% of Spanish words are of Arabic origin.

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