Sunday, October 10, 2010

Untranslatable words make languages worthwhile

If I had time, a lot of time, and probably a fair bit of money for extra travel, I would love to learn three or four more languages. My German is passably fluent (if grammatically precarious!) and my English is obviously pretty decent, but that's where it ends. I've dabbled in Japanese (love it, but lots of work - it's so different!), Chinese, Slovak and Spanish, and all of this experience with languages which made me excited by an article called 20 Awesomely Untranslatable Words over at Matador.

Untranslatable words are one of the reasons I love foreign languages. The more you learn about other languages, the more you realise that even in English - a language with arguably more words than any other - there are some concepts best expressed by other languages.

Even though I've been back in Australia for almost four years now, there are still moments where I can only think of a German word for something, and even the translated English equivalent just doesn't do it justice - and even sometimes when only a Japanese word will do! In German, for example, "gemütlich" - an adjective verging on cosy/comfortable - just shouldn't be translated. For me, people who are "anständig" in German - decent/respectable - just sound better in German. And the list goes on.

People who don't know other languages - and that's something particularly prevalent among English native speakers - might not believe me. I wouldn't have believed me a few years back. But the subtle nuances of a language learned well can really make for a richer experience of the world. Phew, big philosophical rant now over. Just tell your kids to learn a language, okay?


  1. I've been following your blog for a while but had no idea you were fluent in German :) The downsides of Google Reader, you don't see the writer's profiles all the time. I find speaking Japanese a thousand times easier than reading/writing, kanji are a pain.

  2. Yep, learnt German at school, went to live there, married one!
    Ditto on the Japanese, speaking was heaps easier - although I have to say I really liked the kanji but did of course find them really hard to remember.


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