Language On Your Own: Self-Study Tips – Part 7

This Part 7 of a 12-part series.

Thinking In a New Language

Subject, verb, object.  You probably remember that from English classes: the basic building-block structure of an English sentence.  But did you know that it is also a way of thinking? How those building blocks are arranged in relation to each other marks the sentence structure, the pattern, as “correct English.”

Each language has its own version of “correct,” its own way of thinking, and that is also shown by how the building blocks are placed in relation to each other – in the sentence pattern.

Zenblocks image from

Zenblocks image from

Are you ready to shift from “thinking in English” to another kind of “thinking?”

Correct speech is thoughtful speech

Have a look at this sentence in English.  Is it correct English?

How long did you be here?” 

Well … no. And yet a first-language English-speaker might have trouble explaining just why the sentence “How long did you be here” is “wrong.”  The most immediate response would be, “Because that’s not the way people talk!”

The way people talk is what determines “correct” speech.  Correct grammar and sentence patterns let your listeners and readers understand easily.

Every language has a correct, meaningful way of expressing ideas that ensures the speaker is going to be understood by a majority of listeners. This is as true for Native American languages as for any language.

For example, look at these ways to say simple things in Lakota:

prayer flags

Incorrect: wóčhekiye wápaha (“prayer bundles”)

Correct:  čhaŋlí wapȟáȟta (literally, “tobacco bundles”) 

I took my shoes.

Incorrect: Háŋpa mitȟáwa kiŋ iwáču.

Correct: Háŋpa kiŋ iwékču. 

This is a complete sentence, with a subject (“I”), object (“shoes”) and active verb (“took”).

Notice the difference in the grammar, the sentence patterns. The “correct” sentence patterns are the way people talk.  Most people would say it the “correct” way, so someone using the incorrect sentence pattern would not be understood.

When you use correct Lakota grammar, you are “thinking in Lakota.”

In other languages, you would be “thinking in Dine, Salish, Arapahoe,” or whatever.

Using sentence structure, patterns and grammar to think in your language will strengthen your four language skills. Remember them?

  • Speaking
  • Listening Comprehension
  • Reading
  • Writing.

You will be understood in all four skills, and you will understand others.

We’ll get back to the four language skills in Part 8.

PS – Secret language-learner’s tip!

The more you learn about sentences patterns and grammar of another language … the more you will begin to notice the sentence patterns and grammar of English.

Strange but true: learning a second language teaches you more about your first language than you ever imagined.

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