How dinner parties and language are related

Published 1st February 2013
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Have you ever been to dinner with family or friends and had a conversation with someone but not really taken in what they said? I know I have and, most of the time, I don’t do it on purpose. It could be down to a number of factors. Often, I end up tuning into someone else’s conversation, or get distracted by someone coming into the room. Very annoying for the person I’m talking to but it makes you wonder why your brain decides to redirect your attentions to another conversation even though your present interlocutor may be right next to you.

Similarly, some people find it easier to understand certain languages better than others. For instance, I find Dutch incredibly hard to speak and understand, whereas I can just about understand German, especially when it’s spoken slowly. I have a friend who knows French, German, Dutch and English and she doesn’t struggle with those languages but finds some of the UK dialects hard to comprehend.

So when it comes to translation, you may think that some people are better than others. It seems like something which only comes with experience but I think the more exposure you have to languages in general, the more you become aware of the patterns in language. For all the seeming randomness, languages are structured, albeit not all the same, but there is still underlying structure which forms part of the everyday conversations or written work.

If I tried translating Dutch at the moment, I would not get very far at all. However, if I lived in The Netherlands for some time, or made the effort to learn the Dutch language, I would be more likely to pick up certain phrases or vocabulary which would contribute to my knowledge of how the language works and eventually I would be able to translate things. It all takes time though, and patience.

Maybe it’s also the case for our dinner party talk. The more time and patience we have, the more attention we can pay to our conversations.

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