Languages are like arts, they look easy on the eye, but are seriously easy to make mistakes in. Tony Blair once tried to show off his French by telling the French Prime Minister how much he envied him, but ended up saying in French that he wanted to be his boyfriend.
I’ve been guilty of similar gaffes myself, mispronouncing the “c” in the word “cūka” had disastrous consequences when I once tried to order pork in a restaurant in my first month here. I even invented new Latvian words like puķot (to pick flowers) which doesn’t exist. However, given that Latvian has verbs like sēņot (to pick mushrooms) and ogot (to pick berries) I don’t think it would be such a bad addition.
Latvia has done amazingly well with foreign languages. Every day I have to tell Latvian civil servants, who already fluently speak Latvian, Russian and often German, that their near advanced level of English is impressive. How many people on this planet can manage such a level in 3 or 4 languages?
Like life though, nothing is ever perfect. Walk round Riga and you’ll see lots of mistakes. It’s understandable when small establishments make them, but you’d really think Stockmann, the biggest supermarket in the centre, could do better than this.
If you showed a “next cash at your service” sign to a native English speaker out of this context, they wouldn’t have a clue what that referred to. (Best guess would probably be something to do with a bank.) The correct translation would be something along the lines of “Checkout (or cash desk) closed. Please use the next available till.” It doesn’t cost *that much* for a big multinational like Stockmann to have someone proofread their sign, so why not do it? I don’t see the point putting it in English anyway. Isn’t it obvious from the context that the checkout is closed?
(Update 22 March 2014: Credit where it’s due, Stockmann have now corrected the sign.)
So here are some of the most common mistakes I hear.
1) “Thanks God.”
An every day one that Latvians say, but something you’d never hear an English native speaker say to their friends. Thank God is one of the rare cases of a subjunctive mood in English. You’d only ever say “Thanks, God” if you were praying in silence. There’s even a T.G.I. Friday (Thank God It’s Friday) restaurant in the centre of Riga’s Old Town.
2) “Thanks, fine” or “Normal” as responses to “How are you?”
These are direct, but incorrect, translations from Latvian. “Fine, thanks” or “okay” would be the correct forms.
3) “I am living in Riga for 5 years” or “I am civil servant for 2 years.”
Like many mistakes, these come from applying Latvian grammar patterns to English. German speakers make similar mistakes. In these cases “I have been living in Riga for 5 years” would be correct.
4) “I visited gym” or worse, “I was in gym last night.”
There are cases when you can miss articles in English but still be understood, but this isn’t such a situation. This one’s pretty bad. Gym is a homophone of the name Jim. To a native speaker, the first example sounds like you visited your friend Jim. The second sounds like you were doing something naughty with a boyfriend called Jim. You’d need to say “I visited the gym”, as otherwise you’re talking about a person.
Latvian and Russian students hate articles, which is understandable since those languages lack them and the rules have lots of exceptions and are often contradictory. I can understand that, but some try and wriggle out with excuses like “native speakers have stopped using articles” (!) or “they’re not so important, can’t I just speak without using them?”
The answer to the first is that no native speaker I know misuses articles. Here’s the lyrics to the song that is the best selling song in the UK this week. It’s not great grammatically (“I rather be”) but the articles are all used correctly.
The answer to the second point is actually yes, you can speak English, like any other language, with a limited vocabulary and limited range of grammar, but it’s like going into a cafe in Riga and saying “draugs un es gribet divi kafija.” You’ll be understood, yes, but it’s not something that sounds the best to a native speaker. Besides, if you just want “to be understood” then why waste time and money in classes?!
4) “If I will” or “If I would.” Conditionals in English are weird (though Spanish has exactly the same patterns as English.) For example…
“If I had time tomorrow, I would meet you.” (Latvians often say “If I would have time tomorrow…” when trying to express that)
It sounds bizarre to a lot of non-native speakers that you use “I had”, a past form, when speaking about a future event. Using past forms to distance reality from hypothetical situations is one grammatical reality that you have to deal with if you want to improve English though.
5) “He told that” or “Can you say me when you are free?”
Say and tell are the same verbs in some languages so this confusion arises frequently. The main difference is that with tell you need an object, you need to know who you tell. So that should be “He told me that.” With say, it’s structures like “He said that” or “He said to me that”
6) “I am writing to You.” / “Please collect Your items”
In Latvian, Russian and several other languages, you is capitalised as a polite way of addressing people. English doesn’t do this. “I’m writing to you” is correct.
7) Pronunciation of sue and suit.
For some unknown reason, teachers in Soviet schools seem to have settled on /sjuːt/ as the best way to pronounce suit. (Sounds a bit like shoot.) While you will find that pronunciation in dictionaries, it’s getting close to extinct among native speakers these days, who almost all say it as /suːt/. The same applies to Sue, which is not pronounced as /sjuː/.
Here’s a selection of comments about this
“Speaking as a native British English speaker, the [sjut] pronunciation is old-fashioned to the point of being comical (I would say it if I was imitating an aristocrat or something). Modern English favours almost exclusively “soot”.”
“There is an on-going sound change (Yod-dropping(yod-dropping is the elision of the sound [j])) by which /j/ as the final consonant in a cluster is being lost.”
Other examples of incorrect forms would be writing “in 2008 year” (in 2008 is correct), using Roman numerals for centuries (XX century instead of the correct 20th century) and using the German style „ ” instead of ” ” e.g. „Microsoft”, instead of the correct “Microsoft.”
8) how long time? / too long time / so long time
The word time isn’t needed in any of those.
9) “No yes” (Nu yes) as an answer to everything.
In Latvian an answer such as “nu jā” sounds fine. The problem is that in English, Latvians usually don’t translate the “nu” part, so say “nu yes” in English. The nu is unknown to English speakers and when they ask a direct question, they expect a yes or no answer. Nu being unknown to them, they match it to the closest equivalent they’ve been expecting to hear, which is “no.” So the “nu yes” sounds like “no yes” and is hugely confusing to an English speaker. It’s a type of aural pareidolia.
Native English speakers would say things like “uh yeah” or “well yes”, we would never say “nu yes.” The “nu” in Latvian goes back to indo-European (one of many Latvian words taken from Sanskrit) , so changing it is about as likely as 20 degrees and sunshine in Riga in February.
10) A few other random examples…
i) confusing so and such e.g. “Riga is so nice city” instead of “Riga is such a nice city”
ii) make and do, in English you do homework, make food and take photos
iii) countable and uncountable nouns e.g. he gave me two advices. In most major European languages you can count advice, in English it’s either “he gave me some advice” or “he gave me two pieces of advice”
iv) To answer a question I was once asked, no, cukurgailitis can’t be translated into English as “sugar cock” and asking for that in England would result in being sent to a *different* kind of shop.
and I’ll guarantee that Muphry’s law applies to this post. Yes, native speakers do get it wrong sometimes and I’m no exception.
(*Update, August 2014, I’ve created a new blog, which is going to be on the same theme. The first post on that is Words commonly confused by Latvians in English. Another follow up is on common mistakes Latvians make in emails.)