Learning from other people’s mistakes

One comical thing about studying a new language while also interacting with native speakers in a language in which they are not fluent, is that you soon start noticing patterns in the mistakes they make. For instance, native German speakers will often say “we meet us at five” instead of simply “we meet at five“. And you might think a Swede asking you “How much is the clock?” is interested in buying your watch, but he’s most likely only trying to ask you what time it is — the Swedish way.

The funny thing is that I’ve come to realize that one can actually take advantage of these mistakes when learning otherwise difficult and “illogical” expressions in a new language.

Take for example the English sentence “Do you want me to buy you a ticket?“. Literally (but incorrectly) translated into Spanish, I would write “¿Me quieres comprarte una entrada?“. However, this does not make much sense to a Spanish speaker — in fact, the closest meaning would be rather the opposite.

Instead, the correct translation is “¿Quieres que (yo) te compre una entrada?“. This is a sentence structure I couldn’t really get my mind around to say naturally, as it is so different from the English equivalent.

But as I was studying Spanish on the bus on my way home from university this evening, it struck me that I’ve heard this sentence structure before — even in English!

The literal translation of the correct Spanish sentence above is: “You want that I buy you a ticket?“. As grammatically incorrect as this is in English, this is how a native Spanish speaker would naturally express it.

Since I’ve heard this (incorrect) sentence form so many times when speaking English to native Spanish speakers, it barely sounds wrong to me anymore. But more importantly, by thinking of how a Spanish speaker would say it in English, I can easily figure out the correct way of saying it in Spanish.

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