Does Knowing Another Language Give You a Richer Vocabulary in Your Mother Tongue?

Originally shared by Rebekka Wellmanns

As as freelance translator dealing with languages daily, I wonder if knowing another language makes you a language snob i.e. do you start to use ‘bigger’ words in your mother tongue when you are learning or know another language?

My immediate answer is yes, only because I learnt my source language at a young, impressionable age where I might not have had a wide vocabulary yet. We are exposed to a larger Latin vocabulary when we start to learn one of the modern romance languages (from my experience). For example, languages such as French and Spanish have a rich Latin base. English, in my opinion, has in a sense been “dumbed down”, in that we use everyday words rather than maybe a richer, more “formal” vocabulary.

For example, it is frequent to see Latin words in Spanish e.g. cadáver which is common in everyday use whereas in English the direct equivalent cadaver is seldom used in an informal context, where dead body is generally preferred. This might be down to ignorance of the word unless you’re a medical specialist.

In French the expression “I’m dead tired” is “Je suis mort de fatigue” (literally translated: ‘I’m dead of fatigue’). Fatigue being a word in English which is not very frequently used in an informal context. Although you wouldn’t use fatigue to translate this expression.

This may all be down to which technical vocabulary we use in certain contexts, however I do believe when we are learning another language we are exposed to more Latin based words (only looking at the languages I know) and through this we start using a richer vocabulary in English.

Conversely though, we could say that people, translators or not, learning English not so much enrich their mother tongue but are exposed to a wider range of synonyms in English. For example, hoard in Spanish is acumular roughly translated as accumulate. Some translators find it difficult to get out of the translationese rut and use the word accumulate, rather than hoard when referring to, for example, the Diogenes Syndrome. Take another example, the word feckless translated in Spanish is débil or incapaz and doesn’t quite portray the richness of meaning which feckless has i.e. lacking strength of character. English is a language full of synonyms. Other languages’ vocabulary often paraphrase words e.g. cot death in Spanish is muerte súbita del lactante (Lit. sudden infant death) and has no other equivalent.

Interestingly, the Inuit people have over 15 words to describe certain types of snow. So this whole discussion could be down to context and how we relate our immediate surroundings to the number of words we have for use in different contexts and the corresponding words.

I would like to know if you have had any experiences of your vocabulary being enriched from having learnt another language. In my case I was fascinated by the many Latinisms when I was learning Spanish which I could transfer to English and sound “smarter”. E.g. discussing the television series CSI with my friends I could say cadaver instead of dead body.