Posted by: patenttranslator | November 30, 2010

“How Did You Pick Up Your Languages?”

“How Did You Pick Up Your Languages?” This is a question that I used to hear a lot when I was still able to have face to face conversations with people around me, which is to say before I started translating for a living and dealing with the world at large mostly through e-mails, or by phone if I absolutely have to.

Unlike for instance chemistry, physics, or even English literature, to your average English speaker, foreign languages are something that you can simply “pick up” the way garbage collectors pick up garbage from garbage cans in front of your house on a certain day of the week, which would be Thursday in Virginia. Dogs also pick up all kinds of garbage on the street thinking that it could be food. Sometime they even eat the stuff although it’s not really food. Well, dogs are stupid, that’s why we love them.

People in other countries actually seem to know that you have to study a foreign language for a long time and make a lot of effort if you want to become really fluent in it. They know that things pretty much work exactly the same way, whether you are dealing with physics and mathematics, or French or Japanese. That is why, as far as I know, the idiom “to pick up a language” exists only in English speaking countries where foreign languages are mostly perceived as being basically just one level above unwanted garbage lying on the street that anybody and their grandmother and dog can simply “pick up”.

Maybe we translators and interpreters should finally start fighting back. For example, when you interpret a deposition and a really clever lawyer asks you:”How did you pick up your languages, Ms. interpreter [misinterpreter], next time, answer by saying something like:”Oh, you know, I just picked them up. How do monolingual people pick up a law degree, counselor?” You can answer the same way to a doctor who is posing the same question to you when you are interpreting at a hospital:”Oh, you know, I just picked them up, doc. How did you pick up your medicine?” Maybe they will realize that you responded like this because you thought that what they asked you was a really stupid question, maybe they won’t. They might be just staring at you without comprehension, wondering why anybody would say such a stupid thing.

In other countries, for example Germany, people have to graduate from college and become “Diplom-Übersetzer (translator with a diploma, which would correspond to a master’s degree in US), if they want to make a living by translating a foreign language. Here in the United States, all you have to do is hang out your shingle, pay the City Hall 50 dollars a year for a “miscellaneous business license” and you’re in business. You can now start translating German or Japanese patents to English, as long as you say that you can do it. Nobody really cares how you “picked up” your languages. It’s not really important. On the other hand, if you have a real, serious job, one that requires specialized training because the lack thereof could cause a lot of damage to the public at large, for instance cutting other people’s hair, you have to graduate from mandatory courses designed for hairdressers, and you also have to have hundreds of hours of supervised training first before the City Hall will let you work as a qualified hairdresser. At least that’s what the girl who cuts my hair told me last time when she was cutting my hair and we were making conversation.

And then she asked me:”How did you pick up your languages?”



  1. Hi again,

    Thanks for the post, quite funny actually. I had never really thought about it the way you put it. You make a good point, language is something of a romanticized ideal. How many times have you heard, “oh I took a semester/year abroad in Paris and picked up French”. I have heard it plenty of times and 9/10 people who picked up French (or whatever language) can’t introduce themselves properly in said language. They must have had that famous French croissant butter on their hands when they were picking it up.

    I studied Physics and Spanish in college and whenever people people asked what my degree track was, upon answering I was always greeted with the same, banal, two-neuron response: “Spanish and physics, huh? You gonna teach physics in Mexico?”

    It was charming up until the 5th time. After that, eye rolling ensued.

    Sorry for the random anecdote. Cheers!


  2. In the picture it looks like you are picking up Spanish the right way – with 2 cervezas, 1 in each hand.


  3. I would say that I am enjoy Spanish the right way 🙂 I picked it up a long time ago just for this reason….(and to make a living)


  4. I would say that I am enjoying Spanish the right way 🙂 I picked it up a long time ago just for this reason….(and to make a living)


  5. […] Why is it, that, especially in the United States, quite intelligent people simply assume that translators with an educational background in languages and humanities, for example, will never be able to understand chemical patents and thus will never be qualified to translate such texts, while the same seemingly intelligent people also blithely assume that an engineer or nurse who somehow “is fluent” in another language can be a translator, although this person has no linguistic background in the foreign language whatsoever? How did this engineer become fluent in another language without majoring in a foreign language at a university and living in China or Japan for many years? The assumption seems to be that people can simply “pick up a language” (I love this English idiom), the way one would pick up unwanted garbage on the street. […]


  6. I live in a bilingual region. I began studying French in fourth grade. When I voiced my concern about my low level of comprehension of French to a future employer (because I moved away for several years, and don`t ever use it), he stated, “don`t worry, you will pick it up by being around French speakers.” I am now studying Italian, on my own. So I am STUDYING! It is necessary. However, from experience I understand the English Idiom “to pick up a language” applies to immersion settings, were one is immersed in another culture and must “pick up” the language to survive. When an English person asks how one has “picked up” a language, they are really asking “where did you travel to,” or “where did you live to learn it?” I would like to study linguistics and language acquisition to a greater depth than I have. I think it is necessary for teaching and translating. To “pick up” a language for an English person, is to pick up and carry it with you. We just leave off the “carry it with you” part.


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