Untranslatable Concepts: The Wonder of Studying Languages

This week, one of my teachers asked me to do a lesson on “English as an international language.” As a traveler, I know English is important, but I also know that other languages are, too. So, with this lesson I didn’t want to say “YEAH! English is awesome, etc.” and I chose a different approach.

A while back, I had read a great article, “Should English Be The World’s International Language”, on Brave New Traveler. In this article, the author argues that the world definitely doesn’t need one international language, instead we need greater cultural exchange. I decided to take a break from Wikipedia and random news articles and give my kids an interesting blog post to read. As German speakers, I knew the kids wouldn’t want to hear how important English is, so this was a good alternative.

The thing that struck me most, and which easily connected in with the lesson, was this following excerpt:

“Our entire concept of everyday reality is shaped around language. If you speak multiple languages, you start to see things in many more shades because some concepts just cannot be translated, directly or indirectly.”

Truthfully, I hadn’t thought to include this aspect in the lesson until halfway through, when we actually came to this quote in the article. And a thought struck me instantly: What concepts cannot be translated from German and vice versa? I posed the question to the class.

The German words Kindergarten, Doppelgänger, and Schadenfreude came quickly to my mind, and I shared this with the class. (These are also some of my favorite German words, perhaps for this reason.)

On LEO (the German-English online dictionary I always use) these words translate as…

der Kindergarten: Kindergarten – chiefly for children between four and six years old.
der Doppelgänger: look-alike
die Schadenfreude: gloating, mischievousness, spiteful joy

But each word means so much more, and cannot be easily translated into a single word in English. These three examples are so not easily translated into English that the German word is actually used.

For example, kindergarten. We all know kindergarten, that school we spent a year or two in before we passed on to elementary school, learning the alphabet, numbers, how to read. We don’t call it pre-school (that’s something different), nursery school (also entirely different), or school-for-four-to-six-year-olds, we call it kindergarten in English.

Doppelgänger is a less oft used word in English, but it is used. A few weeks ago, there was something called “doppelgänger week” on Facebook where many of my Facebook friends changed their profile picture to a famous celebrity he/she had been told he/she resembled. It wasn’t look-alike week, it was doppelgänger week. A doppelgänger is more than a look-alike; a doppelgänger is someone who looks exactly like you and usually goes around causing mischief and ruining your life. Not quite a look-alike, is it?

Schadenfreude is a word that can absolutely not be translated into one word, or even a few words in English; what LEO gave me doesn’t seem right at all. When I was home over Christmas break, I read an article in the December issue of Marie Claire. This article defined schadenfreude as:

“Taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others — esp. boastful friends, unscrupulous colleagues, billionaire bankers, and celebrities who are famous for no good reason.”

Little bit more than simply “gloating” or “spiteful joy”, eh? Needless to say, I was surprised to see this article in Marie Claire, especially as I had just learned this word in German! (Read the rest of the article here.) When my German teacher had explained this “very German” (as she said) concept for us, I recognized this feeling. One of my classmates laughed, and said she knew a song from a musical which poked fun at this feeling. Next week she played it for us. Check it out below, make sure to listen along closely — the lyrics are hilarious.

When I told my students that we use these words in English, they were surprised (especially about Schadenfreude and Doppelgänger). I posed the following questions to them — do you know any German words we use in English? Are there any English words you use in German? Some of the winners were:

German in English — Sauerkraut, Blitzkrieg
English in German — babysitter, “chillen” (the verb meaning to chill)

For me, this is one of the exciting things about studying a foreign language; what is shared, what is different, what can’t be explained or translated.

What do you think? Do you enjoy studying another language? What are your favorite word(s) in another language?


Author: Alaina

writer + explorer

3 thoughts on “Untranslatable Concepts: The Wonder of Studying Languages”

  1. Wow, Lainy! Now you’re back to thought provoking, not just observations! This is good material and I bet it was a wonderful lesson that connected with the kids!
    ps – Dad and I had sauerkraut with our dinner tonight 😉
    pss- blitz ( to clean hurriedly! )

  2. this is funny that you wrote this! I am doing my senior thesis paper on a second language in schools especially learning English as a second language…very interesting!!

  3. I’m reading a book now that used ‘schadenfreude’ and- LO AND BEHOLD- I had just read your blog and I knew that word’s meaning because of you. Thanks you- my very smart Granddaughter. LOVE GRAM

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