One simple sentiment that doesn’t translate so simply

Anyone who speaks a second (or third) language knows that each language has its own way of expressing ideas and concepts. In addition to differences in vocabulary and grammar, languages also have rich idiomatic expressions that embody history and culture.

I was asked to come up with five equivalent expressions, one from each of the languages I speak. As a native English speaker, I settled on a phrase we use just about every day. Confirming lunch plans or signing off a business email? There’s a good chance you’ll let the other person know you’re “looking forward to it.” While this sentiment is common in the English-speaking world, it’s less of a fixture in other cultures. Check out these five different ways people across the world express enthusiasm or desire for something.

English: “I look forward to _____”

Since this is an English-language blog, let’s take this phrase as our base. Taken literally, it doesn’t make much sense: you don’t have to see something to be excited about it. Etymologists say the phrase expanded in meaning, to indicate a positive feeling in addition to just anticipating something in the future, around the mid-19th century.

Spanish: “Tengo ganas de _____”

When we want to do a certain thing in Spanish, we can use this common phrase followed by an infinitive verb: “Tengo ganas de aprender otro idioma,” for example (“I feel like learning another language.”) Since the verb “tener” means “to have,” the “ganas”—the desire—becomes a noun! Luckily, it carries none of the clunkiness and formality of “I have the desire to” in English.

Portuguese: “Tenho vontade de _____”

If you guessed that the verb here is the same as the Spanish, you guessed right! The Portuguese “ter” and the Spanish “tener” are cognates. In this case, though, the direct object is a little different: “vontade” means something like “desire” here, but can also mean “will” or “willpower” in other contexts. What about you, você tem vontade de aprender idiomas?

German: “Ich habe _____ gern”

“Ich habe Sprachen gern” is a way to say “I like languages” in German. As you can see, the English sentence uses a familiar [subject] + [verb] + [direct object] order. But the German “haben” means “to have,” and “gern” is an adverb that means something like “with pleasure.”

Catalan: “Em ve de gust _____”

This phrase works a little bit like the German one above. You might say, “Em ve de gust aprendre idiomes,” (“I like to learn languages”) which means, word for word, “To me comes with pleasure to learn languages.” “De gust” is an adverb just like “gern” and also means “with pleasure.”


For any language-learner, it’s a great exercise to compare and contrast how and when languages express similar ideas. It’s sure to keep us out of the trap of trying to translate expressions literally from our native language to the ones we’re learning.