My Beginnings in Hebrew

So, before I start my lessons in Hebrew for the Italki October 2014 Language Challenge, I thought I’d get a head start by learning the Hebrew alphabet. As it happens, there are two versions: printed and cursive. The printed version (in the cover picture) is used mostly by learners and children, and obviously in printed text. The cursive version, whose name is misleading, is used in all handwritten situations. I say that the name is misleading because it’s not cursive the way cursive is in English; the letters are not connected in a continuous flow. It’s also a bit confusing, because the printed and cursive versions, for the most part, don’t look at all alike. I’ve attached a picture of my chart, which has both versions, as well as the niqqud (the vowel system) marks on the back. Unfortunately, niqqud are not used in most texts, written or printed, and the vowels are implied via context. So, hopefully, this goes well for me. Wish me luck!

Hebrew Chart

Hebrew Chart Niqqud

A Video on Spanish Accents

I found a video from 2009 on dialectical and regional differences in Spanish that can be quite helpful for people who are at the level where they’re looking at what accent to emulate. Even if you’re not, it’s kind of interesting anyway. The user is Professor Jason, and he has a series of other Spanish educational videos, if you’re interested. Start at 5:54, because the first part is just kind of a disclaimer and brief explanation of the video.

2 Key Differences Between Brazilian and European Portuguese

A lot of people think that they can get away with just learning Brazilian Portuguese, and assume that it’s really similar to the European version. It is, to an extent. In written contexts, that is. But, what’s more important is the speaking part, where you find out that they sound completely different. For whatever reason, Brazilian and European Portuguese sound much more different from each other than their Spanish counterparts. But I digress. Now, let’s get down to the 3 most important differences (aside from idioms and phrasing):

1. Pronunciation. Brazilian Portuguese is mostly straightforward, but nasals (-ão, –am, etc.) are very pronounced and the letters d and t become the j before weak vowels, such as i and e. The letter e is frequently pronounced as, “ee” at the end of words. Also, terminal r‘s tend to become breathy h‘s, so a word like cantar may be pronounced as, “cantah.”

European Portuguese, on the other hand, is spoken mostly as it is written, except for the fact that it likes to throw out vowels, and replace terminal s‘ with the sh sound. The word, “sabes,” (you know) might be pronounced as sabsh. The letter e is pronounced as the uh sound at the end of words or in syllables, similar to the ö in German, or dropped from the end entirely. The European accent is often referred to as, boca fechada, or, “closed mouth,” because of the way Portuguese people speak, which can often make it hard to understand for learners. However, I find it, personally, easier to understand, because it ends up sounding more like Spanish than Brazilian Portuguese does.

2. Grammar. This is relatively minor fix, because this actually doesn’t impair your understanding too much. Brazilians, for the present progressive, use estar + the gerund (-ando, -endo), whereas Europeans use estar a + infinitive. The only other real difference is that Brazilians almost never use the simple future tense (which is to say, a future tense that’s one word), using (conjugated form of ir) + infinitive except in formal writing, whereas Europeans use it more often, and use the Brazilian form only for actions that are in the near future. Europeans also still use the tu form to distinguish between informal and formal address. Brazilians only use você form.

That’s what I’ve got for today. Hopefully, Shinobhi will be posting relatively soon! Please leave any comments that you might have.

3 Really Good Reasons to Learn Portuguese

We always go on and on about the professional merits of learning languages, and subordinate the cultural and internal benefits. Here, I’m going to give you 5 good, non-job-related reasons to learn Portuguese.

1. The music and dance. Portugal and Brazil have rich musical and dance traditions. Brazil is particularly strong in both, with its extravagant festivals for Carnival that include samba accompanied by loud, upbeat music. Portugal’s fado is also quite famous, and has two variants: fado de Lisboa and fado de Coimbra. The first simply refers to the kind that originated in Lisbon, which is often mournful, slow, and a bit emotional (lots of unrequited love, poverty, and misery). The second, which is from the city of Coimbra, is the polar opposite, being fast, lively, and extremely optimistic. Portugal is home to many folk dances as well, if you’re interested in the more traditional roots of the Luso-Brazilian culture.

2. The people. Brazilian and Portuguese people are very different, which can also be seen in the language. Brazilian people are very upbeat, happy, and inclusive people. Brazilians typically say a gente (the people) to mean, “us”. They also don’t have the tu-vous distinction with tu (informal) and você (formal), using only the latter to say, “you”. Brazilian Portuguese is also very prone to making innocent words into those of a sexual nature. If you learn Portuguese from my guide, you’ll see this. Brazilians very much want to be your friend.

Portuguese people, on the other hand, are more traditional, especially when it comes to the language, preserving spellings that aren’t even observed in the spoken language. Portuguese people are very big on manners and formalities, but this is not to say that Portuguese people are uptight. Portuguese people appreciate people who follow social conventions, and are very willing to help you if you just ask. The Portuguese people also have a great respect for their elders and their family, and becoming a friend of the family is a sign of being a good friend to them.

3. A greater sense of emotion. Portuguese has this wonderful thing called saudade, which, while being concise, roughly translates to the nostalgia you feel when recalling something that has gone away, and will most likely never return. Portuguese is a good language for emotion, particularly regarding love. The word apaixonar-se technically means, “to fall in love,” but is usually used in the present tense, which has a special meaning in Portuguese. It describes the feeling of continually experiencing love and being more enamored with the other person.

That’s all I’ve got for today! Please leave any comments you might have, reblog this post, and/or share/like it on Facebook!

1 Big Thing You Get to Choose As a Language Learner

When learning another language, especially when you’re getting to that upper level of competency, you come to realize (or perhaps you already know) that there other ways of speaking, or dialects. Each dialect has its own accent, vocabulary, and particular way of saying things. Now, there’s also the standardized version of that language, which is often called, “Standard (insert language here)”. This is the version that is most often taught to non-native learners of the language.

Despite this, I feel that you have a right to pick and choose what you learn and use in learning a language. A lot of Spanish learners, in my experience, feel obligated to only use what they’ve been taught in class. As a learner of a language, you have a certain privilege, or at least opportunity that native speakers may not have.

But the reality is that you can choose what dialect or accent to emulate. If you’re going to be spending a lot of time in a particular region where the target language is spoken, I don’t see why not. Sometimes it may be even necessary, as is the case with the varieties of Arabic: Modern Standard Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, etc.

In the case where there is a standard, but there are still very distinct dialects, such as in Italian, this is where learners have the dilemma. Students of Italian are typically taught only Standard Italian, which resembles Florentine Italian the most, and as you go out from Rome, Florence, and the other cities in Central Italy, the language is less and less intelligible to the untrained ear. The Sicilian and Milanese varieties sound very different. In such a case, depending on where you are, you should familiarize yourself with what that dialect sounds like, or even try to switch between dialects (if you’re willing to learn the dialects well enough).

The point of learning a language to fluency (in my opinion) is to emulate native speakers. Because there are a great many native speakers, there are also a great many dialects. Therefore, it is up to the learner (after getting down the fundamentals of course) to pick what kind of speaker they want to emulate.

Masculine, Feminine, What’s the Point? Or So You Think.

Grammatical gender is a fairly common concept in many Romance languages, as well as several Indo-European and many Slavic languages. It distinguishes nouns and adjectives (and occasionally verb conjugations) by classifying them as being of a certain gender. Grammatical gender is also referred to as noun class. However, as many Spanish, French, and other Romance language learners are painfully aware, the gender of a noun often has nothing to do with its biological gender, or any, “masculine,” or, “feminine,” qualities that it may possess. Further, it may not even be a, “gender,” in the biological sense. For example, you have German and Romanian, which both have neuter gender. Neuter is not a gender you assign to people at birth. In Basque, words are classified as animate or inanimate, which, admittedly, has much more logic to it than the male-female systems of Spanish, French, and other such languages.

However, there are people who have issues with the idea of a gendered grammar system. There is a feminist argument for the gender-neutralization of Spanish, and I’m sure of other Romance languages. Teresa Meana Suárez argues that there is an inherent sexism in the Spanish language. She indicates that most professions are, by default, masculine. When you indicate a group of people in plural, and said group is mixed, the default is the masculine plural form. Some time ago, any time that you were referring to the generic form of a word that has different forms based on gender, you used the masculine form as the generic. Now, both the masculine and feminine forms are given. Now, I personally think that languages would be greatly simplified if we made things gender-neutral, but I realize that this is impractical as a quick fix. Within common sense, it is not at all practical to try and force people to adopt a rule for the way they speak. If you made Spanish gender-neutral, you would be changing most of the language.

While I certainly agree that Suárez makes some valid points, there is a question I have. This is not meant to poke holes in her logic, but rather an abstract question: What if the grammatical genders of nouns were not designated specifically as male and female? What if they were just Class A and Class B? What if they weren’t even genders, just classes of nouns? This is not an absolute claim I’m trying to make; what the gender is called, or whether it’s even called, “gender” is something important to address. Take Basque: the argument that Suárez makes doesn’t apply, because the, “genders,” are designated animate and inanimate. I don’t know why the categories of nouns and adjectives are supposed to be, “masculine,” and, “feminine.” As I said before, excluding words for professions, family members, and other such words, there is little logic as to why a word is masculine or feminine. But then again, the language I use most often, English, is a gender-neutral language, for the most part, so I may be biased in any claims that I make here.

Others who take issues with grammatical gender do so with respect to practical usage. is Tom Scott, in his video on gender-neutral pronouns, mentions that he finds grammatical gender useless. He calls it, “clunky,” because in things such as job advertisements, you have to make it clear that you’re looking for a male or female who does the job, or both. However, it goes both ways: English cannot specify gender as easily, and for professions such as, “babysitter,” you have to specify if you specifically want a male or female babysitter, by adding the words, “male,” or, “female.”

Scott also mentions that it influences the way people think. His example shows the differences between the German der Schlüssel and Spanish la llave, which are masculine and feminine, respectively. They both mean, “key,” but when speakers of each language were asked to describe a key, German speakers apparently used, “hard, heavy,” and, “jagged”. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, used, “golden, intricate,” and, “little”. Ordinarily, you’d think that this particular example is not all that terrible. However, for words that describe people, such as those for professions and such, it can be somewhat… sexist. In one of the few gendered examples in English, the word, “seamstress,” in its original meaning (a woman who weaves clothes) is feminine. But then, what if a man weaves clothes? The word, “seamster,” is not a word. There is a subtle implication here, that weaving is a woman’s work. Because of this, people conscious of such considerations typically opt for the gender-neutral, “weaver.”

Despite these arguments against gendered systems, there is little one can do in the short term. If Spanish, French, and the other Romance languages become “de”-gendered over time, so be it. However, considering how long the gendered systems have persisted, I think that there must be a reason for it.

In the study, “Language Environment and Gender Identity Attainment,” Guiora, Beit-Hallahmi, Fried, and Yoder examined how people’s understanding of gender develops with respect to the language they speak. Languages where gender is marked greatly, such as Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic, were contrasted with those where gender is not a prominent feature, such as Finnish and English. The idea is that when children are growing up, they have to learn that they have to respond differently to questions or other interactions that consider one’s own sex or the opposite sex. Therefore, whatever they think and say have to revolve around such things.

The Michigan Gender Identity Test was used to compare children’s abilities to sort people’s photographs based on gender. Being successful in this test means that the child can clearly sort things by gender, and then explain using gender. Israeli Hebrew-speaking children did very well, as 50% or more of the children from 25-42 months succeeded. On the other hand, Finnish children were not able to succeed in the same proportions until 34-36 months. English-speaking children were in the middle, as more children began to succeed from 28-42 months.

From these results, I’m thinking that gender-determinacy is important to gender identity recognition. This is obviously very important for a child to know. I can’t really think of many other reasons, but this is a very big one. Of course, in this day and age, there are people who may be biologically male or female, but identify as the opposite sex. Languages typically do not account for such circumstances, as it is probably very strange for a Hebrew speaker to address a man as he or she would a woman, because that man feels he is a woman.

In short, there is no clear reason as to why gender-determinacy exists. I’m sure there’s a good reason, given how long it’s been around, but only time will tell. If you guys have any comments on this topic, please let me know!

Works Cited

“Gender Neutral Pronouns: They’re Here, Get Used To Them.” YouTube. YouTube, 5 July 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.

Guiora, Alexander Z., Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Risto Fried, and Cecelia Yoder. “Language Environment And Gender Identity Attainment.” Language Learning (1982): 289-304. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.

“Sexism in the Spanish Language.” Revista Envío. 1 May 2002. Web. 10 Sept. 2014.

Language Survey Page

I just added a page for a language survey that I’d like you guys to fill out. Please answer honestly and completely. I’m gathering info for an article that I want to write, so please help me with this! Thanks in advance. Here’s a link to the survey:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/13aON_AQmK6E0v33CRqzyhl1ggdo8ZV4YIaaX8MBmnj4/viewform?usp=send_form

That Accent Though

There’s always that one girl who says, “I love men with accents.” Well, what kind of accent? Accents are always very particular things with people, especially this hypothetical girl, because what she means is probably a man with a European (probably British or Italian) accent. While people may not make fun of you for having an accent (though some definitely will), they won’t see you the same way if you didn’t have an accent. This is very evident in India, where the slightest country twangs and upper class pretensions are taken into account. My dad (though he will never admit this), when reserving a restaurant for my birthday while we were in India three years ago, used a British accent to talk to the host on the other end. This came somewhat as a surprise, because I expected him to say it Kannada. My grandfather explained that people who speak English, especially, “without an accent,” (which is to say with a British accent or American accent), are given priority in reservations and such. Even if they tack on a couple thousand rupees, it’s apparently worth it to get the restaurant to wait for you while you’re stuck in heavy Indian traffic.

People who speak English natively usually notice when someone has an accent, but have no problem saying that a person is fluent if that person has great command over the language. Some might argue that accent doesn’t matter as long as you get your point across. Some might also say that accent shouldn’t be used to judge language proficiency. If native speakers think that your speech sounds unnatural, weird, or is hard to understand, you cannot be called fluent.

I believe that accent plays a very big role in how people view each other, not simply in terms of societal views that judge people. Accent distinguishes people via background, social status, and other criteria. It’s a mechanism for people to categorize people, and also find other people from their background when they’re away from home.

But, English is a special case. As an international language, it has the status of having multiple accepted accents around the world. However, for nearly every other language, this is not the case. Most languages in the world have very restricted subsets of what are considered, “correct,” accents within the standards of a particular language. As one of my Chinese friends put it, one person who speaks Mandarin with Fuzhou accent and another that speaks with a Shanghai accent are both fluent with “correct,” accents. But a French person that has a French accent when he or she speaks Mandarin (even if it’s the standardized version spoken in Beijing) is not considered fluent. I agree with this, and I think that part of learning a language (eventually), entails learning to perfect the accent.

Accent is very closely linked to pronunciation. Pronunciation makes up maybe 65% of one’s accent, and the remaining 25% is speech rhythm and cadence. Speech rhythm is how it sounds when somebody talks, and you describe it as, “singsongy,” or, “choppy.” Cadence is when you describe the way someone speaks as, “gravely,” or, “measured.” These are things one should learn eventually, and it goes without saying that the last two can only be learned by listening to native speakers. Accent is not necessarily something people use to judge and criticize. But it is important to try and sound as native as possible when learning another language! Feel free to leave any comments you might have!