Language: You’re Doing It Wrong

In a lot of high school foreign language programs the instruction is often loaded down with grammar exercises. For someone enjoys grammar, this isn’t a problem, but it is for many people who have less patience for it. Grammar can be tedious and often doesn’t convey any of the vibrancy of that language. It can be difficult to pick up Spanish when they drill you on conjugations in the present indicative versus the present subjunctive. As a result, people treat language classes like medicine; the sooner you take it, the sooner it’s over.

Sometimes, people try again in their later years, whether it’s through a class or buying Rosetta Stone. I can personally attest that picking up a language through Rosetta Stone is irritating and unhelpful, by the way. To me, Rosetta Stone presents the opposite extreme: loaded down with sentences with no way to parse them.

The reason that you couldn’t pick up Spanish in high school was because you were too immersed in grammar. It was hard to see that a language is organic and sometimes behaves in ways you don’t expect. You couldn’t pick up Spanish later in your life because you focused too much on getting individual sentences. You couldn’t see the structure and use that to your advantage in understanding it.

So how should I learn a language, then?

Rather than excessively focus on repetition of phrases or simply grammar exercises, it’s better to have both in equal proportions. Picking up the grammar is important, no matter how much you might not like it. If you don’t have a blueprint for the fundamental structure of that language, your ability to acquire that language in the long run is fairly inhibited. Why? Because you’re memorizing phrases more than patterns. The important part is to be able to synthesize your own sentences, instead of spitting out rote-memorized sentences. Rather than understanding the sentences intuitively, you’re just memorizing a bunch of sound that has a given meaning.

In simpler, so-called “easier” languages like French or Spanish, you can get away with the rote method much more easily. Compared with some other languages, there’s minimal futzing around that you need to do with the sentences. This doesn’t work in a language like Korean, with a complex system of honorifics and verb styles. A keen awareness of how to form words, especially with respect to formality and politeness, is of the utmost importance. For a polyglot, it’s better to have a fairly consistent method, or at least a flexible one.

In my opinion, you need an even mix of formal grammatical training as well as real world experience. You need to ride with training wheels before you can ride without them. Sure, there are some people who can just pick things up by listening. But for a more complete and functional knowledge, you should combine grammar and real experience.

In conclusion

Obviously, not everybody has the same needs. Sometimes, you’re a linguist who may not really need to pick up the whole language, but rather understand it formally or in theory. Other times, you’re just a tourist or frequent traveler who could use a few phrases to get around once in a while. This post is more for those who want to learn a large part of if not the whole language in question, and long-term strategies are key for developing your skills.

Don’t feel weighed down by grammar, but don’t rely too much on set phrases. Learning a language is learning to interact with an organic part of people’s lives. It’s OK to depend on videos of the language in practice to reinforce your understanding of a grammatical concept, and you can try parsing recurring forms through the phrases you learn. But relying on either in excess could very well make you give up. Take the happier and more efficient route to learning a language! Pick up a book, pull up some YouTube videos, and get to work!

Brexit and Portmanteaus

Recently, this whole Brexit chaos has been the talk of many of my friends and people across the world. This is especially visible on social media, like Twitter and Tumblr. “Brexit” is very obviously a combination of the words “Britain” and “exit” in English. The alternative voting option was “Bremain”. Now, people are making predictions about the EU nations that might leave the Union in the near future. And now, the internet is trying to be clever and witty with portmanteaus. 

Just for your info, a portmanteau is just a combination of two words, squished together. As a result of the UK leaving, people are freaking out over the apparently imminent disintegration of the EU. This has caused the internet to concoct things like Finish (Finland), Oustria, (Austria), Italeave (Italy), and Fruckoff (France). Now, my problem isn’t the political commentary flying around (though I have my own opinions that I won’t expound on here). In fact, it’s the use of portmanteaus in English!

So what should we do? We should obviously be making these words in the country’s native languages, since “Brexit” is only appropriate for an English speaking country. Here’s one: Uscitalia, a combination of Italia and uscire (“to exit/depart” in Italian). Or Partigal, from Portugal and partir (one word for “to leave” in Portuguese). And there’s also Espartida (España + partida), which one of my friends debated with me on Facebook.

Captura de ecrã 2016-06-28, às 09.25.51_censored
I’m not really a fan of “Espalida”. It sounds like “espalda”.

Now, the thing is that it’s not a really a problem in and of itself. I just feel like it would be much more effective to the people living in the countries that we’re talking about. For example, Grexit is just a ripoff of Brexit, and that’s boring. I think what would be more interesting and truer to the Greek language is Ελλάδα (Elláda) + έξοδος (éxodos).  Which might be something like Ελλάξοδος (Elláxodos)! It sounds pretty epic if you ask me. Forgive me, Greek speakers if I’ve committed some error of orthographic convention or something. Let me know if there’s something better!

Here are some that we might consider for Germany and Austria. Deutschlassen (Deutschland + [ver]lassen) and Östergang (Österreich + Ausgang). Just Ausgang sounded better but the Aus- part unfortunately isn’t from German.

If any one else can come up with brilliant native language equivalents for things like Finish, Slovakout, or something else, please leave them in the comments! Or if you have better stuff than I can come up with! Disclaimer: this post has zero to do with my politics.

(Credits to @golub on Twitter. Due credit to your brillant contribution and inspiring this post.)

Why French Is Completely Overrated

French is easily one of the most widely studied modern languages from the 17th century in the courts of English nobles to the classrooms of American public high schools to one of the most widely learned languages among wannabe polyglots all over Tumblr and the rest of the internet.

Here’s the irony, though: French is an incredibly useless language to learn.

French literature has an impressive literary presence, but it’s full of long depressing stories of post-revolutionary France like Les Miserables and irritatingly short things like Candide, both of which are treated as some of the crowning jewels of European literature. I mean, who wants to read something depressing when you can read existentialist people like Dostoyevsky, and oh… Sartre. That one, with his meaningful choice of coffee with milk or creamer.

Not to mention the French language is basically silent. La fille? That –lle is there to take up space on the page, my friends. Nearly all the filler letters and weird-ass spellings are things artificially preserved by the Académie Française in order to reflect Old French pronunciation and make it seem more prestigious and steeped in history. There are so many words that sound the same but mean very different things. Out of all of the Romance language siblings, French has wandered hopelessly far from its ancestor, Latin. It wouldn’t be very cool if it didn’t have something old like Old French (how inventive) to ground it in prestige. I mean, sure a lot of people in France speak it, and it’s fairly useful to get around, but I mean you could just be American and pull out English wherever you go. All you have to do is be a complete asshat about English is the only useful language.

Let’s also observe the fact that there are, what, like six major countries that speak French? In several of which you can get away with speaking a more important language like Italian or German? I mean there are African Francophone countries and Vietnam, but let’s be honest: I’m fairly certain they’d rather use their own languages than participate in imperialist bullshit like speaking the language of their conquerors for socioeconomic expediency. Speaking of language repression, the Académie Française was hating on its own Frenchmen for speaking regional languages other than French for years until it’s like “Oh shit that was mean hahah sorry loooool” and now these languages are gasping for breath in the North and South (stuff like Breton and Occitan by the way).

Canada, a major nation in which French is officially spoken, doesn’t even speak French as a majority; my cousins live in Canada and basically never use French. I mean yeah, they live in Guelph, Ontario, but it’s Canada. They’re weird, anyway. Universal healthcare and whatnot.

The point is that French is like a complete asshat to its learners with a completely illogical orthography and extremely pretentious background. Why suffer the abuse? Come to the dark side where we learn the language of real men like Russian with like eighteen verbs for “to go”, Finnish with case declensions like nobody’s business, and Arabic where words can look exactly the same in writing but mean completely different things in context. Fun, right?

First things first: this was a work of satire, and I think that French is a perfectly fine language to learn. But I do give it a lot of shit for the orthography bit. I will never let it live that down.

When I go to Cedar Riverside, a neighborhood of Minneapolis, to practice my Somali language, the streets are full of Somali people in the many shops and cafes. Sometimes I find that people will not respond to me in Somali—only in English. I long for someone who cannot speak English so that I can have a conversation […]

via Language of terror vs loving language — Loving Language

A Guest in a Someone Else’s House: Polyglots and Social Activism

It’s been about six years since I began my polyglot journey, and while I don’t have all the experiences of seasoned veterans, so to speak, like Timothy Doner and various other individuals, there are a lot of things I’ve learned about being and becoming a polyglot. I am also somewhat of a social activist, and it’s in the past three years that I’ve truly realized the overlap between these two interests of mine.

Being a polyglot means that you’re willing to commit yourself to the learning of many languages and participate in the culture of those languages languages. I say that believing that the latter is mandatory; learning a language in isolation from its culture(s) is dangerously close to a kind of appropriation. Not to mention it’s a very incomplete kind of learning, since the culture around a language contextualizes its expressions and its particular features.

Choosing not to engage in the society of a language, to some extent, can imply that the learner has little respect for that society. When you come into a language that is not your own, you generally defer to native speakers and their cultural practices (obviously with some amount of discretion or common sense). It’s like going into someone else’s house; would you start making the same food that you do in your own house? Would you start changing their decorations and furniture? No, you’d very politely observe that you are a guest in someone else’s home. You see what they make at home, and how they see their own house. One of the predominant features of cultural appropriation in general is effectively a guest acting like they own their host’s house.

So, how does this link being a polyglot with social activism?

Well, social activism, as most people understand, is a form of advocating on the behalf of minority communities for certain issues. Polyglots, because they are involved in this agreement to participate in the traditions of various communities of certain languages, are also involved in their protection and defense, in varying degrees.

Many polylgots start their journeys well aware of the culture (in varying degrees) of the languages they study, having an inherent interest and appreciation for it. Learning languages expands their worldview as well as allows them to understand the various social and political dilemmas of different communities. This is because being involved with language means being involved in an organic aspect of human life, one that is employed in many different spaces and by all sorts of people.

Going back to the house metaphor, social activism in being a polyglot also means recognizing the humanity behind a language. We often make snap judgements about people because of the way they look or what they ostensibly do in public, but how can we ever claim to really know who they are without talking to them first? Without being in their home and see how they are? Obviously, you going into their home is a latter stage of the process. Learning a language is talking to a person, and warming up to them. Getting more and more acquainted with a language makes you more sensitive to people’s perceptions of that language. Social activism is very much like sticking up for one of your friends; polyglots stick up for languages and their communities in a show of solidarity rather than an aim to represent them. And the thing is, not all of us do this intentionally. It just ends up happening, because we are immersing ourselves in another culture’s language and traditions. The degree of actual activism that polyglots participate in varies from person to person.

But what problem am I trying to get at?

In my six years of polyglot-ing, so to speak, I’ve seen a lot of new polyglots pop, mostly through Tumblr as well in my own community around me. Granted, such people are of a certain type and it entails some amount of selection bias. However, it does show me a somewhat concerning (if not disturbing) trend: that being a polyglot is somehow becoming seen as trendy. Not trendy like New York hipster, obscure coffee shop trendy, but more like activist trendy, where things like political correctness are given, at times, excessive weight in a discussion that may require honesty. It’s subtle, but noticeable.

These younger (or rather newer) polyglot-aspirants are very keen and eager to start on their “journey into languages and diversity” (something like that). They tend to forget that the languages aren’t just some kind of accessory that you put on your resume; you have to treat it much like a person who you’re asking for help to expand your world view. Recognizing the humanity behind a language is so important. Korean’s not just the language of K-pop, it’s also the language of an entire country with a rich history of monarchs expanding arts and literacy through language, as well as imperial intrusions that have shaped their beliefs, norms, and even the language itself. This isn’t to diss K-pop enthusiasts, since learning Korean because you like K-pop is fine, but Korea is so much more than K-pop. And that’s just one example of how people can unintentionally fetishize the society and more importantly the people that speak a language.

While I’m not saying polyglots should be historians or anything, but we should be conscious of the fact that we are stepping into another world, someone else’s home, by learning a language. As such, we should take care to respect and patiently observe the constructs and conventions of the language and society, rather than seek to impose our own onto it. So remember this when it comes to learning languages: always know that you’re a guest, until the host invites you into their home as a friend.

I hope this post was interesting and informative! Please don’t forget to share this and talk about it with your friends!

Hindi Sikho! is now available for download

Hey everyone! After three years (yes it’s been that long), my (heavily updated) guide to learning Hindi is now complete! You can download it from this link:

It’s weird to think that my envy of Timothy Doner’s Hindi skills was what set me on the path to becoming a polyglot so many years ago, and now I’ve written a guide to that very language. I greatly respect Timothy Doner’s skills and look up to him as a role model for what kind of polyglot I want to become.

I hope you all enjoy learning Hindi with my guide, and शुभकामनाएँ (good luck)!

Language in Jeopardy: How to Protect Our Mother Tongues in Public

Take a look at this article before reading on:

When I read this post from Angry Asian Man, I became an angry Asian man, to say the least. This kind of ignorance needs to be stamped out. In an age where Islamic terrorism threatens the lives of innocent Muslims who live in the diaspora, we need to be more vigilant on the behalf of these members of our societies. It is our responsibility to listen to them when they decry Islamic terrorism, rather than ignore them and then ask why they don’t say anything.

But more than anything, this incident’s relation to language struck me particularly strongly. Why the hell are these two men being arrested because some idiotic passenger thinks that any brown-skinned people speaking a language they don’t understand is a terrorist. When this keeps happening on planes, buses, and other forms of public transport, I’m just floored by the people who say they should have been speaking English. Let’s consider the facts: these two men are foreign nationals (Pakistani and Indian respectively) who don’t speak English very well and are in a land very far from home. It’s only natural that they would find solace in finding someone else who speaks their language in a foreign land. Why do people suddenly have to place a label of suspicion on people who haven’t done anything, or cannot be proven to have done anything?

The lack of respect for the Sikh man’s violation of his person by removing his turban, a sacred item in the Sikh religion, is not enough, apparently. This man is apparently not even allowed speak his own language with someone else who does.

Something similar happened with a Chinese woman in Arizona (you can read the article here). Getting punched by someone for speaking your mother tongue in public is racist, prejudiced, and unbelievably horrible in so many ways. Even though I live and go to school in fairly liberal places (California and New York, respectively), I’m dreading the day where I have to be careful about what language I speak in public. As an aspiring polyglot who aims to specialize in Mandarin and Arabic translation/interpretation, these incidents are of great concern to me. These people who hear Arabic, Punjabi, Chinese, and other Asian and Middle Eastern languages in public and then react in these ways are a problem. This needs to stop. But what can we do?

  1. If you hear or see someone making private or public accusations of terrorism based on someone’s appearance or what language they’re using, you tell them that’s not okay. Just because you can’t tell the difference between Punjabi and Arabic doesn’t automatically mean they’re Middle Eastern, and that definitely doesn’t mean they’re terrorists even if they were. Leave them alone!
  2. Start learning other languages! Those who know other languages are frequently more open-minded than others and are exposed to a wider variety of opinions and beliefs than they might be otherwise. We should be instituting the teaching of Arabic and immigrant languages in schools rather than traditionally taught languages like French, Latin, or Spanish. Mandarin in schools is a step in teh right direction.
  3. Help out non-English speaking communities by employing your language to supply them with opportunities for jobs, community, basic amenities, and other necessities for living in a country where few people speak your language.
  4. To immigrant children: Don’t let go of your language. If you never knew it, try to get back in touch with it. Help out those in your community who need you. If you don’t speak it well, it’s never too late to start brushing up (as I can testify in the case of my Kannada skills).

And no, just because this is America doesn’t mean you have to speak English all the time. This isn’t a refusal to speak English at all. But if I want to have a conversation in another language, I have every right to do so. You have no business regulating what and what I can’t say, since we have the freedom of speech. Not everything we say has to be for public consumption. Immigrants and other people use their languages because it’s what’s comfortable for them. We are under no obligation or responsibility to use English if we don’t need or want to. Don’t tell us what to speak.

Stop demonizing immigrants and their languages.

Thanks to Angry Asian Man for these articles. They have inspired me to be more active and political in my involvement with language.

Navigating Social Customs in Other Languages

One of the biggest fallacies that I encounter among people trying to learn a particular language is trying to pick and choose what they learn. Some say, things like “I only want to know how to make basic conversation and colloquial things”. While that’s all well and good, you should be aware that language is never so simple. In my opinion, much of these kinds of beliefs stem from a subtle assumption that other languages work more or less the same way as a person’s first language.

That’s not exactly a good way to think about a foreign langauge, because it’s rarely ever a one-to-one relationship for everything. Even for related languages like Spanish and Portuguese, there are things that don’t always cross over. You can’t assume that Portuguese is “a different version” of Spanish, because not all words in Spanish have the same meaning or have cognate in Portuguese. And geographical proximity doesn’t account for anything either, as in the case of Indian languages, where there are 1500+ distinct languages, with varying degrees of mutual intelligbility (though by and large there is very little if any at all).

One of the biggest things about language is its intimate ties with culture, and how that translates in and out of different languages. There are certain cultural norms associated with different languages, which need to be upheld and respected. Obviously, one should exercise discretion, because sometimes, social customs can be extreme or ridiculous. But, usually, that’s not a call for us outsiders to make.

For example, in many Indian languages, it is widely considered inappropriate, rude, or inauspicious to discuss death, especially in the presence of the elderly or the sick, because it could be misinterpreted as a bad omen. This is not that complicated and is fairly easy to understand and get behind. But, what some learners of Hindi or other languages may not understand is that it precludes certain types of expressions, such as “I’m gonna kill you” or “You’re so dead”. In English, they don’t really mean anything, as they’re usually just threatening someone with the idea that there will be consequences to a particular action, not that they will actually kill someone. However, this is not the case in many Indian languages. Not only do these phrases not exist in direct translation, attempting to do so will result in a very different response. It may be interpreted as an actual threat, and even if it isn’t, it’s seen as poor manners or rude to say such a thing.

In a more complex example, Korean has an intricate system of honorifics and formal versus informal speaking. Certain words have particular forms that can only be used in deference to someone of higher social status. For example, my professor I’m meeting for the first time may ask “이름은 뭐야?” (Ireum-eun mweo-ya?). This is simply, “What is your name?”. The word 이름 (ireum) means “name”, but I would not use this word or even the same phrase to ask my professor’s name. Instead, I would say “교수님 성함은 어떻게 되세요?” (Gyo-su-nim seong-ham-eun eotteoh-ge doe-se-yo?). This literally translates to roughly “How is the professor (that I address) called?” 성함 (seong-ham) also means “name”, but it is the honorific form of the word. My professor can use 이름 with me, since they are socially above me, but I have to use 성함 with them. To do otherwise would be seen as too familiar, and even rude.

The Korean social hierarchy is something that not all Korean learners may immediately understand or even be aware of. But, in the context of Korean-speaking society, it is important to address such hierarchies, or you may face criticism and even anger for expressing unintended disrespect. For a language like Korean, it makes very little sense to ask only for colloquial expressions, since most Koreans will pay close attention (unconscious or otherwise) to the dynamics of social status in their everyday speech.

Whether the social customs that are ingrained in a language are complicated or not, it is important to understand such things. For those who learn in a classroom, the teacher may simply give you only phrases that fit in with the social conventions of the language, making it unnecessary for you to know at all. That can be a good and a bad thing, since while it promotes fitting in with the social norms, but doesn’t encourage synthesis of sentences, as opposed to using set, memorized phrases. Self-studiers should be mindful any kind of social conventions or rules of the language, rather than simply gleaning knowledge from the dictionary and grammar books. The best way to do so is engaging in media (particularly television) in that language, to grasp how the language is used in real life.

I hope this post was helpful in your studies in foreign language, and feel free to leave comments and suggestions for other posts. Don’t forget to share this post on social media, too!