Are You Being Polite Enough? Read This and Find Out.

Formality is a feature of many languages in Europe, Asia, and other places. Curiously enough, the only language I can think of that doesn’t really have words explicitly dedicated to this is English, and technically Brazilian Portuguese. We dropped the word, “thou,” the equivalent of usted, vous, Lei, você, अाप (aap), and 당신 (dangshin) from English a long time ago. There’s actually a term for this, the tu-vous distinction.

But before we move on, let’s get something straight: “formality,” in linguistic contexts, is often a misnomer. Formality is a quality of language (written or spoken) that you use in certain situations, such as speaking with officials, discussing transactions, and other such scenarios. This consists of a different of set of vocabulary. What most language textbooks and teachers are talking about when they say, “formality,” is actually what most people would call, “politeness.” These are not the same thing, which a lot of people (in my experience), don’t immediately realize. Sure, they’re closely associated, but they can exist separately. “Politeness” describes behavior, how nicely or rudely you speak to someone, such as with your grandparents, or with your teachers at school. You can be polite without being formal, and the other way around. Every language can be formal, but not every language can be explicitly polite.

Now we have the confusion sorted out. I find that people who speak languages where there exists a separate polite pronoun for, “you,” and/or “you all,” the people have a stricter sense of what is good and bad behavior. Whether you’re being polite or not actually changes what you say in many languages. In English, politeness is often indicated by your tone of voice, and the inclusion of the word, “please.” However, in other languages, the sentence can change quite noticeably, such as in the case of Italian. Take the command, “Dammi il sale” (Give me the salt). There are a couple of more polite substitutions, such as “Mi dia il sale (still a bit rude),” “Mi dia il sale, per favore (a bit better than before)”, and “Mi darebbe Lei il sale?” (indirect, uses the conditional).

In Korean, there are four distinct, “styles,” of speaking, which consider both formality and politeness. The first style, formal high (inventive, I know), is both the most formal and most polite. This is what you use with clientele if you run a business, or in a meeting with government officials. In those situations, you do need to be both polite and formal, because you obviously wouldn’t say, “Yo, what’s up,” to the President of South Korea. In contrast, the fourth style, informal low, is used mostly with children and between very close friends. There’s no need (most of the time) to be formal or polite with a child, or with your buddy since kindergarten.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that people who speak English as their first language are less polite. But there is definitely a looser sense of when you need to be polite. In English, I hear people speak to their parents informally much more often than in, say, Hindi. Hindi-speakers will never refer to their parents using, “तुम/तू, tum/tuu”, unless there is a great degree of intimacy or they’re being intentionally rude. Typically, Hindi-speakers opt for “अाप, aap”, which is the more polite way of saying, “you.” In Italian, Spanish, and other Romance languages, you actually have to request or give permission to use the informal form. It is not at all uncommon for Italian speakers, to say something like, “Potremmo usare la forma, ‘tu’?” (Could we use the “tu” form?”)

That’s my piece for today. Maybe this will give you something to think about. Feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments!

The Messy Genius of Kanji (Guest post by Ineptidude)

こんにちは, everybody! I’m Ineptidude, and I’ll be posting today.

Today, I want to talk about the bane of the Japanese student’s existence: Kanji. (For those that don’t know, Kanji are Chinese characters used in Japanese to represent nouns, verb stems, and adjectives.) When I started to study Japanese, I was initially daunted by the immense number of kanji I would have to learn. (There are 2000 kanji, called jouyou kanji, that the Japanese government deems the most “common” kanji. Adding to this, there are other kanji that are considered generally good to know.) Continue reading The Messy Genius of Kanji (Guest post by Ineptidude)

Tips For Learning A New Script

When it comes to learning another language, you sometimes encounter languages with a different script from the one you usually use. This is especially the case with Eastern languages. The Nastaliq script is highly artistic in its aesthetics, and is written from right to left, instead of left to right like most scripts. Cyrillic is the script for many Slavic languages, primarily Russian, Serbian, etc, and is deceptively similar to the Latin script. And then you have the scripts of Asia, which can be complicated like Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese, mixed up like Japanese, or like Hindi, which uses diacritics. While it can seem daunting to memorize three different writing systems for Japanese, or having to recognize the vowel sounds from context for Arabic and Hebrew, there is a way to learn!

1. Practice. I cannot stress this enough. You are not going to learn a script as quickly if you simply use flashcards. Despite being in a time where computers and typing are the primary form of written communication and letters are dying out, writing the characters of a writing system with a pen or pencil helps internalize the characters in your mind. Your brain learns to recognize the patterns you write down. Get a notebook or use several pieces of paper, and practice the characters. It’s usually best to practice them in groups of five, especially for Indian language scripts, and Japanese, whose spoken, “alphabets,” are recited as such. After you finish a page, go to the next one, and write out every single character that you’ve learned so far, in order. Then continue to the next set of five, when you can write all the ones you have learned with little to no difficulty.

2. Flashcards. This is more of an aid for reading. It is important to realize that even though I said you should write the characters in order, characters do not appear that way in written language. You need to train yourself to recognize characters in different instances, and out of order. After a while, you should be able to write a character without thinking too long if someone asks you to.

3. Read. Find a grammar school primer or simple children’s story books, and try to read it slowly. If you have trouble, keep a chart of the characters next to you, and transcribe the letters to your own script. This helps you to recognize characters in different positions in words.

4. Write. This comes into play more when you actually start learning the language itself. Write all words in the target language in its script, to force yourself to practice writing them, and also reading them when you review your notes. I got into the habit of writing my Spanish notes in Spanish this year. While not exactly the same situation, it works on the same principle. By putting everything you can into the target language, you model immersion to an extent, and force yourself to work with the language.

5. Recall. This is probably the hardest part of learning the script, because it doesn’t involve a tangible activity. You should only attempt to do this when you have a good grasp for most of the characters, though you can try to do this as you go along. Recall entails recalling the image of the characters in question in your mind, and writing them in the air, if you need some help. This is especially helpful for ideographic languages, such as Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese.

Good luck with learning those scripts!

Language Barriers

I’ve often been asked about why I think foreign language education is important. While I could certainly come up with quite a few reasons, I think one of the more prominent ones is when you encounter language barriers. This can be in person, over the internet, or in signs and other written situations. Human experience is defined by what we take in and what we understand, and so we should aim to understand as much as we can. Besides, you are bound to end up in a situation where you need to use foreign language, because the other person can’t understand you or you need some vital information that’s on a sign written in an another language. Whether it’s business negotiations, diplomacy, or simply communicating as a tourist, learning a foreign language is a huge asset. Overcoming the language barrier is the first step. In this post, I’m going to talk about the places where language barriers the least and most prevalent. I won’t be discussing the rural areas of certain countries, because that’s simply a given.

1) China, Japan and Korea: Greatest Language Barrier

Surprisingly, even though these countries have rapidly progressed in their political structures and economies, the practice of using English, or for that matter any other language, is not very widespread. The education system does require English-language instruction in these nations, but many people prefer to speak their native language due to not feeling confident in their ability to speak English and as a simple matter of preference. English instruction in these nations, from what I’ve heard, is very traditional. In other words, people in China, Japan, and Korea are as inclined to use English as much as people in the United States are inclined to use French.

2) The Nations of Scandinavia and Germany/Austria/The Netherlands: The Weakest Language Barrier

When it comes to going abroad in Europe, Scandinavia is the best when it comes using English with foreigners. With top-notch education systems (which is not to say Japan and Korea don’t have good ones), students in Scandinavian countries, generally speaking, come out of schooling speaking decent if not perfect English. The same goes for Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. This can probably be accounted for by the fact that German and the Scandinavian languages have a common history with English.  Surprisingly, France, Spain, and Italy are not as well-versed in English, shown in statistics. This is probably because Iberian/Arabic influences (Spanish), Gallic influence (French), and Italic influences (Italian) have caused the parent language (Latin, specifically Vulgar Latin) to diverge more significantly, and therefore farther from English, which borrows more from Germanic, Greek, and classical Latin roots.

3) India: The Weakest Language Barrier in Asia

Unlike the East Asian countries, such as China, Korea, Japan, or Vietnam, India has come to use English extensively. Signs are  written in English, sometimes not even as a translation of the state language. The education system mandates the learning of English from first grade all the way to twelfth grade. In addition, people must take yet another foreign language to graduate from college. Most people in India speak English and are perfectly willing to communicate in English, although they will use their own language at other times. Gotta keep your secrets, you know?

4) Latin America: The Biggest Language Barrier in the Americas

Ironically, even though Spain is pretty good about its people knowing English (although certainly not as much as other European countries), getting around without knowing Spanish (or Portuguese in Brazil) is hard in Latin America. Many Latin American countries are in the Low Proficiency bracket on the EF English Proficiency Index. So I highly suggest hitting the books on Spanish if you go to Latin America without knowing any first.

5) The Middle East: The Biggest Language Barrier

For some, this may not come as a surprise. The EF English Proficiency Index shows that several Middle Eastern countries, including Qatar, Kuwait, Iran, and Egypt are in the Low or Very Low Proficiency brackets. Saudi Arabia and Iraq are at the very bottom of the list in the Very Low Proficiency bracket. This is why it is all the more imperative that people learn to speak Arabic and/or Farsi.

So, that’s my say on this topic. I’ll probably have something again this week, so I hope you look forward to it.