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!

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!

Going Solo in Language

Since I’ve been learning Italian on my own for almost a year now, I thought I might share with you my tips and tricks for going solo in language learning. When you’re learning a language on your own, it can be difficult without formal instruction, but there are essential steps to do it effectively.

1) Get a feel for the way a language sounds. This is unimaginably important. Every day in my Spanish class, I hear that one person who either doesn’t bother to practice the accent or can’t, and simply doesn’t care. If you plan to actually use the target language, and you want people to understand you, then you’ll need to get the accent and pronunciation down. Listen to music in the target language, listen to a native or expert speaker (chances are the latter has a pretty good accent and pronunciation), and sound it out to yourself. You could even learn to sing the alphabet in that language. Speaking German does not mean sounding like you’re screaming at someone or coughing up a hairball, and speaking Italian does not mean imitating Mario and Luigi.

2) Grammar, grammar, grammar, and more GRAMMAR! No matter what someone tells you about immersion and learning the language that way, grammar is always a solid way to start building your foundation for your non-native target language. Know how a basic sentence is structured, learn conjugations, and how inflections or declensions in adjectives and nouns work. There’s never been a more sure-fire way than a high-school or college-level textbook.

3) Vocabulary is a must. The same way English teachers and textbooks give you vocabulary lists upon vocabulary lists to build your own functional speaking arsenal in English, learning a language requires that you have a pretty expansive vocabulary across a wide variety of topics, and you can command a language easily in discussing them. Grade-school children in the countries where the target language is spoken already have a decent vocabulary, even if they’re not giving lectures on political science or something in their mother tongue. What you need to do is organize vocabulary lists or flashcard sets such as on Quizlet in relation to specific topics. There’s a reason foreign language textbooks teach you all sorts of words you think you’re not going to need to use in lists of related words. Ask someone to quiz you, because some people are aural and oral learners. Or you can quiz yourself and internalize the words by saying the word out loud as you say the word in the target language and then saying it in your native language (By the way, MIX THE CARDS UP, because you’ll just end up memorizing the order of the words instead of the words themselves).

4) Understand the culture on the linguistic level. Every language, particularly the Eastern languages of the Middle East and Asia, has some level of cultural context and understanding. There are all sorts of reasons why this matters, ranging from when you need to be formal to whether you actually understand idioms and customs. The latter reason is especially important, because this is a far more apparent aspect in the way people speak in the Middle East and Asia. Korean, for example, has four levels of formality in use, formerly seven, and if used improperly, can make you come across as pompous or extremely rude. Indian languages have an extreme taboo on discussing death, except in certain idioms or jokes involving death (both of which are pretty rare). It’s always important to understand the culture of the native speakers of the language.

5) Practice with a native speaker or an expert in the target language. You are not going to get anywhere without being comfortable speaking with someone in the target language. Even now, I do not consider myself fluent in Spanish, even after having studied for six years, due to my rather limited vocabulary and mostly because I am not entirely comfortable speaking with others in Spanish. Speaking with a native or expert is the best way to learn the rhythm of the language, and how people intone and generally use their vocabulary.

6) If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a hundred times. REVIEW. I can’t stress how important it is to review your old material to keep your vocabulary and grammar fresh in your mind. You are human, and that means you are more than likely to forget things.

7) Write your own notes. From experience, I can say that reading other people’s notes or just reading from a book doesn’t help. For a lot of people, writing out their notes internalizes the material. And when I mean write, I actually mean, handwrite your notes. Typing them out isn’t as good as taking pen/pencil to paper. Besides, your written notes are more portable than typed ones. And when you go back to review, or explain something to someone else learning the same language as you, reading over the material written in your own words is much better for comprehension and retention.

8) This is kind of an extra, but it’s still important. Even if you don’t have the opportunity at the time that you’re learning, you should eventually aim to go to the place where the language is spoken widely. You don’t go to the middle of Pennsylvania to learn Tamil. You go to Tamil Nadu, where the language is most prevalent, written everywhere, and 95% of the time, the first person you pick off the street is a native speaker. By going to these places, you not only enjoy a new experience in traveling, you immerse yourself fully in the language and are forced to practice wherever you go. You also learn the cultural aspects of the language more deeply.

So, hopefully, you have an understanding of how to set out on a personal journey of learning a language fully and properly, now that you’ve read this!

Note: While I am not an avid supporter of the method, full immersion is a way that some people have used to learn languages. This involves forcing yourself to speak with other people who speak the language, learning from your mistakes, and building your vocabulary slowly but surely. I personally believe that this isn’t entirely effective, if you don’t already have some foundation for the target language. This is a part of my rationale for why grammar is so important to cultivating a foundation for the target language.

Anyway, thanks for reading!