My Language Learning Calendar!

This is a picture of my language learning calendar, to mark the order in which I learn languages. It may not end up being in this exact order, but I aim to do so! Wish me luck, as this may take several years!

My language calendar!

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.

Constructed Languages

Ah, the horror that is a constructed language (con-lang for short). Con-langs are languages that take elements of existing languages to create the new one, usually with the intent of making accessible to a wide variety of people. I personally think the process of making a con-lang is ultimately fruitless, with respect to actually putting them into use. You can’t force millions of people to adopt a language that they have no real reason to speak. That would involve legislating the language, and history has shown too many times over that legislating a language does not work. This happened in Russia and its captured territories, where a campaign of Russification was started. The government tried to force the people in non-Russian territories to assimilate in terms of not only territory, but also religion, culture, and specifically, language. A similar event occurred as Germany began to gather territory pre-World War II, and also during the days of the Holy Roman Empire.

Unless you’re as talented as J.R.R Tolkien to construct languages for one’s universe in a book, I consider it highly unnecessary. English has already proven itself many times over the international language, but its difficulty necessitates the learning of the other languages. Adding new, made-up ones will just make things more difficult.

However, this is not to say that con-langs should be discouraged. It is perfectly OK to make them. I started making one two weeks ago, just for fun. I’ll attach it to the post, if anyone wants to look at it. However, I feel that there are some minimum criteria con-langs should meet, if you actually plan to advocate the use of said con-lang.

1) They should be usable by a wide variety of people, because that’s usually what a con-lang is for: to enable communication between larger groups of people. This is a major failing of Esperanto and Interlingua, because they are really only understood and learned easily by English, Romance language, and possibly German speakers. Not so easy for people from China or Vietnam, because they have no common roots with those con-langs.

2) It should be relatively simple and easy to pick-up. This can be easy in terms of grammar. This is especially the case if you speak English, because while some conjugations and pronunciation rules are absolutely terrible for non-natives, English grammar is relatively simple: SVO (Subject-Object-Verb), essential lack of mood distinction, and relatively intelligible to most when grammar is not perfect.

3) Make sure your vocabulary is wide enough to accommodate a wide variety of settings. This is probably what makes a con-lang the most difficult, because if you really wanted to make a language that everyone on the planet could learn if he or she sat down and studied, that language’s vocabulary would have to encompass word/word roots from all language families, and also include words for everything. Kannada speakers will need a word that means the same thing as sankocha, embarrassment due to an inordinately grand or expensive gift or being asked to stay for dinner when you just wanted to chat (basically receiving an obligation you don’t want). Spanish speakers will want a word for paella and Russian speakers will want words for all the different kinds of the same verb they have.

As for my con-lang, it’s supposed to be a conglomerate of Spanish, Catalán, and Italian, which I have dubbed Avreça. I’ve done away with all moods, so things like the imperative are indicated solely by the way you intone words. Again, because I did this for fun, I’m at liberty to make this however complex I want, but for my purposes, supposing I wanted to teach my kids the language, I’m making it simple and relatively easy to understand. If my kids did speak Avreça, they could branch off and learn Spanish/Italian/Catalán with little to no difficulty. In any case, this con-lang serves no particular purpose. Also, note that it is a work in progress. The lists of verbs, adjectives, and such can be by no means be considered complete. The current lists allow for a more topics to be discussed, and also adds a new tradition for learners to take part in.

Download Link: Avreça

Languages That Should Be Taught in High Schools But Aren’t

So, I’ve recently been thinking about how much people treat foreign language study as a chore. Universities and high schools often require at least two consecutive years of the study of the same language for admission and graduation respectively. I believe that this treatment of such a field can be remedied by freeing up the choices that students have in this respect. This means, you can’t just offer Spanish, French, and Mandarin Chinese and expect them to be happy with it. People like to have a lot of choices and  might want to learn some other language. Most importantly, why are we only teaching three languages? French is not very useful outside of France, Canada, Switzerland, and a few African countries (sorry, French speakers, but it’s true). Spanish is in a similar position, although it has the advantage of being more  intelligible with respect to Portuguese and Italian, and having more applications within the United States, specifically. Mandarin Chinese is indeed useful in China, a major economic and political entity, and its introduction into American education systems is admirable. But this is only the first step.

However, first of all, I want to make something clear: Spanish and French don’t need to be removed from the curriculum. They are still useful, in their own ways, but in the context of the whole world, they lack in usability. People should still learn them, whatever their reasons are. However, we should introduce more useful languages (or at least make these more widely taught), which I’m going to  list and explain. Remember, in the context of the United States as whole, I regard these as true, because the languages below have a greater number of uses overall than Spanish or French. Part of my definition of usefulness includes how much you can use the language in the world.

1) Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew

OK, while it certainly doesn’t need to be each of these in the same school, but there’s no denying that these would be extremely useful. Arabic is important, because of negotiations and diplomacy in the Arab League nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria. Farsi is also important, because with the right tactics, America could actually enter into peaceful relations with Iran. We don’t even have an embassy or formal diplomatic relations with them, for God’s sake! We have an embargo on trade with them, which was set up in 1995. Lastly, Hebrew is useful for similar reasons, as if we could have more diplomats in Israel to help resolve tensions between Israelites and Palestinians and also between Israel and surrounding Muslim countries. The Middle Eastern languages in general, I feel, are powerful diplomatic tools.

2) Japanese and Korean

These two languages are native to two very important nations that directly concern the United States. Not only that, Japan and South Korea are formidable world powers in their own rights. In both nations, there are a number of growing business opportunities. Not only that, they can be easier alternatives to learning Mandarin Chinese, especially Korean.

3) German and Russian

German might come as a surprise, because many people in Germany can probably speak English pretty well. However, it is my firm belief that communication is always done better in the language of the country you’re visiting. It’s kind of a matter of politeness. Russian can be useful, because not only are there economic opportunities in Russia, it’s also possible to work with Russian in the diplomatic field, because Slavic languages, particularly the ones of the former Soviet Republics, are mutually intelligible with Russian.

It is certainly important to consider the regional uses of these languages. Korean will be more useful than Russian to a physician on the West Coast, due to a larger Korean population. But that’s for another post. The key idea is that the listed languages are useful, because their global contexts are much greater. In high school, most people have not decided what they want to do, and having a language that is useful in relatively high number of contexts is invaluable.

If you have any thoughts on this yourself, or if you think there are any other languages you think should be included in schools, do say so 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!

The Power of Duolingo

In December, a friend of mine showed me this website called, “Duolingo,” knowing of my interest in foreign language. I created an account, and tested into both the Italian and Spanish courses, and was placed into Level 10 and 12 respectively. Looking at the skill tree, I saw that while my grammatical skills were strong, my vocabulary and idiomatic expressions in Italian were somewhat lacking. Over the following few weeks, I improved, and even went up one level. My vocabulary is now much better, and I feel more confident in my skills, although not quite enough to take the upcoming AP Italian Language and Culture Exam.

Whoever wants to learn Spanish, French, Italian, German, or Portuguese but doesn’t want to pay for full-fledged courses or doesn’t have the time, Duolingo is a great, free way to learn and practice your skills, although there’s no substitute for practicing speaking ability with a native or fluent non-native. If you’re a fluent speaker of a language not on the course list, you can join a team for that language to contribute to the building of a course through the three stages of development, and hopefully, add a new course for others to learn with.

Duolingo is an infinitely useful tool, and its user-friendly interface and interactive structure is great for learners of all ages. So, get learning!

The Foreign Language Study Assocation

If you’re a language aspirant in high school, and you want show others the wonder of the study of foreign language, make a club! I made an organization this year, in my high school, as a sort of pre-collegiate Alpha Mu Gamma, called the Foreign Language Study Association. Another thing: this site will be very helpful when it comes to self-studying languages!

Anyway, here’s a quote for you:

(xué yì mén yǔyán, jiù shì duō yí ge guānchá shìjiè de chuānghu.)
To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world.