The Sentimentality of a Polyglot

I’m sure I’ve waxed eloquent on how different languages communicate identities and the values and the beliefs of various communities. But this is really only relevant to the people who grew up speaking the language. Polyglots like Benny Lewis and Luca Lampiarello frequently talk about how different languages allow them to interact and understand other people. While I can’t speak for every polyglot, I believe there is a certain amount of self-discovery in becoming a polyglot.  Languages are reflections of the same human experience, seen from different angles. As a human, I share many experiences with people across the globe. Our mother tongues differ, which makes certain things more apparent or important to us. But if one learns other languages, one is greatly more aware of things we do that seemed normal once, and are odd to others.In this post, I’m going to talk about what the languages I speak reveal about myself, rather than what they reveal about communities and cultures to me. Note: I’m not going to talk about Kannada and English, since I grew up speaking them.

Spanish

Spanish was my third language, and I began learning it in middle school. This was purely as a matter of course, rather than me wanting to learn it, as we had to learn a foreign language as a part of our education. It was really only in my fourth year of study that I really began to appreciate the language, as we began to examine more genuine texts in the language. There were things in the text that were deeply foreign to me, and that inspired me to learn more about them. I wanted to know what Spanish speakers thought, and how they saw the world. Learning Spanish provided an opportunity for me to take a step outside of myself, and see the world differently for the first time.

Italian

I must admit that I learned Italian on a whim. I thought the language was beautiful, that the country of Italy was fascinating. Italian was similar to Spanish, but I wanted to speak this rhythmic and melodic language, which felt very different from the more dramatic Spanish. Italian was carefree and light, qualities that I personally lacked at the time. I was a very serious and severe sort of person, and Italian was the polar opposite of what I was. Italian allowed me to open up and become less stiff as a person. It was through the Italian language that I really embarked on the journey to becoming a polyglot.

Hindi

Despite having grown up around mostly North Indian family friends who spoke Hindi, and watching Bollywood, Hindi did not appeal to me initially. I saw no use in learning it, as anyone who spoke Hindi almost invariably spoke English as well. I only began to appreciate Hindi after I began listening to more music in Hindi and in Urdu. My father explained verses to me, and I thought the poetry about God and love was beautiful. Such poetry allowed me to appreciate my heritage more, because Urdu was the language of our poetry, and Hindi was our national language. It inspired a pride in my background, as I had been once apathetic and unappreciative of what my culture had to offer.

Korean

In a rather comical way, I started learning Korean because I was reading about the language on my phone in the middle of Biology, during the break between lectures. The language was interesting, because unlike Spanish, Italian, or Hindi, the Korean language’s dynamics were much more deeply rooted in a system of familial and social hierarchy. While not an unfamiliar construct, it was a system that I did not observe in my own home. My own culture and language placed an emphasis on respect for superiors and elders, but because I spoke mostly English at home, it often did not manifest itself. Even now, as I’m learning more Korean, it has made me aware of my deep lack of manners and respect for my parents. Korean led me to correct my ways in treating my elders and understand them differently. Oddly enough, it was a foreign language that allowed me to connect with people at home, rather than abroad.

Catalan

Catalan was my first step into the world of the minority. People found it exceedingly strange that I chose to learn a language of the small nation of Spain, spoken in an even smaller province called Catalonia. I had read much about Catalan nationalism in Spain, and I was interested to learn the language of these people. In doing so, I saw articles that openly criticized Spain, and fostered a respect for the opinion of the minority. It seemed awful that one’s own language was being silenced, effectively blocking out one’s heritage at the same time. It made me realize that I wanted to help the minority gain equal respect from others, no matter who it was.

Portuguese

The most recent addition to my languages, Portuguese piqued my interest because it was spoken by two underrated (perhaps “under-discussed” is a better word) countries in the world: Brazil and Portugal. Nobody really talked about either country, or the language. In the same vein as my reasons for learning Catalan, I wanted to learn Portuguese because it was off the beaten track. It was not common, and to make it even stranger, I chose the European variety of Portuguese, which very few, if any, were likely to speak in the US. European Portuguese, much like myself, is a rather sentimental language. Fado, the national music of Portugal, is a very tragic and melancholy form, deeply involved in the misfortunes of life. Portuguese is the vessel of my own sentimentality and emotional beliefs.

I hope you found this piece about myself interesting. Please go ahead and share this on Tumblr and Facebook and wherever else. Feel free to comment and share your own experiences in learning languages.

When and Why Grammar (Is/Can Be) Important

As a something of proponent of grammar-based learning, I should admit that I’m biased when it comes to whether grammar is important or not. When my peers and I learned English in elementary school (which ironically is called grammar school everywhere else, for a reason), we were told that good grammar was important because it showed that you were educated. But when I’m at school, there are still some people who speak with minor grammar infractions. But why is that? It could be that grammar in speech is not enforced as much as it is in writing. We see this in a lot of places; while the sign of a business may be written in good English, the people running the establishment may have less-than-perfect speaking skills.

But you may be wondering what this has to do with foreign language. There are numerous people who give up on foreign language because they have trouble grasping the grammar. But this is not their fault; it’s not a question of studying enough. Some people simply don’t learn that way. Many respected linguists and teachers of foreign languages have said that grammar shouldn’t be stressed as much as it is in most classes. And that is true; grammar can be overwhelming if you’re not interested in it. However, this is not to say that grammar shouldn’t be taught at all. Now, I’m going to discuss reasons for whether grammar is a necessity.

Better Reading and Writing

This is a bit of a given. The written form of almost any language is expected to be flawless for the majority of the speaking populace. Again: grammar-wise. The actual written content and the mechanics of the language used to convey it are separate. Good grammar is essential to not be only understood but also show yourself as an educated, intelligent person. I realize that there are people who may view educated writing as pretentious, but I feel that is more a product of word choice and actual content. Good grammar knowledge also enables you to understand more advanced texts, because certain meanings and nuances are conveyed by more complex grammatical structures, some of which include different moods and cases.

Enhanced Understanding of Nuances

As I said before, a good grammatical understanding allows you to get certain nuances of the language. This is especially relevant when the language that you’re learning is not at all connected with your own, meaning that you have no foundation to work up from. When Romance language speakers use the subjunctive, certain uses suggest a notion of uncertainty, doubt, hypothetical conditions, etc., in a way that English doesn’t. When Korean speakers shift between the “modes” of formality and politeness, this provides certain undertones to the speech. Memorizing phrases and substituting words is no better than memorizing lists upon lists of vocabulary and rules. I think it’s important to encourage synthesis, rather than mechanical/robotic repetition.

Stress Undermines Motivation and Appreciation

As you’re probably very aware, an overt stress of grammar is detrimental to learning. It creates the impression that language is just grammar rules and words. This is not only hugely demoralizing, but also a huge underestimation of the power of language to convey the human experience. Each language is unique in its capacity to express the history, emotions, and experiences of a people.

Narrowed Understanding of the Language as a Whole

Not everyone says the same thing the same way. This is a fact of life. As much as knowing the grammar lets you make your own sentences independently, it also limits your ability to understand other dialects and expressions. Whatever you’re taught in a class or grammar book is the standardized version of the language, which not everyone speaks on a daily basis. Sometimes, the standardized version of the language is seen as pretentious, arrogant, uptight, or downright unnatural. Granted, the remedy to this requires that you go to various regions where the language is spoken, so that you can get exposed.

I hope you got something out of reading this! Please share this with your friends and feel free to leave any comments!

Why Minority Languages Matter

A lot of people will question learning minority languages such as Catalán, Navajo, or Irish. Many believe it is a waste of time, and that language death is inevitable. However, for the languages already mentioned, as well as several others, it is well within that community and other people’s capacity to help revitalize usage. Tom Scott makes a valid point about how if we let minority languages die, there are certain aspects of the human experience and capabilities of the brain that we let die with them. You can watch his video here: Fantastic Features We Don’t Have In the English Language.

Language is intimately linked to the way we live our lives. It is theorized that language evolved out of a method for human mothers to communicate with their children, and as human society became increasingly complex, involving multiple individuals in the process of raising children, it eventually became a medium for communicating with one another. Another hypothesis is that language is a vocal manifestation of one’s ideas. Ideas are apparent to oneself, in one’s mind, but not necessarily in comprehensible language. The idea is that humans needed a way to communicate their ideas and feelings regarding things, and that is why language evolved. Personally, the theory regarding mothers is a lot more plausible. There’s a reason, “motherese,” exists. However, these two hypotheses do point out crucial facts about the development of language. Languages have features based on the particular needs of a people in a certain place.

For example, the aboriginal language in Australia does not have words for left, right, up, or down, but rather assigns cardinal directions. As a result, most of the speakers of this language have an intuitive sense of direction..Some have proposed that due to the lack of landmarks for people to judge physical position in the Australian wilderness, language there had to have less arbitrary ways of describing direction. In a place like the Americas, the landscape is varied enough for people to judge direction based of off the various shapes of the land, and therefore, the language there can assign arbitrary directions, or at least directions revolve around a given point. The ability to distinguish direction in absolute terms is very useful, and demonstrates the capacity of the human brain to evaluate its surroundings as such. If this language dies out, we miss out on a generation of people who have this ability, and completely exclude it from the development of other people in the world.

Now, let’s look at a non-physical example. In Catalán, the construction no… pas is a nuanced one. It negates a predicate, and also indicates that this negation is contrary to a notion held by listener. This is a very useful feature, and is built into only a few words. It is for this reason that some non-native speakers of English can be very verbose, because they’re trying to express an equivalent sentiment of what might be a very short sentence in their native language. Implications and nuance are very important in some languages, especially in minority languages, where they can be unique to those languages. By letting such a language die, you allow a possibly more effective and expressive mode of communication die as well.

Perhaps the most grave loss in the process of language death is the loss of a culture and people. Language, as stated before, contains a great deal of history and knowledge behind the way people communicate. John McWhorter argues that language death and the loss of a culture are not necessarily linked. I refute this point, because of the reasons listed above. Skills and modes of expression that are exclusive to a particular language are part of a culture. A people lose a great deal of themselves in not being able to speak their language. There are things they will not be able to understand or express. Sure, they can maintain their traditions, but the meaning and history of those traditions is lost outside of the native language. By working to revitalize minority languages, even only within their indigenous areas, we maintain another part of the human experience. If it happened with Hebrew due to the work of Eliezer Ben-Yahuda, it can happen for any language at any time!

Languages are different for a reason. The subtle nuances and implications of certain words and phrases can often be lost in translation. There’s a reason that people who read manga in English will miss much of the symbolism, hidden meanings, jokes, puns, or wordplays that the original Japanese text might have. This is why I believe that translation can never do real justice to having a proper conversation in the language being translated. In a world with infinitely varied settings and circumstances, knowing other languages that express certain sentiments more accurately is paramount.

It’s been some time since I’ve written a full article. I haven’t really been doing much lately except writing language guides and subtitling Khan Academy videos (which you should do, if you know a language that you think people would benefit from having subtitles in).  I’d appreciate any comments on this, so feel free to leave some!