Revising Language Guides and Other News

Hey everyone! I just finished my revision of my guide to learning Kannada, and I will be doing so (over time) for all of my other guides. Please take a look at the new guide when you can at this MediaFire link!

I’m still continuing my studies in Hindi and Korean, brushing up vocabulary and grammar, but the Hindi guide will also be receiving some revisions as well. Make sure to stay tuned for updates, and look out for fresh articles this year!

Personality in Language: How I Plateaued in Language Learning

In my last post, I mentioned how I recently plateaued in my study of foreign languages. I’m going to explain why it happened and what I’m doing to get out of it.

Linguistic relativity (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis)

But first, I need to explain a little bit of linguistics jargon. It all starts with the principle of linguistic relativity, popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a theory that concerns how language influences thought. There are two versions, one labeled weak and one labeled strong. The weak version states that language influences how we perceive the world, affecting our cognitive processes. The strong version posits that language completely determines our range of cognition and how we perceive reality.

What does that have to do with learning languages?

The hypothesis doesn’t really concern the process of acquiring languages so much as whether language as a feature of human communication influences thought. The weak version of the hypothesis is widely agreed upon in academia through empirical studies, though there is little discussion of its application to language learning. The question is: If language influences thought, does that mean that knowing more languages allows us to perceive the world differently?

I personally think that every language does perceive or categorize the world differently, and that you cannot really understand the way someone else thinks without learning their language first. If we think of every language as a distinct personality or mindset, we’ll begin to see how exactly my plateau came to be. In the language learning community, there is a sentiment that we behave differently in different languages, which will be key to understanding my plateau as well.

How my plateau started

My first language is Kannada, though my primary language is English. This admittedly influences the way I see the world, since my cognitive “vocabulary”, so to speak, is different from that of someone else. What I mean by “cognitive vocabulary” is that I have certain categories, words, and frameworks that allow me to perceive the world and intuit meaning in certain ways. But what this also means, is that I have tendency to see other “personalities” or languages, through the frameworks of Kannada and English. My understanding of other languages is in part influenced by Kannada and English.

When I learned Spanish, I was able to learn it fairly easily, in part because it had some features that were similar to English, and I could interpret the meanings of new words due to my ability to understand some Latin and Greek roots of various words. This allowed me to learn Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan quite easily as well. So far, my language learning was largely informed by an understanding of English and Romance languages, and therefore I tended to see language through such lenses. My English and Romance language-speaking personalities predominated.

My problems began when I started learning Korean, which I struggled to grasp for four years. I had similar issues with Hindi as well. While these are completely different languages, the problems are not altogether unrelated. I wouldn’t be able to form even short sentences correctly. Even though I knew the grammar, I wasn’t using it correctly all the time. I kept asking myself: “Why isn’t it coming together?” And I only stumbled across the answer recently. I was trying too hard to learn Korean and Hindi the way I had learned Spanish and other languages.

How I started moving forward

Things only began to click into place as I began studying Mandarin Chinese with a fresh perspective in a classroom, rather than being self-taught. It allowed me to re-evaluate the way I was approaching language learning. Writing my Kannada guide also changed things, as I had to write lessons on Kannada grammar, with categories and structures that I had never formally studied. I was starting from scratch.

By approaching Korean and Hindi as Romance languages (which they most definitely or not), I was missing a lot of key nuances about those languages, including culture and word choice. I was attempting to replicate my personality in English/Kannada and other languages in Korean and Hindi. My English is somewhat academic; I’m that guy who uses “big words” a lot. My speech is less peppered with slang compared to how most people around me talk. My Kannada is fairly ordinary, if somewhat sarcastic. My Spanish has been described as proper and polite, though assertive with my opinions.

I realized that Korean simply doesn’t “think” in the same ways about the world, with a completely different history as a language, and very different sociocultural and sociolinguistic norms. Hindi doesn’t operate the same way as Kannada, with different uses of the same words that exist in Kannada, and having a different approach to word choice.

My resolution was not to give up on Korean or Hindi, but rather to re-evaluate my strategy. I decided to stop trying to write my own guides for now (even though I’ve already written one for Hindi). I’m going to write more eventually, but only as I acquire more fluency and understanding of how the languages work. I need to listen to dialogue more, and get a better feel for how people speak in Korean and Hindi. I have to change how I study language, and see what others have done before I begin trailblazing on my own. My Korean or Hindi-speaking counterpart might not necessarily use “big words” the way I do in English.  That’s something I’ll have to figure out in time.

Concluding remarks

For those of you out there who might also be struggling with language learning, I hope this piece is some help to you. The key is to approach every language with clean slate. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to navigate the language the way you do in your native tongue. If you can, great. But if not, you shouldn’t worry. It’s not a reflection of your competency, but perhaps an error in your approach. Just keep on your toes, and switch up your strategies not just to keep things interesting, but to make sure that you find the best way to learn a language for yourself.

Coming Back from Hiatus: Meditating on Language Learning

Hello everyone! I realize it’s been a long time (nearly 3 months) since I posted last. I went on a somewhat unintentional hiatus, due to schoolwork as well as generally needing some time to think about my content. I will admit to having reached a bit of a plateau in my language learning, not being able to make significant progress in Korean and Hindi. I will be making a post on that later, but at the moment I just wanted to explain my lapse in posting.

This year was a turbulent one for people living in the United States, with the election season, and keeping up with that (as well as international happenings) took up a lot of my time. My major at NYU revolves around international relations, so naturally I needed to be in the know on those things. That’s not to say I was forsaking language learning, as I still kept up with Mandarin, since I was taking a class over this semester.

In the realm of language learning, I was having difficulty making time to study languages aside from Mandarin. I do want to make some more progress in Hindi and Korean, but I know that will take some time. I also had a lack of resources at NYU for Hindi and Korean, since I wasn’t taking a class in either one, and I didn’t have most of my language books with me.

While Hindi is an Indian language, it’s not my first language, and is unrelated to the languages that I do know. With a somewhat inconsistent grammar and a growing tendency among Hindi speakers to use anglicisms, or throwing in English words, it was difficult for me to gauge how to tailor my own learning. I am somewhat averse to using anglicisms because I feel like it makes more sense to use existing words for things that are reasonably short and/or practical.

As for Korean, it’s been a bit of a struggle due to inconsistencies on my part, since I haven’t properly committed time to learning it. My difficulty with Korean lies mostly in the fact that there are many, many ways to express the same thing in Korean, and operating along axes which I am not used to. Getting a feel for how native speakers express ideas in a practical and natural way is how I’m going to learn, but it’s slow going.

Anyway, I will try to write more posts in the coming weeks, and definitely improve my language learning strategies. I hope you all have had a wonderful New Year and holiday season. If you have any questions about language learning, just feel free to ask!

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!

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!

Foreign Language Schools and Community

In honor of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, this post will be concerning a central issue in the APIDA (Asian/Pacific Islander/Desi American) communities.

In the United States, particularly on the coasts, there are a series of institutions that teach language skills. You may have heard of some of them, like the ABC Language Exchange, the Middlebury Language School, or the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, all of which offer classes in particular foreign langauges. These are more mainstream and broadly-reaching institutions, but there is another class of language institute, with a very different place within the community.

These are the foreign language schools, particularly for Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. Where I live in the Bay Area, you could find these just about anywhere. I had a lot of Chinese and Korean friends growing up, and many of them talked about their experiences going to “Chinese school” or “Korean school”. There are also Japanese day schools where the Japanese community can take classes, such as Sakura Gakuen, a particularly famous school in the Bay Area. The events of Japanese American internment, unfortunately, did cause these schools to decline. These schools are more about the community than the language itself, because they exist for a very specific purpose.

Immigrant communities that speak foreign languages, in varying degrees, want to preserve their languages in their children that are born abroad, in order to foster some kind of appreciation for or connection to their heritage. These schools allow for the parents of these communities to send their children to after-school or weekend classes to have their children learn their mother tongue. This kind of place is helpful to parents who have busy jobs and can’t be with their children as much as they’d like, or parents who want their children to have particular degree of competency in their mother tongue. These schools give these families an opportunity to immerse their children in their heritage and community.

Now, my Chinese and Korean friends, by and large, hated going to Chinese and Korean school. This is to be expected, since most children don’t like being given extra work, especially when they want to play or do other things in their free time. But I have noticed that some of them, especially now that a lot of us are in university, regret not paying attention in their Chinese or Korean classes, or regret making their parents taking them out of classes completely. But the thing is that these Chinese and Korean Americans are able to come together and foster a sense of community through their mutual experiences as well as language.

As an Indian American, this is something that I wish I had while growing up. I grew up not being able to speak my mother tongue well, if at all, and it was only after I asked my parents to finally teach me so that I could talk to my family in India that I finally learned. Many Indian Americans don’t really have the opportunity to go to any kind of after school or weekend class for their language, partly due to the sheer diversity of languages spoken by Indians. There isn’t an established tradition of sending children to such classes anyway, because many Indian immigrants can speak English at least conversationally, if not fluently. Many Indian immigrants feel that teaching their children anything other than English is not useful and therefore neglect teaching their children at all. Some also are under the impression that it will confuse their children to teach their children two languages. The latter, at least, has proven by many linguists to be absolutely false. Many children do grow up bilingual, quite successfully (evidenced by me, my brother, and many other children in the APIDA community as well as other communities).

Part of it is that these schools in the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese communities have sprung from a need to create community since parents may not speak English and children can learn about their heritages through these communal centers. Another thing is that these communities have been in the United States for much longer than the Indian community (and South Asian communities in general), and are more established, which helps them in establishing these community centers. Language is often the binding glue of community, and brings people together in ways that other things do not, since it is the medium of communication. I think that as time passes, and that South Asian communities do become more established, there will be time where at least Hindi-Urdu language schools will become more commonplace.

How to Learn Multiple Languages At Once

I’ve written on this topic before, but I feel I need to touch on it again, especially right now. I’ve been re-organizing my language learning schedule and strategies, since my work schedule has calmed down a little bit. Currently, I’m learning Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Korean, and Kannada. To be perfectly, it’s not entirely accurate to say “learning” for Hindi and Kannada. I already know how to speak both languages, and I’m just improving my vocabulary, since I really don’t like having to throw in English loanwords.

A lot of people, even in the polyglot community, think that learning multiple languages at once is impractical, a bad idea, impossible, or all three. This depends on who you are, your learning propensities, and your schedule. If you have a lot of work all the time, it’s not a good idea to be trying this. I was working on papers, presentations, and extracurricular activities, so I concentrated on Mandarin, because I was preparing for a placement test. This is because it was difficult for me to balance four languages and all my schoolwork, and so I prioritized. This is the key to learning multiple languages. When you’re thinking about how to organize your multiple-language learning, ask yourself these 3 questions:

  1. How important are these languages to me (in descending order)?
  2. How much time (per week) can I commit to studying?
  3. Do I have decent access to resources for these languages?

The first two are fairly self-explanatory, but the last one may confuse some people. This question is important, because you don’t want to be spending a lot of time looking for resources. You should make sure you have organized your materials before hand. Know what you’re using to study, and you’ll streamline your learning!

For example, I use Anki and Memrise for my vocabulary learning for all my languages, since I can usually find a decent set of vocabulary cards. For grammar, I locate a reliable and accessible grammar site or book to read from. Always keep your sources consistent, because even if you might learn something wrong, you can easily find where you wrong. The thing is: you should also cross-reference! Make sure that multiple sites or books on grammar say the same thing about certain principles, especially the ones that confuse you. I have some three or four different textbooks for Mandarin, and I always cross-reference if something stumps me. For some languages, I know there aren’t that many resources. For Indian languages and many minority languages, it can somewhat to very difficult to find decent resources. For Hindi, I recommend Hindi: An Essential Grammar by Rama Kant Agnihotri, from Routledge. I’m going to be very frank, but many websites out there for lesser-known Indian languages like Kannada or Tamil are absolutely terrible. Poor romanization methods, insufficient explanations, and other problems predominate.

Wikipedia is always an OK start to reading about grammar, but I warn you that Wikipedia is not only subject to change, but also can be very academic and not suited to the purposes of the language learner. I, myself, am an aspiring academic, so it’s a little easier for me, but I highly recommend finding sites written by and for language learners, like this one! I try to write explanations in the most down-to-earth way possible, even though I still believe in using the technical grammatical terms, like “conjugation” and “case declension”, because they’re convenient and acceptable ways to describe the way a language works.

Another key part of learning more than one language at once is what I call the “degrees of separation”. What this means are the ways you separate each language. A really basic one might be already be present: the languages are different structurally and historically. Mandarin, Korean, Hindi, and Kannada are all from different language families, and have very little intersections of vocabulary. Sure, Sanskrit is a common contributor to Hindi and Kannada, but Sanskrit is simply a generator of academic and specialized vocabulary for Kannada. In contrast, Hindi derives its internal structure and much of its vocabulary from Sanskrit. Similarly, Korean has borrowed quite a few words from Classical Chinese, but shares very little in common with Mandarin otherwise. There’s also temporal separation, where you study different languages at different times or on different days. You can also use methodical separation, using different methods or programs to study (ex. using Memrise for Hindi and Kannada; Mandarin and Korean on Anki). The only other one I could think of is spatial separation, where you physically study in different places for each language.

I hope this article was helpful and informative! Don’t forget to share, like, and follow my blog on Facebook and Tumblr!

A Language Few Cared to Know

Growing up in the United States as the child of immigrants has presented me with unique circumstances, particularly with respect to language and culture. Unlike the majority of my classmates in elementary and even middle school, I had grown up immersed in two different languages. When I was young, a speech problem prevented me from speaking in complete sentences. When the doctors told my parents that two languages would confuse me, my parents obviously chose English (this notion that multiple languages confuse children is patently false, by the way). As a result, my Kannada was effectively non-existent in my childhood. And it hung over my head like a rain cloud, the pangs of guilt hitting me like raindrops.

Even though I couldn’t speak Kannada very well, it was very much a part of my life. My parents used Kannada at home to talk to me, despite the fact that I would most likely respond in English. And when I tried to respond in my mother tongue, I was miserably poor at it. It was only after years of practice and many instances of trial and error that my Kannada became better. Granted, I still have problems with rhythm when I speak, and an unfortunate tendency to speak too fast. The Kannada Duolingo project that I’ve been working on has helped me in expanding my vocabulary and knowledge of the language, though.

But all the same, Kannada is very much a present language in my life. As a child, there were several words in Kannada that I thought were words in English, often leading to my teachers and classmates’ confusion. Growing up, most of my school friends spoke Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, or Gujarati. My family friends largely spoke Hindi. Kannada is a language spoke in one state in India, and the proportion of immigrants to the United States from that state is much smaller. As a result, I had little exposure to other people my age who spoke Kannada. This has change the way I view Kannada, because when I translate it, the English always feels very archaic or formal, in my mind. This might be because the only people I ever spoke it with were my older relatives, my parents, and my older brother. In the present, I try to keep in touch with my mother tongue as much as possible, because it is something that I’m passionate about passing down to my children. I speak Kannada to myself because I have very few opportunities to use it at NYU with other students or anyone else, for that matter.

Over the years, I’ve become very acutely aware of the fact that there is little demand for Kannada at all. This is a reality that I accept and deal with. But that’s not to say I like it. But it’s not even that I wish people needed Kannada more. I grew up around people who spoke different languages, and we often shared our unique cultural practices and languages with one another. But I don’t think I’ve really met anyone who was interested in Kannada, even as a polite gesture. While my Telugu and Korean speaking friends exchanged their languages, I sat silently, because no one asked. Kannada was really just a language that no one really cared to know.

Part of me hopes that this Duolingo project will help bring more awareness to the Kannada-speaking community. Kannada youth in the United States are in dire need of modernization of Kannada and the ability to converse with people their own age. The Kannada-speaking community is scattered, at least where I lived. This prevents real engagement with our language, since we don’t feel the need to use it with anyone else outside our families. I’m fairly certain that this is the case for other lesser-known languages of the world. Why would we speak the language as much if we have so few people to speak it with, and in very limited ways? I almost never talk about politics in Kannada, so my ability to discuss it in Kannada is basically non-existent. It would consist of lots of loanwords from English, to the point that an English speaker can probably still figure out what I’m saying, without any knowledge of Kannada. This is my philosophy for including a wide variety of topics in my language guides. Being able to discuss many different topics with a basic set of core vocabulary words helps with making the language more useful and more applicable to one’s daily life. The more situations you can use the language, the more likely you’re going to use it. At least, that’s what I think.

Ideally, I’d like that people of different language communities can actually find each other, instead of giving up on their language entirely. But only the future can say what will actually happen.

しりとり (Shiritori) and Word Games

Today, while hanging out with a few of my Japanese friends, I learned about a game called しりとり (shiritori), which is a type of word game where people say words, take the final kana (or syllable) and use that to find another word that begins with it. It was pretty difficult for me, since I have a fairly limited knowledge of Japanese words. So, that means if I say umi, the person after me has to say word that begins with mi. Obviously, you have to know the kana spelling of a word in order to play this game properly. The catch is that you cannot play words that end in the kana ん (n), since no words in Japanese end with this kana. On top of that, you can only play common nouns, so no names of places or people. If you are in a position where you have no choice but to play a word that ends in ん, then you lose. A similar game called “word chain” exists in English, though this version has way fewer way to ways to lose, since very few letters in English are like ん for the purposes of the game.

Now, what this made me think about is the fact that the idea of “spelling” is an almost unique thing to English, since nearly all letters have more than one possible pronunciation that overlaps with other letters. In Spanish and Italian, for example, spelling is fundamentally unimportant, since every letter has a one pronunciation and one only, and all words are spelled exactly the way they sound. French could conceivably have spelling-based games, since more letters are ambiguous the way English is. Even if the letter or symbol of a language has multiple pronunciations depending on the position of it in a word, spelling is insignificant so long as there no overlaps with other letters. For example, the letter “f” and the combination “ph” make the same sound, but are used to spell things in different ways. “Ph” is used in almost exclusively words of Greek origin, like “philosophy” or “philanthropy”, and “f” for everything else. But for the unlearned player of word chain, these words have ambiguous spellings.

Another thing that this pointed out to me is that in many languages, this game can end very quickly. For example, in Italian, nearly every word ends in a vowel, and that significantly shrinks the bank of words you can use for the game. Spanish has a similar problem, since relatively few words end in consonants other than and s. In many (if not all0 Indian languages, this game is not feasible, at least if it’s played like shiritori. Using the final syllable is very difficult, since even though Indian languages use abugidas, where each letter is almost always syllable unto itself. The problems come up when you have a syllable that has more than one consonant in it. For example, if I were to use the Kannada word ಮಿತ್ರ (mitra), the next word has to begin with ತ್ರ (tra), of which there are very few. It’s even worse if you play a word that ends in the sound ಋ (ṛ), since there are very, very few words that actually start with this letter. It’s just that the writing system is not suited for such games. For what might be obvious reasons, Chinese languages cannot play this game, since hanzi don’t work that way. Using radicals to determine the next word requires too much knowledge on the part of the player. Also, pinyin finals can’t always start a word, and tones restrict syllables even more.

Some of the languages that I think are suitable for this game (using either the Japanese or English version of the rules) include Greek, Russian, Korean, possibly Vietnamese, maybe Irish, and Catalan. Correct me if you think I’m wrong. One of the keys to this game is that there has to be a letter or symbol that little to no words can start with.

I hope you enjoyed this post, and I highly suggest playing it for practice in the languages mentioned. Please remember to share this wherever you think people will be interested!