Japanese on Duolingo! Yay! … Or Not.

I recently read an article from Kuma Sensei, a Japanese learning blog, commenting on the recent addition of Japanese to Duolingo. I have used Duolingo in the past, both commending and criticizing it. When I saw that Japanese was added to Duolingo, I had to bite my tongue so that I wouldn’t start screaming about other languages that should be added. Before I jump into this article’s main point, I’d suggest reading the article first: https://kumasensei.net/learn-japanese-duolingo-review/.  Kuma Sensei offers a qualified and in-depth evaluation of Duolingo’s Japanese course, which, to my knowledge, is currently available only on iOS and eventually Android. Given that Duolingo is a primarily web-based application, this is a bit odd. Kuma Sensei’s overall evaluation seems to be summed up with one quote:

“Duolingo may just be what the doctor ordered for people who absolutely loathe using textbooks and want to just sit down and start learning Japanese for free.”

This is a totally fair observation, since in my experience, most language learners do not seem particularly keen on academically-oriented study programs. That said, Duolingo’s Japanese doesn’t escape Kuma Sensei unscathed. There’s a remarkable lack of grammatical explanation, which seems to be the case for most Duolingo courses.

Even for Italian and Spanish, arguably fairly simple languages in terms of grammar, the explanations of when to use certain verbal forms leaves much to be desired. And again, maybe that’s Duolingo’s appeal. But context-based translations and nuance, which are key skills to acquire as a language learner (no matter who you are) are completely lost on our beloved owl. However, Japanese’s more complex features, such as the mandatory mixed use of hiragana, katakana, and kanji are not at all explained, which I label as a serious deficiency of the course. Although, to quote Kuma Sensei: “You’re lucky you’re still in beta phase, punk.” It’s unfortunately apt that in Kannada (and most of India’s languages), being compared to an owl is to be considered unintelligent.

Which brings me to my point. I’ve been pushing for Kannada to be added to Duolingo for almost four years now, and I’ve yet to actually receive any kind of communication from Duolingo to discuss the potential project. My growing frustrations with Duolingo’s apparent disinclination to support minority languages, compounded with the flaws of the Japanese course are eating away at my faith in its ability to support language learning. I’m well aware that Duolingo is not a great tool for those aiming to become even conversational in a given language, but ostensibly, that is what Duolingo purports to do.

I want to like Duolingo, really, I do. The game-like aspects make it a really powerful starting tool for language learners, but unfortunately no more than that. There’s a lot of further work to be done on your own, which is kind of unavoidable. Duolingo has a lot of potential for bringing up minority languages, which it already has shown it can do, given the availability of Welsh, Irish, Vietnamese, and Turkish courses. Granted, these languages are rendered in Latin script anyway, so that may make things easier. But knowing that the Japanese course is so flawed, it might not be that these other courses are any better.

I’d be really glad to hear anyone’s thoughts on this, and please don’t forget to share this on your social media!

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.

The Universal Translator: Good or Bad?

I’ve been seeing articles and videos regarding this tiny little device that claims to be a “universal translator”. For those of you who don’t know, though the term itself is pretty self-explanatory, this is a device that supposedly translates any language being spoken into the native language of the user. It’s a frequently seen apparatus in science fiction, most notably in shows like Star Trek or Doctor Who.

Now, as an avid language learner, you might think I’d laud this device and say it’s wonderful. However, the truth is, that I have some quite mixed feelings. Indeed, it does ease communication between people through technology. But it also presents a new stage in what I call “cultural laziness”. I’m not a fan of how many societies, particularly Western ones, have a disdain for learning languages in general, only because they can get away with not speaking other languages. Other people are not so lucky, where their native environments are multilingual by nature.

Maybe I shouldn’t even call it “being lucky”, because I think it’s a great thing to be born into a multilingual environment. The point is that I think that this translation device isn’t really a good thing on a cultural communication standpoint, since it doesn’t encourage people to truly learn a language and appreciate it. Translation is a filter, and not everything passes cleanly through it. Nuance and other subtleties of meaning are not easily translated, even by human translators, so I don’t expect the device to do the job any better, at least not for a while.

As the article itself points out, the device requires all participants in a conversation to be wearing the device for it to be effective, which can be a bit of a problem. Not to mention that I’m not sure it will even cover most languages. Translation is something that I think is more necessary for communities where access to other language materials are not easily secured, or where the language is not sufficiently standardized to be widely known. This means that interpreters and translators are of better use to minority communities rather than majorities.

I could go on and on about the ways I don’t necessarily like the device. However, I do think it has its merits in making communication easier. I am concerned about its impact on the art and culture of language learning. We should not abandon language learning entirely in favor of a device that will do the work for us. I understand that people are not naturally inclined toward working like that, but it is important that we maintain some amount of sociocultural work ethic rather than always depend on technology to do it for us.

Whether the device is good or bad has yet to be proven, and only time will tell.

I hope you enjoyed reading this brief article. I welcome anyone’s thoughts on the topic. I haven’t been writing for a while because I’ve become very busy at school. I will try to write more in the future!

What Language to Learn Based on Your Major

Almost every major has some kind of foreign language requirement. And whenever you’re talking about jobs, people always talk about how learning a second language is a good idea. I get a lot of questions on Quora about what language someone should learn based on their job or university. Not to mention that a lot of university students worry about their resumes (myself included)!

It definitely is a good idea to learn a second language, and your job opportunities can seriously open up if you know one well. The key word here is well. This can mean a variety of things, depending on your job and major. From conversational fluency for business to native level fluency, what employers want varies quite a bit. So, I’m here to tell you what language to learn based on your major, and how well you’ll need to know it!

Now, you should spend your time wisely when you learn another language. Learning for personal interest is OK, but I realize that everyone has the time or opportunity to do so. Depending on what field you’re going into, the language you will want to learn will vary considerably. Before I jump in, keep some of the following factors in mind when choosing a language: where you live, where you work, and how much you need to know that language. With that, let’s get right to it!

Engineering

Generally speaking, the predominant languages of the engineering professions are English and German. Germany has very good engineering programs at its top universities, as well as a lot of research in the engineering field. I can’t say much else, because this comes from what I’ve learned from my dad, who’s an Electrical Engineering PhD, as well as what I’ve heard from engineering students. If you’re an engineering major, you probably don’t need a second language to graduate, but I’d recommend doing so anyway.

Computer Science 

Unfortunately, the distinct lack of human interaction necessary to do work in this major makes it difficult to choose a language for professional purposes. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. Compared to a lot of other professions, human language skills aren’t quite as crucial to getting the job done in computer science. The essential foundation of computer science in English already requires comp sci majors to know English anyway. However, you might end up working with some foreign companies, especially in technology firms that have international presences. You might want to pick up Mandarin, Korean, or Japanese, since China, Korea, and Japan have strong tech industries. How well you need to know it will vary considerably, but unfortunately, I can’t really speak to how much you’ll use it.

Political Science/International Relations/etc.

This one, along with most humanities, is heavily dependent on your regional concentration. The typical poli sci or IR major has to pick a region of specialization, and many programs require a language to graduate. If you’re going to be working with Chinese politics a lot, you may want to consider learning Mandarin or Cantonese. Similarly, if you’re going to be studying the relations of Middle Eastern nations, it will be a good idea to pick up at least two varieties of Arabic, in addition to Modern Standard. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Arabic continuum, here’s an Itchy Feet Comic for you:

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The bottom line is that you should learn the language (or languages) spoken predominantly in the area that you’ll be working. Jobs will require varying levels of fluency. For example, you should aim for the B2 (operational fluency) ballpark on the CEFR scale for a job that is more about your analytical skills and political knowledge. In these jobs, it’s simply that your proficiency is a plus and will help you do your job better. On the other hand, your job may explicitly require you to talk with people, such as working in an embassy or acting as an interpreter/translator, which will need a C1 (very proficient) if not C2 (near-native level). It will vary by the job description. Do your research on the area that you choose, and get started!

Literature, Anthropology, Education, and other Humanities

Many humanities majors, such as literature studies, will require a near-native level of fluency of a particular language due to regional specializations. French literature or French linguistics majors need to live and breath French to do their jobs. If you’re an anthropologist who works in South America, having a knowledge of indigenous languages will help you out immensely. Indigenous languages are admittedly trickier to learn due to lack of resources to learn them. If you’re planning to be an ESL teacher, you should definitely pick up significant immigrant languages such as Mandarin or Spanish. It will depend heavily upon where you work and how big the immigrant population is. Be prepared to learn those languages at least to B2 if not C1 proficiency.

Business

Perhaps the most frequent consumers of language course packages for professional development are various business majors. Business majors should consider coverage and general area of employment. If you work in Southeast Asia or with companies from that region, it will be a good idea to pick up Vietnamese or Thai. Business language courses will do you best, and will get you to at least B2, where you can go about most business with little difficulty. Spanish is one of the more popular languages for domestic business in the US, but Mandarin Chinese is also very useful for international business.

Research-oriented Majors

What I mean by “research-oriented” includes majors or tracks such as pre-medicine or chemistry; basically the hard sciences. It’s highly unlikely that a pre-med student with a major in a biological science will need to learn another language. Most academia in these fields is published in English or in another language, and then widely translated anyway. However, if you’re a doctor, you’ll want to know the language of non-English speaking patients that frequent your clinic. Learn to at least B1 or B2 fluency, though C1 would probably be better. If you work in an area with predominantly Chinese people, Mandarin or Cantonese will be useful for you. It doesn’t matter even if they do speak English; patients are often more comfortable if their physician is willing and able to speak in their language.

Other

Though I hate to admit it, there are many majors where learning a second language is simply not necessary. These majors include culinary arts, sports medicine, music, or dramatic arts. It won’t be bad for your career, but it certainly won’t get you to high places. To some people, that means it’s not worth it. Personally, I think you should always learn at least one other language for personal enrichment and expanding your worldview.

I hope this helps a lot of people with picking a language to fill out their foreign language requirement! Good luck with your studies and don’t forget to share this post if you liked it!

Grammar and Mezzofanti: My Take

Grammar is a tricky and notoriously fussy subject when it comes to learning languages. Recently, I read a post on the Mezzofanti Guild website, by Donovan Nagel. The post talks about the role of grammar in language learning in both self-study and institutions. Nagel concludes that grammar is not necessary and is even detrimental to learning to speak a language.

Why I agree

Grammar does make people fuss over the technicalities and intricacies of language. I myself am guilty of doing so. And Nagel’s right: you don’t need grammar to speak a language. Nobody thinks about the structure of the language as they speak. It just flows. You should be practicing full phrases (“prefabricated multi word items”) rather than individual words. Sure, it pays to know a lot of words and all the possible things you could say. But it’s important to focus on what people do say. You want to sound like a native speaker? Then listen to what they say and imitate. It doesn’t make any sense to speak a language unnaturally. Talking in a way that is technically correct but is stilted and unwieldy in speech is just a pain for no reason.

Why I disagree (sort of):

Nagel states the following:

The primary reason why we actually learn the grammar of our own language in school is to enhance our literacy skills (reading and writing) – not to make us better speakers.

This is absolutely true and I don’t disagree. But what I do disagree with is that you don’t need grammar to learn a language at all. Granted, that’s not what Nagel is saying. I imagine that he’s focusing on the learning to speak part.

Now, I want to be literate and versed in the spoken language. So naturally, I think grammar is important for reading and acquiring vocabulary. It makes you more learned and educated. It pays to be able to learn more about a language and the culture, and one of the best ways is to learn is by reading. (Obviously, reading is not an option for every language.)

What’s that? You’re not trying to learn to read/write?

Then good for you.

Everyone has different goals for the language they want to learn. Sometimes that means learning to be literate, and other times not.

Many language learners don’t like to learn grammar and that’s fine. But I do write my guides with a grammatical perspective anyway, since it helps me organize my lessons. More importantly, it’s there to act also as source material. That way, people who want to use a more immersive method as mentioned in Nagel’s article can convert it into their own format.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that people’s goals differ. And I guess I don’t really disagree per se either. I’m just clarifying some stuff for people who may misunderstand his article as an attack on learning grammar entirely. If I’m wrong, I’d love a clarification.

Hope this article clears up some things! Please share this article and don’t forget to follow and like this page if you enjoy my content!

Language: You’re Doing It Wrong

In a lot of high school foreign language programs the instruction is often loaded down with grammar exercises. For someone enjoys grammar, this isn’t a problem, but it is for many people who have less patience for it. Grammar can be tedious and often doesn’t convey any of the vibrancy of that language. It can be difficult to pick up Spanish when they drill you on conjugations in the present indicative versus the present subjunctive. As a result, people treat language classes like medicine; the sooner you take it, the sooner it’s over.

Sometimes, people try again in their later years, whether it’s through a class or buying Rosetta Stone. I can personally attest that picking up a language through Rosetta Stone is irritating and unhelpful, by the way. To me, Rosetta Stone presents the opposite extreme: loaded down with sentences with no way to parse them.

The reason that you couldn’t pick up Spanish in high school was because you were too immersed in grammar. It was hard to see that a language is organic and sometimes behaves in ways you don’t expect. You couldn’t pick up Spanish later in your life because you focused too much on getting individual sentences. You couldn’t see the structure and use that to your advantage in understanding it.

So how should I learn a language, then?

Rather than excessively focus on repetition of phrases or simply grammar exercises, it’s better to have both in equal proportions. Picking up the grammar is important, no matter how much you might not like it. If you don’t have a blueprint for the fundamental structure of that language, your ability to acquire that language in the long run is fairly inhibited. Why? Because you’re memorizing phrases more than patterns. The important part is to be able to synthesize your own sentences, instead of spitting out rote-memorized sentences. Rather than understanding the sentences intuitively, you’re just memorizing a bunch of sound that has a given meaning.

In simpler, so-called “easier” languages like French or Spanish, you can get away with the rote method much more easily. Compared with some other languages, there’s minimal futzing around that you need to do with the sentences. This doesn’t work in a language like Korean, with a complex system of honorifics and verb styles. A keen awareness of how to form words, especially with respect to formality and politeness, is of the utmost importance. For a polyglot, it’s better to have a fairly consistent method, or at least a flexible one.

In my opinion, you need an even mix of formal grammatical training as well as real world experience. You need to ride with training wheels before you can ride without them. Sure, there are some people who can just pick things up by listening. But for a more complete and functional knowledge, you should combine grammar and real experience.

In conclusion

Obviously, not everybody has the same needs. Sometimes, you’re a linguist who may not really need to pick up the whole language, but rather understand it formally or in theory. Other times, you’re just a tourist or frequent traveler who could use a few phrases to get around once in a while. This post is more for those who want to learn a large part of if not the whole language in question, and long-term strategies are key for developing your skills.

Don’t feel weighed down by grammar, but don’t rely too much on set phrases. Learning a language is learning to interact with an organic part of people’s lives. It’s OK to depend on videos of the language in practice to reinforce your understanding of a grammatical concept, and you can try parsing recurring forms through the phrases you learn. But relying on either in excess could very well make you give up. Take the happier and more efficient route to learning a language! Pick up a book, pull up some YouTube videos, and get to work!

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!

Kannada Lessons for Beginners Now Available!

After many months of tiring and seemingly endless work, my course for learning Kannada is finally complete and available for download! Granted, I will be updating the text periodically, but now that it’s available, I really hope that all sorts of people can take advantage of the text. The text is intended mostly for people from Kannada-speaking families who don’t know how to speak the language themselves, and for them to learn it and reconnect with their heritage. But don’t let that stop you! Kannada has an immense and rich cultural heritage, including the longest unbroken literary tradition in India. Carnatic music, one of the two major schools of classical Indian music, originated in Karnataka, and many of the pieces are written in poetic Kannada.

If you have any questions or comments about the text, you are welcome to leave them in the comments. I will try to continue to add resources including audio tracks, readings, and writing exercises in the future, as my schedule permits. You can download Kannada Lessons for the Beginner here.