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!

Duolingo: Hope for Minority Languages?

Recently, I had a conversation with one of my friends about the reason some languages die out or fade into obscurity among certain populations. In the United States, many children of immigrants do not grow up speaking the language of their parents. This can be attributed to a variety of reasons, including a fear of persecution, a desire for the children to have better competence in English, or the idea that the mother tongue is “useless”. I’m not going to discuss these reasons at length; that’s for another post. The topic at hand is the use of Duolingo to teach children languages. It has a reasonably entertaining interface with which children can interact and learn. A few different non-mainstream languages are already on Duolingo, including Polish, Norwegian, and Turkish.

Duolingo’s presence as a language-learning application has great significance for those attempting to protect minority languages. The Incubator function allows open source contributions to develop courses that people can use to learn. If motivated and enabled speakers of, say, Quechua, we’re so inclined, they might be able to build a course. As mentioned in Ineptitude’s post on Duolingo and Conlangs, there is nothing to stop contributors so long as there is demand and people willing to build these courses. For the purposes of reviving and protecting languages, this is a great tool, because many children across the world are leading lives more and more integrated with technology. By introducing children to Duolingo from an early age, people can promote language literacy and proficiency in children greatly. For immigrant parents, it could mean the difference between their children being disconnected from or more in touch with their culture. 

I am actually planning to discuss such a project with my regional Kannada Koota, which is a sort of convention or organization for Kannada speakers in the United States. Their mission is to preserve and promote the Kannada language. If young Kannadiga Americans are able to learn Kannada through an entertaining app that fits in well with their lifestyle, it will be highly beneficial to the preservation of our language abroad.

Minority languages without writing systems or formalized traditions are often said to be disadvantaged by the advancement of technology, but that doesn’t have to be true if people are motivated to protect and preserve them. If you have any thoughts on this, please share them in the comments.

“Is Watching Foreign Language Movies a Waste of Time?” from Fluent in 3 Months – Response

I recently read through a post about foreign language films from Fluent in 3 Months (run by the legendary Benny Lewis; you can read it here). In this post, I’m going to address points made in the post, as well as discuss the worth of media in general as a foreign language tool. With that, here we go!

Movies/Media have to be studied actively. Passive watching is unproductive.

I’ve paraphrased it, but this is a very big point, and is true of most media in general, when you’re using it to learn another language. Even though I’ve watched Bollywood films for a good part of my life, why isn’t my Hindi-Urdu really good? That’s because I’m not paying attention to what the actors are actually saying. By focusing on subtitles, you’re tuning out anything you can possibly learn.

It’s a good idea to have the remote with you while you watch. You should find yourself pausing and rewinding a lot, to closely examine what they’re saying. If you’re watching something on YouTube, you can slow down the video so the speech is slower and easier to understand. Writing down the words will help immensely for remembering what you hear.

However, even though the post breaks down the method into, “Focus”, “Segmentation”, “Repetition”, “Engagement”, and “Subtitles”, I think one more thing should be added: “Searching”. In almost every movie, song, TV show, or whatever it is, there will be words or phrases that are repeated over and over again. Look for these! It will make your life so much easier when you can pick out what you have learned and what you haven’t.

I find the tip about trying to respond in the role of a character by pausing before the character answers really interesting. I’d never really considered it before, and it’s a great way of practicing synthesis, putting sentences together by yourself, rather than using set phrases.

Warning: the media method isn’t for everyone.

I’m sure that Benny Lewis is aware of this, but using media such as television and music is inadvisable for people who are starting out. This is especially true of music; languages such as Hindi-Urdu and Mandarin use vocabulary that is exclusively poetic, literary, or figurative. This isn’t helpful for a person who doesn’t already know a lot of basic vocabulary and grammar. You can read my views regarding this phenomenon in Bollywood cinema here.

Even for television, which is more likely to use mundane or everyday words, cannot be of use to a person who’s not familiar with the language at least at an intermediate level. For example, I wouldn’t recommend watching a Spanish telenovela when you don’t know all the tenses and moods in the language. For a language like Spanish, more complicated structures involving the subjunctive are commonplace in everyday speaking, and are essential to certain nuances that people wish to convey.

Currently, I’m studying the Italian text of a video game, Final Fantasy X (you can read Part 1 of the analysis here), and I have to pause through a 2-minute cutscene several times from time to time because there are words that I don’t understand. It also helps that I did the blog post, actually. But the point is that it doesn’t matter what media form it is, you you have to be able to understand 40% of the text/speech from the start (most of which is grammar and basic vocabulary), and the other 60% (more advanced/specific vocabulary) will come in time. I might be over/understating the the ratio, but it just goes to show that prior knowledge is necessary.

Pick a movie/form of media that you like.

I also have some reservations about using films that you know. Depending on the film, your target language’s dub either uses cultural contexts and expressions that are completely foreign to itself, even if they’re totally normal for you. This is a problem because it will present situations that the language isn’t built for. Unless the societies of two languages have a lot in common in other ways, it is unlikely that the dub of a film that was originally in another language can fully render all the intricacies of the original language. I’m not saying don’t watch the French dub of Disney movies to practice your French; just don’t depend on it as your sole source of foreign language media. Watch a film that was made in France/Canada for French speakers. As the original post points out, these authentic films will give you a glimpse into real cultural situations that the language was made for.

This is where we have conflicts over the question of fictional works. By which I mean, films/books such as The Lord of the Rings. It’s a prime example of an unhelpful text for learning a foreign language, at least at lower levels. The Lord of the Rings is highly literary in its style, and consists of fictional cultures and languages that may or may not have anything in common with real world ones. The point of this warning is for you to have some variety in what you learn from; venture from your comfort zone (media you’re familiar with and understand on a basic level anyway) into the depths of authentic, original foreign language material made for the people who speak that language. It’s not to say that reading The Lord of the Rings in Russian would be entirely unhelpful; it would be, but it would give you only insight into how a Russian native might perceive the Tolkien’s fictional universe, which is not unhelpful in and of itself.

My experience with Final Fantasy X in Italian is another example of this predicament. The universe of the game is not Italian, and so it doesn’t give me any insight into Italian culture, not much anyway. On the other hand, it does let me see how Italian translators choose to render fantasy, which is still a useful thing to know. I get my dose of Italian culture through what I read on occasion (Italo Calvino in Italian is pretty helpful), so I’d like to think I’m not deficient. You should have a healthy balance of both in order to understand a language.

I realize that might have been a lot to process, but if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments, and I’ll answer them as best and as quickly as I can!

Can You Really Learn Japanese from Watching Anime?

One of my dad’s friends once told me, “All the Hindi you could ever need to know exists within the average Hindi movie.” Having watched many and understood the majority of the plot, I can confirm that in my experience, it is true. However, I won’t lie that I was initially suspicious of that statement. After all, when was I ever going to say things like, “Love is the song of the lord”, in poetic Hindi-Urdu at that? But as I began reading more and learning about the role of language in my English class and Spanish class, it is clear to me that media, to a degree, can reflect contemporary styles of the spoken and written language. Note I use two specific words here: can and contemporary. I say can because it is not always true. There is such thing a poorly written period piece, and can happen as easily in English as in Japanese. I also say contemporary because the language used in a particular medium of communication always suits a particular period, though not necessarily the modern one.

Now this brings me to the question of the post: can you learn Japanese from anime? Now, I’m going to be addressing this as a broader topic in this post, but this specific instance is perhaps one of the most common and serves as a good point of comparison. Many anime are adapted from manga, which are two separate media, but I’ll get to that soon. Anime has a considerable range of genres, including drama, fantasy, sci-fi, historical, and the infamous magical girl genre. Because of the range of genres, there is a similarly wide range of language. In a historical anime about feudal Japan, the language may feature archaic constructions and diction characteristic of the Edo period. Obviously, modern Japanese has shifted greatly since then, but watching such anime can serve as a valuable lesson in recognizing historical references and jokes involving the language of the era. And granted, this is all true assuming you watch the subbed versions. You can learn from anime, provided you actually have a working knowledge of Japanese. By being able to recognize certain constructions, you can pick up new vocabulary, by reading the subtitles and comparing the word and the construction used. As for someone like myself, who hasn’t actually started learning Japanese, I recognize a few set phrases here and there, but I don’t know enough of the grammar to extrapolate from the spoken language. Remember, guessing can be your greatest tool! It’s rather like process of elimination, because if you can pick out most of the other words in the sentence and then look at the translation, it’ll be easier to figure out the unknown word(s). Remember, this isn’t exclusive to Japanese! This can apply to just about any language with a well-established media presence, which unfortunately screws over minority languages and those without a written tradition. Watch a Korean drama to improve your listening skills and follow along if you can. As a Korean learner, I can say that it definitely helps. If you’re looking for recommendations (well, really, my friends’ recommendations), The Heirs is pretty good, and Bride of the Century isn’t bad either. If you can get past numerous scenes of the main theme playing while the protagonist is crying their eyes out in a cellar or in their room or something, then it’s a worthwhile experience.

Moving on to the other side of media: the written tradition. Going back to the Japanese example, manga can be a great tool in learning new kanji and also familiarizing yourself with the written language. Even though Japanese, as a language, can be somewhat challenging, it’s one of the few languages where it’s very easy to get into reading. If you’re a Spanish or Arabic learner, you might be hard-pressed to find native material that you can mostly understand at a lower level. But a word of caution: the written form of any language historically lags behind the spoken language. What I mean is that what people say may not be appropriate for what is written. For example, I say the word, “hella” when I speak in English, to mean “very”. And I do use them interchangeably, primarily as a shift in register. But I would almost never use the word “hella” in written format, although it’s becoming more common in texting, informal messaging on forums, and such. Sometimes, as in the case of Kannada, the written language may not even sound the same way as it’s spoken. But that shouldn’t stop you from reading and writing! Both are important sources of learning new vocabulary and practice. It’s important to be well-versed in both the spoken and written form of the language, so that you have more than one way of acquiring new information.

That’s all I have for this time! If you have any comments, feel free to leave some. Don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!