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.

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!

Do Our Language Classes Create “Uncultured Swine”? Read On and Find Out.

I have been a student of foreign language in both a formal setting in a classroom and a self-studier for the past four years. I realize that there are certain aspects of the typical foreign language class that should be addressed, particularly when it comes to culture. In my state of California, we have five levels of each foreign language, taught all the way up to either V (Five) or AP (Advanced Placement). It is usually not until the fourth or fifth level of the class that culture actually becomes a large part of the curriculum. Exceptions include when the teacher is a native from a country where the language is spoken or is particularly enthusiastic in teaching the culture, in which cases culture may be a topic of discussion earlier on.

But let’s focus on the most common scenario: culture is not discussed until the latter levels of the class. We all know that culture is a very integral part of learning a language, and that the language serves as a medium to understand that culture and its people. However, in the earlier parts of the language tracks, the focus is almost 100% on the grammar and practice of the language. This creates the impression that the target language is a reinterpretation of English. Let’s get this straight: languages are not different versions of each other. If they were, then everybody on the planet would be essentially the same, most nations wouldn’t exist, and conflict would be considerably lessened. Culture is part of what defines race and ethnicity, because it reflects not only the history of a language, but also of the people who are a part of it. As I have discussed in my This I Believe response (linked here), each language is the vessel of communication for different cultures. Each is unique, with its own vocabulary, syntax, constructions, word choice, and other properties.

So now that we’ve established that language classes often focus excessively on the grammar and practice of the language (which are still important, by the way), what does this situation do to the students? For one, it bores them out of their minds. They end up thinking that the language is just a bunch of rules and words, not an actual thing people use. Even for the students that do continue to the upper level classes, their understanding of the language is incomplete and unintegrated.

This all stands in contrast to the self-study of foreign language, which inherently implies an interest in the culture as well as in the language. The blog Learning Thai Without Studying by adamf2011 (linked here) does a great job of explaining the role of culture in learning a language, and how grammatical learning is not everything there is to a language. By purposely avoiding the use of traditional techniques, he forced himself into the culture by being in the environment without knowing any Thai whatsoever. While I prefer the analytical approach to language (it’s just easier for me), I still stress the study of cultural material by talking about it online with my Italian teachers, and reading about it online. The complete immersion method makes little sense to me (although evidently it works), so I prefer a half analytical, half cultural method. The only way one can understand a language completely is by using the language in context, and understanding how words are used by natives, in the culture that the language has cultivated, or been cultivated by.

But now, let’s answer the question in the title of this blog post. Are we, “uncultured swine,” because we don’t learn about the culture early enough? I’d wager to say yes. America in particular, while a melting pot society and one very open to different languages and cultures, makes a point of making other languages and cultures very exotic, and strange. While they are different, this view distances learners from the languages they’re studying. In addition, the relegation of these languages to secondary status both at home and the world at large reinforces the idea that other languages are exactly like English, except in different sounds, spellings, writing systems, and sentence orders. But the fact is that each language is independent, and represents a different culture from those represented by other languages. It is for this reason that I advocate cultural exposure and contextualization from day one of language classes, not just in California, but also the US as whole, as well as the whole world.

Thanks for reading this post, and I hope you have some comments, so that you can offer your own views on this matter. I enjoy discussing such things, so please go ahead and leave some comments!

My Experience in Learning Italian

It was really in the summer before 8th grade that I actually started learning Italian, but for whatever reason, I stopped until the second semester of 10th grade. I was going through my documents, cleaning out unwanted junk, and saw all my old Italian notes, which I decided to look at. I thought to myself, “Hey, this looks pretty similar to Spanish, and I’m sort of familiar with it.” And with that, I started researching all the grammar topics and compiling the vocabulary lists that now make up Scoprendo l’italiano!. The cultural information was added quite a bit later, after I went to Italy for a second time. In Rome and Florence (not so much Bologna), I got to practice a lot of spoken Italian, because neither my parents nor my brother spoke a word of Italian. It was a pretty fun experience, with people correcting my sentences every now and then. I was complimented on my relatively good Florentine accent (which is the accent taught to most foreign learners of the language), especially considering I had been self-taught. One waiter at a restaurant in Pisa asked me why I was even learning Italian, because he thought it was useless outside of Italy. I’ll admit, even though I’m very much a believer in practical application, I learned Italian largely for fun. I mean, that’s not to say I didn’t have practical uses for it. In fact, it helped me out on my SAT and Spanish, because it expanded my understanding of both English and Spanish by building my vocabulary.

Despite getting as far as I did in Italian, I realize that I still have a long way to go. I took a practice test for the AP Italian Language and Culture Test (for multiple choice), and saw how little vocabulary I actually knew. I was nowhere near having that amount of knowledge. Of course, now I’m trying to read more texts in Italian to improve my vocabulary and contextual experiences with the language.

However, I also have the problem of getting speaking practice. I’ve tried to get sessions with Italian speakers through a bunch of different language exchange sites: Polyglot Club, italki, Interpals (which I’m still trying out), and WeSpeke (which I’ve gotten a couple of audio/video calls on). But it’s not really enough, because the AP Exam has very specific situations, such as telling stories, describing a photograph, or something else. Obviously, I’m not planning on taking the exam, but I am continuing to study Italian to keep myself in practice. Hopefully, one day, I can study abroad, or spend an extended period of time in Italy.

Some of the resources I found really useful for practicing were the WordReference Dictionary, which helps with finding all sorts of words and Duolingo, the famous language-learning application. Hopefully, this post helps anyone looking to practice Italian!