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!

Keeping Up With the Times

So, here’s my first post in a really long time! I’ve been very busy with studying at NYU so I haven’t had time to really write on the blog, but now I’ve thought of a topic! Recently, I’ve been watching a Taiwanese drama to improve my passive understanding of Chinese and practicing parsing spoken Chinese. (I’m using a Taiwanese drama because most of my Mandarin-speaking friends at NYU speak Taiwanese Mandarin, which does have some differences from China’s variety.) This drama, the name of which is PS男 (PS Man), is from 2009 and while very helpful in practicing listening to Chinese, has aged quite a bit. They still use the first iPhones, for one! But more importantly, this brings to mind something else: changes in language. It can be as recent as four or five years ago, and a language can start exhibiting changes in the most minute details, whether it be new slang or new standards imposed by the government.

These changes require the language learner to be ever vigilant. But how, you may ask, can a novice in a language possibly recognize such things?  What you can do, is try to only use contemporary, or at least the most recent, materials available on the language. This can mean a textbook written this year or an ongoing TV show that airs every week. However, you should be careful about TV shows; some TV shows like Downton Abbey are written in an archaic or old-fashioned register of English that no one actually uses. But that doesn’t mean these types of shows aren’t helpful. At higher levels of language learning, such as a point at which one might be going to study abroad, it is important to be aware of certain cultural nuances that accompany a language’s archaic style. There may be jokes or puns that people may make in real life that are drawn from such sources, and they can help to understand the language and the culture on a deeper level.

Another important aspect of language learning as it pertains to contemporary materials is, of course, the language itself. What do people say? And how are they saying it? This is where old-time-y and historical shows fail the language learner, however fascinating they may be. You need to watch shows and movies, listen to music, and read books that someone your age who speaks your target language natively would be exposed to. This is fundamental to understanding how culture works in a modern society constantly in flux, especially in societies where ancient social structures have persisted for centuries and how that fits into everyday life. It’s important to understand the place of women in Indian society when learning Hindi, for example. You will not fully understand the content of a movie like Mardaani if you do not. It is a movie that deals with prostitution rings in India and how people deal with them, particularly the police. This is highly relevant to the average Indian that speaks Hindi, as it speaks to a prevalent issue in their society. Bollywood has seen an increase in socially conscious films that address certain issues in Indian society and that is something that directly affects the media produced by a Hindi speaking population. As such, a language learner, especially one who is not of an ethnicity or nationality that speaks that language, should be keenly aware of the social dynamics and politics of the society that uses their target language.

You may think you don’t need to understand these things in your target language, but believe me, it helps a lot when coming to understand a language. Think of a language as person who’s going to be your roommate for a while; you need to get used to them. Don’t block out the eccentricities and weirdness, but instead, learn from it. This is particularly relevant to me, a first-year university student, living with two roommates in a dorm! Getting along with your language (or a roommate for that matter) is critical to making progress and understanding the culture and society in which that language is predominant.

I hope you enjoyed this piece after a long period of no posts! Please don’t forget to share this post on whatever platform you use social media!

What Bollywood Films Say About Hindi for Learners

As the child of Indian immigrants, a good number of the movies I grew up seeing were Bollywood films. The main attraction for most Indian people, in my experience, is not the story, so much as the music. While many American people remember Disney films and the music in them, the story seems to stay with them much more than the music. This could be because Bollywood film stories are really not that great, but music occupies a different space in Indian society, particularly in the use of the Hindi language. (Note: I say Hindi here, because I cannot speak for Urdu, as I am not Pakistani or familiar with Urdu cinema.)

In Western music, the diction of song lyrics (at least in modern times) is not terribly different from that which is used by people in their daily lives. Song lyrics in Western music often manipulate daily language into something more meaningful to create different effects. However, this is not the case with Hindi. The particular lexicon used by most Indian music (not just in Hindi; other Indian languages due this) have poetic and/or religious undertones. Most poetry in India is accompanied by music, and not recited independently. The vocabulary of Hindi music is very different from colloquial language, and cannot be used in such a context.

With the advent of cinema, the role of music in India has also changed Hindi as a language considerably. It has further distinguished conversational Hindi and its poetic counterpart, by showing them in very different circumstances. Musical and dance sequences include by songs that use poetic Hindi and/or Urdu. Urdu, in India, is regarded as a poetic version of Hindi that you would almost never use in daily conversation. In contrast, conversational Hindi is shown in the regular dialogue. As a result of this, many Indians deeply appreciate Urdu poetry and music as an art form, because it is not common in their daily lives otherwise. Urdu forms an important part of the Indian culture as the biggest part of its poetic history.

These facts present a few basic truths that learners of Hindi should recognize. First is that Bollywood movies contain a great deal of knowledge of both conversational and poetic Hindi. Much of the Hindi that you need to know exists in two or three Bollywood films. However, this brings us to the second fact: it is hard to appreciate Hindi without learning about the music. Part of learning a language is learning about the traditions and culture that it is a part of, which undoubtedly includes music. You should be familiar with some Urdu so that you can appreciate Bollywood cinema (at least some of them; I would advise against certain films), as a central part of the Hindi language.

The last important thing you need to know as a Hindi learner is that different genres of Indian movies in general do not use the same Hindi. It is a common trope in Indian cinema to portray ethnic neighborhoods, particular dialects, or other languages altogether. Historical fiction, such as Jodhaa Akbar, which portrays the relationship between a Muslim prince and Hindu princess during the era of the Mughals, uses a purer or regional/rustic form of Hindi that is not especially common anymore. That particular film is good for highlighting the differences between Urdu and Hindi, as they draw much of their vocabulary from different sources, Arabic/Farsi and Sanskrit, respectively. Religious films that portray Hindu mythology use an extremely Sanskrit-ized form of Hindi, which uses almost no Arabic or Farsi loanwords. On the other hand, films that center around Muslim neighborhoods will feature extensive use of Urdu as the form of conversation.

Films that I recommend for learning and pleasure include MardaaniJodhaa Akbar, Main Hoon Na, Lagaan, and Two States.

I hope you found this piece interesting, and feel free to leave any comments that you have! Don’t forget to share this on Facebook, Tumblr, or any other social network!

Attitudes Toward Foreign Language

It is not entirely rare that I have met those with the idea that everyone should speak English, because most of the world teaches or speaks it. While true, language is a fundamental part of society, culture, and people’s identities, and displacing it would ruin many cultures in the long term.  Feeling entitled to the understanding of others in our own language is what earns one the label of ignorant and self-centered. Taking the time to understand someone else is only the first step. This applies to many things, not just language.