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.

When and Why Grammar (Is/Can Be) Important

As a something of proponent of grammar-based learning, I should admit that I’m biased when it comes to whether grammar is important or not. When my peers and I learned English in elementary school (which ironically is called grammar school everywhere else, for a reason), we were told that good grammar was important because it showed that you were educated. But when I’m at school, there are still some people who speak with minor grammar infractions. But why is that? It could be that grammar in speech is not enforced as much as it is in writing. We see this in a lot of places; while the sign of a business may be written in good English, the people running the establishment may have less-than-perfect speaking skills.

But you may be wondering what this has to do with foreign language. There are numerous people who give up on foreign language because they have trouble grasping the grammar. But this is not their fault; it’s not a question of studying enough. Some people simply don’t learn that way. Many respected linguists and teachers of foreign languages have said that grammar shouldn’t be stressed as much as it is in most classes. And that is true; grammar can be overwhelming if you’re not interested in it. However, this is not to say that grammar shouldn’t be taught at all. Now, I’m going to discuss reasons for whether grammar is a necessity.

Better Reading and Writing

This is a bit of a given. The written form of almost any language is expected to be flawless for the majority of the speaking populace. Again: grammar-wise. The actual written content and the mechanics of the language used to convey it are separate. Good grammar is essential to not be only understood but also show yourself as an educated, intelligent person. I realize that there are people who may view educated writing as pretentious, but I feel that is more a product of word choice and actual content. Good grammar knowledge also enables you to understand more advanced texts, because certain meanings and nuances are conveyed by more complex grammatical structures, some of which include different moods and cases.

Enhanced Understanding of Nuances

As I said before, a good grammatical understanding allows you to get certain nuances of the language. This is especially relevant when the language that you’re learning is not at all connected with your own, meaning that you have no foundation to work up from. When Romance language speakers use the subjunctive, certain uses suggest a notion of uncertainty, doubt, hypothetical conditions, etc., in a way that English doesn’t. When Korean speakers shift between the “modes” of formality and politeness, this provides certain undertones to the speech. Memorizing phrases and substituting words is no better than memorizing lists upon lists of vocabulary and rules. I think it’s important to encourage synthesis, rather than mechanical/robotic repetition.

Stress Undermines Motivation and Appreciation

As you’re probably very aware, an overt stress of grammar is detrimental to learning. It creates the impression that language is just grammar rules and words. This is not only hugely demoralizing, but also a huge underestimation of the power of language to convey the human experience. Each language is unique in its capacity to express the history, emotions, and experiences of a people.

Narrowed Understanding of the Language as a Whole

Not everyone says the same thing the same way. This is a fact of life. As much as knowing the grammar lets you make your own sentences independently, it also limits your ability to understand other dialects and expressions. Whatever you’re taught in a class or grammar book is the standardized version of the language, which not everyone speaks on a daily basis. Sometimes, the standardized version of the language is seen as pretentious, arrogant, uptight, or downright unnatural. Granted, the remedy to this requires that you go to various regions where the language is spoken, so that you can get exposed.

I hope you got something out of reading this! Please share this with your friends and feel free to leave any comments!

Masculine, Feminine, What’s the Point? Or So You Think.

Grammatical gender is a fairly common concept in many Romance languages, as well as several Indo-European and many Slavic languages. It distinguishes nouns and adjectives (and occasionally verb conjugations) by classifying them as being of a certain gender. Grammatical gender is also referred to as noun class. However, as many Spanish, French, and other Romance language learners are painfully aware, the gender of a noun often has nothing to do with its biological gender, or any, “masculine,” or, “feminine,” qualities that it may possess. Further, it may not even be a, “gender,” in the biological sense. For example, you have German and Romanian, which both have neuter gender. Neuter is not a gender you assign to people at birth. In Basque, words are classified as animate or inanimate, which, admittedly, has much more logic to it than the male-female systems of Spanish, French, and other such languages.

However, there are people who have issues with the idea of a gendered grammar system. There is a feminist argument for the gender-neutralization of Spanish, and I’m sure of other Romance languages. Teresa Meana Suárez argues that there is an inherent sexism in the Spanish language. She indicates that most professions are, by default, masculine. When you indicate a group of people in plural, and said group is mixed, the default is the masculine plural form. Some time ago, any time that you were referring to the generic form of a word that has different forms based on gender, you used the masculine form as the generic. Now, both the masculine and feminine forms are given. Now, I personally think that languages would be greatly simplified if we made things gender-neutral, but I realize that this is impractical as a quick fix. Within common sense, it is not at all practical to try and force people to adopt a rule for the way they speak. If you made Spanish gender-neutral, you would be changing most of the language.

While I certainly agree that Suárez makes some valid points, there is a question I have. This is not meant to poke holes in her logic, but rather an abstract question: What if the grammatical genders of nouns were not designated specifically as male and female? What if they were just Class A and Class B? What if they weren’t even genders, just classes of nouns? This is not an absolute claim I’m trying to make; what the gender is called, or whether it’s even called, “gender” is something important to address. Take Basque: the argument that Suárez makes doesn’t apply, because the, “genders,” are designated animate and inanimate. I don’t know why the categories of nouns and adjectives are supposed to be, “masculine,” and, “feminine.” As I said before, excluding words for professions, family members, and other such words, there is little logic as to why a word is masculine or feminine. But then again, the language I use most often, English, is a gender-neutral language, for the most part, so I may be biased in any claims that I make here.

Others who take issues with grammatical gender do so with respect to practical usage. is Tom Scott, in his video on gender-neutral pronouns, mentions that he finds grammatical gender useless. He calls it, “clunky,” because in things such as job advertisements, you have to make it clear that you’re looking for a male or female who does the job, or both. However, it goes both ways: English cannot specify gender as easily, and for professions such as, “babysitter,” you have to specify if you specifically want a male or female babysitter, by adding the words, “male,” or, “female.”

Scott also mentions that it influences the way people think. His example shows the differences between the German der Schlüssel and Spanish la llave, which are masculine and feminine, respectively. They both mean, “key,” but when speakers of each language were asked to describe a key, German speakers apparently used, “hard, heavy,” and, “jagged”. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, used, “golden, intricate,” and, “little”. Ordinarily, you’d think that this particular example is not all that terrible. However, for words that describe people, such as those for professions and such, it can be somewhat… sexist. In one of the few gendered examples in English, the word, “seamstress,” in its original meaning (a woman who weaves clothes) is feminine. But then, what if a man weaves clothes? The word, “seamster,” is not a word. There is a subtle implication here, that weaving is a woman’s work. Because of this, people conscious of such considerations typically opt for the gender-neutral, “weaver.”

Despite these arguments against gendered systems, there is little one can do in the short term. If Spanish, French, and the other Romance languages become “de”-gendered over time, so be it. However, considering how long the gendered systems have persisted, I think that there must be a reason for it.

In the study, “Language Environment and Gender Identity Attainment,” Guiora, Beit-Hallahmi, Fried, and Yoder examined how people’s understanding of gender develops with respect to the language they speak. Languages where gender is marked greatly, such as Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic, were contrasted with those where gender is not a prominent feature, such as Finnish and English. The idea is that when children are growing up, they have to learn that they have to respond differently to questions or other interactions that consider one’s own sex or the opposite sex. Therefore, whatever they think and say have to revolve around such things.

The Michigan Gender Identity Test was used to compare children’s abilities to sort people’s photographs based on gender. Being successful in this test means that the child can clearly sort things by gender, and then explain using gender. Israeli Hebrew-speaking children did very well, as 50% or more of the children from 25-42 months succeeded. On the other hand, Finnish children were not able to succeed in the same proportions until 34-36 months. English-speaking children were in the middle, as more children began to succeed from 28-42 months.

From these results, I’m thinking that gender-determinacy is important to gender identity recognition. This is obviously very important for a child to know. I can’t really think of many other reasons, but this is a very big one. Of course, in this day and age, there are people who may be biologically male or female, but identify as the opposite sex. Languages typically do not account for such circumstances, as it is probably very strange for a Hebrew speaker to address a man as he or she would a woman, because that man feels he is a woman.

In short, there is no clear reason as to why gender-determinacy exists. I’m sure there’s a good reason, given how long it’s been around, but only time will tell. If you guys have any comments on this topic, please let me know!

Works Cited

“Gender Neutral Pronouns: They’re Here, Get Used To Them.” YouTube. YouTube, 5 July 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.

Guiora, Alexander Z., Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Risto Fried, and Cecelia Yoder. “Language Environment And Gender Identity Attainment.” Language Learning (1982): 289-304. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.

“Sexism in the Spanish Language.” Revista Envío. 1 May 2002. Web. 10 Sept. 2014.