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!

The Challenges in the Life of a Polyglot-in-Training

This is something that all polyglots, and even language learners who aren’t planning to learn any more languages, should read. Working on a language is a long and grueling process, which catches up to even the best of us. That said, we shouldn’t get lazy because we feel like we’re not getting anywhere. In fact, if you’re in that place, chances are that there’s an area you need to focus on. But it’s not wrong to take a break once in a while. In this post, I’m going to talk about the things that challenge me when learning languages, and what to do about it.

Leafing through so many resources to find certain information.

This is a big part of my work on language learning and on my books. Depending on the language, this can be incredibly frustrating. This is actually why the Hindi book is coming along so slowly. There are very few good sites out there that describe Hindi grammar, though my personal favorites are and Even those either are largely restricted to very basic things or don’t explain the grammar in a way that makes sense to me. This is coming from a person who prefers to use grammar as the basis for language learning! But whether the language is Hindi or Italian, it takes a while for me to compile the information into notes and coherent lessons. Sometimes, I just find it all so tiring that I just let it be for a little bit. I’ll go watch some television or read and let my mind unwind a bit. Never be afraid to get up and walk around for an hour to just take a break. Don’t do what I did and work all day and all night, going to sleep at 1 or 2 in the morning on a regular basis for an entire summer. Believe me, it wrecks your sleep schedule and wears you out.

Learning from others and not being afraid to do so.

This has two situations packed into it. First, there’s learning from native speakers. The whole point of learning a language is to talk to these people! Don’t be afraid to speak up, try out your skills, and see what they say! Most of the time, they’re happy to oblige to correct you if you’re wrong about something. You should be careful about what and how you say things, though. I’m attending university in New York City, and while there are plenty of people to practice my languages with (particularly Mandarin for me right now), there are definitely people who are not in the mood! The other situation in with this piece of advice is other polyglots or learners who are fairly advanced in their learning. If they speak your target language better than you, then listen to them! Other people’s experience is invaluable to building your own. Standing on the shoulders of giants, in a way (I realize that’s not what it means but it works for the situation). Ask them about what they did to get so good at speaking a language or learning in general. It will help you in the long run, especially if you’re in a slump.

Find what works for you. Experiment!

When it comes to method, there is no one method that works. Software like Pimsleur and Glossika (the latter of which I love) can be touted as the best way to learn a language, but everyone has their own way. For example, Duolingo is a good way to keep some practice going, but personally, I find it very bland to a point. The language used in Duolingo is restricted to as many phrases are put in the system (nothing you can do about this), which does an admirable job. But to be honest, Duolingo should encourage what I call the “synthesis” skill, which is crucial to learning a language. “Synthesis” is being able to concoct and put together new sentences yourself without having to pause too much. But that’s just my opinion. Don’t take my word for it and try it out for yourself! It’s important to test out different things and find a sure-fire method tailored for your needs.

Take a break!

I already said this, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to do this. Set your materials and notes aside for a moment, and do something else! You need give your brain time to process all the information you’re taking in. That’s why sleep is important, too, so don’t sacrifice your physical well-being! By taking a break, you’ll be able to test how well you retain information in the long-term. Even though Memrise prompts me to work on it every day, I only do it once in a while to refresh my memory, at least for the languages I’m already quite familiar with.

That’s my piece for now, but I hope you guys re-read some of the older articles as well. Please don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!