Language: You’re Doing It Wrong

In a lot of high school foreign language programs the instruction is often loaded down with grammar exercises. For someone enjoys grammar, this isn’t a problem, but it is for many people who have less patience for it. Grammar can be tedious and often doesn’t convey any of the vibrancy of that language. It can be difficult to pick up Spanish when they drill you on conjugations in the present indicative versus the present subjunctive. As a result, people treat language classes like medicine; the sooner you take it, the sooner it’s over.

Sometimes, people try again in their later years, whether it’s through a class or buying Rosetta Stone. I can personally attest that picking up a language through Rosetta Stone is irritating and unhelpful, by the way. To me, Rosetta Stone presents the opposite extreme: loaded down with sentences with no way to parse them.

The reason that you couldn’t pick up Spanish in high school was because you were too immersed in grammar. It was hard to see that a language is organic and sometimes behaves in ways you don’t expect. You couldn’t pick up Spanish later in your life because you focused too much on getting individual sentences. You couldn’t see the structure and use that to your advantage in understanding it.

So how should I learn a language, then?

Rather than excessively focus on repetition of phrases or simply grammar exercises, it’s better to have both in equal proportions. Picking up the grammar is important, no matter how much you might not like it. If you don’t have a blueprint for the fundamental structure of that language, your ability to acquire that language in the long run is fairly inhibited. Why? Because you’re memorizing phrases more than patterns. The important part is to be able to synthesize your own sentences, instead of spitting out rote-memorized sentences. Rather than understanding the sentences intuitively, you’re just memorizing a bunch of sound that has a given meaning.

In simpler, so-called “easier” languages like French or Spanish, you can get away with the rote method much more easily. Compared with some other languages, there’s minimal futzing around that you need to do with the sentences. This doesn’t work in a language like Korean, with a complex system of honorifics and verb styles. A keen awareness of how to form words, especially with respect to formality and politeness, is of the utmost importance. For a polyglot, it’s better to have a fairly consistent method, or at least a flexible one.

In my opinion, you need an even mix of formal grammatical training as well as real world experience. You need to ride with training wheels before you can ride without them. Sure, there are some people who can just pick things up by listening. But for a more complete and functional knowledge, you should combine grammar and real experience.

In conclusion

Obviously, not everybody has the same needs. Sometimes, you’re a linguist who may not really need to pick up the whole language, but rather understand it formally or in theory. Other times, you’re just a tourist or frequent traveler who could use a few phrases to get around once in a while. This post is more for those who want to learn a large part of if not the whole language in question, and long-term strategies are key for developing your skills.

Don’t feel weighed down by grammar, but don’t rely too much on set phrases. Learning a language is learning to interact with an organic part of people’s lives. It’s OK to depend on videos of the language in practice to reinforce your understanding of a grammatical concept, and you can try parsing recurring forms through the phrases you learn. But relying on either in excess could very well make you give up. Take the happier and more efficient route to learning a language! Pick up a book, pull up some YouTube videos, and get to work!

Listening to Wang Lee Hom (王力宏) to Study Chinese

As I’m continuing to study Chinese, I’ve gotten into listening to Chinese-language music in order to accustom myself to the pronunciation and the sound of the language. Granted, it might be a stylized or exaggerated pronunciation sometimes, but it’s still a good tool. I listen to mostly Wang Lee Hom (王力宏), though I have two songs by Jay Chou (周杰倫). I’m not a huge fan of Jay Chou, because of his strange voice quality.

As for Wang Lee Hom, I really like his songs and the meanings of the lyrics are fairly accessible, even to me, a person outside the culture. Some songs I recently got and liked include 就是現在 (jiù shì xiànzài – “Now Is the Time”) and 你的愛 (nĭ de ài – “Your Love”).

You might think that the reason I encourage people to listen to music in their target language is for acquiring vocabulary. That’s partly true, since you’re being exposed to new words. But more than that, music, especially popular music, is an excellent window into the culture. Popular music incorporates concepts, contexts, and thought processes that naturally occur in the language, and is a part of understanding culture as much as food or art.

For example, some of the titles and lyrics of Wang Lee Hom’s songs include references to Chinese proverbs and poetry. The song, 天翻地覆 (tiān fān dì fù) translates to “heaven and earth overturned”, which is a paraphrase of poetry and has acquired the meaning of “snafu” or “everything turned upside down”. Think of it as a kind of acronym. This use of a reference to a classical art form is likely something that most Chinese speakers appreciate, and it is likely understood as a clever usage. Such things give insight into the way cultures and languages think.

This post was kind of short, but it was just a little thing I was thinking about, so I decided to write about it. In other news, I’m going to be trying to start up my YouTube channel again and make videos, which may be difficult, given all my work at university and lack of a real space to make my videos. Please check it out and also purchase my language guides to help Akshayapatra Foundation feed underprivileged Indian school children! Your purchase is going toward a good cause!

I Just Graduated from High School… What Do I Do Now?

Since I recently graduated high school, and a friend of mine requested that I write this, I thought I’d write about keeping up your language skills after you leave high school. I’ve heard of a lot of adults who, after high school or college just completely stopped speaking whatever language they took. “It was too hard,” or “I wasn’t that good at it, anyway”. Those are things you hear the most. But that shouldn’t be the end.

If you just look, there are places to practice your language all around you. Talk to people who you know speak Spanish in Spanish. If you can, go on vacation to Quebec to practice your French. Whatever it is, you can find a way. There are sites like italki and WeSpeke, which help people exchange languages with others, to practice or simply as a form of cultural exchange. I used italki to practice my Italian, Catalan, and Portuguese. I didn’t even take classes on these languages in high school, so I had to be vigilant about keeping my skills up.

But since not everybody is as language-inclined (read: obsessed) as I am, there are a couple of ways that I recommend to keep up your language skills:

1. Watch movies or TV shows in a language made for native speakers. Or you can watch videos from the YouTube channels of those who speak the language. Just type in “X language YouTubers”, and there’ll be some article about it. Some YouTubers are more about learning the language, but there are also some that are more about entertainment, or even a little bit of both. Example: (Quite hilarious, I think!)

(YouTube Channel: 데이브: The World of Dave)

2. Read a book in your target language! I realize this can seem kind of daunting, but if you were more grammatically inclined when you studied your target language in high school, reading a book in the language can be really entertaining. You don’t have to read Don Quijote for Spanish (from what I’ve heard it’s rather boring when you’re trying to read the whole thing), but you can read Harry Potter in Spanish, if you liked that series. Note: If you’re doing this to learn more Spanish in general or improve your understanding of the culture, refer to my post on media.

3. Talk to yourself. I’m not joking. You may think it sounds crazy, but forcing yourself to think, talk, and conduct yourself using your target language will make it much harder to forget. After having gone through an entire year of speaking only Spanish in the morning every other day, I can vouch for this. Do whatever it takes: label all the things in your house with the words in the target language. Obviously, this changes if you live with other people. But you should try anyway.

4. As I mentioned before, there are many language exchange websites out there, where you can find people to speak with at leisure, all for free! The one site I recommend is italki, which I’ll link here. The site is incredibly useful, as you can specify different parameters for what kind of people you want to meet, and if you want actual lessons, you can find teachers for relatively cheap, as there are teachers without formal education in teaching who still teach very well, and there are professionals who are dedicated to the craft. Granted, you’ll have to put in a little money, but it’s well worth it if you want to maintain your skills.

I hope this post helps a lot of people, whether they graduated recently or will do so soon. Just because you had a hard time with it in high school doesn’t mean you have to give up. Just put your mind to it, and you can find all kinds of ways to practice speaking a foreign language.

Do You Know All Your Relatives? Maybe Not.

I recently watched two videos by Off The Great Wall, a YouTube channel that makes videos concerning the Chinese culture and also things about Mandarin and Cantonese. It’s an excellent channel, and I highly recommend that you subscribe to it and watch their videos. But back to the videos I was talking about. These videos talk about the immensely complicated and detailed family tree in Mandarin and Cantonese. You can see the videos at (Mandarin) and at If you’re a Mandarin or Cantonese speaker, see if you can recognize all the words!

So, let’s get down to business. The kinship systems in Mandarin and Cantonese are essentially the Indian kinship systems on steroids, with names for extremely specific members of the family across several generations. I find that this says something about the cultures in question. I have noticed that in countries where specific terms exist for certain members of the family, there often are joint-family households or families living in close proximity. In India, grandparents, and even great-grandparents live in a main house with the children and grandchildren. Even aunts and uncles may live with them. From what I have heard from my Chinese friends, it is similar in China.

There is a great sense of familial togetherness, honor, and respect for the elders in both Chinese and Indian culture. I’m not saying that this is not the case in Western cultures, but in many European countries, families are typically nuclear families, with only parents and children living in the house. Grandparents may live with them, but it is considerably rarer than in India and China. In the US, parents often make a point of children moving out and living on their own with their own families, with a stress on the independence factor. I have a feeling that this has something to do with the kinship terminology.

In Spanish, Portuguese, and other Romance languages, there are few terms that extend beyond great-grandparents, cousins, and uncles and aunts. In Chinese, in contrast, according to the video, relatives can be distinguished by the side of the family they’re on in relation to you, who they’re married to, and their age. In the Chinese culture, there is a great stress on knowing your family very well, and it is considered poor upbringing (from what I have been told) to not know the correct terms or use them incorrectly.

Terms that extend beyond great-grandparents in Romance languages are often technical terms for genealogical purposes, whereas in Mandarin and Cantonese, the equivalent terms are used often, even if the relative in question is no longer living or not present. In Indian languages, there is more emphasis on terminology that concerns in-laws, and people insist on using them correctly. While you certainly would never call your mother-in-law saas to her face, but you would use that word to call her indirectly. With all these things in mind, it would be very easy to say that Western cultures are not as close with their families.

However, there is a counterargument to all of this: Latin American and Southern Italian families. These cultures are well known for their tight-knit extended family households, but Spanish and Italian lack the specificity of the Indian languages and Mandarin and Cantonese. However, this could be a result of societies that are historically agrarian, include village communities, and have tribal divisions, in which all members of the family would participate in daily matters and create the community. These are factors that are common to Latin America, Southern Italy, India, and China, though the American South is a notable exception due to the whole US’ rapid industrialization and technological advancement in 19th and 20th centuries.

So, you have something to think about. Please leave your comments and like the page on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-World-Speaks/1486154531625005! Like and share/reblog this post if you liked it!

A Video on Spanish Accents

I found a video from 2009 on dialectical and regional differences in Spanish that can be quite helpful for people who are at the level where they’re looking at what accent to emulate. Even if you’re not, it’s kind of interesting anyway. The user is Professor Jason, and he has a series of other Spanish educational videos, if you’re interested. Start at 5:54, because the first part is just kind of a disclaimer and brief explanation of the video.

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.

Glossika Language Training

Glossika Language Training’s YouTube channel was deleted for unjust reasons, most likely someone hitting dislike on the videos excessively. These videos include the last Thao language speaker, which is unimaginably important, so unless you want a precious resource and linguistic treasure to go under, I suggest you support Glossika Language Training! Sites like Lingholic and people like Benny the Irish polyglot (his blog is Fluent in 3 months) are supporting Glossika as well!

“If you want to see the Glossika YouTube back, please send your request to yt-deletedchannel@google.com, and the associated account is: glossika-9835@pages.plusgoogle.com.”

Quote taken from Glossika’s Facebook page. No copying or infringement intended. Simply to help spread the word.