30 language observations

2019-11-15 @Languages

I present a series of observations concerning languages, their properties, and their speakers.

  1. European Portuguese phonetically resembles Russian more so than the Brazilian dialect or any other romance language for that matter. Hearing European Portuguese, I buy that. I’ve even had an occasion that, answering the phone in Russian in company of a Spanish speaker, she’d after inquired if I was speaking Portuguese.

  2. In São Paulo I knew a Brazilian who spoke English fluently with a near flawless Texan Fort-Worth accent. His entire English-speaking experience abroad consisted of 3 months of immersion at Fort Worth, TX, US.

  3. Many Brazilians have claimed not to understand European Portuguese. “At all.” I’ve plenty engaged European Portuguese speakers in long conversations and understood them fairly well. I’ve watched a fair amount of European Portuguese YouTube programming (clean communicators, not youth and slang) and comprehended with little difficulty. And I’ve observed plenty of Brazilians hold conversations with the European language counterparts.

  4. A good portion of Francophone Belgium doesn’t speak Dutch. A similar case applies for the Dutch-speaking Belgium. The less represented German-speaking group is also not without a communication barrier. I’ve always found this fascinating for such a small country.

  5. I’ve listened to the Swiss German spoken in Basel. It sounded incredibly alien compared to any other German dialect I’ve heard.

  6. An overwhelming majority of Belarus (my country of birth) speaks Russian as the first language. Yet public transit announcements, street names, and much written communication takes place in Belorussian.

  7. Ukraine is another bilingual country of a curious nature. The west speaks predominantly, if not exclusively Ukrainian, whereas the east and center mainly Russian. Likewise, much of the Russian-speaking populace, especially towards the east, doesn’t speak Ukrainian.

    The Ukrainian language side is ‘said’ to exhibit a degree of dislike towards the Russian language. I don’t have precise rationale for the phenomenon, but can imagine how such ideas spread. My four days in Lviv, situated as west as it gets, didn’t demonstrate any visible contempt in all my Russian-speaking pursuit. Interestingly, during check-in at my lodgings, I asked the young, student-age receptionist whether he preferred that I speak English or Russian. He at first proceeded with English, which I quiet expected from the youth. Five minutes in, however, he switched to Russian, which we maintained for the remainder.

  8. I’ve faked not speaking English too many times in Spanish-speaking countries and Brazil. Sometimes native speakers have engaged me in English with no apparent precedent. I haven’t always felt in the mood to reciprocate. The conversation naturally continues in the local language and end of story. Sometimes, if inquired about my ‘native’ language, I indicate Russian.

  9. In Uruguay, speaking Spanish, I’ve stated my origin as Brazilian on a handful of occasions, mostly to avoid incidental English conversation attempts. Most Spanish speakers don’t have an ear to discern native Portuguese.

  10. Years ago in Beijing, if approached with the question “Do you speak English”, in the English language, my response was a negative. If nothing else followed, it was almost certainly an attempt at a scam.

  11. Language fascists. In my experience they are very few. I classify them as individuals that, unless you speak with near flawlessness, not only will make inopportune efforts to correct, but often alter the spoken language.

  12. The Chicago polish community is so vast that one can subsist for years without English. The same applies to the Spanish-speaking community.

  13. The Spanish language is heavily engendered in the fabric of the city of Miami. One can quiet viably subsist in Spanish alone. In my visits, I’ve been engaged a time too often by such Spanish speakers, and not strictly the labor workforce but seemingly average middle-class elements of society. I don’t know of a better US city to immerse yourself in the language not only within particular ethnic neighbourhoods, but all throughout.

  14. Consistent listening to YouTube channels in your desired language carries profound benefit in language sustainability, even if you don’t vocalize a single word throughout long periods. But you must have genuine interest in the material. Despite not speaking Polish for many months, thanks to these Polish channels I follow, my Polish picks up at full blast as if I’d just spoken the moment prior.

  15. Germany is still the only country where the native populace insisted that I look like them.

  16. One element in common among those that don’t speak any beyond the necessary foreign language, is the heavy emphasis of difficulty. Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, Polish, German, all difficult. Locals take pride in attributing difficulty to their own language. And anyone who doesn’t want to pursue a language loves to discount it as difficult, as if this bore any but a marginal factor in language success. The difficulty trends as the first topic to surge in related discussions. And it normally comes off as a thought that’s been thoroughly engrained and reinforced.

  17. Ignorance and naivety carries you a long way with languages. Ignore others' experiences, and ignore the difficulty proclamations. In Japan I used to just engage personnel at points of transactions from day one in whatever broken Japanese I’d acquired the day before. In fact, I commenced with the Japanese language days before my arrival. I simply acquired what I believed to be useful in the moment. I asked for directions in Japanese. I listened to replies in it. If not for the naivety, this wouldn’t have worked. I carried myself as if the alternative hadn’t even crossed my mind.

  18. Exist ‘native’ Esperanto speakers, despite the relatively small number of cases (hundreds). In those circumstances, the Esperanto parents may have resorted to Esperanto as not necessarily the only communication method between them and the child, but as a very common one and maybe even the prevalent. As such, the child grows up speaking Esperanto along with the other common language among the family.

  19. Among countries of non-native English speakers, I haven’t encountered a more naturally sounding North-American English dialect than in Sweden, particularly among the younger generation.

  20. Brazil witnessed much polish immigration in the first part of the 20th century. Listening to some of the modern descendants speak Polish with Brazilian sonority makes for great entertainment.

  21. I find the Polish language friendlier than Russian with European loan words. To my ear, an improvised English or Latin-derived word in Polish sounds more natural. The Polish pronunciation sounds less Slavic and more western-European, which also rationalizes the aforementioned phenomenon. I prefer Polish over Russian. Russian sounds harsher. Polish gentler, more aristocratic.

  22. For Slavic language enthusiasts, I’ve countlessly made a case for the Polish language over Russian. If you wish to acquire the language for specific cultural reasons (ie literature), that’s a different story. But if basic communication in a Slavic language is what you seek, the Polish language:

    1. Features a Latin/Roman alphabet, as opposed to Cyrillic, the latter seeming to (unnecessarily) distance aspiring learners.
    2. Sounds more pleasant to my ear.
    3. Presents friendlier phonetics to Speakers of many common Western languages.
    4. Despite the heavily prevailing Russian-speaking population across the world, I encounter a comparable amount of Polish speakers in my travels, if not more. It follows that unless you aim to live in a respective country, the choice of Polish over Russian doesn’t compromise your Slavic-language speaking opportunity. Alternatively, head to Poland. I argue that you’ll quiet enjoy it.
  23. I’ve known a Brit in Warsaw for whom Slavic languages became a subject of endless passion. He spoke Russian with near fluency and hardly any perceivable accent. Polish, the language in which we mainly communicated, he spoke at least as well as I. He also commanded a decent amount of Ukrainian.

  24. I’ve known a Brazilian in Salvador, Bahia, who never left the country. And yet he displayed such an authentic command of Russian, that at first I associated him with the Caucasus region (south Russia). Online broadcasts and video chats were his primary means of practice. He also bore the sort of personality that didn’t seem to much complain or seek unwarranted difficulty.

  25. Grammar is for chumps - unless your goal is precisely academic pursuit. Sounds contrived, but I’ve said it. Years of Polish speaking, and I still avoid or misuse some of the more obscure tenses and cases. No one has once commented on any such misuse. And yet the complex Polish grammar tends to frequently come up among non-Polish speakers, along with (of course) the difficulty.

  26. The following phenomenon deserves to have a name associated with it if it doesn’t already. Let’s call it phenomenon X. It goes like this.

    I generally engage everyone in Brazil in Portuguese, and have for years. This has been mostly perceived as natural and unremarkable from my first day of arrival. However, on select occasions, I may commence in English (ie English-speaking Toastmasters club or English conversation event). Suppose that at some point I switch to Portuguese. Now this too is not across the board, but too often the interlocutor reacts with some abrupt awe, seeming to grow a second brain. This alone wouldn’t concern me, but - the consequent interaction often acquires an unnatural air. The interlocutor may initiate a series of concessions, speaking slower, more clearly, seeming to render me a favor (without demonstrated precedent) in light of my foreign origins. In reality, this does nothing but spark annoyance and inauthenticity. For this reason (among others) do I prefer to avoid English, especially as an opener.

  27. Loud settings are in general believed to create communication difficulties. However, there’s a flip side. Noise diffuses the accent subtleties. It levels the less significant spikes that could otherwise trigger certain alarm (and change of behavior). The other day I conversed in Polish over a two-hour span in a moderately noisy bar setting, which, contrary to my traditional expectations, felt quiet natural and stimulated ease.

  28. Confident body language also diffuses uncertainties and minimizes the occurrence of Phenomenon X. You can say something you know to be wrong or complete nonsense, but provided you do so with a perfectly natural voice and facial expression, without the slightest sign of strain, the interlocutor grants you the benefit of the doubt. Your outer projection speaks much.

  29. Across the general populations of languages familiar to me, cursing manifests itself equally. Nothing remarkable in this observation, yet it continues to amuse me. In colloquial language, there is typically the one fouler word that easily consumes any construction. Then there’s the ‘kinder’, alternative variant of a similar underlying nature and flexibility. I encounter these recurring patterns everywhere.

  30. Speaking a local language enriches the communication and the underlying connection in ways I cannot fully express. Speak a language with sufficient fluency, and the native treats you like family, or at least with much greater familiarity, provided you render an overall positive vibe. In addition, being a foreigner with that level of fluidity might even put you at an advantage, insofar that you create the air of familiarity without the prejudices inherent to the natives.

    I’ve also observed this latter phenomenon to apply to inter-cultural exchanges of the same native language. For example, I’ve often felt an interaction with a Russian-speaking Kazakh or Kirghiz more intimate than with a Russian or Ukrainian.

Questions, comments? Connect.