I’ve got to thank a linguist for that title (Thanks Conor!) There’s a popular blog called Fluent In Three Months (hook right there in the title) about language learning.  Generally, we all agree that one can become fluentish in three months given immersion in a target language or culture that is similarish to your own.

Speaking from experience, learning another romance or germanic language as a native english speaker is a totally ‘nother thing from learning a less-or-un-related language (arabic, chinese, russian, japanese, etc.) Beyond all the vocab and grammar differences, there are culture and language norms.

No doubt for learners who are immersed, this is easier, but for people learning outside of the culture, these gaps become more obvious, especially as your speaking level becomes more advanced.

For example: you can become an advanced speaker of a language without ever learning telephone habits if your language exposure is sans telephones.  That kind of thing.  Now these aren’t necessarily culture, they are more like language norms.

I’ve long wanted to do a sort of anthropological linguistic study to see how “politeness signifiers” are used across various languages. But since studies are time consuming and often proven wrong, I’ll just provide some examples from my own experience.

  1. Saying Hello

Even elementary textbooks will inform you that greeting someone in Arabic typically requires a few rounds of how are you, how’s your health, good, thank god, etc. 

But nobody actually expects you to perform this until you can speak proficiently. This sort of ritual is something I’m sub-par at in English, where I could easily come up with a dozen ways to word the same question. Often I feel like I get right to the point a beat too soon in my native language, and I sense the little timing hiccup it creates with the other party. But: I feel informed about how such directness is perceived in English.

There’s also the question of how one answers the question how are you?. In English, it’s invariably Fine! I’ve been told that in German, wie gehts tends to inspire a much more honest and detailed sort of answer, and so is used with a lesser frequency than in English.

2. Compliments

I first noticed this on my Arabic language Youtube channel from commenters. Most of the comments have contained a whole string of compliments, which I sense I ought to return, but don’t know enough language subtext to do so without (a) flirting (b) seeming weird (c) or making some other context mistake I’m not even aware of yet.

Because it happens over and over from different commenters, it’s clear to me that this is a language norm (or politeness norm) and not an individual’s style.





Posted by:Brook DeLorme

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