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Should you even study that language?

Chat in foreign languages or discuss language-learning.

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Should you even study that language?

Post by ladislav » January 20th, 2014, 4:11 am

In my opinion, some languages are not even worth studying because the people in the countries you go to may not like you because of your race, nationality, etc. Some may forever use English in response to your trying to speak to them in their language and even get angry at you for having the audacity to speak it.

If you do decide to study such a language, you are going to waste a great deal of time and money and end up with less than pleasant experiences. So, unless your interest in the language is scholastic and not social, think long and hard before beginning such a study. What do you look like? What nationality are you? How do people in such a culture generally treat those like you. Are you or do you look like someone against whom there is significant prejudice in the society? If so, you may not want to go down the wrong path and set yourself up for a not so pleasant a future.

A case in point. An American guy from Minnesota studies Russian and goes to Russia to live. He looks forward to a rewarding cultural experience and possibly social and romantic conquests. What he did not consider was that he is dark complexioned with “ droopyâ€￾ eyes and has an uncanny resemblance to a Chechen. When I saw his picture, he did look amazingly Chechen.

While he always thought of himself as an all- American boy, the Russians did not think so and did not see him as American. He got harassed daily, and got bad vibes from people everywhere. Sure, he could explain to them that he was not Chechen but for how long? Trying to explain that to 140,000,000 Slavs is not easy. He ended up leaving the country.

The same goes if a person has Middle Eastern features, and many racist Russians think him to be someone else. One half-Irish, half-Italian American got beat up for his dark complexion, too. However, a blond, very Nordic, Swedish person went to Russia and thought it to be the greatest country on Earth. So, your appearance matters. Big time!

If you are East Asian-looking, you may not be welcome in Eastern Europe, and will constantly have to battle prejudice as you may be taken for a Vietnamese immigrant and treated with contempt quote often. Some people don’t mind; some say “ Hey, I’ll give it a pass and learn some other language instead.â€￾

In case of East or South East Asia, you may not get response in the local language even if you speak it well. That goes specifically for people of Caucasian appearance. It is truly annoying, but people will just be speaking back to you in English daily and some will get insulted that you are speaking the local language. Some will praise it and switch back to English all the time. Do you want to deal with it? Some people don’t.

I was now in the Philippines, and I got yelled at in the city of Cebu because I was speaking in Visayan and the person was responding in English; then, I asked him why he was not responding in Visaya to me. He chided me, told me I was not a Filipino, and I had no “rightâ€￾ to speak Visayan. However, my friend who is of Chinese appearance has the opposite problem there -- he does not speak the local language, but gets spoken to in it all the time. He has to ask them to speak in English.

In Japan, people also can be very nasty sometimes and not even stop to give you directions. I once asked for directions and a man raised a cane at me. They constantly get propaganda on TV about ‘foreign crimeâ€￾ and many are just scared of people who are not Japanese. In some Asian/SE Asian countries, even taxis won’t stop for you because “ they don’t speak Englishâ€￾ basing such a conclusion on your appearance. Some will give you a contemptuous grimace and drive on.

Some people will ignore you in restaurants and not serve you. This happens in Thailand outside of tourist areas. Until you prove you speak Thai. But you will have to deal with squeamish looks and people treating you like you don’t exist.

People of Black African appearance may have it even worse in a lot of countries. So, you need to check out the “ racial climateâ€￾ to people that look like you in that culture before you devote time and money to learning their language and dreaming about going there for a great cultural experience. And it is a real problem which may cause you not only spoiled mood but physical injuries and even death.

The more different you are racially from the local population, the more often you will encounter unpleasant situations. Some people can deal with those and some do not want to bother. They would rather learn a language of a country where they can be treated more or less as equals.

Another alternative is the most common- not learn the local language and just use English to speak to the people. Such an attitude is common with many Western people ( if not the overwhelming majority of them). If you have money and/or a good job, you will not only not be affected by not being able to speak the local language but the people will respect you more. So many times did I see Western execs in other countries who did not speak a word of the lingo but who lived amazing lives with local friends and wives in big houses and walking around like they owned the place.

What languages are exempt from racial hang ups? I would say Spanish, Portuguese, possibly French; maybe Arabic on most occasions since Arabs can have many types of looks, but most Asian and Slavic languages will have you battle local prejudices and refusal of people to speak the language as a regular occurrence.

These things are rarely if even mentioned by linguists or on shiny brochures by language companies which feature a pretty local woman smiling at you and the name of the language on it.

So, think long and hard and look at yourself and who and what you are before plunging headfirst into such a demanding project-- it may not be as rewarding as you think. Unless you are studying it for purely reading purposes.

Now, I expect many responses to this withâ€￾ Oh, it never happened to me, I never had any problems and you have those because you are an arrogant person, you smell bad, you look like a freakâ€￾ but this again is an anecdotal argument, victim-blaming and discounting the fact that there is a linguo-racial complex in many societies, racism, nationalism etc. Which is basically denying reality. The things above are real issues to consider, and I hope everyone here considers them. It may save you from hard times in unwelcoming places. And save you some time and money.
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Post by Ghost » January 20th, 2014, 6:45 am

Well, sometimes when I try to use what Chinese I know (which is very little), some Chinese people will scoff, or ask a bunch of things if I make a simple request (say if I'm in a shop or restaurant.) But then, there are many friendly people who like to see a foreigner attempt some Chinese as well. One of my coworkers speaks it at an intermediate or higher level and it only ever seems to help him.

I think for an American, just learn Spanish. It's guaranteed to be useful, even if you don't leave the States. Plus, it's a gateway language. This is one of my motivations. I've started to self-study Spanish again, even though I'm in China, because Chinese is just not going to be that useful. As an EFL teacher, it actually hurts your chances of getting jobs too I think because schools want "English only" in their classrooms.

When I was in the Philippines for a week, people liked when I used my meager Tagalog, or so it seemed. I know you had the bad experience in Visayas, but I think the Luzon island is more nationalistic and open, don't you? So a foreigner using Tagalog would be more likely to be perceived as a good thing. That's my notion of it.
Last edited by Ghost on January 20th, 2014, 4:57 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Post by xiongmao » January 20th, 2014, 10:53 am

Learning Chinese was essential when I lived in China. The place really opened up to me as I learnt more. I could do a lot more than the English teachers I met. Most of them could only use the metro, while I could use most of the buses to get around town.

Learning Thai was a waste of time though, and I'm glad I redirected my time towards getting my career back on track.
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