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Introducing The Linguists’ Corner

At Living Language, several of our editors, e-tutors and learners are not only language lovers, but also linguists.  Some of us are interested in theoretical linguistics, the study of the structures and processes of language, while others are interested in applied linguistics, the application of this knowledge to practical problems, such as how to best learn a language.

We’d like to introduce a new section of the forum, The Linguists’ Corner, where we can all nerd out a little bit and talk about what interests us in linguistics.  The posts will be a bit “meatier” than the other forum posts and bit more academic, but we hope that they will be interesting to anyone who’s interested in a scientific approach to language.

If you’re a linguist or a dabbler, feel free to chime in! Posts can be on any area of linguistics from theoretical to applied (e.g.syntax, semantics, phonology, sociolinguistics, acquisition, etc…) 


  • edited March 2013
    Hi Erin !

    Thank you for initiating this discussion. I may not be a major contributor, but I'm sure I'll enjoy every bit of it. 
    Languages have always held a great appeal for me. The lure has been not just because of the inherent beauty of a given language, but also, greatly, because of its dynamism and its powerful cause-effect relationship with the given culture. I guess, I can contribute this fascination for languages to my nationality. Having been born in a country with 22 official languages and numerous dialects, this was perhaps a given ;)
    Having said that, I'd like to bring forth a small observation. I've signed up for learning Spanish through the online program by Living Language. And having done some bit of learning at the Essential level, I could draw certain parallels with my mother tongue - Hindi. In Spanish, every noun has a gender, even for inanimate ones, unlike English. The same is true for Hindi, though we do not have gender specific articles, except for proper nouns. And just like in Spanish, the gender of the verb corresponds to that of the noun.

    I know it cannot be generalized, but drawing this parallel, helped me with the working of Spanish grammar.

  • Hi Mahima!
    Thanks for posting! Yes, I agree. Learning another language draws your attention to the aspects of grammar in your first language that you may have otherwise not noticed. And it helps you figure out what may be challenging or easy for you. For me, grammatical gender in Spanish has always been so hard because English, as you know, doesn't have it. Nor do our adjectival past participles agree in gender or number with the nouns they modify (that's what you meant by the gender of the verb, I assume). But at least we do have articles! :)  Hindi sounds like a very interesting language. I don't know it at all, but there is a Hindi course in the works here, so I'm looking forward to learning more about it.
    If you're interested in the way language can affect culture, you might be interested in this TED Talk by Keith Chen about how a certain grammatical feature of our language predicts how we save for the future. It's controversial (I'm not totally sold myself), but definitely interesting!
  • Hello Mahima, 
    Thank for your great post. It brings up two important points about language, one theoretical/philosophical, and the other one with more practical consequences for learning language. The idea that language is a cultural window on the world, and hence to some degree poses a filter onto non linguistic cognition, such as, for example, remembering certain aspects of an event is known in linguistics as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Both Sapir and Whorf were anthropological linguists whose work aimed at describing the grammars of native American languages in the early 20th century. 
    Your second point has to do with the effect of transfer from what we know in our first language to the study of a second language. Transfer can have beneficial effects (as in the example you bring up, having a feature in one language may help you learn it in another language) but it can also hinder second language acquisition.  This is another reason why learning a second language may involve a different learning mechanism from first language acquisition.  Can you think of more concrete examples of helpful transfer and interfering transfer in your language learning experiences?

  • Despite the distance between Spain and India, Spanish and Hindi are distantly related.  Here is the family tree that depicts the relationship.  I took it from

    Indo-European > Indo-Iranian > Indo-Aryan > Hindi
    Indo-European > Italic > Spanish

    So while Spanish and Hindi are not mutually intelligible (please do correct me on this if I am wrong!), I am not surprised that you can find same or similar grammar between the two languages.
  • edited March 2013
    Hi Erin,
    Thanks for the link. It was quite a fascinating co-relation. Though, I'd rather wait for more developments on this theory. Going on it now, I'd probably end up not just a bad saver, but, also a bad speaker of the native tongue ;)

    Hi Giulia,
    I agree with your comment on learning a secondary language. Every new language that one learns has to have its own, unique, learning curve. At times one's primary language facilitates learning, whereas on other occasions it can be debilitating to the learning curve.
    I'll try citing as relevant an example as I can, for both support and hindrance(from the primary language) in learning a secondary language. 
    Helpful : The pronouns in Spanish are similar to those in Hindi. For eg: There are 2 ways to address the second person - formal(usted) and informal(tu'), unlike English(you). The same goes for Hindi. In fact, in Hindi, we have 3 degrees of familiarity - "Tu", "Tum" and "Aap" - ranging from familiar/informal to formal/respectful, in that order
    Interfering : Haven't really had a problem here. But for the sake of an example; I always get stuck trying to tell the time in Spanish, just because in English or Hindi the time is read progressively, through the hour, unlike Spanish, where it is read, regressively, after the half hour mark. I'll update you as and when I come across an example with higher relevance.

    Hi Grace,
    Thanks for throwing light on the connection in languages. India has, through its amazing history, drawn groups with such diverse sets of ethnicity that have either dropped anchor and contributed to the cultural evolution of the subcontinent, or have passed it leaving an indelible footprint on the Indian canvas. In fact, the areas that were Spanish colonies are testament to this influence.

    Thanks people. Looking forward to more of such engaging discussions :)
  • This is a follow up on Erin's link.  Looks like the same researcher did other studies too.  This one is about one's health.
  • Thanks Grace! Chen's research is getting a lot of attention, including a lot of criticism in particular from linguists.  One criticism is that non-linguistic values that may affect saving/planning habits spread along with language, so separating the effect of one from the other is difficult.  Here's his response though so you can make up your mind for yourself.  It's definitely an interesting topic.

  • That's what I have been thinking too.  I am not sure which came first, the language or the habits.  Or, perhaps these two developed at the same time.  But I also think his theory is not off.  After all, don't we encourage people to learn different languages to be exposed to different perspectives?  Sometimes we can't translate one language to another word by word.  A lot of these association are probably done at the subconscious level, which is not easy to show either.  I hope he does a research on multilingual people and see if their habits changed after learning different languages.
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