How can I recognise more languages?
June 13, 2009 3:16 AM   Subscribe

How can I recognise more languages? How can I recognise where people come from?

I'd like to be able to recognise more languages - not to understand them, but just to think "ah, that's Albanian". I'd also like to be able to do this for looking at people: "she looks like her family are from Namibia".

How can I achieve this? Is there some kind of CBT course I can do to help with this?
posted by devnull to Human Relations (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Just want to clear this up a tiny bit: CBT is for psychologically harmful or troubling emotional and behavioral responses, not so much how to learn lots of stuff in a short period of time or something like that.

I have a lot of thoughts about why attempting this would ultimately be far more harmful than helpful. One, people generally don't like being evaluated on their surface characteristics. Two, you can just ask people--this gives you the benefit of getting the knowledge you're seeking AND actually connecting with them on a human level, instead of snap judgment. Three, even if you did learn how to identify people's ethnic origin, what are you going to do with that information? Are you just going to walk around with a sense of pride at having categorized them? What if you're wrong? What exactly is the purpose of this, for you?

My opinion is that the most potentially appropriate way to do this is to travel and actually meet people from different places in the world, or learning more languages yourself.
posted by so_gracefully at 3:47 AM on June 13, 2009


Watch movies, TV shows and listen to music in other languages.

I grew up in a country where they don't dub over foreign languages, but rather subtitle them so I am better than my English friends (they dub news reports and most everything else in the UK) at recognizing languages and have an ear for them.
posted by slimepuppy at 4:24 AM on June 13, 2009


I second slimepuppy's suggestion, and I would add maybe doing cursory language studies. Also, after you've done this, you can begin listening to the cadence of languages: an Asian looking people? Are the words shorter and choppier (Chinese maybe?) or more complex (Japanese?)? Short words with a lot of vowel use--French?

I am in Germany at the moment, and it used to be that I could never pick out languages in a crowd (I mistook a crowd of New Yorkers for French people once, before I came.) But if I'm walking down the street now, I can recognize an English speaker before I even recognize the words--their entire cadence is different. German has a really soft, rounded airy "sound," while American English is harsher-sounding, more "direct, "spoken more to the bottom of the mouth than through the middle. Do not try to "spot" words in the language--you'll always hear what you want to hear. Listen to the cadence instead. Movies, radio stations, and TV will help you develop an ear for it.
posted by Dukat at 5:25 AM on June 13, 2009


"CBT is for psychologically harmful or troubling emotional and behavioral responses"

To clarify, devnull is almost certainly asking about Computer Based Training for language identification -- one of the most common uses of the "CBT" term -- not cognitive behavior therapy. Please, let's give question askers the benefit of the doubt before hassling them.
posted by majick at 5:32 AM on June 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Experience. I used to work for a multicultural broadcaster, in the radio library. Over time handling the materials, I was able to recognise about 60 languages pretty quickly. This was useful if we bought something and had no idea what it was, I could then track down a likely translator.

I also travel a lot and can recognise many languages, although I cannot tell the difference between many Eastern European languages or Mandarin vs Cantonese speakers, for instance. It's really all just exposure.
posted by wingless_angel at 5:54 AM on June 13, 2009


I don't really recommend my personal technique, which is to work at a tuberculosis clinic, but as others have said, exposure to languages/accents/people from all over is totally helpful in this regard. There's also the accent database to listen to, and this game.

Initially, I was going to guess you were looking to ID languages from written examples; I always suggest reading product manuals to get used to other foreign languages and how they look. Ingredient listings on food from dollar stores/import lots are often surprisingly eccentric in which languages they list.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:14 AM on June 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


People are hard to correctly flag for racial identity.

I think I've only had people ask "Are you half Mexican?" twice in my life. Each time I wondered, how did they know I was Mexican, not, say, Ecuadorian*? How did they know I was half and not full or one quarter? I have no idea, but they were rare in this ability.

My friend's Japanese teacher gets servers speaking to her in Korean whenever she goes out for Korean food.

Filipinos always ask if I'm Filipino. I occassionally get "Are you Asian?" from other Asians as well.

Even people who belong to distinct groups suck at identifying people within those groups. I think it's partly because we're all the same, and we're all different.

A) Honestly, even if you study this guide, you're going to find the differences between groups of Southwest Asians (Chinese/Japanese/Korean), or Latino South Americans (Brazilian/Ecuadorian/Puerto Rican/Etc) are way subtle. Same for Americans/Canadians, or anything else. In a lot of ways our divisions are more cultural and political than racial. Yes, most countries have some sort of distinctive indigenous group in their history, but it's rare that a society has been isolated enough not to "dilute" the bloodlines (lord, I'm making us sound like dogs, not people). Travel, evolution, and colonization have blurred the lines.

B) Every human on earth is unique! Everyone has their own combination of facial features and all that jazz, and we're all special little snowflakes.

That being said, I have known people who were especially good at guessing race (the people who knew I was half Mexican). I understand you'd like to be one of them. There's nothing wrong with that. I just wanted to let you know, it's way hard.

Are we sure devnull doesn't want to learn to recognize languages through Cock/Ball Tourture?

*I speak English with a slight Valley girl accent. I can speak enough Spanish to let people know that I don't speak very much Spanish.
posted by Juliet Banana at 6:54 AM on June 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


"CBT is for psychologically harmful or troubling emotional and behavioral responses"

To clarify, devnull is almost certainly asking about Computer Based Training for language identification -- one of the most common uses of the "CBT" term -- not cognitive behavior therapy. Please, let's give question askers the benefit of the doubt before hassling them.


Mea culpa; I apologize, devnull. I have never heard that abbreviation used in such a context.
posted by so_gracefully at 8:56 AM on June 13, 2009


Thanks for all the answers. I realise experience is the best way of doing this, but there is always a quicker way. I could learn say chemistry through experience, or I could learn in a condensed way based on what others have already done.

The accent database and game is what I am looking for - something that will give me a lot of accents or languages with correct identification, rather than not always knowing if you were right.

Particularly for some of the East European and Asian languages, I would really like to be able to tell the difference. It's embarrassing asking someone if they are Chinese when they are Japanese, or even asking where they are from. Others can tell I am English and not American, it seems only polite if I can make an effort to do the same for them.
posted by devnull at 9:21 AM on June 13, 2009


Each time I wondered, how did they know I was Mexican, not, say, Ecuadorian*?

Because a lot of Stupid Americans think everybody from anywhere south of the Rio Grande is Mexican.

More seriously: Mexicans are probably the most common Latino/a group in the US, so there are people who see that someone is Latino/a and assume Mexican. Similarly, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that a lot of Japanese, Koreans, or Vietnamese in the US get misidentified as Chinese; Pakistanis as Indians; many Middle Eastern countries getting conflated into some generic "Ay-rab", etc.
posted by madcaptenor at 9:39 AM on June 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, there's this.

But the best way to achieve this is to study up on modern languages. Obviously, it'd be impossible to learn them all, but there are some really good books out there which simply present a bunch of different languages, discuss some unique characteristics of each, present a sample of writing, and so on. Search "world languages" in Amazon, read the reviews and choose.

Ethnologue doesn't exactly do this, but it's a great resource about where languages are spoken and it's got massive detail - I mention it simply because it's a nice resource (both the book and website.)

But start at the start: Learn about the main language families (such as Indo-European) and important subdivisions (such as the Slavic branch) and what their differences are. Just yesterday, there was a discussion about "analytic" and "synthetic" languages - an interesting concept. Getting a grasp on basic linguistic terms like these will help you too.

On a more immediate level there's Digital Dialects, which is a fun website of short games which can help you learn pieces of 57 different languages - most of the big ones. I may never learn more Portuguese or Kurdish, but I can dazzle you with my knowledge of Portuguese fruit names or the words for common animals in Kurdish. I've gone through every game for all 57 languages a bunch of times and have memorized all of them. It's not enough to get me speaking in any of the ones I didn't already know, but it goes a long way to helping me recognize them.

You'd also do well to not think of countries as much as peoples. It would be much more impressive to someone (generally) if you could identify their ethnicity rather than their citizenship. I've got Székely friends who would rather not be identified as Romanians (although they live there), Nigerian and Ghanaian friends who appreciate that I know that they are Igbo or Ewe. And god help you if you call me a Serb! In some places, there's not a lot of difference between country and ethnicity, but in other places there is, and it can be a very divisive issue. Get it right and you're a star.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:05 PM on June 13, 2009


It's great to get more experience in languages and cultures, and there's a lot of good advice above. Basically just expose yourself to it more! If you live in a city that has international travelers, hang out at the coffee shops next to the hostel or the ESL school.

But I'm not so sure of your goal.

I know a full blooded Japanese guy who's culturally 100% French Canadian, can't use chop sticks to save his life, but can play hockey like a demon. I know a full blooded Korean who's 100% Costa Rican. Doesn't speak a word of Korean, but can rip your head off in Spanish. No one has ever guessed the ethnicity of my Chinese-Jewish friend. I'm about 90% German, but my family's been in America for at least 4 generations and I know next to nothing about it. If you see an olive skinned person speaking Italian they might just speak Italian and aren't from the country at all. As others have said, Asian people mistake each other all the time, And just because someone was born and raised in Beijing doesn't mean she can't speak Tagalog fluently.

If you saw me in a Japanese restaurant having a conversation in another language wit the staff: a) you're not going to think for a second that I'm Asian, b) there's an even chance the staff is Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thai, and Mexican, and c) even if you did figure out that a genetic Saxon was taking to a genetic Korean in Kansai-bin Japanese... What would that get you? And if you guess wrong... Oh my. That can get you into trouble. For a lot of people there is no greater insult than for someone to guess their country of origin wrong, even though the language and culture are 90% identical.

Sure, it's a neat party trick but I recommend trying "So, where are you from?" You'll learn a lot more, and quite possibly start an interesting conversation.*

*This suggestion was originally given to me by a friend who has a degree in Ethnic and Cultural Studies, which is worth looking into if you want to learn more.
posted by Ookseer at 12:49 PM on June 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's embarrassing asking someone if they are Chinese when they are Japanese, or even asking where they are from.

Embarrassing to ask where someone's from? Why? I've never ever met a person that's reacted negatively to that question (and where I work, we have people from more than 40 countries, so you end up asking that now and then). Boldly assuming the wrong thing can sometimes be a bit offensive (but usually isn't, unless you go all "oh, then I don't want to talk to you" if you assumed the wrong thing), but asking?

Others can tell I am English and not American

Others can tell I'm English too. But since I'm not, I'm pretty sure the algorithm is simply "speaks reasonably fluent english? yes. sounds american? no. ergo, from england." In other words, they're just guessing. In your case, their guess is usually correct. In my case, they're usually wrong. And that's perfectly okay.
posted by effbot at 2:22 PM on June 13, 2009


Embarrassing to ask where someone's from? Why? I've never ever met a person that's reacted negatively to that question (and where I work, we have people from more than 40 countries, so you end up asking that now and then).

Except for this lady. And plenty of other people who are concerned that such a question is merely looking for a reason to prejudge.
posted by Netzapper at 2:47 PM on June 13, 2009


This book provides descriptions of different languages in terms of phonology, grammar, etc. I used it as a reference when I taught ESL--it helped me 1) identify the characteristic sounds of different languages, and 2) recognize how these characteristics affect ESL speakers' pronunciation of English.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:50 PM on June 13, 2009


Except for this lady.

Seems to me as if that lady needs to do something about her self-confidence. Or stop socializing with complete morons.

And plenty of other people who are concerned that such a question is merely looking for a reason to prejudge.

True bigots will find a way to judge you, no matter what story you tell them. Everyone else is probably just interested in learning a little more about yourself; that's a perfectly normal social behaviour, and is more often used to find similarities (or at least things to talk about) than differences. If you assume that everyone is out to judge you all the time, it's probably time to do something about your own self-image.

(But maybe I completely missed the point of the original question - I thought the OP was interested in socializing with people, not improving his/her ability to "prejudge" people?)
posted by effbot at 4:51 PM on June 13, 2009


Trying to guess someone's ethnicity, or country of origin, by his/her appearance is similar to trying to guess if a woman is pregnant by her appearance; it has the same high possibilities for misidentification and will engender many of the same responses if you're incorrect.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 11:40 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


« Older Any good books or web resources on fasting?   |   pacific coast 101 Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.