Unusual Activities with Foreign Languages Tips

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How do I learn about mannerisms and gestures that are part of a foreign culture?

The Non-Verbal Side of Languages

In many foreign cultures, learning the language is just a start. Communication can be much more complex in other lands where how one stands, sits, gestures, and so forth can send complex non-verbal signals. There is plenty of opportunities for misunderstanding; in some cultures the affirmative “thumbs-up” sign can be taken as an obscene gesture, as can the “okay” gesture where the tips of the forefinger and thumb touch. Wearing colors with cultural or national significance can make you appear gauche. Even something a simple as a nod can be confusing. In certain parts of northern Greece, nodding one's head back briefly is used to reinforce the word “no”. For those of us who spent their lives associating a nod with “yes”, this comes as a bit of a shock. Non-verbal communication is usually left out of most language programs available commercially, but it should not be neglected. After all any insult, no matter how unintentional, can undermine even the best student of languages. In fact if you do learn to speak the language fairly well but neglect the manners, customs, and non-verbal cues, they may well assume that you innocent gaffe was a deliberate affront.

Can I invent a language?

Invent Your Own Language

If you really want to find out how a radio works, you build one. If you want to get a brass-tacks understanding of how airplanes work, build a flying model airplane. And if you want to understand languages at a fundamental level, guess what you do? Believe it or not, there is an entire hobby devoted to “constructed languages” (conlangs, for short) inspired partly by the linguistic exploits of J. R. R. Tolkien who, in writing his epic Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion, actually created entire languages, complete with their own grammars, vocabularies, and alphabets. Tolkien was able to do this because he had a profound grasp of grammar and historical linguistics, and taught these subjects at Oxford where he was a professor. Languages were invented for the Star Wars films, and the Star Trek franchise has given us a made-up language—Klingon—invented by linguist Marc Orkand that people can learn thanks to grammars and taped lessons available commercially. Some conlang enthusiasts have even written special software to help take some of the drudgery out of building up your own private languge.

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William Pirraglia