Life At Point C

Experiencing Life along the Silk Road

Further Reactions to Language Learners

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“You can’t study language with someone of the opposite sex,” a friend recently told me when he heard that Sarah and I had been being tutored by a woman.

“Why not?” I asked, incredulous. “I’ve only had women as my teachers thus far.”

“Maybe things are different where you live,” he said, “but I used to have a woman tutor, and when I would talk on the street, other men would ask me why I talked like a woman.”

Turns out, my friend was right. While it may seem odd to an English speaker, for many languages – including Kyrgyz – the men and women have certain patterns of speech that naturally divide them. While learning Kyrgyz, our female tutor taught us to greet people with one word: саламатсызбы? (which is roughly translated, “Are you at peace?”).  After using my new word with various elders (this is the formal version of the greeting), I was finally asked by one of them, “Why are you saying that? Only women say that to other women!” In Kyrgyzstan, men greet each other by saying а салам алейкум (the traditional Muslim greeting, meaning roughly “The peace of God be with you”).

Now, you might think that my tutor – a professional language teacher who also teaches at a local university – would have thought to avoid teaching me to greet people like a woman would, but somehow that slipped past her attention. Perhaps it is a situation where she taught me “proper” Kyrgyz, and it simply in no way corresponded with “real” Kyrgyz. I’m not sure. It is possible she just was not very attentive to our class, as she also obviously never prepared for our class, and frequently taught us the same thing over and over again. But that’s another story.
As an American, it is fascinating that men and women greet each other differently here. Of course, in the U.S., men and women both are allowed to say, “Hello” or “Hi” or “Howdy” or “What’s goin’ on?” or whatever they please for greetings. As I’ve thought about it, I can’t come up with examples where we would correct someone speaking our language for greeting us “like a woman” (or “like a man,” for that matter).

2 thoughts on “Further Reactions to Language Learners

  1. Japanese has some words and grammatical construction which are associated with boys/men or girls/women. Language and gender is a very interesting subject.

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  2. It’s the same in Arabic! It’s tough to explain to cultures that don’t have this. Here it comes out more in pronunciation: women pronounce things in a gentler, less “productive cough” way.

    Here, too, each ethnic group speaks differently. So when I had a Palestinian tutor last semester, a taxi driver said, “Where did you learn your Arabic? You sound like you’re from Haifa!”

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