C/O Robin Kamanarski
The Silhouette: Please introduce yourself.
Robin Komarniski: My name is Robin Komarniski. I am in my second year of cognitive science of language. I’m an Academic Committee Member of the McMaster Linguistics Society. We focus on the idea of promoting linguistics as a whole and linguistic diversity. Not only that, we just want to help people if they’re struggling with any linguistics classes and for other people to meet other people in linguistics and make some friends.
What languages are you currently learning?
So I speak English natively and I try to speak German with my mom. German and French are definitely my best languages; I could probably study them at an academic level . . . I’m also learning Spanish and Portuguese, which I haven’t given too much attention to recently, but I am learning them.
How do you feel about lessons or books that advertise quick language learning tools, for example within a month?
I think it is a very strong and attention-grabbing selling point. I think that it also informs us about our society right now, how we’re always expecting convenience . . . We’re so used to quick service and now it’s the same with languages. We’ve tried to condense it and commodify it when really, I just think it’s not one size fits all. It’s really dependent on the person because everyone learns at their own pace. Sometimes language just clicks for you but sometimes it takes longer and that’s completely fine. There’s no rush. If you’re promising someone it’ll take a month and it doesn’t end up clicking in a month, that person might feel pressured. But it’s okay if you feel like you’re not making progress, because you probably are making progress, just at your own pace. It’s like a product but language is not a product — it’s its own entity.
Do you have any advice for learning languages?
If anyone is going to learn a language, definitely, if you can, try and focus on one language at a time. I think what a lot of people get wrong is the view that languages are a kind of collectible. It’s like: “Oh, how many can you speak?” and people will say they speak five or six and then they get very concentrated on the number when they fail to realize that languages have so much. Each language is so beautiful in the way that it offers its own specific experience. Germany has its own culture and food and history and community. So does [France] and [Spain] and every one of them. You could just get lost in that for hours. I feel like a lot of people rush the process when it’s actually a process to be enjoyed.
When did you become interested in linguistics?
When you learn a language you learn more about how people perceive the world. For example, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis suggests that some languages just might not have a word to describe a specific concept or maybe not all the degrees of that concept. Colour is one of those things. It’s that idea of do they even see that colour, can they even perceive it or is it limited? That’s exactly what I mean — for European languages, it might not be to the same degree but they have their own grammatical structures that influence the way that they think. Even in German, because ‘bridge’ is a feminine noun, when Germans are describing a bridge they will describe it using more feminine adjectives. They’ll be like, “It’s beautiful, it’s elegant,” but they’ll do that subconsciously. If you were to ask them if being female influences their perception, they’ll say no. In reality, it does because there are so many ways language influences us subconsciously.
What area of language or linguistics are you most interested in?
I really do have a place in my heart for every field of linguistics because it all can have its moment to shine. It’s so nice to actually connect to another human being and language is exactly how you do that. There’s that expression: if you talk to a man in his second language, you’re talking to his head. If you talk to a man in his first language, you’re talking to his heart. It means so much more. The connection just is unmatchable. I do also value individual characteristics and that’s why I want to go into speech-language pathology. When I was younger, I also saw a speech-language pathologist and it helped me a lot because I couldn’t pronounce certain letters, like, for example, the ‘th’ phoneme . . . Hopefully, I can do that for other people. But that’s what I love the most; you can connect with people and help them, but you can also learn more about these more refined things about language.
Could you elaborate on what the term linguistic diversity means?There are so many subfields of linguistics like syntax, phonology, phonetics and morphology. Linguistic diversity is just acknowledging that there are many different backgrounds from which people originate and how that influences speech, how that influences vocabulary and how people have their own specific ways of talking…Another thing in linguistics is there’s this very clear separation between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar. For example, if you say “You is stupid,” some people would say that’s ungrammatical. But if it makes sense to you, if that makes sense in your brain, then it is technically grammatical from a descriptive point of view. So there is no right and wrong way of speaking. At the end of the day, we are the ones who decide language, because language is a community-focused idea. Language is just sharing ideas from one person to another, so there is no wrong way of speaking. That’s what linguistic diversity is about — it’s deconstructing this idea that there is some kind of hierarchy to the right or wrong way of speaking.