Constructed Languages

Ah, the horror that is a constructed language (con-lang for short). Con-langs are languages that take elements of existing languages to create the new one, usually with the intent of making accessible to a wide variety of people. I personally think the process of making a con-lang is ultimately fruitless, with respect to actually putting them into use. You can’t force millions of people to adopt a language that they have no real reason to speak. That would involve legislating the language, and history has shown too many times over that legislating a language does not work. This happened in Russia and its captured territories, where a campaign of Russification was started. The government tried to force the people in non-Russian territories to assimilate in terms of not only territory, but also religion, culture, and specifically, language. A similar event occurred as Germany began to gather territory pre-World War II, and also during the days of the Holy Roman Empire.

Unless you’re as talented as J.R.R Tolkien to construct languages for one’s universe in a book, I consider it highly unnecessary. English has already proven itself many times over the international language, but its difficulty necessitates the learning of the other languages. Adding new, made-up ones will just make things more difficult.

However, this is not to say that con-langs should be discouraged. It is perfectly OK to make them. I started making one two weeks ago, just for fun. I’ll attach it to the post, if anyone wants to look at it. However, I feel that there are some minimum criteria con-langs should meet, if you actually plan to advocate the use of said con-lang.

1) They should be usable by a wide variety of people, because that’s usually what a con-lang is for: to enable communication between larger groups of people. This is a major failing of Esperanto and Interlingua, because they are really only understood and learned easily by English, Romance language, and possibly German speakers. Not so easy for people from China or Vietnam, because they have no common roots with those con-langs.

2) It should be relatively simple and easy to pick-up. This can be easy in terms of grammar. This is especially the case if you speak English, because while some conjugations and pronunciation rules are absolutely terrible for non-natives, English grammar is relatively simple: SVO (Subject-Object-Verb), essential lack of mood distinction, and relatively intelligible to most when grammar is not perfect.

3) Make sure your vocabulary is wide enough to accommodate a wide variety of settings. This is probably what makes a con-lang the most difficult, because if you really wanted to make a language that everyone on the planet could learn if he or she sat down and studied, that language’s vocabulary would have to encompass word/word roots from all language families, and also include words for everything. Kannada speakers will need a word that means the same thing as sankocha, embarrassment due to an inordinately grand or expensive gift or being asked to stay for dinner when you just wanted to chat (basically receiving an obligation you don’t want). Spanish speakers will want a word for paella and Russian speakers will want words for all the different kinds of the same verb they have.

As for my con-lang, it’s supposed to be a conglomerate of Spanish, Catalán, and Italian, which I have dubbed Avreça. I’ve done away with all moods, so things like the imperative are indicated solely by the way you intone words. Again, because I did this for fun, I’m at liberty to make this however complex I want, but for my purposes, supposing I wanted to teach my kids the language, I’m making it simple and relatively easy to understand. If my kids did speak Avreça, they could branch off and learn Spanish/Italian/Catalán with little to no difficulty. In any case, this con-lang serves no particular purpose. Also, note that it is a work in progress. The lists of verbs, adjectives, and such can be by no means be considered complete. The current lists allow for a more topics to be discussed, and also adds a new tradition for learners to take part in.

Download Link: Avreça

Tradition

I’ve often thought about what it means to speak your mother tongue. When your parents raise you speaking the language of their ancestors, they endow you with centuries of tradition, faith, meaning, and lineage in doing so. Speaking your mother tongue, in addition to the language of where you live, is not something to be taken lightly. It is not something that you should throw away, as I have seen some of my classmates do. And it is this topic that inspired the poem below.

Forever marred are the broken statues of heroes,

Eternally rendered to rubble in mind and body,

And consigned to wither in the casket of human memory.

Their causes are quickly forgotten and shut inside

Dust-collecting archives that are prohibited to be opened

By the repressive force of the passage of time upon us.

Irrevocably disconnected are the children of migrants,

Who speak only in the tongue of their oppressive hosts,

From their perennial lineages stretching through time.

That immortal piece of the soul is forever lost to them,

Shelved in the library of forgotten faith and tradition,

Covered by a thin funeral shroud of empty sorrows.

Shall we forge tradition anew, to fill the empty void,

And try to hide the scars of dissociation and hate,

Only to be forgotten once again in the hearts of the people?

Need we recreate divinity time after time — Replace

The intolerant creator who rejects all but one aspect

And would damn those of contrary opinion?

What is tradition, what is faith, what is lineage,

When it can  so easily be erased and thrust

Into the depths of human experience as folly?

For what reason must we repeatedly remake ourselves

In order to fit the mold of foreign expectations,

And forge a signature onto a contract of oblivion?

So easily is the human experience made and dismantled

That the truth and untruth are not so far apart or separate,

Because time is beyond the power of individual remembrance.

We can only regard truth and untruth in the present

Because memory only persists then — It is replaced

In the future, and itself replaces the past, without remorse.

Secondary Languages

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how everyone says, “Hey, you should learn Arabic or Chinese!” when they’re talking about what language is best to learn. While it’s all well and good to learn those languages, but what about the poor little secondary languages, the ones that no one knows about because they’re not as useful? Simply put, these languages are learned almost exclusively for fun or other more specific reasons. In this post, I’m going to talk about which are the most useful secondary languages to learn.

1. Tamil

Tamil, the Dravidian language of South India and native to Tamil Nadu, holds official status in India, Singapore, and Sri Lanka. Tamil is widely considered useful in South India, because it’s the language a lot of people are likely to know, in addition to their mother tongues and/or state language. You might argue Telugu or Kannada (the latter being my mother tongue) is more useful, but Tamil is more prevalent in South India than either. Tamil has an extensive classical literature and history as well.

2. Catalán

This language was and still is used along Spain’s eastern coast. The language is highly based off of Latin, though it has Iberian influences. Catalán is most famous for being spoken in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. It is the second most prevalent language in Spain after Castilian Spanish, and most speakers of Catalán also speak Castilian Spanish.

3. Romansh

This is one language that most people have never heard of, even among some of my fellow language geek friends. Romansh is a language spoken in Switzerland,  in a sizable portion of the country that borders Italy and Austria. If you ever decide to business in or visit that part of Switzerland, it might be handy, simply as a courtesy to the people there. Romansh holds official status in the canton of Grisons, so a lot of things will be written in Romansh.

4. Kurdish

Kurdish is a language spoken by the Kurds in parts of several countries in the Middle East. They are both an ethnic and linguistic minority, but have official status in Iraq. It would be handy to know, because the Kurds actually have semi-autonomy concessions within the Middle East. For some time now, the Kurds have been pushing for a sovereign Kurdish state.

Again, these are simply secondary languages, most of whose speakers probably speak the majority language(s) of the country in which they reside. Learning these languages is almost purely as courtesy to them, for fun, or perhaps something else if you so desire.

Learning Two (or more) Languages At Once

I recently came across this topic on languageholic.com, and I decided that I’d address it as well. A lot of people say that you shouldn’t study two or more languages at the same time, because you’ll start confusing words. But you should consider this: I studied Spanish and Italian (and still am) at the same time, and I have yet to say something, “Voy a parlare sulle mis viajes in Europa.” (If you don’t take either language, this is a mishmash of both languages.) Ordinarily, you’d think Spanish and Italian are so similar (and they are) that it’s more likely that I’d start mixing up the two languages. However, in my mind, the two languages are rhythmically different, and so they remain separate. Moreover, as languageholic says, temporally separating the study of the languages helps as well, although I didn’t do this intentionally.

Another tip for studying multiple languages at once is keeping your notes separate. Don’t put your Catalán notes with your Spanish notes. That will get you confused, because the two languages are not only similar, but you might also start reviewing the wrong things for the wrong language.

It also helps if the languages you’re learning aren’t related. You could hypothetically learn Hindi and Mandarin Chinese at the same time, and because they’re from completely different linguistic families, you’re less likely to mix things up.

Another strategy that I found useful while learning Italian and Spanish is keeping a journal. One side is in Spanish and the other side is in Italian. This helped me visualize the difference between the two, because they were both on paper and I could compare them.

However, I don’t recommend learning more than three or four languages at the same time, although I prefer to stick with two. This is almost purely because of time devotion. I believe that you should devote equal amounts of time to the study of both languages, and it can get to be too much if you can’t do that.

So, that’s all I have to say about this. Please leave your comments! I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts on this.

Tips for Getting Speaking Practice

You can study your notes and talk to yourself all you want, but if you don’t put your target language into practice, you’re not going to get anywhere. If you’re just a student, this can be difficult, as you probably don’t have the time or the resources to get proper practice with a professional. In this post, I’m going to talk about what you can do to get practice in speaking a foreign language.

1) Your friends and family. If any of your friends or family is learning or fluently speaks the language you’re learning, they can be a useful asset to you. Talk to them in your target language as much as you can, and only use English (or your native language) to ask questions that help complete unfinished thoughts. Doing it with your friends can make the process more fun, but be careful, because it could be really annoying to others who don’t take or speak the same language. This is undeniably excluding others from the conversation at some level.

2) Language exchange websites. These can be also really helpful, because they have entire communities full of people learning a language just like you. More than likely, these people are willing to help you out, and probably want your help with a language they’re learning as well. Keep in mind that some of these sites cost money to use, although they’re usually relatively cheap. The only 100% free one I’ve come across is WeSpeke. Other sites like italki and Verbling are pretty helpful, as they have larger communities that are pretty easy to join and use for practice, and you can ask more questions about grammar, idiomatic expressions, culture, or anything else you need to know. Thanks and courtesies to lingholic for having info about the last two sites. 

3) Studying or going abroad. Yes, I know, it’s an expensive method, but you fully immerse yourself in an environment where you are forced to use the target language. Furthermore, if you’re studying abroad as a part of some program, you’ll probably be put with a host family that lives in a community that lives with culture and uses the language you’re aiming to learn. This makes it a lot more helpful, because you’d be using it in a real-world setting, outside the classroom.

So, that’s all I have to say for today. Please comment!

Levels of Fluency

I often discuss the topic of fluency in a language with my friends and family. I personally have a scale for fluency that my friends agree with, which I’m going to discuss in this post. This is related to my beliefs on what proficiency tests should call what level of competency in a given language. There are several tests, such as the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), the examinations for DELEs (Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera – Diploma for Spanish as a Foreign Language), and DILF/DELF/DALF (French Language Proficiency Diplomas). Note that each level fluency implies speaking ability. One is not fluent in reading a foreign language, that is literacy. One cannot be considered fluent in a language if they can only understand the language, but cannot speak and make conversation. Fluency encompasses all forms of communication in a foreign language, including reading, as well as writing, speaking, listening. Disclaimer: This is largely based off of my discussions with my friends and family, my readings, observations, and personal views on language. This is not meant to be taken as a definitive scale either; this is flexible, as every language is different, with its own quirks and challenges.

Level 1: Basic (~1 year)

You can communicate on a very simple level, and understand slightly more complex conversations. Reading ability is limited to simple children’s books, short public notices/advertisements, and you can write simple things, such as short notes.

Level 2: Upper Basic (~2 years)

You can now participate in more complex conversations including the use of the past tense(s) and present tense. You can also issue commands. You can now read and write simple paragraphs and your vocabulary is expanded, but limited to local situations, and broader, more abstract topics are harder to understand.

Level 3: Intermediate (~3 years)

You can initiate conversations with relative ease, express a set variety of emotions in the target language, and respond to semi-complex questions. You demonstrate command over the use of present and past tenses, and the subjunctive (or equivalent), as well as some compound tenses. You can also write longer passages, and understand a wider variety of texts, including short novellas and simple essays. Your vocabulary is wider, but doesn’t include very abstract or complex topics, such as religion or politics. You understand most, if not all, of what is said to you in the target language.

Level 4: Competent (~5 years study)

Your knowledge of tenses has expanded to include more complex tenses, and you have an increased understanding of the subjunctive (or equivalent). Your vocabulary is now nearly complete, being able to discuss nearly all topics with ease. You can write complex essays, read somewhat scholarly texts with a moderate level of understanding. Your speech is nearly accent-free (that is, your native accent). You can participate in conversations with little to no difficulty, and others involved can understand you completely.

Level 5: Native (~6-7 years)

You have a complete understanding of all the grammar in the target language, and you have a complete set of vocabulary to discuss all topics without any difficulty whatsoever. You can read extremely long passages in the target language (such as novels and longer essays) and write comprehensive responses that demonstrate a higher understanding of the test. You effectively sound like you grew up speaking in the native country of the target language (depending on which variety or dialect you learn). You participate in extended conversations about complex or abstract topics, and can switch in and out of the target language with ease.

Level 6: Scholar/Intellectual (9+ years)

Your vocabulary is expanded to include higher level words, such as more complex or poetic synonyms for ones you already know. You can read and write scholarly texts in the target language, and participate in extended discussions on such topics with ease. You would be fit to be a professor in the language, nearly without exception.

Languages That Should Be Taught in High Schools But Aren’t

So, I’ve recently been thinking about how much people treat foreign language study as a chore. Universities and high schools often require at least two consecutive years of the study of the same language for admission and graduation respectively. I believe that this treatment of such a field can be remedied by freeing up the choices that students have in this respect. This means, you can’t just offer Spanish, French, and Mandarin Chinese and expect them to be happy with it. People like to have a lot of choices and  might want to learn some other language. Most importantly, why are we only teaching three languages? French is not very useful outside of France, Canada, Switzerland, and a few African countries (sorry, French speakers, but it’s true). Spanish is in a similar position, although it has the advantage of being more  intelligible with respect to Portuguese and Italian, and having more applications within the United States, specifically. Mandarin Chinese is indeed useful in China, a major economic and political entity, and its introduction into American education systems is admirable. But this is only the first step.

However, first of all, I want to make something clear: Spanish and French don’t need to be removed from the curriculum. They are still useful, in their own ways, but in the context of the whole world, they lack in usability. People should still learn them, whatever their reasons are. However, we should introduce more useful languages (or at least make these more widely taught), which I’m going to  list and explain. Remember, in the context of the United States as whole, I regard these as true, because the languages below have a greater number of uses overall than Spanish or French. Part of my definition of usefulness includes how much you can use the language in the world.

1) Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew

OK, while it certainly doesn’t need to be each of these in the same school, but there’s no denying that these would be extremely useful. Arabic is important, because of negotiations and diplomacy in the Arab League nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria. Farsi is also important, because with the right tactics, America could actually enter into peaceful relations with Iran. We don’t even have an embassy or formal diplomatic relations with them, for God’s sake! We have an embargo on trade with them, which was set up in 1995. Lastly, Hebrew is useful for similar reasons, as if we could have more diplomats in Israel to help resolve tensions between Israelites and Palestinians and also between Israel and surrounding Muslim countries. The Middle Eastern languages in general, I feel, are powerful diplomatic tools.

2) Japanese and Korean

These two languages are native to two very important nations that directly concern the United States. Not only that, Japan and South Korea are formidable world powers in their own rights. In both nations, there are a number of growing business opportunities. Not only that, they can be easier alternatives to learning Mandarin Chinese, especially Korean.

3) German and Russian

German might come as a surprise, because many people in Germany can probably speak English pretty well. However, it is my firm belief that communication is always done better in the language of the country you’re visiting. It’s kind of a matter of politeness. Russian can be useful, because not only are there economic opportunities in Russia, it’s also possible to work with Russian in the diplomatic field, because Slavic languages, particularly the ones of the former Soviet Republics, are mutually intelligible with Russian.

It is certainly important to consider the regional uses of these languages. Korean will be more useful than Russian to a physician on the West Coast, due to a larger Korean population. But that’s for another post. The key idea is that the listed languages are useful, because their global contexts are much greater. In high school, most people have not decided what they want to do, and having a language that is useful in relatively high number of contexts is invaluable.

If you have any thoughts on this yourself, or if you think there are any other languages you think should be included in schools, do say so in the comments!

Language Barriers

I’ve often been asked about why I think foreign language education is important. While I could certainly come up with quite a few reasons, I think one of the more prominent ones is when you encounter language barriers. This can be in person, over the internet, or in signs and other written situations. Human experience is defined by what we take in and what we understand, and so we should aim to understand as much as we can. Besides, you are bound to end up in a situation where you need to use foreign language, because the other person can’t understand you or you need some vital information that’s on a sign written in an another language. Whether it’s business negotiations, diplomacy, or simply communicating as a tourist, learning a foreign language is a huge asset. Overcoming the language barrier is the first step. In this post, I’m going to talk about the places where language barriers the least and most prevalent. I won’t be discussing the rural areas of certain countries, because that’s simply a given.

1) China, Japan and Korea: Greatest Language Barrier

Surprisingly, even though these countries have rapidly progressed in their political structures and economies, the practice of using English, or for that matter any other language, is not very widespread. The education system does require English-language instruction in these nations, but many people prefer to speak their native language due to not feeling confident in their ability to speak English and as a simple matter of preference. English instruction in these nations, from what I’ve heard, is very traditional. In other words, people in China, Japan, and Korea are as inclined to use English as much as people in the United States are inclined to use French.

2) The Nations of Scandinavia and Germany/Austria/The Netherlands: The Weakest Language Barrier

When it comes to going abroad in Europe, Scandinavia is the best when it comes using English with foreigners. With top-notch education systems (which is not to say Japan and Korea don’t have good ones), students in Scandinavian countries, generally speaking, come out of schooling speaking decent if not perfect English. The same goes for Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. This can probably be accounted for by the fact that German and the Scandinavian languages have a common history with English.  Surprisingly, France, Spain, and Italy are not as well-versed in English, shown in statistics. This is probably because Iberian/Arabic influences (Spanish), Gallic influence (French), and Italic influences (Italian) have caused the parent language (Latin, specifically Vulgar Latin) to diverge more significantly, and therefore farther from English, which borrows more from Germanic, Greek, and classical Latin roots.

3) India: The Weakest Language Barrier in Asia

Unlike the East Asian countries, such as China, Korea, Japan, or Vietnam, India has come to use English extensively. Signs are  written in English, sometimes not even as a translation of the state language. The education system mandates the learning of English from first grade all the way to twelfth grade. In addition, people must take yet another foreign language to graduate from college. Most people in India speak English and are perfectly willing to communicate in English, although they will use their own language at other times. Gotta keep your secrets, you know?

4) Latin America: The Biggest Language Barrier in the Americas

Ironically, even though Spain is pretty good about its people knowing English (although certainly not as much as other European countries), getting around without knowing Spanish (or Portuguese in Brazil) is hard in Latin America. Many Latin American countries are in the Low Proficiency bracket on the EF English Proficiency Index. So I highly suggest hitting the books on Spanish if you go to Latin America without knowing any first.

5) The Middle East: The Biggest Language Barrier

For some, this may not come as a surprise. The EF English Proficiency Index shows that several Middle Eastern countries, including Qatar, Kuwait, Iran, and Egypt are in the Low or Very Low Proficiency brackets. Saudi Arabia and Iraq are at the very bottom of the list in the Very Low Proficiency bracket. This is why it is all the more imperative that people learn to speak Arabic and/or Farsi.

So, that’s my say on this topic. I’ll probably have something again this week, so I hope you look forward to it.

Scoprendo l’italiano! for Amazon Prime Members and the Akshaypatra Foundation

Amazon Prime Members receive a 14% discount on the Print Edition of the book, and can borrow the Kindle Edition for free with the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library. Remember, if you choose to purchase either version, the proceeds go toward the Akshaypatra Foundation, which sponsors  school lunches for underprivileged children in India, who cannot afford to be fed daily, and therefore are discouraged from going to school. If you want to learn more, go to the Akshaypatra Foundation’s website. It’s only 750 rupees to feed one child for a whole year. That’s only a little more than 12 cents. If not to learn Italian (which I highly recommend), purchase it to help the children, and maybe donate your copy to a local library.

Here’s a promotional discount code (that only works if you buy from Createspace) that should work: LZDAWJA2.

What is Fluency?

Whenever people set out to learn to a foreign language, there are those who aspire to become fluent, practically native speakers of the language. But really, what is fluency defined as, anyway? Here are some criteria I’ve thought of that I think accurately describe fluency in a foreign language.

1) Transition into speaking is fluid and natural. This effectively means that you can answer and ask questions in a foreign language without really thinking about it, and that speaking comes second nature to you.

2) Full command over the language. This means that you can hold complex and lengthy discussions about a topic, whether it’s particularly deep or not, and completely and accurately understand it.

3) Becoming one with the language and culture. In truth, part of speaking a foreign language is becoming intimately familiar with its native speakers and their culture. In this aspect, you observe all the social conventions when speaking, and understand them when they come into play. Some say that this embodies becoming essentially another person when speaking the target language.

4) Accent and comfort in speaking are absolutely impeccable. If you’re going to speak a foreign language, you better be able to imitate the accent. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but that you do it. This also means that you are totally and utterly in sync with speaking the language like a native speaker. If you sound as though you’re straining to say things, then you probably need more practice.