Arabic in America: Is Rejection Racism?

Recently in the US, there’s been a few incidents where people speaking Arabic are getting attacked or persecuted. The rise of ISIS/Daesh in the Middle East has fomented fears among Americans about Muslim people and the Arabic language. An Emirati man in Ohio was arrested for purportedly pledging allegiance to ISIS/Daesh, because he spoke Arabic. The allegations eventually proved false. An Iraqi student at UC Berkeley was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight while speaking to her uncle on the phone. Why? Because another passenger was feeling threatened by her use of Arabic. These events show a growing if not already high degree of prejudice against Middle Eastern people and their communities in America. So, this begs the question: is the knee-jerk reaction to Arabic language racism?

Perhaps not racism, but it is judgmental and prejudiced. It certainly contributes to racism in the United States against innocent Muslims and people of Middle Eastern origin. The UAE issued a travel warning to its citizens, advising against traditional clothing for their safety. That’s absurd and difficult, if not impossible, to justify on the part of the United States.

A few schools in the United States are implementing Arabic language programs. A school in Northern Virginia, Annandale High School in Fairfax County, now teaches Arabic. Like Annandale, most schools that teach Arabic in the US have large communities of Arabic speakers. I think it’s really important for US systems in general to be teaching Arabic. If not to help integrate Middle Eastern immigrant communities, then it helps promote tolerance against bigotry in the United States. We can’t have more incidents of police officers seeing the use of Arabic as proof of allegiance to ISIS/Daesh.

One might argue that there aren’t enough Arabic-speaking immigrants in the US to justify teaching it. By that token, we shouldn’t teach French in US schools and Hindi-Urdu should take its place. The point is that the number of speakers is less important than you think they are. It’s more about general utility in the world at large. Spanish is useful because of the sheer number of Spanish-speakers in the US, no doubt. But Mandarin Chinese not only has a large speaker population but also is a link with Chinese businesses. We should be teaching at least Modern Standard Arabic in US schools. It allows for general access to Arabic-langauge media, and will help with understanding Middle Eastern politics. It can also provide a gateway to learning other dialects on the advanced level.

To reject the teaching of Arabic in United States schools doesn’t necessarily amount to racism, but it comes very close. The justifications against Arabic classes I’ve heard from others often include a fear of Islamic indoctrination. Or that “Arabs are taking over”, and other xenophobic fears of Arabic and Middle Eastern communities. We must overcome our prejudices in the United States and learn to accept and embrace Middle Eastern people. Otherwise, we’re doing terrorists’ work for them by hurting innocent people.

Teaching English Abroad: Do’s and Don’ts

I’ve been in Mumbai the last four or five weeks, working at the SP Jain Institute’s NGO Abhyudaya. The organization runs a program that gives Mumbai children from various low-income neighborhoods an opportunity to get better education and extracurricular enrichment. One of the components of this is teaching the students English.

Knowing in English in India is a very big deal and is a key ingredient in social mobility and economic advancement. It will be difficult to get a high-paying job without knowing English. This is true in many parts of the world where English is not the primary language. There are many initiatives to teach English to underprivileged students in such countries. I don’t actually teach English, but I do design the curriculum and see how teachers implement it in their lessons, seeing what works and doesn’t work. My job is to give the best possible curriculum so that these children have a solid path to success.

So, the thing is that there are a lot of people in the US who go abroad to teach English as some kind of humanitarian mission. They’re often led through churches or NGOs. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a great thing to try and go help someone else get ahead in life by teaching them something you know. But there are a lot of problems with the way some “voluntourism” often pans out, and you do need to be mindful of those things. With that, here are some things that you need to know before you go teach English abroad:

1. You are in a foreign country.

This may seem like a very obvious fact to most people, but it’s so often ignored. You need to be mindful of the fact that you are foreign and in a different society. Be humble to your hosts and try learn more about the places that your students are coming from. You cannot expect to teach them anything unless you understand their needs. Try to learn some of the local language and do things with local people. I’m Indian-American, but I know nothing about Indian people’s lives in India. I’m always learning new things about the kids who come for the program. I’ve been to the slums and I’ve been learning about their education up to the point at which they enter the program. This helps me write lessons that are more suited to their needs and skills they really need to develop.

2. Get out of your savior complex.

These students have their own plans, families, and futures. You are there to help them with just one subject and you are not the end-all-be-all of their education. This goes back to being humble. These students lead their own lives just fine without you, even if they do have it rough, rougher than even struggling people in the US can imagine. They don’t need you to tell them what to do. I have to keep this in mind when I write the lessons. The lessons can’t be about international travel or other lofty rich people stuff because that isn’t something they need to learn. They are not afforded the privilege of learning a foreign language for fun or as an expendable school subject, and they require it for their long-term success. Don’t treat your English teaching stint as a joke and take the students and the job seriously.

3. You’re not a tourist; you are being employed to teach English.

I realize that there are many “voluntourism” packages out there, that seek to engage foreign visitors in meaningful work in a developing country. This is the epitome of intrusive and fundamentally unhelpful behavior. If you’re coming to another country to teach kids English, don’t treat the students, teachers, or the organization as some kind of accessory to a pleasure trip. If that was the plan in the first place, don’t go at all. I’m completely serious. These organizations work their asses off to bring better education and help kids who otherwise might not have the opportunity. You should treat them with respect and take them seriously for the work that they do. I work nearly every day to contribute to the curriculum, always revising and observing. Don’t waste their time by Instagram-ing pictures of your work and not do any work.

I hope this helps people who are considering going to do this type of work abroad. Please don’t forget to share and comment!

What Language to Learn Based on Your Major

Almost every major has some kind of foreign language requirement. And whenever you’re talking about jobs, people always talk about how learning a second language is a good idea. I get a lot of questions on Quora about what language someone should learn based on their job or university. Not to mention that a lot of university students worry about their resumes (myself included)!

It definitely is a good idea to learn a second language, and your job opportunities can seriously open up if you know one well. The key word here is well. This can mean a variety of things, depending on your job and major. From conversational fluency for business to native level fluency, what employers want varies quite a bit. So, I’m here to tell you what language to learn based on your major, and how well you’ll need to know it!

Now, you should spend your time wisely when you learn another language. Learning for personal interest is OK, but I realize that everyone has the time or opportunity to do so. Depending on what field you’re going into, the language you will want to learn will vary considerably. Before I jump in, keep some of the following factors in mind when choosing a language: where you live, where you work, and how much you need to know that language. With that, let’s get right to it!

Engineering

Generally speaking, the predominant languages of the engineering professions are English and German. Germany has very good engineering programs at its top universities, as well as a lot of research in the engineering field. I can’t say much else, because this comes from what I’ve learned from my dad, who’s an Electrical Engineering PhD, as well as what I’ve heard from engineering students. If you’re an engineering major, you probably don’t need a second language to graduate, but I’d recommend doing so anyway.

Computer Science 

Unfortunately, the distinct lack of human interaction necessary to do work in this major makes it difficult to choose a language for professional purposes. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. Compared to a lot of other professions, human language skills aren’t quite as crucial to getting the job done in computer science. The essential foundation of computer science in English already requires comp sci majors to know English anyway. However, you might end up working with some foreign companies, especially in technology firms that have international presences. You might want to pick up Mandarin, Korean, or Japanese, since China, Korea, and Japan have strong tech industries. How well you need to know it will vary considerably, but unfortunately, I can’t really speak to how much you’ll use it.

Political Science/International Relations/etc.

This one, along with most humanities, is heavily dependent on your regional concentration. The typical poli sci or IR major has to pick a region of specialization, and many programs require a language to graduate. If you’re going to be working with Chinese politics a lot, you may want to consider learning Mandarin or Cantonese. Similarly, if you’re going to be studying the relations of Middle Eastern nations, it will be a good idea to pick up at least two varieties of Arabic, in addition to Modern Standard. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Arabic continuum, here’s an Itchy Feet Comic for you:

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The bottom line is that you should learn the language (or languages) spoken predominantly in the area that you’ll be working. Jobs will require varying levels of fluency. For example, you should aim for the B2 (operational fluency) ballpark on the CEFR scale for a job that is more about your analytical skills and political knowledge. In these jobs, it’s simply that your proficiency is a plus and will help you do your job better. On the other hand, your job may explicitly require you to talk with people, such as working in an embassy or acting as an interpreter/translator, which will need a C1 (very proficient) if not C2 (near-native level). It will vary by the job description. Do your research on the area that you choose, and get started!

Literature, Anthropology, Education, and other Humanities

Many humanities majors, such as literature studies, will require a near-native level of fluency of a particular language due to regional specializations. French literature or French linguistics majors need to live and breath French to do their jobs. If you’re an anthropologist who works in South America, having a knowledge of indigenous languages will help you out immensely. Indigenous languages are admittedly trickier to learn due to lack of resources to learn them. If you’re planning to be an ESL teacher, you should definitely pick up significant immigrant languages such as Mandarin or Spanish. It will depend heavily upon where you work and how big the immigrant population is. Be prepared to learn those languages at least to B2 if not C1 proficiency.

Business

Perhaps the most frequent consumers of language course packages for professional development are various business majors. Business majors should consider coverage and general area of employment. If you work in Southeast Asia or with companies from that region, it will be a good idea to pick up Vietnamese or Thai. Business language courses will do you best, and will get you to at least B2, where you can go about most business with little difficulty. Spanish is one of the more popular languages for domestic business in the US, but Mandarin Chinese is also very useful for international business.

Research-oriented Majors

What I mean by “research-oriented” includes majors or tracks such as pre-medicine or chemistry; basically the hard sciences. It’s highly unlikely that a pre-med student with a major in a biological science will need to learn another language. Most academia in these fields is published in English or in another language, and then widely translated anyway. However, if you’re a doctor, you’ll want to know the language of non-English speaking patients that frequent your clinic. Learn to at least B1 or B2 fluency, though C1 would probably be better. If you work in an area with predominantly Chinese people, Mandarin or Cantonese will be useful for you. It doesn’t matter even if they do speak English; patients are often more comfortable if their physician is willing and able to speak in their language.

Other

Though I hate to admit it, there are many majors where learning a second language is simply not necessary. These majors include culinary arts, sports medicine, music, or dramatic arts. It won’t be bad for your career, but it certainly won’t get you to high places. To some people, that means it’s not worth it. Personally, I think you should always learn at least one other language for personal enrichment and expanding your worldview.

I hope this helps a lot of people with picking a language to fill out their foreign language requirement! Good luck with your studies and don’t forget to share this post if you liked it!

Grammar and Mezzofanti: My Take

Grammar is a tricky and notoriously fussy subject when it comes to learning languages. Recently, I read a post on the Mezzofanti Guild website, by Donovan Nagel. The post talks about the role of grammar in language learning in both self-study and institutions. Nagel concludes that grammar is not necessary and is even detrimental to learning to speak a language.

Why I agree

Grammar does make people fuss over the technicalities and intricacies of language. I myself am guilty of doing so. And Nagel’s right: you don’t need grammar to speak a language. Nobody thinks about the structure of the language as they speak. It just flows. You should be practicing full phrases (“prefabricated multi word items”) rather than individual words. Sure, it pays to know a lot of words and all the possible things you could say. But it’s important to focus on what people do say. You want to sound like a native speaker? Then listen to what they say and imitate. It doesn’t make any sense to speak a language unnaturally. Talking in a way that is technically correct but is stilted and unwieldy in speech is just a pain for no reason.

Why I disagree (sort of):

Nagel states the following:

The primary reason why we actually learn the grammar of our own language in school is to enhance our literacy skills (reading and writing) – not to make us better speakers.

This is absolutely true and I don’t disagree. But what I do disagree with is that you don’t need grammar to learn a language at all. Granted, that’s not what Nagel is saying. I imagine that he’s focusing on the learning to speak part.

Now, I want to be literate and versed in the spoken language. So naturally, I think grammar is important for reading and acquiring vocabulary. It makes you more learned and educated. It pays to be able to learn more about a language and the culture, and one of the best ways is to learn is by reading. (Obviously, reading is not an option for every language.)

What’s that? You’re not trying to learn to read/write?

Then good for you.

Everyone has different goals for the language they want to learn. Sometimes that means learning to be literate, and other times not.

Many language learners don’t like to learn grammar and that’s fine. But I do write my guides with a grammatical perspective anyway, since it helps me organize my lessons. More importantly, it’s there to act also as source material. That way, people who want to use a more immersive method as mentioned in Nagel’s article can convert it into their own format.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that people’s goals differ. And I guess I don’t really disagree per se either. I’m just clarifying some stuff for people who may misunderstand his article as an attack on learning grammar entirely. If I’m wrong, I’d love a clarification.

Hope this article clears up some things! Please share this article and don’t forget to follow and like this page if you enjoy my content!

Language Learners’ 5 Least Favorite Moments

We language learners have all had those moments when we’re just like, “Ugh, I’m so tired and done with this!”. It happens to best of us and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. As someone who’s going to be learning langauges probably for the rest of his life (in spite of other things), I’ve had this moment several times. Some notable examples: understanding Cuban Spanish, practicing my Italian with natives, and the future subjunctive in Portuguese, just to name a few. Thankfully, there is nearly always a solution. Without further ado, here are five moments that language learners hate:

1. When there are no books on your language.

This can be due to either simply a lack of availability in the sense that you can’t afford it, it’s out on loan from the library, or no such books currently exist. It’s language learners’ worst nightmare. I’m really interested in minority languages like Tibetan and Brahui, all three for which resources can be fairly scarce. Catalan, one minority language that I know, at least has an online dictionary. Not to mention there are people who have written books on how to learn it. For Tibetan and Brahui I would have to do a lot more digging. The best way to deal with this is either the cheap-out way: give up, or to do some more searching with Google, or (gasp) go to the library*. Never fear because there’s always someone who has found info or written their own books on the subject, and you can always acquire it through various (and some of which are admittedly questionable) ways.

*Shout out to NYU Bobst Library for being a treasure trove of knowledge.

2. Feeling the tug of another language calling to you.

This is something that I see in the Tumblr community most often. All these language learners are like “Omg I’m so into Swedish rn” but then the next month (or perhaps the next week) they’re like “Why must I love German music so much”. Look, it’s not a terrible thing to feel this way, since so many languages have all sorts of cool things about them. You’re not in the minority. I feel this way about Tibetan and Brahui all the time, when I’m studying Mandarin or Korean. Just remember this: you won’t make progress if you don’t commit to your work. Jumping around is just going to make it worse, and you’ll feel like you’re not going anywhere. And then you will be that person who posts “I don’t know much, but I can eat, sleep, read, and say thank you in seven languages that I will never use”. The only thing I can tell you is keep at it. Remember why you started, what exactly it is that you want to do with that language. If you’re learning French, you could tell yourself this: “I want to go to Paris and be able to converse with French people” or “I want to able to read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in the original French”. Perhaps the last one is a bit lofty, but you get the point. It’s a million times easier to stay on the road if you know where you’re planning to go.

3. Feeling like you can say basically nothing.

languages, german, itchy feet, language learners
Everyone’s first time using the language with a native. *

*From Itchy Feet: the Language and Travel Comic. Disclaimer: I do not own this.

This happened for every single language that I have ever learned. Even in Kannada, my mother tongue, I messed up many times. There was one instance of which was cause for my own grandmother to break out into hysterics. Instead of beating yourself up for it, you should think positively. Benny Lewis’ article on the abundance mindset is a great read for motivating yourself. I know some people won’t read it, so I’ll summarize. 1: Capitalize on your current vocabulary and make use of it. 2: Keep track of your progress and be aware of what you know and don’t know. 3. Learn from your mistakes. 4. Don’t compare yourself to others.

The first three are important pieces of advice to take, but the last one is huge. I sometimes indulged a bad habit of comparing myself to Benny Lewis and Timothy Doner. People who had made careers out of their language prowess. Here I was, feeling bad that I couldn’t speak more than 10 languages as a senior in high school. Setting unrealistic expectations and thinking that you need to measure up to the pros from the very beginning is a master plan for low self-esteem. Look at the progress you have made rather than things that you don’t know. You’ll find yourself feeling better and also tackling your language with a much better attitude.

4. Being judged for incompetency.

Look, there’s no avoiding the fact that some people in world are insensitive and inconsiderate. There will be judgement, but you have to own up to it. Don’t fear these people. Think of them as the only people who will actually tell you that you’re wrong or that your speaking is off. To be perfectly honest, I don’t like it when people don’t tell me if something is wrong. Asking for constructive criticism is always good. If that person continues to trash-talk you and your language skills, that is a separate issue altogether. But have no fear! The vast majority of people that speak your target langauge appreciate language learners. They will often oblige and help you out. Like our good friend Cristiano Ronaldo:

language learners, Cristiano Ronaldo

5. Being told that languages are useless/stupid/boring etc.

There will be such people everywhere. This will even come from the mouths of native speakers themselves. That’s right. There are many people in the world who feel that their native language is not useful and don’t understand why someone else would want to learn it. Don’t feel discouraged because a native speaker told you that it’s useless. If you chose because you appreciate the culture and the beauty of that language, nothing should stop you. For the people who think that language learning is a dumb hobby, let the haters hate. Or you could convince them that they’re wrong. Your choice. The point is that if you are passionate about learning a language or you have a commitment to learning, there is nothing in this world that can stop you. Language learners can do so much in the world by expanding their ability to communicate with people.

I hope this article helps a lot of people who feel down during their studies! Cheer up and keep marching forward!