Keeping Up With the Times

So, here’s my first post in a really long time! I’ve been very busy with studying at NYU so I haven’t had time to really write on the blog, but now I’ve thought of a topic! Recently, I’ve been watching a Taiwanese drama to improve my passive understanding of Chinese and practicing parsing spoken Chinese. (I’m using a Taiwanese drama because most of my Mandarin-speaking friends at NYU speak Taiwanese Mandarin, which does have some differences from China’s variety.) This drama, the name of which is PS男 (PS Man), is from 2009 and while very helpful in practicing listening to Chinese, has aged quite a bit. They still use the first iPhones, for one! But more importantly, this brings to mind something else: changes in language. It can be as recent as four or five years ago, and a language can start exhibiting changes in the most minute details, whether it be new slang or new standards imposed by the government.

These changes require the language learner to be ever vigilant. But how, you may ask, can a novice in a language possibly recognize such things?  What you can do, is try to only use contemporary, or at least the most recent, materials available on the language. This can mean a textbook written this year or an ongoing TV show that airs every week. However, you should be careful about TV shows; some TV shows like Downton Abbey are written in an archaic or old-fashioned register of English that no one actually uses. But that doesn’t mean these types of shows aren’t helpful. At higher levels of language learning, such as a point at which one might be going to study abroad, it is important to be aware of certain cultural nuances that accompany a language’s archaic style. There may be jokes or puns that people may make in real life that are drawn from such sources, and they can help to understand the language and the culture on a deeper level.

Another important aspect of language learning as it pertains to contemporary materials is, of course, the language itself. What do people say? And how are they saying it? This is where old-time-y and historical shows fail the language learner, however fascinating they may be. You need to watch shows and movies, listen to music, and read books that someone your age who speaks your target language natively would be exposed to. This is fundamental to understanding how culture works in a modern society constantly in flux, especially in societies where ancient social structures have persisted for centuries and how that fits into everyday life. It’s important to understand the place of women in Indian society when learning Hindi, for example. You will not fully understand the content of a movie like Mardaani if you do not. It is a movie that deals with prostitution rings in India and how people deal with them, particularly the police. This is highly relevant to the average Indian that speaks Hindi, as it speaks to a prevalent issue in their society. Bollywood has seen an increase in socially conscious films that address certain issues in Indian society and that is something that directly affects the media produced by a Hindi speaking population. As such, a language learner, especially one who is not of an ethnicity or nationality that speaks that language, should be keenly aware of the social dynamics and politics of the society that uses their target language.

You may think you don’t need to understand these things in your target language, but believe me, it helps a lot when coming to understand a language. Think of a language as person who’s going to be your roommate for a while; you need to get used to them. Don’t block out the eccentricities and weirdness, but instead, learn from it. This is particularly relevant to me, a first-year university student, living with two roommates in a dorm! Getting along with your language (or a roommate for that matter) is critical to making progress and understanding the culture and society in which that language is predominant.

I hope you enjoyed this piece after a long period of no posts! Please don’t forget to share this post on whatever platform you use social media!

Accent and Dialect: Do You Get to Be Choosy?

As many people know, there are frequently regional varieties and accents of almost every language, even within languages spread over fairly small areas. This presents an interesting problem for non-native speakers and new learners of any given language. For certain languages, the accents aren’t sufficiently different from the standard or most commonly spoken variety. However, for others, such as those spoken in different countries, particularly ones that are far apart, the accents and dialects can be distinct, and to a degree, somewhat unintelligible. So, what do you learn? Is one more “right” than the other? Do we non-natives even have the right to choose? I discussed this in a previous post, but recently I’ve been rethinking this idea.

In order to consider this problem properly, let’s look at a few different languages where dialects and accents are reasonably present. What I mean by that is that the language in question has regional varieties and pronunciation variations that are fairly apparent to natives of the language. These dialects may even constitute social barriers. The languages I’m going to discuss are Spanish, Japanese, and Arabic.

First, let’s consider Spanish. The Spanish language is spoken in many countries, most notably in the majority of nations in South and Central America, Spain, and the United States. The varieties of Spanish in each country are generally viewed as fairly distinct. For example, Cuban Spanish, is very different from the Spanish spoken in Spain. The principal difference is the use of ceceo, a rule of pronunciation of the letters s, c, and z. However, Cuban Spanish has its own peculiarities. Take the word pescado (seafood/fish). In Castilian Spanish, the variety spoken in Spain, it is pronounced as written, but in Cuban Spanish, it is widely pronounced as pe-ca-o. This can be seen as an almost intolerable difference, to the point that you might have to devote separate studying to understanding spoken Cuban Spanish. However, this is an extreme example. Mexican Spanish, though spoken with its own accent, is not incomprehensible to the average foreign learner of Spanish, and in fact is used as the de facto “natural example” in most classrooms in the United States. (I say “natural example” to denote a variety used most often in the classroom for practical purposes.) The point is that most varieties of Spanish have their regional differences, mostly in the way of slang and regionally exclusive concepts (such as food, items in daily use, etc.), but are, overall, fairly mutually intelligible. Now, this brings us to the main problem: do learners of Spanish get to choose what variety they learn or speak? Usually, classrooms teach a version of Spanish that is politically correct, without much slang or regionalisms. Personally, I don’t view this as a huge problem, because, in the beginning, it gives a learner a decent foundation to work up from. But, in the long run, if one continues to use this approach, the end result is an overly newscaster-y sounding Spanish that everyone understands but nobody really uses in everyday conversation. I believe the solution to this problem is that students learn the “politically correct” version to a point, perhaps to the lower intermediate level (B1), and then specialize or at least become familiar with the regional dialect of one country. For example, I would say I understand most varieties of Spanish, but I personally speak and am most comfortable using Castilian Spanish. But it is not a terrible thing if you can’t do so, since the “standard form” of Spanish is readily understood and can be switched to by most, if not all speakers of the language. However, not all languages are the same, since Japanese and Arabic present different problems.

Japanese is spoken only within Japan, but the effect of regional differences is widely recognized. The Japanese spoken in Tokyo is the standard, but if one goes to the Kansai region and Hokkaido region, one will notice a marked difference in pronunciation and use of the copula (the verb “to be”) and even conjugation of verbs. This poses a particular problem for learners of Japanese, because even if one never leaves Tokyo, there are people from all over living there. It’s very similar to New York City, where I’m living right now, and I have met all sorts of different Spanish speakers. Sure, these speakers might speak the standard Japanese when they’re talking to you, but if you go to their hometown, or you end up working in Osaka as an English teacher or something, it would be in your best interest to learn how locals speak. Just because standard Tokyo Japanese is the most commonly spoken version and it’s convenient to learn only that, doesn’t mean that it’s the only one you’ll ever hear. A responsibility of non-native speakers of different languages, I think, is to understand as many people as one can. It is pretentious and even offensive to say “I don’t like the way Kansai-ben sounds, so I’m only going to speak Tokyo-ben” (-ben is a Japanese prefix referring to the dialect of a region). This is different from Spanish, because you can avoid going to Cuba, and have no contact with the Spanish spoken there. Japan is much smaller, and it is significantly less likely that you can worm your way out of going to a specific region of Japan, if you are sent there. Think about it: it is less likely that you’ll be sent to an entirely different country versus a different region within a country. Therefore, it is easier to not have to learn all the different varieties of Spanish, but in Japanese, it would be a good idea to at least understand, if not speak, a localized variety of the language.

Now, we come to the curious case of Arabic, which I have discussed several times before. Unlike some other languages of the world, Arabic’s regional varieties differ greatly, to the point that some are not mutually intelligible. According to some speakers of Arabic that I have met, this is mostly in the way of slang, but formal sources say that even the written and common, non-slang instances of the language vary. The Egyptian and Levantine versions of the sentence “I read the book” can differ greatly in pronunciation, syntax, and even sentence order, for example. When it comes to learner, they must make a choice, I believe. Modern Standard Arabic is used only in formal, pan-Arab announcements and news broadcasts, and learners should decide from there, what variety of Arabic they will learn and use more often. If you’re going to be spending most of your time in Syria or Lebanon, you should learn Levantine Arabic, and even within that, there are national and sub-national variations in the language. Likewise, if you’re working in Morocco, Moroccan Arabic is your best bet. Arabic is a language that forces you to pick a dialect, since you can’t really get away with speaking only the standard form.

The overall conclusion is that the more unintelligible two given varieties of the same language are (though you should definitely compare all of them), the more likely it is that you’ll need to become familiar with one in detail. In a way, learners do have the right, and depending on the way you look at it, and even the responsibility to choose a dialect or accent to emulate.

I hope you found this piece informative and interesting! Feel free to leave any comments and please share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

The Impact on Language by the Syrian Refugee Crisis

With the massive influx of Syrian migrants fleeing the violence in their homeland, Europe is presented a not so uncommon problem. A good portion of the migrants do not speak any of the multiple local languages of European countries. An article from The Guardian reports that volunteers are helping the refugees by teaching them the local language (read it here), which will help them better function in the new society. I’m guessing that it will be unlikely that Syrian refugees are going to be able to return to Syria any time in the next five years or so, possibly more. As such, this is a situation where I believe one needs to learn the language of a country they migrate to, simply as a matter of being pragmatic. However, I don’t support assimilation, and am not suggesting that Syrians completely abandon their homeland and their culture as a result of their situation in the countries of Europe. They have a right to that, wherever life may take them.

On the other end of the relationship, the refugee crisis brings up an interesting array of possible effects on the political-linguistic environment of Europe. European nationals teach the refugees their language, but at the same time, there will most likely be demand and need to learn their language, Syrian Arabic, as well. Syrian Arabic is a dialect of Levantine Arabic, which itself is a version of the Arabic language. Arabic’s standard form, also known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), is mostly used in official documents and news to the entire Arabic-speaking world. While most, if not all, Arabic speakers understand MSA, it is not spoken widely outside of official situations and news stations, where, even then, the local variety may predominate. The influx of Syrian refugees into Europe will give reason for the countries of Europe to make Levantine, if not specifically Syrian, Arabic an official minority language that it uses to communicate with the refugee communities, while the local language is still not fully integrated into their societies. However, given the strong linguistic identities already within European countries, such as those of Catalan, Occitan, Romansh, and other minority languages may conflict with the pragmatic need to establish a medium of communication with the Syrian community. The increased

If the conflict in Syria escalates or is otherwise perpetuated, these refugee communities may become permanent in Europe, which sets the stage for linguistic changes. For example, extended contact with Syrian Arabic may result in loan words being borrowed by local languages, which is not entirely out of the question. Spanish, due to the Moorish occupation, adopted a whole slew of words from Arabic, such as ajedrez (chess), arroz (rice), and ojalá (God permit/willing…). Another a possibility is the creation of a Romance-Arabic creole in the Syrian refugee communities. I’m not sure what the long-term significance of this would be, but it is still entirely possible. Contact with Syrian Arabic may also induce sound changes, though that is difficult to predict, especially considering the relatively small scale at which the local languages may come into contact with the language.

I hope this piece makes you think a little bit about the long-term effects of the Syrian refugee crisis, and please don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

How Big Is Your Dictionary?

English, unlike a lot of languages, has a rather large inventory of words, mostly in the way of synonyms. Take the word “blue”, for example. “Blue” can also be expressed as “sapphire, cyan, cobalt, aquamarine,” or “cerulean”. And that’s not even all of them! Granted, these are different shades or qualities of the color, but the fact remains that there are many ways to express almost any given sentence in English. This can be a good and a bad thing. On the plus side, it makes expression and poetry more versatile, and can allow people to describe the world and their experiences in a more precise. On the other hand, it makes English very complicated, dense, and difficult to learn past a certain level of proficiency for the non-native speaker. I can’t say for sure what that level is, but this problem is more present in reading than in speech.

The notion of having and using a lot of synonyms in basic, everyday speech is simply not as important in most other languages. The threshold of vocabulary at which one uses new words for things one already knows, such as for colors, is much higher in Spanish or Italian than in English. That is to say, Spanish or Italian looks different only at a very high level of education, somewhere in the realm of PhDs and intellectuals. English, on the other hand, begins employing varied and complex language in high school. Remember, I’m talking about this from the perspective of a non-native speaker.

But let’s consider why this is. A Romance language like Spanish derives most of its lexicon from Latin, as well as from the languages of indigenous people in South America. However, academic, or at least standardized Spanish, may not use these words, even in the country in which those words are in widespread use. It is much the same in English-speaking countries; there is no reason to use regionalisms in formal situations unless it is explicitly required. Now, from the viewpoint of a non-native speaker of Spanish, whose first language is English and has a pretty decent knowledge of English, technical and sometimes formal Spanish can be easily guessed through using a knowledge of Latin roots. This is because English has a technical lexicon drawing from Latin and Greek. However, this is not the case the other way around. English draws from many different languages across the world, due to its multinational presence and imperial history. The fundamentally Germanic vocabulary and syntax of English also prevents most non-natives of English from grasping the grammar and vocabulary very quickly.

The significance of having “larger” dictionary is hard to ascertain, because the use of language(s) varies by country, and even within those countries by region. In the United States, English is the primary language in all cases, and other languages are often used in a semi-official capacity, such as translation or interpretation. In contrast, India has a multitude of different languages within itself. The state languages, such as Kannada, Malayalam, or Marathi, are used on the state level, and are used in semi-official capacities at the federal level, where English is used, with Hindi occasionally alongside it. A larger number of synonyms for any given word may allow for more precision, but to the average speaker, native or non-native, subtle distinctions between such words are irrelevant. Very often, synonyms for things such as color are for descriptive effect and variation, rather than a genuine difference in color.

I hope you enjoyed this piece, and I would love to hear your comments. Don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

The Challenges in the Life of a Polyglot-in-Training

This is something that all polyglots, and even language learners who aren’t planning to learn any more languages, should read. Working on a language is a long and grueling process, which catches up to even the best of us. That said, we shouldn’t get lazy because we feel like we’re not getting anywhere. In fact, if you’re in that place, chances are that there’s an area you need to focus on. But it’s not wrong to take a break once in a while. In this post, I’m going to talk about the things that challenge me when learning languages, and what to do about it.

Leafing through so many resources to find certain information.

This is a big part of my work on language learning and on my books. Depending on the language, this can be incredibly frustrating. This is actually why the Hindi book is coming along so slowly. There are very few good sites out there that describe Hindi grammar, though my personal favorites are hindilanguage.info and learning-hindi.com. Even those either are largely restricted to very basic things or don’t explain the grammar in a way that makes sense to me. This is coming from a person who prefers to use grammar as the basis for language learning! But whether the language is Hindi or Italian, it takes a while for me to compile the information into notes and coherent lessons. Sometimes, I just find it all so tiring that I just let it be for a little bit. I’ll go watch some television or read and let my mind unwind a bit. Never be afraid to get up and walk around for an hour to just take a break. Don’t do what I did and work all day and all night, going to sleep at 1 or 2 in the morning on a regular basis for an entire summer. Believe me, it wrecks your sleep schedule and wears you out.

Learning from others and not being afraid to do so.

This has two situations packed into it. First, there’s learning from native speakers. The whole point of learning a language is to talk to these people! Don’t be afraid to speak up, try out your skills, and see what they say! Most of the time, they’re happy to oblige to correct you if you’re wrong about something. You should be careful about what and how you say things, though. I’m attending university in New York City, and while there are plenty of people to practice my languages with (particularly Mandarin for me right now), there are definitely people who are not in the mood! The other situation in with this piece of advice is other polyglots or learners who are fairly advanced in their learning. If they speak your target language better than you, then listen to them! Other people’s experience is invaluable to building your own. Standing on the shoulders of giants, in a way (I realize that’s not what it means but it works for the situation). Ask them about what they did to get so good at speaking a language or learning in general. It will help you in the long run, especially if you’re in a slump.

Find what works for you. Experiment!

When it comes to method, there is no one method that works. Software like Pimsleur and Glossika (the latter of which I love) can be touted as the best way to learn a language, but everyone has their own way. For example, Duolingo is a good way to keep some practice going, but personally, I find it very bland to a point. The language used in Duolingo is restricted to as many phrases are put in the system (nothing you can do about this), which does an admirable job. But to be honest, Duolingo should encourage what I call the “synthesis” skill, which is crucial to learning a language. “Synthesis” is being able to concoct and put together new sentences yourself without having to pause too much. But that’s just my opinion. Don’t take my word for it and try it out for yourself! It’s important to test out different things and find a sure-fire method tailored for your needs.

Take a break!

I already said this, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to do this. Set your materials and notes aside for a moment, and do something else! You need give your brain time to process all the information you’re taking in. That’s why sleep is important, too, so don’t sacrifice your physical well-being! By taking a break, you’ll be able to test how well you retain information in the long-term. Even though Memrise prompts me to work on it every day, I only do it once in a while to refresh my memory, at least for the languages I’m already quite familiar with.

That’s my piece for now, but I hope you guys re-read some of the older articles as well. Please don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

The Importance of Childhood Language Immersion

http://thinkprogress.org/immigration/2015/08/24/3694686/hisd-arabic-immersion-program/

After having read this article, I am deeply disturbed by the lack of respect for immigrants from the Middle East and their language and religion. Resolving tensions with the Middle East does not mean rejecting anything to do with it. By helping children learn other languages, we encourage them to learn about other cultures, and appreciate the world for the multiple cultures that exist in it. Being monolingual forever means pushing away the wealth of knowledge that others have to offer.

To all of the Arabic speaking families in Houston: my prayers are with you that this program will be preserved, so that children will be able to bring themselves closer to you, your children, and your culture. You’re not alone. Language is what binds cultures and civilizations together. We prosper because we understand each other. By learning other people’s languages, we can be even more prosperous.

To the protesters: Closing yourself to the world is exactly what ruins this country. This program is a step in the right direction. “Immigrants must assimilate”? It is not our duty to do anything other than abide by the laws of this country and get along with other people. We are not required to give up our heritage, religion, and definitely not our language.

Don’t listen to these people who want to hold our country and our world back! Protect language immersion of all kinds in schools!

Supporting “The World Speaks!”

Recently, I announced that I am publishing my language guides on Amazon, with 25% of the proceeds going to the Akshayapatra Foundation, which sponsors school lunches for underprivileged students in India. This prevents children from dropping out of school early in order to make money for their families, and makes sure that they don’t go hungry.

I’ve decide that I’m going to put the guides back up for download for free. But, as I continue to publish material, I ask that you please purchase the guides from Amazon, not only to donate to Akshayapatra, but also to fund this project. The money helps support the site, as well makes sure that you all have access to more language-related content. I write these guides completely on my own, and I do my own research to bring the content to you. Also, I’m going to be university student soon, and that will take up more of my time. Please be patient with the production of new guides; I’m doing the best I can.

I hope you enjoy using this site to further your own language learning goals, and please buy the guides, either physical or Kindle copies, to support The World Speaks! and the Akshayapatra Foundation!