What Should We Be Learning In High School?

For many high school students in the United States (as well as other countries), foreign language education is a topic that has mixed responses when brought up. Many of my classmates from high school reviled it as a waste of their time, saying that “everyone speaks English anyway”. Others enjoyed it, like myself, and valued it highly as an important aspect of my education. In the United States, the prevailing languages taught in high schools are Spanish, French, and more recently, Mandarin Chinese.

The general premise of foreign language education is that it facilitates communication between people who otherwise might not be able to, as well as to improve relations between different countries.  There is a kind of cultural bias in English speaking countries where people from the United States and other English-speaking countries can ask people in other countries whether they speak English before attempting to speak in the native language of that country. It’s a poor habit that many Americans fall into, since our foreign language education is often subpar or non-extensive in its covering of cultural nuances.

At New York University, many of the programs require students to complete a foreign language requirement, which can range from completing only the elementary series to having to complete the entire series from elementary through advanced. Universities often provide a fairly wide variety of languages compared to high schools, but Spanish and French predominate as the biggest programs in many schools. NYU, specifically, offers languages including Italian, Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Haitian Krèyol, and even Quechua!

Now what I’m going to discuss is what languages we really should be teaching in our high schools, since I believe that our current selection is falling out of practical usage. Spanish is still one of the most useful language since many Hispanic immigrants reside in the United States, and Mandarin Chinese has similar applications in Chinese communities around the country. French is where it gets tricky. Very few people in the United States actually speak French in comparison to Spanish and Chinese, and even if Canada is on the border, the demographics of United States do not make French particularly applicable. Below are the top three languages that I think need to be replace French or otherwise be added to the foreign language curriculum of United States high schools:

Arabic

Arabic, as a lingua franca of the Middle East, is an incredibly useful language due to its applications in refugee and immigrant communities around the world. The Middle Eastern communities will benefit immensely from the acceptance and tolerance for their heritages and beliefs if their language is taught in schools. However, as you may or may not know, Arabic comes in several regional varieties that are not entirely mutually intelligible, including Egyptian, Moroccan, Palestinian, and Saudi Arabian. There is a standardized variety, known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is based off of the Arabic of the Qur’an, known as Classical Arabic. We cannot possibly accommodate the many varieties of Arabic, so it is probably best to teach MSA in high schools, as is done in many universities.

Only at advanced levels can students consider specializing in a particular variety of Arabic, but each has its own merits. Egyptian Arabic is one of the most widely understood regional varieties, given much of popular Arabic-language media is in Egyptian Arabic, whereas Levantine Arabic has applications in diplomatic relations and translation/interpretation in the Levant, which includes areas such as Israel, Palestine, Jordan, or Syria (Note: these areas do have their regional variations, but Levantine Arabic does cover all of them to an extent).

Hindi-Urdu

While many South Asians do speak English fairly well (if not fluently), Hindi-Urdu is a valuable language to implement in school systems. South Asian communities have a diverse set of languages spoken among them, and Hindi-Urdu does, to an extent, unite them through a common language. Unlike Hispanic and Chinese communities, South Asian communities are not afforded the privilege of having their language being mainstream, which contributes to dynamics of assimilation. Hindi-Urdu is a culturally rich language with a strong tradition of music, poetry, and literature. Part of the barriers to understanding South Asian communities is due to the alienation of their languages, culture, and traditions.

You may think that this is simply to accommodate the South Asian communities in the United States, but the fact is that South Asian Americans exist. Many of us are divided from our heritages due to the lack of ability to connect to it through our languages, and having the language of Bollywood to connect us is a way of strengthening our ties. Yes, we do have our own languages, but we have our own ways (and sometimes not) to connect with those heritages. Hindi-Urdu is one of the few ways that Pakistani and Indian Americans can find something in common in the way of cultural bonds. Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Americans have their own languages as well, and it is important to recognize that, and in communities with large populations of Bengalis and Sri Lankans, they do find their own ways to promote their languages (as I’ve personally seen in New York City). For the purpose of practicality, I support Hindi-Urdu as a language to be taught in high schools, due to its extensive cultural potential.

Russian

Russian is a somewhat practical language to learn, though this is more true on the East Coast with large populations of Ukrainian and Russian immigrants. Russian, as a diplomatic language, does have some uses as well, considering that it is a lingua franca in many Eastern European countries. Since I’m not as familiar with Russian communities or the scope of the language, I admit there’s not much else I’m able to say.

The over-arching point of this post is to express that certain languages need to be promoted more than others in this changing world. The prestige of French and Spanish is not a valid excuse to neglect the communities of other nations as well as expand diplomatic and cultural relations with them.

 

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!

“Is Watching Foreign Language Movies a Waste of Time?” from Fluent in 3 Months – Response

I recently read through a post about foreign language films from Fluent in 3 Months (run by the legendary Benny Lewis; you can read it here). In this post, I’m going to address points made in the post, as well as discuss the worth of media in general as a foreign language tool. With that, here we go!

Movies/Media have to be studied actively. Passive watching is unproductive.

I’ve paraphrased it, but this is a very big point, and is true of most media in general, when you’re using it to learn another language. Even though I’ve watched Bollywood films for a good part of my life, why isn’t my Hindi-Urdu really good? That’s because I’m not paying attention to what the actors are actually saying. By focusing on subtitles, you’re tuning out anything you can possibly learn.

It’s a good idea to have the remote with you while you watch. You should find yourself pausing and rewinding a lot, to closely examine what they’re saying. If you’re watching something on YouTube, you can slow down the video so the speech is slower and easier to understand. Writing down the words will help immensely for remembering what you hear.

However, even though the post breaks down the method into, “Focus”, “Segmentation”, “Repetition”, “Engagement”, and “Subtitles”, I think one more thing should be added: “Searching”. In almost every movie, song, TV show, or whatever it is, there will be words or phrases that are repeated over and over again. Look for these! It will make your life so much easier when you can pick out what you have learned and what you haven’t.

I find the tip about trying to respond in the role of a character by pausing before the character answers really interesting. I’d never really considered it before, and it’s a great way of practicing synthesis, putting sentences together by yourself, rather than using set phrases.

Warning: the media method isn’t for everyone.

I’m sure that Benny Lewis is aware of this, but using media such as television and music is inadvisable for people who are starting out. This is especially true of music; languages such as Hindi-Urdu and Mandarin use vocabulary that is exclusively poetic, literary, or figurative. This isn’t helpful for a person who doesn’t already know a lot of basic vocabulary and grammar. You can read my views regarding this phenomenon in Bollywood cinema here.

Even for television, which is more likely to use mundane or everyday words, cannot be of use to a person who’s not familiar with the language at least at an intermediate level. For example, I wouldn’t recommend watching a Spanish telenovela when you don’t know all the tenses and moods in the language. For a language like Spanish, more complicated structures involving the subjunctive are commonplace in everyday speaking, and are essential to certain nuances that people wish to convey.

Currently, I’m studying the Italian text of a video game, Final Fantasy X (you can read Part 1 of the analysis here), and I have to pause through a 2-minute cutscene several times from time to time because there are words that I don’t understand. It also helps that I did the blog post, actually. But the point is that it doesn’t matter what media form it is, you you have to be able to understand 40% of the text/speech from the start (most of which is grammar and basic vocabulary), and the other 60% (more advanced/specific vocabulary) will come in time. I might be over/understating the the ratio, but it just goes to show that prior knowledge is necessary.

Pick a movie/form of media that you like.

I also have some reservations about using films that you know. Depending on the film, your target language’s dub either uses cultural contexts and expressions that are completely foreign to itself, even if they’re totally normal for you. This is a problem because it will present situations that the language isn’t built for. Unless the societies of two languages have a lot in common in other ways, it is unlikely that the dub of a film that was originally in another language can fully render all the intricacies of the original language. I’m not saying don’t watch the French dub of Disney movies to practice your French; just don’t depend on it as your sole source of foreign language media. Watch a film that was made in France/Canada for French speakers. As the original post points out, these authentic films will give you a glimpse into real cultural situations that the language was made for.

This is where we have conflicts over the question of fictional works. By which I mean, films/books such as The Lord of the Rings. It’s a prime example of an unhelpful text for learning a foreign language, at least at lower levels. The Lord of the Rings is highly literary in its style, and consists of fictional cultures and languages that may or may not have anything in common with real world ones. The point of this warning is for you to have some variety in what you learn from; venture from your comfort zone (media you’re familiar with and understand on a basic level anyway) into the depths of authentic, original foreign language material made for the people who speak that language. It’s not to say that reading The Lord of the Rings in Russian would be entirely unhelpful; it would be, but it would give you only insight into how a Russian native might perceive the Tolkien’s fictional universe, which is not unhelpful in and of itself.

My experience with Final Fantasy X in Italian is another example of this predicament. The universe of the game is not Italian, and so it doesn’t give me any insight into Italian culture, not much anyway. On the other hand, it does let me see how Italian translators choose to render fantasy, which is still a useful thing to know. I get my dose of Italian culture through what I read on occasion (Italo Calvino in Italian is pretty helpful), so I’d like to think I’m not deficient. You should have a healthy balance of both in order to understand a language.

I realize that might have been a lot to process, but if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments, and I’ll answer them as best and as quickly as I can!

Can You Really Learn Japanese from Watching Anime?

One of my dad’s friends once told me, “All the Hindi you could ever need to know exists within the average Hindi movie.” Having watched many and understood the majority of the plot, I can confirm that in my experience, it is true. However, I won’t lie that I was initially suspicious of that statement. After all, when was I ever going to say things like, “Love is the song of the lord”, in poetic Hindi-Urdu at that? But as I began reading more and learning about the role of language in my English class and Spanish class, it is clear to me that media, to a degree, can reflect contemporary styles of the spoken and written language. Note I use two specific words here: can and contemporary. I say can because it is not always true. There is such thing a poorly written period piece, and can happen as easily in English as in Japanese. I also say contemporary because the language used in a particular medium of communication always suits a particular period, though not necessarily the modern one.

Now this brings me to the question of the post: can you learn Japanese from anime? Now, I’m going to be addressing this as a broader topic in this post, but this specific instance is perhaps one of the most common and serves as a good point of comparison. Many anime are adapted from manga, which are two separate media, but I’ll get to that soon. Anime has a considerable range of genres, including drama, fantasy, sci-fi, historical, and the infamous magical girl genre. Because of the range of genres, there is a similarly wide range of language. In a historical anime about feudal Japan, the language may feature archaic constructions and diction characteristic of the Edo period. Obviously, modern Japanese has shifted greatly since then, but watching such anime can serve as a valuable lesson in recognizing historical references and jokes involving the language of the era. And granted, this is all true assuming you watch the subbed versions. You can learn from anime, provided you actually have a working knowledge of Japanese. By being able to recognize certain constructions, you can pick up new vocabulary, by reading the subtitles and comparing the word and the construction used. As for someone like myself, who hasn’t actually started learning Japanese, I recognize a few set phrases here and there, but I don’t know enough of the grammar to extrapolate from the spoken language. Remember, guessing can be your greatest tool! It’s rather like process of elimination, because if you can pick out most of the other words in the sentence and then look at the translation, it’ll be easier to figure out the unknown word(s). Remember, this isn’t exclusive to Japanese! This can apply to just about any language with a well-established media presence, which unfortunately screws over minority languages and those without a written tradition. Watch a Korean drama to improve your listening skills and follow along if you can. As a Korean learner, I can say that it definitely helps. If you’re looking for recommendations (well, really, my friends’ recommendations), The Heirs is pretty good, and Bride of the Century isn’t bad either. If you can get past numerous scenes of the main theme playing while the protagonist is crying their eyes out in a cellar or in their room or something, then it’s a worthwhile experience.

Moving on to the other side of media: the written tradition. Going back to the Japanese example, manga can be a great tool in learning new kanji and also familiarizing yourself with the written language. Even though Japanese, as a language, can be somewhat challenging, it’s one of the few languages where it’s very easy to get into reading. If you’re a Spanish or Arabic learner, you might be hard-pressed to find native material that you can mostly understand at a lower level. But a word of caution: the written form of any language historically lags behind the spoken language. What I mean is that what people say may not be appropriate for what is written. For example, I say the word, “hella” when I speak in English, to mean “very”. And I do use them interchangeably, primarily as a shift in register. But I would almost never use the word “hella” in written format, although it’s becoming more common in texting, informal messaging on forums, and such. Sometimes, as in the case of Kannada, the written language may not even sound the same way as it’s spoken. But that shouldn’t stop you from reading and writing! Both are important sources of learning new vocabulary and practice. It’s important to be well-versed in both the spoken and written form of the language, so that you have more than one way of acquiring new information.

That’s all I have for this time! If you have any comments, feel free to leave some. Don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

What Bollywood Films Say About Hindi for Learners

As the child of Indian immigrants, a good number of the movies I grew up seeing were Bollywood films. The main attraction for most Indian people, in my experience, is not the story, so much as the music. While many American people remember Disney films and the music in them, the story seems to stay with them much more than the music. This could be because Bollywood film stories are really not that great, but music occupies a different space in Indian society, particularly in the use of the Hindi language. (Note: I say Hindi here, because I cannot speak for Urdu, as I am not Pakistani or familiar with Urdu cinema.)

In Western music, the diction of song lyrics (at least in modern times) is not terribly different from that which is used by people in their daily lives. Song lyrics in Western music often manipulate daily language into something more meaningful to create different effects. However, this is not the case with Hindi. The particular lexicon used by most Indian music (not just in Hindi; other Indian languages due this) have poetic and/or religious undertones. Most poetry in India is accompanied by music, and not recited independently. The vocabulary of Hindi music is very different from colloquial language, and cannot be used in such a context.

With the advent of cinema, the role of music in India has also changed Hindi as a language considerably. It has further distinguished conversational Hindi and its poetic counterpart, by showing them in very different circumstances. Musical and dance sequences include by songs that use poetic Hindi and/or Urdu. Urdu, in India, is regarded as a poetic version of Hindi that you would almost never use in daily conversation. In contrast, conversational Hindi is shown in the regular dialogue. As a result of this, many Indians deeply appreciate Urdu poetry and music as an art form, because it is not common in their daily lives otherwise. Urdu forms an important part of the Indian culture as the biggest part of its poetic history.

These facts present a few basic truths that learners of Hindi should recognize. First is that Bollywood movies contain a great deal of knowledge of both conversational and poetic Hindi. Much of the Hindi that you need to know exists in two or three Bollywood films. However, this brings us to the second fact: it is hard to appreciate Hindi without learning about the music. Part of learning a language is learning about the traditions and culture that it is a part of, which undoubtedly includes music. You should be familiar with some Urdu so that you can appreciate Bollywood cinema (at least some of them; I would advise against certain films), as a central part of the Hindi language.

The last important thing you need to know as a Hindi learner is that different genres of Indian movies in general do not use the same Hindi. It is a common trope in Indian cinema to portray ethnic neighborhoods, particular dialects, or other languages altogether. Historical fiction, such as Jodhaa Akbar, which portrays the relationship between a Muslim prince and Hindu princess during the era of the Mughals, uses a purer or regional/rustic form of Hindi that is not especially common anymore. That particular film is good for highlighting the differences between Urdu and Hindi, as they draw much of their vocabulary from different sources, Arabic/Farsi and Sanskrit, respectively. Religious films that portray Hindu mythology use an extremely Sanskrit-ized form of Hindi, which uses almost no Arabic or Farsi loanwords. On the other hand, films that center around Muslim neighborhoods will feature extensive use of Urdu as the form of conversation.

Films that I recommend for learning and pleasure include MardaaniJodhaa Akbar, Main Hoon Na, Lagaan, and Two States.

I hope you found this piece interesting, and feel free to leave any comments that you have! Don’t forget to share this on Facebook, Tumblr, or any other social network!

Watching Films and Other Media in Other Languages

Since I was a little kid, it always fascinated me to watch films that my family had at home in other languages. After watching the film, I would immediately want to go to, “Setup,” and change language, and put subtitles. Now, I find it an invaluable source to watch familiar films in Spanish to practice my listening skills, which I find the hardest thing to do in my Spanish class, because the speakers on the audio tracks speak so fast.

I definitely think that films should be available in other languages for this reason, more so than they are now, anyway. You get French and Spanish on most US films, but little else (I think I saw Italian once). I actually watched Frozen in Latin American Spanish yesterday, and I found that I could understand maybe 65% of what was said (and that’s being a bit generous). As of now, I’ve yet to find a site that provides films in multiple languages. I imagine such a site would charge monthly fees in much the way that Netflix does, and it doesn’t seem like it’s that out the question for such a service to exist. Many foreign language teachers often have to go out of their way to find films in the language they teach. To watch a film in the target language would be an invaluable learning tool, because not only do learners enjoy watching a familiar film, but they also learn by doing so.

Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Hindi learners have perhaps some of the greatest resources when it comes to media in the target language. J-Pop, K-Pop, C-Pop (yes, that’s a thing), and Bollywood songs are ubiquitous, as you can buy them on iTunes or download them off the internet, due to the genres’ immense global popularity. They also have access to a number of dramas, as many sites let you watch dramas for free, or sometimes paid when they’re higher quality and have more options. The thing about dramas, especially Korean and Indian dramas, despite their very specific situations, contain most of the words you need to have a functional knowledge of the language. This is also the case with the infamous telenovela of Latin American countries. Bollywood movies are also very accessible, and in some Indian grocery stores, there is an entire section full of Indian movies in many different Indian languages. Sadly, not many animated movies are dubbed in Hindi, because many people in India  know English, and animated movies are not very popular.

However, overall, your options are pretty limited when it comes to finding movies or TV shows in a language such as say, Russian or Portuguese. You can find a lot of Disney movie songs in other languages, but not always the movie itself. You’re not going to be able to get Aladdin in Russian very easily in the US, unless you import it.

If anyone finds a site that shows films in other languages, please post it in the comments!