Foreign Language Schools and Community

In honor of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, this post will be concerning a central issue in the APIDA (Asian/Pacific Islander/Desi American) communities.

In the United States, particularly on the coasts, there are a series of institutions that teach language skills. You may have heard of some of them, like the ABC Language Exchange, the Middlebury Language School, or the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, all of which offer classes in particular foreign langauges. These are more mainstream and broadly-reaching institutions, but there is another class of language institute, with a very different place within the community.

These are the foreign language schools, particularly for Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. Where I live in the Bay Area, you could find these just about anywhere. I had a lot of Chinese and Korean friends growing up, and many of them talked about their experiences going to “Chinese school” or “Korean school”. There are also Japanese day schools where the Japanese community can take classes, such as Sakura Gakuen, a particularly famous school in the Bay Area. The events of Japanese American internment, unfortunately, did cause these schools to decline. These schools are more about the community than the language itself, because they exist for a very specific purpose.

Immigrant communities that speak foreign languages, in varying degrees, want to preserve their languages in their children that are born abroad, in order to foster some kind of appreciation for or connection to their heritage. These schools allow for the parents of these communities to send their children to after-school or weekend classes to have their children learn their mother tongue. This kind of place is helpful to parents who have busy jobs and can’t be with their children as much as they’d like, or parents who want their children to have particular degree of competency in their mother tongue. These schools give these families an opportunity to immerse their children in their heritage and community.

Now, my Chinese and Korean friends, by and large, hated going to Chinese and Korean school. This is to be expected, since most children don’t like being given extra work, especially when they want to play or do other things in their free time. But I have noticed that some of them, especially now that a lot of us are in university, regret not paying attention in their Chinese or Korean classes, or regret making their parents taking them out of classes completely. But the thing is that these Chinese and Korean Americans are able to come together and foster a sense of community through their mutual experiences as well as language.

As an Indian American, this is something that I wish I had while growing up. I grew up not being able to speak my mother tongue well, if at all, and it was only after I asked my parents to finally teach me so that I could talk to my family in India that I finally learned. Many Indian Americans don’t really have the opportunity to go to any kind of after school or weekend class for their language, partly due to the sheer diversity of languages spoken by Indians. There isn’t an established tradition of sending children to such classes anyway, because many Indian immigrants can speak English at least conversationally, if not fluently. Many Indian immigrants feel that teaching their children anything other than English is not useful and therefore neglect teaching their children at all. Some also are under the impression that it will confuse their children to teach their children two languages. The latter, at least, has proven by many linguists to be absolutely false. Many children do grow up bilingual, quite successfully (evidenced by me, my brother, and many other children in the APIDA community as well as other communities).

Part of it is that these schools in the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese communities have sprung from a need to create community since parents may not speak English and children can learn about their heritages through these communal centers. Another thing is that these communities have been in the United States for much longer than the Indian community (and South Asian communities in general), and are more established, which helps them in establishing these community centers. Language is often the binding glue of community, and brings people together in ways that other things do not, since it is the medium of communication. I think that as time passes, and that South Asian communities do become more established, there will be time where at least Hindi-Urdu language schools will become more commonplace.

3 Things to Do When Getting Started with Mandarin Chinese

So recently, I began learning Mandarin Chinese, knowing full well that it would be a challenging language to learn. I was less worried about my ability to speak (as arrogant as that sounds), and more about my ability to read and write. To be perfectly honest, the hard part of Mandarin, and I suppose Cantonese and Japanese as well, is reading and writing the language, as there’s a point where you can remember words in speech more easily than in text. With thousands of characters with unique meanings and overlapping pronunciations, Mandarin is truly a beast of its own caliber. However, there are a few things I’ve found helpful to making headway into the language. As you read this article, I’m assuming you know a few basic things about Mandarin.

1. Learn tones in pairs as they are spoken in speech.

I can’t stress this enough as it threw off my pronunciation for an entire month until I realized what I was doing wrong. Knowing the tones in isolation is somewhat helpful, but it is much better to learn them in pairs, as this is the most basic level at which tones change. The reason I say in speech is because of the third tone specifically. The third tone is NOT a falling-rising (“bouncing”) tone as many textbooks and online sources will tell you. Most of the time, anyway. The third tone is actually more along the lines of a low flat tone, almost the opposite of the first tone, which is a high flat tone. The only time that the third tone is pronounced as falling-rising is in isolation and when stressed. Hacking Chinese’ explanation of the third tone is also quite helpful. There are probably regional variations in how people pronounce the tones, but standard Mandarin pronunciation is usually your best bet, unless you have your own reasons for learning a regional variety.

Yangyang Cheng’s video on tone pairs is extremely helpful (linked here). She has a lot of other videos on pronunciation and phrases as well, so be sure to take advantage of those, as well her website: Here’s a useful link on tone changes as well:

2. Do not learn characters by rote!

I swear, if you study the characters only one way, do not let it be rote memorization! This is an extremely bad idea as you will not only overload your brain with hundreds of characters but also you won’t be able to remember as many. Hacking Chinese has a very apt metaphor for this:

There are an untold number of combinations of character components, and studying only the multitude of end-results is horrendously inefficient. This would be a little bit like learning maths by studying thousands of examples, but never actually looking at the underlying equations.

Hacking Chinese has a very good guide for getting started in learning the language in its written form. Radicals are very important, as they help you understand the components of the written language, and it helps you develop an intuition for what a new character might mean. Here’s the link to the first part of the Hacking Chinese method.

3. Get a textbook and use it.

Despite what Hacking Chinese points out about Chinese textbooks on the third tone, that is not to say that Chinese textbooks are bad at teaching the language. In fact, they provide a good source of exercises for you to work with and a place to practice your reading (this goes for most if not all languages, really). I’m currently using Modern Chinese: Learn Chinese in a Simple and Successful Way by Vivienne Zhang. My only issue with this book is that it does not actually tell you how to pronounce the tones at all. Therefore, I highly suggest going through tones somewhere before purchasing the book, as otherwise it is pretty good for supplementary exercises and some grammar reference. I prefer most online Chinese grammar sources personally, and two of the most useful ones I’ve found are Chinese Grammar Wiki and Chinese Grammar Boost.

Do You Know All Your Relatives? Maybe Not.

I recently watched two videos by Off The Great Wall, a YouTube channel that makes videos concerning the Chinese culture and also things about Mandarin and Cantonese. It’s an excellent channel, and I highly recommend that you subscribe to it and watch their videos. But back to the videos I was talking about. These videos talk about the immensely complicated and detailed family tree in Mandarin and Cantonese. You can see the videos at (Mandarin) and at If you’re a Mandarin or Cantonese speaker, see if you can recognize all the words!

So, let’s get down to business. The kinship systems in Mandarin and Cantonese are essentially the Indian kinship systems on steroids, with names for extremely specific members of the family across several generations. I find that this says something about the cultures in question. I have noticed that in countries where specific terms exist for certain members of the family, there often are joint-family households or families living in close proximity. In India, grandparents, and even great-grandparents live in a main house with the children and grandchildren. Even aunts and uncles may live with them. From what I have heard from my Chinese friends, it is similar in China.

There is a great sense of familial togetherness, honor, and respect for the elders in both Chinese and Indian culture. I’m not saying that this is not the case in Western cultures, but in many European countries, families are typically nuclear families, with only parents and children living in the house. Grandparents may live with them, but it is considerably rarer than in India and China. In the US, parents often make a point of children moving out and living on their own with their own families, with a stress on the independence factor. I have a feeling that this has something to do with the kinship terminology.

In Spanish, Portuguese, and other Romance languages, there are few terms that extend beyond great-grandparents, cousins, and uncles and aunts. In Chinese, in contrast, according to the video, relatives can be distinguished by the side of the family they’re on in relation to you, who they’re married to, and their age. In the Chinese culture, there is a great stress on knowing your family very well, and it is considered poor upbringing (from what I have been told) to not know the correct terms or use them incorrectly.

Terms that extend beyond great-grandparents in Romance languages are often technical terms for genealogical purposes, whereas in Mandarin and Cantonese, the equivalent terms are used often, even if the relative in question is no longer living or not present. In Indian languages, there is more emphasis on terminology that concerns in-laws, and people insist on using them correctly. While you certainly would never call your mother-in-law saas to her face, but you would use that word to call her indirectly. With all these things in mind, it would be very easy to say that Western cultures are not as close with their families.

However, there is a counterargument to all of this: Latin American and Southern Italian families. These cultures are well known for their tight-knit extended family households, but Spanish and Italian lack the specificity of the Indian languages and Mandarin and Cantonese. However, this could be a result of societies that are historically agrarian, include village communities, and have tribal divisions, in which all members of the family would participate in daily matters and create the community. These are factors that are common to Latin America, Southern Italy, India, and China, though the American South is a notable exception due to the whole US’ rapid industrialization and technological advancement in 19th and 20th centuries.

So, you have something to think about. Please leave your comments and like the page on Facebook, at! Like and share/reblog this post if you liked it!

Tips For Learning A New Script

When it comes to learning another language, you sometimes encounter languages with a different script from the one you usually use. This is especially the case with Eastern languages. The Nastaliq script is highly artistic in its aesthetics, and is written from right to left, instead of left to right like most scripts. Cyrillic is the script for many Slavic languages, primarily Russian, Serbian, etc, and is deceptively similar to the Latin script. And then you have the scripts of Asia, which can be complicated like Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese, mixed up like Japanese, or like Hindi, which uses diacritics. While it can seem daunting to memorize three different writing systems for Japanese, or having to recognize the vowel sounds from context for Arabic and Hebrew, there is a way to learn!

1. Practice. I cannot stress this enough. You are not going to learn a script as quickly if you simply use flashcards. Despite being in a time where computers and typing are the primary form of written communication and letters are dying out, writing the characters of a writing system with a pen or pencil helps internalize the characters in your mind. Your brain learns to recognize the patterns you write down. Get a notebook or use several pieces of paper, and practice the characters. It’s usually best to practice them in groups of five, especially for Indian language scripts, and Japanese, whose spoken, “alphabets,” are recited as such. After you finish a page, go to the next one, and write out every single character that you’ve learned so far, in order. Then continue to the next set of five, when you can write all the ones you have learned with little to no difficulty.

2. Flashcards. This is more of an aid for reading. It is important to realize that even though I said you should write the characters in order, characters do not appear that way in written language. You need to train yourself to recognize characters in different instances, and out of order. After a while, you should be able to write a character without thinking too long if someone asks you to.

3. Read. Find a grammar school primer or simple children’s story books, and try to read it slowly. If you have trouble, keep a chart of the characters next to you, and transcribe the letters to your own script. This helps you to recognize characters in different positions in words.

4. Write. This comes into play more when you actually start learning the language itself. Write all words in the target language in its script, to force yourself to practice writing them, and also reading them when you review your notes. I got into the habit of writing my Spanish notes in Spanish this year. While not exactly the same situation, it works on the same principle. By putting everything you can into the target language, you model immersion to an extent, and force yourself to work with the language.

5. Recall. This is probably the hardest part of learning the script, because it doesn’t involve a tangible activity. You should only attempt to do this when you have a good grasp for most of the characters, though you can try to do this as you go along. Recall entails recalling the image of the characters in question in your mind, and writing them in the air, if you need some help. This is especially helpful for ideographic languages, such as Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese.

Good luck with learning those scripts!