Why America Isn’t As Multicultural As You Think (And What We Can Do About It)

It is not rarely that I hear the glories of America’s multicultural and multiethnic history, and that it has always been accepting of immigrants and creates a place for mutual understanding. While it’s certainly true that cultural pluralism was effectively born in the United States, modern-day America is not as integrated as you would be lead to believe.

The majority of the immigrant population lives on the coasts, where bigger cities and more job opportunities exist for newcomers to the country. While there is certainly little you can do about the lower numbers of immigrants elsewhere, it’s not an excuse for lacking in cultural education. We live in the Information Age, where literally thousands upon thousands of articles, e-books, and websites are at your disposal to learn about essentially anything.

America has always had what is called “a cult of ignorance,” as described by Professor Traphagan in an article by the Huffington Post (linked here). Media and education treat other nations as exotic, different, and most of all, implicitly inferior. We are taught that the United States is successful and powerful because it allows its citizens certain rights and liberties that other countries do not. This creates not only a national superiority complex, but also brushes to the side all the nations that immigrants come from. By implying that other nations are lower than ours is, we cultivate a culture of anti-foreign beliefs.

To remedy the ills of anti-immigrant sentiment and cultural ignorance, I think that it is necessary to implement foreign language education at an age much earlier than middle school. Beginning at least in second or third grade, children become increasingly cognizant of the fact there are other races of people, different lifestyles, and of course, that there are other languages. In middle school, children, due to the vast amount of information on the Internet and the prevalence of technology, have formed many of their own opinions, habits, and even personal beliefs regarding other people. While children are young, we ought to be instilling in them the idea that the world is a big place, where people are different, and one of the best ways to do so is teaching them foreign languages.

Therefore, I propose multilingual education beginning in third grade. In a hypothetical model, children would select the language they want to learn (with some guidance from parents, of course), and learn it alongside other coursework. Recognizing that some parents might take issue with this program, foreign language would optional until high school, where it actually becomes a requirement for graduation. However, foreign language should eventually become a core subject, not an elective or minimal requirement. By engaging children in environments different from the ones they usually encounter, they can develop a broader perspective from which to view the world and their other learning.

Different languages have different ways of looking at things, evidenced in different expressions, untranslatable words, and the varying ways in which words are put together. It has been shown in several studies (some of which you can see here)that students with foreign language skills often perform noticeably higher on standardized testing, especially in the areas of writing and reading. In addition to teaching children more about the world in general, it would accelerate their learning, and also get America ahead academically.

Studies have shown that children who grow up in environments where they acquire a second language have significantly better cognitive abilities, have better problem-solving skills, and are generally much more receptive to new ideas (not necessarily ideological). Not only do children acquire another form of communication, but they also have a new medium of understanding of the world around them. It is better for children to develop their understanding of the world in two or more lenses, rather than acquiring the lens later on in life, where their views of the world are largely solidified and immutable. To make America truly multicultural, the next generation needs to know what that means, and the best way to do that is through exposure.

So that’s my piece for today. Leave some comments, if you have your own thoughts on this. Please share this post and other previous articles on other sites, such as Facebook, Google+, and Tumblr, so that more people can contribute to the discussion!

Do Our Language Classes Create “Uncultured Swine”? Read On and Find Out.

I have been a student of foreign language in both a formal setting in a classroom and a self-studier for the past four years. I realize that there are certain aspects of the typical foreign language class that should be addressed, particularly when it comes to culture. In my state of California, we have five levels of each foreign language, taught all the way up to either V (Five) or AP (Advanced Placement). It is usually not until the fourth or fifth level of the class that culture actually becomes a large part of the curriculum. Exceptions include when the teacher is a native from a country where the language is spoken or is particularly enthusiastic in teaching the culture, in which cases culture may be a topic of discussion earlier on.

But let’s focus on the most common scenario: culture is not discussed until the latter levels of the class. We all know that culture is a very integral part of learning a language, and that the language serves as a medium to understand that culture and its people. However, in the earlier parts of the language tracks, the focus is almost 100% on the grammar and practice of the language. This creates the impression that the target language is a reinterpretation of English. Let’s get this straight: languages are not different versions of each other. If they were, then everybody on the planet would be essentially the same, most nations wouldn’t exist, and conflict would be considerably lessened. Culture is part of what defines race and ethnicity, because it reflects not only the history of a language, but also of the people who are a part of it. As I have discussed in my This I Believe response (linked here), each language is the vessel of communication for different cultures. Each is unique, with its own vocabulary, syntax, constructions, word choice, and other properties.

So now that we’ve established that language classes often focus excessively on the grammar and practice of the language (which are still important, by the way), what does this situation do to the students? For one, it bores them out of their minds. They end up thinking that the language is just a bunch of rules and words, not an actual thing people use. Even for the students that do continue to the upper level classes, their understanding of the language is incomplete and unintegrated.

This all stands in contrast to the self-study of foreign language, which inherently implies an interest in the culture as well as in the language. The blog Learning Thai Without Studying by adamf2011 (linked here) does a great job of explaining the role of culture in learning a language, and how grammatical learning is not everything there is to a language. By purposely avoiding the use of traditional techniques, he forced himself into the culture by being in the environment without knowing any Thai whatsoever. While I prefer the analytical approach to language (it’s just easier for me), I still stress the study of cultural material by talking about it online with my Italian teachers, and reading about it online. The complete immersion method makes little sense to me (although evidently it works), so I prefer a half analytical, half cultural method. The only way one can understand a language completely is by using the language in context, and understanding how words are used by natives, in the culture that the language has cultivated, or been cultivated by.

But now, let’s answer the question in the title of this blog post. Are we, “uncultured swine,” because we don’t learn about the culture early enough? I’d wager to say yes. America in particular, while a melting pot society and one very open to different languages and cultures, makes a point of making other languages and cultures very exotic, and strange. While they are different, this view distances learners from the languages they’re studying. In addition, the relegation of these languages to secondary status both at home and the world at large reinforces the idea that other languages are exactly like English, except in different sounds, spellings, writing systems, and sentence orders. But the fact is that each language is independent, and represents a different culture from those represented by other languages. It is for this reason that I advocate cultural exposure and contextualization from day one of language classes, not just in California, but also the US as whole, as well as the whole world.

Thanks for reading this post, and I hope you have some comments, so that you can offer your own views on this matter. I enjoy discussing such things, so please go ahead and leave some comments!

Why Minority Languages Matter

A lot of people will question learning minority languages such as Catalán, Navajo, or Irish. Many believe it is a waste of time, and that language death is inevitable. However, for the languages already mentioned, as well as several others, it is well within that community and other people’s capacity to help revitalize usage. Tom Scott makes a valid point about how if we let minority languages die, there are certain aspects of the human experience and capabilities of the brain that we let die with them. You can watch his video here: Fantastic Features We Don’t Have In the English Language.

Language is intimately linked to the way we live our lives. It is theorized that language evolved out of a method for human mothers to communicate with their children, and as human society became increasingly complex, involving multiple individuals in the process of raising children, it eventually became a medium for communicating with one another. Another hypothesis is that language is a vocal manifestation of one’s ideas. Ideas are apparent to oneself, in one’s mind, but not necessarily in comprehensible language. The idea is that humans needed a way to communicate their ideas and feelings regarding things, and that is why language evolved. Personally, the theory regarding mothers is a lot more plausible. There’s a reason, “motherese,” exists. However, these two hypotheses do point out crucial facts about the development of language. Languages have features based on the particular needs of a people in a certain place.

For example, the aboriginal language in Australia does not have words for left, right, up, or down, but rather assigns cardinal directions. As a result, most of the speakers of this language have an intuitive sense of direction..Some have proposed that due to the lack of landmarks for people to judge physical position in the Australian wilderness, language there had to have less arbitrary ways of describing direction. In a place like the Americas, the landscape is varied enough for people to judge direction based of off the various shapes of the land, and therefore, the language there can assign arbitrary directions, or at least directions revolve around a given point. The ability to distinguish direction in absolute terms is very useful, and demonstrates the capacity of the human brain to evaluate its surroundings as such. If this language dies out, we miss out on a generation of people who have this ability, and completely exclude it from the development of other people in the world.

Now, let’s look at a non-physical example. In Catalán, the construction no… pas is a nuanced one. It negates a predicate, and also indicates that this negation is contrary to a notion held by listener. This is a very useful feature, and is built into only a few words. It is for this reason that some non-native speakers of English can be very verbose, because they’re trying to express an equivalent sentiment of what might be a very short sentence in their native language. Implications and nuance are very important in some languages, especially in minority languages, where they can be unique to those languages. By letting such a language die, you allow a possibly more effective and expressive mode of communication die as well.

Perhaps the most grave loss in the process of language death is the loss of a culture and people. Language, as stated before, contains a great deal of history and knowledge behind the way people communicate. John McWhorter argues that language death and the loss of a culture are not necessarily linked. I refute this point, because of the reasons listed above. Skills and modes of expression that are exclusive to a particular language are part of a culture. A people lose a great deal of themselves in not being able to speak their language. There are things they will not be able to understand or express. Sure, they can maintain their traditions, but the meaning and history of those traditions is lost outside of the native language. By working to revitalize minority languages, even only within their indigenous areas, we maintain another part of the human experience. If it happened with Hebrew due to the work of Eliezer Ben-Yahuda, it can happen for any language at any time!

Languages are different for a reason. The subtle nuances and implications of certain words and phrases can often be lost in translation. There’s a reason that people who read manga in English will miss much of the symbolism, hidden meanings, jokes, puns, or wordplays that the original Japanese text might have. This is why I believe that translation can never do real justice to having a proper conversation in the language being translated. In a world with infinitely varied settings and circumstances, knowing other languages that express certain sentiments more accurately is paramount.

It’s been some time since I’ve written a full article. I haven’t really been doing much lately except writing language guides and subtitling Khan Academy videos (which you should do, if you know a language that you think people would benefit from having subtitles in).  I’d appreciate any comments on this, so feel free to leave some!

Americans and Their English

When I went to Italy last summer, and I went to get some water from a local grocery store in Rome for my mom (the tap water is disgusting), I overheard an American couple complaining about the lack of English speakers in Italy. Their reasons included the following:

“English is an international language, shouldn’t everyone speak it?”

“Italian is like Latin, right? Shouldn’t it be really easy for them to speak English?”

“Italians must hate Americans, or something.”

While I certainly didn’t get up in arms about this, it was mildly disturbing.  English speakers, for some reason specifically from America, expect that everyone in other countries speaks English. This is not at all reasonable for someone to expect. Now don’t get me wrong, this goes for ALL English speakers, not just Americans. Actually, for any speaker of any language expecting to find other people to speak his or her language.

Let me address the first complaint: English may be an international language, but that does not mean everyone can, are confident about speaking, or even want to use English. Italy is on the lower end of the English Proficiency Index (not that I expect people to know this) anyway. China, Japan, and Korea are noted in studies for having many students who academically do very well in English, but in practice are very reserved about using or don’t want to use English.  They have their reasons, and people should respect those reasons, however odd they may be.

Now for the second issue: Just because languages are at all similar doesn’t make it easy for people to learn or speak it. English only borrows from Latin, and was never a part of the Romance language family. It’s a Germanic language, so the only people who one can reasonably to expect to speak English easily are people from Germany and Northern Europe. Even then, one shouldn’t expect them to.

The last complaint I found completely and utterly preposterous. Most people I’ve met, and most that one is likely to meet, have the rationale not to arbitrarily dislike someone they’ve never met. Of course, there are racists and such. Some people in America think that people of other countries intrinsically hate Americans because America is overall a more powerful nation, with a higher standard of living, and a considerable amount of wealth. They might have deeper reasons, you never know. But meeting other people and having preconceived notions, especially that those people don’t like you, is a serious impediment to communication. I could easily assume that all white people look down on me because of the color of my skin, but I don’t, because not all white people are like that.

I suppose my point is that English speakers shouldn’t feel entitled to being able to talk to others in their own language away from home. English speakers should learn to speak other languages, because the native speakers of the language are likely to appreciate it much more if you speak to them in their language. I appreciate the effort Italians made to speak to me in English, but I spoke in Italian, because that’s what they’re more comfortable using. It’s rather like adhering to another person’s rules in their house.

Levels of Fluency

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

Level 1: Basic (~1 year)

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

Level 2: Upper Basic (~2 years)

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

Level 3: Intermediate (~3 years)

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

Level 4: Competent (~5 years study)

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

Level 5: Native (~6-7 years)

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

Level 6: Scholar/Intellectual (9+ years)

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

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

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

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

1) Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew

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

2) Japanese and Korean

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

3) German and Russian

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

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

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

Language Barriers

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

1) China, Japan and Korea: Greatest Language Barrier

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

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

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

3) India: The Weakest Language Barrier in Asia

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

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

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

5) The Middle East: The Biggest Language Barrier

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

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

The Importance of Language

No matter where we come from, language is an important part of our lives. It permeates everything we do, from our habits, our personalities, and identities as people. By learning other languages, you can link yourself with others in a way more profound than any other form of communication. As human beings, it is pleasing to hear another speak our own language. People who speak other languages understand others on deep levels, being able to connect with others in their mother tongues, the first and best form of communication.

When I was a child, I was unable to speak my mother tongue, Kannada, as well as I should have, due to a speech problem. It became apparent to me at an early age that language was important, and not being able to speak in Kannada affected how others saw me, behaved around me, and spoke to me.

Now, I am significantly more proficient in Kannada, after years of practice with my family. I have learned Spanish to a reasonably advanced level, and am continuing to study, because Spanish is a beautiful language, and is also widely spoken in my state of California. I also started learning Italian some time ago, as well as Hindi and Korean. Hindi and Italian are still works in progress, but I gave up on Korean some time ago, because of I found its grammar system confusing. However, I recently compiled my notes from these three languages into individual learning guides, in the hope that others might be able to utilize them. I have yet to publish my most recent and hopefully my best version of my book on Italian, due to having to wait for my KDP Select contract to expire. My Korean book is currently under revision by my Korean colleague, and my Hindi book is beginning the polishing process. At the moment, my first Italian book, Impariamo l’italiano!, is available on the Kindle Store for $4.99. Eventually, the better version, with more vocabulary, exercises, and information will be available on the iBooks Store, called Scoprendo l’italiano! On this blog, I will be posting links to the audio exercises that will accompany the text, when I have finished them, and the book is released.