When I go to Cedar Riverside, a neighborhood of Minneapolis, to practice my Somali language, the streets are full of Somali people in the many shops and cafes. Sometimes I find that people will not respond to me in Somali—only in English. I long for someone who cannot speak English so that I can have a conversation […]

via Language of terror vs loving language — Loving Language

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.

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.