Personality in Language: How I Plateaued in Language Learning

In my last post, I mentioned how I recently plateaued in my study of foreign languages. I’m going to explain why it happened and what I’m doing to get out of it.

Linguistic relativity (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis)

But first, I need to explain a little bit of linguistics jargon. It all starts with the principle of linguistic relativity, popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a theory that concerns how language influences thought. There are two versions, one labeled weak and one labeled strong. The weak version states that language influences how we perceive the world, affecting our cognitive processes. The strong version posits that language completely determines our range of cognition and how we perceive reality.

What does that have to do with learning languages?

The hypothesis doesn’t really concern the process of acquiring languages so much as whether language as a feature of human communication influences thought. The weak version of the hypothesis is widely agreed upon in academia through empirical studies, though there is little discussion of its application to language learning. The question is: If language influences thought, does that mean that knowing more languages allows us to perceive the world differently?

I personally think that every language does perceive or categorize the world differently, and that you cannot really understand the way someone else thinks without learning their language first. If we think of every language as a distinct personality or mindset, we’ll begin to see how exactly my plateau came to be. In the language learning community, there is a sentiment that we behave differently in different languages, which will be key to understanding my plateau as well.

How my plateau started

My first language is Kannada, though my primary language is English. This admittedly influences the way I see the world, since my cognitive “vocabulary”, so to speak, is different from that of someone else. What I mean by “cognitive vocabulary” is that I have certain categories, words, and frameworks that allow me to perceive the world and intuit meaning in certain ways. But what this also means, is that I have tendency to see other “personalities” or languages, through the frameworks of Kannada and English. My understanding of other languages is in part influenced by Kannada and English.

When I learned Spanish, I was able to learn it fairly easily, in part because it had some features that were similar to English, and I could interpret the meanings of new words due to my ability to understand some Latin and Greek roots of various words. This allowed me to learn Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan quite easily as well. So far, my language learning was largely informed by an understanding of English and Romance languages, and therefore I tended to see language through such lenses. My English and Romance language-speaking personalities predominated.

My problems began when I started learning Korean, which I struggled to grasp for four years. I had similar issues with Hindi as well. While these are completely different languages, the problems are not altogether unrelated. I wouldn’t be able to form even short sentences correctly. Even though I knew the grammar, I wasn’t using it correctly all the time. I kept asking myself: “Why isn’t it coming together?” And I only stumbled across the answer recently. I was trying too hard to learn Korean and Hindi the way I had learned Spanish and other languages.

How I started moving forward

Things only began to click into place as I began studying Mandarin Chinese with a fresh perspective in a classroom, rather than being self-taught. It allowed me to re-evaluate the way I was approaching language learning. Writing my Kannada guide also changed things, as I had to write lessons on Kannada grammar, with categories and structures that I had never formally studied. I was starting from scratch.

By approaching Korean and Hindi as Romance languages (which they most definitely or not), I was missing a lot of key nuances about those languages, including culture and word choice. I was attempting to replicate my personality in English/Kannada and other languages in Korean and Hindi. My English is somewhat academic; I’m that guy who uses “big words” a lot. My speech is less peppered with slang compared to how most people around me talk. My Kannada is fairly ordinary, if somewhat sarcastic. My Spanish has been described as proper and polite, though assertive with my opinions.

I realized that Korean simply doesn’t “think” in the same ways about the world, with a completely different history as a language, and very different sociocultural and sociolinguistic norms. Hindi doesn’t operate the same way as Kannada, with different uses of the same words that exist in Kannada, and having a different approach to word choice.

My resolution was not to give up on Korean or Hindi, but rather to re-evaluate my strategy. I decided to stop trying to write my own guides for now (even though I’ve already written one for Hindi). I’m going to write more eventually, but only as I acquire more fluency and understanding of how the languages work. I need to listen to dialogue more, and get a better feel for how people speak in Korean and Hindi. I have to change how I study language, and see what others have done before I begin trailblazing on my own. My Korean or Hindi-speaking counterpart might not necessarily use “big words” the way I do in English.  That’s something I’ll have to figure out in time.

Concluding remarks

For those of you out there who might also be struggling with language learning, I hope this piece is some help to you. The key is to approach every language with clean slate. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to navigate the language the way you do in your native tongue. If you can, great. But if not, you shouldn’t worry. It’s not a reflection of your competency, but perhaps an error in your approach. Just keep on your toes, and switch up your strategies not just to keep things interesting, but to make sure that you find the best way to learn a language for yourself.

Teaching English Abroad: Do’s and Don’ts

I’ve been in Mumbai the last four or five weeks, working at the SP Jain Institute’s NGO Abhyudaya. The organization runs a program that gives Mumbai children from various low-income neighborhoods an opportunity to get better education and extracurricular enrichment. One of the components of this is teaching the students English.

Knowing in English in India is a very big deal and is a key ingredient in social mobility and economic advancement. It will be difficult to get a high-paying job without knowing English. This is true in many parts of the world where English is not the primary language. There are many initiatives to teach English to underprivileged students in such countries. I don’t actually teach English, but I do design the curriculum and see how teachers implement it in their lessons, seeing what works and doesn’t work. My job is to give the best possible curriculum so that these children have a solid path to success.

So, the thing is that there are a lot of people in the US who go abroad to teach English as some kind of humanitarian mission. They’re often led through churches or NGOs. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a great thing to try and go help someone else get ahead in life by teaching them something you know. But there are a lot of problems with the way some “voluntourism” often pans out, and you do need to be mindful of those things. With that, here are some things that you need to know before you go teach English abroad:

1. You are in a foreign country.

This may seem like a very obvious fact to most people, but it’s so often ignored. You need to be mindful of the fact that you are foreign and in a different society. Be humble to your hosts and try learn more about the places that your students are coming from. You cannot expect to teach them anything unless you understand their needs. Try to learn some of the local language and do things with local people. I’m Indian-American, but I know nothing about Indian people’s lives in India. I’m always learning new things about the kids who come for the program. I’ve been to the slums and I’ve been learning about their education up to the point at which they enter the program. This helps me write lessons that are more suited to their needs and skills they really need to develop.

2. Get out of your savior complex.

These students have their own plans, families, and futures. You are there to help them with just one subject and you are not the end-all-be-all of their education. This goes back to being humble. These students lead their own lives just fine without you, even if they do have it rough, rougher than even struggling people in the US can imagine. They don’t need you to tell them what to do. I have to keep this in mind when I write the lessons. The lessons can’t be about international travel or other lofty rich people stuff because that isn’t something they need to learn. They are not afforded the privilege of learning a foreign language for fun or as an expendable school subject, and they require it for their long-term success. Don’t treat your English teaching stint as a joke and take the students and the job seriously.

3. You’re not a tourist; you are being employed to teach English.

I realize that there are many “voluntourism” packages out there, that seek to engage foreign visitors in meaningful work in a developing country. This is the epitome of intrusive and fundamentally unhelpful behavior. If you’re coming to another country to teach kids English, don’t treat the students, teachers, or the organization as some kind of accessory to a pleasure trip. If that was the plan in the first place, don’t go at all. I’m completely serious. These organizations work their asses off to bring better education and help kids who otherwise might not have the opportunity. You should treat them with respect and take them seriously for the work that they do. I work nearly every day to contribute to the curriculum, always revising and observing. Don’t waste their time by Instagram-ing pictures of your work and not do any work.

I hope this helps people who are considering going to do this type of work abroad. Please don’t forget to share and comment!

Language Learners’ 5 Least Favorite Moments

We language learners have all had those moments when we’re just like, “Ugh, I’m so tired and done with this!”. It happens to best of us and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. As someone who’s going to be learning langauges probably for the rest of his life (in spite of other things), I’ve had this moment several times. Some notable examples: understanding Cuban Spanish, practicing my Italian with natives, and the future subjunctive in Portuguese, just to name a few. Thankfully, there is nearly always a solution. Without further ado, here are five moments that language learners hate:

1. When there are no books on your language.

This can be due to either simply a lack of availability in the sense that you can’t afford it, it’s out on loan from the library, or no such books currently exist. It’s language learners’ worst nightmare. I’m really interested in minority languages like Tibetan and Brahui, all three for which resources can be fairly scarce. Catalan, one minority language that I know, at least has an online dictionary. Not to mention there are people who have written books on how to learn it. For Tibetan and Brahui I would have to do a lot more digging. The best way to deal with this is either the cheap-out way: give up, or to do some more searching with Google, or (gasp) go to the library*. Never fear because there’s always someone who has found info or written their own books on the subject, and you can always acquire it through various (and some of which are admittedly questionable) ways.

*Shout out to NYU Bobst Library for being a treasure trove of knowledge.

2. Feeling the tug of another language calling to you.

This is something that I see in the Tumblr community most often. All these language learners are like “Omg I’m so into Swedish rn” but then the next month (or perhaps the next week) they’re like “Why must I love German music so much”. Look, it’s not a terrible thing to feel this way, since so many languages have all sorts of cool things about them. You’re not in the minority. I feel this way about Tibetan and Brahui all the time, when I’m studying Mandarin or Korean. Just remember this: you won’t make progress if you don’t commit to your work. Jumping around is just going to make it worse, and you’ll feel like you’re not going anywhere. And then you will be that person who posts “I don’t know much, but I can eat, sleep, read, and say thank you in seven languages that I will never use”. The only thing I can tell you is keep at it. Remember why you started, what exactly it is that you want to do with that language. If you’re learning French, you could tell yourself this: “I want to go to Paris and be able to converse with French people” or “I want to able to read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in the original French”. Perhaps the last one is a bit lofty, but you get the point. It’s a million times easier to stay on the road if you know where you’re planning to go.

3. Feeling like you can say basically nothing.

languages, german, itchy feet, language learners
Everyone’s first time using the language with a native. *

*From Itchy Feet: the Language and Travel Comic. Disclaimer: I do not own this.

This happened for every single language that I have ever learned. Even in Kannada, my mother tongue, I messed up many times. There was one instance of which was cause for my own grandmother to break out into hysterics. Instead of beating yourself up for it, you should think positively. Benny Lewis’ article on the abundance mindset is a great read for motivating yourself. I know some people won’t read it, so I’ll summarize. 1: Capitalize on your current vocabulary and make use of it. 2: Keep track of your progress and be aware of what you know and don’t know. 3. Learn from your mistakes. 4. Don’t compare yourself to others.

The first three are important pieces of advice to take, but the last one is huge. I sometimes indulged a bad habit of comparing myself to Benny Lewis and Timothy Doner. People who had made careers out of their language prowess. Here I was, feeling bad that I couldn’t speak more than 10 languages as a senior in high school. Setting unrealistic expectations and thinking that you need to measure up to the pros from the very beginning is a master plan for low self-esteem. Look at the progress you have made rather than things that you don’t know. You’ll find yourself feeling better and also tackling your language with a much better attitude.

4. Being judged for incompetency.

Look, there’s no avoiding the fact that some people in world are insensitive and inconsiderate. There will be judgement, but you have to own up to it. Don’t fear these people. Think of them as the only people who will actually tell you that you’re wrong or that your speaking is off. To be perfectly honest, I don’t like it when people don’t tell me if something is wrong. Asking for constructive criticism is always good. If that person continues to trash-talk you and your language skills, that is a separate issue altogether. But have no fear! The vast majority of people that speak your target langauge appreciate language learners. They will often oblige and help you out. Like our good friend Cristiano Ronaldo:

language learners, Cristiano Ronaldo

5. Being told that languages are useless/stupid/boring etc.

There will be such people everywhere. This will even come from the mouths of native speakers themselves. That’s right. There are many people in the world who feel that their native language is not useful and don’t understand why someone else would want to learn it. Don’t feel discouraged because a native speaker told you that it’s useless. If you chose because you appreciate the culture and the beauty of that language, nothing should stop you. For the people who think that language learning is a dumb hobby, let the haters hate. Or you could convince them that they’re wrong. Your choice. The point is that if you are passionate about learning a language or you have a commitment to learning, there is nothing in this world that can stop you. Language learners can do so much in the world by expanding their ability to communicate with people.

I hope this article helps a lot of people who feel down during their studies! Cheer up and keep marching forward!

A Guest in a Someone Else’s House: Polyglots and Social Activism

It’s been about six years since I began my polyglot journey, and while I don’t have all the experiences of seasoned veterans, so to speak, like Timothy Doner and various other individuals, there are a lot of things I’ve learned about being and becoming a polyglot. I am also somewhat of a social activist, and it’s in the past three years that I’ve truly realized the overlap between these two interests of mine.

Being a polyglot means that you’re willing to commit yourself to the learning of many languages and participate in the culture of those languages languages. I say that believing that the latter is mandatory; learning a language in isolation from its culture(s) is dangerously close to a kind of appropriation. Not to mention it’s a very incomplete kind of learning, since the culture around a language contextualizes its expressions and its particular features.

Choosing not to engage in the society of a language, to some extent, can imply that the learner has little respect for that society. When you come into a language that is not your own, you generally defer to native speakers and their cultural practices (obviously with some amount of discretion or common sense). It’s like going into someone else’s house; would you start making the same food that you do in your own house? Would you start changing their decorations and furniture? No, you’d very politely observe that you are a guest in someone else’s home. You see what they make at home, and how they see their own house. One of the predominant features of cultural appropriation in general is effectively a guest acting like they own their host’s house.

So, how does this link being a polyglot with social activism?

Well, social activism, as most people understand, is a form of advocating on the behalf of minority communities for certain issues. Polyglots, because they are involved in this agreement to participate in the traditions of various communities of certain languages, are also involved in their protection and defense, in varying degrees.

Many polylgots start their journeys well aware of the culture (in varying degrees) of the languages they study, having an inherent interest and appreciation for it. Learning languages expands their worldview as well as allows them to understand the various social and political dilemmas of different communities. This is because being involved with language means being involved in an organic aspect of human life, one that is employed in many different spaces and by all sorts of people.

Going back to the house metaphor, social activism in being a polyglot also means recognizing the humanity behind a language. We often make snap judgements about people because of the way they look or what they ostensibly do in public, but how can we ever claim to really know who they are without talking to them first? Without being in their home and see how they are? Obviously, you going into their home is a latter stage of the process. Learning a language is talking to a person, and warming up to them. Getting more and more acquainted with a language makes you more sensitive to people’s perceptions of that language. Social activism is very much like sticking up for one of your friends; polyglots stick up for languages and their communities in a show of solidarity rather than an aim to represent them. And the thing is, not all of us do this intentionally. It just ends up happening, because we are immersing ourselves in another culture’s language and traditions. The degree of actual activism that polyglots participate in varies from person to person.

But what problem am I trying to get at?

In my six years of polyglot-ing, so to speak, I’ve seen a lot of new polyglots pop, mostly through Tumblr as well in my own community around me. Granted, such people are of a certain type and it entails some amount of selection bias. However, it does show me a somewhat concerning (if not disturbing) trend: that being a polyglot is somehow becoming seen as trendy. Not trendy like New York hipster, obscure coffee shop trendy, but more like activist trendy, where things like political correctness are given, at times, excessive weight in a discussion that may require honesty. It’s subtle, but noticeable.

These younger (or rather newer) polyglot-aspirants are very keen and eager to start on their “journey into languages and diversity” (something like that). They tend to forget that the languages aren’t just some kind of accessory that you put on your resume; you have to treat it much like a person who you’re asking for help to expand your world view. Recognizing the humanity behind a language is so important. Korean’s not just the language of K-pop, it’s also the language of an entire country with a rich history of monarchs expanding arts and literacy through language, as well as imperial intrusions that have shaped their beliefs, norms, and even the language itself. This isn’t to diss K-pop enthusiasts, since learning Korean because you like K-pop is fine, but Korea is so much more than K-pop. And that’s just one example of how people can unintentionally fetishize the society and more importantly the people that speak a language.

While I’m not saying polyglots should be historians or anything, but we should be conscious of the fact that we are stepping into another world, someone else’s home, by learning a language. As such, we should take care to respect and patiently observe the constructs and conventions of the language and society, rather than seek to impose our own onto it. So remember this when it comes to learning languages: always know that you’re a guest, until the host invites you into their home as a friend.

I hope this post was interesting and informative! Please don’t forget to share this and talk about it with your friends!

Kannada Lessons for Beginners Now Available!

After many months of tiring and seemingly endless work, my course for learning Kannada is finally complete and available for download! Granted, I will be updating the text periodically, but now that it’s available, I really hope that all sorts of people can take advantage of the text. The text is intended mostly for people from Kannada-speaking families who don’t know how to speak the language themselves, and for them to learn it and reconnect with their heritage. But don’t let that stop you! Kannada has an immense and rich cultural heritage, including the longest unbroken literary tradition in India. Carnatic music, one of the two major schools of classical Indian music, originated in Karnataka, and many of the pieces are written in poetic Kannada.

If you have any questions or comments about the text, you are welcome to leave them in the comments. I will try to continue to add resources including audio tracks, readings, and writing exercises in the future, as my schedule permits. You can download Kannada Lessons for the Beginner here.

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.

Why I Have a Chinese Name But I Don’t Want to be Called “Sean”

Photo credits to freshofftheboatdaily, since this isn’t mine.

One of my friends on Facebook shared the photo in this post recently, and it immediately struck a chord with me. Names are of enormous importance to many people of different cultures around the world, and sometimes the nuances of naming can vary between communities by the language they speak.

In the Indian subculture that I come from, newborns are given their names by the rite of nāmkarna, a Hindu ritual that uses astrology and natal charts to pick names. We believe that the names that we give our children is somehow determinant of their futures, and often, parents will choose a name (within the rules of the process, of course) that includes a kind of wish for who their child will grow to be, something that almost everyone can understand.

Other times, our names are one of the epithets of a Hindu deity. This can puzzle some people in the West, who might view naming your child after a god as a kind of arrogance or self-importance, but the idea in Indian cultures is completely different. By naming your child after a particular version of god (each epithet references a particular aspect of the god), it is both a hope that the child will live up to the name and also fulfills the idea that God is everywhere and in everyone. Calling the different names of a god is also considered auspicious, so naming people after a god is a part of that sentiment.

The cultural backgrounds behind choosing names can be complex and confusing, but also incredibly fascinating, in my opinion. The generational poems of Chinese naming customs allow for an entire generation of children to be named with something in common. I won’t get into the specifics, but you can read a little bit about generational poems here.

That brings me to the title of this post. As you may know, I have a Chinese name that I use exclusively for speaking in Chinese: 羅常羲 (Pinyin: luó cháng xī, Jyutping: lo4 soeng4 hei1). I got this name after multiple Chinese friends of mine asking me if I wanted one, so when I went to a Taiwanese cultural exhibition in Grand Central Station, my friends had a calligrapher make a name for me.

My real name is kind of clunky to say in Chinese (or rather the Sinicized version of my name), especially given the way people call each other in Chinese. Very often, since people can have similar-sounding or even identical first names, Chinese speakers will address each other using their full names. My name is apparently somewhat obscure, so I might be able to get away with just 常羲, but it would be more appropriate to use the full name. I’m OK with using this name partly due to convenience as well as because I didn’t mind having the name, since I kind of like it.

Now, this may contrast with the sentiment of the photo in this post, since you might expect me to tell my Chinese friends to say my name correctly. The thing is, the issue wasn’t that my friends couldn’t pronounce my name, but rather for the purposes of learning the Chinese language, it wasn’t especially suited to being pronounced the way it really is. And that, I’m willing to concede, and like I said: I don’t mind.

The thing is that when I was in elementary school, many students and teachers found my name (Shashank) difficult to pronounce, and many people wanted to call me “Sean”. Maybe because I was impetuous and defensive, I didn’t like that name. I wanted people to call me the name I chose to be called, and they had to pronounce it the way I wanted them to. Today, people trying to nickname me “Sean” still makes me a little uneasy, so I usually politely request that they use my real name. Even now, I still wonder why it was so difficult for them to say, considering my name is only two syllables.

The point is that I refuse to be called anything except Shashank and nicknames that I actually approve of. This goes for anyone, anywhere. You all deserve to have yourself be called what you wish. People should either pronounce the name correctly or shouldn’t say it at all. Obviously, this can sound a little extreme, and I make exceptions for people whose sound inventories don’t include certain sounds. It’s a problem when I know people are more than capable of pronouncing a name correctly, and still refuse to try and pronounce a name the way someone wants, all because they’re too lazy to ask.

In my freshman year at NYU, I’ve met some people who have non-English names, and purposely go with a heavily Anglicized pronunciation of their name, even though it’d be pretty easy for people to pronounce it as it’s written in the language (obviously within reason). At first, I was a little put off by it, but I have learned that how we pronounce our names is up to us, and if that means “white”-ifiying it versus the traditional pronunciation, so be it. I might not like it, but again: it’s not for me to decide.

The reality is that this idea of not using people’s real names or somehow compelling them to change the pronunciation or the name entirely for someone else’s convenience is often discussed in the context of ethnic minorities. This happens to a lot of people with “unconventional” or “foreign” names, regardless of race. But in the context of minorities in the US like myself, this often feeds into very subtle dynamics of cultural repression and assimilation, and it is something that we must work against. But again: the choice is not always ours to decide (if at all).

The fundamental difference between my Chinese name and “Sean” is that I’m OK with one and not the other. Someone’s name is inviolable, and it’s not up to anyone to tell them to change it or how to pronounce it. The moral of this little story is: always ask someone how to pronounce their name, and earnestly try to pronounce it they way they want, not what’s most convenient for you. If they let you off with a mispronounced syllable or sound, then that’s fine. But respect what they have to say. It’s their name, not yours.

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.

 

Starter Kit for Romance Languages

A lot of you may wonder about what language to learn, and while I have written in the past on the utility of languages, I’m thinking that it might be better to write a series of posts about what separates different languages, through their grammar, history, or their unique difficulties. Many languages belong to what is known as a “language family”, which is a grouping of languages that have common roots and features. This means that the languages in a particular family are usually structurally similar, and given what level they’re being examined, may even have similar vocabulary. Families themselves may be part of a larger family, where the commonalities are fewer.

The language family I’m going to be discussing in this post is the Romance language family, which belongs to the Indo-European language family. Romance languages are related by the fact they all are evolved forms of Latin in different parts of the Western Roman Empire, where Latin was the lingua franca. Some examples of Romance languages include Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. There are other, smaller Romance languages spoken throughout Western Europe, as well as creoles and pidgins that developed in colonial territories of Western European countries. Nowadays, the Romance languages are spoken in many different regions of the world, including Africa, North/Central/South America, and even parts of Asia.

The value of learning a Romance language varies from language to language, since each language has its own charms. Spanish is the most widely spoken Romance language and is the language of many famous works of magical realism. Italian is the language of Dante’s La Divina Commedia, though in a medieval form, as well as of Italo Calvino, a renowned modernist writer. Many lyrics of classical opera and vocal pieces are written in Italian, as well as in French. French is often said to be the “language of love”, and some writers of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, and the author of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo, were speakers of French. Romanian and Portuguese are unfortunately the unnoticed children of the Romance family, since very few major works of literature were ever written in these languages and did not spread extensively to many territories (except perhaps Portuguese in Brazil). However, every one of these languages is worth learning in its own way!

Basic features

The basic rundown of how all Romance languages work is that they are moderately inflective, since verbs drop affixes and add others that reflect multiple meanings, such as tense, person, etc.

The general sentence order of Romance languages is SVO (Subject-Verb-Object), which is to say the default form of a sentence is to order it in that way. This is the way English orders sentences. However, it’s not as strict in Romance languages, since verbs conjugate according to person and tense. For questions, Romance languages typically flip the sentence order, but the simply making the original statement a question by inflecting has a slightly different meaning. For example, take the sentence “They eat apples” in Spanish: Ellos comen manzanas. The usual question form is ¿Comen manzanas ellos? (Do they eat apples?). However, saying ¿Ellos comen manzanas? is slightly different, as it’s asking about what they’re eating, rather than who’s doing the eating.

Verbs

Romance language verbs are fairly straightforward. There six groups of conjugations, each corresponding to person and plurality. They are: “I”, “you (non-polite)”, “he/she/it/you (polite)”, “we”, “you all (non-polite)”, and “they (male)/they (female)/you all (polite)”. The word for “it” usually doesn’t have its own word, and speakers simply use the pronoun according to the grammatical gender of the noun in question (we’ll get to this in just a bit). This varies from language to language, as some do not use certain forms anymore. Brazilian Portuguese doesn’t use the “you (non-polite)” form anymore and Latin American Spanish doesn’t use the “you all (non-polite)” form anymore, for example.

Verbs belong to one of three categories, each with their own slightly different conjugational endings. These endings reflect tense and person. While the verb “to love” in English only changes for “he/she/it”, in Romance languages, there is a unique form for each category mentioned before. So, “I love” in Italian, for example, is io amo, but “we love” is noi amiamo. Because of these distinctions, Romance languages are almost all pro-drop languages, which is to say that you can drop the pronoun subject if it is obvious from context who you’re talking about.

French might be the only exception, because even though spellings are distinct, some verb conjugations are said the same way. Even many nouns can sound identical and other contextual clues as well as a pronunciation rule known as liaison are required to understand spoken French properly. For this reason, French is not as much a pro-drop language (if at all).

Every Romance language also has unpredictably irregular verbs (which you have to commit to memory) and certain types of verbs with (sometimes) predictable irregularities.

The tenses that you absolutely need to know are present, preterite, imperfect, future, as well as conditional. You also need to know their perfect forms (“have done, had done, will have done, etc.). Most Romance languages distinguish preterite and present perfect, whereas in French and Italian, they are the same, since the actual preterite in those languages has passed out of common use.

You will also need to learn a mood known as the subjunctive, an essential part of Romance languages. The subjunctive mood is a verbal mood that indicates hypotheticals or uncertain actions, to put it very simply. There’s a little more to it than that, but you can learn more about it if you decide to learn a Romance language. That’s more or less all the basics to verbs.

Noun Properties

Nouns in Romance languages have singular and plural forms, the latter of which, depending on the language, are extremely straightforward to construct. Even the languages with different ways to pluralize different nouns have easily understood patterns (except for possibly French). All nouns have definite and indefinite articles, the words for the and a/an.

Nouns also generally do not have declensional cases, except for Romanian, which has retained many features from Latin, including the neuter gender. This brings us to grammatical gender, something that confuses many novice language learners. All Romance languages have grammatical gender for nouns, and it almost never has anything to do with biology or any kind of logic whatsoever. That is, unless the noun in question is a person, in which case, grammatical gender corresponds to biological gender.

Now, adjectives and adjectival phrases behave much like nouns, having to agree in gender and number. Take the word o urso (bear), in Portuguese. If I want to say “black bear”, the word “black” has to be of the same gender and number as “bear”. So that means, “black bear” is o urso preto, where both urso and preto are singular and masculine. If I wanted to make it plural, it would become os ursos pretos.

Nouns can also be replaced by object pronouns, so as not to be repetitive. Take the following exchange in Italian as an example:

—Where is the key that I gave you?
—I put it in the box.

—Dov’è la chiave che ti ho dato?
L‘ho posta nella scatola.

The word for “key” (la chiave) is replaced by the direct object pronoun (DOP) la (contracted to l’ due to Italian conventions), which as with adjectives, corresponds to the feminine gender of la chiave. The word for “you (non-polite” (tu) is implicitly referred to by the indirect object (IOP) ti. There are a variety of double object pronoun combinations in most Romance languages, which are all fairly easy to learn. That’s about it on nouns.

Learning strategies

You may already know this, but vocabulary in Romance languages is simply a matter of memorization when it comes to irregular forms and grammatical gender. Just use flashcards and spaced repetition programs like Quizlet, Memrise, and Anki.

For verbs and other grammatical features, all you can do is just do lots of exercises and write a lot. Also, read! Reading in the language (and this goes for any other language as well) helps immensely in gaining vocabulary as well as contact with native-level uses of the language.

If you are a reasonably well-read speaker of English, you will probably notice that many words in Romance languages sound familiar. Like la biología in Spanish, or il sistema in Italian. This is because these words are of Greek and Latin origin. A handy thing to note is that in all Romance languages, words of Greek origin are all masculine! For Latin origin words, the original gender of the word transfers to their Romance language form; feminine stays feminine, masculine stays masculine, and neuter becomes masculine (except in Romanian, where the neuter gender is still around). In the end, it’s just a lot of diligent practice and a willingness to learn.

I also recommend using the WordReference dictionary, as their Romance language dictionaries are great. For language lessons, about.com’s lessons are OK, though not to my liking. There are many language learning textbooks out there and I cross-reference materials a lot. Of course, you could just use my books on Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan, if you plan to learn those languages!

For Spanish books, I don’t recommend Realidades past Realidades 2 or if you can avoid it, mostly because you’ll end up with very, very politically correct Spanish that doesn’t sound native in any particular way. Temas is a great book for advanced learners, since it’s written for the  AP Spanish Language and Culture Exam. For advanced Italian textbooks, you can definitely use Con Fantasia: Reviewing and Expanding Functional Italian Skills (also an AP textboko). Learning Portuguese with Rafa is a great start to learning Portuguese grammar. There’s always Duolingo as well, since it gives you a good start, and keeps you practicing. Fair warning, Duolingo doesn’t help advanced learners very much.

I hope you enjoyed this article, and please don’t forget to share and comment on Facebook, Tumblr, or here. I’m planning to write more of these Starter’s Kits in the future, so keep an eye out!

Uma Língua que Pouca Gente Queriam Saber

(This post is a Portuguese translation of an earlier post I wrote called: A Language Few Cared to Know. You can use this as reading practice for learning Portuguese, if you want, though it’s more for people who speak Portuguese, as well as an exercise in the language for me.)

Ter crescido nos Estados Unidos como filho de imigrantes tem-me presenteado circunstâncias únicas, particularmente com respeito à língua e à cultura.  Eu tinha crescido imerso em duas línguas diferentes, ao contrário da maioria das minhas colegas na escola primária e ainda no ensino médio.  Quando eu era pequeno, eu tinha um problema na fala que impedia-me a falar em frases completas. Quando os médicos diziam a meus pais que duas línguas confundir-me-iam, obviamente escolheram o inglês (aliás, esta noção que línguas múltiplas confundem às crianças é completamente falsa). Como resultado, o canarim foi virtualmente inexistente na minha infância. E foi como um nimbo-estrato, as pontadas de peso a bater-me.

Ainda que eu não podia falar o canarim bem, formava parte da minha vida. Meus pais usavam o canarim na casa para falar comigo, apesar do que eu quase sempre respondia no inglês. E quando eu tentava responder na minha língua materna, era miserável. Só depois de anos de prática heurística eu podia falar em canarim bastante bem. Isto concedido, eu ainda tenho problemas de ritmo quando falo, e uma tendência lamentável de falar demais rapidamente.  Embora, o projeto do Duolingo para o canarim tem-me ajudado a expandir o meu vocabulário e conhecimento da língua.

Ainda assim, o canarim é muito presente na minha vida. Quando criança, eu confundi palavras do canarim com palavras do inglês. Muitos dos meus amigos na escola falavam o tamil, telugu, bengali, ou gujarati. Os amigos da minha família falavam o hindi. Não havia muitas pessoas que falavam o canarim na minha vizinhança, exceto a minha família. Por isso, o canarim parece-me um pouco formal ou arcaico. No presente, eu tento do manter contato com a minha língua maternal o máximo possível, porque eu sou apaixonado pelo canarim para passá-lo aos meus filhos. Na Universidade da Nova Iorque, não há muitas pessoas que falam canarim, e por isso, eu falo-me para praticar.

No decorrer dos anos, eu tornei-me muito ciente da pouca demanda para o canarim. Eu aceito esta realidade, porque eu não posso cambiá-lo num instante. Mas isso não quer dizer que eu gosto desta situação. Nem sequer é que eu desejo que precisavem-se mais do canarim. Os meus amigos eram de lugares e nacionalidades diferentes, e por isso compartilhavam os seus costumes. Eu nunca tenho conhecido uma pessoa interessada no canarim, até como gesto polido. O canarim era uma língua que pouca gente queriam saber.

Eu parcialmente espero que este projeto de Duolingo ajudar para trazer percepção à comunidade de canarim. A juventude da comunidade nos Estados Unidos precisa desesperadamente do que o canarim seja modernizado, e precisa de oportunidades de falar com gente da sua idade. A falta destas oportunidades de falar com a nossa comunidade na nossa língua impede-nos. Por quê falariamos esta língua se não houvesse pessoas para praticar, e mesmo assim, em maneiras limitadas? Por exemplo, eu quase nunca falo da política no canarim, e por essa razão, o meu vocabulário sobre a política e virtualmente inexistente. Haveria muitos anglicismos, palavras que ainda um anglófono poderia entender. Poder discutir muitos temas diferentes com várias palavras ajuda a fazer que a língua seja mais útil. Pelo menos, eu acho assim.