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.

The Right to Struggle and a Starter’s Kit for Language Protection

Recently, I had someone say to me, “Language is dynamic. To hold on to the past is simply being stubborn.” The conversation was about the pronunciation of various loanwords in English, but it brought up a completely different topic in my mind. There are many people in the world who think that working to promote a minority language is meaningless because it’s going to die anyway or that English is more important anyway. As much as I don’t like to admit it, language death is something we, those who seek to promote language survival and general study, must readily accept as a possibility. But that doesn’t mean a language should die lying down.

Language death is indeed preventable. At least, with a great deal of effort and support. Hebrew did it and Catalan has made a significant rebound in recent years with an upsurge in local support. Even Yucatec Maya shows signs of a return to a healthier state. But most importantly, you need to be realistic and ambitious at the same time. Never ever let other people tell you that the cause isn’t worth it. Just like nothing stopped major civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, you have to be prepared to withstand anything and everything. I’m not saying I’m a pro at this or anything, but I’m fairly certain I can talk about what language advocate should aspire to do. Now, prepare for a crash course in how to start your very own campaign to protect a language!

1. Know the language. Or at least get started on it, anyway. You can’t possibly have a legitimate campaign without knowing the language. There are plenty of resources for all sorts of languages. Just look around on the internet. You should have at least a conversational command of the language to really get yourself and others moving.

2. Know your limits. And break some too. Everyone has their limitations and there are things we can’t do alone. Get your friends together to bring awareness to your work and what you want to do with. But you need to be ambitious as well. Try not to second-guess yourself about what’s right and wrong. Take risks and be willing to make mistakes.

3. Read up on other language revival efforts. It never hurts to learn from experts. Highly recommended histories to read are the revival of Hebrew, Catalan, and Basque, which all have very important lessons to be learned from.

4. Don’t restrict yourself to one place. You should be prepared to bring your advocacy anywhere and everywhere you go. A language can’t take back its place in the modern world if it doesn’t exist outside of its place of origin. People need to know about it too. The whole point is to give the language its presence in the world back. You can’t expect others to take your campaign seriously if they don’t know about it.

5. Consider other languages as well. (Two meanings to this one) a.)There is a very real possibility that the language that you choose to advocate has a “negative” history for certain people. Be considerate of other people’s feelings about it and don’t expect everyone to be your biggest fan or supporter. Don’t give people a reason (even if it’s not a rational or fair one) to hate on the language. For example, you’re obviously not going to advocate Welsh in certain parts of Britain, especially pro-English areas, because Welsh was formerly (and to some extent still is) associated with rebellion and public dissent. b.) If you’re really stuck on what language to promote, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to promote a language like Spanish. The United States does have a very large Spanish-speaking population, but advocacy for Spanish is different. It encourages people to reach out to a different demographic that has a very strong political presence in the country, and you might promote it because you feel that it is unfairly repressed or discouraged as an object of study.

6. Get other people involved. Like I’ve said at least a thousand times in other posts, language is a social experience. Encourage your friends to advocate the language with you. Find native speakers or people who come from that background. Obviously be polite about it, and explain that it’s for a good cause.

7. Finally: never get down yourself when you’re not making progress. Remember, bringing awareness to a language is hard work. It is very important you feel motivated, even when you’re aware that there is a chance that you will fail. But that’s a part of being an advocate. The failure of a language to survive brings awareness to it in death, in much the same way that when a person dies, people think about them much more once they’ve passed on. People don’t treasure what they have until it’s gone. But obviously, you should be trying to keep the language alive anyway!

And to the speakers of minority languages everywhere: Remember, it is your right to struggle. The right to your ethnic or linguistic background is as much a human and natural right as the freedoms of speech, expression, or religion, or anything else. To Americans (and hopefully the rest of the world), this should resonate. Our country is founded on the pursuit of happiness and treasuring of personal freedom to be who we want to be. Never let anyone tell you any different. Even if you die trying, the world will know you and the cause you fight for.

This was a bit of a more empowerment and encouragement piece, even though I haven’t written anything recently. Please remember to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

The Process of “Conlanging” – Avreça, My Conlang

Since I joined a group called “Constructed languages” on Facebook, a conlanging side project of mine, called Avreça, has seen significant progress. From a document of a measly six pages, it has become an expansive grammar and vocabulary list of forty-two pages. I must confess that not long ago, I was highly opposed to the entire principle of a conlang. You can see a post from that time right here. I used to think that it was fundamentally pointless to create a language, especially out of existing ones, for use by the international community. You run into a number of important issues, such as: is it equitable to only include some languages and not others? is the range of expression of the constructed language vastly more limited than its constituent sources? is this practical to learn?

To address the first question, there is almost no solution. Actively including only a set category of languages, such as Slavic or Romance, is inherently exclusive. Whether it is difficult to learn is not the question here. This does indeed create the impression of superiority of that language family over others.

Second question: It’s almost a given that the expression in the constructed language won’t be as well developed. To arbitrarily give new meanings and connotations to words that didn’t have any previously is simply not appropriate, because those meanings develop with time and history. There has to be a context for it. However, the reason that Tolkien’s conlangs can do this is because his worldbuilding gives the context for the expression in those languages. If the con-universe gives a history to the language, then the vocabulary ought to reflect that history.

Third issue: The practicality of a language is entirely dependent on how the person chooses to construct the language. However, including certain features of the constituent languages is also a question of expression and equitability, the grammars of each languages have different nuances.

Granted, these things largely apply to conlangs that draw on existing languages for their lexicons and grammars. In the case of Tolkien, he built from the ground up. However, my conlang is the former, because I’m not experienced enough to build the morphology and roots from scratch.

I never intended my conlang to be used by a large community, but they certainly could if they so wished. As such, the issues mentioned above don’t necessarily apply, but I still stress practicality. It is a bit Romance-centric in terms of its general vocabulary and grammar, but its poetic and literary features draw from Dravidian languages, Sanskrit, and Hindi-Urdu. I started my conlang mostly for recreational purposes, but I had also started writing a story into which I wanted to incorporate my conlang. And thus, Avreça was born. You can download a document detailing the conlang here: http://www.mediafire.com/view/92ijw6jx0ii957a/Avreça.pdf.

Avreça’s grammar, as previously mentioned, is primarily Romance-centric. There exists an indicative and subjunctive version of each verb conjugation. Currently, all verbs are regular, but if it were to be used more often by actual people, I’m certain that many verbs would be become irregular. As per the tradition, so to speak, of Romance languages, there are three types of verbs, -ar, -er, and -ir.

A rather curious feature of Avreça is that it actively distinguishes between poetic/literary language and common language, which are nearly always separate. The actual poetic/literary lexicon, as I said, is largely Dravidian, Sanskrit, and Hindi-Urdu in origin. Only two words come from Japanese, al ossache and al hyachia, which are derived from sake and hyakki yagyō. The concept of ossache is similar to the Japanese tea ceremony, whereas hyachia describes any shady or suspicious part of society, usually in an abstract way.

I hope you enjoyed reading this post, and be sure to share this on Facebook, Google Plus, and Tumblr!

What Bollywood Films Say About Hindi for Learners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indigenous Language Challenge 2014!

A challenge to bring awareness to languages that are endangered, unknown, not well maintained, or not widely spoken! Pass the challenge along to your friends and join the group on Facebook!

https://www.facebook.com/groups/539092832857899/

https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-World-Speaks/1486154531625005

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!

3 Really Good Reasons to Learn Portuguese

We always go on and on about the professional merits of learning languages, and subordinate the cultural and internal benefits. Here, I’m going to give you 5 good, non-job-related reasons to learn Portuguese.

1. The music and dance. Portugal and Brazil have rich musical and dance traditions. Brazil is particularly strong in both, with its extravagant festivals for Carnival that include samba accompanied by loud, upbeat music. Portugal’s fado is also quite famous, and has two variants: fado de Lisboa and fado de Coimbra. The first simply refers to the kind that originated in Lisbon, which is often mournful, slow, and a bit emotional (lots of unrequited love, poverty, and misery). The second, which is from the city of Coimbra, is the polar opposite, being fast, lively, and extremely optimistic. Portugal is home to many folk dances as well, if you’re interested in the more traditional roots of the Luso-Brazilian culture.

2. The people. Brazilian and Portuguese people are very different, which can also be seen in the language. Brazilian people are very upbeat, happy, and inclusive people. Brazilians typically say a gente (the people) to mean, “us”. They also don’t have the tu-vous distinction with tu (informal) and você (formal), using only the latter to say, “you”. Brazilian Portuguese is also very prone to making innocent words into those of a sexual nature. If you learn Portuguese from my guide, you’ll see this. Brazilians very much want to be your friend.

Portuguese people, on the other hand, are more traditional, especially when it comes to the language, preserving spellings that aren’t even observed in the spoken language. Portuguese people are very big on manners and formalities, but this is not to say that Portuguese people are uptight. Portuguese people appreciate people who follow social conventions, and are very willing to help you if you just ask. The Portuguese people also have a great respect for their elders and their family, and becoming a friend of the family is a sign of being a good friend to them.

3. A greater sense of emotion. Portuguese has this wonderful thing called saudade, which, while being concise, roughly translates to the nostalgia you feel when recalling something that has gone away, and will most likely never return. Portuguese is a good language for emotion, particularly regarding love. The word apaixonar-se technically means, “to fall in love,” but is usually used in the present tense, which has a special meaning in Portuguese. It describes the feeling of continually experiencing love and being more enamored with the other person.

That’s all I’ve got for today! Please leave any comments you might have, reblog this post, and/or share/like it on Facebook!

Practicing a Foreign Language By Yourself

Even if you’re enrolled in a class for a foreign language at school, chances are it’s mostly grammar drills and writing exercises, in my experience. I’ve started to read Fluent in 3 Months (the book), by Benny Lewis, an Irish polyglot who runs a blog with same name as his book (here’s a link: http://www.fluentin3months.com). In his book, he describes how conventional methods that schools use to teach foreign language might work for some people, but it’s hard to practice outside the classroom. I highly recommend that language learners read his book, by the way. It’s fascinating and really helpful. Thinking about this conundrum, I’ve thought of a couple of my own methods (which may look similar to other methods you’ve seen on the Internet):

1. Talk to yourself. This may sound really strange, but trying to speak the language you’re learning to yourself lets you practice and iron out awkwardness when you talk. If you don’t know a word, say it in English (or whatever your first language may be), and write it down to get the word later from a dictionary.

2. Go electronic with your learning. Take your electronic device (a good example is a smart phone), and go to settings, and change the language of your device. Recently, I changed my phone and computer to be in Italian, to practice my ability to read it. This helps because you begin to correlate words that you’d normally see in English with words in the target language, because they physically replace those words, and your usual instinct is to go to the location, without really looking at the word. Changing Siri on iPhones also helps, because then you can practice speaking a little bit.

3. Write more in the target language. Whether it’s posting on Facebook and/or Twitter, or going old-school with a notebook, write as much as you can in the language you’re learning, because it helps you become more literate in the language, and for kinesthetic (learn by doing) learners like me, it solidifies the foundation in your brain for learning the language. Although when you post on the Internet in your language, you should probably include a translation, so that friends who are fluent speakers can correct your mistakes by seeing what you want to say, and non-learner friends can read your posts without feeling excluded. Italki is a great way to do this with its notebook feature.

4. Get books in the target language. Whether they be children’s books or full-on Michael Crichton novels, reading is a surefire way to build vocabulary, due to the variety of contexts, and the fact the good writers usually use a wide range of vocabulary, allowing for a potentially greater number of words for you to learn to appear. Highlight words or phrases you don’t understand, or write them down. For popular book series such as Percy Jackson and the Olympians or the Harry Potter series, compare your native version and the target language version to see what it might be trying to say. You should also read out loud to practice your speaking.

5. Talk with other learners! You generally have more confidence when speaking with other learners of your language, because you know that you’re both still learning, and can’t be expected to be perfect right off the bat. Besides, it can be more social experience, and they’re more accessible, if you’re good friends with them (as you’ll probably become while learning together). Language is inherently social, so not talking with others is no excuse!

Anyway, thanks for reading! Please leave any thoughts you might have on this!