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.

5 Myths of Learning a Foreign Language and How to Get Past Them

There are a lot of misconceptions that people have about learning foreign languages and this can often discourage young aspiring polyglots (such as myself) newly coming to the fray. So, I’m going to show you here what is and isn’t true about learning another language.

1. It requires years and years of practice with native speakers to become fluent.

This one really depends on the language, as every language has its own bells and whistles to sort through. The embedded infographic is really interesting, as it shows what languages are hard or easy for a native English speaker. Some of these I might debate, but that’s not what I’m here to do. It does require effort and hard work on a learner’s part to gain even operational proficiency, but it certainly does not require retreating to the country (or countries) where the language is spoken to acquire the language. There are many methods of doing this, whether it be through grammatical foundations or immersive methods, such as Pimsleur and Glossika.

<a href=”https://voxy.com/blog/index.php/2011/03/hardest-languages-infographic/”><img src=”http://voxy.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/110329-VOXY-HARDLANGUAGES-FINAL-565×1993.png”></a><br/>Via: <a href=”https://voxy.com/blog”>Voxy Blog</a>

I taught myself to speak Hindi at a more or less conversational level and even though I speak Kannada, using its vocabulary to build my Hindi up would have resulted in a very pure and unnatural form of spoken Hindi. To learn a language, studying is imperative. A little bit every day will get you on the right track. Write notes on grammar, practice useful “canned” sentences you can use all the time, or use the dictionary to learn new words (yes, I’m actually suggesting that you read a dictionary), whatever works for you. Whether you’re learning Arabic or Romanian, the key to gaining operational proficiency is to divide up the work into manageable stages. It is not imperative that you learn how to have political discourse in Russian before your first trip to Russia. Ordering in a restaurant is likely to be the more important situation.

2. Fluency means complete mastery over the language, to the point of having native-level proficiency.

This varies with what desired level of proficiency is. I think most people would agree that only the set phrases in a travel phrasebook is not enough to be considered “fluent” by any standard. However, if your only objective is to be able to get around in a foreign country and have a semi-extended conversation with people every now and then, those phrases are important to know and you’re not exactly far off from that level of fluency. There is absolutely no rule that says that you need to be native-level in anything (except maybe pronunciation), so don’t be afraid to set many small goals instead of a few large ones.

3. You can’t learn a language through a book. My high school Spanish/French/Mandarin/etc. class is a perfect example.

I’ll be perfectly frank in saying that this is somewhat true. Your entire learning cannot consist only of “theory”, as eventually you need to put into practice. However, this does not mean that the converse is true: you can only learn a language through immersion. It is unreasonable to think that you will learn as quickly via immersion with no knowledge as you would have in a formal class. My post on the method of immersion explains why this is a bad idea. As for high school and even college level classes, you have to take everything with a grain of salt. Until you reach the upper levels of coursework, the classes are designed so that you have a very basic knowledge of the language in practice and can read/write much more. Speaking takes a priority toward the end, as by then you have learned all the grammar. It is equally unreasonable to expect that a single high school/college course will teach you to a functional level of use. Again, it’s a question of whether you will put in the effort to build up to operational proficiency. Language learning is a self driven process!

4. I’m too old to learn a language/I’m not good at learning languages.

As I said, learning a language is self-driven, and if you’re not putting in the work, you’re getting anywhere. There is no such thing as being “good” at learning a language, but there is such thing as finding the right method. Not everybody can learn through grammar and vocabulary drills, and not everybody finds it productive to learn with spaced repetition of sentences. You need to find what works best for you. And while there certainly is a ripe age for learning, there is no such thing as it being too late for you to learn a language. It may take you more time, but that doesn’t mean you’re not learning.

5. I didn’t understand a word of Person A speaking in Language B! What do I do? I didn’t learn anything!

Not being able to understand someone is perfectly normal. I still struggle with perfectionism and trying to understand as quickly as possible. But it is a gradual process. Native speakers are likely to speak much faster than a learner is comfortable with. And for all you know, the person in question speaks a dialect that is much more prone to speaking quickly and slurring words! The point is, don’t be disappointed when you don’t understand. Ask them to repeat themselves or tell them you don’t understand. It’s OK to make mistakes and it’s a part of learning.

I hope you found this article helpful and don’t forget to share it on Facebook and Tumblr!

Fluency Revisited: 3 Things That It Is and That It’s Not

A few months back, I did a couple of posts regarding the objective of foreign language study: achieving fluency. I did several posts on the definition of fluency, and the levels thereof. Looking back on those posts and considering my views now, I think I need to revise my definition fluency. I’m going to talk about some of the things what it is and what it’s not. This is by no means an exhaustive list. So, here we go!

What fluency is:

1. Literacy

This is one thing that hasn’t really changed for me. I don’t think you can be called fluent in a language unless you can express yourself in all three modes of communication: reading, writing, and speaking. While most people think of speaking when it comes to fluency, I think that in order to master a language, which is fluency, you need to be literate. In fact, the first order of business when you’re learning a language with a different script should be learning it. The best way to acquire more vocabulary is reading, and if you don’t have many opportunities to speak, you should be familiar with the writing in the target language, especially when you’re talking with someone in a chat window on some social network.

2. Interpretation

Interpretation is the exchange of the spoken language through speaking and listening. You need to be able to process and react to the spoken language, using the target language in both instances. It’s not really enough to get the gist, because you may miss certain nuances, such as sarcasm, irony, or jokes. You can’t claim to know a language when you understand everything being said, but cannot respond.

3. Cultural conventions

A big mistake that I see with a lot of people in language classes is literally translating whatever they’re trying to say from English. It is important to understand that people who speak one language do not think in the exact same way as the people who speak another language. This is evidenced by the fact there are words that don’t necessarily translate to or from other languages. You need to learn how people use idioms, how certain words fit into certain contexts.

Another thing about this is that you cannot automatically use another language the way you would your own. Just because you talk casually with just about everyone doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate in another language. That’s not the culture. For example, in most Romance languages, it is not up to you to decide when you can use the “tu” form to address someone who you’ve become good friends after a long time. It is considered polite to either ask (though that is a bit more forward), or wait for that person to give you express permission. And don’t think people won’t notice. They will.

What fluency is not:

1. Being a scholar/academic

Let’s be honest: the majority of the speakers of any language are not professors. And by no means can learners be expected to acquire such advanced skill. Being an intellectual requires the study of advanced texts and learning of a much higher degree, which you can only consider when you actually know the language to begin with.

2. Being a native

Don’t let any teacher or anyone else tell you that fluency precludes anybody who didn’t grow up speaking the language. This is by no means true, because you can learn to acquire that facility by immersing yourself in the environment where the language is spoken (after some time studying the language of course). That’s how children learn: they’re immersed in the language, and know how to use it only after much trial and error.

3. Taking only classes

You need to get out into the world, where people use the language for their everyday lives. Get yourself out of your bubble, your little comfort zone, where all you ever do is take tests and answer questions. Sure, you can practice conversations in class; but even then, everything is scripted. Knowing the language in theory isn’t everything.

So, there’s something else for you to think about. Remember, these are just my opinions, not definitive facts. Take them as you will. Please share this on Facebook, Google Plus, and Tumblr! Leave any comments if you have something to say about this topic.

My Language Learning Calendar!

This is a picture of my language learning calendar, to mark the order in which I learn languages. It may not end up being in this exact order, but I aim to do so! Wish me luck, as this may take several years!

My language calendar!

1 Big Thing You Get to Choose As a Language Learner

When learning another language, especially when you’re getting to that upper level of competency, you come to realize (or perhaps you already know) that there other ways of speaking, or dialects. Each dialect has its own accent, vocabulary, and particular way of saying things. Now, there’s also the standardized version of that language, which is often called, “Standard (insert language here)”. This is the version that is most often taught to non-native learners of the language.

Despite this, I feel that you have a right to pick and choose what you learn and use in learning a language. A lot of Spanish learners, in my experience, feel obligated to only use what they’ve been taught in class. As a learner of a language, you have a certain privilege, or at least opportunity that native speakers may not have.

But the reality is that you can choose what dialect or accent to emulate. If you’re going to be spending a lot of time in a particular region where the target language is spoken, I don’t see why not. Sometimes it may be even necessary, as is the case with the varieties of Arabic: Modern Standard Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, etc.

In the case where there is a standard, but there are still very distinct dialects, such as in Italian, this is where learners have the dilemma. Students of Italian are typically taught only Standard Italian, which resembles Florentine Italian the most, and as you go out from Rome, Florence, and the other cities in Central Italy, the language is less and less intelligible to the untrained ear. The Sicilian and Milanese varieties sound very different. In such a case, depending on where you are, you should familiarize yourself with what that dialect sounds like, or even try to switch between dialects (if you’re willing to learn the dialects well enough).

The point of learning a language to fluency (in my opinion) is to emulate native speakers. Because there are a great many native speakers, there are also a great many dialects. Therefore, it is up to the learner (after getting down the fundamentals of course) to pick what kind of speaker they want to emulate.

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.

What is Fluency?

Whenever people set out to learn to a foreign language, there are those who aspire to become fluent, practically native speakers of the language. But really, what is fluency defined as, anyway? Here are some criteria I’ve thought of that I think accurately describe fluency in a foreign language.

1) Transition into speaking is fluid and natural. This effectively means that you can answer and ask questions in a foreign language without really thinking about it, and that speaking comes second nature to you.

2) Full command over the language. This means that you can hold complex and lengthy discussions about a topic, whether it’s particularly deep or not, and completely and accurately understand it.

3) Becoming one with the language and culture. In truth, part of speaking a foreign language is becoming intimately familiar with its native speakers and their culture. In this aspect, you observe all the social conventions when speaking, and understand them when they come into play. Some say that this embodies becoming essentially another person when speaking the target language.

4) Accent and comfort in speaking are absolutely impeccable. If you’re going to speak a foreign language, you better be able to imitate the accent. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but that you do it. This also means that you are totally and utterly in sync with speaking the language like a native speaker. If you sound as though you’re straining to say things, then you probably need more practice.