Check Out the Sankethi Language Page on Omniglot!

I recently contributed some of my material on Sankethi to Simon Ager, who runs a blog about foreign languages and their scripts, called Omniglot. Thanks to that, there is now a page on how to read and write in the Sankethi language! You can check it out here: http://www.omniglot.com/writing/sankethi.htm.

Omniglot has been an invaluable resource to me as learner of foreign languages, as I learned to read and write in Hindi, Kannada, Hebrew, and Korean because of it. I highly recommend the blog, as even the pages on languages with Latin scripts are immensely helpful, as it details all the possible combinations of letters and what the pronunciation of those combinations will be! French learners, do not pass up the opportunity to use the French page! It just seems to me that it clears up a lot of ambiguities and such. As a rule of thumb, I always visit the Omniglot page of a language before I start learning it or even consider starting to learn it. So, bookmark his blog and make use of the incredible resource!

The Two Most Contentious Languages and Why You Should Learn Them Anyway

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo incident, the North Carolina shooting of Muslims, and rising Antisemitism on college campuses, I am moved to write this article about the two most contentious, whether it be socially or politically, languages to learn. This article is not to discourage people from learning them, but rather to encourage. We must look past the history of the people who speak the language, and understand them on a personal level. America, or any other nation for that matter, should not be reduced to a xenophobic entity that dehumanizes and derides an entire people for the actions of the few extremists. The goal of learning a language is to become enlightened by that language’s wisdom, and learn how to apply it in fostering good relations.

Hebrew

Due to the atrocious acts committed by the Israeli government in oppressing Palestine, many Jews in America have been targeted. Jews study the Hebrew language in order to learn about their heritage and culture, because it lies nowhere else. Modern Jews, to my knowledge, do not categorically associate themselves, their faith, or their language with the state of Israel. I fear that Hebrew classes in America will be discouraged or even actively protested, because of Antisemitism. There are good and bad people among the Jews. To understand how Jews outside of Israel feel, you must overcome your feelings about Israel, the nation, to truly know how the people feel. We cannot blame Jews in America for the decisions of Israeli government officials. To that end, those that aspire to learn Hebrew, whether you are Jewish or not, I implore you to learn it despite what others say.

Arabic

The Middle East has long been the subject of debate, warfare, and discussion around the world. There are many countries that speak one of the several dialects of Arabic, which each have their own history and culture that you can learn from. Much like Jews, Muslims suffer a great deal due to the extremists or governments that misrepresent them. To learn Arabic is to understand not only the language of the Muslim world, but also to understand their feelings about their religion, its interpretation. With all the hatred of Islam that runs rampant in America, Palestine’s own voice is lost, in addition to the treatment it receives at the hands of the Israeli government. I do not support Israel’s decision to remove Arabic as an official language of the state, because I feel that it keeps Palestine in silence. Learn Levantine Arabic to understand the plight of the Palestinians. Learn any dialect of Arabic, to learn how the people actually live, how they actually think.

I realize that this was a bit of a loaded topic, but this is something I feel very strongly about. Allow me to clarify this: I do not approve of the Israeli government’s actions toward Palestine. However, I do not approve of blaming Jews who are not involved either. Pointing fingers and blaming each other will solve nothing. It is not until you know someone else’s language that you know what he or she has to say.

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!

My Beginnings in Hebrew

So, before I start my lessons in Hebrew for the Italki October 2014 Language Challenge, I thought I’d get a head start by learning the Hebrew alphabet. As it happens, there are two versions: printed and cursive. The printed version (in the cover picture) is used mostly by learners and children, and obviously in printed text. The cursive version, whose name is misleading, is used in all handwritten situations. I say that the name is misleading because it’s not cursive the way cursive is in English; the letters are not connected in a continuous flow. It’s also a bit confusing, because the printed and cursive versions, for the most part, don’t look at all alike. I’ve attached a picture of my chart, which has both versions, as well as the niqqud (the vowel system) marks on the back. Unfortunately, niqqud are not used in most texts, written or printed, and the vowels are implied via context. So, hopefully, this goes well for me. Wish me luck!

Hebrew Chart

Hebrew Chart Niqqud

Masculine, Feminine, What’s the Point? Or So You Think.

Grammatical gender is a fairly common concept in many Romance languages, as well as several Indo-European and many Slavic languages. It distinguishes nouns and adjectives (and occasionally verb conjugations) by classifying them as being of a certain gender. Grammatical gender is also referred to as noun class. However, as many Spanish, French, and other Romance language learners are painfully aware, the gender of a noun often has nothing to do with its biological gender, or any, “masculine,” or, “feminine,” qualities that it may possess. Further, it may not even be a, “gender,” in the biological sense. For example, you have German and Romanian, which both have neuter gender. Neuter is not a gender you assign to people at birth. In Basque, words are classified as animate or inanimate, which, admittedly, has much more logic to it than the male-female systems of Spanish, French, and other such languages.

However, there are people who have issues with the idea of a gendered grammar system. There is a feminist argument for the gender-neutralization of Spanish, and I’m sure of other Romance languages. Teresa Meana Suárez argues that there is an inherent sexism in the Spanish language. She indicates that most professions are, by default, masculine. When you indicate a group of people in plural, and said group is mixed, the default is the masculine plural form. Some time ago, any time that you were referring to the generic form of a word that has different forms based on gender, you used the masculine form as the generic. Now, both the masculine and feminine forms are given. Now, I personally think that languages would be greatly simplified if we made things gender-neutral, but I realize that this is impractical as a quick fix. Within common sense, it is not at all practical to try and force people to adopt a rule for the way they speak. If you made Spanish gender-neutral, you would be changing most of the language.

While I certainly agree that Suárez makes some valid points, there is a question I have. This is not meant to poke holes in her logic, but rather an abstract question: What if the grammatical genders of nouns were not designated specifically as male and female? What if they were just Class A and Class B? What if they weren’t even genders, just classes of nouns? This is not an absolute claim I’m trying to make; what the gender is called, or whether it’s even called, “gender” is something important to address. Take Basque: the argument that Suárez makes doesn’t apply, because the, “genders,” are designated animate and inanimate. I don’t know why the categories of nouns and adjectives are supposed to be, “masculine,” and, “feminine.” As I said before, excluding words for professions, family members, and other such words, there is little logic as to why a word is masculine or feminine. But then again, the language I use most often, English, is a gender-neutral language, for the most part, so I may be biased in any claims that I make here.

Others who take issues with grammatical gender do so with respect to practical usage. is Tom Scott, in his video on gender-neutral pronouns, mentions that he finds grammatical gender useless. He calls it, “clunky,” because in things such as job advertisements, you have to make it clear that you’re looking for a male or female who does the job, or both. However, it goes both ways: English cannot specify gender as easily, and for professions such as, “babysitter,” you have to specify if you specifically want a male or female babysitter, by adding the words, “male,” or, “female.”

Scott also mentions that it influences the way people think. His example shows the differences between the German der Schlüssel and Spanish la llave, which are masculine and feminine, respectively. They both mean, “key,” but when speakers of each language were asked to describe a key, German speakers apparently used, “hard, heavy,” and, “jagged”. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, used, “golden, intricate,” and, “little”. Ordinarily, you’d think that this particular example is not all that terrible. However, for words that describe people, such as those for professions and such, it can be somewhat… sexist. In one of the few gendered examples in English, the word, “seamstress,” in its original meaning (a woman who weaves clothes) is feminine. But then, what if a man weaves clothes? The word, “seamster,” is not a word. There is a subtle implication here, that weaving is a woman’s work. Because of this, people conscious of such considerations typically opt for the gender-neutral, “weaver.”

Despite these arguments against gendered systems, there is little one can do in the short term. If Spanish, French, and the other Romance languages become “de”-gendered over time, so be it. However, considering how long the gendered systems have persisted, I think that there must be a reason for it.

In the study, “Language Environment and Gender Identity Attainment,” Guiora, Beit-Hallahmi, Fried, and Yoder examined how people’s understanding of gender develops with respect to the language they speak. Languages where gender is marked greatly, such as Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic, were contrasted with those where gender is not a prominent feature, such as Finnish and English. The idea is that when children are growing up, they have to learn that they have to respond differently to questions or other interactions that consider one’s own sex or the opposite sex. Therefore, whatever they think and say have to revolve around such things.

The Michigan Gender Identity Test was used to compare children’s abilities to sort people’s photographs based on gender. Being successful in this test means that the child can clearly sort things by gender, and then explain using gender. Israeli Hebrew-speaking children did very well, as 50% or more of the children from 25-42 months succeeded. On the other hand, Finnish children were not able to succeed in the same proportions until 34-36 months. English-speaking children were in the middle, as more children began to succeed from 28-42 months.

From these results, I’m thinking that gender-determinacy is important to gender identity recognition. This is obviously very important for a child to know. I can’t really think of many other reasons, but this is a very big one. Of course, in this day and age, there are people who may be biologically male or female, but identify as the opposite sex. Languages typically do not account for such circumstances, as it is probably very strange for a Hebrew speaker to address a man as he or she would a woman, because that man feels he is a woman.

In short, there is no clear reason as to why gender-determinacy exists. I’m sure there’s a good reason, given how long it’s been around, but only time will tell. If you guys have any comments on this topic, please let me know!

Works Cited

“Gender Neutral Pronouns: They’re Here, Get Used To Them.” YouTube. YouTube, 5 July 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.

Guiora, Alexander Z., Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Risto Fried, and Cecelia Yoder. “Language Environment And Gender Identity Attainment.” Language Learning (1982): 289-304. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.

“Sexism in the Spanish Language.” Revista Envío. 1 May 2002. Web. 10 Sept. 2014.

Why Minority Languages Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips For Learning A New Script

When it comes to learning another language, you sometimes encounter languages with a different script from the one you usually use. This is especially the case with Eastern languages. The Nastaliq script is highly artistic in its aesthetics, and is written from right to left, instead of left to right like most scripts. Cyrillic is the script for many Slavic languages, primarily Russian, Serbian, etc, and is deceptively similar to the Latin script. And then you have the scripts of Asia, which can be complicated like Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese, mixed up like Japanese, or like Hindi, which uses diacritics. While it can seem daunting to memorize three different writing systems for Japanese, or having to recognize the vowel sounds from context for Arabic and Hebrew, there is a way to learn!

1. Practice. I cannot stress this enough. You are not going to learn a script as quickly if you simply use flashcards. Despite being in a time where computers and typing are the primary form of written communication and letters are dying out, writing the characters of a writing system with a pen or pencil helps internalize the characters in your mind. Your brain learns to recognize the patterns you write down. Get a notebook or use several pieces of paper, and practice the characters. It’s usually best to practice them in groups of five, especially for Indian language scripts, and Japanese, whose spoken, “alphabets,” are recited as such. After you finish a page, go to the next one, and write out every single character that you’ve learned so far, in order. Then continue to the next set of five, when you can write all the ones you have learned with little to no difficulty.

2. Flashcards. This is more of an aid for reading. It is important to realize that even though I said you should write the characters in order, characters do not appear that way in written language. You need to train yourself to recognize characters in different instances, and out of order. After a while, you should be able to write a character without thinking too long if someone asks you to.

3. Read. Find a grammar school primer or simple children’s story books, and try to read it slowly. If you have trouble, keep a chart of the characters next to you, and transcribe the letters to your own script. This helps you to recognize characters in different positions in words.

4. Write. This comes into play more when you actually start learning the language itself. Write all words in the target language in its script, to force yourself to practice writing them, and also reading them when you review your notes. I got into the habit of writing my Spanish notes in Spanish this year. While not exactly the same situation, it works on the same principle. By putting everything you can into the target language, you model immersion to an extent, and force yourself to work with the language.

5. Recall. This is probably the hardest part of learning the script, because it doesn’t involve a tangible activity. You should only attempt to do this when you have a good grasp for most of the characters, though you can try to do this as you go along. Recall entails recalling the image of the characters in question in your mind, and writing them in the air, if you need some help. This is especially helpful for ideographic languages, such as Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese.

Good luck with learning those scripts!

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

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

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

1) Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew

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

2) Japanese and Korean

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

3) German and Russian

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

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

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

What’s the best language to learn?

As a foreign language nut, for those who know me, I’ve been asked on multiple occasions what I think is the best language to learn. Language, being a universal thing by nature, is also universally applicable. It has so many uses, and different languages are suited to different things. Purposes include utility and beauty. While many perspectives on the two exist, here is my piece:

When it comes to the most useful language to learn, most people consider Mandarin Chinese to be the most useful, followed by Japanese. China has become a considerable economic entity in recent years, as has Japan. Both have fairly wide areas of economic hegemony, and doing business in those countries is very likely to be useful. However, in the realm of politics, I believe that Hebrew, Farsi, and Arabic are among the more useful languages. They are largely overlooked, due to the stigma associated with the Middle East, and difficulty in learning. As issues grow in Iraq, Iran, and Israel, the US is also pressed further into involvement with those conflicts. By knowing those languages, and using them to negotiate with the people of those countries, a more peaceful outcome might be possible, due to a medium of mutual understanding.

As for the most beautiful language, Hindi-Urdu, Italian, and Hebrew rank in my top three. Hindi has a rich musical legacy, ranging from Vedic chants to Bollywood music (although some of it is rubbish these days). The most beautiful songs in Hindi-Urdu that come to mind are Teri Justajoo (Saaware) from Shor in the City, Sajda from My Name Is Khan, and Titli, from Chennai Express. All are decent movies, except for the last one, which is almost wholly a slapstick comedy, with this one jewel of a song, although part of the song is in Tamil. Hindi-Urdu is one of the most beautiful lyrical languages, with expressive vocabulary that conveys a wide variety of emotions, aspects, and actions, deeper than most other languages.

Italian is the second most beautiful, in my opinion, shown in its ubiquity in classical vocal music, and also the rhythmic, lyrical flow of the language. It’s also quite entertaining to speak, especially with other people. It is often said to be the most romantic of all the Romance languages.

Hebrew has been called an odd choice as a favorite language by my friends, who regard it as somewhat harsh and clunky. However, I have heard fluent speakers, who speak the language with grace and beauty. The language, in vocal music, has the potential to rival Hindi-Urdu, with its rich, meaningful vocabulary. Good Hebrew singers have a solid foundation yet fluid range in their voice quality, commanding the language as if it were an orchestra conducted by a masterful maestro.

Well, that’s my bit for today. Leave your opinions in the comments! I’d love to hear other peoples’ views on this topic.