Week 8: A Quaint Evening

I had another rather quiet weekend this week, with little fanfare and traveling. I did venture out to Fuzhou Lu to check out the stationery stores, where I got some colored brush pens. Unfortunately, the street isn’t much to look at, but the Foreign Language Bookstore is there, and it boasts the widest variety of books in Shanghai that are written in English and other languages.

I spend a lot of my time in the evenings doing calligraphy, which you may have seen on my Instagram. My calligraphy is almost always in Kannada, which is my mother tongue. I was inspired by the beauty and tradition of Chinese and Arabic calligraphy, wanting to create a new kind of art that younger Kannadigas can appreciate. A lot of the art that younger Indians consume is less textual, not always physical, and very aesthetically oriented. More traditional forms of art, like classical music and dance, are less interesting to younger Indians, simply because of a strong fascination with Western culture. I grew up in the West, and I have opposite sentiments, being rather tired of the stuff I saw in the States.

Calligraphy is a blend between the semantic qualities of language, and aesthetic qualities of art, and that’s what I love about it.

“Ameshi – Asian American” – An original coinage of mine

Chinese calligraphy (in my experience) is often about a precision that demonstrates respect for the written word, and only once you’ve mastered that do you have the creative license to innovate in writing. Arabic calligraphy is similar, and it’s often said that a student spends years learning to prepare the paper before they even learn to use the pen. Arabic calligraphy, as artwork, is a work of devotion and encourages the beholder to appreciate the semantic meaning of the writing.

These traditions are about a conscious and active appreciation of language, art, and culture. There is purposeful selection of content, skillful application of artistic skill, and an expression of cultural appreciation. I can only hope that my calligraphy will get somewhere to that level.

“Harihara” – The composite form of Shiva and Vishnu

I really want other Kannadigas to appreciate the language in a special way, one that really inspires a love for who we are and where we come from. I feel that the spread of English and Hindi makes it really easy for people of all regional backgrounds to discard their identities in favor of something expedient.

It’s like being caught between a rock and a hard place, because on one hand, using English or Hindi makes it easier to do business and get ahead in society, but when you have all the money and material things that you need, you don’t have much of a personal identity anymore. You end up spending so much time using another language for finite ends, you lose the ability to appreciate something that really lasts.

“Sankata” – The pain of separation, grief from parting, and the sorrow of nostalgia. 

The dissolution of all these identities into the whole, in my humble opinion, is not a good thing. It’s not only easy to gloss over people’s issues this way, but it also dashes an opportunity to understand more visions of the human experience.

The only ways to really keep our languages alive is by using them in art and in our media. I know that my Kannada is not absolutely perfect, but it would make it so much easier to reconnect with my culture if I knew that there was niche culture scene where it was the predominant medium of expression. There are languages that are close to dying out (and Kannada isn’t even one of them), and I can only imagine how some young people in those communities feel. The helplessness of watching your culture die before you is horrible. To have someone else essentially tell you “If you can’t beat’em, join’em” when it comes to resisting a dominant prestige culture is even worse. Hindi is not the only language of India, and English is not the only language of the world. I won’t let my language, my history, or my people be erased, if I can help it.

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!

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.