Secondary Languages

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how everyone says, “Hey, you should learn Arabic or Chinese!” when they’re talking about what language is best to learn. While it’s all well and good to learn those languages, but what about the poor little secondary languages, the ones that no one knows about because they’re not as useful? Simply put, these languages are learned almost exclusively for fun or other more specific reasons. In this post, I’m going to talk about which are the most useful secondary languages to learn.

1. Tamil

Tamil, the Dravidian language of South India and native to Tamil Nadu, holds official status in India, Singapore, and Sri Lanka. Tamil is widely considered useful in South India, because it’s the language a lot of people are likely to know, in addition to their mother tongues and/or state language. You might argue Telugu or Kannada (the latter being my mother tongue) is more useful, but Tamil is more prevalent in South India than either. Tamil has an extensive classical literature and history as well.

2. Catalán

This language was and still is used along Spain’s eastern coast. The language is highly based off of Latin, though it has Iberian influences. Catalán is most famous for being spoken in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. It is the second most prevalent language in Spain after Castilian Spanish, and most speakers of Catalán also speak Castilian Spanish.

3. Romansh

This is one language that most people have never heard of, even among some of my fellow language geek friends. Romansh is a language spoken in Switzerland,  in a sizable portion of the country that borders Italy and Austria. If you ever decide to business in or visit that part of Switzerland, it might be handy, simply as a courtesy to the people there. Romansh holds official status in the canton of Grisons, so a lot of things will be written in Romansh.

4. Kurdish

Kurdish is a language spoken by the Kurds in parts of several countries in the Middle East. They are both an ethnic and linguistic minority, but have official status in Iraq. It would be handy to know, because the Kurds actually have semi-autonomy concessions within the Middle East. For some time now, the Kurds have been pushing for a sovereign Kurdish state.

Again, these are simply secondary languages, most of whose speakers probably speak the majority language(s) of the country in which they reside. Learning these languages is almost purely as courtesy to them, for fun, or perhaps something else if you so desire.

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!

Language Barriers

I’ve often been asked about why I think foreign language education is important. While I could certainly come up with quite a few reasons, I think one of the more prominent ones is when you encounter language barriers. This can be in person, over the internet, or in signs and other written situations. Human experience is defined by what we take in and what we understand, and so we should aim to understand as much as we can. Besides, you are bound to end up in a situation where you need to use foreign language, because the other person can’t understand you or you need some vital information that’s on a sign written in an another language. Whether it’s business negotiations, diplomacy, or simply communicating as a tourist, learning a foreign language is a huge asset. Overcoming the language barrier is the first step. In this post, I’m going to talk about the places where language barriers the least and most prevalent. I won’t be discussing the rural areas of certain countries, because that’s simply a given.

1) China, Japan and Korea: Greatest Language Barrier

Surprisingly, even though these countries have rapidly progressed in their political structures and economies, the practice of using English, or for that matter any other language, is not very widespread. The education system does require English-language instruction in these nations, but many people prefer to speak their native language due to not feeling confident in their ability to speak English and as a simple matter of preference. English instruction in these nations, from what I’ve heard, is very traditional. In other words, people in China, Japan, and Korea are as inclined to use English as much as people in the United States are inclined to use French.

2) The Nations of Scandinavia and Germany/Austria/The Netherlands: The Weakest Language Barrier

When it comes to going abroad in Europe, Scandinavia is the best when it comes using English with foreigners. With top-notch education systems (which is not to say Japan and Korea don’t have good ones), students in Scandinavian countries, generally speaking, come out of schooling speaking decent if not perfect English. The same goes for Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. This can probably be accounted for by the fact that German and the Scandinavian languages have a common history with English.  Surprisingly, France, Spain, and Italy are not as well-versed in English, shown in statistics. This is probably because Iberian/Arabic influences (Spanish), Gallic influence (French), and Italic influences (Italian) have caused the parent language (Latin, specifically Vulgar Latin) to diverge more significantly, and therefore farther from English, which borrows more from Germanic, Greek, and classical Latin roots.

3) India: The Weakest Language Barrier in Asia

Unlike the East Asian countries, such as China, Korea, Japan, or Vietnam, India has come to use English extensively. Signs are  written in English, sometimes not even as a translation of the state language. The education system mandates the learning of English from first grade all the way to twelfth grade. In addition, people must take yet another foreign language to graduate from college. Most people in India speak English and are perfectly willing to communicate in English, although they will use their own language at other times. Gotta keep your secrets, you know?

4) Latin America: The Biggest Language Barrier in the Americas

Ironically, even though Spain is pretty good about its people knowing English (although certainly not as much as other European countries), getting around without knowing Spanish (or Portuguese in Brazil) is hard in Latin America. Many Latin American countries are in the Low Proficiency bracket on the EF English Proficiency Index. So I highly suggest hitting the books on Spanish if you go to Latin America without knowing any first.

5) The Middle East: The Biggest Language Barrier

For some, this may not come as a surprise. The EF English Proficiency Index shows that several Middle Eastern countries, including Qatar, Kuwait, Iran, and Egypt are in the Low or Very Low Proficiency brackets. Saudi Arabia and Iraq are at the very bottom of the list in the Very Low Proficiency bracket. This is why it is all the more imperative that people learn to speak Arabic and/or Farsi.

So, that’s my say on this topic. I’ll probably have something again this week, so I hope you look forward to it.

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.