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.

Japanese on Duolingo! Yay! … Or Not.

I recently read an article from Kuma Sensei, a Japanese learning blog, commenting on the recent addition of Japanese to Duolingo. I have used Duolingo in the past, both commending and criticizing it. When I saw that Japanese was added to Duolingo, I had to bite my tongue so that I wouldn’t start screaming about other languages that should be added. Before I jump into this article’s main point, I’d suggest reading the article first: https://kumasensei.net/learn-japanese-duolingo-review/.  Kuma Sensei offers a qualified and in-depth evaluation of Duolingo’s Japanese course, which, to my knowledge, is currently available only on iOS and eventually Android. Given that Duolingo is a primarily web-based application, this is a bit odd. Kuma Sensei’s overall evaluation seems to be summed up with one quote:

“Duolingo may just be what the doctor ordered for people who absolutely loathe using textbooks and want to just sit down and start learning Japanese for free.”

This is a totally fair observation, since in my experience, most language learners do not seem particularly keen on academically-oriented study programs. That said, Duolingo’s Japanese doesn’t escape Kuma Sensei unscathed. There’s a remarkable lack of grammatical explanation, which seems to be the case for most Duolingo courses.

Even for Italian and Spanish, arguably fairly simple languages in terms of grammar, the explanations of when to use certain verbal forms leaves much to be desired. And again, maybe that’s Duolingo’s appeal. But context-based translations and nuance, which are key skills to acquire as a language learner (no matter who you are) are completely lost on our beloved owl. However, Japanese’s more complex features, such as the mandatory mixed use of hiragana, katakana, and kanji are not at all explained, which I label as a serious deficiency of the course. Although, to quote Kuma Sensei: “You’re lucky you’re still in beta phase, punk.” It’s unfortunately apt that in Kannada (and most of India’s languages), being compared to an owl is to be considered unintelligent.

Which brings me to my point. I’ve been pushing for Kannada to be added to Duolingo for almost four years now, and I’ve yet to actually receive any kind of communication from Duolingo to discuss the potential project. My growing frustrations with Duolingo’s apparent disinclination to support minority languages, compounded with the flaws of the Japanese course are eating away at my faith in its ability to support language learning. I’m well aware that Duolingo is not a great tool for those aiming to become even conversational in a given language, but ostensibly, that is what Duolingo purports to do.

I want to like Duolingo, really, I do. The game-like aspects make it a really powerful starting tool for language learners, but unfortunately no more than that. There’s a lot of further work to be done on your own, which is kind of unavoidable. Duolingo has a lot of potential for bringing up minority languages, which it already has shown it can do, given the availability of Welsh, Irish, Vietnamese, and Turkish courses. Granted, these languages are rendered in Latin script anyway, so that may make things easier. But knowing that the Japanese course is so flawed, it might not be that these other courses are any better.

I’d be really glad to hear anyone’s thoughts on this, and please don’t forget to share this on your social media!

Problems with English Language Supremacy

A lot of people who meet me and find out that I learn languages are quick to say “Why bother with learning languages? Everyone speaks English anyway.” or something to that effect. Aside from the very clear fact that not everyone speaks English, there are a lot of issues with advancing English as a universal lingua franca. I’m not suggesting that there is an alternative, and in fact, I argue that having a universal lingua franca is not necessarily a good thing. Also to clarify: I don’t think that English as a language unto itself is inferior to others, but rather that it does share an inherent equality with other languages.

Expedience is the name of the game in today’s globalizing world, and most people don’t want to spend the time necessary to learn another language. This seems to be true across the board, regardless of whether it’s for travel, business, or meeting newly arrived immigrants in a country. It is by far easier to just have everyone speak English, but as I mentioned, this is rife with social issues and a tendency to generalize, which can reinforce discriminatory attitudes about different communities.

I have always argued that languages are the base form of communication and culture before anything else, like food, religion, or music. Languages, in some ways, embody the lived experiences and collective memory of a people, and are often the only way that we have glimpses into our pasts. For example, for people who speak Mandarin, this takes the form of 成語 (chéngyŭ), four character phrases that are taken from classical Chinese literature, common idioms, or elsewhere. They are set phrases that preserve Chinese culture in the language itself. Many idioms in different languages function this way, to varying extents.

However much I say that learning a language is just a question of what method you use, there is no doubt that doing so takes time, energy, and commitment. I know that not everyone has those things to do so, but I won’t stop encouraging people to do so. It has long been demonstrated that multilingualism improves empathy and cultural comprehension. A multilingual society also ensures a robust quality of discourse, one that is multifaceted and nuanced. The exchange of ideas in the original language ensures as little dilution of those ideas as possible. This is the logic behind which it is said that there is always something lost in translation.

The pushing of English as a universal lingua franca is a massive act of erasure of both languages and the communities that speak them. To push English onto them is devalue their experiences, and disregard the humanity they inherently display through their language. Policies and beliefs that discourage multilingualism can manifest in forms of racism and other forms of discrimination.  No language, no matter how small, is representative of a particular worldview, and therefore helps form part of the larger picture that is the human experience.

I will be the first to admit that I cannot learn every language in one lifetime, and that it will always be exceedingly difficult to achieve this goal. I do not expect everyone to be fluent in ten different languages, but I do hope that they will make the effort to work toward learning at least one or two other than their own. As it is said in the Katha Upanishad, the wise seek the good, and the ignorant seek the pleasant. I urge people not to do what is easy, and embark on a path toward multilingualism. We have already lost so many languages due to the advance of English in the Americas and other parts of the world; let us not do a disservice to those that remain.

Conlanging as a Tool for Language Revival?

Hello everyone! It’s been a very long time, and I’m glad to finally be writing an article! I’ve been reading, seeing, and doing a lot recently, what with papers and student events. But, I have something pretty interesting this time around.

As you may remember from a few posts back, I’ve flip-flopped on my opinions about conlangs, or constructed languages. I originally felt that learning constructed languages was a waste of time. I felt that it detracted from time that could be spent on learning natural languages, especially ones in need of documentation and study. However, after working on a research project on Sankethi for the past few months, I’ve done some rethinking.

I’m currently in a Facebook group for discussion of constructed languages, and many of the members have an in-depth knowledge of linguistics. They’re very well-versed in how languages have changed over time, how change occurs, among other things. Their ability to generate usable paradigms for constructed languages, and build an organic structure from scratch is just amazing. I recently read up on efforts to reconstruct languages like Akkadian, the language of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Proto-Indo-European, the postulated shared ancestor of many European and South Asian languages. There is currently a recording of the Epic of Gilgamesh in reconstructed Akkadian that you can hear online. The reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European has been in the works since the 19th century.

All of this has me thinking about how many minority languages like Sankethi have a fairly limited technical or literary lexicon. I once thought, “Oh, what if I wrote something in Sankethi and imported Tibetan, Chinese, or Korean words for fun? How would that sound?” It made me think that conlanging could potentially be a form  Of course, there are complications in this, such as ethnic/national tensions. A command of linguistic knowledge could be useful for constructing useful words to build the lexicon of languages without a developed written form. Or one could better introduce and naturalize words into a language.

These are just thoughts, and not a serious investigation into the actual possibility, since I don’t know enough. If you have thoughts on this, feel free to leave comments!

What Language to Learn Based on Your Major

Almost every major has some kind of foreign language requirement. And whenever you’re talking about jobs, people always talk about how learning a second language is a good idea. I get a lot of questions on Quora about what language someone should learn based on their job or university. Not to mention that a lot of university students worry about their resumes (myself included)!

It definitely is a good idea to learn a second language, and your job opportunities can seriously open up if you know one well. The key word here is well. This can mean a variety of things, depending on your job and major. From conversational fluency for business to native level fluency, what employers want varies quite a bit. So, I’m here to tell you what language to learn based on your major, and how well you’ll need to know it!

Now, you should spend your time wisely when you learn another language. Learning for personal interest is OK, but I realize that everyone has the time or opportunity to do so. Depending on what field you’re going into, the language you will want to learn will vary considerably. Before I jump in, keep some of the following factors in mind when choosing a language: where you live, where you work, and how much you need to know that language. With that, let’s get right to it!

Engineering

Generally speaking, the predominant languages of the engineering professions are English and German. Germany has very good engineering programs at its top universities, as well as a lot of research in the engineering field. I can’t say much else, because this comes from what I’ve learned from my dad, who’s an Electrical Engineering PhD, as well as what I’ve heard from engineering students. If you’re an engineering major, you probably don’t need a second language to graduate, but I’d recommend doing so anyway.

Computer Science 

Unfortunately, the distinct lack of human interaction necessary to do work in this major makes it difficult to choose a language for professional purposes. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. Compared to a lot of other professions, human language skills aren’t quite as crucial to getting the job done in computer science. The essential foundation of computer science in English already requires comp sci majors to know English anyway. However, you might end up working with some foreign companies, especially in technology firms that have international presences. You might want to pick up Mandarin, Korean, or Japanese, since China, Korea, and Japan have strong tech industries. How well you need to know it will vary considerably, but unfortunately, I can’t really speak to how much you’ll use it.

Political Science/International Relations/etc.

This one, along with most humanities, is heavily dependent on your regional concentration. The typical poli sci or IR major has to pick a region of specialization, and many programs require a language to graduate. If you’re going to be working with Chinese politics a lot, you may want to consider learning Mandarin or Cantonese. Similarly, if you’re going to be studying the relations of Middle Eastern nations, it will be a good idea to pick up at least two varieties of Arabic, in addition to Modern Standard. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Arabic continuum, here’s an Itchy Feet Comic for you:

default1676_0.jpg

The bottom line is that you should learn the language (or languages) spoken predominantly in the area that you’ll be working. Jobs will require varying levels of fluency. For example, you should aim for the B2 (operational fluency) ballpark on the CEFR scale for a job that is more about your analytical skills and political knowledge. In these jobs, it’s simply that your proficiency is a plus and will help you do your job better. On the other hand, your job may explicitly require you to talk with people, such as working in an embassy or acting as an interpreter/translator, which will need a C1 (very proficient) if not C2 (near-native level). It will vary by the job description. Do your research on the area that you choose, and get started!

Literature, Anthropology, Education, and other Humanities

Many humanities majors, such as literature studies, will require a near-native level of fluency of a particular language due to regional specializations. French literature or French linguistics majors need to live and breath French to do their jobs. If you’re an anthropologist who works in South America, having a knowledge of indigenous languages will help you out immensely. Indigenous languages are admittedly trickier to learn due to lack of resources to learn them. If you’re planning to be an ESL teacher, you should definitely pick up significant immigrant languages such as Mandarin or Spanish. It will depend heavily upon where you work and how big the immigrant population is. Be prepared to learn those languages at least to B2 if not C1 proficiency.

Business

Perhaps the most frequent consumers of language course packages for professional development are various business majors. Business majors should consider coverage and general area of employment. If you work in Southeast Asia or with companies from that region, it will be a good idea to pick up Vietnamese or Thai. Business language courses will do you best, and will get you to at least B2, where you can go about most business with little difficulty. Spanish is one of the more popular languages for domestic business in the US, but Mandarin Chinese is also very useful for international business.

Research-oriented Majors

What I mean by “research-oriented” includes majors or tracks such as pre-medicine or chemistry; basically the hard sciences. It’s highly unlikely that a pre-med student with a major in a biological science will need to learn another language. Most academia in these fields is published in English or in another language, and then widely translated anyway. However, if you’re a doctor, you’ll want to know the language of non-English speaking patients that frequent your clinic. Learn to at least B1 or B2 fluency, though C1 would probably be better. If you work in an area with predominantly Chinese people, Mandarin or Cantonese will be useful for you. It doesn’t matter even if they do speak English; patients are often more comfortable if their physician is willing and able to speak in their language.

Other

Though I hate to admit it, there are many majors where learning a second language is simply not necessary. These majors include culinary arts, sports medicine, music, or dramatic arts. It won’t be bad for your career, but it certainly won’t get you to high places. To some people, that means it’s not worth it. Personally, I think you should always learn at least one other language for personal enrichment and expanding your worldview.

I hope this helps a lot of people with picking a language to fill out their foreign language requirement! Good luck with your studies and don’t forget to share this post if you liked it!

Language Learners’ 5 Least Favorite Moments

We language learners have all had those moments when we’re just like, “Ugh, I’m so tired and done with this!”. It happens to best of us and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. As someone who’s going to be learning langauges probably for the rest of his life (in spite of other things), I’ve had this moment several times. Some notable examples: understanding Cuban Spanish, practicing my Italian with natives, and the future subjunctive in Portuguese, just to name a few. Thankfully, there is nearly always a solution. Without further ado, here are five moments that language learners hate:

1. When there are no books on your language.

This can be due to either simply a lack of availability in the sense that you can’t afford it, it’s out on loan from the library, or no such books currently exist. It’s language learners’ worst nightmare. I’m really interested in minority languages like Tibetan and Brahui, all three for which resources can be fairly scarce. Catalan, one minority language that I know, at least has an online dictionary. Not to mention there are people who have written books on how to learn it. For Tibetan and Brahui I would have to do a lot more digging. The best way to deal with this is either the cheap-out way: give up, or to do some more searching with Google, or (gasp) go to the library*. Never fear because there’s always someone who has found info or written their own books on the subject, and you can always acquire it through various (and some of which are admittedly questionable) ways.

*Shout out to NYU Bobst Library for being a treasure trove of knowledge.

2. Feeling the tug of another language calling to you.

This is something that I see in the Tumblr community most often. All these language learners are like “Omg I’m so into Swedish rn” but then the next month (or perhaps the next week) they’re like “Why must I love German music so much”. Look, it’s not a terrible thing to feel this way, since so many languages have all sorts of cool things about them. You’re not in the minority. I feel this way about Tibetan and Brahui all the time, when I’m studying Mandarin or Korean. Just remember this: you won’t make progress if you don’t commit to your work. Jumping around is just going to make it worse, and you’ll feel like you’re not going anywhere. And then you will be that person who posts “I don’t know much, but I can eat, sleep, read, and say thank you in seven languages that I will never use”. The only thing I can tell you is keep at it. Remember why you started, what exactly it is that you want to do with that language. If you’re learning French, you could tell yourself this: “I want to go to Paris and be able to converse with French people” or “I want to able to read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in the original French”. Perhaps the last one is a bit lofty, but you get the point. It’s a million times easier to stay on the road if you know where you’re planning to go.

3. Feeling like you can say basically nothing.

languages, german, itchy feet, language learners
Everyone’s first time using the language with a native. *

*From Itchy Feet: the Language and Travel Comic. Disclaimer: I do not own this.

This happened for every single language that I have ever learned. Even in Kannada, my mother tongue, I messed up many times. There was one instance of which was cause for my own grandmother to break out into hysterics. Instead of beating yourself up for it, you should think positively. Benny Lewis’ article on the abundance mindset is a great read for motivating yourself. I know some people won’t read it, so I’ll summarize. 1: Capitalize on your current vocabulary and make use of it. 2: Keep track of your progress and be aware of what you know and don’t know. 3. Learn from your mistakes. 4. Don’t compare yourself to others.

The first three are important pieces of advice to take, but the last one is huge. I sometimes indulged a bad habit of comparing myself to Benny Lewis and Timothy Doner. People who had made careers out of their language prowess. Here I was, feeling bad that I couldn’t speak more than 10 languages as a senior in high school. Setting unrealistic expectations and thinking that you need to measure up to the pros from the very beginning is a master plan for low self-esteem. Look at the progress you have made rather than things that you don’t know. You’ll find yourself feeling better and also tackling your language with a much better attitude.

4. Being judged for incompetency.

Look, there’s no avoiding the fact that some people in world are insensitive and inconsiderate. There will be judgement, but you have to own up to it. Don’t fear these people. Think of them as the only people who will actually tell you that you’re wrong or that your speaking is off. To be perfectly honest, I don’t like it when people don’t tell me if something is wrong. Asking for constructive criticism is always good. If that person continues to trash-talk you and your language skills, that is a separate issue altogether. But have no fear! The vast majority of people that speak your target langauge appreciate language learners. They will often oblige and help you out. Like our good friend Cristiano Ronaldo:

language learners, Cristiano Ronaldo

5. Being told that languages are useless/stupid/boring etc.

There will be such people everywhere. This will even come from the mouths of native speakers themselves. That’s right. There are many people in the world who feel that their native language is not useful and don’t understand why someone else would want to learn it. Don’t feel discouraged because a native speaker told you that it’s useless. If you chose because you appreciate the culture and the beauty of that language, nothing should stop you. For the people who think that language learning is a dumb hobby, let the haters hate. Or you could convince them that they’re wrong. Your choice. The point is that if you are passionate about learning a language or you have a commitment to learning, there is nothing in this world that can stop you. Language learners can do so much in the world by expanding their ability to communicate with people.

I hope this article helps a lot of people who feel down during their studies! Cheer up and keep marching forward!

Language: You’re Doing It Wrong

In a lot of high school foreign language programs the instruction is often loaded down with grammar exercises. For someone enjoys grammar, this isn’t a problem, but it is for many people who have less patience for it. Grammar can be tedious and often doesn’t convey any of the vibrancy of that language. It can be difficult to pick up Spanish when they drill you on conjugations in the present indicative versus the present subjunctive. As a result, people treat language classes like medicine; the sooner you take it, the sooner it’s over.

Sometimes, people try again in their later years, whether it’s through a class or buying Rosetta Stone. I can personally attest that picking up a language through Rosetta Stone is irritating and unhelpful, by the way. To me, Rosetta Stone presents the opposite extreme: loaded down with sentences with no way to parse them.

The reason that you couldn’t pick up Spanish in high school was because you were too immersed in grammar. It was hard to see that a language is organic and sometimes behaves in ways you don’t expect. You couldn’t pick up Spanish later in your life because you focused too much on getting individual sentences. You couldn’t see the structure and use that to your advantage in understanding it.

So how should I learn a language, then?

Rather than excessively focus on repetition of phrases or simply grammar exercises, it’s better to have both in equal proportions. Picking up the grammar is important, no matter how much you might not like it. If you don’t have a blueprint for the fundamental structure of that language, your ability to acquire that language in the long run is fairly inhibited. Why? Because you’re memorizing phrases more than patterns. The important part is to be able to synthesize your own sentences, instead of spitting out rote-memorized sentences. Rather than understanding the sentences intuitively, you’re just memorizing a bunch of sound that has a given meaning.

In simpler, so-called “easier” languages like French or Spanish, you can get away with the rote method much more easily. Compared with some other languages, there’s minimal futzing around that you need to do with the sentences. This doesn’t work in a language like Korean, with a complex system of honorifics and verb styles. A keen awareness of how to form words, especially with respect to formality and politeness, is of the utmost importance. For a polyglot, it’s better to have a fairly consistent method, or at least a flexible one.

In my opinion, you need an even mix of formal grammatical training as well as real world experience. You need to ride with training wheels before you can ride without them. Sure, there are some people who can just pick things up by listening. But for a more complete and functional knowledge, you should combine grammar and real experience.

In conclusion

Obviously, not everybody has the same needs. Sometimes, you’re a linguist who may not really need to pick up the whole language, but rather understand it formally or in theory. Other times, you’re just a tourist or frequent traveler who could use a few phrases to get around once in a while. This post is more for those who want to learn a large part of if not the whole language in question, and long-term strategies are key for developing your skills.

Don’t feel weighed down by grammar, but don’t rely too much on set phrases. Learning a language is learning to interact with an organic part of people’s lives. It’s OK to depend on videos of the language in practice to reinforce your understanding of a grammatical concept, and you can try parsing recurring forms through the phrases you learn. But relying on either in excess could very well make you give up. Take the happier and more efficient route to learning a language! Pick up a book, pull up some YouTube videos, and get to work!

Why French Is Completely Overrated

French is easily one of the most widely studied modern languages from the 17th century in the courts of English nobles to the classrooms of American public high schools to one of the most widely learned languages among wannabe polyglots all over Tumblr and the rest of the internet.

Here’s the irony, though: French is an incredibly useless language to learn.

French literature has an impressive literary presence, but it’s full of long depressing stories of post-revolutionary France like Les Miserables and irritatingly short things like Candide, both of which are treated as some of the crowning jewels of European literature. I mean, who wants to read something depressing when you can read existentialist people like Dostoyevsky, and oh… Sartre. That one, with his meaningful choice of coffee with milk or creamer.

Not to mention the French language is basically silent. La fille? That –lle is there to take up space on the page, my friends. Nearly all the filler letters and weird-ass spellings are things artificially preserved by the Académie Française in order to reflect Old French pronunciation and make it seem more prestigious and steeped in history. There are so many words that sound the same but mean very different things. Out of all of the Romance language siblings, French has wandered hopelessly far from its ancestor, Latin. It wouldn’t be very cool if it didn’t have something old like Old French (how inventive) to ground it in prestige. I mean, sure a lot of people in France speak it, and it’s fairly useful to get around, but I mean you could just be American and pull out English wherever you go. All you have to do is be a complete asshat about English is the only useful language.

Let’s also observe the fact that there are, what, like six major countries that speak French? In several of which you can get away with speaking a more important language like Italian or German? I mean there are African Francophone countries and Vietnam, but let’s be honest: I’m fairly certain they’d rather use their own languages than participate in imperialist bullshit like speaking the language of their conquerors for socioeconomic expediency. Speaking of language repression, the Académie Française was hating on its own Frenchmen for speaking regional languages other than French for years until it’s like “Oh shit that was mean hahah sorry loooool” and now these languages are gasping for breath in the North and South (stuff like Breton and Occitan by the way).

Canada, a major nation in which French is officially spoken, doesn’t even speak French as a majority; my cousins live in Canada and basically never use French. I mean yeah, they live in Guelph, Ontario, but it’s Canada. They’re weird, anyway. Universal healthcare and whatnot.

The point is that French is like a complete asshat to its learners with a completely illogical orthography and extremely pretentious background. Why suffer the abuse? Come to the dark side where we learn the language of real men like Russian with like eighteen verbs for “to go”, Finnish with case declensions like nobody’s business, and Arabic where words can look exactly the same in writing but mean completely different things in context. Fun, right?

First things first: this was a work of satire, and I think that French is a perfectly fine language to learn. But I do give it a lot of shit for the orthography bit. I will never let it live that down.

Language in Jeopardy: How to Protect Our Mother Tongues in Public

Take a look at this article before reading on: http://blog.angryasianman.com/2016/06/40-civil-rights-groups-demand.html

When I read this post from Angry Asian Man, I became an angry Asian man, to say the least. This kind of ignorance needs to be stamped out. In an age where Islamic terrorism threatens the lives of innocent Muslims who live in the diaspora, we need to be more vigilant on the behalf of these members of our societies. It is our responsibility to listen to them when they decry Islamic terrorism, rather than ignore them and then ask why they don’t say anything.

But more than anything, this incident’s relation to language struck me particularly strongly. Why the hell are these two men being arrested because some idiotic passenger thinks that any brown-skinned people speaking a language they don’t understand is a terrorist. When this keeps happening on planes, buses, and other forms of public transport, I’m just floored by the people who say they should have been speaking English. Let’s consider the facts: these two men are foreign nationals (Pakistani and Indian respectively) who don’t speak English very well and are in a land very far from home. It’s only natural that they would find solace in finding someone else who speaks their language in a foreign land. Why do people suddenly have to place a label of suspicion on people who haven’t done anything, or cannot be proven to have done anything?

The lack of respect for the Sikh man’s violation of his person by removing his turban, a sacred item in the Sikh religion, is not enough, apparently. This man is apparently not even allowed speak his own language with someone else who does.

Something similar happened with a Chinese woman in Arizona (you can read the article here). Getting punched by someone for speaking your mother tongue in public is racist, prejudiced, and unbelievably horrible in so many ways. Even though I live and go to school in fairly liberal places (California and New York, respectively), I’m dreading the day where I have to be careful about what language I speak in public. As an aspiring polyglot who aims to specialize in Mandarin and Arabic translation/interpretation, these incidents are of great concern to me. These people who hear Arabic, Punjabi, Chinese, and other Asian and Middle Eastern languages in public and then react in these ways are a problem. This needs to stop. But what can we do?

  1. If you hear or see someone making private or public accusations of terrorism based on someone’s appearance or what language they’re using, you tell them that’s not okay. Just because you can’t tell the difference between Punjabi and Arabic doesn’t automatically mean they’re Middle Eastern, and that definitely doesn’t mean they’re terrorists even if they were. Leave them alone!
  2. Start learning other languages! Those who know other languages are frequently more open-minded than others and are exposed to a wider variety of opinions and beliefs than they might be otherwise. We should be instituting the teaching of Arabic and immigrant languages in schools rather than traditionally taught languages like French, Latin, or Spanish. Mandarin in schools is a step in teh right direction.
  3. Help out non-English speaking communities by employing your language to supply them with opportunities for jobs, community, basic amenities, and other necessities for living in a country where few people speak your language.
  4. To immigrant children: Don’t let go of your language. If you never knew it, try to get back in touch with it. Help out those in your community who need you. If you don’t speak it well, it’s never too late to start brushing up (as I can testify in the case of my Kannada skills).

And no, just because this is America doesn’t mean you have to speak English all the time. This isn’t a refusal to speak English at all. But if I want to have a conversation in another language, I have every right to do so. You have no business regulating what and what I can’t say, since we have the freedom of speech. Not everything we say has to be for public consumption. Immigrants and other people use their languages because it’s what’s comfortable for them. We are under no obligation or responsibility to use English if we don’t need or want to. Don’t tell us what to speak.

Stop demonizing immigrants and their languages.

Thanks to Angry Asian Man for these articles. They have inspired me to be more active and political in my involvement with language.

Navigating Social Customs in Other Languages

One of the biggest fallacies that I encounter among people trying to learn a particular language is trying to pick and choose what they learn. Some say, things like “I only want to know how to make basic conversation and colloquial things”. While that’s all well and good, you should be aware that language is never so simple. In my opinion, much of these kinds of beliefs stem from a subtle assumption that other languages work more or less the same way as a person’s first language.

That’s not exactly a good way to think about a foreign langauge, because it’s rarely ever a one-to-one relationship for everything. Even for related languages like Spanish and Portuguese, there are things that don’t always cross over. You can’t assume that Portuguese is “a different version” of Spanish, because not all words in Spanish have the same meaning or have cognate in Portuguese. And geographical proximity doesn’t account for anything either, as in the case of Indian languages, where there are 1500+ distinct languages, with varying degrees of mutual intelligbility (though by and large there is very little if any at all).

One of the biggest things about language is its intimate ties with culture, and how that translates in and out of different languages. There are certain cultural norms associated with different languages, which need to be upheld and respected. Obviously, one should exercise discretion, because sometimes, social customs can be extreme or ridiculous. But, usually, that’s not a call for us outsiders to make.

For example, in many Indian languages, it is widely considered inappropriate, rude, or inauspicious to discuss death, especially in the presence of the elderly or the sick, because it could be misinterpreted as a bad omen. This is not that complicated and is fairly easy to understand and get behind. But, what some learners of Hindi or other languages may not understand is that it precludes certain types of expressions, such as “I’m gonna kill you” or “You’re so dead”. In English, they don’t really mean anything, as they’re usually just threatening someone with the idea that there will be consequences to a particular action, not that they will actually kill someone. However, this is not the case in many Indian languages. Not only do these phrases not exist in direct translation, attempting to do so will result in a very different response. It may be interpreted as an actual threat, and even if it isn’t, it’s seen as poor manners or rude to say such a thing.

In a more complex example, Korean has an intricate system of honorifics and formal versus informal speaking. Certain words have particular forms that can only be used in deference to someone of higher social status. For example, my professor I’m meeting for the first time may ask “이름은 뭐야?” (Ireum-eun mweo-ya?). This is simply, “What is your name?”. The word 이름 (ireum) means “name”, but I would not use this word or even the same phrase to ask my professor’s name. Instead, I would say “교수님 성함은 어떻게 되세요?” (Gyo-su-nim seong-ham-eun eotteoh-ge doe-se-yo?). This literally translates to roughly “How is the professor (that I address) called?” 성함 (seong-ham) also means “name”, but it is the honorific form of the word. My professor can use 이름 with me, since they are socially above me, but I have to use 성함 with them. To do otherwise would be seen as too familiar, and even rude.

The Korean social hierarchy is something that not all Korean learners may immediately understand or even be aware of. But, in the context of Korean-speaking society, it is important to address such hierarchies, or you may face criticism and even anger for expressing unintended disrespect. For a language like Korean, it makes very little sense to ask only for colloquial expressions, since most Koreans will pay close attention (unconscious or otherwise) to the dynamics of social status in their everyday speech.

Whether the social customs that are ingrained in a language are complicated or not, it is important to understand such things. For those who learn in a classroom, the teacher may simply give you only phrases that fit in with the social conventions of the language, making it unnecessary for you to know at all. That can be a good and a bad thing, since while it promotes fitting in with the social norms, but doesn’t encourage synthesis of sentences, as opposed to using set, memorized phrases. Self-studiers should be mindful any kind of social conventions or rules of the language, rather than simply gleaning knowledge from the dictionary and grammar books. The best way to do so is engaging in media (particularly television) in that language, to grasp how the language is used in real life.

I hope this post was helpful in your studies in foreign language, and feel free to leave comments and suggestions for other posts. Don’t forget to share this post on social media, too!