What Should We Be Learning In High School?

For many high school students in the United States (as well as other countries), foreign language education is a topic that has mixed responses when brought up. Many of my classmates from high school reviled it as a waste of their time, saying that “everyone speaks English anyway”. Others enjoyed it, like myself, and valued it highly as an important aspect of my education. In the United States, the prevailing languages taught in high schools are Spanish, French, and more recently, Mandarin Chinese.

The general premise of foreign language education is that it facilitates communication between people who otherwise might not be able to, as well as to improve relations between different countries.  There is a kind of cultural bias in English speaking countries where people from the United States and other English-speaking countries can ask people in other countries whether they speak English before attempting to speak in the native language of that country. It’s a poor habit that many Americans fall into, since our foreign language education is often subpar or non-extensive in its covering of cultural nuances.

At New York University, many of the programs require students to complete a foreign language requirement, which can range from completing only the elementary series to having to complete the entire series from elementary through advanced. Universities often provide a fairly wide variety of languages compared to high schools, but Spanish and French predominate as the biggest programs in many schools. NYU, specifically, offers languages including Italian, Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Haitian Krèyol, and even Quechua!

Now what I’m going to discuss is what languages we really should be teaching in our high schools, since I believe that our current selection is falling out of practical usage. Spanish is still one of the most useful language since many Hispanic immigrants reside in the United States, and Mandarin Chinese has similar applications in Chinese communities around the country. French is where it gets tricky. Very few people in the United States actually speak French in comparison to Spanish and Chinese, and even if Canada is on the border, the demographics of United States do not make French particularly applicable. Below are the top three languages that I think need to be replace French or otherwise be added to the foreign language curriculum of United States high schools:

Arabic

Arabic, as a lingua franca of the Middle East, is an incredibly useful language due to its applications in refugee and immigrant communities around the world. The Middle Eastern communities will benefit immensely from the acceptance and tolerance for their heritages and beliefs if their language is taught in schools. However, as you may or may not know, Arabic comes in several regional varieties that are not entirely mutually intelligible, including Egyptian, Moroccan, Palestinian, and Saudi Arabian. There is a standardized variety, known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is based off of the Arabic of the Qur’an, known as Classical Arabic. We cannot possibly accommodate the many varieties of Arabic, so it is probably best to teach MSA in high schools, as is done in many universities.

Only at advanced levels can students consider specializing in a particular variety of Arabic, but each has its own merits. Egyptian Arabic is one of the most widely understood regional varieties, given much of popular Arabic-language media is in Egyptian Arabic, whereas Levantine Arabic has applications in diplomatic relations and translation/interpretation in the Levant, which includes areas such as Israel, Palestine, Jordan, or Syria (Note: these areas do have their regional variations, but Levantine Arabic does cover all of them to an extent).

Hindi-Urdu

While many South Asians do speak English fairly well (if not fluently), Hindi-Urdu is a valuable language to implement in school systems. South Asian communities have a diverse set of languages spoken among them, and Hindi-Urdu does, to an extent, unite them through a common language. Unlike Hispanic and Chinese communities, South Asian communities are not afforded the privilege of having their language being mainstream, which contributes to dynamics of assimilation. Hindi-Urdu is a culturally rich language with a strong tradition of music, poetry, and literature. Part of the barriers to understanding South Asian communities is due to the alienation of their languages, culture, and traditions.

You may think that this is simply to accommodate the South Asian communities in the United States, but the fact is that South Asian Americans exist. Many of us are divided from our heritages due to the lack of ability to connect to it through our languages, and having the language of Bollywood to connect us is a way of strengthening our ties. Yes, we do have our own languages, but we have our own ways (and sometimes not) to connect with those heritages. Hindi-Urdu is one of the few ways that Pakistani and Indian Americans can find something in common in the way of cultural bonds. Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Americans have their own languages as well, and it is important to recognize that, and in communities with large populations of Bengalis and Sri Lankans, they do find their own ways to promote their languages (as I’ve personally seen in New York City). For the purpose of practicality, I support Hindi-Urdu as a language to be taught in high schools, due to its extensive cultural potential.

Russian

Russian is a somewhat practical language to learn, though this is more true on the East Coast with large populations of Ukrainian and Russian immigrants. Russian, as a diplomatic language, does have some uses as well, considering that it is a lingua franca in many Eastern European countries. Since I’m not as familiar with Russian communities or the scope of the language, I admit there’s not much else I’m able to say.

The over-arching point of this post is to express that certain languages need to be promoted more than others in this changing world. The prestige of French and Spanish is not a valid excuse to neglect the communities of other nations as well as expand diplomatic and cultural relations with them.

 

Accent and Dialect: Do You Get to Be Choosy?

As many people know, there are frequently regional varieties and accents of almost every language, even within languages spread over fairly small areas. This presents an interesting problem for non-native speakers and new learners of any given language. For certain languages, the accents aren’t sufficiently different from the standard or most commonly spoken variety. However, for others, such as those spoken in different countries, particularly ones that are far apart, the accents and dialects can be distinct, and to a degree, somewhat unintelligible. So, what do you learn? Is one more “right” than the other? Do we non-natives even have the right to choose? I discussed this in a previous post, but recently I’ve been rethinking this idea.

In order to consider this problem properly, let’s look at a few different languages where dialects and accents are reasonably present. What I mean by that is that the language in question has regional varieties and pronunciation variations that are fairly apparent to natives of the language. These dialects may even constitute social barriers. The languages I’m going to discuss are Spanish, Japanese, and Arabic.

First, let’s consider Spanish. The Spanish language is spoken in many countries, most notably in the majority of nations in South and Central America, Spain, and the United States. The varieties of Spanish in each country are generally viewed as fairly distinct. For example, Cuban Spanish, is very different from the Spanish spoken in Spain. The principal difference is the use of ceceo, a rule of pronunciation of the letters s, c, and z. However, Cuban Spanish has its own peculiarities. Take the word pescado (seafood/fish). In Castilian Spanish, the variety spoken in Spain, it is pronounced as written, but in Cuban Spanish, it is widely pronounced as pe-ca-o. This can be seen as an almost intolerable difference, to the point that you might have to devote separate studying to understanding spoken Cuban Spanish. However, this is an extreme example. Mexican Spanish, though spoken with its own accent, is not incomprehensible to the average foreign learner of Spanish, and in fact is used as the de facto “natural example” in most classrooms in the United States. (I say “natural example” to denote a variety used most often in the classroom for practical purposes.) The point is that most varieties of Spanish have their regional differences, mostly in the way of slang and regionally exclusive concepts (such as food, items in daily use, etc.), but are, overall, fairly mutually intelligible. Now, this brings us to the main problem: do learners of Spanish get to choose what variety they learn or speak? Usually, classrooms teach a version of Spanish that is politically correct, without much slang or regionalisms. Personally, I don’t view this as a huge problem, because, in the beginning, it gives a learner a decent foundation to work up from. But, in the long run, if one continues to use this approach, the end result is an overly newscaster-y sounding Spanish that everyone understands but nobody really uses in everyday conversation. I believe the solution to this problem is that students learn the “politically correct” version to a point, perhaps to the lower intermediate level (B1), and then specialize or at least become familiar with the regional dialect of one country. For example, I would say I understand most varieties of Spanish, but I personally speak and am most comfortable using Castilian Spanish. But it is not a terrible thing if you can’t do so, since the “standard form” of Spanish is readily understood and can be switched to by most, if not all speakers of the language. However, not all languages are the same, since Japanese and Arabic present different problems.

Japanese is spoken only within Japan, but the effect of regional differences is widely recognized. The Japanese spoken in Tokyo is the standard, but if one goes to the Kansai region and Hokkaido region, one will notice a marked difference in pronunciation and use of the copula (the verb “to be”) and even conjugation of verbs. This poses a particular problem for learners of Japanese, because even if one never leaves Tokyo, there are people from all over living there. It’s very similar to New York City, where I’m living right now, and I have met all sorts of different Spanish speakers. Sure, these speakers might speak the standard Japanese when they’re talking to you, but if you go to their hometown, or you end up working in Osaka as an English teacher or something, it would be in your best interest to learn how locals speak. Just because standard Tokyo Japanese is the most commonly spoken version and it’s convenient to learn only that, doesn’t mean that it’s the only one you’ll ever hear. A responsibility of non-native speakers of different languages, I think, is to understand as many people as one can. It is pretentious and even offensive to say “I don’t like the way Kansai-ben sounds, so I’m only going to speak Tokyo-ben” (-ben is a Japanese prefix referring to the dialect of a region). This is different from Spanish, because you can avoid going to Cuba, and have no contact with the Spanish spoken there. Japan is much smaller, and it is significantly less likely that you can worm your way out of going to a specific region of Japan, if you are sent there. Think about it: it is less likely that you’ll be sent to an entirely different country versus a different region within a country. Therefore, it is easier to not have to learn all the different varieties of Spanish, but in Japanese, it would be a good idea to at least understand, if not speak, a localized variety of the language.

Now, we come to the curious case of Arabic, which I have discussed several times before. Unlike some other languages of the world, Arabic’s regional varieties differ greatly, to the point that some are not mutually intelligible. According to some speakers of Arabic that I have met, this is mostly in the way of slang, but formal sources say that even the written and common, non-slang instances of the language vary. The Egyptian and Levantine versions of the sentence “I read the book” can differ greatly in pronunciation, syntax, and even sentence order, for example. When it comes to learner, they must make a choice, I believe. Modern Standard Arabic is used only in formal, pan-Arab announcements and news broadcasts, and learners should decide from there, what variety of Arabic they will learn and use more often. If you’re going to be spending most of your time in Syria or Lebanon, you should learn Levantine Arabic, and even within that, there are national and sub-national variations in the language. Likewise, if you’re working in Morocco, Moroccan Arabic is your best bet. Arabic is a language that forces you to pick a dialect, since you can’t really get away with speaking only the standard form.

The overall conclusion is that the more unintelligible two given varieties of the same language are (though you should definitely compare all of them), the more likely it is that you’ll need to become familiar with one in detail. In a way, learners do have the right, and depending on the way you look at it, and even the responsibility to choose a dialect or accent to emulate.

I hope you found this piece informative and interesting! Feel free to leave any comments and please share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

The Impact on Language by the Syrian Refugee Crisis

With the massive influx of Syrian migrants fleeing the violence in their homeland, Europe is presented a not so uncommon problem. A good portion of the migrants do not speak any of the multiple local languages of European countries. An article from The Guardian reports that volunteers are helping the refugees by teaching them the local language (read it here), which will help them better function in the new society. I’m guessing that it will be unlikely that Syrian refugees are going to be able to return to Syria any time in the next five years or so, possibly more. As such, this is a situation where I believe one needs to learn the language of a country they migrate to, simply as a matter of being pragmatic. However, I don’t support assimilation, and am not suggesting that Syrians completely abandon their homeland and their culture as a result of their situation in the countries of Europe. They have a right to that, wherever life may take them.

On the other end of the relationship, the refugee crisis brings up an interesting array of possible effects on the political-linguistic environment of Europe. European nationals teach the refugees their language, but at the same time, there will most likely be demand and need to learn their language, Syrian Arabic, as well. Syrian Arabic is a dialect of Levantine Arabic, which itself is a version of the Arabic language. Arabic’s standard form, also known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), is mostly used in official documents and news to the entire Arabic-speaking world. While most, if not all, Arabic speakers understand MSA, it is not spoken widely outside of official situations and news stations, where, even then, the local variety may predominate. The influx of Syrian refugees into Europe will give reason for the countries of Europe to make Levantine, if not specifically Syrian, Arabic an official minority language that it uses to communicate with the refugee communities, while the local language is still not fully integrated into their societies. However, given the strong linguistic identities already within European countries, such as those of Catalan, Occitan, Romansh, and other minority languages may conflict with the pragmatic need to establish a medium of communication with the Syrian community. The increased

If the conflict in Syria escalates or is otherwise perpetuated, these refugee communities may become permanent in Europe, which sets the stage for linguistic changes. For example, extended contact with Syrian Arabic may result in loan words being borrowed by local languages, which is not entirely out of the question. Spanish, due to the Moorish occupation, adopted a whole slew of words from Arabic, such as ajedrez (chess), arroz (rice), and ojalá (God permit/willing…). Another a possibility is the creation of a Romance-Arabic creole in the Syrian refugee communities. I’m not sure what the long-term significance of this would be, but it is still entirely possible. Contact with Syrian Arabic may also induce sound changes, though that is difficult to predict, especially considering the relatively small scale at which the local languages may come into contact with the language.

I hope this piece makes you think a little bit about the long-term effects of the Syrian refugee crisis, and please don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

1 Big Thing You Get to Choose As a Language Learner

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

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

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

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

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