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.

 

The Ethnopolitics of Language

On March 25, 2016, I gave a research presentation on “The Ethnopolitics of Language” at New York University’s Global Research Colloquium. My talk concerned the development of nations from ethnic groups as defined by their languages, and how that contributes to notions of transitional democracy. You can watch the video below on YouTube. Video credits go to Susanna Horng, my amazing advisor.

Uma Língua que Pouca Gente Queriam Saber

(This post is a Portuguese translation of an earlier post I wrote called: A Language Few Cared to Know. You can use this as reading practice for learning Portuguese, if you want, though it’s more for people who speak Portuguese, as well as an exercise in the language for me.)

Ter crescido nos Estados Unidos como filho de imigrantes tem-me presenteado circunstâncias únicas, particularmente com respeito à língua e à cultura.  Eu tinha crescido imerso em duas línguas diferentes, ao contrário da maioria das minhas colegas na escola primária e ainda no ensino médio.  Quando eu era pequeno, eu tinha um problema na fala que impedia-me a falar em frases completas. Quando os médicos diziam a meus pais que duas línguas confundir-me-iam, obviamente escolheram o inglês (aliás, esta noção que línguas múltiplas confundem às crianças é completamente falsa). Como resultado, o canarim foi virtualmente inexistente na minha infância. E foi como um nimbo-estrato, as pontadas de peso a bater-me.

Ainda que eu não podia falar o canarim bem, formava parte da minha vida. Meus pais usavam o canarim na casa para falar comigo, apesar do que eu quase sempre respondia no inglês. E quando eu tentava responder na minha língua materna, era miserável. Só depois de anos de prática heurística eu podia falar em canarim bastante bem. Isto concedido, eu ainda tenho problemas de ritmo quando falo, e uma tendência lamentável de falar demais rapidamente.  Embora, o projeto do Duolingo para o canarim tem-me ajudado a expandir o meu vocabulário e conhecimento da língua.

Ainda assim, o canarim é muito presente na minha vida. Quando criança, eu confundi palavras do canarim com palavras do inglês. Muitos dos meus amigos na escola falavam o tamil, telugu, bengali, ou gujarati. Os amigos da minha família falavam o hindi. Não havia muitas pessoas que falavam o canarim na minha vizinhança, exceto a minha família. Por isso, o canarim parece-me um pouco formal ou arcaico. No presente, eu tento do manter contato com a minha língua maternal o máximo possível, porque eu sou apaixonado pelo canarim para passá-lo aos meus filhos. Na Universidade da Nova Iorque, não há muitas pessoas que falam canarim, e por isso, eu falo-me para praticar.

No decorrer dos anos, eu tornei-me muito ciente da pouca demanda para o canarim. Eu aceito esta realidade, porque eu não posso cambiá-lo num instante. Mas isso não quer dizer que eu gosto desta situação. Nem sequer é que eu desejo que precisavem-se mais do canarim. Os meus amigos eram de lugares e nacionalidades diferentes, e por isso compartilhavam os seus costumes. Eu nunca tenho conhecido uma pessoa interessada no canarim, até como gesto polido. O canarim era uma língua que pouca gente queriam saber.

Eu parcialmente espero que este projeto de Duolingo ajudar para trazer percepção à comunidade de canarim. A juventude da comunidade nos Estados Unidos precisa desesperadamente do que o canarim seja modernizado, e precisa de oportunidades de falar com gente da sua idade. A falta destas oportunidades de falar com a nossa comunidade na nossa língua impede-nos. Por quê falariamos esta língua se não houvesse pessoas para praticar, e mesmo assim, em maneiras limitadas? Por exemplo, eu quase nunca falo da política no canarim, e por essa razão, o meu vocabulário sobre a política e virtualmente inexistente. Haveria muitos anglicismos, palavras que ainda um anglófono poderia entender. Poder discutir muitos temas diferentes com várias palavras ajuda a fazer que a língua seja mais útil. Pelo menos, eu acho assim.

Keeping Up With the Times

So, here’s my first post in a really long time! I’ve been very busy with studying at NYU so I haven’t had time to really write on the blog, but now I’ve thought of a topic! Recently, I’ve been watching a Taiwanese drama to improve my passive understanding of Chinese and practicing parsing spoken Chinese. (I’m using a Taiwanese drama because most of my Mandarin-speaking friends at NYU speak Taiwanese Mandarin, which does have some differences from China’s variety.) This drama, the name of which is PS男 (PS Man), is from 2009 and while very helpful in practicing listening to Chinese, has aged quite a bit. They still use the first iPhones, for one! But more importantly, this brings to mind something else: changes in language. It can be as recent as four or five years ago, and a language can start exhibiting changes in the most minute details, whether it be new slang or new standards imposed by the government.

These changes require the language learner to be ever vigilant. But how, you may ask, can a novice in a language possibly recognize such things?  What you can do, is try to only use contemporary, or at least the most recent, materials available on the language. This can mean a textbook written this year or an ongoing TV show that airs every week. However, you should be careful about TV shows; some TV shows like Downton Abbey are written in an archaic or old-fashioned register of English that no one actually uses. But that doesn’t mean these types of shows aren’t helpful. At higher levels of language learning, such as a point at which one might be going to study abroad, it is important to be aware of certain cultural nuances that accompany a language’s archaic style. There may be jokes or puns that people may make in real life that are drawn from such sources, and they can help to understand the language and the culture on a deeper level.

Another important aspect of language learning as it pertains to contemporary materials is, of course, the language itself. What do people say? And how are they saying it? This is where old-time-y and historical shows fail the language learner, however fascinating they may be. You need to watch shows and movies, listen to music, and read books that someone your age who speaks your target language natively would be exposed to. This is fundamental to understanding how culture works in a modern society constantly in flux, especially in societies where ancient social structures have persisted for centuries and how that fits into everyday life. It’s important to understand the place of women in Indian society when learning Hindi, for example. You will not fully understand the content of a movie like Mardaani if you do not. It is a movie that deals with prostitution rings in India and how people deal with them, particularly the police. This is highly relevant to the average Indian that speaks Hindi, as it speaks to a prevalent issue in their society. Bollywood has seen an increase in socially conscious films that address certain issues in Indian society and that is something that directly affects the media produced by a Hindi speaking population. As such, a language learner, especially one who is not of an ethnicity or nationality that speaks that language, should be keenly aware of the social dynamics and politics of the society that uses their target language.

You may think you don’t need to understand these things in your target language, but believe me, it helps a lot when coming to understand a language. Think of a language as person who’s going to be your roommate for a while; you need to get used to them. Don’t block out the eccentricities and weirdness, but instead, learn from it. This is particularly relevant to me, a first-year university student, living with two roommates in a dorm! Getting along with your language (or a roommate for that matter) is critical to making progress and understanding the culture and society in which that language is predominant.

I hope you enjoyed this piece after a long period of no posts! Please don’t forget to share this post on whatever platform you use social media!