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.

Arabic in America: Is Rejection Racism?

Recently in the US, there’s been a few incidents where people speaking Arabic are getting attacked or persecuted. The rise of ISIS/Daesh in the Middle East has fomented fears among Americans about Muslim people and the Arabic language. An Emirati man in Ohio was arrested for purportedly pledging allegiance to ISIS/Daesh, because he spoke Arabic. The allegations eventually proved false. An Iraqi student at UC Berkeley was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight while speaking to her uncle on the phone. Why? Because another passenger was feeling threatened by her use of Arabic. These events show a growing if not already high degree of prejudice against Middle Eastern people and their communities in America. So, this begs the question: is the knee-jerk reaction to Arabic language racism?

Perhaps not racism, but it is judgmental and prejudiced. It certainly contributes to racism in the United States against innocent Muslims and people of Middle Eastern origin. The UAE issued a travel warning to its citizens, advising against traditional clothing for their safety. That’s absurd and difficult, if not impossible, to justify on the part of the United States.

A few schools in the United States are implementing Arabic language programs. A school in Northern Virginia, Annandale High School in Fairfax County, now teaches Arabic. Like Annandale, most schools that teach Arabic in the US have large communities of Arabic speakers. I think it’s really important for US systems in general to be teaching Arabic. If not to help integrate Middle Eastern immigrant communities, then it helps promote tolerance against bigotry in the United States. We can’t have more incidents of police officers seeing the use of Arabic as proof of allegiance to ISIS/Daesh.

One might argue that there aren’t enough Arabic-speaking immigrants in the US to justify teaching it. By that token, we shouldn’t teach French in US schools and Hindi-Urdu should take its place. The point is that the number of speakers is less important than you think they are. It’s more about general utility in the world at large. Spanish is useful because of the sheer number of Spanish-speakers in the US, no doubt. But Mandarin Chinese not only has a large speaker population but also is a link with Chinese businesses. We should be teaching at least Modern Standard Arabic in US schools. It allows for general access to Arabic-langauge media, and will help with understanding Middle Eastern politics. It can also provide a gateway to learning other dialects on the advanced level.

To reject the teaching of Arabic in United States schools doesn’t necessarily amount to racism, but it comes very close. The justifications against Arabic classes I’ve heard from others often include a fear of Islamic indoctrination. Or that “Arabs are taking over”, and other xenophobic fears of Arabic and Middle Eastern communities. We must overcome our prejudices in the United States and learn to accept and embrace Middle Eastern people. Otherwise, we’re doing terrorists’ work for them by hurting innocent people.

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!

Racism in Language: The Origins of “Black” People

After having read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, I participated in a Socratic discussion on the mimesis (the manifestation of societal or real-world perspectives in art) of racism in the novel. This got me thinking: certain words in different languages have inherently racist, exclusionary, or derogatory meanings or undertones.

Let’s consider the word, “black.” It is a common word, not really seen as offensive or rude by most people. However, as one of my classmates pointed out, the use of a color to refer to an entire people is indeed somewhat if not entirely pejorative in sentiment (historically speaking of course). This is evident in the fact that most Romance languages, those of countries that participated in slavery of some kind in the New World, do not use the actual word for “black” to refer to those of African descent, not in polite/accepted speech anyway. There is no overlap between the color and the demographic term. In Spanish, you would would say moreno/morena or prieto/prieta (though as I understand it, the latter is highly offensive in the Caribbean). Even Portuguese, the language of the country that initiated the slave trade in the first place, distinguishes negro and preto in reference to people as polite and offensive, respectively. As Dr. Molefi Kete Asante points out, this supposedly neutral term stems from a generalization for all the Africans of different ethnic groups and backgrounds.

African cultural and ethnic differences were neither recorded nor considered important in making distinctions, any African was black, and any black was a Negro, and Negroes had no cultural heritage. To recognize Africans as Asante, Yoruba, Ibo, Ibibio, Hausa, Mandingo, Fulani, Wolof, Serere, Kikongo, Fante, and so forth would have meant ascribing history, cosmologies, indeed, humanity to those who were enslaved. Without humanity, Africans could be called the worst epithets thinkable by white Americans.

Now, here’s another word: kaffir. This is widely known to be a word akin to the n-word in English in both its history and severity as a pejorative, mostly in South Africa, against Africans. This word comes from the Portuguese borrowing from Arabic for non-Muslim peoples in Africa. The original word itself simply means, “non-believer” with respect to Islam. However, you may also be familiar with the kaffir lime. This fruit’s name has similar but separate origins. Hindus and Muslims alike on the Indian subcontinent adopted the Arabic term to refer to the people of Sri Lanka, where the fruits were grown, and so they were named. As as result, this word does have racist connotations as well. However, in many places, particularly in Muslim countries and India, the word is completely innocuous, simply meaning, “disbeliever” with respect to one’s own religion, though it is not necessarily a nice thing to say.

I’m not sure I can find any other words at the moment, but I am sure they exist in every language. Feel free to share this on Facebook and Tumblr and discuss this (in a civil manner, I hope)!

A Conflict of Interests: What To Do When People Don’t Listen

I recently came across a post on a language learning forum about when people learning each other’s languages meet. Specifically, when both want to speak each other’s language, and one (or both) refuses to comply with the other. This is likely a situation that every language learner will encounter sooner or later. I had this problem once with a middle school kid learning English in India. I was volunteering at a local school near my grandparents’ house, and I was instructed to use Kannada most of the time. But this kid was beginning to sass me, and had the temerity to accuse me of not being able to speak Kannada at all. While I was trying to exercise my Kannada more than I was used to, this kid was trying to use English way more advanced than the current assignments in class.

It is situations such as this, where there is a conflict of interests. As I have said before in my post, Practicing a Foreign Language By Yourself, language is a social experience. It is necessary that you recognize that there is more than one person involved, and that person leads their own life, which means they have their own goals and needs. An issue with some language learners is that they completely disregard the person they’re talking to, because they assume that the person is totally willing to oblige and help you practice. Remember, they’re people, too. And people are not all-knowing. You need to establish with the other person that you are a learner, and if they’re learning your language, you should come to a mutual understanding. Take turns speaking each other’s languages, and help each other out. Granted, my situation was quite different, but it serves its purpose here.

Remember, if the person you’re talking to is what I described earlier: assuming you’ll oblige, and they aren’t listening to you, you have little choice: oblige and speak to them in their target language. However, once there, you should inform them that you want to practice their language as well, and then they may understand. But again: people are stubborn sometimes, and may not listen anyway, at which point you kind of have to give up on practicing your target language with that person. Help them out, even if you’re not getting the practice you wanted.

Hope this helps with your encounters with speakers of other languages! Please share this on Facebook and Tumblr, or leave your thoughts in the comments!

Do Our Language Classes Create “Uncultured Swine”? Read On and Find Out.

I have been a student of foreign language in both a formal setting in a classroom and a self-studier for the past four years. I realize that there are certain aspects of the typical foreign language class that should be addressed, particularly when it comes to culture. In my state of California, we have five levels of each foreign language, taught all the way up to either V (Five) or AP (Advanced Placement). It is usually not until the fourth or fifth level of the class that culture actually becomes a large part of the curriculum. Exceptions include when the teacher is a native from a country where the language is spoken or is particularly enthusiastic in teaching the culture, in which cases culture may be a topic of discussion earlier on.

But let’s focus on the most common scenario: culture is not discussed until the latter levels of the class. We all know that culture is a very integral part of learning a language, and that the language serves as a medium to understand that culture and its people. However, in the earlier parts of the language tracks, the focus is almost 100% on the grammar and practice of the language. This creates the impression that the target language is a reinterpretation of English. Let’s get this straight: languages are not different versions of each other. If they were, then everybody on the planet would be essentially the same, most nations wouldn’t exist, and conflict would be considerably lessened. Culture is part of what defines race and ethnicity, because it reflects not only the history of a language, but also of the people who are a part of it. As I have discussed in my This I Believe response (linked here), each language is the vessel of communication for different cultures. Each is unique, with its own vocabulary, syntax, constructions, word choice, and other properties.

So now that we’ve established that language classes often focus excessively on the grammar and practice of the language (which are still important, by the way), what does this situation do to the students? For one, it bores them out of their minds. They end up thinking that the language is just a bunch of rules and words, not an actual thing people use. Even for the students that do continue to the upper level classes, their understanding of the language is incomplete and unintegrated.

This all stands in contrast to the self-study of foreign language, which inherently implies an interest in the culture as well as in the language. The blog Learning Thai Without Studying by adamf2011 (linked here) does a great job of explaining the role of culture in learning a language, and how grammatical learning is not everything there is to a language. By purposely avoiding the use of traditional techniques, he forced himself into the culture by being in the environment without knowing any Thai whatsoever. While I prefer the analytical approach to language (it’s just easier for me), I still stress the study of cultural material by talking about it online with my Italian teachers, and reading about it online. The complete immersion method makes little sense to me (although evidently it works), so I prefer a half analytical, half cultural method. The only way one can understand a language completely is by using the language in context, and understanding how words are used by natives, in the culture that the language has cultivated, or been cultivated by.

But now, let’s answer the question in the title of this blog post. Are we, “uncultured swine,” because we don’t learn about the culture early enough? I’d wager to say yes. America in particular, while a melting pot society and one very open to different languages and cultures, makes a point of making other languages and cultures very exotic, and strange. While they are different, this view distances learners from the languages they’re studying. In addition, the relegation of these languages to secondary status both at home and the world at large reinforces the idea that other languages are exactly like English, except in different sounds, spellings, writing systems, and sentence orders. But the fact is that each language is independent, and represents a different culture from those represented by other languages. It is for this reason that I advocate cultural exposure and contextualization from day one of language classes, not just in California, but also the US as whole, as well as the whole world.

Thanks for reading this post, and I hope you have some comments, so that you can offer your own views on this matter. I enjoy discussing such things, so please go ahead and leave some comments!

Why Minority Languages Matter

A lot of people will question learning minority languages such as Catalán, Navajo, or Irish. Many believe it is a waste of time, and that language death is inevitable. However, for the languages already mentioned, as well as several others, it is well within that community and other people’s capacity to help revitalize usage. Tom Scott makes a valid point about how if we let minority languages die, there are certain aspects of the human experience and capabilities of the brain that we let die with them. You can watch his video here: Fantastic Features We Don’t Have In the English Language.

Language is intimately linked to the way we live our lives. It is theorized that language evolved out of a method for human mothers to communicate with their children, and as human society became increasingly complex, involving multiple individuals in the process of raising children, it eventually became a medium for communicating with one another. Another hypothesis is that language is a vocal manifestation of one’s ideas. Ideas are apparent to oneself, in one’s mind, but not necessarily in comprehensible language. The idea is that humans needed a way to communicate their ideas and feelings regarding things, and that is why language evolved. Personally, the theory regarding mothers is a lot more plausible. There’s a reason, “motherese,” exists. However, these two hypotheses do point out crucial facts about the development of language. Languages have features based on the particular needs of a people in a certain place.

For example, the aboriginal language in Australia does not have words for left, right, up, or down, but rather assigns cardinal directions. As a result, most of the speakers of this language have an intuitive sense of direction..Some have proposed that due to the lack of landmarks for people to judge physical position in the Australian wilderness, language there had to have less arbitrary ways of describing direction. In a place like the Americas, the landscape is varied enough for people to judge direction based of off the various shapes of the land, and therefore, the language there can assign arbitrary directions, or at least directions revolve around a given point. The ability to distinguish direction in absolute terms is very useful, and demonstrates the capacity of the human brain to evaluate its surroundings as such. If this language dies out, we miss out on a generation of people who have this ability, and completely exclude it from the development of other people in the world.

Now, let’s look at a non-physical example. In Catalán, the construction no… pas is a nuanced one. It negates a predicate, and also indicates that this negation is contrary to a notion held by listener. This is a very useful feature, and is built into only a few words. It is for this reason that some non-native speakers of English can be very verbose, because they’re trying to express an equivalent sentiment of what might be a very short sentence in their native language. Implications and nuance are very important in some languages, especially in minority languages, where they can be unique to those languages. By letting such a language die, you allow a possibly more effective and expressive mode of communication die as well.

Perhaps the most grave loss in the process of language death is the loss of a culture and people. Language, as stated before, contains a great deal of history and knowledge behind the way people communicate. John McWhorter argues that language death and the loss of a culture are not necessarily linked. I refute this point, because of the reasons listed above. Skills and modes of expression that are exclusive to a particular language are part of a culture. A people lose a great deal of themselves in not being able to speak their language. There are things they will not be able to understand or express. Sure, they can maintain their traditions, but the meaning and history of those traditions is lost outside of the native language. By working to revitalize minority languages, even only within their indigenous areas, we maintain another part of the human experience. If it happened with Hebrew due to the work of Eliezer Ben-Yahuda, it can happen for any language at any time!

Languages are different for a reason. The subtle nuances and implications of certain words and phrases can often be lost in translation. There’s a reason that people who read manga in English will miss much of the symbolism, hidden meanings, jokes, puns, or wordplays that the original Japanese text might have. This is why I believe that translation can never do real justice to having a proper conversation in the language being translated. In a world with infinitely varied settings and circumstances, knowing other languages that express certain sentiments more accurately is paramount.

It’s been some time since I’ve written a full article. I haven’t really been doing much lately except writing language guides and subtitling Khan Academy videos (which you should do, if you know a language that you think people would benefit from having subtitles in).  I’d appreciate any comments on this, so feel free to leave some!