Listening to Wang Lee Hom (王力宏) to Study Chinese

As I’m continuing to study Chinese, I’ve gotten into listening to Chinese-language music in order to accustom myself to the pronunciation and the sound of the language. Granted, it might be a stylized or exaggerated pronunciation sometimes, but it’s still a good tool. I listen to mostly Wang Lee Hom (王力宏), though I have two songs by Jay Chou (周杰倫). I’m not a huge fan of Jay Chou, because of his strange voice quality.

As for Wang Lee Hom, I really like his songs and the meanings of the lyrics are fairly accessible, even to me, a person outside the culture. Some songs I recently got and liked include 就是現在 (jiù shì xiànzài – “Now Is the Time”) and 你的愛 (nĭ de ài – “Your Love”).

You might think that the reason I encourage people to listen to music in their target language is for acquiring vocabulary. That’s partly true, since you’re being exposed to new words. But more than that, music, especially popular music, is an excellent window into the culture. Popular music incorporates concepts, contexts, and thought processes that naturally occur in the language, and is a part of understanding culture as much as food or art.

For example, some of the titles and lyrics of Wang Lee Hom’s songs include references to Chinese proverbs and poetry. The song, 天翻地覆 (tiān fān dì fù) translates to “heaven and earth overturned”, which is a paraphrase of poetry and has acquired the meaning of “snafu” or “everything turned upside down”. Think of it as a kind of acronym. This use of a reference to a classical art form is likely something that most Chinese speakers appreciate, and it is likely understood as a clever usage. Such things give insight into the way cultures and languages think.

This post was kind of short, but it was just a little thing I was thinking about, so I decided to write about it. In other news, I’m going to be trying to start up my YouTube channel again and make videos, which may be difficult, given all my work at university and lack of a real space to make my videos. Please check it out and also purchase my language guides to help Akshayapatra Foundation feed underprivileged Indian school children! Your purchase is going toward a good cause!

5 Activities for Foreign Language Teachers

Having been a language student for six years and a language teacher for two years, I have seen both sides of the language learning experience. Even though I haven’t been teaching that long and I don’t exactly have credentials, I think I have an idea or two of what helps language students. Sometimes it just isn’t enough to give grammar drills and give lessons on new concepts every day. You need to change it up a little and give them a way to exercise the concepts they’ve learned. So, in this post, I’m going to elaborate on five classroom activities that I’ve come across and personally created, all of which are included in my book, Scoprendo l’italiano!: An Accessible Guide to Learning Italian. Please note that these assignments can be edited as needed to suit different needs.

1. Personal Discussion Project – For Intermediate Classes and Beyond

The students will work together in groups of three or four. Every group will create their own PowerPoint or Keynote Presentation. The instructor will choose one topic, and each group will base their presentation on that topic. This project can also be made smaller and assigned to individual students.

Classes, School, and Academic Goals

Each student will discuss the reasons they take certain classes and what university they plan to go to and why. Then, they should discuss their plans for study at a university, and what job they plan to take from there.

Foods and Cooking

The students will pick a semi-difficult recipe, talk about it with the class, about its significance, what certain terms mean if new vocabulary from outside the text is learned.

Literature and Reading

Each student picks a novel, and they will discuss them with the class. Summarize the plot, and pick two symbols and explain their meanings (This topic should be expected to take some time).

Culture and Family Traditions

The students will talk about their cultural values, where they come from, and important family traditions. They should explain why those traditions are important.

Talents and Skills

Each student will pick a talent or skill they consider significant to them. They will then discuss how they came to do those things, and why they like doing it so much.

This project should be graded upon accent authenticity, focus on the given topic, how well the project is presented, and if vocabulary and grammar are used properly. For advanced classes, this should be presented in the target language. The instructor may choose to require additional criteria.

2. Novel Report – For Advanced/AP Students

Students will read novels in the target language, and must be at least two-hundred pages in length. A four paragraph essay will be submitted by each student in the target language, discussing theme, plot, and symbolism. A well-constructed thesis should be included. Grade based on use of vocabulary, understanding of grammar and syntax, and comprehension of the book. If assigned to intermediate classes, the use of a dual-language dictionary is highly suggested. If the instructor so desires, shorter books, books originally written in English, or other familiar stories can be assigned, and a shorter essay can be written instead.

3. Writing Poetry – For Upper Beginners and Beyond

Students will write poems in Italian, in order to foster an understanding of Italian poetic language. The students will turn in three one-page poems. Classes of all levels are advised to consult a dual-language dictionary and also poetry in the target language.

Students will then select one of their poems, read it aloud, and then discuss it with the class. For languages in which there are more than simply present, past, and future tenses, in which tense is distinguished differently, with forms such as the aorist, conditional, non-past, or non-future, the students should discuss the relevance and effect of using certain tenses in the poetry. The discussion should be lead by the author of the poem, who will ask questions, and other students should participate.

4. Learning History – All Levels

Consult an article about cities, monuments, traditions, or other things in the nation(s) where the language is spoken. The article should be in the target language. Discuss it with the class in English or in the target language for classes with sufficient knowledge to understand. Afterward, have the students discuss it with each other in the target language. It is recommended that instructor repeat this exercise several times, each time about different topics.

This exercise allows students to use authentic materials to exercise their knowledge and obtain new knowledge from such a source. This gives them an idea of how natives read, understand, and use the written language.

5. Timeline Project

This project will have the students present a timeline made from cardstock, or cardboard, with pictures or photos to represent events they did in the past, and/or those they will do in the future. They will present a script, which is to be followed by an instructor or listener, in order to check that the student has memorized it. Grade based on pronunciation, accent authenticity, fluency, and poise when speaking in front of a group. For advanced classes, permit the audience (including the instructor) to ask questions, which the presenter should answer in the target language.

I hope this helps some of you, and don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr! Feel free to leave comments and suggestions!

What Bollywood Films Say About Hindi for Learners

As the child of Indian immigrants, a good number of the movies I grew up seeing were Bollywood films. The main attraction for most Indian people, in my experience, is not the story, so much as the music. While many American people remember Disney films and the music in them, the story seems to stay with them much more than the music. This could be because Bollywood film stories are really not that great, but music occupies a different space in Indian society, particularly in the use of the Hindi language. (Note: I say Hindi here, because I cannot speak for Urdu, as I am not Pakistani or familiar with Urdu cinema.)

In Western music, the diction of song lyrics (at least in modern times) is not terribly different from that which is used by people in their daily lives. Song lyrics in Western music often manipulate daily language into something more meaningful to create different effects. However, this is not the case with Hindi. The particular lexicon used by most Indian music (not just in Hindi; other Indian languages due this) have poetic and/or religious undertones. Most poetry in India is accompanied by music, and not recited independently. The vocabulary of Hindi music is very different from colloquial language, and cannot be used in such a context.

With the advent of cinema, the role of music in India has also changed Hindi as a language considerably. It has further distinguished conversational Hindi and its poetic counterpart, by showing them in very different circumstances. Musical and dance sequences include by songs that use poetic Hindi and/or Urdu. Urdu, in India, is regarded as a poetic version of Hindi that you would almost never use in daily conversation. In contrast, conversational Hindi is shown in the regular dialogue. As a result of this, many Indians deeply appreciate Urdu poetry and music as an art form, because it is not common in their daily lives otherwise. Urdu forms an important part of the Indian culture as the biggest part of its poetic history.

These facts present a few basic truths that learners of Hindi should recognize. First is that Bollywood movies contain a great deal of knowledge of both conversational and poetic Hindi. Much of the Hindi that you need to know exists in two or three Bollywood films. However, this brings us to the second fact: it is hard to appreciate Hindi without learning about the music. Part of learning a language is learning about the traditions and culture that it is a part of, which undoubtedly includes music. You should be familiar with some Urdu so that you can appreciate Bollywood cinema (at least some of them; I would advise against certain films), as a central part of the Hindi language.

The last important thing you need to know as a Hindi learner is that different genres of Indian movies in general do not use the same Hindi. It is a common trope in Indian cinema to portray ethnic neighborhoods, particular dialects, or other languages altogether. Historical fiction, such as Jodhaa Akbar, which portrays the relationship between a Muslim prince and Hindu princess during the era of the Mughals, uses a purer or regional/rustic form of Hindi that is not especially common anymore. That particular film is good for highlighting the differences between Urdu and Hindi, as they draw much of their vocabulary from different sources, Arabic/Farsi and Sanskrit, respectively. Religious films that portray Hindu mythology use an extremely Sanskrit-ized form of Hindi, which uses almost no Arabic or Farsi loanwords. On the other hand, films that center around Muslim neighborhoods will feature extensive use of Urdu as the form of conversation.

Films that I recommend for learning and pleasure include MardaaniJodhaa Akbar, Main Hoon Na, Lagaan, and Two States.

I hope you found this piece interesting, and feel free to leave any comments that you have! Don’t forget to share this on Facebook, Tumblr, or any other social network!

Synonyms: A Good Thing or Just Extra Stuff?

When looking through dictionaries of different languages, you begin to notice that for several languages, there aren’t too many words for the same thing. In Romance languages, there are never more than two or three words for the exact same meaning. If there are more words that translate to that meaning, the extras most likely have a different nuance.

Take the word, “blue.” In English, we have several words that can be this color: “azure,” “cerulean,” “sapphire,” or “cobalt”. While these words do have distinct shades when physically represented, we often use these words interchangeably, often for poetic or literary value. Sure, you could say that the night sky is blue, but that doesn’t provide nearly as much beauty or aesthetic depth as saying that it is sapphire. There are many words with such synonyms and interchangeability. This is not to say that English lacks nuanced vocabulary, because it doesn’t. Much of the nuance in English is implied through context, intonation, and emphasis.

I can’t say for every language, but many Romance languages, Hindi, and Kannada don’t have many synonyms. In literary works, there are a few more for writers to work with, but even those can have other meanings attached to them. But first, let’s define what a synonym is: a word that is identical in meaning and differs little otherwise. If a word has an extra nuance or meaning to it, then it’s a not a synonym.

For example, there are three words in Kannada that can be translated as, “embarrassment.” However, only one, talebaagisu, actually means “embarrassment,” as in, “humiliation,” or, “chagrin.” The other two, sankocha and aumana, are, “embarrassment,” when you receive a service or offer that is overly grand for the occasion and when you receive help when you don’t want it (a blow to your pride). As you can see, the nuance is very heavy, and all three words are very different.

We use synonyms all the time in English, whether it’s just another word or a euphemism. While other languages certainly have euphemisms, the ones that I’ve read and learned about have considerably fewer words of identical meanings used interchangeably. So the question is: What’s the point of having synonyms? Tell me what you think in the comments!

Poetry and Language

While technically not related to foreign language, poetry is still a form of language in and of itself. It is the language of the muse, art, beauty, and all the unspeakable wonders of the world. In Robert Hass’ poem, “The Problem of Describing Trees,” he explains that the sensory experience of the tree is unknown to us in reality. The aspen has no vocalized language to explain its actions when a wind comes upon it, and Hass believes that poems about nature are poets’ attempts to describe the experience of the tree in our own language. Similarly, foreign languages communicate all sorts of sentiments and beliefs, which may or may not be universal. For example, Kannada speakers are more than familiar with the word sankocha, which has no equivalent in any language that I know. The best way I know to explain it is as embarrassment when you get some obligation you didn’t really want (getting a really expensive gift or having to stay for dinner when you just came for tea or something like that). The experience of sankocha is unique to Kannada speakers in this way, and translation is the method of interpreting it and rephrasing it in a language one can understand. Poetry is a language to be learned to understand the non-human experiences and conditions of the world. Here are some other poems that I’ve written, if you care to read them. Leave your comments, and tell me what words in your language don’t exist in others!

The Cemetery Shore

I met a stranger on the shore

Outside the overgrown cemetery,

Searching for something lost

 

The stranger’s face was clouded

With strained, pained recollection,

Trying to voice a silent echo of the past

 

This loud silence resounds in me

A memory of that shore of long ago,

Which was once full of life, returns in force

 

Your image was clear in my mind

Like the once clear water of yore,

But is now clouded by the stranger

 

So fleeting is your remembrance,

A beach washed by the ebbing tide

And stripped of its soft white sand.

 

Only as you age and grow wise in time

Do you come to those distant, foreign shores

Where message bottles wash upon the sand.

 

I strove to impress a splendid epithet

To carve my grave in your cemetery

Of long-gone childhoods and adolescence.

 

I was inspired to write a brilliant letter

To fit in my bottle for you to find

So that you might seek me out.

 

Shall I be as a shell upon the strand,

An admirably pretty, precious husk

To decorate that lacking tombstone?

 

Might I be a simple stone buried in the sand,

A detestable pebble uncovered only by force

To find a dream you thought forgotten?

 

 

I can no longer touch your soul like in the past.

My power to fix myself in your graveyard

Is but a shadow, a weak silhouette of a lost star.

 

I see you now, on this shore that we once shared

In our childhood and seasons of our youth,

But you are no longer who you were, nor am I.

 

Your name for my image is no longer mine,

I am unborn until acknowledged by you,

Forever confined to a womb of oblivion.

 

Lightning

 

I am struck by a lightning bolt

Issuing forth from that ominous

Cloud, sent by that cruel gale.

 

At a distance of time, that gale

Was but a smooth, cool zephyr

Carrying hope, love, and dreams.

 

Perhaps this concentrated blade

Is the violent shattering of the zephyr,

Striking me with the full force of life

 

That callous, cloudy vessel drifts

Ubiquitously, bringing its omens

To each and every azure firmament.

 

Yet now, blackened with cruelty,

That tempestuous harbinger

Does away with my optimism.

 

Even so, that swift, wicked strike

Leaves me a small vestige of hope

To store in that fickle, turbid mass

Tradition

I’ve often thought about what it means to speak your mother tongue. When your parents raise you speaking the language of their ancestors, they endow you with centuries of tradition, faith, meaning, and lineage in doing so. Speaking your mother tongue, in addition to the language of where you live, is not something to be taken lightly. It is not something that you should throw away, as I have seen some of my classmates do. And it is this topic that inspired the poem below.

Forever marred are the broken statues of heroes,

Eternally rendered to rubble in mind and body,

And consigned to wither in the casket of human memory.

Their causes are quickly forgotten and shut inside

Dust-collecting archives that are prohibited to be opened

By the repressive force of the passage of time upon us.

Irrevocably disconnected are the children of migrants,

Who speak only in the tongue of their oppressive hosts,

From their perennial lineages stretching through time.

That immortal piece of the soul is forever lost to them,

Shelved in the library of forgotten faith and tradition,

Covered by a thin funeral shroud of empty sorrows.

Shall we forge tradition anew, to fill the empty void,

And try to hide the scars of dissociation and hate,

Only to be forgotten once again in the hearts of the people?

Need we recreate divinity time after time — Replace

The intolerant creator who rejects all but one aspect

And would damn those of contrary opinion?

What is tradition, what is faith, what is lineage,

When it can  so easily be erased and thrust

Into the depths of human experience as folly?

For what reason must we repeatedly remake ourselves

In order to fit the mold of foreign expectations,

And forge a signature onto a contract of oblivion?

So easily is the human experience made and dismantled

That the truth and untruth are not so far apart or separate,

Because time is beyond the power of individual remembrance.

We can only regard truth and untruth in the present

Because memory only persists then — It is replaced

In the future, and itself replaces the past, without remorse.