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!

How to Translate Stuff into Chinese

Translation is an often tricky issue for many interpreters and translators. There are varying beliefs about how one should go about it, whether that be keeping the meaning, the style, or word choice. On one hand, keeping the meaning intact seems like the obvious choice, since it’s what most people are looking for, and it gets the job done. Translation is just conveying the meaning of a text in one language in another, right? It’s not that simple. The Chinese-American linguist Yuen Ren Chao (趙元任 – Zhào Yuánrèn) remarks that translation is a “multidimensional affair”, in his paper “Dimensions of Fidelity in Translation With Special Reference to Chinese” (Chao 109). In this paper, Chao discusses how translation is rarely a simple task.

Chao observes that “when you translate a text, it is always in a context, and when you translate something spoken, it is always spoken in a situation” (Chao 110). The context of any translation makes the work more difficult since it includes time, place, society, class, education, etc. This is especially true of a language such as Mandarin Chinese, which has changed considerably from its classical form, and of which many dialects exist.

With this in mind, it may then be better to preserve the overall structure and style. However, even this is difficult, since the stylistic choices of an author or speaker are not always evident. Chao argues that “fidelity”, or truthfulness, to the original text, is the mark of a good translation. But, as one might expect, even that is a complex topic. Keeping in with Chao’s theme, which is the art of translation into Chinese.

As some readers may already know, Chinese is a large family of interrelated but mutually unintelligible tonal languages (for the most part). However, they share a writing system consisting of ideographs, or symbols that represent ideas and words. In contrast to many other languages, it is not a simple affair to translate names, places, or novel technological concepts into Chinese. This is because the translator is limited to using the existing characters, and therefore existing syllables available to read those characters.

For example, the word “chocolate” cannot simply be rendered as “cho-co-late” with various tones. In Hindi, and other Indian languages, you can do something like that: चौकलिट (caukliṭ). In Chinese, what has been settled on is a kind of phonetic translation where the individual characters are interpreted only for their sound: 巧克力 (qiăokèlì).

Due to many people trying their hands at translating such words, there are words translated according to different methods, such as semantic translation, where the meaning is more relevant than the sound. This is the case for words such as “taxi” and “plane”, which are (出租车/出租車 – chū zū chē)and(飞机/飛機 – fēi jī), respectively. These roughly mean “rented vehicle” and “flying machine”, respectively. These are what Chao calls “functional translations” (Chao 115), which translate the concepts rather than the meanings of words of a text. Phonetic translation is comparatively rare, due to the clumsy nature of the resultant translations in speech.

An interesting aspect of this predicament in Chinese is that it raises the question of how new words come to be. Technically, all Chinese characters are composed of components called radicals, providing a sound, tone, or semantic element to the syllable. Sometimes, the meaning is not obvious, or the pronunciation is not obvious. But there is definitely a logic to the characters, one that is implicitly understood by native speakers/readers of Chinese. However, it requires a much more developed understanding of that logic to be able to create new characters from scratch.

Now, why would someone need to do that? Well, if you’ve read Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, you have read the whimsical poem known as the “Jabberwocky”. It is widely known for using words that sound like English but are not real words at all. This quality of a text is rarely seen, and difficult to translate, which Chao notes in his paper. It is to the point that Chao, who was a gifted polyglot, actually generates his own characters which adhere to the logic of Chinese characters, but are not coined words in and of themselves. This reflects the quality of word choice and stylistic decisions made by Carroll with words like “brillig” and “outgrabe”. To me, that’s pretty amazing, since I imagine you have to be very well read in Chinese to do that. I’ve uploaded a picture of the poem in Chinese below:

Citation: Chao, Yuen Ren. “Dimensions of Fidelity in Translation With Special Reference to Chinese.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 29, 1969, pp. 128. www.jstor.org/stable/2718830.

While Chao used Gwoyeu Romatzyh, a system that he devised, I’ve done my best to produce a modern Pinyin version of the romanization of his translation below, in addition to the original Gwoyeu Romatzyh text.

Yeou ‘tian beirlii, nehshie hwojihjide toutz
Tzay weybial jiinj gorng jiinj berl
Hao nansell a, nehshie borogoutz,
Hair 
yeou miade rhatz owdegerl

Yŏu (yī) tiān béi lĭ, nàxiē huójìjī de tōuzi
Zài wèibià’er jĭnzhe góng jĭnzhe
Hăo nánsì’er ā, nàxiē bōluógōuzi
Háiyŏu miēde rānzi òude gé’er

Feel free to correct me if something’s wrong! My primary difficulty was deciphering what miade was supposed to be, but my best guess is miēde, since according to Chao’s paper, the poem’s pronunciation falls within the Chinese phonemic inventory, and mia isn’t a valid syllable.

Anyway, with regards to translation in Chinese, you’ll find that nowadays, people go with a functional translation for the most part. It’s an interesting translation strategy, and makes being a Chinese interpreter or translator difficult. That said, you shouldn’t feel discouraged about learning Chinese! I hope this article was interesting and informative!

Also, other news: My Hindi guide has been updated and uploaded, so feel free to download it whenever you’d like!

The Universal Translator: Good or Bad?

I’ve been seeing articles and videos regarding this tiny little device that claims to be a “universal translator”. For those of you who don’t know, though the term itself is pretty self-explanatory, this is a device that supposedly translates any language being spoken into the native language of the user. It’s a frequently seen apparatus in science fiction, most notably in shows like Star Trek or Doctor Who.

Now, as an avid language learner, you might think I’d laud this device and say it’s wonderful. However, the truth is, that I have some quite mixed feelings. Indeed, it does ease communication between people through technology. But it also presents a new stage in what I call “cultural laziness”. I’m not a fan of how many societies, particularly Western ones, have a disdain for learning languages in general, only because they can get away with not speaking other languages. Other people are not so lucky, where their native environments are multilingual by nature.

Maybe I shouldn’t even call it “being lucky”, because I think it’s a great thing to be born into a multilingual environment. The point is that I think that this translation device isn’t really a good thing on a cultural communication standpoint, since it doesn’t encourage people to truly learn a language and appreciate it. Translation is a filter, and not everything passes cleanly through it. Nuance and other subtleties of meaning are not easily translated, even by human translators, so I don’t expect the device to do the job any better, at least not for a while.

As the article itself points out, the device requires all participants in a conversation to be wearing the device for it to be effective, which can be a bit of a problem. Not to mention that I’m not sure it will even cover most languages. Translation is something that I think is more necessary for communities where access to other language materials are not easily secured, or where the language is not sufficiently standardized to be widely known. This means that interpreters and translators are of better use to minority communities rather than majorities.

I could go on and on about the ways I don’t necessarily like the device. However, I do think it has its merits in making communication easier. I am concerned about its impact on the art and culture of language learning. We should not abandon language learning entirely in favor of a device that will do the work for us. I understand that people are not naturally inclined toward working like that, but it is important that we maintain some amount of sociocultural work ethic rather than always depend on technology to do it for us.

Whether the device is good or bad has yet to be proven, and only time will tell.

I hope you enjoyed reading this brief article. I welcome anyone’s thoughts on the topic. I haven’t been writing for a while because I’ve become very busy at school. I will try to write more in the future!

A Language Few Cared to Know

Growing up in the United States as the child of immigrants has presented me with unique circumstances, particularly with respect to language and culture. Unlike the majority of my classmates in elementary and even middle school, I had grown up immersed in two different languages. When I was young, a speech problem prevented me from speaking in complete sentences. When the doctors told my parents that two languages would confuse me, my parents obviously chose English (this notion that multiple languages confuse children is patently false, by the way). As a result, my Kannada was effectively non-existent in my childhood. And it hung over my head like a rain cloud, the pangs of guilt hitting me like raindrops.

Even though I couldn’t speak Kannada very well, it was very much a part of my life. My parents used Kannada at home to talk to me, despite the fact that I would most likely respond in English. And when I tried to respond in my mother tongue, I was miserably poor at it. It was only after years of practice and many instances of trial and error that my Kannada became better. Granted, I still have problems with rhythm when I speak, and an unfortunate tendency to speak too fast. The Kannada Duolingo project that I’ve been working on has helped me in expanding my vocabulary and knowledge of the language, though.

But all the same, Kannada is very much a present language in my life. As a child, there were several words in Kannada that I thought were words in English, often leading to my teachers and classmates’ confusion. Growing up, most of my school friends spoke Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, or Gujarati. My family friends largely spoke Hindi. Kannada is a language spoke in one state in India, and the proportion of immigrants to the United States from that state is much smaller. As a result, I had little exposure to other people my age who spoke Kannada. This has change the way I view Kannada, because when I translate it, the English always feels very archaic or formal, in my mind. This might be because the only people I ever spoke it with were my older relatives, my parents, and my older brother. In the present, I try to keep in touch with my mother tongue as much as possible, because it is something that I’m passionate about passing down to my children. I speak Kannada to myself because I have very few opportunities to use it at NYU with other students or anyone else, for that matter.

Over the years, I’ve become very acutely aware of the fact that there is little demand for Kannada at all. This is a reality that I accept and deal with. But that’s not to say I like it. But it’s not even that I wish people needed Kannada more. I grew up around people who spoke different languages, and we often shared our unique cultural practices and languages with one another. But I don’t think I’ve really met anyone who was interested in Kannada, even as a polite gesture. While my Telugu and Korean speaking friends exchanged their languages, I sat silently, because no one asked. Kannada was really just a language that no one really cared to know.

Part of me hopes that this Duolingo project will help bring more awareness to the Kannada-speaking community. Kannada youth in the United States are in dire need of modernization of Kannada and the ability to converse with people their own age. The Kannada-speaking community is scattered, at least where I lived. This prevents real engagement with our language, since we don’t feel the need to use it with anyone else outside our families. I’m fairly certain that this is the case for other lesser-known languages of the world. Why would we speak the language as much if we have so few people to speak it with, and in very limited ways? I almost never talk about politics in Kannada, so my ability to discuss it in Kannada is basically non-existent. It would consist of lots of loanwords from English, to the point that an English speaker can probably still figure out what I’m saying, without any knowledge of Kannada. This is my philosophy for including a wide variety of topics in my language guides. Being able to discuss many different topics with a basic set of core vocabulary words helps with making the language more useful and more applicable to one’s daily life. The more situations you can use the language, the more likely you’re going to use it. At least, that’s what I think.

Ideally, I’d like that people of different language communities can actually find each other, instead of giving up on their language entirely. But only the future can say what will actually happen.

“Is Watching Foreign Language Movies a Waste of Time?” from Fluent in 3 Months – Response

I recently read through a post about foreign language films from Fluent in 3 Months (run by the legendary Benny Lewis; you can read it here). In this post, I’m going to address points made in the post, as well as discuss the worth of media in general as a foreign language tool. With that, here we go!

Movies/Media have to be studied actively. Passive watching is unproductive.

I’ve paraphrased it, but this is a very big point, and is true of most media in general, when you’re using it to learn another language. Even though I’ve watched Bollywood films for a good part of my life, why isn’t my Hindi-Urdu really good? That’s because I’m not paying attention to what the actors are actually saying. By focusing on subtitles, you’re tuning out anything you can possibly learn.

It’s a good idea to have the remote with you while you watch. You should find yourself pausing and rewinding a lot, to closely examine what they’re saying. If you’re watching something on YouTube, you can slow down the video so the speech is slower and easier to understand. Writing down the words will help immensely for remembering what you hear.

However, even though the post breaks down the method into, “Focus”, “Segmentation”, “Repetition”, “Engagement”, and “Subtitles”, I think one more thing should be added: “Searching”. In almost every movie, song, TV show, or whatever it is, there will be words or phrases that are repeated over and over again. Look for these! It will make your life so much easier when you can pick out what you have learned and what you haven’t.

I find the tip about trying to respond in the role of a character by pausing before the character answers really interesting. I’d never really considered it before, and it’s a great way of practicing synthesis, putting sentences together by yourself, rather than using set phrases.

Warning: the media method isn’t for everyone.

I’m sure that Benny Lewis is aware of this, but using media such as television and music is inadvisable for people who are starting out. This is especially true of music; languages such as Hindi-Urdu and Mandarin use vocabulary that is exclusively poetic, literary, or figurative. This isn’t helpful for a person who doesn’t already know a lot of basic vocabulary and grammar. You can read my views regarding this phenomenon in Bollywood cinema here.

Even for television, which is more likely to use mundane or everyday words, cannot be of use to a person who’s not familiar with the language at least at an intermediate level. For example, I wouldn’t recommend watching a Spanish telenovela when you don’t know all the tenses and moods in the language. For a language like Spanish, more complicated structures involving the subjunctive are commonplace in everyday speaking, and are essential to certain nuances that people wish to convey.

Currently, I’m studying the Italian text of a video game, Final Fantasy X (you can read Part 1 of the analysis here), and I have to pause through a 2-minute cutscene several times from time to time because there are words that I don’t understand. It also helps that I did the blog post, actually. But the point is that it doesn’t matter what media form it is, you you have to be able to understand 40% of the text/speech from the start (most of which is grammar and basic vocabulary), and the other 60% (more advanced/specific vocabulary) will come in time. I might be over/understating the the ratio, but it just goes to show that prior knowledge is necessary.

Pick a movie/form of media that you like.

I also have some reservations about using films that you know. Depending on the film, your target language’s dub either uses cultural contexts and expressions that are completely foreign to itself, even if they’re totally normal for you. This is a problem because it will present situations that the language isn’t built for. Unless the societies of two languages have a lot in common in other ways, it is unlikely that the dub of a film that was originally in another language can fully render all the intricacies of the original language. I’m not saying don’t watch the French dub of Disney movies to practice your French; just don’t depend on it as your sole source of foreign language media. Watch a film that was made in France/Canada for French speakers. As the original post points out, these authentic films will give you a glimpse into real cultural situations that the language was made for.

This is where we have conflicts over the question of fictional works. By which I mean, films/books such as The Lord of the Rings. It’s a prime example of an unhelpful text for learning a foreign language, at least at lower levels. The Lord of the Rings is highly literary in its style, and consists of fictional cultures and languages that may or may not have anything in common with real world ones. The point of this warning is for you to have some variety in what you learn from; venture from your comfort zone (media you’re familiar with and understand on a basic level anyway) into the depths of authentic, original foreign language material made for the people who speak that language. It’s not to say that reading The Lord of the Rings in Russian would be entirely unhelpful; it would be, but it would give you only insight into how a Russian native might perceive the Tolkien’s fictional universe, which is not unhelpful in and of itself.

My experience with Final Fantasy X in Italian is another example of this predicament. The universe of the game is not Italian, and so it doesn’t give me any insight into Italian culture, not much anyway. On the other hand, it does let me see how Italian translators choose to render fantasy, which is still a useful thing to know. I get my dose of Italian culture through what I read on occasion (Italo Calvino in Italian is pretty helpful), so I’d like to think I’m not deficient. You should have a healthy balance of both in order to understand a language.

I realize that might have been a lot to process, but if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments, and I’ll answer them as best and as quickly as I can!

The Plight of Localization in Video Games

Localization is a term that many JRPG fans are all too familiar with. Perhaps to the point of irritation. I count myself among the less intense fans of JRPGs, as the only series I actually follow actively is the Final Fantasy series. Among the more popular franchises are the Tales series, the Final Fantasy series, the Star Ocean series, and the Kingdom Hearts series. The more committed members of the fandoms are often critical of the English localizations of these games. And they rightly should be. Japanese is notorious for its very nuanced language and difficulty of translation to English, with its undertones to pronouns, non-distinguishing of present and future, and non-translatable words.

In the translation of various titles for English releases of these games, many meanings are inevitably lost. Some not so inevitably, such as in the infamous case of, “This guy are sick,” in Final Fantasy VII. When localizing, translators and directors both try their hardest to transfer as much of the meanings in the original Japanese version to the English version as possible. Many gamers who have played the original version and then the English version often complain about discrepancies. For example, in Final Fantasy X, Yuna’s final words to Tidus before he disappears are “I love you,” in the English version. However, in the Japanese version, she says, “Thank you.” These two sentiments are very different, and while it is definitely a fact that there are romantic feelings between the characters in the game anyway, what does this mean? Does this imply that there is a slightly, if not very, different relationship in the original story? My point here is that localization makes for a complicated case when trying to translate not only the words but also the story itself.

Another example is Final Fantasy VI, where the character Setzer says, “The Empire’s made me a rich man.” I haven’t played the game, and I’m paraphrasing from the article by Kotaku (linked here). Apparently, this was a mistranslation, evidenced in the improved GBA port, as the idiom translated actually meant the complete opposite in context: “The Empire’s been bad for business.” As the name of the article suggests, this one line changes the character’s motivations and place in the story completely.

Other difficulties lie in the voice acting. Japanese has a pitch accent, meaning that it does not inflect the pronunciation of words to imply tone, sarcasm, etc. At least, not the way English does. While a person speaking in English who is speaking fast, harshly, and loudly is easily identified as angry, this may not be the case in Japanese. This conflict between the two languages creates an interesting predicament: how are English voice actors supposed to play their characters correctly? While voice actors are told what a character is like and the character’s feelings about certain things in the story, it remains a daunting task to effectively reproduce the same effect as in the original Japanese version.

This was a little bit of a shorter piece, but I was really looking to write one about foreign language in relation to localization. Hope you found this interesting, and that you share this with your friends! Feel free to leave some comments as well!

Lost in Translation

I must confess that I really hate it when people’s argument against foreign language is, “Everyone speaks English anyway,” or, “Just put it through Google Translate.” Google Translate is not at all effective. I only use it because its voices for various languages are pretty good, and I can get the pronunciation of a sentence that I write in.

Sure, translation is handy when you just don’t have the time to sit and learn the language, or when it’s a really short term thing. But there is a lot of stuff lost in translation, because what there are sentiments and concepts that exist as certain things in one language, and don’t translate completely into English or whatever other language it is. Famous examples on which lengthy papers and books have been written include saudade, sprezzatura, duende, and schadenfreude. There are very, very specific meanings, interpretations, and usages associated with these words, that are very hard to translate into another language.

A very good example exists in manga and anime. I myself do watch anime (though not much anymore, mostly because I tend to be picky) and read a few mangas. Manga, especially, is an example of imperfect translation. Translator notes around the panels often indicate the reason for a particular translation, or choice to leave a name in Japanese. For example, in the manga “Noragami,” the translator decided to translate the name of a character named Bishamonten as Vaisravana and Veena (different instances of the name). Bishamonten is derived from a name in Sanskrit from a Buddhist text. It makes very little sense to give the original name of the deity rather than what she is referred to as in the manga. Bishamonten holds more meaning in the original Japanese, and Vaisravana and Veena (which is even less appropriate, because it refers to an entirely different goddess from Hinduism, Saraswati) mean even less to English readers.

An example of an accurate and appropriate translation occurs in the anime Fairy Tail (though this may be because it’s been licensed and translated by more experienced translators). One of the protagonists’ names is Natsu, which means “summer,” in Japanese. Here, his name is not translated into English.

In the original Japanese text, any puns, jokes, or allusions apparent to Japanese readers will not be so obvious to English readers. Names play an important role in the way things are read in manga. This is because manga writers frequently do word plays and allusions to various things revolving around the way things are named.

Yet another example is a manga that my friend reads (the name escapes me right now), in which the female protagonist is frequently referred to as takane-no-hana, which means “a flower on a high peak.” The expression in Japanese refers to something out of one’s reach. This means absolutely nothing to the reader in English, so the translator decided to tell the reader in the beginning.

These are yet more reasons why you should learn another language, so that you can experience the original text in the way it was intended to be. Feel free to leave comments and share this post!

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!

This I Believe

Recently, my English teacher assigned a personal essay based off an essay prompt from the 1960s, called, “This I Believe,” that encouraged people to send in 500 word essays detailing a personal belief. My teacher encouraged us to make it highly personal in nature, written in your speaking voice, and delve into the inner nature of the belief being written about. It must detail how you came to your philosophy. The original invitation requested these essays to enrich the lives of others,  give them some form of wisdom or food for thought, and to stimulate the formation of personal beliefs. Perhaps a bit typically, I wrote mine on language, so I’m posting my essay here for you to read:

Yake aunge Kannada baralla? Aun kivda, pedda?” (Why doesn’t he speak Kannada? Is he deaf, stupid?) elderly relatives asked my parents in the family house in Madras. I heard and understood every word, but could not form them in a reply.

Sumne English-li helamma, Shashank. Aurge Kannada-li heltini nin-gosra.” (Just say it in English, Shashank. I’ll tell them in Kannada for you.) my parents would assure me. And I felt miserable because of it. My world was fragmented to me in those days.

I believe that language shapes people, because I myself was shaped by it. I could not speak until I was around three years old, and when I was older, I couldn’t speak Kannada very well, cutting me off from my family and background. It was then that I realized the effect of language on people, especially myself. A lot of people take speaking your mother tongue for granted, but it has always meant much more to me than just a skill.

Years later, I speak Kannada a little better, but not as well as I’d like. I developed a passion for language, and right now, I’m learning three at the same time. It’s not just because I want to look smart, or make myself look more impressive. I believe in connecting with other people on that basic level. I understand someone more deeply in his or her own language. I think in terms of the languages I know. I work to learn languages to learn from the world. I cannot reject language, for I must aspire to know others as I know myself.

The fact there are multiple languages broadens the range of self-expression. I believe in the power that language holds over human beings, to capture the exact way one feels in one or two words. Language retells history, experience, and feeling. I am humbled by the solemnity of sajda, and the absoluteness of sifr. Through language, can I feel duende within myself. You can’t explain these words, because their meanings are fundamentally attached to the way people use them and say them. I believe that to speak a language is to vocalize experience and convey feelings in ways that other arts cannot. Sankocha and aumana are unique to my experience as a Kannadiga, and they hold special meaning for me. Kob-jasti is not just a word my parents use to describe me when I’m being condescending or cocky. Shani, Saturn, is not just a planet to me, and mundede is so much more than just a widow. 

Through language, I can understand the full range of the human experience. I can carry myself with sprezzatura, perhaps one day know koi no yokan, and feel saudade thereafter. To use language, for me, is to live life and understand others in their own tongue, how they really are. I believe in the power of language to change people as it has done me, and create mutual, complete understanding between people of each and every background.