The Two Most Contentious Languages and Why You Should Learn Them Anyway

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo incident, the North Carolina shooting of Muslims, and rising Antisemitism on college campuses, I am moved to write this article about the two most contentious, whether it be socially or politically, languages to learn. This article is not to discourage people from learning them, but rather to encourage. We must look past the history of the people who speak the language, and understand them on a personal level. America, or any other nation for that matter, should not be reduced to a xenophobic entity that dehumanizes and derides an entire people for the actions of the few extremists. The goal of learning a language is to become enlightened by that language’s wisdom, and learn how to apply it in fostering good relations.

Hebrew

Due to the atrocious acts committed by the Israeli government in oppressing Palestine, many Jews in America have been targeted. Jews study the Hebrew language in order to learn about their heritage and culture, because it lies nowhere else. Modern Jews, to my knowledge, do not categorically associate themselves, their faith, or their language with the state of Israel. I fear that Hebrew classes in America will be discouraged or even actively protested, because of Antisemitism. There are good and bad people among the Jews. To understand how Jews outside of Israel feel, you must overcome your feelings about Israel, the nation, to truly know how the people feel. We cannot blame Jews in America for the decisions of Israeli government officials. To that end, those that aspire to learn Hebrew, whether you are Jewish or not, I implore you to learn it despite what others say.

Arabic

The Middle East has long been the subject of debate, warfare, and discussion around the world. There are many countries that speak one of the several dialects of Arabic, which each have their own history and culture that you can learn from. Much like Jews, Muslims suffer a great deal due to the extremists or governments that misrepresent them. To learn Arabic is to understand not only the language of the Muslim world, but also to understand their feelings about their religion, its interpretation. With all the hatred of Islam that runs rampant in America, Palestine’s own voice is lost, in addition to the treatment it receives at the hands of the Israeli government. I do not support Israel’s decision to remove Arabic as an official language of the state, because I feel that it keeps Palestine in silence. Learn Levantine Arabic to understand the plight of the Palestinians. Learn any dialect of Arabic, to learn how the people actually live, how they actually think.

I realize that this was a bit of a loaded topic, but this is something I feel very strongly about. Allow me to clarify this: I do not approve of the Israeli government’s actions toward Palestine. However, I do not approve of blaming Jews who are not involved either. Pointing fingers and blaming each other will solve nothing. It is not until you know someone else’s language that you know what he or she has to say.

Why America Isn’t As Multicultural As You Think (And What We Can Do About It)

It is not rarely that I hear the glories of America’s multicultural and multiethnic history, and that it has always been accepting of immigrants and creates a place for mutual understanding. While it’s certainly true that cultural pluralism was effectively born in the United States, modern-day America is not as integrated as you would be lead to believe.

The majority of the immigrant population lives on the coasts, where bigger cities and more job opportunities exist for newcomers to the country. While there is certainly little you can do about the lower numbers of immigrants elsewhere, it’s not an excuse for lacking in cultural education. We live in the Information Age, where literally thousands upon thousands of articles, e-books, and websites are at your disposal to learn about essentially anything.

America has always had what is called “a cult of ignorance,” as described by Professor Traphagan in an article by the Huffington Post (linked here). Media and education treat other nations as exotic, different, and most of all, implicitly inferior. We are taught that the United States is successful and powerful because it allows its citizens certain rights and liberties that other countries do not. This creates not only a national superiority complex, but also brushes to the side all the nations that immigrants come from. By implying that other nations are lower than ours is, we cultivate a culture of anti-foreign beliefs.

To remedy the ills of anti-immigrant sentiment and cultural ignorance, I think that it is necessary to implement foreign language education at an age much earlier than middle school. Beginning at least in second or third grade, children become increasingly cognizant of the fact there are other races of people, different lifestyles, and of course, that there are other languages. In middle school, children, due to the vast amount of information on the Internet and the prevalence of technology, have formed many of their own opinions, habits, and even personal beliefs regarding other people. While children are young, we ought to be instilling in them the idea that the world is a big place, where people are different, and one of the best ways to do so is teaching them foreign languages.

Therefore, I propose multilingual education beginning in third grade. In a hypothetical model, children would select the language they want to learn (with some guidance from parents, of course), and learn it alongside other coursework. Recognizing that some parents might take issue with this program, foreign language would optional until high school, where it actually becomes a requirement for graduation. However, foreign language should eventually become a core subject, not an elective or minimal requirement. By engaging children in environments different from the ones they usually encounter, they can develop a broader perspective from which to view the world and their other learning.

Different languages have different ways of looking at things, evidenced in different expressions, untranslatable words, and the varying ways in which words are put together. It has been shown in several studies (some of which you can see here)that students with foreign language skills often perform noticeably higher on standardized testing, especially in the areas of writing and reading. In addition to teaching children more about the world in general, it would accelerate their learning, and also get America ahead academically.

Studies have shown that children who grow up in environments where they acquire a second language have significantly better cognitive abilities, have better problem-solving skills, and are generally much more receptive to new ideas (not necessarily ideological). Not only do children acquire another form of communication, but they also have a new medium of understanding of the world around them. It is better for children to develop their understanding of the world in two or more lenses, rather than acquiring the lens later on in life, where their views of the world are largely solidified and immutable. To make America truly multicultural, the next generation needs to know what that means, and the best way to do that is through exposure.

So that’s my piece for today. Leave some comments, if you have your own thoughts on this. Please share this post and other previous articles on other sites, such as Facebook, Google+, and Tumblr, so that more people can contribute to the discussion!

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

Attitudes Toward Foreign Language

It is not entirely rare that I have met those with the idea that everyone should speak English, because most of the world teaches or speaks it. While true, language is a fundamental part of society, culture, and people’s identities, and displacing it would ruin many cultures in the long term.  Feeling entitled to the understanding of others in our own language is what earns one the label of ignorant and self-centered. Taking the time to understand someone else is only the first step. This applies to many things, not just language.