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 in Jeopardy: How to Protect Our Mother Tongues in Public

Take a look at this article before reading on:

When I read this post from Angry Asian Man, I became an angry Asian man, to say the least. This kind of ignorance needs to be stamped out. In an age where Islamic terrorism threatens the lives of innocent Muslims who live in the diaspora, we need to be more vigilant on the behalf of these members of our societies. It is our responsibility to listen to them when they decry Islamic terrorism, rather than ignore them and then ask why they don’t say anything.

But more than anything, this incident’s relation to language struck me particularly strongly. Why the hell are these two men being arrested because some idiotic passenger thinks that any brown-skinned people speaking a language they don’t understand is a terrorist. When this keeps happening on planes, buses, and other forms of public transport, I’m just floored by the people who say they should have been speaking English. Let’s consider the facts: these two men are foreign nationals (Pakistani and Indian respectively) who don’t speak English very well and are in a land very far from home. It’s only natural that they would find solace in finding someone else who speaks their language in a foreign land. Why do people suddenly have to place a label of suspicion on people who haven’t done anything, or cannot be proven to have done anything?

The lack of respect for the Sikh man’s violation of his person by removing his turban, a sacred item in the Sikh religion, is not enough, apparently. This man is apparently not even allowed speak his own language with someone else who does.

Something similar happened with a Chinese woman in Arizona (you can read the article here). Getting punched by someone for speaking your mother tongue in public is racist, prejudiced, and unbelievably horrible in so many ways. Even though I live and go to school in fairly liberal places (California and New York, respectively), I’m dreading the day where I have to be careful about what language I speak in public. As an aspiring polyglot who aims to specialize in Mandarin and Arabic translation/interpretation, these incidents are of great concern to me. These people who hear Arabic, Punjabi, Chinese, and other Asian and Middle Eastern languages in public and then react in these ways are a problem. This needs to stop. But what can we do?

  1. If you hear or see someone making private or public accusations of terrorism based on someone’s appearance or what language they’re using, you tell them that’s not okay. Just because you can’t tell the difference between Punjabi and Arabic doesn’t automatically mean they’re Middle Eastern, and that definitely doesn’t mean they’re terrorists even if they were. Leave them alone!
  2. Start learning other languages! Those who know other languages are frequently more open-minded than others and are exposed to a wider variety of opinions and beliefs than they might be otherwise. We should be instituting the teaching of Arabic and immigrant languages in schools rather than traditionally taught languages like French, Latin, or Spanish. Mandarin in schools is a step in teh right direction.
  3. Help out non-English speaking communities by employing your language to supply them with opportunities for jobs, community, basic amenities, and other necessities for living in a country where few people speak your language.
  4. To immigrant children: Don’t let go of your language. If you never knew it, try to get back in touch with it. Help out those in your community who need you. If you don’t speak it well, it’s never too late to start brushing up (as I can testify in the case of my Kannada skills).

And no, just because this is America doesn’t mean you have to speak English all the time. This isn’t a refusal to speak English at all. But if I want to have a conversation in another language, I have every right to do so. You have no business regulating what and what I can’t say, since we have the freedom of speech. Not everything we say has to be for public consumption. Immigrants and other people use their languages because it’s what’s comfortable for them. We are under no obligation or responsibility to use English if we don’t need or want to. Don’t tell us what to speak.

Stop demonizing immigrants and their languages.

Thanks to Angry Asian Man for these articles. They have inspired me to be more active and political in my involvement with language.

Uma Língua que Pouca Gente Queriam Saber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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!