Hating Swahili: The cost of bilingualism in the US

A very interesting read on linguistic prejudice and what we can do to end it. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject!

Source: Hating Swahili: The cost of bilingualism in the US

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Hello, Hi, Goodbye?

Greetings and goodbyes are such a strange concept. We come up with these silly phrases to signal the beginning and the end of a conversation, and often they fail to capture what is really meant in the greeting or goodbye – the essence of it. You wouldn’t think much about them, considering how mundane they are, but greetings and goodbyes speak volumes about the culture in which they’re spoken.

Take Swahili, for example. During my month-long study abroad in Tanzania, I had the opportunity to speak Swahili with native speakers after having learned the language for a mere two years. Greetings seemed – initially – like they would be the easiest to say and understand, considering they are rather basic and among the first phrases I learned. But when walking through the market and arriving at home or school, the greetings I heard threw my brain in a tizzy, and “Hellos” I gave were sometimes met with laughter. Why was this?

It seemed, that the “Hellos” and “How are yous” I had concocted were merely the closest translations of my standard American-English greetings. For example I would say, Habari za asubuhi, which literally means news of the morning, or “How are you this morning?,” or Hujambo, which means “Are you not well?” but more colloquially, “Hello.” Although these greetings were perfectly acceptable, they were sometimes silly to the Tanzanians I was greeting because they could sense the “American-ness” of such greetings (not to mention the lack of practiced slang of the area).

I was using only the best Swahili counterparts to my American-English phrases. But when I took the time to learn the greetings and goodbyes of Tanzanian-Swahili, not only was I able to communicate better, but I also got a glimpse into the lives of east Africans.

The greeting Umeamkaje? summarizes this idea perfectly: this simple word literally means, “How have you woken up?” but could be roughly translated to “Did you sleep well?” With this information in mind, I began to see how genuinely Tanzanians care about the well being of one another. I would be greeted this way often in the streets on my walk to the bus stop each morning. In the streets! By strangers! I imagined myself being asked the same question on the street by a stranger in Ann Arbor and I scoffed at the idea – nobody would dare greet a stranger in such a way (or even greet a stranger at all for that matter).

When asked Umeamkaje? so frequently, I soon realized that greetings and goodbyes are more than just easy phrases to initiate or conclude a conversation. They are, rather, a small snapshot of how people in that culture relate to one another.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in her book “North to the Orient” touches on the same idea, elaborating on the weaknesses of some goodbyes, rather beautifully:

For Sayonara, literally translated, “Since it must be so,” of all the good-bys I have heard is the most beautiful. Unlike the Auf Wiedersehens and Au revoirs, it does not try to cheat itself by any bravado “Till we meet again,” any sedative to postpone the pain of separation. It does not evade the issue like the sturdy blinking Farewell. Farewell is a father’s good-by. It is – “Go out into the world and do well, my son.” It is encouragement and admonition. It is hope and faith. But it passes over the significance of the moment; of parting it says nothing. It hides its emotion. It says too little. While Good-by (“God be with you”) and Adios say too much. They try to bridge the distance, almost to deny it. Good-by is a prayer, a ringing cry. “You must not go alone, unwatched. God will be with you. God’s hand will be over you” and even – underneath, hidden by it is there, incorrigible – “I will be with you; I will watch you – always.” It is a mother’s good-by. But Sayonara says neither too much nor too little. It is a simple acceptance of fact. All understanding of life lies in its limits. All emotion, smoldering, is banked up behind it. But it says nothing. It is really the unspoken good-by, the pressure of a hand, “Sayonara.”

Hello, hi, goodbye…they all just seem so plain to me now, knowing what I do about the richness of other phrases. And while asking my roommate Umeamkaje? in the morning might be a good-hearted idea, and saying Sayonara each time I must part from someone is certainly romantic, it seems doubtful that these words will ever amount to more than just a cutesy-foreign phrase when borrowed in our daily English jargon.

I do, however, think that it’s time for our English counterparts to mean more… for us to mean more when we say “Hello” and “Goodbye” because our conversations these days seem to be lacking in sincerity.

So when someone concocts the English equivalent of Sayonara, let me know. But until then, Farewell.

— Britt Boyle

Can I have the language of origin? Language Knowledge is Key to Spelling Bee Success

“Bouillabaisse”, “Scherenschnitte,” and “Rhodochrosite.”

All three of the words above can be found in nearly any English dictionary, but they probably don’t look familiar upon first glance. While words like these do not typically pop-up in normal conversations, they recently made an appearance on national television during finals of the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Spelling Bees are well-known throughout the United States as a platform for students, usually aged 9 to 14, to test their vocabulary knowledge by spelling words onstage in front of a large audience. These young competitors could encounter any word from the English language, but the biggest challenge is the uncertainty of which word they will face when they step-up to the microphone: will it be a common word, or something a little more intimidating, such as “pyrrhuloxia”?

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Since there are over a million English words listed in the Merriam Webster Dictionary, it is very likely that students at an advanced spelling level are asked to spell words that they have never before seen or heard. If you’ve never seen the word before, how could you possibly know how to spell it?

Your first instinct might be to spell the word the same way that it sounds.This can be helpful at times, but there are many English words that are not spelled phonetically (take for example “gnome”, “tsunami”, or “psychology”).

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During a Spelling Bee, competitors are allowed to ask a few questions about their word, such as its definition or how it would be used in a sentence, but the most insightful question of them all is the language of origin. It is very common for languages to adopt specific vocabulary from other languages, and English is no exception. By knowing the language that an English word originated from, spellers have a better chance of identifying special patterns from that language, especially if they have dedicated time to learning bits and pieces of foreign languages.

Learning German, for example, could be immensely helpful when faced with a word like “Gummihandschuh.” This word means rubber glove, but a literal German-English translation of this word is “Rubber-hand-shoe.” The German language is notorious for mashing numerous root words together to create one massive, compound word. By knowing the definition and recognizing the root words that make-up a compound word like this, a speller has a much higher chance of spelling a German word correctly.

Another helpful tidbit of knowledge comes with knowing which letters of the alphabet are exceptionally common in each language. Latin and Greek are the two most common languages of origin referenced during the spelling bees, but a very interesting distinction can be made between these languages in regard to the letter “k.” In a Latin-derived word,  you would rarely ever find a word that contains the letter “k.” This is very useful with a word like “hippocrepiform’, since it is much more likely that the /k/ sound is represented by the letter “c.” On the other hand, Greek-derived words are significantly more likely to utilize the letter“k,” which could make all the difference between spelling a word correctly or incorrectly.

Every word that composes the English language has a history behind it, and its spelling often reflects the characteristics of its original language. Whether you are a champion speller or just beginning to learn a new language, you may find your English spelling skills improving when you learn a new language.

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–Emily D.

Language Learning (and Life) Advice

Here at the Language Resource Center, we realize the winter semester has ended and it’s much too soon to be thinking about the coming fall. However, there is at least one subject that you might not want to forget about so soon– your language skills!

The LRC’s Student Advisory Board sat down together at the end of term to brainstorm some advice for retaining languages over the summer, starting a new language (especially for you incoming freshmen!), and practicing in new ways for upper level learners. Below are some great suggestions that these language students came up with.

Advice for the summer:

  • Learning outside of the classroom is a great way to learn about the culture of your language. Resources like foreign news clips and books can be your best friend. (Alex)
  • Remember that class cannot teach you all the vocab or skills that you really need to get around in other countries. Spend some time with non-class resources for better practice. (Todd)
  • Use Duolingo! (Alex)
  • Challenge yourself– listen to some slow news or a podcast or watch a movie without subtitles. You could even try to read some articles or a book without using a dictionary then go back with a translation and check how well you understood it. (Valeriya)
  • There’s always something new to study or listen to or read in your language. One trick for hands on practice is to change your internet and phone settings to be in your new language. (Cathy)

Advice for learning a new language:

  • “Learning” a language takes a LOT of time– and you are never really done learning it. (Todd)
  • Be realistic in your expectations of your language skills. Hitting a brick wall because you see someone excelling faster happens, but it’s better to understand that it’s a process that takes time and effort. (Kendall)
  • Worrying about succeeding in the next level of courses is completely normal but you can lessen that anxiety by getting together with others in your class or friends learning the same language! There are no grades and no worries. (Kendall)
  • It will be much more time consuming to put out the effort of writing an essay in your new language, but it is absolutely worth it. Writing an essay in English then translating is useless. (Valeriya)
  • You may feel like you are hitting a wall and should be understanding everything, and  and wanting to quit is understandable, but you have to keep at it! It’s worth it! (Julie)

Advice for incoming students:

  • Try to go to office hours at least once a week. The best way to learn a language is to practice it, so go talk to your professors– it doesn’t even have to be about class. Just go say hello! Start a conversation! (Alex)
  • If professors make you nervous, find an upper level student to chat with. Work at your speaking skills with them, no matter how long it takes you to get through a sentence. (Valeriya)
  • Don’t expect to be perfect. You may have come to this school having been the best in your high school, but there is no finish line or “best” in languages. (Jenny)
  • Don’t be afraid of sounding foolish. You will mess up and that’s okay; it will happen. To open you mouth and use it, to immerse yourself and try things is more important than getting it perfect. (Valeriya)

Advice for upper level learners:

  • It can be challenging to find upper level foreign language books in the US, but you can use your amazon account to log into foreign amazon sites and find new resources that way. (Todd)
  • It’s not about communicating your own culture through direct translation. True fluency comes from thinking in that language through that culture to express ideas. (Cathy)
  • Past the 250 level or so, your grade is based not on fluency or accuracy but effort and participation. (Valeriya)
  • Grades are just an empirical metric for your progress; they do not entirely sum up your abilities. Those skill measurements can be a great help though– getting a certification or something similar can be incredibly useful in job hunts. (Todd)
  • Going outside of your textbook and your classroom is incredibly important. Generating knowledge as opposed to regurgitating what you’ve been told is the ultimate sign of deeper understanding. (Valeriya)

We hope that some of this advice is helpful to you and we’d love to hear your own tricks and tips for keeping up those language skills! Share your own advice with us in the comments below, and happy learning!