Posted in education, Languages, schools

Foreign language instruction in schools (and why it frequently falters)

Once upon a time, students were expected to come to university with at least reading fluency in French, German, Latin, and Ancient Greek. Now graduating seniors in the U.S. can barely be arsed to learn basic Spanish. What in the world happened over the last hundred years?

Since 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was published in both French and English instead of French only, English has overtaken French as the world’s lingua franca. Hence, many Anglophones feel there’s no need to learn another language, and foreign language is seen as just another class required for graduation, not a skill anyone will need or care about afterwards.

My parents decided for me that I’d learn Spanish in junior high, and wouldn’t let me take French like I wanted. They insisted French is outdated and irrelevant in the modern era, and that Spanish is more useful. The last laugh was on them, since it turned out French would’ve been much more useful to me on account of all the old books I’ve read with untranslated French and all the Francophone sources I’ve used while researching my historical fiction. I can read a lot of basic French for that very reason. In fact, I’ve used French far more than Spanish!

Over the last few decades, Spanish has completely replaced French in most areas of the U.S. as the de facto language to learn. I would never say I regret spending seven years studying Spanish, nor that I have any dislike towards the language, but I never developed a love for it like I feel for Russian, German, Estonian, or Italian.

No one should learn any language as a thoughtless default. You should have a genuine passion for it. Maybe show students samples of writing in all the languages offered at that school, and play clips of people speaking them. Tell students about some of the awesome novels and films in those languages. That way, they’ll have a concrete feel for what they might like and form a personal connection.

It’s just not realistic to interest someone in a language by talking about how useful it’ll be if their job sends them to a Francophone country in Africa, how French and German are the best languages to learn for grad school research in a field like history or political science, or how many people speak Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. You can’t predict what’s going to be relevant to their adult lives, and a lot of these selling points are meaningless to the poor and working-class.

I would’ve taken Latin my junior year if my family hadn’t moved back to Pennsylvania, where the small rural school only offered Spanish and French. The Spanish IV class I took was so far below my capabilities. E.g., I learnt preterite tense sophomore year, my fourth year of Spanish (and the second year for kids who only started it in high school), while these SENIORS were only just learning it! Once I even politely asked the teacher if a verb form shouldn’t be xyz because it was in the preterite. She agreed, but said she didn’t want to confuse the other students with grammar they hadn’t learnt yet.

I was able to read parts of Don Quixote my senior year (in a real Spanish class), yet I felt overwhelmed by the material in my seventh year of Spanish at community college. Suddenly I had to read a lot of stories, poems, and novel excerpts, and do a significant amount of writing in Spanish. My previous classes hadn’t prepared me for that level of proficiency and immersion.

The objective of learning a language shouldn’t be reading classics like The Aeneid, Don Quixote, The Divine Comedy, Candide, or Doctor Faustus to pass the AP or regular final year test. It should be reading newspapers, watching films and TV shows, and communicating with native speakers. Endlessly memorizing vocabulary, conjugations, and declensions isn’t a winning strategy for developing full fluency.

Spanish students are also put in a disadvantage if they don’t learn vosotros (informal plural form of you used in Spain), under the presumption they’ll only encounter Latin American Spanish.

Though you can’t entirely escape having to memorize grammar and vocab at some point, language is acquired much easier and more naturally through immersion, particularly when it’s of personal interest. E.g., someone who loves makeup and hair could watch beauty vloggers. A film buff could watch films. Someone who already loves a few writers or poets in that language could read side-by-side editions. An aspiring chef or baker could watch culinary vloggers.

Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina is a groundbreaking classic that should’ve become the norm for all language instruction. The entire book, minus the credits page, is in Latin. From the very first line, you’re reading and understanding the language perfectly based on context, pictures, and definitions, declensions, and conjugations in the margins. It begins very simply and gradually becomes more advanced, constantly building on everything that came before. There are also exercises at the end of each chapter, filling in the blanks and answering questions.

Most U.S. schools also start way too late, in seventh or ninth grade. It’s much easier to achieve native-level fluency before age ten.

Learning a language shouldn’t be about knowing just enough to pass tests, watch films that have subtitles anyway, and muddle through simple conversations.

Posted in Books, Dante, Divine Comedy, Languages

My Dantean memorization journey

This is how it all began in March 2021. Initially I only planned to learn the first twelve lines of Canto I of Inferno in the original Italian, to match what I’ve known in English for years. Then I worked on memorizing six lines from Paradiso, and returned to Inferno I in April.

However, I still didn’t intend to memorize the entire 136 lines, just another nine. I felt Line 21 ends on a nice cliffhanger, “The night I had endured with such anguish,” La notte ch’i’ passai con tanta pieta. I also thought it would be really cool to do a video of myself reciting them for National Poetry Month.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans of men and men (and women). Though I finished memorizing those lines by the last day of April, I hadn’t 100% mastered them, and I felt it weren’t enough of a challenge. Why quit so soon into the canto? Go big or go home!

The very next day, I memorized four more lines like lightning. Writing them out longhand was such a huge help, since I was able to mentally picture the words in my own writing when I got stuck. Skimming over the next lines before I began working on them also helped them to come faster when it was time.

Several times along the way, I hit humps and had to spend an extra few days working on tercets, lines, or groups of tercets or lines. It wasn’t so much that the words weren’t sticking, but rather that I was hitting the kind of mental wall many people face when learning new information. Only after you’ve cleared the wall can you continue.

Other times I had difficulty mastering the latest section or tercet because the words seemed too similar too close together. Obviously, not super-common words like che, non, and poi, but like in the above example, di sua vista and ne la sua. Or I just felt overwhelmed by all the lines I had to learn and how many I had to keep fresh in the memory bank while constantly adding new ones. The first half or so of this page was one of my humps, and the first major one since the beginning.

This page, and the end of the previous page, went super-fast, since I already knew those 18 lines in English, when Virgil shows up. Though I only knew up to the end of Virgil’s opening lines, the next few tercets came really quickly by association. I don’t think any other parts of Canto I flew into my personal hard drive that swiftly!

There were a few more humps on this page, by which point I was over the halfway mark. Things were starting to get real by now. I often had the feeling of, “I can’t really keep going, can I? I already know so many lines, and there are so many more yet to learn!”

The final tercets also came very fast, since I’d listened so many times to the overrated Roberto Benigni’s recitation and said what I knew along with him. I was so familiar with the concluding lines, I almost knew them even before I properly learnt them. I also knew the final line long before I reached that point, so the penultimate line was truly the last line I learnt.

Constant practice and repetition made sure every line went from short-term memory to long-term memory to permanent memory. I often said them to myself at night while going to bed, and not infrequently fell asleep in the middle after a certain point. Dante’s words were the last thing in my brain when it switched out of waking consciousness.

I also frequently said them to myself while swimming, or out loud softly while waiting for my sunscreen to set when I was alone at the pool.

Near the end of memorizing Canto I, I decided to go big or go home in an even greater way and learn the entire Commedia. After all, plenty of Italians throughout history have done just that, without even seeing it written down. Many other people have also known many cantos by heart.

The first tercet of Canto II went really fast, but then I hit another wall, and decided to just focus on perfecting my recitation of Canto I before jumping right into another huge challenge. It’s the same reason it’s best to rest for awhile after finishing a long book (either writing or reading) instead of immediately beginning the next. Everyone needs down time between climbing mountains.

This is everything I know to date, the first 45 lines of Canto II. As aforementioned, they came much slower than most of Canto I, since my top priority was ensuring mastery of Canto I for my recitation video on Dante’s 700th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) on 13/14 September.

Now that that’s past, I can finally begin making up for lost time on Canto II. I hope to have it completed and mastered by my birthday (either the English or Hebrew date) in December.

Oh, and if you can’t read my handwriting just because it’s in cursive, that’s a sad indictment of the current educational system.

Posted in Books, Dante, Divine Comedy, Languages

Why you should read The Divine Comedy in Italian

Note: Many of these points can be tweaked to apply to foreign language works in general.

While I doubt many people learn another language simply to read one book, there really is no experience quite like reading a work in its original language. And if you’re a Dantista, be you autodidactic like I am or professionally trained with a Ph.D., odds are good you’ll want to read the Commedia in Italian. Who cares if it’s not widely seen as a “useful” language like Spanish, French, German, Arabic, or Chinese? You should learn a language because you genuinely want to, other people’s opinions be damned.

However, one need not become fluent in Italian prior to reading or rereading the book, take formal classes, or do self-study. All one needs to do is get an edition with side-by-side Italian and English. Maybe you want to read each canto in English first, then Italian, or vice versa. Or do it tercet by tercet. Maybe even be bold and read the entire book in Italian first, or just listen to someone reading it in Italian.

This is what personally meaningful immersion is all about, something many foreign language teachers don’t understand. It’s easier to learn a language if one truly enjoys it instead of treating it like an obligatory academic requirement. While I studied Italian my senior year of high school, and studied the very similar Spanish for seven years, starting to read and memorize the Commedia in its original language has already begun working wonders on my language skills. I recognize verb forms and cognates, and can match Italian words with their English translations.

The more you immerse yourself in a language, the more you begin to naturally understand. After a certain point, you’ll rely less and less on the English side or looking words up. And then one day, you find yourself speaking, reading, and/or writing in that language as though you were always fluent.

Even the best translations will never be 100% accurate to the Italian original. E.g., Dante uses a lot of R sounds to evoke the feeling of dried, twisted tree branches in the Wood of the Suicides, and he uses many L sounds to evoke the running water near Geryon. It’s impossible to translate that into English without taking multiple linguistic liberties.

Another example is Canto XII of Purgatorio, where four tercets in a row start with the word Vedea (I saw), the next four start with the poetic one-letter word O (no translation needed!), and the next four start with Mostrava (showed, depicted, displayed). In many manuscripts until about the late 18th century, the letters U and V were printed or written interchangeably. Thus, Dante is spelling out the word uom (man, in the old-fashioned generic sense to refer to all humans).

Some translators have ambitiously risen to the challenge and spelt out MAN in English, with phrasing like “My eyes beheld,” “Ah,” and “Now was shown,” but again, that requires linguistic liberties. All translations (of any book or poem) do this to some degree, but it just looks and feels more impressive and emotional in the original.

When you have a side-by-side edition, it’s easier to discern when and where the translator took liberties, even if you’re not fluent in Italian. It’ll be obvious when entire big sections of lines are invented, when things are put in the wrong order, and when words are translated inaccurately. E.g., some translators translate the line “And like one with laboured breath” as “like a swimmer with laboured breath,” or simply as “And like a swimmer” in Canto I of Inferno.

I understand the reason for this, given the following lines where Dante compares himself to being released from the perilous waters of the deep to the shore, but again, it’s not helpful if you’re serious about learning Italian and having an accurate of a translation as possible.

Since starting my memorization journey in March, I feel much closer to Dante. He’s always been the only one of my fave writers who’s always felt like a dear, personal friend instead of just someone I deeply admire and/or would love to spend a few days talking with, but reading and learning his words in his native tongue made our suprarational connection even stronger.

When you read a book, story, poem, or play untranslated, you’re reading it exactly as the author wrote it, not someone else’s presentation of it in another language. So many words and phrases can’t be fully expressed in translation, and it just feels more emotional, evocative, expressive, beautiful, haunting, intense. Something is always lost in translation.

While you can understand many things and learn a lot of Italian from reading the original, it’s still in Medieval Florentine Tuscan, not modern standard Italian. Granted, modern Italian is strongly based upon Florentine Tuscan due to how many literary lights used it, but they’re not one and the same.

Open a new document, set the language to Italian, and type out a canto. You’ll see which words are flagged as misspellings and autocorrected, and which words pass recognition. Most of the differences aren’t that great, and if you already know Italian, you can figure out what a lot of the unfamiliar words mean based on context and similar spellings.

Basically, it’s equivalent to reading The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, with far fewer spelling differences.

Learning another language gives us a passport to another world. Who better to learn Italian with than the Supreme Poet?

Posted in New York City, Photography, Travel

Queens Village and the qalam

Copyright Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York; Source

Queens Village is a very spacious, green, suburban neighborhood in eastern Queens. It started life as Little Plains in the 1640s, and then became known as Brushville in the 1820s, after prosperous resident Thomas Brush.

Mr. Brush put down roots in the neighborhood with a blacksmith shop in 1824, and after achieving great financial success, he built a factory and a few other shops.

The first railway came on 1 March 1837.

St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church

In 1856, residents voted to change the neighborhood’s name to Queens, but both the neighborhood and depot were called Inglewood and Queens during the 1860s and 1870s. The former name Brushville also continued to be used.

When the borough of Queens was incorporated into NYC in 1898, and Nassau County was created in 1899, the border between them was designated directly east of the neighborhood. By at least 1901, the name Queens Village had arisen.

The Long Island village of Lloyd Harbor, formerly in Queens County but now in Suffolk County, was called Queens Village from 1685–1883. In 1923, Long Island Railroad added “Village” to the Queens neighborhood’s station’s name to avoid confusion with Queens County as a whole.

193rd St. war memorial

Queens Village contains the sub-neighborhoods of Hollis Hills (a very wealthy area) and Bellaire (the largest section of the neighborhood).

Many people seeking a suburban lifestyle and fleeing the congestion of Manhattan came to Queens Village starting in the 1920s. A great many of the Tudor and Dutch Colonial homes built during this era still stand, and attract a new generation of people wanting a slower, less crowded lifestyle.

Queens Village LIRR Station, Copyright Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York; Source

Like many other NYC neighborhoods, Queens Village too once had a large, thriving Jewish community, but today the population mainly consists of African–Americans, Caribbeans, Guyanese, Filipinos, Asian Indians, Jamaicans, and Hispanics.

Recent demographic developments include an increased amount of Asian–Americans and Middle Eastern Jews.

Southbound view of LIRR bridge over Springfield Blvd. and the Hempstead-bound platform at Queens Village station, Copyright DanTD

Landmarks include American Martyrs Catholic Church, Chapel of the Redeemer Lutheran, Hollis Hills Jewish Center, and the Windsor Park Branch of the Queens Borough Public Library. Nearby are Alley Pond Park, Cunningham Park, and Long Island Motor Parkway.

Remnant of Long Island Motor Parkway, Copyright Nowa at English Wikipedia

My characters Rodya Duranichev, Valentina Kuchma, Patya Siyanchuk, and Vladlena Zyuganova move from Manhattan to Queens Village with their children in the late summer of 1945. Both Valentina and Vladlena are expecting again, and they want a fresh new life in a more spacious corner of the city, with detached houses and yards.

Their children are delighted to discover each house has a pool in the backyard, though Patya is less than delighted to discover a little girl next door, Ruth Blumstein, thinks he’s a monster on account of his missing arm.

Copyright Aieman Khimji

qalam is a dried reed pen used for Islamic calligraphy, particularly creating those beautiful Persian and Arabic letters. It’s also a symbol of wisdom and education in the Koran. Sura 68 is called “Al-Qalam,” and describes Allah’s justice and the judgment day.

The etymology comes from the Greek kalamos (reed). In modern Arabic, Persian, Kurdish, and Turkish, it means “pencil” or “pen.” In Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali, it just means “pen.”

Copyright Baba66

My character Inna Zhirinovskaya receives, among many other things, a qalam set in a leather case for her 31st birthday in October 1937, a present from her admirer Arkasha Orlov (a prince by birth). They met in Aden in June, and Arkasha has been hopelessly smitten since then.

Arkasha gave her a lesson in Persian writing with a normal fountain pen a few weeks earlier, and Inna was mortified when she involuntarily gasped at the sensation of his hand over hers. She knows both Arkasha and her little brother Vitya heard that.

That night on the Siosepel Bridge, Inna agrees to be his sweetheart.

Posted in Languages, Third Russian novel, Writing

What’s Up Wednesday

Ready Set Write

As part of their What’s Up Wednesday feature, Elodie NowodazkijAlison MillerKaty UppermanErin Funk, and Jaime Morrow will be hosting a summer-long initiative called Ready. Set. Write! Participants will share weekly, monthly, or overall goals in the “What I’m Writing” section of the weekly posts.

What I’m Writing

Once again, due to camp and other factors, I wasn’t as productive with writing this week as in the past. I’m up to about 445,600 words in my current WIP, Journey Through a Dark Forest. In spots, I’m really feeling that this is a rough draft and will need some more polishing or fleshing-out, alternately. The most important thing is just to get the meat and outline of the story down on paper.

I’m starting Chapter 55, “Damir’s Best Interests,” in late June 1940. Inna Zhirinovskaya is about to have her first child, by her deposed prince husband Arkadiy (Arkasha) Orlov. Since they’ve made their home in Persia (officially renamed Iran by this point), they’re going to give him a Persian name, Omid, which means “hope.” Shortly after the birth, Inna’s brother Vitya will finally head off for America with his daughter Velira. They’re going to fly in a real aeroplane, to avoid the slowness and uncertainty of taking a boat in wartime.

I’m really looking forward to writing the second-chance love story of Inessa and Vitya. Inessa has been wetnursing and raising Vitya’s son Damir since he was four months old, and Damir has no memories of his birth mother. Her three children by her murdered husband Roman deserve a father, Vitya’s cute, sweet little daughter Velira deserves a mother, and Damir shouldn’t have to lose the only mother he can remember. It’s the most natural thing in the world for them to create a new family when they think they’re only transitioning Damir away from his foster family and to his birth father.

And to think, my outline for this book in 2001 had poor Vitya getting shot in the 1937 purges! I’m so glad I let the story and characters go where they naturally developed, instead of feeling bound to what I’d envisioned at 21.

What I’m Reading

Three Daves, by Nicki Elson. It’s a fun, cute contemporary historical set in the 1980s, in the New Adult and romance categories. I originally got it for my Kindle for a group project on NA in my YA Lit class, but I didn’t have enough time to read the whole thing. Now I’m reading it while my campers are taking their afternoon nap. A Kindle is so much more convenient to read from than lugging around a real book.

What Inspires Me/What Else I’ve Been Up To

Still no stove or sink to work with. This is freaking ridiculous. It should never take nearly this long to kosher a kitchen and get everything in order. This type of thing should always be organized in advance, not only looked into after you’ve moved in.

I’m also finally resuming my Estonian study. The power of the human brain and the processes of language acquisition, retention, and retrieval are very powerful, inspiring things. Since I didn’t practice in awhile, I initially had forgotten some words and phrases I’d known cold not so long ago. But as I kept reviewing the material, the memory connections were reforged. Other words and phrases I had never forgotten, even some rather random words.

You can never really forget a language, even if you become very rusty and don’t use a language in years, even your own native language. Sure you might need some time to review and become fluent or conversational again, but the memories are still there. For example, I studied Spanish for 7 years and haven’t actively used it for some time. But when I read something in Spanish, or review vocabulary and grammar, something clicks and a lot more words come flooding back. It’s not like you go back to learning from scratch. The same goes for reactivating my Russian, German, Italian, or French, or relearning the Armenian alphabet for the 4th or 5th time. You knew it once, and it’s stayed in the recesses of your memory in spite of not constantly using the information.

My roommate overheard me and thought I were practicing Klingon. She’d honestly never heard of Estonia or Estonian. The two sound absolutely nothing alike. Estonian has a soft, musical, poetic lilt with a twinge of sadness, while Klingon is said to have been based on the sounds of Turkish and Mongolian, to give it that harsh, threatening feel.