Growing demand for edu based on S Asian culture, language

Efforts are being made these days to enrich teaching second language in United States schools at primary and secondary level. This has long been the standard for most schools in India, where children learn both national languages (English and Hindi) and often their regional language. Americans are now following suit in raising children to be bilingual or even trilingual.

So, why do we seek to learn languages other than our mother tongue? Why spend hours memorising the genders of new nouns, different verb conjugations and how to pronounce letters in a new alphabet? Each person has his/her own answer to this question. Whether it is to communicate with a beloved grandparent, to stay competitive in a global market or simply to increase your knowledge.

However, it is essential to learn the culture in tandem with the language you are learning as well. We need to understand culture in order to get the perspective of native speakers, understand the history of the language so we can visit the region in which that language is spoken.

In the initial stages of learning a language, it is overwhelming enough to learn the basics such as the alphabet, vocabulary and verb tenses. At that point, being able to write and speak in coherent, grammatically correct sentences is an accomplishment in itself.

But becoming an advanced beginner or intermediate student of a language requires more than just being able to county to twenty, name colours/ animals and introducing yourself. It requires you to see the language from the viewpoint of a native speaker, and for that, you need to learn the culture.

According to Katherine Surko, her experience in studying Hindi at Washington University in Saint Louis has been fantastic. “In September, I knew may be half the alphabet tops, but now I am able to read and write whole paragraphs, which is well beyond what I thought I would be able to accomplish within a year. It is so exciting for me to be able to see such tangible progress, and it makes me really excited for new levels I will reach within the upcoming years. I enjoy the holistic approach our class takes from focusing on writing to speaking to having scattered events throughout the semester, and I look forward to continuing my Hindi studies in the fall in order to meet both my personal and professional goals”.

Knowing traditions and values better allows us to understand the idioms. An idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements, or from the general grammatical rules of a language. Idioms are used in every language but often seem foreign to non-native speakers because they cannot be translated directly. Understanding their usage requires a certain amount of exposure to the language as well as insight into the culture.

Take for example, the Hindi phrase “Khichdi pakaana.” Literally translated to English, it means “to make khichdi” but this makes no sense without knowing what “khichdi” is. Khichdi, a mixture of rice and lentils cooked with spices and sometimes vegetables, is the quintessential north-Indian comfort food, a meal cooked on rainy days when people are cooped up indoors. Armed with this tidbit of information, it makes sense that the phrase figuratively means “to scheme secretively/hatch a plan.”

History as link

Another aspect linking language and culture is history. Just as culture evolves with times, so does language. Thus, the culture’s past shows us the factors that have gone into shaping the language as we know it.

A great example of this is the Hindi-Urdu language, otherwise known as Hindustani. In the early second millennium BCE, Sanskrit was brought to the Indus valley by those who settled there. A member of the Indo-European family of languages, Sanskrit soon became the standard (both spoken and written) in the region.

In the mid-16th century, the Mughal empire (a Muslim Persianate imperial power that ruled much of India for the next few centuries) brought Arabic and Persian languages to the region. These, combined with the Sanskrit derivatives spoken by natives, created a blended language called Hindustani. The mid-19th century saw the introduction of British Raj in India.

To allow for communication with the colonial rulers, English words were incorporated into the Hindi vernacular (such as the months of the Judeo-Christian calendar). Even the partition of India in 1947 brought changes for the language.

While Urdu and Hindi are written in different scripts, they share a common set of sounds, words and grammatical rules due to their common history. In fact, speakers of Hindi, for the most part, are able to understand Urdu and vice versa.

Regardless of one’s relation to Indian culture, it is virtually impossible to escape its influence in the United States. Open a newspaper every morning and one can find an article regarding India’s role as an up and coming economic and cultural force in the world. Turn on the television and one can find entire TV shows, such as Outsourced, related to India. Historically tied to the West, Indian culture now permeates every aspect of American life from curry cook books to yoga.

At the basis of these trends are the linguistic traditions rooted in Hindi. Along with India’s role in international affairs, the demand for an education based on South Asian culture and language is growing and US  universities are answering the call.

The history and nuances of a language derive directly from the culture of its speakers. Thus, attempting to learn a language without learning its associated culture is to miss out on everything that makes the language unique, exciting and beautiful.

(The writer, a linguist, teaches at the Washington University in St Louis, USA)

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