Learning a language is often cited as something that can change your interactions, and even your life. While the latter might be exaggerated, there is no doubt that learning a language aside from your native tongue can be a highly challenging experience. The rewards of doing so are immense; learning a new language opens opportunities to talk to people with whom you would not have been able to converse previously, and to read material that was previously unaccessible to you due to language barriers. Luckily for the language learners and enthusiasts here at IHS, we are offered the options of learning Latin, Spanish, French, and German.
These four languages can all trace their roots back to Europe and have had influence, in some form or another, on the English language. Although this selection of languages is certainly better than having none available, it does raise the question: Why don’t we have the option to take other languages, especially Asian languages, given IHS’s size and the importance of Asia in today’s world?
As one might have learned in their world history class, Asia is a massive continent with a rich history and an array of languages. In a number of regions in Asia, you can observe how modern technology and traditional practices are becoming intertwined in cultures very different from the European tradition, which is fascinating. I can’t vouch for all Asian languages, but as someone who knows a fair amount of Chinese and Japanese, I’d like to shed some light on the beauty of East Asian languages, the fun of learning them, and the doors of opportunity that are opened for those willing to try something different.
Just as Latin came to influence many European spoken languages, the Chinese language has held a great deal of influence on other East Asian languages, some more obvious than others. With over 1.2 billion speakers worldwide, and over 1 billion Mandarin Chinese speakers, Chinese represents by far the largest language worldwide. To provide some basic information on Chinese, the language is entirely written with pictographic characters, called “hànzì,” or Han writing. Already we encounter an interesting tidbit on the origins of this term. Hànzì were widely used during the Chinese Han Dynasty, and hence are named after the Han Dynasty.
The Chinese language has four tones that affect vowels, and, if mispronounced, they can completely change the meaning of a word. These tones are the flat tone, rising tone, dip tone, and the falling tone. Although the characters themselves don’t indicate the tone, the romanized form of Chinese, called pinyin, indicates the tone by using accents and diacritical marks.
One language that has borrowed many characters and pronunciations from Chinese is the Japanese language. Japanese has three main character sets, which are hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are phonetic systems that represent the variety of sounds that can be found in Japanese. Because of this, all Japanese words can be written in hiragana, although using it for everything creates ambiguity because so many words sound the same.
The difference between hiragana and katakana lies not in pronunciation or number of sounds, but in usage. Katakana is primarily used to roughly capture the sounds of borrowed foreign words, whereas hiragana is used for standard Japanese words and particles in grammar. On the other hand, kanji, the Japanese way of saying “hànzì,” are basically Chinese characters directly borrowed from China. A Japanese learner will quickly learn that hiragana, katakana, and kanji can all be blended together into one sentence. The word for camera, カメラ (“kamera”), is in katakana, while the word for “thanks,” ありがとう (“arigatou”), is in hiragana. Kanji, such as the kanji for water, 水, (“sui” in Japanese), are shared with Chinese. The need to adhere to the “kana” sets can create awkward pronunciations of foreign words, including the addition of vowels to the end of words that would otherwise end with a consonant.
Although I have not had the chance to study Korean yet, it is well-known that the Korean language has been influenced by Chinese.
It is my belief that only offering European languages is a thing of the past and not enough for a school of reasonable size with a diverse student body like IHS. IHS used to have a Chinese language class a few years ago. My question is, why doesn’t our school still give students the option to learn Chinese or other Asian languages? Asian countries such as China and Japan are now among the world’s economic and military superpowers, with the second and third highest GDPs in the world, respectively; South Korea has also extended global influence through technology and culture. It is important that we learn these countries’ languages to be able to communicate with them, bridge gaps with them, and hopefully, avoid future conflict.