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Rethinking the decline of language education

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A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture by Dr. Brandon King ’05 on the parallels between legalism and contemporary education. Dr. King graduated with a Chinese major from Swarthmore, and in his year, 19 students graduated with a Chinese major or a minor. Given my drill section for “First-Year Chinese” had only six students, the enrollment statistics in previous years surprised me: why was the enrollment abnormally low? Before 2016, the first-year Chinese class always had more than 20 students. In 2016, the number dropped to eight. In 2017, it increased slightly to ten. According to conversations I have had with some professors, other modern language classes experience similar decreases in enrollment. What exactly is happening to language enrollment?

Let’s take a look at some enrollment statistics to answer our question. According to the Common Data Set of the class of 2017, the number of students majoring in natural science and engineering division has risen steadily since 2010. Swarthmore students normally four credits of classes per semester, and since the number of classes students can take are limited that more students study S.T.E.M. equate fewer studying Humanities. Figure 1 demonstrates this trend. The percentage of students majoring in S.T.E.M. rises from 30 percent in 2010 to 44 percent in 2017, whereas that in humanities drops from 25 percent in 2010 to 16 percent in 2017. In contrast to the other divisions, the social science division grants more or less the same number of majors throughout the years. The enrollment in Modern Language and Literatures suffers as well. According to Figure 2, the percentage of students majoring in M.L.L. has dropped since 1995.

It is necessary to recognize that the percentage of majors granted does not necessarily indicate the number of students enrolled across different divisions. A student who majors in biology, for instance, may have taken some philosophy classes. Nevertheless, these percentages can reflect to some extent the interests of students across different class years. Overall, these statistics suggest that an increasing number of S.T.E.M. majors accounts for the enrollment decline in M.L.L. and humanities.

What drives the decline of foreign language enrollment? One possible explanation is that Swarthmore students are less interested in learning new languages. This claim holds some truth to a certain extent. After all, students are encouraged to take classes that are the most engaging and relevant to them. However, there are many reasons to doubt that the decline of interest in languages explains the entire situation. Language opens many opportunities and enriches one’s life. Those who know more languages can communicate with more people and understand how they think. As a student who learns English as a second language, I am grateful for my decision to immerse myself in English during high school. Had I not learnt English, I would not have received an opportunity to study in the U.S. and interact with many brilliant minds at Swarthmore. Similar benefits apply when one learns any other languages.  Considering how interconnected today’s world is and how quickly countries that do not speak English fluently are growing, Swarthmore students should want to learn more, not fewer, languages.

The intensity of language classes at Swarthmore provides further reason to learn new languages. Without sufficient reinforcement and daily practice, new language learners can easily forget what they have previously learnt. When I started learning English, I was not attending an international school. Every week, I was exposed to only two hours of English classes. That those classes had over 50 students meant it was extremely difficult for students to make any significant progress. Had I not spent an hour reading English newspapers every day, my English would never have improved enough so that I can study in the U.S. Taking language classes at Swarthmore, therefore, is effective: the small class sizes allow professors to interact with students and better reinforce language skills. Were Swarthmore to have introductory classes where students meet only twice or thrice every week, students may take language classes for years without making any significant progress. Moreover, once Swarthmore students graduate, they will have to spend a large amount of time working, attending graduate schools, and so on, which means they will not be able to commit to learning languages as much as when they are still at Swarthmore.

In essence, languages are useful, and one of the best times for Swarthmore students to learn them is at Swarthmore. The more plausible explanation for the decline of language enrollment is that students do not feel they can commit or do not have the availability to commit to learning languages.

To begin with, learning a language is a huge commitment. Most introductory language classes at Swarthmore have 1.5 credits: students are required to meet as well as complete homework on a daily basis. To receive any credits, students must take two semesters of that language; otherwise, they receive none. The opportunity cost faced by students learning any new languages is that they will not have much opportunity to explore classes. Speaking from experience, several friends of mine decided not to take language classes merely because they are afraid of committing two hours every day for an entire year to learn the languages.

That more Swarthmore students take S.T.E.M. classes creates scheduling problems as well. Unlike most humanities classes, S.T.E.M. classes have stringent prerequisites: unless students follow through certain series of classes, they cannot progress to the more advanced class and thus have to wait for the next semester or an academic entire year. Take computer science for instance. Swarthmore’s computer science department offers introductory classes: CS 21, CS 31, and CS 35. Unless students take CS 21, they cannot take CS31 and CS 35. Unless they take CS 35, they cannot take most upper-level courses. In many semesters, only one section of CS 31 and CS 35 are offered. Should those classes conflict with the language classes, students will face a dilemma of choosing between taking gateway classes in their prospective majors and the language classes.

The fact that Swarthmore does not have a strong language requirement also worsens this problem. Compared to other similar liberal arts institution, Swarthmore is laissez-faire on this issue. At Middlebury, for instance, students majoring in International and Global Studies are required to become proficient in some language other than English. At Carleton, students must take four or five trimesters of languages to place out of the language requirement. At Swarthmore, students can pass the language requirement by taking three years of language classes in high school, taking Advanced Placement Exams, or taking only one year of language class at Swarthmore. Because Swarthmore does not have a strong language requirement, students can graduate in virtually every major even if they have not fully developed their proficiency in any languages other than English.

Painful though they are, these two problems create the last problem: the lack of tenure-track faculty in M.L.L. departments. Many M.L.L. departments at Swarthmore have only one tenured professor. As the number of professors in any department depends upon the demand of classes in that department, a department which does not have high enrollment will not be able to hire more or offer more tenure tracks to professors. As a result, they cannot offer more sections to cater to the different tastes of students and also prevent students from continuously progressing in the language they enjoy. Realizing these facts, some students may choose not to study the language for fear their language is discontinued. The decline in M.L.L. enrollment is extremely problematic because the reasons for such decline all reinforce one another. With less demand for language education, there is less supply. Without less supply of language education, there is less demand.

Swarthmore should make an effort to solve this problem. The institution should conduct some college-wide surveys or public forums to better understand why students do or do not choose to take a language. Better class scheduling should also be implemented. If most introductory classes in the morning conflict with the language classes, language may increase their enrollment by switching some of their sections to the afternoon to cater to students’ availability. Language education is crucial to a liberal arts education. To combat the decline of language enrollment, we need to think critically about what the root causes of such decline rather than make presumptuous claims that students are simply not interested in language anymore.

Benefits of bilingualism

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Last weekend, I volunteered to cook for the Chinese New Year party hosted by the Chinese Department. As I was frying spring rolls — authentic Chinese food — to be served at the party, I had the opportunity to meet with fellow Chinese learners as well as the professors who teach at Swarthmore. Each of us had a unique background and unique characteristics; however, there existed one common thread between us: our aspiration to explore Chinese language and culture. The event featured attendees performing to Chinese songs, such as as “Drum-dance of Fong Yang” and “Gong Xi Gong Xi,” which is translated to “Wishing You Prosperity and Happiness.” Not only did this event provide me with a memorable experience, it also convinced me that every Swarthmore student should try learning new languages during their years at Swarthmore.

To begin with, language is the key to understanding culture, because the language one speaks influences one’s behaviors, ideas, and actions. Because Thai is my native language, I experienced a culture shock during my transition from learning in Thai to learning in English here in the United States. In Thailand, when two people meet, they greet each other with “sawasdee,” add “ka/krub” to make the speech more polite, and address each other by seniority. Because Thai culture treasures family-style relationship, one uses pronouns similar to those used in addressing family members to show respect for the other speaker’s seniority. Raised in such culture, I was therefore surprised to learn many Swarthmore professors said they do not mind if students drop the “Mr.,” “Ms.,” or “Professor” and call them by their first name. None of my Thai teachers has ever allowed me to drop these formalities. Minor as it sounds, such pronoun difference reveals that American culture is more individualistic than Thai culture: whereas addressing a professor by her name suffices in the former, it does not in the latter.

Spoken language aside, the written forms of both languages differ as well: whereas most English words contain different nuances even for synonyms (e.g. happy, joyous, cheerful), many synonyms in Thai have the exact same meaning. Not realizing such difference when I first learnt to write in English, I usually used English synonyms interchangeably, obscuring what I intended to convey as a result. For instance, I used to write “I am joyful to see you” when my true message was “I am glad to see you.” In some cases, I did not use them correctly because I did not understand the culture behind the language. My WA once suggested I fixed my habit of overusing the word “could” to mean “can” to make my writing more affirmative. As I became more proficient in English, I could understand the mistakes I made and Western culture better. Because each word choice has its distinct nuance, writers are expected to choose their words wisely and express their ideas as simply and clearly as possible. Do not circumlocute. Use precise words. Get to the point. Perhaps this quality of English explains why I find Americans tend to be more straightforward than people in my country.

Although some languages, such as English and Spanish, are spoken in many countries, the usage of those languages varies. For example, although England and the United States use English as their official languages, both countries express similar ideas differently and thus have a different culture. Indeed, no language encompasses every aspect of a culture. However, as the earlier paragraphs suggested, even such rudimentary aspects of language as pronoun difference and nuances in synonyms can enrich how one understands a culture.

Another reason to study foreign language is that language fosters empathy and camaraderie between different groups of people. As language reflects culture, it allows a person to express their identity and humanize themselves to other people’s eyes. When two strangers who speak the same language meet, not only do they understand the culture which influences the other, they empathize with each other more than they would have if both barely understood each other. This empathy is especially important today when many countries are starting to raise the barrier between “us” and “them.”

Hari Srinivasulu ’21, a trilingual in English, Hindi, and Tamil —  the language spoken in Southern India — said “I rarely speak Tamil [at Swarthmore] as there are very few Swatties from South India. However, the rare conversations I do have with people who speak Tamil end up making my day, even my week.”

He argued that any opportunities to speak Tamil helps him remain in touch with his identity while he was away from home. It is comforting to know there are people out there who can understand us and empathize with us. Because each foreign language encapsulates a unique cultural aspect, knowing more languages helps us better express ourselves and bond with others more meaningfully.

Moreover, with language, in order for one to understand cultural nuances, that person needs to practice and make mistakes. Language is a great venue for such practice. Recall when you first studied algebra. Your professor explained many basic rules to you, such as that it is not possible to divide both sides of the equation by zero. But unless you revisit such mistakes, it is rather impossible for you to memorize those rules. Because language classes at Swarthmore meet frequently and have many sections, professors can correct each student’s grammatical mistakes and pronunciation. Personally, I attribute my improvement in Chinese to my interaction with professors.

Indeed, the common argument against studying any foreign language is that there is no point to more foreign languages if you already can speak more common languages such as Chinese, English, or Spanish. The reasoning follows: as more people are learning these languages, you need not bother because if the main purpose is to communicate, more common languages will suffice. This argument is true to some extent. If a person who lives in the U.S. speaks English, that person will survive because English is the official language. However, the problem occurs when you want to express some ideas that cannot be represented in the common language. Take Thai greetings for instance. There is no equivalent translation of “sawasdee” in Thai to English. “Hello” and “hi” overlook how Thai people respect the elderly. The word “sawasdee”— which literally means “be safe” — also expresses the goodwill the speaker expresses to the listener. After all, not all aspects of the language can be translated into another language. Some aspect of language is inevitably lost in translation. Certain culturally unique expressions can be expressed only by people who know that language. Culture matters.

The second argument is that it is difficult to learn new languages, especially if you attend a rigorous institution like Swarthmore. By studying a new language, one has to devote lots of time and effort into learning that language, which means there are fewer chances of studying other subjects. This is true, but the flip side of this argument is also true — choosing to take any class always entails foregoing another class. At this point, I am still not certain if I will ever speak Chinese as fluently as a native speaker would, but the enrichment from learning Chinese outweighs the cost. Now, I can hold a simple conversation in Chinese and understand why Chinese people bless one another to be wealthy and prosperous. I would not have obtained such cultural understanding had I decided not to enroll for the class.

All in all, there are many benefits to studying new languages that one should consider. College, after all, is where one becomes exposed to new cultures, ideas, and perspectives. Learning new language helps you achieve that goal.

The beauty of an unintelligible world

in Columns/Opinions/Swat Global by

I’ll never forget my first experience abroad, which was this semester. Exiting the plane for the first time, as I stepped into Hanoi, Vietnam, it was as if I had been transported to a whole new universe. Looking around me, I was mesmerized by all the signs in Vietnamese. Continuing on to a restaurant for dinner after the flight, I couldn’t help but notice that, for the first time, English was not the dominant language flooding my ears. Instead, I was in a crowded buffet room with people yelling syllables to me that resembled an old voice-over cartoon. The letters of the signs surrounding me were strung together in indecipherable units, although they were supposed to be words. Clearly, these units did not add any clarity to the situation.

As my time in Vietnam continued, it became clear that communicating with others was not going to hold the same meaning as it did in the United States. The first few days, when I needed to know where to get off the bus, I had to rapidly point at an address I had written and hope that someone would know my destination and nod at me when to get off. During lunch, I could only yell “an chay” (vegetarian) at the street vendor, and wait for my food to arrive with no idea what dish would be placed in front of me.

At first, I was terrified in Vietnam. Since I didn’t know the language, I felt like disaster could happen so easily. All I had to do was take the bus stop one street too far and find myself completely lost. All I had to do was misunderstand a social cue and I would find myself offending someone. If disaster occurred, I would have no idea how to remedy the situation since I had always relied on my voice.


But as time continued, I learned to navigate the city and realized just how powerful social connections and interactions could become, even without a common language. There’s something beautiful about living in a place where words suddenly begin to fail and observation becomes the greatest tool for understanding one’s surroundings. It’s as if the pressure of continuously asking questions or searching for a social connection through voice suddenly ceases. Instead of talking and diverting attention away from the physical environment, one is forced to simply observe and take in all that is happening around them.

There is so much beauty that can be missed if one is not paying full attention. For example, watching people on the bus every day, I realized that it is custom for younger people to stand up and give their seats away to elders. Not only did I find this such a beautifully nuanced and important part of the culture, but I also found myself able to replicate this norm on the bus because I had watched others do the same. Through observation in Vietnam, I counterintuitively started to feel more like I belonged. I learned to walk on the side of the road since the sidewalk is needed for motorbike parking and to use chopsticks with my right hand even though I am left-handed, because in Vietnam, using the left hand is just strange.

But beyond creating a new way of belonging, the loss of common language created whole new types of relationships for me, which I had never before had the honor of experiencing. For example, I lived with my host family who could speak limited English. We could not speak deeply about family history, values, or beliefs. Yet my best memories in Vietnam are those with my host mom and sister. I looked forward to meals together every night as  my host mom would prepare an “an chay” dish she’d be excited for us to try, and we’d all enjoy each other’s company at the table, laughing over facial expressions or bonding over how much we truly appreciated the food.

Looking back, it is impossible to capture how strong of a relationship I formed with my host family and how much I learned from Vietnam because of—rather than in spite of— not knowing the language. It is as if a whole new perspective of the world is gained through less talking and more observing, listening, and embracing. And this lesson shapes my view of academics on campus as well.

At Swarthmore, it is easy to get lost in attempting to speak the most in seminars or talking over people who have a different perspective. Yet perhaps the beauty of not communicating verbally is entering what is typically deemed the “introvert” world. As Susan Cain discusses in her book “Quiet,” there is “zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” While it can feel natural to want to speak the most or fill the empty spaces in class discussions, space must be made for embracing the silence, observing the dance of everyday life, and listening to the sounds beyond the words. As I have discovered through not having the ability to speak my thoughts, often more can be learned from watching and listening than from anything I could articulate myself.

Now in Buenos Aires for the final aspect of my adventure, I am in a country where I don’t quite understand all of the language, yet I am also not completely lost. While I am happy to be able to communicate with those around me, I think I’ll also continue to embrace the lost part of myself a little more. By listening and observing before speaking, individuals can gain more perspectives and learn new insights.

Order a pizza, and it shall come

in Campus Journal by

Salam sejahtera, saya mampu bertutur dalam pelbagai bahasa dan ia memperkasakan saya — Hi, I speak multiple languages and that empowers me.

As an ethnic Chinese from Malaysia (a country that’s not particularly kind to the children of immigrants), I was brought up to view languages as a currency of sorts, a means to buy your way into another culture’s good graces, be it in pursuit of a higher education, economic gain, or political cooperation. Over the years, my need to learn multiple languages “just in case” seeking prospects overseas became a necessity evolved into a deep respect for and love of the different cultures of which foreign languages are a part. To speak a people’s language well is to gain an understanding of the people themselves, which eases access to their society. It empowers me to know that my multilingualism enables me to connect with an incredibly diverse range of people on opposite sides of the globe.

Well, I’m here now, aren’t I? Twelve time zones apart from (and 20°F colder than) the tropical island I grew up on, there are times when Swarthmore feels so strange to me that it’s like I’m wading through a fever dream. But my command of the English language allows me to reach out to this community, and what better way to connect with people on this campus than by writing for a student publication?

One quote in particular adds to this discussion.

“The most important aspect of knowing another language is that it will permit the speaker entry into a different culture … and in turn the realization of these differences illuminates one’s own cultural suppositions,” said German Professor Hansjakob Werlen.

By unravelling these cultural suppositions, learning another language helps to increase one’s understanding of one’s own culture, and offers a certain insight into the mechanisms of the culture that monolingual individuals in the same society might be less inclined to notice. This is, of course, closely tied up with increased individual growth and wisdom through a developing awareness towards one’s sociocultural environment. Here’s a personal example: there are four different ways to say “you (singular)” in Malay, with varying degrees of formality and familiarity. A greater emphasis is placed on respect for others in Malaysian culture than American culture, and the language reflects that. Yet, there are a stunning number of correlations between both countries. For example, sex and religion are inexplicably invoked whether you’re cursing in English or Malay, one of the countless social phenomena that can be tracked through nuances in speech patterns, turns of phrase or even types of swear words.

This makes me think of another professor’s words.

“The fact [is] that often you’ll discover links that you didn’t expect between your language and the other language … learning a foreign language teaches you ultimately how much more we’re similar, I think, and how much that you just weren’t taught, that you just didn’t learn until you learned [the language],” said Professor and Head of Russian section Sibelan Forrester.

But the pros of multilingualism extend both ways. Whilst language acquisition can empower the speaker, it can also empower those who are spoken to, as it may be seen as a gesture of respect.

“Speaking a foreign language to someone whose language that is, or who also is a speaker of it, indicates your respect for them and their culture, that you’re accommodating them rather than expecting them to accommodate you,”  Forrester said.


She continued, “Not only, but especially [with] small languages, languages where there aren’t many opportunities to learn them, if you aren’t in that culture—if you show up speaking it, even not very well, it’s a huge affirmation for the people to whom you’re speaking,” she said.

Swarthmore’s facilitation of foreign language events and student-run cultural organizations may help with that, at least to some extent. Since English is almost always used out of necessity here, hearing someone else make an effort to speak your first language rather than the other way around can really make your day. Or perhaps just a demonstrated willingness to learn someone else’s mother tongue is enough to bring a little positivity into someone’s life: I offered to pick up Bulgarian so my professor would have someone at Swat to talk to, and the smile I received in response was worth every hour I’ll be spending poring over Cyrillic during the summer.

As a linguistics minor, Natalie Flores Semyonova ’19 stressed the importance of language itself.

“I think that languages are the foundation to humanity as this social entity and so being able to harness that in more than one language than your own … just opens you up to so many different experiences and so many different perspectives and feelings and people,” she said.

Werlen agreed, especially with regard to his own personal experiences.

“When traveling as a teenager in Europe, I soon experienced that special empowerment that knowing other languages affords the speaker, whether it was arguing about soccer in Italian or trying to write love letters in French,” he said.

To say that communication is key in the ever-expanding age of globalization is somewhat of an understatement. Here, at our little liberal arts college that emphasizes ethical and social concern, exercises in understanding are especially pertinent in the process of preparing for the “real world” after graduation. But, while learning another language for some global-scale purpose is a noble pursuit, you don’t have to have some cosmically crucial reason to do so.

For example, the reason for Flores’ acquisition of a second language was family.

“My grandma speaks no English, and she’s lived with us since I was born, so I wouldn’t have a relationship with her if I didn’t speak Russian,” Flores said.

We read together and there’s times when we’ll just sit down for three-hour chunks of time and she’ll just talk to me about different grammar rules and read me old stories. Through her and through the fact that we share that, it sort of connects us and also connects me to the culture of Russia.

On the other hand, Werlen cites the ability to read literary texts in a foreign language as a major draw.

“I studied Spanish with my wonderful colleagues here at the college and loved my new power … to read one of my favorite poets, Pablo Neruda, in the original,”  Werlen said.

However, it was his desire to understand the lyrics of the music that he listened to that led Werlen to learn English as a teenager, with a humorous twist.

“I was an exchange student in Wisconsin and I still recall the horror of my very British English teacher when I returned [home] from there with an exaggeratedly pronounced Wisconsin accent,”  Werlen recounted.

Finally, being able to reinvent herself was an added bonus to the study of other languages for Forrester.

“You get to be someone slightly different in the other language. You get be more picky and precise, or you get to be more kind of freewheeling in what you say … so you really gain in richness as a human being,”  Forrester said.


In her final comments on why Swatties should pick up another language, Forrester hit the nail on the head with the ultimate motivation.

“Look, you can order a pizza [in a foreign country], and it comes,” she joked.

A Happy Psuedo-Persian New Year

in Campus Journal by

When it comes to observing cultural holidays while at Swat, being away from my home and family has always been a challenge. No matter the occasion, I always find myself defying conventional traditionalism and celebrating a filtered-down, dorm-room-makeshift interpretation of the holiday.

With the vernal equinox comes one of my favorite family holidays: Norooz. Celebrated on the first day of spring, Norooz celebrates nature’s rebirth concurrently with the Persian New Year. It predates Islam, dating back to the ancient monotheistic religion Zoroastrianism in Iran, and is observed across a number of political borders, including Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and of course Iran.

One of the hallmarks of this holiday is the preparation of the Haft-Seen table. President of AMENA (Arab, Middle-Eastern, and North African Cultural Group) Ava Shafiei described this tradition as a “7 item representation of the hopes and values for the new year” in a email sent to the Swarthmore community announcing the implementation of the Haft-Seen on the upper floor of Sharples for the week of March 20.

These components include seer (garlic) for good luck, sumaq (ground berry) for the color of sunrise, seeb (apple) for health and beauty, senjed (sprouted wheat or barley) for rebirth, samanu (sweet pudding) for wealth and affluence, and finally serkeh (vinegar) for patience and old age. For additional ornaments and decor, sometimes a goldfish, a mirror, or the Qur’an are incorporated to represent life and reflection.

Being half-Persian, for the past two years I have implemented my own homespun Haft-Seen in my humble abode in Willets. My mom sent me some of the components in the mail, like the senjed and samanu, but for the most part I was collecting items from the most intimate niches of Swarthmore student life, i.e. I stole an apple from Sharples and put Goldfish crackers that I bought from Essie’s in a jar, like a true Persian.

I can just hear my Persian grandma joyously clapping her hands, her infinite amount of wrist bangles clanging in symphony, as she exclaims, “Afareen, azizam!” (Good job, sweetheart).

Admiring the absurd amalgam of objects scattered across the ornate Persian sofreh in my dorm room, I am perplexed by a shocking, existentialist thought: I, Yasmeen Namazie, am nothing more than this filtered-down, dorm-room-makeshift Haft-Seen, because 2,000 miles away from my home and family, I am hardly Persian at all. I am a messy, fractured, last-minute, sad excuse for a Persian.

I confided with one of the only other people who resonates with my existential anxieties surrounding my cultural and linguistic inadequacies: my beautiful sister Leyla.

My younger sister and I, while very similar in personality, could not be more visibly different. She has big, deep brown eyes that don’t squint when she smiles; she has a paler complexion that burns red and not brown under the Los Angeles sun and she has fuller, thicker eyebrows.

In other words, this girl is a cookie-cutter Persian.

“I have a very Persian-looking face — you know that,” my sister said to me on the phone.

“But what about you looks so Persian, Leyla?” I asked.

“I don’t know, I feel like just my face does,” she said.

I was asking her about the Norooz festivities back home in LA, and she was telling me about how she enjoyed our Persian-side gatherings more over our Chilean-side gatherings. This was her logic:

“While looking at both my Chilean and Persian side, I feel more connected to my Persian side because I look more like them so I don’t feel as out of place as I do when I am at Chilean parties,” she said. “I don’t really feel Chilean when I am at Abuelo and Abuela’s house.”

While I was at first critical of what I assumed was an absurd reason for enjoying one cultural space over another, I thought about how my insecurities with language and my inability to speak Farsi operate under the same assumptions: if I can’t participate in Persianness, I therefore am not Persian.

This has truly been the perennial struggle for my sister and I, identifying as bi-racial. Our lives are spent searching for points of reconciliation between our two cultural origins, to the extent that even something as mundane as a family gathering propels us into existential crisis. Even while we participate in the functions, eat the foods, and sometimes even utter the phrases, we are in a perpetual state of inadequacy, of “not enough.”

Leyla shares the same sentiments regarding linguistic barriers.

“Not speaking Farsi is pretty big barrier during relative gatherings for Norooz. Even though I do understand the gist about the Haft-Seen and the cultural significance of Norooz, I feel like when they are talking about it, especially in Farsi, I just can’t contribute because I have no idea what they are talking about. They usually have to translate it to me in English which makes you feel a little bit disconnected … like you are not a part of something.” she said. “I feel like knowing Farsi would make me feel more Persian.”

Together, we thought about what voids would have to be filled in order for us to “feel more” Persian or “feel more” Chilean. Learning to speak Farsi fluently? Taking up dutar lessons and embracing ancient Iranian folk music? Living in a remote hostel in the high desert of Chile? All this infatuation with justifying our Persianness and Chileanness was draining and picked at our consciousnesses.

“All I know is that I like being able to spend time with my family and being able to set up the table because it’s kind of like a family thing. You go to the market and you go buy fish and all the elements of the Haft-Seen — you do it together,” my sister said.

It was in this intimate conversation with my sister that I started to realize that perhaps my cultural identity isn’t conditional or situational, nor contingent on locale. So what if Goldfish crackers are the staple of my homemade Haft-Seen?

Assumptions of my sister and my cultural essentialism are not conducive to my understanding of myself as a multicultural person. Instead, there should be acknowledgment that sometimes I may have to negotiate and renegotiate the bounds of my racialness. Maybe I will just be perpetually grappling with my “pseudo-ness,” but at least I am the agent of this process of formation and reconstruction. Maybe next Norooz, I can be comfortable with this “new normative,” even if it entails grass plucked from the Scott Arboretum in lieu of sabzee.

I would like to thank Farsheed Shomloo for taking the featured image of the Haft-Seen for this article.

Learning English goodly

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Learning English is hard. I really started trying to learn the language when I was in 8th grade. When I was growing up in China, I did not go to an international school, and, at the time, my English class was teaching basics of the language that native speakers probably learned in kindergarten. I wanted to learn more English to prepare for the admissions test of one of the top high schools in Shanghai, so that I could have a better chance of getting accepted. I knew it was going to be a challenge, but it was even harder than I thought. You see, I was not just bad at English; I was terrible at it. In retrospect, I can’t believe I even tried. I could barely follow what the teacher was saying in class, and he already gave up on me after I consistently ranked near the bottom of my class in every English exam. It also didn’t help that I didn’t like the teacher, since he wouldn’t allow me to join his soccer team.

If it weren’t for a TV show called “Friends,” I probably would’ve failed in my attempt. Thanks to China’s loose copyrights regulations, I watched the show every day. (I eventually watched all ten seasons 7 times by the time I graduated from middle school – that’s 616 hours, or 25 days, of “Friends.”) For those who are not familiar with the show, it is the story of six New Yorkers and their crazy adventures. (At one point, one of the characters was pregnant with her brother’s triplets.) Because of this show, I became enamored with what I thought was the American life – six close friends, sitting in a coffeehouse all day, telling sometimes risqué jokes, and living in the greatest city on Earth, with the company of each other. I thought to myself that one day, I’ll also live in America, have six American friends, and tell jokes and drink coffee everyday.

I didn’t realize at the time that there was one problem with this plan: it’s hard to tell jokes in English. If you don’t believe me, try telling jokes in Spanish or Arabic or whatever language you are currently learning. It’s also hard to understand jokes in English. I still have no idea why knock knock jokes are funny. These may seem like minor issues, but during my first year at Swarthmore, I had a very difficult time finding friends – after all, would you like a friend who can only nod awkwardly at something hilarious you say? In the end, of course, I learned to fake laugh.

But there is a more serious problem: no matter how perfect my accent is or how hard I try, learning the language does not mean fitting into the culture. People always assure me that I will eventually find my niche here, but I still don’t feel like I have. Fitting in a new community is not just an individual act. It requires acceptance on the part of the community members as well. Ask any recent Chinese immigrant, and he or she will tell you how hard it is to get accepted by “White people.” It is this dimension of “fitting in” where language plays a more insidious role.

One of the most enduring stereotypes of Chinese living in America is that we either don’t know how to speak English, or we talk with a funny accent. Hollywood reinforces such stereotypes by asking actors to exaggerate or fake a “Chinese” accent. Last year, one particularly racist news segment on Fox news made fun of several Chinese-American seniors who did not know how to speak English on national television, after asking their opinion on Trump and not getting any response. Just last week, when I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a security guard stopped me but refused to explain to me in English what was wrong, or that I forgot to check my bags, because she thought I was just another clueless Chinese tourist. Such stereotypes about immigrants and outsiders are often used to justify xenophobia or racism. According to Adam Cohen, the author of the book “Imbeciles,” supporters of eugenics and immigration restrictions in the early 20th century relied on intelligence tests that favored English speakers to show that immigrants from other countries were genetically and racially inferior to immigrants from England or Scotland. The testimony of one eugenicist in particular, Harry Laughlin, caused one Senator to warn that “[w]e are coming to a pitiful pass in this great country when it is unpopular to speak the English language, the American language.” It’s hard not to see the reflection of these ugly moments of history in contemporary politics.

Xenophobia, understood this way, cannot simply mean fear of foreigners. Laughlin thought the line between acceptable and unacceptable immigrants should be drawn on the basis of whether their racial types are “assimilable.” Again, “assimilable” meant speaking English and being Western European. This is, of course, nonsense. After all, can what he thought were biological features even be described as “assimilable?”  But, by giving his and other eugenicists’ prejudices the credence of a scientific theory, he justified what many Americans already thought was true: these outsiders did not appreciate their language and their culture, these outsiders would contaminate their culture and their blood. As historian Yuval Harari points out in his excellent book  “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” hierarchy is often maintained by a primitive fear of pollution, whether by things or by people. It’s telling that Laughlin calls the “racial qualities” or “hereditary traits” of immigrants the “sanitary feature” of these people.

Would the TV show “Friends” have been so successful if it had been one Asian guy and five white people? I’m not sure. But in the course of writing this essay, I have to confront my own bias as well. What made me think that having American friends is so important? Why couldn’t I just drink coffee with friends back home in a Chinese coffee house? Why did I try so hard to learn the language? I do not regret coming to Swarthmore, of course, but motivation matters.

We also need to rethink how familiarity with English is intricately connected with membership in different communities, i.e. studentship at Swarthmore, or citizenship. There are many “radical” suggestions that we can possibly implement to deal with this issue.

First, we should stop requiring international students to take the SAT. It is unreasonable to expect international students whose first language is not English to read or write as fast as native speakers do while still in high school.

Second, Swarthmore should de-emphasize the English language testing requirement for international students. Many Chinese students, for example, score higher than native speakers on the Test of English as a Foreign Language after spending money on private tutoring. Some minimum requirement is necessary, and for students interested in humanities and social science the requirement can be stricter.

Third, we must stop thinking that being able to speak English is normal. Many international students, for example, are offended by people who compliment their English. I worry that their attitude ignores the fact that being able to speak English is itself a kind of privilege in an English-speaking country.

Finally, this should go without saying, but we cannot mock people who have an accent or who speak broken English. A friend of mine at a well-known business school told me once that a group of second-generation Chinese-Americans mocked their professor’s accent behind his back. I hope this doesn’t happen at Swarthmore.

Trump’s Subtle Language of Oppression

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Cw: xenophobia and homophobia


As I watched Donald Trump’s inaugural address, eyes both welling and rolling, a certain section stuck out to me. It occurred early in the speech as Trump was still getting started. After thanking Obama for his gracious support during the transition process, Trump said, “Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning because today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.”

Initially, this part of the speech didn’t strike me as any more vitriolic than any other part of the speech. The anti-corruption sentiment certainly wasn’t a surprise — hell, Trump’s entire campaign was built on that message. Additionally, it is nothing new for an “outsider” politician to condemn the nation’s capital as a hotbed of corruption and bureaucracy.

No, it was only after I had heard it a couple of times (usually in the form of Facebook videos comparing Trump to Bane) that I realized what felt so fundamentally wrong about this statement. By placing those represented by “Washington, D.C.” in opposition to “the people,” Trump essentially argued that the political elite are not people.

As I reflected on the 2016 presidential campaign that afternoon, I realized that Trump’s attempt during the inauguration to divorce people from their humanity by using language wasn’t an isolated incident. In fact, this subtle form of dehumanization has been one of his favorite rhetorical devices since his campaign began in June of 2015. Take, for example, the infamous quote from his campaign announcement that set the tone for the remainder of his presidential bid: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Before anything else, he classifies immigrants as rapists, only adding as a secondary thought that some of them might be good people.

Trump’s political enemies aren’t the only people to get this treatment. Last June, upon seeing a black man in the audience of one of his rallies, Trump exclaimed, “Look at my African American over here!” MY African American. Yes, it could have just been a poor choice of words, but, to me, that statement is eerily reminiscent of one of the worst institutions of Antebellum America. In another incident this month, CNN journalist Jim Acosta’s request for a follow-up question was met with the bizarre response, “You are fake news.” In addition to being absurd — reporters themselves aren’t the news organizations for which they work— the president-elect reduced a man’s entire identity to one of the most commonly denounced aspects of the media landscape.

I do not mean to say that the President has used inherently offensive words in his speeches. In spite of his off-the-cuff style, Trump has been good about avoiding the use of some of the worst slurs in the dictionary. However, this actually represents the insidious nature of Trump’s word choice. Most Americans would instantly have written-off Trump as a candidate if he used a racially-charged epithet to refer to Mexican immigrants or his African American. Instead, Trump offered the American people a sneaky alternative. He refused to put marginalized groups in human terms, while also evoking the same prejudices as an epithet without being explicit.

If all Americans ignored President Trump’s attempts to dehumanize through language and instead chose to recognize their peers’ basic humanity, this issue would be irrelevant. Sadly, however, the President’s hostile messages have resonated with many Americans. According to a survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 4 in 10 teachers reported in November 2016 hearing hate speech based on race, religion, immigration status, or sexual orientation in school. Such a high percentage would be indicative of a problem in any segment of society, but it is especially frightening to learn that students are being exposed to, and in some cases expressing, such dehumanizing and hateful words. When a student constantly hears the implicit message that some people are “less than,” it becomes easy to rationalize hatred and forget compassion. How can a man hope to understand and appreciate the struggles another person has experienced if he cannot bring himself to even refer to the other person in human terms?

I know what it’s like to be reduced to a label. Although it didn’t happen often, I remember vividly the mixture of rage and sorrow I felt after being called a “faggot.” It was the feeling that no matter what else I tried to be or do, I couldn’t escape that stereotype-laden box a fellow human had placed me in.

Many of us at Swat understand this feeling. Given the varied cultural and religious backgrounds of the Swarthmore student body, I’m almost certain that many of my peers have experienced this form of oppression, oftentimes more intensely than I have. We know the destructive power of linguistic dehumanization because we have lived it. If we want to make the world a more open and accepting place, it starts with acknowledging the simple, self-evident fact that people deserve to be treated like people.

Revisiting the Social Justice Requirement Debate

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As a former debater, I am keenly aware of how manipulation of language can shape our perception of arguments. It was Aristotle who identified the three modes of persuasion that are still taught and used in academic debate: ethos, pathos, and logos, or appeal to authority, appeal to emotion, and appeal to logic. The first two, used well, can bolster the credibility of strong arguments. Without logos, however, ethos and pathos alone can sometimes be intellectually dishonest and can even backfire. To demonstrate this point, here I revisit last year’s campus debate on the controversial proposal of a social justice requirement.

Here is my view on the SJR: even though familiarity with social justice issues is really important, the SJR does not necessarily promote its stated goals, and, compared to other options, it restricts our freedom of choice with respect to academic decisions. The SJR is a paternalistic requirement because it forces students, for their own benefit, to take courses that they would not take otherwise. I do not deny that learning about important social issues is a compelling interest both for the school and for students. However, as Gilbert Guerra argues in “Why A Social Justice Requirement Isn’t Right for Swarthmore,” social justice is a “politically charged topic,” and graded social justice courses forced on unwilling students could be “tantamount to indoctrination.” Furthermore, initiatives that attempt to encourage students to take social justice-related courses, such as volunteer programs like Chester Youth Courts and Dare 2 Soar, or participate in protests and political campaigns, may have better outcomes since participation would be voluntary. Even posting on Facebook about your favorite professors is better than requiring anyone to take classes with these same professors.

Many counterarguments can be made. For example, one could question whether students have or should have any freedom of choice with academic decisions. Moreover, one could challenge Guerra’s comparison of the SJR with indoctrination or argue that the SJR is a worthwhile last resort to reach “recalcitrant” students who cannot otherwise be motivated to care about social justice. All of these arguments are worth considering. However, my point is this: even those who care about progressive causes can still make reasonable and valid points against “orthodox” views, and their arguments deserve to be considered in a constructive and analytical fashion.

Consider one op-ed, “The Price of Privilege: Swarthmore and the Social Justice Requirement,” published in the Daily Gazette last year. The author, first affirming the importance to “acknowledge one’s privilege,” goes on to assert that opponents of the SJR are only trying to “make life easier and convenient for people;” they are not defending the students’ freedom of choice over their own academic decisions. The author then states to be “insulted by the argument that we should not inconvenience people …I am insulted by the argument that professors will determine grades based on someone’s opinions or only scheme to indoctrinate people … I am insulted by the argument ‘people who are ignorant of X will be resentful and will dislike being informed [of x].’ ”

Insulted how? Either he feels personally offended by these arguments, or he is intellectually insulted by the arguments’ sheer stupidity. However, as I have demonstrated above, arguments against SJR are not necessarily grounded in offensive or prejudicial assumptions. Nor can these arguments against the SJR be so easily dismissed. Sure, if anyone actually claims the SJR is bad solely because it is “inconvenient” or “rude,” then the author may have reason to feel insulted. However, in three sweeping statements that the author is offended by the ideas that the arguments should not inconvenience people, professors will determine grades based on someone’s opinions, and ignorant people will be resentful,  and plenty of platitudes, the author creates a straw man argument to dismiss the core arguments by opponents of SJR. This is done without offering any cogent counterarguments.

The article also employs jargon that can be inaccessible and confusing for many. For example, one paragraph acknowledging that there are “real concerns and critiques of a social justice requirement,” employs terms that are inaccessible and confusing for many, including “cultural appropriation,” “privilege policing,” and monolithic indoctrination.” These terms would have been utterly incomprehensible for me to read when I first came to Swarthmore.

Jargon, when used indiscriminately, can seem intimidating and insincere for many. Especially outside of academic discourse, it is often used as a shortcut that sacrifices clarity, or even meaning, for mere expediency, and, sometimes, an unearned sense of authority. As Fredrik deBoer of Brooklyn College argues, few people who use the phrase “cultural appropriation” know what it means. Consider the following rewrite of a paragraph that conveys more or less the same message:

“Swatties often respect cultural differences and refrain from making stereotypical judgments. We respect history, and we celebrate diversity. But we need more. A social justice requirement does not dictate what to believe or what to do; it gives us the tools to challenge inequality and deprivations of individual freedom in our society.”

Those unfamiliar with jargon would also feel respected and welcomed to join the discussion. I mention this article because it is symptomatic of a somewhat elitist culture that routinely alienates or intimidates dissenters, skeptics, or those with low level of information or knowledge about certain subjects. If I had read this article a year ago, I would not have had the courage to voice my opposition or ask for clarification since, as an international student who did not know how to use these “buzzwords,” I often felt my opinion would somehow be judged inferior (I still do sometimes). Alternatively, I could even have been tricked into agreeing with the author despite the article’s lack of strong arguments, a phenomenon jokingly known as “proof by intimidation” in mathematics.

What is published in the Phoenix or the Daily Gazette, or even a Facebook post, is read by many, both on campus and off campus, who have not made up their mind about a certain issue or who hold a different view. If the tone is derisive, or the argument is hidden behind too much high-sounding jargon and too many empty words, someone who is not used to terms such as “heteronormativity” or “intersectionality” may be discouraged from voicing their own opinion and having it fairly assessed by peers. Alternatively, miscommunication and distortion could cause people to “talk past each other.” Finally and most importantly, weak arguments may be left unchallenged simply because they “sound about right.” These consequences can be especially detrimental in a college setting where free and informed debate is supposed to be celebrated and promoted. We all need to be mindful of our use of language if we believe that honest and equal discussion among peers is important.

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