Our assumptions about people can hold back their potential

Our assumptions about people can hold back their potential

I recently tweeted this statement. A Saudi friend of mine responded with surprise at such an obvious assertion. I explained to him that in the US people often view people who speak poor English as stupid, lazy, or exclusive. In the workplace we often view those who speak “poor” English as deficient, inconvenient, or even dangerous. For teachers insufficient English is a huge challenge to overcome, for doctors it can be life-threatening, and in many workplaces it is at least an inconvenience. We have to hire translators and specialists and provide training in English, which is expensive. Overcoming the inconvenience of a lack of English skills is costly however you look at it–from this point of view. If we look at these people from a different point of view, we can see that they offer unique abilities to those around them.

This is the same way that many people talk about “disabled” people. They’re inconveniences. People who can’t see aren’t able to read documents. Those who can’t hear aren’t able to participate fully in meetings. Those who can’t walk are a dangerous liability is the case of a fire or other emergency. Businesses have to make costly accommodations for people with disabilities that we don’t have to make for others.

When it comes to physical disabilities, our society found a way of reversing this viewpoint by focusing on what the person is able to do, rather than unable to do. First, this is a human being with skills, not to be defined completely around one disability. Second, they bring unique abilities to the group. People develop heightened senses when they lack one. People can see the world from the point of view of being overlooked when they spend all day in a wheelchair literally having people look over them. All of them bring unique problem-solving skills because of the way they adapt to a society that doesn’t take them into consideration. When we see the “disabled” as “differently-abled” we all gain a new, indispensable viewpoint for approaching everyday tasks.

When I was recently at the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) conference, I had the fortune to speak about this issue with a bilingual English speaker who moves around in a wheelchair. She informed me about how employers view disabled people as a problem needing accommodation rather than an individual offering different abilities. She works to educate employers of people’s different abilities, rather than their lack of certain abilities. They are not to be pitied or worked-around, but seen as individuals with strengths and weaknesses.

Non-native English speakers–or those who speak no English at all–must be viewed as possessing unique abilities. They are not incompetent in English but highly competent in another language. They are differently-abled. We do not need to look upon them as people who are lacking in a language, but who offer another language to the workplace community.

People who speak poor English speak another language well.

For this reason, I am starting up language tables at my workplace. I want to highlight able, multilingual individuals who possess unique abilities so they can teach their knowledge to the rest of us. They speak a language that most people at work do not speak. Many of them are immigrants, so their life testifies to navigating different cultures and often overcoming adversity and a drastic change in life. Such a life offers important lessons to everyone. Thankfully, they offer knowledge and wisdom at work that others cannot. If people are willing to work at learning from their colleagues, work could help them become wiser and more knowledgable.

If we learn another language we enable higher morale and productivity at work. Those we work with overseas can feel at ease in participating with a foreign firm on equal terms without an atmosphere of imperialism. Domestically, we allow people to bring their whole selves to work. Thus our work environments improve significantly. In addition, we can act on this subtle discrimination (before it might become a legal matter).

Moreover, the individuals at the company can benefit personally. Everyone can learn another language and benefit from another way of life. Those whose communication skills were considered only in relation to their English proficiency will be seen as teachers no matter what their English level is. A deficiency will be considered an advantage for the company. Companies can win when they embrace loving language.

Photo credit: VinothChandar / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Does language-love exclude us at work?

Does language-love exclude us at work?

Last week I attended a conference on workplace diversity and inclusion (D&I). D&I practioners repeat the mantra that people are happiest and most productive when they can bring their “whole selves” to work. The concept of bringing the whole self implies that there is no part of one’s self that one has to leave at the door when they come to work. Most of the discussion of “whole selves” revolved around race, gender, and sexual orientation, namely, one can be at work according to one’s race, gender, and sexual orientation, without shame, without hiding. We also discussed the topic of religion. D&I experts show that when people can bring their whole selves to work, they are happier and more productive, which hits the business’s bottom line in a positive way.

I noticed, however, that no one touched on a significant topic: linguistic inclusion. If people identify strongly with a language besides English, are they allowed to bring their whole self to work? I was amazed that the conference never addressed the issue of language even when the opportunity arose. I naturally put on my “loving language” hat and started asking around. I saw the problem clearly, but I’m still looking for an answer.

Language discrimination

This is a real issue. I met one man at the conference from Somalia who related to me about one place he worked. A monolingual English-speaking colleague of his said, “I don’t like Filipinos because they are always speaking their own language,” and added, “The same thing for Somalis.” Not only can one not bring one’s language to work, open disgust towards other languages is allowed.

Another woman I met works in health care. She said that in one hospital, Spanish-language interpreters are only allowed to speak Spanish on the job; during break they are told not to speak Spanish. Even those hired to speak another language are not allowed to bring their whole selves to work.

These are extreme cases, but I don’t know if they’re rare. In the US people can actively keep others from bringing their whole selves to work when those people identify with a language besides English. I don’t know if this is illegal; those discriminated against are often vulnerable immigrants and wouldn’t bring lawsuits.

In the vast majority of workplaces in the US, the only language spoken at work is English. Whether your native language is English or not, whether you speak English well or not, you will speak English at work and leave your other language(s) behind.

This means that if the whole self includes identification with a language besides or in addition to English, you cannot bring your whole self to work. Many workplaces do not accommodate other languages being spoken.

How will we communicate with each other, then?

Another gentleman responded to my questions by correctly asserting that people need a way to communicate at work. If everyone is speaking another language, it is neither fair nor reasonable to expect everyone to learn everyone else’s language. People do not need a single language for mutual communication, however. Hegemony of one language is not the only answer. Throughout human history, people mix languages and develop means of communication using multiple languages. For example, Singapore and India employ these multi-lingual means of communication today. A subset of a couple languages or a mix of languages have also been shown to function fine.

The problem only raises questions for me now; I don’t have an answer. Can we allow for a multiplicity of languages without turning into a Tower of Babel? Can we shift culture through force of will, or do we need to keep the system as it is? Our present culture shows that integration of gender and race and, more recently, sexual orientation, can work, though not without tension. How do we continue this trend to language? Or will it remain a tense subject, unspoken of in the workplace, like religion?

Do you see linguistic discrimination at your work? Is it justified in your workplace?

Photo credit: ROSS HONG KONG / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Let's celebrate language-love together!

Let’s celebrate language-love together!

I’m pleased that this blog received its 20,000th view on March 14, 2014. That means that on 20,000 occasions people have plugged into the greatest love of my life: languages and connecting with others. I have learned so much from writing this blog, and from the challenging comments I’ve received from commentors here and on Twitter.

Language is humans’ principle means to connect to each other, to come out of ourselves. I hope to continue to advocate for language love in every way I can, and to serve my readers in bringing us all together under the umbrella of language-love. In modern culture, languages are looked at narrowly–if at all. I want to provide my readers and my culture every reason and means to study languages as I possibly can.

“Like” or share so we can spread more language-love to even more people!

Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA

How does language-love enrich you?

How does language-love enrich you?

Recently I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast, and they had an episode entitled, “Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It.” I listen regularly to this podcast because they, as economists, ask creative questions to understand human behavior quantitatively. In this episode, they wanted to examine quantitatively whether learning a foreign language is “worth it.” In order to quantify this worth, they measured the return on investment (ROI) of learning a foreign language. They found that the ROI is quite low; however, ROI of this skill does not accurately quantify the value of a foreign language because the ROI of a language depends on the wealth of the people using it, not the skill itself. They actually showed that the ROI of a language is high if its speakers are rich.

The findings on Freakonomics

To summarize the findings of the Freakonomics folks, languages help but they usually offer minimal ROI. Languages improve one’s cognitive abilities, such as decision making, namely, one tends to make more rational decisions while thinking in another language. One scientist hypothesized that the emotional detachment one enjoys keeps decisions from becoming irrational.

People earn more money depending on the language they know, but the money is minimal with one exception. One of the researchers concluded, “We know that the lowest return is Spanish, where you get about 1.5 percent, and then French 2.7 percent, and then German 4 percent. ” These figures indicate that language offers minimal ROI benefits. We find one exception to this trend, however: English. “In [similar studies conducted in Turkey, Russia, and Israel], actually speaking English, which would be the second language, was associated with a substantial return of around 10 to 20 percent.” Hence English can offer a substantial ROI over speaking only a non-English language. If you speak English, you will not enjoy a high ROI in learning another language, but if you do not speak English, learning it benefits you substantially.

The problem of ROI as value of language

This calculation of ROI bothers me because it looks at average ROI without the context of the jobs in consideration. People do not necessarily make a lot of money because of skills, but because of the material substance of the person they are working for. For example, I will make more money serving food at a high-end caterer than at a soup-kitchen. The work is substantially the same, but my salary assumes how “demanding” (read, “rich”) my client is. Elton John did not become a knight because he plays piano well; he is a knight because he played it well for aristocrats. A Harvard English professor will make five times what a community college English professor in Idaho makes, even if they have the same PhD and publishing record. The ROI on learning a language depends on wealth: 1) the average wealth of speakers of that language and 2) the average wealth of the actual clients you work with.

The language one learns determines in part the client one would use it for. People in the US who need someone to speak Spanish to them are most likely poor, uneducated immigrants. There are few jobs where you make a lot of money serving poor, uneducated immigrants. Jobs that would require German, however, would imply that you are working with people in Germany engaged in international business of some sort. Hence, jobs that require German offer more money. Americans tend to be rich and monolingual, so learning English for them is important for making money. Moreover, rich, well-educated people throughout the world speak English, so if you’re Turkish and work with Saudis, you can learn Arabic but your ROI will be less than if you learn English. The language you speak selects for the socio-economic class of your client, so the language selects for the salary.

Speaking a language with rich people will make you more money than speaking it with poor people. Most educated people in the world tend to be the richest and they tend to learn English. If I, as an English-speaking American, want to earn a lot of money, then I should work with rich, well-educated people. This is why most American business people are happy to know only English: everyone they work with is wealthy, educated, and knowledgeable in English.

Learn Arabic, for example. You will make much more money if you work with oil companies in Dubai than if you work with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Learn Russian. You will make much more money if you develop natural gas fields than if you help victims of human trafficking. If you want to work in oil or natural gas, though, English will probably suffice.

Other values of learning a language

You have to decide if your motivation is making money or not. How you answer that will determine the ROI on learning a language. Learning a language for working with people who do not speak English will not make you more money. If you are looking to make more money, foreign languages will often not help. But there are two significant benefits to learning a language that this podcast neglects because they are much more difficult to quantify.


First, “uneducated” people do not lack knowledge. Maya Angelou said, “Some people, unable to go to school, are more educated and more intelligent than college professors.” By speaking a language besides English, you will learn more about how people live in ways very different from the relatively materially wealthy lifestyle of the English-speaking world. If you learn Spanish, you can learn about different ways of understanding oneself to be American or about life right alongside Americans. If you learn Somali, you can learn about the importance and dangers of clan relationships and the importance of oral poetry. How does the US look from the margins? How does ancient literature learned through memorization sound to people?

One of the great achievements of humans is understanding how others perceive them, and learning a language allows for this heightened perception. The Freakonomics episode following the language ROI one regards how humans perceive how others perceive them. The human brain naturally focuses on this perception, but it tends to get it wrong. It’s essential to get it right, however. The main professor featured in the podcast stated, “If you can’t understand what other people think [and] how you’re being seen by other people, it’s very hard to lead or manage them effectively.” Thus, in order to be effective in leadership positions, we must develop our accuracy of how we are perceived by others.

Significantly, getting to know others in a foreign language gives you insight into how people perceive you and your culture and your presuppositions. Not just foreign language study, but using it to speak about people’s lives and their interactions and perceptions of others will improve how we lead in our job.


Second, humanity needs people to work with poor people. We cannot value service for its own sake highly. Jobs that require true sacrifice bring a lot of good out of people. As a people, too close of need for material wealth will ruin us. We need to see the value of serving human beings and we can become more kind, more giving people.

We can improve ourselves as human beings as we learn about how we are perceived and as we serve others without constant material gain. Learning a foreign language offers the best means for gain in these areas. You will become a better person, but it may not be measured by your salary.

ROI on language-love

We will earn more money if we find a job that puts us in front of people who have a lot to give. A foreign language may or may not offer that. Some careers are populated by people with more money, but usually they do not require a language besides English.

Languages will make us better human beings and better leaders. We can achieve greater wisdom and more accurate self-perception. Meaningful opportunities to serve others can open up with another language that would not be available without English. To be human and to know humans require us to learn a language.

Why do you love languages? Why do you want to learn a new one? Is money part of the calculus?

Photo credit: epSos.de / Foter / CC BY

Do we love language through observation or engagement?

Do we love language through observation or engagement?

I read National Geographic a lot. Articles about people tend to interest me much more than science or nature. Photos and anecdotes keep me riveted. This week in Oromo class, I felt I was reading through National Geographic, reveling while learning about Oromo language, geography, and culture, both in the Horn of Africa and beyond.

My pleasure, however, is tinged with confusion and guilt. I feel like I’ve packaged up “Africa” for my US sensibility. The National Geographic Society was formed by and for US academics and wealthy patrons to talk about travel in the late 19th century–colonists. Suddenly, my pleasure of hearing and learning about the Oromo people was sullied by the colonial Orientalist and essentialist views from that class of people during the formation of the Society. How do I relate to them? Am I a new colonist or something else? To avoid “colonizing” Minnesota Africa, I must engage with human beings different from me, most importantly opening myself to them, in order to break down any potential elitist barriers.

My last Oromo class

In session 6, my last Oromo class, we covered several important and fascinating topics. We learned about some technical vocabulary. We received a list of technical linguistic vocabulary that we went over. It included some probably classic words, like afoola “oral literature,” but also some newer linguistic terms like xunda xiqqaa “minimal pair.”

I also brought some older textbooks and grammars, and the class enjoyed looking through them. The different books spoke of various dialects, so our teacher put a map of Ethiopia on the projector and pointed out where the main dialects came from. Not all the students knew of these regions and dialects, so it was fascinating for all of us. He also showed areas of Oromomia where the communities were mainly Muslim or mainly Christian.

Our teacher took us on a wonderful mental voyage, to a place that was very exotic for me. He recounted his days in the North of Ethiopia, in the Afar region. He said the weather was so hot–hot for someone from Ethiopia!–that you can live with a little water and a little food; you don’t need clothing. It was so hot that people brought eggs down from the highlands, and chickens hatched in the buckets. Life was a struggle, he said, but it was the most wonderful place on earth. The struggle made you feel alive.

The teacher and students taught me about Oromo diaspora. Evidently, there is a big community in Oslo, Norway, and Berlin, Germany. One of my classmates lived a while in Hamburg, Germany, before coming to the US, but the Hamburg Oromo community was small. My professor lived in Oslo for a time before the US. They have connections all over among active Oromo diaspora communities.

In the midst of all this cultural information, we still worked on language. We continued with practical vocabulary and spelling. It’s amazing how much our teacher was able to squeeze into the class time.

I asked about upcoming Oromo community activities, namely poetry and music. Fortunately, my teacher assured me that there are a lot of such events, and there’s one even coming up at the end of the month. I look forward to staying connected to the community and keeping up my language.

Unfortunately, I will not be able to take the next class, but I hope to stay in touch. Because of vacation and other events, I would have missed half the classes. I look forward to keeping in contact with my teacher and classmates. It’s important for me to see and understand the diversity of my city and community. I need wonderful folks like this to help me get outside of my own way of thinking and doing things. Plus I love my budding afaan oromoo (“Oromo language”).

A good colonist?

I believe that I am learning about Oromo people and language in a way that challenges my way of thinking, and new-found wisdom brings new joy. I don’t want to be a 19th century, salon-frequenting, traveler. Taking photos of the “natives” and discussing them in my comfortable home do not interest me.

I am a colonist who hopes to extract benefit from others, but different in that I hope the colonist is “civilized” and not at the expense of the colonized. I want to engage with them so that my comfort and my home change irreversibly. Wisdom and “civilization” will come to me if I open up my own ignorance and curiosity and learning. I want new ways to enjoy life and extract new joys that I learn from others. By challenging my way of thinking about life and language, my Oromo friends and teachers offer me new, unexpected joy.

Are you a consumer of language and culture? an observer? an engager?

Photo credit: US Army Africa / Foter / CC BY


This is the Linguistadores logo for Dutch -- one of several languages

This is the Linguistadores logo for Dutch — one of several languages offered

At this point, the language-learning market is saturated with on-line tools. They tend to fit in two categories: 1) very basic vocabulary and exercises (eg, Transparent Language) and 2) social networks for language exchanges (eg, iTalki).  Very little exists, unfortunately, for more intermediate learning. What do you do if you have the basics of the language down fairly well (eg, verb tenses, noun declensions, 200+ vocabulary words), but want to move on? You don’t know enough for, say, movies without subtitles or podcasts. Conversations with native speakers can’t last very long yet. Linguistadores has imagined the next step by helping your learning through native-language content, geared to your level.

Your choice of media

Your choice of media

This platform offers access to real pop culture items, but broken down for language learners. I tried out Dutch as the language I was learning and English as my native language. First, you have to input your language ability level. Then, the application will serve up material for your level. Materials come from three categories: written, videos, or music. The written are articles from popular periodicals.

From a music video, you can look up a word from the lyrics and add it to your list.

From a music video, you can look up a word from the lyrics and add it to your list.

Videos are popular TV shows or movies hosted on another site (eg, YouTube), and music are videos of pop songs. The pop songs play the video with the words of the song next to the video, but I couldn’t find subtitles for the non-music videos. You can easily look up words from the articles and songs.

You can save and collect words into a list to create flashcards.

You can save and collect words into a list to create flashcards.

Linguistadores also offers you a way to keep track of new words. As you run into unfamiliar words, you can click on them and save them. You can use these lists as flash cards for memorizing the words.

The site is in its beginnings, so I hope that it will grow in a few areas. First, I hope they come up with a mobile platform very soon. I do all my language study on the go. If I’m on a computer, I’m at work. (And I better be working!) I could only watch videos and scroll through the songs’ texts on my iOS and Android devices.

A representative of Linguistadores let me know already (they were very responsive to me on Twitter) that they are working on a mobile platform. I will be giving them my ideas and suggestions — and I’m looking forward to the results. I’m hoping that the word lookup function and the videos will be available in the mobile version.

Second, I hope the language offerings are expanded. Right now, the choices are English, Dutch, German, French, and Spanish. I know these languages fairly well, and I would prefer to spend my time getting my lower languages up to a higher level. I think it will take some time to expand offerings, however, as the quality and quantity of the language materials are very high. It takes a lot of effort to keep things at this level. (How long till they get to Farsi and Somali? LOL)

Third, I wonder about the future of the material they have. How do they plan to keep the offerings fresh? There are only so many music videos, for example. I’m afraid I could possibly get bored if I have to watch the same ones too many times. Also, several of the videos I tried to watch were taken down by the original owner, which is bound to happen down the line.

Nevertheless, I believe that on-line language learning has to go the direction that Linguistadores laid out. As a kid, I stepped up my native language by looking up new words in the dictionary. I also spent a lot of time reading the lyrics to songs I liked, which gave me an ear for how people enunciate in music. I want to get to a point where I can learn on my own from native content, and Linguistadores offers a wonderful stepping-stone.

What are the on-line tools you’re using for language-learning? What do you love about them?

I'd love to talk to you. I hope I'm not bugging you...

I’d love to talk to you. I hope I’m not bugging you…

People’s greatest strengths are usually their greatest weaknesses. Mine–on both counts–is assuming that people like to have me around. I love to stay at people’s homes. I sometimes invite myself over to people’s houses for dinner. I will assume you will love talking to me if you’re a total stranger who speaks a cool (that is, “any”) language. I feel I may be butting in in Oromo class in some ways, but I think we’re all enjoying each other.

The reason I enjoy other people so much is that I’m so curious. I can’t help myself. I love to learn about people. Fortunately, either people are more generous than you think or I’m more fun that you would expect, because I’ve had very few bad experiences with this approach.

I have no right or reason to feel comfortable in my Oromo class. I’m the proverbial sore thumb. Everyone is Oromo except me. When I show our class picture to my family, I joke, “See if you can pick me out of the group.” Moreover, my language “skill” brings me up to about 2-year-old’s speaking ability, my previous knowledge is not helpful, and I can’t understand the vast majority of what is said in class.

Yet I feel comfortable, and the others in the class are getting comfortable with me. My dear teacher understands my level and ability, and the students are probably just getting over the “weird” factor of my desire to learn Oromo. I see where I stand with the language and focus my attention where I need to.

Fortunately, this week I noticed that I was understanding more in the class. The topic of the class orbits around pronunciation, spelling, and grammar, which keeps the vocabulary from moving too far afield from what I love. “Long,” “short,” “hard,” and “soft,” all appear often, as well as “speak,” “pronounce,” and “vowel.”

My teacher has been especially generous, granting me an extra 15-30 minutes before the beginning of class to go over phrases and grammatical fundamentals. We spent some time on question words and the progressive and past verb forms. He also taught me some basic phrases like, “I am learning Oromo,” and “I understand you.” Spoken and written versions vary slightly, and he showed me how those differences work.

My classmates offer me a lot of help, and they are patient when I keep asking them their names. (I forget names quickly, which gives me more practice in asking, “What’s your name?” If I remembered, I’d soon run out of chances to use this phrase.) They also show me some of the dialectical variations in the language.

I hope my teacher and class don’t mind my intrusion; I certainly enjoy and admire them! Their lives are full of curiosity and hard work. They are working to know their native language better, and they are already at least trilingual. (They speak at least Oromo and Amharic and English.) People say that Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. The wonderful people in my class live, work, and follow Minnesota society’s norms all while speaking and hearing a language not their own. I look forward to speaking better Oromo and getting to know my classmates better. I’m already learning about hard work and a tough spirit from them, and I hope to learn more.

Photo credit: e³°°° / Foter / CC BY-SA



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