Your choice of language: what does it say about who you want to connect with?

Your choice of language: what does it say about who you want to connect with?

Just recently a friend turned me on to the fantastic multilingual video of “Let it Go,” the hit song from the Disney movie “Frozen,” and as a polyglot sucker for pop music I’ve been indulging my love of languages and emotional music. This video smoothly blends 25 languages into one, seamless video.

I thought I was excited, until I found that the song was translated in its entirety into 42 languages, as reported here. So I started listening to whole versions of the song, and many of them have subtitles. Heavenly! (I love the Serbian version a lot!)

This polyglot effort coming from a US corporation reminded me of the somewhat controversial Coke ad during the 2014 Super Bowl, “America is Beautiful,” where young girls sing, “America the Beautiful,” in seven different languages. I wrote about it previously here.

The choice of languages for each song makes a statement about who each corporation is trying to connect with, where their heart is. From this choice, we see that Disney inclines towards Europe and her descendants, while Coke attempts to unify Americans of all stripes.

The languages

The song “Let it Go” focuses heavily on European languages in the 25 language version of the song. Of the 25 languages, 19 of them were European, and I include Latin American Spanish and Canadian French as European languages. All of the Germanic languages were represented except Icelandic, and only Romanian was missing from the Romance languages. The other six come from East and Southeast Asia. No languages from the Middle East or Central or South Asia–not to mention Polynesia or the Americas–were included. The different languages definitely cast a “pale” hue.

The Coca-Cola ad, in contrast, displayed a broader diversity in the languages chosen, but seemed pointed at an American audience. The statistics on the most common US languages come from the 2009 US Census survey. The commercial included seven languages, but you can find two more versions (Mandarin and Arabic) if you dig deeper. Note that these languages are among some of the most widely spoken in the US.

  • English-1st most widely spoken;
  • Spanish-2nd most widely spoken;
  • Tagalog-4th most widely spoken;
  • French-5th most widely spoken (Senegalese variety is represented in the commercial);
  • Hindi-15th most widely spoken (but many speakers of other Indian languages also know Hindi, so speakers may be more);
  • Chinese (didn’t make the final cut)-3rd most widely spoken.

The other languages, Keres and Hebrew, require further explanation. Keres is a Native American language spoken by some of the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest US. Hence it is exclusively an American language. I can’t explain why the commercial would use Hebrew. Maybe it was used to counterbalance Arabic, and Arabic didn’t make the final cut. Another reason might have been to cover more geography; no other Middle Eastern language made it into the commercial.

Why pick these languages?

The contrasts between the two videos struck me, because the Coca-Cola ad covered more geography in seven languages than “Frozen” did in 25. Only the Coca-Cola ad included languages native to the Americas, the Middle East, and South Asia, though “Frozen” covered East Asia, but not Coke. Moreover, Coke nailed American languages better than “Frozen.” “Frozen” covered Europe completely, from Catalan to Swedish.

Each song connected with a particular audience. Coke spoke to Americans of all walks of life, not only with the song chosen, but with the languages it was sung in. It represented the wide corners of the world from which those Americans came. Moreover, they picked speakers of every race and complexion, especially with the delightful choice of an African French speaker. “Frozen” spoke to lovers of Disney all over the world. It saturated Europe and the major European languages of the Americas. The Asian languages came from the richest markets of the region.

By seeking to speak to Americans from all over, Coke continued its brand of togetherness, teaching the “world to sing.” People from all over the world are united in the US and by Coca-Cola. They also managed to make a statement about the international breadth of American identity and origins (and so angered many Americans in the process–see links below). “Frozen” meticulously addressed every people in their own context, although the context seemed to be selected by economics: Europeans and East Asians tend to be richer.

I believe that the Coke ad made an interesting statement about Americans, transcending the stereotype of “English only.” “Frozen” was less compelling, trying to speak to every niche in Europe while ignoring whole continents.

What did you notice in the multilingual “Frozen” song? Did it remind you of anything besides the “America is Beautiful” ad? What other corporate multilingual effort have you noticed?

What does your choice of languages say about you? Where is your heart?

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


No interest? No motivation? What motivates you?

No interest? No motivation? What motivates you?

Anyone who decides to learn a language can do it. It doesn’t take special skills–99% perspiration, to paraphrase Thomas Edison. Deciding to learn a language and staying with it are entirely different, because motivation does not always come easily.

What about people who don’t want to learn languages? I know such people exist, as I see them at my work and in my house. What could motivate them? Is it self-centered even to try to motivate them to do something we love, that makes us polyglots better people, if they don’t love it?

A blog post about why people don’t learn languages inspired me. In this post, an anonymous commenter replied to this post, “Unlearning Linguistic Laziness.” The commenter was defending monolinguals, objecting specifically to characterizing monolinguals as lazy Americans. Some people just don’t want to learn languages, and that’s ok. I agree that polyglots can be smug, but I think we need to offer more ways for monolinguals to become polyglots.

Here are the main points the commenter made about monolinguals. I have re-ordered them to make a larger point.

  1. There is no necessity or interest to learn a language for many people;
  2. Polyglots shame monolinguals;
  3. Monolinguals (mistakenly) believe one needs talent to learn languages (one actually just needs dedication);
  4. Monolinguals come from many nations; it is not an American phenomenon;
  5. People in other countries often don’t allow you to practice a language besides English;
  6. Countries with lower population density are more monolingual.

I believe that it’s worth addressing all these points.

First, I also agree that many people perceive no need or interest in learning languages. They are not motivated to learn. For example, they see that they can live and do their job without a second language. I believe that they can be motivated, nevertheless. I don’t mean to persuade them against their will. Love and curiosity of others can motivate those who do not see an economic or other “practical” need.

Second, polyglots can end up shaming monolinguals. We polyglots compete with others and ourselves over how many languages we speak. This can turn into “smack” talk sometimes, which is ok in the right context. Outside of the polyglot community, though, smack talk won’t motivate people who don’t perceive a need or interest. It is more inspiring to speak about our language-love as an expression of love and curiosity for others.

Third, monolinguals should know that talent is not a deciding factor in learning languages–dedication is. I listened to an episode of the Actual Fluency Podcast this morning, and the guest described how you can speak a language when you know about 1000 words, and then you’ll get to the next level at about 10,000 words. Compared to this time-consuming task of memorizing words, the grammar is pretty simple. Memorizing through repetition is the key to learning a language. Just memorize! Every brain is set up to memorize whatever details it is motivated to learn–dedication is the sine qua non to learn the most important parts of language.

Fourth, monolinguality can happen in a lot of places, but it’s not evenly distributed. My experience tells me that residents of certain places gravitate towards monolinguality. For example, the majority of French and Russians I’ve met are monolingual. In many places, however, monolinguality is rare. I have not met a monolingual Dutch or Ukrainian person, for example. I’ve met tons of multilingual Americans, too, especially since we enjoy so many immigrants. (I discussed this phenomenon in this post.) Societies seem to tend naturally towards multilingual or monolingual.

Fifth, I’ve personally confronted the difficulty in getting native speakers to allow a native English speaker to practice their language. This happened to me most often in naturally multilingual countries, namely, Morocco, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and even Germany. I loved Syria because everyone responded in Arabic, unlike Lebanon and Morocco. To be honest, I had to draw a lot of motivation out to confront this challenge; I had to be determined to learn their language. I had to explain my desire to practice, work out a deal where we would take turns, or find other people to talk to. One can feel ashamed to speak a language badly to someone who speaks your language well, but I have to stick to my motivation.

Sixth, I’m not sure if multilinguality and population density relate proportionally. On the one hand, densely populated countries like India and Singapore show natural multilinguality. On the other hand, the pre-European Americas show evidence of multilinguality. (See this post and this post about multilinguality in early colonial North America.) I could see, however, that even in monolingual societies big cities draw immigrants, who will tend to be multilingual. So even though England and France, for example, tend to be monolingual, London and Paris have for a long time enjoyed many multilingual people. New York City and Los Angeles show the same tendency.

After looking at all of these, I see even more clearly that motivation decides whether you learn a language or not. You dedicate yourself to what you’re motivated to do. The question is then how to get motivated. Motivation can begin from outside or from inside. External motivation, such as multilingual people in your society or economic needs, can prompt you to learn a language. Internal motivation spurs you on through love or curiosity. Without external motivation, one depends entirely on internal, and that can be shut down through shame from other polyglots or native speakers who won’t let you speak.

How do we keep up internal motivation? Read my blog! Loving language is all about love of language. By loving language itself, by loving the speakers of language, by loving who you are becoming thanks to your language (smarter, more curious, more connected), you have all the motivation you need.

What motivates you to learn languages? When did you decide you were dedicated? Are you not dedicated? When does motivation wane? What do you do then?


My Swiss aunt (left) and my mom (right)

My best teacher! My Swiss aunt (left), next to my mom

In my love of languages, something always calls to me from the realm of the rare or unexpected, so for my visit to distant relatives in Switzerland I wanted to learn the local language of Swiss German, or as they say there, “Schwyzertüütsch.” While Switzerland declared four languages to be official, Swiss German is the most widely spoken. Nevertheless, materials are difficult to find, as I discussed previously here.

This language does not have standard grammar or even spelling, and it differs significantly from one area of Switzerland to another, even though the country is a bit smaller than the combined size of Vermont and New Hampshire. For example, I played a bit of a Swiss podcast for a relative and asked what dialect the narrator spoke. “Maybe Zürich with a little bit of Lucerne,” he guessed. Even though these two cities lie only 50 km apart, they each bear unique, identifiable characteristics.

After my week in Switzerland, I successfully learned a bit of Schwyzertüütsch, and lessons on how to tackle a rare language. The lessons I learned can help you when you’re trying to learn a less-commonly learned language.


Considering my one week scale, I consider my intensive Swiss experience a success. Employing my Swiss greetings and pleasantries, I delighted people by opening conversations in Schwyzertüütsch. By the end, I could create understandable sentences, although they were often a peculiar mix of dialects I had learned previously. When I would talk to a cashier, I sounded by no means Swiss, so I was asked, “Schwyzertüütsch oder (or) Hochdeutsch?” to see what dialect I preferred.

I was surprised to find that I could definitely hear the difference between dialects. Our first stop was Basel, and then to the surrounding area (near Siisach). Immediately I heard the difference between how the city pronounced “k” in the expected way, while the surrounding area pronounced it more roughly as a “x”. So “thank you” (“Danke”) sounded different between the two. When I went south to Berner Oberland, I heard how the “l” sound became a “w”. For some reason, my own speech took on some of the Bern sound.

So for a week, I considered my foray into Schwyzertüütsch successful thanks to my new ability to make basic sentences and my more sophisticated ear.

My situation

Let me describe my initial situation as I took on the task of Schwyzertüütsch. While I say I wanted to “learn” this language, I wasn’t starting from scratch. I’ve been studying German since I was about 14, and have a decent level of Standard German, or “Hochdeutsch.” Moreover, I spent a decent amount of time in southern Germany, near Stuttgart, where I picked up some of the Swabian dialect, or “Schwäbisch.” Swabian resembles Swiss German in some ways.

In addition to these advantages, I had some learning disadvantages, too. On the trip, I was with my mom and oldest daughter, who are both monolingual English speakers. They both know me well, and understand that I will be learning languages at all times. Nevertheless, out of practicality and politeness, I was not able to speak German the entire time.

Most helpful resources

The most helpful resources I found were the basic vocabulary lists and verb conjugations, as I tended to use them every time I opened my mouth. If I forgot, though, some words came out Swabian. Some of the grammar points were helpful, but I didn’t use them as much, as I leaned on Hochdeutsch grammar when I got into a pinch. I liked the podcasts I found, but I didn’t use them as much as I could have in preparing to go. That would have taken more concentrated study than I managed to do.

My older relatives were especially helpful. When I would ask them how to say something in Schwyzertüütsch, they would simply answer. For example, Margerite, an 80-year-old aunt of mine and fluent in English, not only would answer, but she would wait until I said it correctly. She even corrected my Schwyzertüütsch, for which I was very grateful. And she made it look fun. Younger people tended to say in English, “In Schwyzertüütsch?” a little incredulously.

The lack of materials–even in Switzerland itself–made my quest difficult. I only found one decent, affordable grammar after I returned from Switzerland. In Switzerland, most of TV and 99% of all writing is in Hochdeutsch, so I had to talk to people as my only reliable source of information about the language.

In spite of a general lack of materials, I found the most basic resources surprisingly helpful, and the older Swiss folks were especially fantastic.

Lessons learned for next time

I learned a few things about delving into a rarely learned language if I were to do it again (I hope this is not just hypothetical).

  1. Take more advantage of audio and video materials. I would find a few minutes per day to focus on these materials to internalize the language better beforehand, rather than simply refer to tables and lists all the time.
  2. Speak more while there. It would have been nice to speak even more when I had the chance. Sometimes I chickened out when I felt rushed or tired. I’d like to find and take more opportunities to speak.
  3. Find resources at home or on line. I didn’t spend so much effort to find a conversation partner either in my city or on line. More speaking ahead of time would have given me a head-start to make quicker headway once I arrived.
  4. Spend more time there. This would surely be the most enjoyable technique!

I made some good progress and enjoyed spending time with speakers of Schwyzertüütsch. I think these techniques will help me with this language–as well as other rare languages.

Are these helpful lessons for you, too? What are the most helpful resources for learning the language you’re studying?

How much can I learn the language of this isolated land?

How much can I learn the isolated language of this land?

Grüetzi! Lately I’m experimenting with Swiss German because I’m going to Switzerland to stay in the German-speaking area. About two-thirds of Switzerland speaks German as their first language. However, they speak a unique dialect, or, more accurately, a diverse family of dialects. I’ve been having a hard time because the internet does not offer a lot of resources, and I could not find any native speaker resources where I live and work.

Delving into other communities

I love to find out about how other people think and live. When I was in high school, I had a fascination for other religions and cultures. I enjoyed going to different places of worship, and meeting people from other countries–as shy as I was–brought me joy. By the end of high school, I decided that I wanted to go overseas as a foreign exchange student to France; moreover, I would leave my WASPy Denver suburb for college, to study at a majority Jewish university on the East Coast of the US. In the university decision, I explicitly stated that I wanted a “cultural experience.” When I came to study in Ukraine during college, I took it to the next level: I wanted to become as Ukrainian as I could. Moving out of my familiar atmosphere, how long could I immerse myself? Like a porpise, I could never be a fish, but how long could I stay under water?

Soon I learned that I could be understood as long as I could speak a language that others understood, but I could only understand if I spoke the language others spoke. If I wanted to experience intimacy among them, I had to use the language that they thought in, that they spoke with their loved ones. A version of the language would not suffice; I needed the exact language, no matter what its relationship with the standard dialect.

Hard to find materials

Needless to say, it’s not always easy to find materials in every language and dialect. For most people, communication–making oneself understood–is the goal. The majority language serves well. For example, if you go to Morocco, you can usually be understood in English or French. You can stretch to be understood by more people if you learn one of the major Arabic dialects, such as Literary Standard (Fusha), Egyptian, or Levantine. But where to do you turn if you want understand, and so want to learn Moroccan dialect, or even Marrakech dialect? or Tashelhit Berber, an unrelated language spoken in the High Atlas Mountains?

Now you understand my problem in trying to learn Swiss German, or Schwytzertüütsch. The Swiss are famously isolated, as well as multilingual. On the one hand, everyone speaks at least German and French, and probably English, and maybe Italian. Making yourself understood is easy. On the other hand, Switzerland’s isolation preserved many rare dialects of languages. When one linguist set out to study Swiss German, another responded, “Which valley?” Hundreds of significant local variations exist in this portion of this tiny country. Even German spoken in Zürich sounds significantly different from the dialect of Lucerne, 50 kilometers away.

The problem is two-fold. First, resources are very hard to come by. Second, I imagine that the Swiss aren’t used to having foreigners want to learn Swiss German, so how helpful will they be?


In spite of the fact that Swiss German is not usually written and does not have a standard written language, I’ve made progress on the first problem. On-line I’ve found some word lists and verb conjugations for major verbs. Here are the modal verbs, for example.

Inf Inf 1pres 2pres pl.pres subj. cond.
NHG können chöne cha chasch chönd chönn chönt
NHG mögen möge mag magsch möge mög möcht
NHG müssen müese mues, muen muesch müend mües müesst
NHG wollen wele wott, will wotsch wänd well wett
NHG sollen söle söll sölisch söled söll sött
NHG dürfen türffe türff türfsch türffed türffi türft


There are also YouTube videos that help, although they usually just teach your greetings. Since my daughter doesn’t know any German at all, these videos helped me teach her greetings in Schwytzertüütsch. One channel, Maryangel24, offers to go in a little deeper to teach you about food, cursing, and others.

Even better, I found a great site that has podcasts for learners of Swiss German. Someone reads a simple story for about 10-15 minutes in Swiss German, although the variety depends on the speaker. The text is written in Standard German (Hochdeutsch), and there are explanations of some of the unusual vocabulary. Fortunately for me, I know Standard German; if I didn’t this resource would be less helpful.

Will the Swiss help me?

I will see how it goes for the second problem. I have three questions I’ll be paying attention to during this experiment:

  1. Will the Swiss allow me to speak broken Schwytzertüütsch?
  2. Will they get frustrated–or offer to do me a “favor”–and choose to speak English instead?
  3. If I ask how to say something, will they give me the Swiss or Standard word?

To be honest, maybe it’s annoying–maybe even intrusive–to try to speak and think like a local, even prying into the intimate language of these people. As I said, I will see how it goes.

How deep can I go?

With such a lack of materials I don’t know how deeply I can go into the language of the local people. I have my materials that I put together, plus what I learned from YouTube and podcasts.

Next I’ll just need to see how it goes with the people I’m trying to speak with. Will they try to keep me out or welcome?

Have you tried to go deeply into another language? another country? How did it go?


Make language practical and find a community!

Make language practical and find a community!

Why do students complete four years of language class in the US and come out unable to carry on a conversation? Yet four months immersed in another country will make the language light bulb come on?

How can we say in our country that learning a language is important, yet English is the only language valued in schools that work to assimilate students of various cultures?

The answers are connected. We do not value non-English speaking communities–immersion without leaving home. As a result, we do not engage them. Language classes convey impractical, abstract information, when they are not linked to native speakers. Only when we value the marginalized communities of non-English speakers, will Americans begin to learn languages quickly and effectively.

Languages in school largely convey an abstract set of information, like physics. (See, “Anyone can learn a language, but not always in a classroom.”) Physics isn’t always abstract, but it usually is. Occasionally in physics, you find a nugget that intersects with regular life; for example, if you want to keep drinks in a cooler cold, put the ice at the top rather than the bottom, because cold air is denser than warm. Plotting velocity on a graph, however, will always stay abstract, except maybe if you’re an aerospace engineer.

In most US language classes, you might learn a little practical nugget about English grammar or an exotic cultural tidbit, but “Can I get a reservation?” in any language but English will not be necessary in 90% of foreign hotels because they speak fine English. (I think the most practical thing to learn in any foreign language is, “Go away!” That way we can be assertive in situations where we feel uncomfortable. But when do you actually get to hear that in class?)

We created this situation because we forced all languages but English to the margins. If we hadn’t done so as a society and forced English as the only language, Yiddish and Italian would not be isolated to small neighborhoods of Queens and Downtown Manhattan, but would be a part of any New Yorker’s natural multilingualism. (See, “To be American is to be multilingual.”)

This shift to irrelevance is happening before our eyes in other parts of the country. My friend’s son studied Spanish in high school in Colorado, but the scores of native Spanish-speakers in the hall played no part in his education. The practical part of language didn’t fit into the curriculum. (Besides, those kids in the hall are supposed to speak English, right?) (See, “International students in middle school: Marginal or model?”)

When you learn a language spoken by those around you, none of it is abstract, because the language relates in an immediate way. This is the benefit of immersion, and why, in many ways, focusing on a language spoken in your town will work better than one spoken 1000s of miles away. Anyone who has moved from a classroom to a community that uses a language saw their own brain light up. “Oh my goodness! I just heard someone use a subjunctive!” “Wait! That word I just heard–I remember getting that wrong on a quiz! What does that mean again?” The language only engages in the community.

Hence for any language class to produce results, it must immerse students by plugging into a community. Nothing is stopping you. Teachers can find communities in many ways, thanks to modern technology:

  1. Native speakers of the language in the school and their families;
  2. Communities within the areas near the school;
  3. Remote communities accessed via videoconference or other means.

If we want Americans to learn languages, we have to go to those communities, and we find them in the margins. While our culture forced to the margins the only ones who can really teach us foreign languages, we have to enter into that space if we want anyone to learn a language. (See, “An organization teaching community languages,” and, “Community Languages in Schools.“)

The language communities we forced to the margins provide the context for us to learn a language. We must not only value these communities, but seek them out and interact with them intentionally.

What communities do you engage in your language learning?

Photo credit: Swamibu / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)


...And the Red Pill, which activates the Trace...

Will you take the red pill and challenge monoculture? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Did you ever feel you take on a new personality when you speak another language? Does it feel like performance? Do you love it?

I love messing with cultural expectations. Greeting Africans at the airport in their own language gives me a rush. Speaking Arabic as a blue-eyed blondie gives me a laugh, too. I also like to speak Russian with a Ukrainian accent, or speak German with a Swabian (Stuttgart area) accent. Sometimes I get a laugh, sometimes anger. The folks at the airport always smile; I make friends during every layover. In contrast, once I was speaking Moroccan Arabic with a Moroccan waitress at a coffee shop, and I was accused of being a Jewish spy and encouraged to leave. (“We’re closing now,” I was told.) I don’t like the cultural rules we’re told to play according to; fooling people’s cultural expectations brings me joy.

Taking the “red pill

Maybe I’m a kind of drag queen, messing with expectations. I recently listened to RuPaul‘s interview on Marc Maron‘s WTF podcast (Episode 498), where he compared drag performance to the “red pill” in The Matrix. We all know what it means for us to act like a man or woman, because in our “Matrix,” each gender follows certain rules–talking, walking, dressing, etc. in its own unique way. Human beings identify with one or the other gender and follow the rules. Society expects you to follow the rules of your gender; anyone who has been to high school knows the shame and horrible epithets that go along with the boy whose speech sounds too feminine or the girl whose hair looks too masculine. We demand that everyone follow the Matrix–otherwise, they threaten reality.

Drag performers take the “red pill” and so reject the Matrix and flaunt the rules and borders of gender. He or she changes identities in an instant: now he’s a woman, now she’s a man. “Ego”–so goes RuPaul’s famous tweet–“loves identity. Drag mocks identity. Ego hates drag.” Drag is threatening because our ego is grounded in an identity, such as gender, but drag shows that gender is just another performance. A man can go on stage and become a woman in actions, mannerisms, and character. He takes on a woman’s identity. Then he takes off the makeup and he acts like a man again. He mocks the rules of identity in the Matrix by never settling in one.

The cultural “Matrix”

The Matrix presents, in addition to rules for gender, rules for culture according to which we act and build our identities. If I am American, I act a certain way. If I am Greek, I act a certain way. If I am Russian, or Oromo, or Iranian, I follow cultural rules to display and maintain my identity.

This compartmentalized view of culture can cause an identity crisis for the children of immigrants. If I am a second-generation Indian, born in Singapore, living in Australia, how am I supposed to act? Indian? Singaporian? Australian? The Matrix doesn’t offer a set of rules for this situation, leaving us in the lurch. The Matrix demands that we despair that we don’t fit, or whittle down our identities to one the Matrix deems “normal.”

Take the red pill!

Languages are the cultural “red pill.” For “third culture” kids, who live between the culture of their parents and of their residence, they can thrive if they learn the languages of both cultures. They can transcend the Matrix and follow their own rules. Like drag queens, they can switch seemlessly from one set of expectations to another. Performing in each culture is unremarkable. When you see one of them switch to the other, however, the jaws drop: “How did he do that?” The Matrix doesn’t allow such fluid change of identity.

You can transcend the Matrix by learning another language and culture, and the more you learn, the less you are held fast by rules. You can connect with people you couldn’t otherwise. New ways of thinking will challenge how you perceive the world. When you have a dilemma or decision, you will suddently realize you don’t have to follow the expected solution; you can draw from ideas outside the normal expectations. Those invested in the Matrix might laugh at or reject you. At the same time, unlikely friends will meet you here; openness will greet you. Through new languages we hope to bring down monoculture and bring about a fertile ecosystem of new thinking and new ideas. We want all of your personalities and cultures.

Are you ready to help overturn the Matrix? “You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

Do you love to learn from those around you?

Do you love to learn from those around you?

I subvert. I do not tend to like what authority says, simply out of prejudice. I can’t help but question it. Is the authority trying to manipulate me, to make me act in some way? I sometimes wonder if the authority has looked at all the angles. Could these ends be attained in a better way? I wonder if the authority has examined its moral responsibility. Is it a good end they seek? Authority seeks its own ends in its own way, marginalizing those who don’t see things their way.

Forget the powerful. Those on the margins have better, more creative, more compassionate ways of approaching problems. As human beings, they have their problems, of course. Folks like me–insider, comfortable, respected, able-bodied–need to listen to those who are pushed to the side to gain the wisdom that we lack by ourselves.

Automatically questioning the assumptions of authority, can make me cynical. At the same time, this doubt often aligns me with those who are marginalized, since they tend to work according to a different set of presuppositions than the powerful on the inside.

The marginalized have taught me a lot, especially that opening myself will teach me that I don’t have all the answers. I wish that authority figures knew what I know about what was happening on the margins. If we listened more to those on the margins, we would act more morally and connect more deeply with people different from us.

An eye for the subtle

What do you do when you hear someone speaking English (or any other language) with an accent? In the USA, these people are in the margins, and I know that I have a learning opportunity before me. If I’ve got the time, I tend to ask what other languages the other person speaks. This week, I got to have some cool conversations as a result.

Recently at work, I was standing in line in the cafeteria, and I heard an accent in English. I asked if the gentleman spoke a language other than English, and he replied, “Yes–six or seven.” A man after my own heart!

I ventured a guess (in Dutch): “Bent U Nederlander?” (“Are you from the Netherlands?”)

Belgie.” (“Belgium.”)

“Ah! U bent Flams.” (“Ah! You’re Flemish.”)

I recruited him for our budding Dutch table at work, and so this week he and I had lunch together, where he taught me a lot. I learned about his job at the company, and about his previous careers that led him to the Middle East and an extended life in Southeast Asia. During our conversation, he admitted he doesn’t speak Dutch much these days, so it was a nice opportunity for him.

Since his native dialect is Flemish, he taught me some of the significant differences between standard Dutch and Flemish, and then some differences between dialects of Flemish. He also told me that the first time he heard Afrikaans, he was surprised how similar it sounded to Flemish. I had known that Afrikaans comes from Dutch, but I never reflected on what variety of Dutch it came from. Dutch is much more varied than I had previously imagined.

We bonded around the idea that life can lead you a lot of different places, and that no job guarantees a particular job path. If we’re open, we can learn how to do a lot of things. Each job teaches skills that we bring to our next job. When we’re open and curious, we can find ourselves on surprising adventures. In addition, I learned that significant differences lie in places most people don’t care to look, even between East and West Belgium.

The world is right here

Then later this week I traveled for short trip to New York City. NYC is a language adventure waiting to happen, but with a short window, I had to keep my ears open.

I struck at my first opportunity. At the rental car desk, I saw that the agent had an unusual last name.

“What sort of name is that?”

“I’m from Ghana.”

“Do you speak any languages besides English?”

“Yes, five or six.”

“Which ones?”

He hesitated here, surely knowing that I wouldn’t have any way to follow what came next. “Ashanti is the main one. My home language is Sehwi. But Sehwi is a small language, from out in the country.”

I said the name of his home language a couple times. It includes a consonant in the middle, where you blow with puckered lips, nearly like a whistle. The exotic consonant felt luxurious in my mouth.

The reulting conversation offered me the opportunity to learn about the current state of this significant West African country. China has been investing there for a while, so we got bring up the question of a potential new colonialism by China in Africa. The nature of colonialism is that countries come in to take what you have and profit from it, without connecting with you and your community. Economic powers do not consider or love to learn from the human strength and wisdom that the multitude of African cultures have to offer. We both hoped for a good future for Ghana and her people.

I encountered other stops on my NYC language journey. At the event I got to speak a little Arabic and hear some different views on politics and history in the US and in the Middle East. On the plane I saw a man studying Talmud in Hebrew and Aramaic. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to stay at these stops–or NYC–as long as I would have liked.

Always open to learn

“When the student is ready, the teacher will come,” the proverb says. I tried to make myself ready this week, and I learned about history, culture, and human struggle. Some struggle leads to great results, some to worse, and some that are yet to be determined. We can learn from all of them.

This week, what are you planning to do that will open you to others who are different from you? I hope that you will learn from them, that their experience will change not only what you know, but also how you live your life. The narrative of life that we receive through the media focuses on making us happy in a short-term, narrow, and shallow way. It does not confront human struggle or weakness in ways that we actually live. Do you hear an accent in someone near you? That’s the sound of a different way of life. Plug in now!

Photo credit: AdamCohn / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)




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