The US is truly a Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, “Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly.” And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, “Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do:and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth:and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth:and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth (Genesis 11:1-9)

Many Americans see multiple languages in our country as a threat. As I presented in my last post the US has suppressed other languages since its inception until today. We always see foreigners as a threat, but if they at least speak English, then they have assimilated to an acceptable degree.

Oddly, the rallying cry of the “English only” crowd is, “Let us not become another Tower of Babel.” (For example, Pat Buchanan says so here, and one of the authors of this article does the same here.) This implies that a lack of official language leads to chaos and the inability to work towards a common goal.

This stance shows that they don’t know what the “Tower of Babel” means. I’d like to go back over the story, so for this reason I cited the story, above. I hold a PhD in Ancient Hebrew and Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), so I place a lot of importance on the interpretation of the Bible. My aim is not to convert anyone here or make anyone religious, but to understand some of the historical background of this biblical story as it relates to the modern US. (If you are interested in hearing a discussion about this story that delves more into the biblical aspects of this story, please listen to this podcast episode of “The Bible as Literature Podcast,” that my friend and I produce.)
The US *is* a Tower of Babel

Myth: Our ancestors happily learned English

America's multilingual past, forced into monolingual present
America’s multilingual past, forced into monolingual present

A common language brings people together. Historically, learning English was a priority for German, Italian, Russian, Chinese and Japanese immigrants (to name a few) because it helped them participate in the communities they joined. And because the United States is still predominantly an English-speaking country, that practice should continue today.
From Dear Abby, “Sharing Common Language Is Simply Common Sense,” Jan 23, 1997

Because the United States was at war with Germany, those of German heritage were the main target of suspicion. Soon German language instruction was banned in public schools. Then, parochial schools were forced to use only English in their classrooms. The churches were next, and eventually Iowa’s Governor Harding declared that only English was legal in public and private schools, public places and over the telephone.
From “It’s the Law—Speak English Only!”

How English was actually established in the US

The day I fell in love with languages: Dr. Richter and field linguistics

Dr. Richter, who first introduced me to Linguistics
Dr. Richter, who first introduced me to Linguistics

Field linguistics … refers to the collection of primary linguistic data on the basic grammatical facts of a relatively little studied language in a relatively natural setting from ordinary speakers, and to the analysis and dissemination of such data.Pamela Munro

When did I truly fall in love with languages? I had been “dating” languages for a while—French, Latin, German—in my early teens. Then, the summer after my sophomore year in high school, I completely fell for languages after I took a full-blown linguistics class. The class filled me with solid information about the breadth of complexity in the world’s languages, but once we started learning field linguistics I discovered joy in diving in, asking questions, and figuring out the language from the inside, as if I were in the field among speakers of a language completely foreign to me. That joy determined the course of my life, and that joy has never left me.
How can I count the ways?

On pronunciation and memorization: A eulogy for Dr. Thomas Coates

My first German teacher (circled) along with his class
My first German teacher (circled) along with his class

Wer noch? Du? Steh auf! Blitzschnell!

A-Be-Tse-De-E-Ef-Gay-Ha-Ee-Yot-Ka…

Who are the most influential teachers? It’s not always obvious at the time, but some lessons seep into your bones.
My first German teacher

Distance and stereotypes: Longing for language love in Turkey

Just another tourist in Istanbul
Just another tourist in Istanbul

“Do you have a book in English to learn Turkish?” At the large book fair next to one of the universities in Istanbul, I figured I’d find something I’d enjoy. “In English?”

He handed me a phrase book.

“No. To learn Turkish. Grammar.”

He handed me a Turkish grammar book—in Turkish.

“In English?”

He handed me a learning grammar. This was it.

“How much is it?”

“How much?”

He started leafing through a catalog.

“You have to order it?”

“…sorry. No English me,” and he looked to the ground. He pointed at the price on the page. I paid, said, “Teşekkür ederim” (“thank you”), and left.

I have an easy time connecting with others thanks to my language “superpower.” But what do I do when circumstances eliminate that ability?

Here was a young man, selling language books next to a university. How could we not have something in common? But I would never know. At the end of my recent trip to Greece, I spent a day-and-a-half in Istanbul. Without being able to speak any Turkish, I had a disappointingly difficult time connecting with people there.
Unable to connect?

What if we talked about monolingual White children the way we talk about low-income children of color?

Loving Language:

I have tried to articulate the problem of monolingualism, even offering a “cure” for monolingualism. Regardless of the satire of this piece, this rings 100% true, “This linguistic isolation has a detrimental effect on the cognitive development of monolingual White children.”

Why would the linguistic mainstream deprive their children of what is proven to offer a cognitive advantage, teaching them another language?

Originally posted on The Educational Linguist:

I have written a previous post debunking the so-called language-gap.  In this post I flip the script and imagine a world where interventions have been developed for monolingual White children using the same language gap discourse.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

It is a well-documented fact that by the age of 5 monolingual White children will have heard 30 million fewer words in languages other than English than bilingual children of color. In addition, they will have had a complete lack of exposure to the richness of non-standardized varieties of English that characterize the homes of many children of color. This language gap increases the longer these children are in school. The question is what causes this language gap and what can be done to address it?

The major cause of this language gap is the failure of monolingual White communities to successfully assimilate into the multilingual and multidialectal mainstream. The continued existence of White…

View original 686 more words

Tarzan Shakespeare or the pain caused by my Greek deficit

How do I connect when I'm bad at Greek?
How do I connect when I’m bad at Greek?

“Me want now go yon church?”

“What name belongeth yon market?”

This is how I imagine what my Modern Greek sounds like: a combination of Shakespeare and Tarzan. You see, I’m bad at Greek. (It’s not all Greek to me, but a good portion of it is.) I can read some Biblical Greek (a simpler version of Ancient Greek a la Homer), but I know only a little Modern Greek—and it’s words with very little grammar. A foreigner from the 10th century.

Last weekend I got back from a trip to Greece. Read how it went

Entering dangerous territory: Ecolinguism off the beaten path

How do you learn about their story?
How do you learn about their story?

The salesperson just spoke to those people in English, I realized.

“Do you speak English?” I asked the dark-haired young man across the aisle from me. His face showed sun, wrinkles, and fatigue, making it hard to guess his age—somewhere between 25 and 45.

“No,” he shook his head and smiled as he pointed to the young woman sitting next to him. I had noticed her enormous, beautiful brown eyes, which, though tired, never closed during this long train ride.

“What language do you speak with them?” I continued, indicating the older man and younger women he was traveling with.

“Kurdish,” he answered.

I had him: “Bitdhaki al-arabi?” “Do you speak Arabic?”

His face lit up, “Yes, I speak Arabic.”

“Where are you from?”

“Syria.”

“Are you fleeing the war?”

“Yes.”

How do we learn others’ stories?

How bad are you at languages? The first step on the path of ecolinguism

What beauties will you find once you enter the language ecosystem?
What beauties will you find once you enter the language ecosystem?

I have a friend who loves mushroom gathering. He takes his kids to the woods and everyone looks for mushrooms, and when they find them, they put them in the basket. After and hour or two, they go back to the car, and in the grass they dump out all the mushrooms and sort them into different varieties. With a field guide, he looks up each variety, sorting the piles into edible, inedible, and unknown. Gathering up the first pile, he puts them back in the basket and takes his family home to enjoy the harvest.

So how does he make sure not to poison his family?

He’s no expert, but he has a field guide and mushroom-hunting friends. He uses his guide to pick out the useful mushrooms and errs on the side of caution. He may bring some of the questionable ones to ask his friends about. Even when collecting goes badly and nothing is edible, he and his family learn about the life of the forest ecosystem: what mushrooms grow where, how living things decompose, and how the forest changes in subtle ways from month to month. After a few years, he picks out some edible ones with confidence.

The language ecosystem

Know story, know language; no story no language: Stories in the linguistic ecosystem

How can we come together over the language barrier?
How can we come together over the language barrier?

While I continued to talk, I was losing my train of thought. What had I said? What was coming next?

When was this going to be over?

As my face got hot and my chest tightened, I looked out at blank faces of my 17-year-old classmates.

“Est-ce que vous me comprenez?” “Do you understand me?”

Surprised by a direct question, one or two audience-members brightened. “Oui!” I heard.

How soon could I be done with this book report?

* * *

Every student gets nervous presenting in front of the class; mine was in a foreign language. I was delivering my part of a French book-report—French book, French report—on Voltaire’s “Candide.” Stumbling around, I felt like a kid learning to ride a bike: a few good pedals, then a wobble, pedal, wobble—ready to tumble at any time. I had to plumb the depth of Voltaire’s French language, and express it in French in a compelling way.

Finally, my speech was over. I knew my teacher would be merciful, but how about my classmates? At the end, one girl consoled me, “Yours was kind of more interesting, since you spoke without just reading your report.” I wasn’t equipped to even grasp that comment: was that a big deal or a consolation? Was she being nice, or expressing honest relief?

Over 20 years later I still ask myself, “Did I make any sense at all?”

Confronting the language barrier