At the point recently, when some people were angry that I called traveling polyglots imperialists, I realized that I did not define clearly what I meant by that word. So I’ve researched some recent use of this word.
Many scholars and social theorists discuss colonialism and neo-colonialism at length. I read a great summary here. I want a way, though, to decide at what point does the polyglot become a force for evil and not good. Challenging the power dynamic
The US is sick. Not only the US: we’ve exported our sickness around the globe.
We lack community because our society destroys communities.
In reading Simon Sinek’s Starting with Why, I was reminded that Howard Shultz’s original idea for founding Starbucks was to create a “third space” between home and work for people to build community. But later, as Sinek’s open letter states, Starbucks became about money. This shift in basic beliefs was symbolized by the move from classy ceramic cups and plates to cardboard cups. As Sinek wrote, “Nothing says to a customer, ‘We love you now get out,’ like a paper cup.”
Let me build on that. I went to Spain last summer. One of the reasons I was excited was because of coffee in coffee shops.
What did I find? Spaniards walking around town with cardboard Starbucks cups.
Where else have I seen the problem? Russians, who have been drinking tea as groups out of teapots for centuries, now make individual cups using individual tea bags. Indians are crazy about on-line dating, looking for a personal match rather than including the entire family in the process of continuing the family. The American woman sitting next to me on the plane who bought nuts immediately after turning down the nuts I offered her from my bag.
The pain I feel as an American comes from excessive independence, a lack of interdependence. Everyone can now function completely on his or her own, and it’s destroying us. Languages can fix it
I love walking through the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis. It holds the largest concentration of Somalis in the US. You see Somalis everywhere, smell the amazing blend of spices coming from apartment windows, and hear the beautiful language.
So I take the opportunity to speak at least a little Somali as I walk through the neighborhood. My Somali is still not very strong, but I know how to greet and meet people. As an ecolinguist I love to make connections with people from different cultures, and Somalis are open and easy to talk to.
Along the way I saw a young man, sitting by himself, and I said hello.
Maalin wanaagsan! Nabad? “Good afternoon! How’s it going?”
“The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proved again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.” —Jean-Luc Picard
For the Star Trek universe, this directive refers to technology. Why do so many agree with it? Because we see that a huge technology differential hurts the civilization who possesses less technology.
“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” —Prof. Steven Hawking
Not based on science-fiction but on history, Dr. Hawking believes that the differential between us and aliens who might contact us would likely destroy us.
Why are people concerned about this difference in technology? Because technology is power, and a huge power differential will destroy the weak.
Nevertheless, the Enterprise continued to boldly go where no man had gone before. Dr. Hawking, in contrast, suggests we avoid aliens. The two differ because the United Federation of Planets assumed that it was more powerful than other civilizations, while Dr. Hawking fears that aliens could clobber us—even by accident.
I’ve recently frustrated some of my readers in comparing language-study as colonial and exploitative. I want to look more deeply here at the situations that bring these traits to the fore.
Power differences can result in unintended consequences. Does loving language threaten others or mediate that threat? Loving language
Bequeathing a good community for my children to live in is my highest priority. More basically, being good means nothing if I’m not doing good. So if I’m spending time, money, or energy on something besides my community, I’m obliged to question it.
I’m a language guy, so I spend a lot of time and energy on languages. If I’m following this assumption, then I should be studying languages for the sake of my community.
Choosing a language, therefore, must also build up my community.
Community, not the “exotic” or “new,” must motivate me. How do I study and acquire languages to build up others, rather than myself?
If traveling runs the risk of exploiting people, even a little, I’d rather stay at home and build up my community. Loving language
I’ve been following recently this discussion about my ecolinguism concept. (If you’re not familiar with this idea I coined, please see this post where I define it.) One direction that the conversation has gone in relates to my post where I critique digital nomads.
The argument in the discussion assumes that we as privileged, rich Westerners have a duty to help others with our wealth. Hence one must address the question: is it better to learn a language in a poorer area, such as Venezuela, or in a richer area, like the suburbs of a major US city? Where the people are poorer, there we have a greater duty to help. Moreover, it is oversimplification to call this action “colonialism” because colonialism brings with it wicked behavior historically. A blogger sitting in a cafe in Bali should not merit this label.
Another line of reasoning undermines any duty we have to immigrants and outsiders by questioning the definition of “needy.” Often Westerners look down on non-Westerners (such as immigrants, especially of other races). They may look down with disdain, and so hate the “intruders,” or with pity, and want to “help” others. The argument goes that the only way to look on these others is as equals. They do not “need” our help, but we reach out to them as brothers and sisters.
I believe that money is not central, and that human beings are not equal.
I believe that I have a duty to leave the world a better place than how I found it. Here’s how I do it by loving languages. Why loving language
Last week I told you to do the minimum for language love; don’t try so hard.
Today, I want to give you some resources for how to start. Basic. Nothing complicated.
First, though, you have to do your research. You have to go on your ecolinguistic exploratory expedition to find out what people are speaking around you. What do you hear spoken? What do you see on signs, not the formal ones, but the hand-written signs taped to light posts and pinned to bulletin boards?
I recently met the inventor of Fetch-a-Phrase, a method of keeping all the key phrases you need for a language in your back pocket. You take basic phrases for you language, correlate the words from one language to the other, and then use the correlations to build new sentences.
You don’t have to be great at languages. You just have to care. You don’t have to be fluent in a language. You just have to try. You don’t need to understand everything. You just have to say something. You don’t have to impress anyone. You just have to do something for someone else.
When I first saw Benny the Irish Polyglot’s TEDx talk, I was inspired. Here was a guy who suffered through language-learning in school with no success. Then one day he decided to just start learning on his own in his own way, and he made huge strides. Not only did he discover that he could learn languages, but he loved learning them. He “hacked” the language-learning process.
He created a very successful blog and YouTube channel. You get to see him struggling through the language-learning process as he has conversations with young folks all over the world. You follow his life in great locations like China and Brazil.
Living the dream, he inspired others. Lots of other young folks like him wanted to go live in exotic locations and hang out with cool local people and learn languages in the process. Other YouTube channels were generated.
Aspiring digital nomads (compulsive travelers whose work happens completely on the internet) got on the bandwagon. They wanted to go to exotic locations. Whether their internet connection comes in Bankok, Brasilia, or Barcelona, they could live anywhere—and learn the local language.
The digital nomads became the digital colonists. They came to take advantage of cheap rent—sometimes pricing locals out of whole neighborhoods—and “exoticness” for their own excitement. Rather than try to become part of a local community, they stay until the place is less exciting and then follow their Wanderlust.
Rather than inspire people to become more moral human beings, Benny’s “language hacking” gave people the tools to exploit more people in more countries—and have fun doing it.
Don’t follow your love in order to feel good. Follow it so someone else can feel good. Let your talent become a lesson for love. When you learn languages for others, you do what comes naturally to you and bring joy to others.
My wife is a great musician. She has traveled the world in choirs, both as a singer and as a piano accompanist. At her height she sang at Carnegie Hall.
She can play anything. She can accompany anyone. Not a day goes by when she doesn’t think about music.
Eventually, she became a mom—a great mom. Naturally, she taught our kids piano. She also taught private piano lessons at our house to over a dozen kids per week.
Music was not about personal joy to her, however. She played for those who needed more joy in their lives.
Every week, she took our kids and any other kids to a nursing home. Our kids would play whatever they were working on. My wife would play, too, and lead songs for the residents of the nursing home. They came so often that the kids began to develop special relationships with some of the individual residents.
Three times a year, my wife’s students would put on a recital. Each time, it took place in a retirement center. Granted, the center had a great room with a nice piano, but she would coordinate with the center to ensure that all residents were notified and invited to the recital. Kids would even wheel residents unable to walk to the recital.
Who can you bring joy to with your desire to learn languages?