Polyglot questions: How do we use languages for good?

Nothing beats deep conversations with polyglots!
Nothing beats deep conversations with polyglots!

During my short two days at the Polyglot Conference in NYC (in the midst of my public speaking tour), I spent much of the time chatting with people. Since my talk concerned how to use this talent/hobby/obsession of ours for bettering our community, my fellow polyglots offered their own ideas on this topic. We can use languages to help international aid and speakers of rare—or just less well-known—languages, as well as ourselves.

Here are ten people, in alphabetical order, who offered me some ideas and questions that enriched my thinking.

I recommend you stop by their web page and/or Twitter feed. Please stop by! When you visit them, please say hello from me! Let’s keep the conversation going.
Some important food for thought

Hating Swahili: The cost of bilingualism in the US

Hatred of language: What can you do?
This happened for speaking the “wrong” language.

Advocating for a multilingual public space may seem abstract or a “nice-to-have” feature for an ideal society. A recent event shocked me into the realization that language tolerance matters for life and death. Hatred towards languages begets real violence against others. We must all embrace and engage in public use of multiple languages for the sake of those who would be discriminated against on the basis of language.
The reality of language hate

We could affix the languages we spoke to the name tag.

Loving languages in NYC: Polyglot Conference 2015

We could affix the languages we spoke to the name tag.
Not often do I get to speak five languages in 2 1/2 days, but I had the fortune of attending the Polyglot Conference last month in NYC. I dreamed that the conference would motivate and focus me on my language-learning, so I used the event itself as motivation. I challenged myself at every opportunity to find out what languages people spoke—whether at the conference itself or not—and practice and learn. I knew my friends and family would ask me what languages I spoke at the conference, and I didn’t want to disappoint.
Read what I spoke!

Good news! 50,000 views!

Dancing for joy at Loving Language!
Dancing for joy at Loving Language!

I am grateful to communicate two recent pieces of good news for the “Loving Language” blog.

50,000 views! On Saturday, October 24, 2015, the blog hit 50k. I’m happy that people can come and learn and/or be entertained by these posts. Even more significant to me is that the blog hit 25,000 on July 23, 2015. That is, the first 25k came after 44 months; the second 25k came after a mere 3 1/2 months more. Momentum is everything, so keep telling your friends to stop by!

Here are some of my most popular posts that got us here:

Why Somali is harder than your language
Do robots love language? Bias and Google Translate
Agape Vespers: The church service for language-lovers
Also take a look at these Somali learning resources.

2,500 subscribers! As of September 29, 2015, the 2,500th subscriber followed my blog. Granted, a couple of them appear to be Vietnamese couch salesbots, but why wouldn’t they enjoy the blog, too? I hope people enjoy subscribing, whether they are people or robots. (I don’t know how or why robots follow blogs, but it certainly helps my stats.)

Photo credit: Patrick Q / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

A month of public speaking and an end to my blogging hiatus

Need a public speaker for the importance of learning languages? Please contact me.
Need a public speaker on the importance of learning languages? Please contact me.

I’m glad you’re still with me, dear readers! I haven’t blogged for a few weeks because of several public speaking opportunities, where I’ve been able to discuss the importance of connecting with local communities, namely, through learning community languages.

I love public speaking. If you need someone to speak to your group about the importance of learning languages, languages as a cultural bridge in your community, or practical tips for learning a language, please contact me. My experience and enthusiasm will surely exceed your expectations.

Lots of good stories are coming soon, arising both from my public talks and from recent language-learning experiences.

Here are my public talks from the last month:
Click to see what they were

Pirates, Sexists, Terrorists: Is this all there is there to know about Somalis?

Who are they? Can you tell just by looking?
Who are they? Can you tell just by looking?

I’m exhausted by hearing the same questions and answers about the Somali community over and over, as if they only contribute sexists and terrorists.

A few weeks ago I went to a talk by a local Somali community organizer, who helps with women’s health. During the question and answer time, the well-educated, well-intentioned audience asked two questions:

  1. How is the Somali community reacting to terrorist recruitment?
  2. Do Somalis treat their sons and daughters the same?

Right on script.

When I write a blog post and look for related articles, all that I can find concern terrorism and occasionally piracy. I see the top three articles right now are,

  • “Somalia – News website editor gunned down in Mogadishu
  • “Minneapolis: 3rd of 8 Muslims who plotted in mosques to join ISIS to plead guilty,” and
  • “News website editor gunned down in Mogadishu.”

I thought I saw a different sort of story, about “building community reslience,” and then discovered it was an anti-radicalization, anti-terrorism grant from the US Justice Department. Even the good news is about terrorism.

I read about how many Somalis are on welfare in Minnesota.

Many people like the refrain of how Somalis “refuse” to assimilate to US culture. They’ve repeated for eight years the story of Somali taxi drivers who refused to transport passengers with alcohol or dogs. I also hear the trope of the Somali cashiers who won’t handle pork products.

When I look up popular Somali musicians or artists in the English-language press, I find that we only know one: K’naan. (Better than nothing, right?)

So here is a “typical Somali” based on what I read in the media:

  • pirate/thief
  • potential terrorist
  • sexist
  • unproductive
  • repudiators of American culture
  • without contribution to arts and culture

Is that really it?

Learning from anxiety: Waxaan ku hadlay maanta afka soomaaliga! I spoke Somali today!

What did you learn after your crash?
What did you learn after your crash?

I had some great opportunities to speak Somali this week. Since I live in the suburbs, just over the Minnesota River from the largest Somali populations in the US, I took an opportunity to cross the bridge to practice with some folks.

I listened to a podcast this week about language anxiety (listen to part 1 here) and read an article with new research on the same topic.

Language anxiety affects me. By getting out of the “classroom,” however, and into the community, I saw that any anxiety I had was unfounded.

How I enjoyed my anxiety

I want my children to learn Somali

How can my children learn her wisdom?
How can my children learn her wisdom?

My children are not “heritage learners.” Our family does not have roots in Africa. We are white mixes of American European culture. No living relatives have ever spoken to each other in a language other than English. Yet nothing could serve my children more than fluency in this beautiful, complex East African language.

I previously lived in Seattle where, in order to learn more about the local refugee community, I volunteered to help with the orientation of a family from Eritrea (in East Africa). My children would occasionally accompany me to visit them in their impoverished Seattle suburb. The very different lives of these people enriched my children. At the ages of nine and ten, they ate popcorn and sat in a living room with two people’s beds and a second-hand coffee table to listen to the stories of shepherds, of men who served as child soldiers, and of children raised in refugee camps. These intelligent, motivated, kind people offered them an education they never received in school—an education not of knowledge but of wisdom.

Once in Minnesota, I quickly learned about the extraordinary Somali population here. My next question was how my children could gain wisdom from these new brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts who surround them every day. (I use “uncle” and “aunt” not as titles for blood relatives but as translations for Somali terms of address to elders.) They would need to acquire the language to really hear these people and learn the most important lessons from them. Somali language will make my children wiser and more intelligent people.
What my children will learn

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