Loving Sign Language in coffee shops: Could we do more?

The staff of DIB Coffees of Hawaii signing
The staff of DIB Coffees of Hawaii signing

We now have an example of retail establishments that cater to speakers of other languages.

Coffee shops are beginning to train personnel to serve members of the deaf community. They learn sign language so that customers who are deaf can have the same experience as customers who hear. Among these, Starbucks has received a lot of recognition. They are not the only one, though.

Can we use this step forward to introduce more languages? Since we know that these baristas can learn sign language, they can clearly learn other languages, like Spanish or Chinese or Somali, so that speakers of those languages can have a great experience in their stores.
How they accommodate

Does Spanish have a chance in the US? Language in American politics

He speaks Spanish! And he uses it to make a good point.
He speaks Spanish! And he uses it to make a good point.

Spanish makes an appearance in the US presidential campaign. I first became aware of it when I saw the famous George Takei speak it in a plea that immigrants not vote for Trump.

In the ad, he addresses Spanish-speaking Americans, comparing verbal attacks by Trump against Latino immigrants to the US government’s forcing Japanese-Americans—like Mr. Takei himself—into internment camps during World War Two.

I was fascinated to see how he used Spanish as a way to connect with immigrants. He understood that using a language besides English would connect immediately with and show solidarity with immigrants. Moreover, he expressed how he learned Spanish: by living alongside Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles growing up.

Politicos take Spanish seriously. As a result, Spanish-speakers possess power. Spanish may have a future in the US, in spite of the normal forces that eliminate languages other than English from our country.

As I looked further, I found that Spanish political ads are common this season, and they have a history in our country.
Other Spanish ads

What do you know? Languages help you understand terrorism

I’ve recently been on vacation in Spain. I went to enjoy myself and learn more about the Basque language and culture. Because of the attacks of July 14, in Nice, France, I learned about my own society in the US.

On a Spanish train, I was handed a Spanish newspaper, El Pais, which is well-known and mainstream there. On page 2 I read an editorial that ended,

With every terrorist act we re-make the war, militarize our democracies, prolong fear, and lose our identity little by little.[1]

Right below that, I read another with the conclusion,

For the moment, by anti-anxiety means, the French are resisting. But war isn’t going to stop. And every day, more war, fear, and the danger of desperation grows. There the ultra-right Front National party lurks, to regain the votes of those who want quick solutions.[2]

I never read anything so tough in the US mainstream press. The call for calm and anti-violence astounded me. It reminded me that learning another language is a political act, because it disrupts the point of view that my country, society, and community repeat to themselves and to me.
My education

National, immigrant, and tourist languages

Basque, Spanish, English at a ticket vending machine. Note that a single word of English appears.
In Spain, I noticed a three-tier system of languages. I believe that we find this system often in Europe, but less so in the US. Nevertheless, the system shows up in the US especially since much of it is based in economics.

We must focus on a particular place in order to define these languages.

Here are the three basic levels:

  1. Local languages. These are the languages that find their home in the area in question.
  2. Immigrant languages. When people come from the area of another local language to live in a new area permanently, they bring their language with them. They may crystalize as a distinct community in the new area.
  3. Tourist languages. Some people come for a short time, ready to spend money on specific goods and services, such as souvenirs and museum tickets. Many of them may speak other languages.

In Spain I’ve noticed these levels play out in a particular way.
Ecolinguism in Spain

Can the airport stay multilingual?

Airports are great for languages. How do we use them to teach?
I recently blogged about traveling through the Denver airport, and the languages that I saw there. Last week I had a different experience at my own local airport, MSP, Minnesota-St Paul. I spoke Somali, Oromo, and Amharic, while I heard a family conversation in Russian and a few phrases of Turkish. An international airport is a treasure-hunt and a paradise for language-lovers.
Experiencing multilingualism

Preserving Somali in Minnesota

How will we nurture the languages of the next generation?
How will we nurture the languages of the next generation?

When we think of preserving language, we think of the last speakers of the language. But the dynamics of language loss happens in every country, all of the time.

For example, tens of thousands of people speak Somali in Minnesota, and millions more in Somali and other diaspora communities. Somali will not die any time soon.

Yet we can see that Somali is dying in Minnesota. Tens of thousands will become thousands, which will become hundreds, in just a few generations.

The same dynamics that are choking off Somali are killing Lakota and Navajo. People do not speak them in their daily business outside the house. Their use is largely confined to the kitchen table. Ironically, the mayor of Mogadishu recently declared that foreign languages are “killing” Somali culture and must be expunged from signage. Too bad he doesn’t see what that attitude does to languages here.

Some efforts exist to keep the language going. Frankly, though, they do not look like enough to me. Many language-focused programs are aimed at new immigrants—more for integrating them into the English-speaking world and less for making sure Somali isn’t lost.
Local efforts

I saw language loss happen

Every language in the US is on the verge of death. How do you give it life?
Every language in the US is on the verge of death. How do you give it life?

I can see language loss happening under my nose. It’s a process that takes years, but when you see it, you despair for the health of a language.

This week I took my kids to get yogurt, and the young cashier was Somali-American. She had an American look to her, even though she wore a hijab. My daughter thought she might go to her school. I greeted her in Somali.

Maalin wanaagsan! “Good day!”

She gave me a blank look.

That’s when I saw it happen.
Language death

Languages won’t make you more money, so why do it?

If you have to choose between love and money, where does your language motivation lie?
If you have to choose between love and money, where does your language motivation lie?

Let me correct that: English will make you more money. Because the US, UK, Canada, and Australia have a lot of it. With other languages, you’ll have to be lucky.

Learning foreign languages will improve your relationships with others. A more fertile ground for diverse languages will produce a better crop of human beings, better able to understand and respect one another.

Cultivating the environment around us has value that doesn’t show up in standard calculations of “Return on Investment” (ROI). I listened to a speech by environmental activist, Vandana Shiva. Working the land with our neighbors produces a better environment and healthier community, but eating what we produce does not produce wealth that can show up in GDP. In contrast, industrial agriculture, which does produce capital wealth, creates environmental problems and destroys species.

I am a native English speaker. I can get a job paying six-figures without ever learning another language. Not so in, say, the Philippines or India, where English is more valuable for learning potential than a college degree is in the US. When we say that languages are “valuable,” we are saying that the economic system has made one language more valuable than another. I can get a higher-paying job with this language than I can with another.

Economics does not drive my desire to learn languages like these forces drive industrial agriculture. The desire for a healthier community for my children and neighbors drives me to learn languages.
Language ROI

I don’t believe in language loss: Letting languages flourish

We don't want languages just to live, but to thrive.
We don’t want languages just to live, but to thrive.

No language was ever “lost.” No group of people suddenly forgot that they spoke one language and started speaking another. Or happily chose to speak a language just because the people around them spoke it.

Language-loss does not exist. Discrimination, shame, and social stratification exist, and languages disappear as a result. But they do not disappear: they are destroyed, violently.

We can compare the destruction of languages to the extinction of species. Species do not die off just “because”; violence is always the cause. Over-hunting by humans is a clear example of this. “Habitat loss,” though, results from violence. Human beings—either locally or globally—change the environment so much that species can no longer adapt to the new state. They change it through changing the flora, by turning environments into farms, pastures, or subdivisions. Or they change the climate through industrial and farming processes.

If we want to revitalize languages, we must create environments where multiple languages can exist together. We can’t just lock them up in some language museum—whether in a single geography or on-line. Our society has to make space where they can coexist. Currently, my society does not give them much breathing room, hence their tendency to suffocate and die after 2-3 generations.

Why can’t that language live in my society? We must ask that question if we actually want languages to survive.
Rethinking habitat

Language of terror vs loving language

Listen--let him tell his story
Listen–let him tell his story

When I go to Cedar Riverside, a neighborhood of Minneapolis, to practice my Somali language, the streets are full of Somali people in the many shops and cafes. Sometimes I find that people will not respond to me in Somali—only in English. I long for someone who cannot speak English so that I can have a conversation in Somali, but I have only ever found a couple.

Now the news is coming to Cedar-Riverside, the biggest concentration of Somalis, and where I happen to go for my weekly Oromo study group. Here is a video of Fox News correspondent, Pete Hegseth, unsuccessfully trying to interview folks on the street.

The reporter claims that he could not find someone who could speak English.

Ha! Not what I’ve seen! Unlike the correspondent at Fox News, no one ever refused to talk to me. But I could never find these monolingual Somali speakers. Was it something he said?
Talk to immigrants