“You can always leave”: Polyglots and exploitation

What does it look like after you leave? How do they feel?
What does it look like after you leave? How do they feel?

“You can never understand me!” she said.

“I understand you!” I claimed.

“You will never understand us. The difference between you and us is you can always leave. Look at your passport! Us, we have no choice. We have to stay in this place.”

“But I don’t want to leave here.”

“You will, though. Why would you stay?”

She was right.

The polyglot cycle

Are there negative consequences of being a language-lover? Many polyglots romanticize the globetrotting, language-learning lifestyle, but are these people amusing themselves at others’ expense? Are they inadvertently causing pain and turmoil to innocent others?

The above conversation took place between me and a friend in Ukraine, where I spent my third year of university. I achieved a high level of fluency, thanks to lots of friends and many hours at parties, going on walks, and conversations till the last bus left at 1 am. I never felt so close to people.

And then I left. I came back to the US to finish my studies. I returned only twice to Ukraine: once a year later for a month and once 10 years later for another month.

An inherent tension exists in the ideal of world-traveling polyglottery. A language-learner goes to a new country. Because of his craft, he interacts in-depth with locals, each month improving his language ability, and so getting into deeper, more personal conversations and relationships. His desire to communicate like a local brings him closer to people, way closer than a tourist ever could. Polyglottery means creating deep, meaningful relationships with people, more intimate precisely because of the desire to learn the language that speaks to their heart.

And then he leaves. To the next language location.

As a polyglot, he is looking of the next language in the next location. In that place, he creates new relationships, learning to speak intimately with locals and creating close relationships.

And then he leaves. To the next language location…

After we leave

The craft of polyglottery motivates language-learners to become close to speakers of the language, while it pulls learners away towards speakers of the next. Very rare, long-term friendships may last, but nothing is permanent.

What happens to those we leave behind? We do not do all the work in learning our language. Our hosts—the native speakers, our teachers—talk to us for hours while we’re there, and continue on with their lives when we leave. While we go away with a new skill, what do they gain? They may never see us interlopers again. Why did they invest so much time and emotional energy in us? Just so we could leave.

When we conduct ourselves this way, it’s like a colonial strip-mining operation. We come in, grab as many emotional and language resources as we can, and then move on. The locals have to live with the effects of our operation for the rest of their lives.

The ecolinguist’s duty

Duty and respect and love bind the ecolinguist to the community who gave her so much. She must find how to stay connected with those individuals and that community, and continuously give back, not as is convenient, but as is needed by the community.

We need to think hard about what we can do. Here are some possibilities:

  1. Stay connected to friends, even if it is inconvenient for you.
  2. Advocate on behalf of the community. If there is political turmoil there, be their voice in your country. Let your friends know you are doing it.
  3. Teach others your language—for free. Pay forward what was given to you. If old friends reach out for language help, give them what they ask for.

In the end, do not take from a community more than you give to it. If you continue to gain from the community, continue to find ways to offer yourself back. If they forget you, let them know that you have not forgotten them, and that you are still benefitting from your relationship.

Where did you learn your languages? How do you give of yourself back to that community?

Photo credit: MarcGbx / Foter / CC BY-NC

5 thoughts on ““You can always leave”: Polyglots and exploitation

    1. It’s a tough question, but I don’t hear people asking. For me, it’s like the “Prime Directive” of “Star Trek.” If I go in and learn a language, what effect do I have on the culture? Will that effect potentially harm that culture? I think one should at least think about it, even if we can’t know for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. What a moving post!!! I’ve never thought about it in this way before.

    I do agree with the old quote that- language-learning motivations or not- people come into our lives for “a reason, a season, or a lifetime”. We can’t always maintain a connection. But often we can, although it might take a little effort. This is why I tend to visit the same places over and over- it’s not as exciting as seeing a brand new country but it gives relationships a chance to grow. Last month I went back to Nicaragua, to the same city for probably the 10th time. The last time I visited I took your advice and volunteered to teach English 🙂 No volunteering this time, just a lot of gifts to old friends and afternoons listening to stories of their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

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