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.

  • Kristoffer Broholm (@KrisBroholm) produces the Actual Fluency Podcast, which is one of the top language podcasts, in my opinion. He has brought to my attention a lot of polyglots from all over the world. One topic he touches on in the podcast, and which I enjoyed chatting about with him briefly, is how learning languages helps him in his struggle with depression. Language-learning gives him goals, brings him into regular contact with people, and motivated him even to move to another country (from his native Denmark to Hungary.) I believe he has a fascinating topic there to explore: can learning languages counteract depression?
  • Kevin Chen (@kc501 & @iTalki) is the founder of iTalki. I believe that this site is the leader in combining social networking and language-learning. When I mentioned that I would be speaking to the MINN Ideas Summit, he got very excited. What could iTalki do to help out international aid workers? I hope that we can further this natural partnership.
  • Michael Erard (@michaelerard), the author of the wildly popular (Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners), generously took some time out of his schedule to have lunch with me. We delved deeply into the moral aspects of language learning. He posed the question like this: Language learning comes at a high cost of time and energy. How do we think of that in terms of bettering society? A true researcher, he offered me many book titles regarding social hierarchies and dynamics. I’m honored by his willingness to spend time with me and am grateful to his insight.
  • Siskia Lagomarsino (@thepolyglotist) at “The Polyglotist” had a lot to say about falling in love with languages, and leaning on them in difficult times. (I wrote a guest post, “Studying Somali in Minnesota,” on her blog a while ago.) In learning Japanese in school, she couldn’t get enough. In spite of her persistence, her teacher was not bugged but gave her more and more work. When times got tough, and money was tight, she’s always been able to fall back on translating; languages have always provided for her. I would love to read more about her story—one weekend was not enough!
  • Tracy Mehoke (@churaesie), the teacher coordinator for iTalki brought up some great questions. How do we get people to register all their languages in iTalki? So many people limit their languages to the most popular ones, even though they speak languages that they think no one will care about. Not true! Everyone should really put all their languages—who knows when someone will want to learn those “useless” languages. After I spoke about learning community languages, I found out that Tracy not only learned Mandarin in China, but also 苏州话 = Sūzhōu hua (a dialect of Wu).
  • Khady Ndoye, La polyglotte (@lapolyglottefr), came to my attention when I first read the program for the Polyglot Conference. A linguist who helps people learn more about African languages, she likes to emphasize the huge variety and number of speakers of African languages. She was preaching to the choir in my case, as I have such a great time learning the East African languages of Somali, Oromo, and Amharic, as much as I can. (I haven’t delved into the West African languages that are spoken here, though.)
  • Ulrike Rettig at “Games4Language” (@Games4Language) attended the conference with her husband. Ulrike works in the area of game-based learning of languages, and her techniques are fascinating. We have been virtually connected for several years thanks to her initiative. She has been a supporter since the beginning, and I was happy to be able to thank her (and speak some German) in person.
  • Léa Tiralarc raised some great questions with me. She lives in France, and she is concerned about the religious divides among people in her hometown. She asked me the question of how learning other languages can help. Because of my religious studies background, combining it with languages caught my attention. I think that learning the language(s) of our so-called enemies at least can help us understand each other better, but at best could end a lot of conflict.
  • Daniel Bogre Udell (@dbudell) and Frederico Andrade (@freddieandrade) the co-founder of Wikitongues (@wikitongues), which aims to record oral histories in every language on the planet. Since I spoke about community languages, it made sense to discuss how to find the languages spoken in our communities, and how to record their oral histories. Since speaking with them, I have more direct questions for people who speak various languages: have your recorded yourself speaking them? Is it available? Please check out the site—let me know if you or someone you know speaks a language that seems a little less well-known. Let’s get him or her on Wikitongues!
Who are some of the polyglots you learn from? Who has inspired you?

Photo credit: ROSS HONG KONG / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

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8 thoughts on “Polyglot questions: How do we use languages for good?

  1. Rachel

    I discovered WikiTongues on YouTube a few months ago through a clip of a wonderful young lady speaking Cornish! She was one of the first people in a couple of hundred years to grow up speaking it in the home so that was fascinating to me. I was also pretty chuffed to see quite a number of clips of Gaelic-speakers, although mostly from Glasgow. I’d be interested to see some Canadian Gaelic speakers as I have no idea what that dialect really sounds like.

    If I had the time or the clout to get it done, I’d be heading to Tanunda yesterday to record some Barossadeutsch speakers before they die.


    1. You have some great ideas. Maybe you can head to Tanunda over Christmas holidays…

      I always think I should be recording languages more. I think the more recordings we can have on line, the richer the on-line experience can potentially be.


  2. Pingback: “Loving Language” in Top 100 Language Learning Blogs For Polyglots, Linguists and Learners – Loving Language

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