I see a lot of language-specific new year’s resolutions these days. Studying more, starting new languages, and traveling to exotic places appear at the top of these lists. Language-learners consider the highest good to be the number of their languages and their degree of fluency.
Languages offer learners a great way to experience the world and get more out of overseas trips. Self-fulfillment.
These goals serve the learners themselves, but what about those around them? For an ecolinguist—that is, one sensitive to the ecosystem of languages around them—language-learning goals look much different because they focus on others and not on the learner.
Here is what those goals would look like.
- Help a monolingual person. If you are a polyglot, how can you help someone who is not? When I flew back from Ukraine one time, I was sitting next to a Ukrainian family, and none of them spoke English. I assisted them by accompanying them through the non-US citizen line in case any problems arose. (I also learned how immigrants can get treated in the US by immigration officials. Not pretty!) If you want, try this app to translate for refugees.
- Who do people look down on where you live? Learn their language! Who gets made fun of in your area? Asians? Africans? Middle-Easterners? Speak their language and learn what it’s like to walk in their shoes. My Spanish friends learned not to speak Spanish in certain public places in the US because of the nasty talk they heard behind their back. This anecdote encouraged me to speak Spanish in public whenever I can. I loved speaking Moroccan Arabic with immigrants in Spain. Allow someone who feels uneasy about speaking their language to relax a little.
- Meet someone who looks different than you. Many language communities remain segregated, but if you’re learning a language, you have a great entry point. At the post office one time, I chatted only with the Somali men in front of me. When I walk into a Somali cafe, I am the only white person there every time. Expand your social circles via your language and meet someone outside of your socio-economic and/or racial class.
- Defend someone who does not speak English (or whatever prestige language) like a native. More and more non-native English speakers work in English-speaking workplaces, whether they are immigrants or the remote part of a global team. They have to do the hard work of presenting themselves professionally in a language other than their native tongue. When people think that my Chinese colleague—who lives and works in China—seems cold and unfeeling, I explain how difficult it is to convey emotional nuance in a foreign language.
- Teach someone English. We should help others whenever we can, especially for free. If your native language is English, you possess a precious pearl. You don’t even need to look for people to teach. Go to any language-learning site and they will find you. When I was learning Farsi, a Persian conversation partner needed help with an article he was publishing. I edited it for him. It was painstaking and took a couple hours. I don’t know if he thanked me, but it doesn’t matter. We help. For free.
If you do any of these things, bonus points if no one knows you did it. This runs against the grain of the internet, but give it a try. (See how the medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides described the eight levels of charity. One of the main principles is that helping the poor without recognition is more virtuous than with recognition. It is better for the giver if the poor do not know who gave to them than if they do know him or her.)