Language learning as a political act (A nod to Rick Steves)

How do others help us see ourselves better?
How do others help us see ourselves better?

Many people around us are invisible. Immigrants and refugees, especially those from developing countries, fill our cities in the US and Europe. They tend to perform simple, undesirable jobs, that do not require sophisticated English language abilities. Many airports in the US are full of East African employees. Spanish often wafts from American suburban construction crews. They live and work unseen by the eyes of native-born Americans.

Hearing languages, seeking out languages, gives us new lenses to see the “invisible” people around us. And from those people, we can learn a lot about ourselves.

Acknowledging everyone around us on their own terms goes against the norm. It is a political act. Many people know Rick Steves, the PBS travel guru, but beyond leading tours to exotic locales, he coined the phrase that travel is a political act. Acknowledging those whom others do not see, and learning from them is our political act as polyglots.

Not isolated to the US

I brought up the topic of learning community languages with a German in the US. Where can you learn Turkish in Germany? I asked. With so many Turks in Germany, I suggested, why wouldn’t people want to learn that language? She was not aware of any Turkish classes in school, at the university, or in the community. She said, “I have lots of Turkish friends, but I never thought of learning Turkish.”

These people of Turkish origin obviously learned German and are going to school with other Germans. They appear comfortably assimilated. As a result, progressive Germans see these Turks as successfully assimilated Germans; conservative Germans see them as still Turkish, and too unlike other Germans to assimilate. Both sides judge the Turks, though, based on how much they look and sound like us. Remaining “too Turkish” is good neither in the eyes of the progressive nor of the conservative.

People move from invisible to visible once they stop being who they were and become like us. By learning languages, however, we can get to see people for who they are and get to know them on their terms.

Learning about other people’s baggage

We can upturn this paradigm by choosing not only to see those who are normally invisible, but learning about them as individuals and as an ethnic group—their “baggage.” Rick Steves said in his TEDx talk about why he travels, “When we travel we gain a little better appreciation of what is the baggage that people are carrying when they respond to us.” He is interested in learning about the “baggage” of different peoples, so he can understand how stress on a national level affects the way that a nation interacts with another nation. For example, Iranians view Americans as oppressors because of the aid the US lent to Iraq during the bloody invasion of Iran in the 1980s that resulted in hundreds of thousands of Iranian deaths.

Just as travel teaches us about others’ baggage and their views towards the US, engaging with people of different national backgrounds in our communities will teach us about our own community. Saturday I went to a coffee shop and started chatting with a couple of gentlemen speaking Oromo at the next table. We discussed the political problems between the ruling Ethiopian government, who are mostly Amharic and Tigray people, and the large Oromo population. These guys told me that they get along fine with Amharic and Tigray people in the US, that they all make an effort to keep things peaceful in the US because they don’t want to repeat the situation that exists in Africa. Getting along with people of different ethnic backgrounds is paramount for these gentlemen.

I learned a similar lesson early on in my study of Somali. A Somali friend and I met another Somali at our work for the first time. I asked where this man was from in Somalia, and both my friend and this new person became awkwardly silent. The man we met mumbled something, and my friend and I moved along. My friend explained to me that tribes in Somalia are largely connected with place, and that the civil war was fought along these tribal lines. In the US, as a result, Somalis prefer not to draw any attention to tribal affiliation lest they import the very violent divisions they came to the US to leave behind.

Others’ experience shining light on ours

These lessons warn me about the dangers of divisions in our society. They keep the peace because they know directly and concretely the consequences of not striving to get along with our neighbors. Even when Minnesotans do not treat them very well, they are likely willing to forgive a lot because they come from such hardship, division, and violence.

People in many countries look favorably on the US as a place of peace. They have seen true war and violence and come to the US to escape that violence. Moreover, they already demonstrated their desire to do what it takes to live in peace. We as Americans can look to their wisdom for guidance. Doing so, though, requires stopping to see them, and then listening to them. The political act is to hear about our country, our community, our politics, from a new point of view. Our refugees and immigrants offer wisdom when we are willing to listen.

How have you learned about other peoples’ baggage? How does this inform how they relate to you? What did they teach you about your baggage?

Photo credit: kurichan+ via / CC BY-NC-ND

4 thoughts on “Language learning as a political act (A nod to Rick Steves)

  1. Pingback: Peace comes from speaking another language…or does it? – Loving Language

  2. Pingback: Why are you learning languages? Is it love? – Loving Language

  3. Pingback: Polyglots needed as world gets smaller – Loving Language

  4. Pingback: Endangered languages challenge the smugness of the powerful – Loving Language

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