Watch your politics, Polyglots!

Who do we choose to pay attention to?
Who do we choose to pay attention to?

Once I was criticized on a language forum for bringing up politics in a way that someone thought was superfluous. The forum was discussing what language everyone wanted to learn. I suggested that choosing a language was a political discussion. “Please don’t,” someone responded.

Is that possible? Can we pick a language to study without making a political statement?

When you choose a language, you decide who you want to listen to, whose stories are most important to you.

I recently started up a Facebook page for our Minneapolis Oromo practice group. This language often brings up political debate. The official language of the country, Amharic, represents an ethnic group that makes up 29% of the country. Oromo, which is not an official language of the country, is spoken natively by 33%. Currently, the disparity of power has caused clashes between Oromo students and the Amharic government.

As for me, I chose to study Oromo because I like learning about languages I know nothing about, and because it was offered at the local community college. Only later did I discover the political decision I made by choosing the language of a people experiencing lots of problems in their home country.

The Oromo-Amharic argument is not my fight, though. I have Amharic-speaking friends, and I’ve never been to Ethiopia. In general, I don’t like getting involved in these sorts of political arguments, since I have Israeli and Palestinian friends, and Russian and Ukrainian friends. My Oromo friends tend to keep me insulated from their battle.

So when I started my group of Facebook, I wrote, “We are Afaan Oromo learners of all levels, motivated by many reasons. Our goal is to learn this lovely language–not solve political problems. Come join us!”

Then I received a response: “Learning your language itself is politics. We can achieve both.”

This Oromo expressed what got me shut down. Simply by choosing to learn Oromo, I made a political decision.

If participants in the Polyglot Conference choose to study Greek before they go to Thessaloniki rather than Arabic or Kurdish, they have made a political decision. I don’t judge the decision, but I can’t deny that a decision was made.

Not perceiving the politics in learning languages exists only in privilege. Native Americans understand this when they speak English. Welsh people likely feel it, too. Ukrainians understand this whatever language they speak. Arabs learn that their language is political wherever they go. Native English speakers don’t realize the politics behind their decision to go to Germany without learning German because, “Everyone speaks English there.”

What are the politics behind the language you decided to learn?

Photo from Gratisography.

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12 thoughts on “Watch your politics, Polyglots!

  1. There are times (not always, of course) when I can be having a lovely conversation with a Chinese person but the tone completely changes once they discover that I also speak Japanese, or if I make a reference to something about Japan. It would be easier if I chose not to tell Chinese people about my experience in Japan, but it’s such a big part of my language learning experience (university exchange, degree, work experience) that it quite naturally comes up.

    Having said that, I have to admit that the historical/political contexts for what I’m experiencing are very real. It actually just came up last week when I was talking with a Chinese person about Obama’s visit to Hiroshima.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You make a very interesting point. As professional linguists we try to stay neutral out of politics. It is nigh well impossible for someone, somewhere not to see your actions (or inactions) as political – in ways that do not always occur to you in advance. I cherish my freedom to think, speak, write and act. I suppose that is political?

    Now even speaking French, German, Italian and Spanish can be perceived as political in Britain due to the impending Referendum. I’m proud of being British and European – it doesn’t blind me to the failings of either side or make me a traitor to my nation. European languages have been a lifelong love that have enabled me to understand other cultures and peoples. They are my livelihood. How could I not have an opinion on the subject?

    Who better than a linguist to explain and understand what is going on? There is so much disinformation – isn’t it our professional and “political” duty to communicate clearly and accurately? Those who keep quiet in the face of this are making a political choice too – one that insults the memory of those who fought for our freedom down the centuries. The behaviour of politicians and extremists has made politics a dirty word. Many of the world’s citizens must envy our ability to disapprove of our politicians, make personal choices and express “political” opinions.

    Learning languages makes us informed citizens of the world – if that makes us political in some eyes, so be it.

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  3. Eugh… I decided to learn Gaelic without knowing anything about the politics behind it – I simply knew it was a language that was in my family background and liked the idea of it. Then I started learning it… and I heard the politics.

    Probably I was just naïve to start off with, because I grew up in the expat community, where phrases like “Alba gu brath” are brandied about, but then when I started learning it I heard a lot of negative things from the community like, “It’s not a real language”, “There are so many varieties, there’s no point”, “It’s a useless language, no-one speaks it”. Meanwhile, Gaelic-language social media is all about how it’s the indigenous language and deserves more support after being suppressed for centuries, and English- and Scots-speakers in Scotland spend a lot of time complaining about how much funding Gaelic gets despite only accounting for about 2% of the population…

    Yes, there’s no way learning Gaelic can be *not* a political decision, particularly if I were in Scotland. Thankfully I’m not, so I’m shielded from most of the political pressures, but at the same time, I hear a lot more about the politics of the language than I might if I were in Scotland – or rather, I hear just about the politics and not about the everyday things. Even telling people I speak Gaelic here means explaining what it is and that it’s not actually dead, and in some situations simply speaking the words “Gaelic is not dead” is a political statement…

    Most things to do with Scotland seem to be political these days.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Yep, that Ukrainian / Russian thing. From late 2011- early 2013 I was trying to learn Ukrainian. I studied it online (livemocha, etc) and kept trying to find someone in Kharkiv to practice with, but everyone said “I don’t know it very well! I can’t help you! I’ll teach you bad grammar! Let’s just speak Russian.” So I gave up, and of course, now all those same people have since switched to using Ukrainian as a patriotic statement :p

    I know that language doesn’t dictate loyalty, but nowadays I would feel weird to go to Ukraine and use Russian. I feel like the minute you open your mouth, some people think you’re picking a side. Ukrainian is still an interesting language to me, but I would add one thing to what you said (“When you choose a language, you decide who you want to listen to, whose stories are most important to you.”)… choosing a language can also be an economic one. I can make more money living in the US and speaking Russian than living here and speaking Ukrainian, and that’s an important factor to me. Russian is also more widely spoken here than Ukrainian, and I like keys that can open as many doors as possible.

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  7. ኔቢያት መንገሣ

    I found this really interesting being that I’m Ethiopian but I speak neither of the two! Because I am an ethnic Tigray, and speak Tigrinya, I somewhat fall into a different loop that still politically is against the Amhara government but also fervently against the ideas espoused in Oromo ethnonationalistic politics. Whatever be the case of the person you ask, language in the Horn of Africa is intimately tied to politics and identity, at least when the language is intimately tied to an ethnic group’s ambitions for state or territorial control — hence why Southern Ethiopia’s linguistic situation is sociopolitically very different from that of the North or the East of the country.
    As a Tigrinya-speaker I personally face that schism between Eritrean Biher-Tigrinya and Ethiopian Tigray, which at least linguistically plays on the idea of commenting on dialects being “broken” or “bastardized”. But this is something a lot, I mean A LOT of people who live in Western nation states would find much harder to comprehend. I’m no polyglot (I’m a linguistics student), but I’ve always advised polyglots to not learn languages that are intimately tied to identity and politics, it can be very patronizing and odd. If I saw a non-Ethiopian or non-Eritrean who isn’t at least in part Tigray/Biher-Tigrinya speaking Tigrinya or wanting to learn it, I would discourage it. That person wouldn’t understand the connotations of being ethnically tied to the language and the struggle that can come with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment. I can’t imagine a language that *isn’t* related to identity and politics, whether Nahuatl or Tamil. Tell me more about how you find learning Tigrinya patronizing and odd? Odd, sure, but why patronizing?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ኔቢያት መንገሣ

        Well it’s patronizing in a sense that I feel only someone who’s intimately tied to Tigrinya can understand. I don’t feel odd if an Amhara speaks Tigrinya (on the contrary, I know a few who can), but if I see a person who’s neither Northern Ethiopian or Eritrean saying they want to learn it or adding it to the polyglot language list, it’s just odd. It’s patronizing in the sense that as a Tigrinya-speaker, it’s looked poorly on if I tell you that I don’t want you speaking Tigrinya; even if it’s true. In reality I wouldn’t, you don’t bear the consequences in some social contexts of being a Tigray in different contexts. Because from what I’ve experienced of the polyglot world (mostly Tumblr-based stuff), many people have no regard for how the native speakers feel or even the ties of the language to politics. You wouldn’t understand what it’s like to be a Tigrinya-speaker in the Ethio-Eritrean sociopolitical sphere, you know? Even as someone who studies linguistics, I’d just generally advise against it because even if I didn’t speak Tigrinya, I do work with it and even in sociolinguistics there is very, very strong ties between the ethnic identity and the language that someone who isn’t from the general region, let alone country, would understand.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I see your points. I do see the callous approach of polyglots who don’t regard the speakers of the language, so I get it.

        But what if I want to understand the situation in Ethiopia and Eritrea? I can’t do so without the languages. How do you feel about that approach?

        Another element is that I’m trying to get to know diaspora communities. There’s a different social matrix there that you don’t bring up. What about learning Tigrinya for learning about the kid who goes to my kids’ school? How does that strike you?

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      3. ኔቢያት መንገሣ

        One can understand the situation without the languages very easily. Most of the scholars I’ve read who work on archeology, ethnology, etc. don’t speak the languages, but in general have a very good understanding of the area. You can easily do so without the languages, just like how one can also easily understand the Arab world with enough effort without actually speaking Arabic.

        As for the diaspora, I myself am a first generation immigrant in America. My experience may be different, but nonetheless when in Rome, do as the Romans. Even when one is in an area where there may be many speakers of a language like Tigrinya, it’s likely the language won’t last 2-3 generations. Easily. Tigrinya in many degrees, even with family, has no real use. Yeah it’s nice to hear sometimes and use in jokes, but no one really speaks it. My cousin’s from my mother’s side (only ones I speak to) always speak to each other in English; because realistically everyone speaks more English than Tigrinya. The thing is, you can learn about me without learning my language. In my eyes, as a Tigrinya-speaker, immigrant, Ethiopian, etc. I don’t need you to know my language to know me. My language is my language, chances are my kids won’t know it and I’m sure my grandchildren won’t know it. What is unique to me and my own, is unique for a reason. It’s a cultural thing. My identity and my understanding of my identity is only in my eyes comfortably understood from what I tell you, not from what you get from learning my language. You won’t understand me still, because (on assumption) you’re an American. One can speak Chinese, and not actually understand being ethnically Chinese or the viewpoints of a person in China who moved to America.

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