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.