Let’s be honest, though. Does learning the language of another really bring peace? Young Palestinians know Hebrew. Almost all Ukrainians are bilingual in Ukrainian and Russian. Most Ethiopians and Eritreans speak mutually comprehensible languages, as do many Indians and Pakistanis.
This week I had to rethink some of my rhetoric, to tighten it up.
To achieve peace and understanding, learning a language will not be enough. We language-learners must submit and become the students of those who speak other languages. Listening to them, not imposing our view, not manipulating them, must be our goal so that we can challenge our assumptions and gain wisdom.
This reflection was inspired an episode of the podcast, “Lexicon Valley,” that featured John McWhorter interviewing Gretchen McCulloch. The main subject was emojis as a language, but the conversation went towards the reasons why someone would want emojis to be a language.
Ms. McCulloch writes important pieces about linguistics for non-specialists. (I had the pleasure of meeting her at the Polyglot Conference in 2015.) She gives everyday people the tools to reflect consciously on language, this means of communication that we all use intuitively without always thinking about.
At moment 11:40 in the interview, she called out what she called the “common language equals peace fallacy.” She explained that “civil wars are a thing” and “you can have an argument in a marriage,” both of which situations demonstrate that it takes more than a common language to bring peace. “You can speak the same language but you don’t get along,” she correctly asserts.
Oops! I thought. Have I been wrong? I worried.
After some thought I realized she didn’t even mention the half of it. Mark Zuckerberg did not learn Mandarin to impress his wife alone, but to ingratiate himself to the Chinese Government. Germans do not learn English just because they love American culture, but to do business in an English-dominated marketplace. The CIA does not teach Pashtun to connect with a unique culture, but to gain intelligence to win a war.
In these cases, the learner is not seeking to become wiser. All of them seek to gain materially from the person they’re interacting with.
How can I learn truth from this person? we must ask ourselves. Whether the person comes from the other side of a civil war, or we’re married to her, we have to ask this question. We have to listen.
When we learn the language of another person, we submit to experiences and stories very different from ours. When I learned Russian, I became able to listen to stories of religion and government and war and poverty way beyond my own. Many did not know English, so their point of view was “untainted” by my American culture, that is, they spoke a truth as distinct from my truth as was possible.
In studying Oromo, I learn about customs and lifestyles so different from mine, that I can’t help but look differently at my own assumptions.
We learn wisdom through the humble focus on what we don’t know. Struggling to speak a difficult language, working through the confusion of a different point of view, we can challenge our world view and acquire new stories and further wisdom. When we challenge constantly what we believe to be true, we can, in fact, bring about more peace, even preventing civil war and healing our marriages.