Giving up privilege with language-love

I have always found it nice to meet Somalis.
I have always found it nice to meet Somalis.

I want to connect to the margins. In some ways, it’s where I feel comfortable. I lived a lot at the margins. I know what it’s like. In multiple countries, I did not live in an expat community, but immersed myself among locals only in places as diverse as Morocco, post-Soviet Ukraine, and France. At my university, I was a minority Gentile among a majority Jewish population, who taught me about life as a marginalized community.

At the same time, I could never live completely in the margins. I’m an upper-middle-class, English-speaking, graduate-degree-holding, straight white American. We have a lot of privilege. As I was told in Ukraine when I expressed my deep understanding of people in the margin, “It’s different. You can always leave.”

When I say that we need to sacrifice for the margin, I speak as someone who tries to express my appreciation of the marginalized, though any marginalization I ever experienced was temporary.

I can’t avoid my privilege. It’s part of who I am. It’s not evil and it’s not good. The way I use it defines it as good or evil. Previously (here and here) I spoke of my “why” for what I do and write:

I believe that we all should put ourselves out there to love. More specifically, we need to sacrifice for one another, especially for those in need.

We must sacrifice that privilege for the sake of those without.

I spend my privilege as a sacrifice for others by learning languages, not only time, but my own ego. I risk sounding dumb or wasting time. Sometimes, speaking someone else’s native language. Some might call me a dilettante because I’ve started scores of languages but have mastered such a tiny fraction of them. In other words, I’ve sacrificed becoming a true language expert.

I sacrifice for others so that I can more authentically bridge divides between cultures. I choose languages to speak based on the community I will speak with. Because of why I learn languages, I choose to learn the languages of those on the margins. I look for them, listen for them, and introduce myself to them.

When I say, “I sacrificed,” I’m looking for neither sympathy nor congratulations. I know it’s inadequate. I know that I’m still privileged. I do not deserve pats on the back for what I’ve done, and I’ll never really know what it is to permanently inhabit the margins.

Doing the right thing is beyond us. While we strive to do what’s right, we always fall short. Selfishness, short-sightedness, and self-righteousness pollute what we’re trying to do.

Languages remind me that my attempts to connect with those outside my community will always remain inadequate. Words elude me, grammar confuses me, and I will simply never understand their jokes. Rather than sounding like a PhD-holding man of privilege, I more closely resemble an excited man-child who can barely make a sentence. And everyone around me in that community over the age of 4 is superior to me—whatever my privilege is. But I reach out to shake their hand.

Someone with my sort of privilege needs to spend time trying to fit into the most foreign of spaces: the margin. I sacrifice for those on the margin by learning languages, namely for those who cannot enter the privileged space I occupy. I try to hear them and be a voice for them in my own community, hoping that the desire to connect and sacrifice will spread.

How do you put yourself out there to love and to sacrifice for others? How does language-learning help you to do so?

Photo credit: Australian War Memorial collection / Foter / No known copyright restrictions


2 thoughts on “Giving up privilege with language-love

  1. Pingback: Ecolinguism: Languages are wealth – Loving Language

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