Imagine a high school cafeteria. Groups of boys and girls sit together, in small and large groups or by themselves. Certain tables are loud, others, quiet. Loners are silent. At each one, certain topics or mannerisms come up regularly that lend a table its identity: the loud table, the Goth table, the Latino table.
One table’s members might turn their noses up at another table. The members of another table might envy another table, wishing they could sit there instead of where they are at.
When we see this scenario in movies, you know who the hero is? The one from the popular table, who goes to sit at another table, even with a loner. That person cares more about people than about being popular, connections rather than personal gain, doing the right thing rather than the opinion of popular kids.
We may not be in high school, but these groupings still exist. They are the cultures and language groups we work and shop with.
Out in your daily life, you can be like this hero. Learn languages. You can cross over, outside of your group to connect with others. As I’ve been saying for the past few weeks:
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.
This cafeteria scenario shows how communities function. They are made up of groups of individuals, relatively static, with some ways to move from one to another. The ways that they speak are their language; the ways they act, their culture.
Is this segregation good or bad? People have mixed feelings after they leave and reflect on high school. On the one hand, they treasure the close relationships they had with those friends at the table. On the other hand, they regret the inability to cross over those invisible lines from one table to the next.
I believe that we are all better off when some of us cross over those lines, but not for our own gain. Enjoy your friends, but expand the circle. We shouldn’t cross the lines because we want to gain for ourselves by moving to a “more popular” table, but because we want to recognize other communities, get to know them and learn from them.
Certain languages enjoy being the “in-crowd.” English is the reigning prom king and queen. Some of them will hang out with Spanish, French, and German, and some have noticed that Mandarin is cooler than they thought before. Some from the English table actually spend time at those other tables occasionally. Mandarin is overjoyed when English deigns to sit with them, but they would actually love it more if they could just sit with English.
Then we have second tier popularity. Even though English never really payed much attention to Korean, some of the tables, like Thai and Tagalog, think that Korean is awesome. Arabic has their own fans like Somali and Urdu, but the true popular tables don’t notice them much. They’re just not in the same league.
What happens when English decides, “Hey! My table isn’t the whole cafeteria. I wonder what’s up with the hundreds of other kids around here”?
The whole paradigm is turned upside-down.
Someone gets up from English and sits with French. Not so impressive—they talk already anyway. When they go sit with Arabic, Thai, or even Nahuatl—everyone is confused. Sure, everyone is pleased at first. Contact between such different words, though, can bring awkwardness.
If English comes to visit every week, coming by other tables on the other days, they all start to learn more. They stop hating, envying, or ignoring each other and begin to see each other as just another kid like me. Peace will not necessarily reign, but at least some more truth will pervade the cafeteria.
Arabic and Korean are not actually so different, or, at least, aren’t as different as they thought they were. English vouched for Arabic to Korean, and Korean is willing to give Arabic a chance. Korean and Arabic notice each other, and they begin to cross tables.
If you are at one of the popular tables, today it’s time to go sit at another table. Learn a language—not necessarily a popular one. Sit and talk with its speakers. You don’t have to sit their forever, for the rest of your life. But if you sit there, just to sit and learn about them, the message you send will be—heroic.