Language hacking ≠ language love

How will you hack your language to help others?
How will you hack your language to help others?

When I first saw Benny the Irish Polyglot’s TEDx talk, I was inspired. Here was a guy who suffered through language-learning in school with no success. Then one day he decided to just start learning on his own in his own way, and he made huge strides. Not only did he discover that he could learn languages, but he loved learning them. He “hacked” the language-learning process.
He created a very successful blog and YouTube channel. You get to see him struggling through the language-learning process as he has conversations with young folks all over the world. You follow his life in great locations like China and Brazil.

Living the dream, he inspired others. Lots of other young folks like him wanted to go live in exotic locations and hang out with cool local people and learn languages in the process. Other YouTube channels were generated.

Aspiring digital nomads (compulsive travelers whose work happens completely on the internet) got on the bandwagon. They wanted to go to exotic locations. Whether their internet connection comes in Bankok, Brasilia, or Barcelona, they could live anywhere—and learn the local language.

The digital nomads became the digital colonists. They came to take advantage of cheap rent—sometimes pricing locals out of whole neighborhoods—and “exoticness” for their own excitement. Rather than try to become part of a local community, they stay until the place is less exciting and then follow their Wanderlust.

Rather than inspire people to become more moral human beings, Benny’s “language hacking” gave people the tools to exploit more people in more countries—and have fun doing it.

It inspired selfishness. Not love.

Digital nomads as the new colonists

The “digital nomad” lifestyle is colonial and selfish. You use cheap resources to enrich yourself. You do not become part of the community because a) you’re usually much richer than the local community and b) you’re looking to move on to the next place. You also likely use separate institutions for your digital nomad community, such as this article that describes how digital nomads hang out at the swimming pool and in the new, stylish breakfast places. You can tell the profile of the digital nomad “community” by looking at the photo of the “Nomad Summit.” Notice how many white people are there? It’s in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but could be in any city in the world.

While some argue that digital nomads are beginning to offer opportunities to local communities, digital nomads at best help local communities temporarily. By definition, they do not set down roots in the local community. They are nomads, ready to move on to greener pastures.

My path to ecolinguism

I was a language nomad in my youth, though “digital” had not yet become part of the vernacular. In the places I lived, many people did not have phones, let alone broadband. (The latter had not been invented yet.) I followed my desire to learn languages. I would save money, and then study or live in other countries.

Because I was going to learn the language, I spent a lot of time talking to whoever I could. I made a lot of friends and hung out a lot. In Kiev, I would go to parties a couple times a week, and spend afternoons going on walks with friends. In Marrakech, I would stroll through town, chatting with shopkeepers I knew, enjoying the beauty of the Medina. It was a great time.

Then I left. I have one friend from Kiev I chat with regularly, and no one from Marrakech. And not from lack of trying. We just fell out of touch.

When I came back to the US, I started hearing some of those same languages around me. The guy in Denver selling flowers on the corner by my office building was a construction engineer from Kharkiv, Ukraine. The guys selling hot dogs in Midtown Manhattan where I worked all seemed to come from Egypt.

Russian and Arabic were not isolated to faraway, exotic places. They were in my town right now.

They were so happy to talk to me in their language! Russian and Arabic have gotten me so many free and discounted goods. I got free flowers, discounted scarves, and even a free cab ride. They wanted to give to me because I had given to them by speaking their language.

Then my family grew. I needed to set down roots. Community rose to the top of my priorities. Wandering from one country to the next might be exciting for me, but would produce a rootless family and children. I wanted my kids to have roots.

I wanted to continue giving to others and bringing them joy through language, but I couldn’t travel. So I began the ecolinguism idea: listening for languages in my community in order to learn and speak them. My language talent used for others. Now I’m hoping to grow old in the US Upper Midwest among my East African friends.

Stay home. Or go overseas. But listen to and understand those around you—and sacrifice what you have for those who have less. Become a part of the community—permanently. Learn the language of those who need you. Use your talents and privilege for others, not yourself.

How will you use your language ability for others?
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13 thoughts on “Language hacking ≠ language love

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  3. “Rather than inspire people to become more moral human beings, Benny’s “language hacking” gave people the tools to exploit more people in more countries—and have fun doing it”.

    Richard, first of all, you know I love you 😉 … but maybe you’re going a teensy bit too far here…? I would argue that those digital nomads who are actually bothering to learn the language and are interacting with local people in the local language probably belong to the least selfish portion of the digital nomads.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a digital nomad and wanting to learn about different languages and cultures close-up, in situ. I guess I would say that, being one myself… and, no doubt, some of them do behave like locusts… but it’s a bit harsh, I think, to tar all of us with that brush.

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    1. I’m glad you brought out this idea for further examination. I think that taking a closer look at the language(s) we chose to learn is warranted. There’s an opportunity cost. For every moment I learn a language spoken abroad, I ignore a language spoken in my community. We can learn about those people without leaving our home town.

      When we don’t examine why we’re learning languages, languages can become a tool of exploitation and manipulations. If we tend towards that end anyway–which is a risk for anyone with privilege–then the language is a tool of mistreatment and possible exploitation.

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      1. I like the idea of learning community languages and I think it’s a concept that deserves promotion and discussion. It’s a segment that has not been sufficiently explored, I think.

        I’m concerned that with the approach you have been taking of late, a lot of people, language lovers, will be left feeling alienated instead of encouraged. Your posts are sounding almost… evangelical, for want of a better word.

        People learn languages for many reasons, and while there are, no doubt issues with some aspects of “polyglot culture” (some of which make me a bit uncomfortable, too), in general the exchange between two people of different cultures for the purpose of language learning is mutually rewarding, even if their resources are not equal. In your own case, do you really feel that people in the Ukraine or Morocco who got to know you felt poorer for the experience rather than personally enriched on some level? Do you perhaps even wish you’d not gone and spent time in these countries? Just curious…

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      2. Thanks for your thoughtful feedback. You make good points, and I’ll address them in my next post. Saying that travel is *never* good might be too much. But we need ways to keep ourselves in check because the difference in privilege can be so great as to cause accidental damage. I have been thinking a lot about this, and I hope to have an answer in a couple days.

        Please let me know if my next post answers your questions. I appreciate your feedback.

        Liked by 1 person

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  9. Certainly a lot to think about here.
    I serve coffee to a very international clientele, and have seen how happy people are to converse with my Spanish and Italian colleagues in their own language. I’ve also seen how happy they are to teach you if you display an interest, which I do, I love languages. With a little luck (and some hard work) I’ll hopefully learn Italian and Spanish from my ‘community’.
    However not everyone has the luxury of living in a metropolitan place where multiple languages are spoken. Certainly in England there are towns where they will never see anyone other a white English person. If you happen live somewhere that has a large immigrant population, they tend to stick together (where they can use their language all the time). Both your and my examples of people happy to use their native language, comes from singular people surrounded by not-native language, which isn’t actually a common situation outside very big cities, at least in England.
    That’s my two-cents on community languages anyway, but as I said there is a lot more to think about here.

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  10. interesting ideas. I suppose it all depends on how it’s done. Now, when you describe digital nomads as the group “hanging around by the pool” and taking advantage of their buying power and so on, I somewhat agree with you. It’s a kind of colonialism. It reminds me of the 19-century “Orientalism” where highly privileged westerners began taking interest in the rest of the world, but only from an aesthetic point of view – not an egalitarian one. To me, traveling to cultures that are vastly different from my own involves a lot of discretion and passive observation. You’re not merely a spectator, or someone taking part in a show. It’s you how are the show! Everything you do has an impact, and there’s a lot you don’t understand. It’s all about being humble…
    That being said, I don’t know that much about Benny (and the other “digital nomads'” approaches to traveling and language learning.. An interest in foreign cultures and languages can’t be a bad thing.

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