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.