I’ve been following recently this discussion about my ecolinguism concept. (If you’re not familiar with this idea I coined, please see this post where I define it.) One direction that the conversation has gone in relates to my post where I critique digital nomads.
The argument in the discussion assumes that we as privileged, rich Westerners have a duty to help others with our wealth. Hence one must address the question: is it better to learn a language in a poorer area, such as Venezuela, or in a richer area, like the suburbs of a major US city? Where the people are poorer, there we have a greater duty to help. Moreover, it is oversimplification to call this action “colonialism” because colonialism brings with it wicked behavior historically. A blogger sitting in a cafe in Bali should not merit this label.
Another line of reasoning undermines any duty we have to immigrants and outsiders by questioning the definition of “needy.” Often Westerners look down on non-Westerners (such as immigrants, especially of other races). They may look down with disdain, and so hate the “intruders,” or with pity, and want to “help” others. The argument goes that the only way to look on these others is as equals. They do not “need” our help, but we reach out to them as brothers and sisters.
I believe that money is not central, and that human beings are not equal.
I believe that I have a duty to leave the world a better place than how I found it. Here’s how I do it by loving languages.
Building community first
I may fall short, the world may not look much better in fact, but I must give it a shot. Since I’m a “language guy,” I want the “language ecosystem” to be richer after I’ve done my work. In the US, I want languages to stop dying, and the languages most threatened are the weakest, most insignificant ones, spoken by the most marginalized people. I can’t make languages grow and more than I can pull a tomato vine out of a seed, but I can create an environment where the seed can grow strong and healthy. I have to work to do so.
The US is a language graveyard. Where I sit in Minnesota, I see a land where Lakota, Menominee, French, Swedish, and German were all spoken. Not any more. This is the fate of all languages in the US. As one Somali community leader said in a meeting about his language, “I do not want Somali to be a dead language in Minnesota.” If we don’t act, it will be.
My daughters’ classmates have parents who speak Vietnamese, Hmong, and Telugu. The classmates barely speak them. Their children will not speak them. Dead languages.
How do we create a community where language can flourish?
Money won’t solve the problem. Only community will.
My work, therefore, goes into creating a community where multiple languages thrive. I do not teach English. I learn Spanish, Somali, and Oromo. At our suburban school, I ask the principal at my kids’ school how we can include such languages in after-school programs, if not in the curriculum itself. I speak in front of every convention I can, such as international NGOs, language teachers, the Polyglot Conference, and workplace diversity and inclusion meetings.
In this way money does not motivate my language-learning, but community. So I do not ask where my dollars can do the most good. I ask where can my heart and soul do the most good. Digital nomads come, stay for a while, and leave. They don’t know what their effect on the community will be in the next 5, 10, or 20 years. They might pretend they’re part of the community, but they cannot be. They will leave.
It’s not about money
The money argument of living overseas doesn’t work either, because privilege changes the equation. The reality is that prices will go up when richer people come. On the one hand, foreigners have to accept that things are more expensive and should accept the higher price. In this blog post, we read, “If the street vendor in Thailand offers his or her merchandise to a local person for half the price, then it’s most likely because his local clients (just like him) only earn one tenth or one hundredth of what many of us earn.”
On the he other hand, this exchange can ruin the local economy. As this blog post says about taxis in Thailand, “You give him 250, tell him to keep the change, and go on your merry way. You’ve spent $7. But if that happens enough, taxi drivers stop picking up Thai people. They only look for tourists—there is more money to be made.” So you help a local taxi driver, but you hurt people trying to take taxis who are no longer worth the trouble.
The locals can’t win. But you don’t know the consequences of your actions. Because you left. You never became part of the community.
Colonists leave their home to go someplace else because of the cheap, abundant resources there. Colonialism has existed since the Babylonian Empire, and it won’t stop. But it’s driven by greed, not by improving one’s home.
…or it is about the money
When you bring in money, you are rich. When refugees come with only the shirt on their back, they are poor.
While I believe that human beings are human beings, I don’t believe they’re all equal. Privilege makes the difference.
People have things: money, abilities, influence, etc. These are distributed unequally. Those who have them are privileged. I believe we all have a duty to use these our privilege to serve others, not in a way that is convenient for the giver, but convenient for the receiver. We live to serve others, or, in other terms, we set ourselves below others.
When refugees come to my country, they have nothing, maybe not even an education. I have money, time, comfort, and education. Why would I not learn their language? Why would I demand of this person, who has nothing, to learn my language? Of course, learning my language will probably be good for him, but I’ll leave that decision to him. He has more on his plate than I ever have. Let him decide which language we have our conversation in. I’ll give him the option by learning his language.
(BTW One of the contributors to the on-line discussion got me very excited. She lives in Germany and is learning Arabic and Farsi/Dari. I’ve been encouraging people to do that, and it’s cool to see like minds doing this work in parallel.)
I have a friend who fixes cars. If you bring him your car, he will fix it. He will not ask for money. If you want to give, you give. He won’t turn it down. You can pay for parts, labor—whatever. He does not say you need him, and he doesn’t ask anything from you.
This is how language-lovers can work with immigrants. Whether we’re equal or not, I have privilege. But I won’t make them pay for the knowledge. I give it to them whenever they need it—preferably in their language. They don’t need me, and they don’t owe me. I serve them.
In this way, I do not set myself above them: I set myself below them.
But even more importantly, I see these people as part of my community. If I want a robust language ecosystem in my community for the next generation, I need these people. They are not unimportant or leeches, as conservatives say, or needy or pitiable, as liberals say—they are resources we need for our community.
I need them. They may or may not need me.
How do you use languages to improve your community?
Photo credit: Photosightfaces / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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