Bequeathing a good community for my children to live in is my highest priority. More basically, being good means nothing if I’m not doing good. So if I’m spending time, money, or energy on something besides my community, I’m obliged to question it.
I’m a language guy, so I spend a lot of time and energy on languages. If I’m following this assumption, then I should be studying languages for the sake of my community.
Choosing a language, therefore, must also build up my community.
Community, not the “exotic” or “new,” must motivate me. How do I study and acquire languages to build up others, rather than myself?
If traveling runs the risk of exploiting people, even a little, I’d rather stay at home and build up my community.
Languages with, in, and for the community
When I describe building up community, I mean creating deep, interdependent relationships among people, where every individual offers their abilities, gifts, and privilege to the community as a whole. I depend on you, and you depend on me. If I leave, I hurt you, and if you leave, you hurt me. I stay for your sake, and you stay for my sake. No one is for his- or herself. (Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe, in particular, inspired this idea.)
When it comes to learning a language, I have to ask the question:
What good am I doing for you?
Look at City Stay, where you can study “abroad” in your own community without ever getting on a plane. Immerse yourself in another culture and connect with a family very different from yours, without leaving your home town. When you “leave,” you can still preserve the connection. See their kids grow up, invite them to your wedding, go to a movie together on the weekend.
Are polyglots really exploitative?
I mean, criticise mass tourism, “expat” culture and AirBnB all you want (and I would be the first to do so), but I’m not sure what the completely marginal in comparison language-learning community has done to deserve this ire.
This person places a person who is learning a language in a foreign location above someone who travels with a mass of people, lives as an expat, or jumps from one AirBnB to another. On what basis? The person learning the language works harder to connect with locals than those others. Those others just travel to see something cool and then go home.
I want to examine more closely this supposed difference.
Others were upset that I said that traveling language-learners exploit others, thinking that I was exaggerating. Relating language-learners to colonists angered some readers. I define “colonist” as someone with power who travels to another place to take advantage of cheap, plentiful resources. It has been happening as long as humans has existed.
One person was angry because of the real evil implied by the term. I submit, however, that much of colonialism was benign. Most of it was a British Raj or the equivalent sitting behind a big desk filling out paperwork in an office. He might even get along well with the locals and speak some of their language. Colonialism can look ok on the surface, if we don’t look at the underlying power dynamic. I might not be mining copper or something, but if I take language resources and run, what is the difference?
Self-actualization vs serving others
When one blogger agreed with part of my argument he wrote the following:
They are usually just aspects of the wider cult of hedonism and self-actualisation in western society, and particularly younger people of the American persuasion. (from the “Luso” blog)
The way that we fight against hedonism and self-actualization is by working towards the good of others, not our own. We have to provide something to someone else.
When I travel to another country, even for a year or two, even if I learn the language fluently, it’s still just a moment in time. Then I leave. I don’t build up the community.
As I wrote in this post over two years ago, one must keep up one’s guard against taking advantage of others. To act correctly, I must always keep the community, not myself, at the forefront. I’m naturally a curious person, but satisfying my curiosity is not an adequate reason for learning a language.
I have to be prepared to recognize that I can always be wrong. I might be selfish (a hedonistic self-actualizer), and not community-oriented. I might be a colonist, in it for my own gain, instead of others.
If I am not questioning my motivations, I easily can exploit others.