Selfish acts of tourism: Languages at home and abroad

What are you doing, O Polyglot, to make sure you're not this guy?
What are YOU doing, O Polyglot, to make sure you’re not this guy?

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?

Many people were upset by my recent post critical of traveling for the sake of language learning. (See here and here.) Here is a typical critique of my viewpoint:

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.

What are your motives for learning languages? How do you ensure that you are serving others and not yourself?
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5 thoughts on “Selfish acts of tourism: Languages at home and abroad

  1. After your last post, I went and read the discussion you referenced and wondered about the colonialism thing. I hadn’t noticed it when you said it, but it was paraded around in the discussion.

    The thing is, colonialism is something close to me. Close to my family. And not in the best way. It’s something I’ve learnt to ignore and not talk about. Particularly since I’m working in an ethnic radio station side-by-side Indians and Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and Malaysians.

    It’s not just because I live in Australia, and I have relatives who will happily refer to my family as “living in the colonies”. It’s because both of my father’s grandfathers served in the Indian Army. It’s because my grandmother was born in British-occupied Lahore and my grandfather grew up in British-occupied Malaysia. It’s because my great-grandparents knew each other in India long before my grandparents met and married in the UK. It’s because my grandfather taught me to count the chickens in Bahasa, and because I still say “jaldee, jaldee” to little kids to get them to move along.

    And it’s because this is all shameful. “Colonialism” is such a bad word, particularly in Australia, where it means “white invaders killing the locals”. Home Rule is a good thing, and it didn’t dispossess hundreds or thousands of Anglo-Indians who had never known a home other than Lahore or Lucknow or Bombay. My grandmother was stopped in the customs queue every time because her paperwork said she was born in Pakistan, but I didn’t even realise until I was a teenager that my family had spent two generations in India or that Urdu (“Hindustani”) was part of my vocabulary.

    Colonialism isn’t a clear-cut thing. I’ve known Aboriginal people to get stuck into me – and any white person – for maliciously coming over here and invading. I don’t speak back against it, because my family was literally in the army that did it – if not here, than in other countries like here. And you know why that is? Because after the English invaded our land, my clan had the good sense to be traitorous and swear allegiance to the English (well, German) king. That’s the only reason we’re one of the largest and most powerful clans today, and why we weren’t killed and scattered across the globe like so many of our brother and sister Gaels, most of whom won’t recognise us as Gaels because we were so Anglicised so quickly. So many of those “white invaders” in the 18th and 19th centuries in Australia weren’t invaders at all, but refugees, looking for a new home after having lost theirs for one reason or another.

    So, do I do the same thing? Or would I, given the money and half a chance? Yeah, sure, I’d travel to Scotland in a heartbeat to immerse myself in the language my ancestors lost. I’m getting more and more curiosity about Lahore, so I wouldn’t have mind visiting this place I’ve only just realised had such an impact on my family. Yeah, I’d probably try and learn a bit of the language, and I would almost certainly come away with a few new dishes, just as those evil colonial ancestors of mine did.

    I’m pragmatic enough to realise that there are languages I probably *should* be learning just to exist in my community. Doing the hospital chaplain thing and realising that I can’t communicate with half the people on the ward. Finding three Italians but exhausting what little I know within a minute with each of them. Greek and Vietnamese and Serbian and Madi. There’s a long list of languages I should come to grips with to help my community.

    Is it colonialism to say that they’re not my language, and I don’t care about them as much as I should? It rankles at me that I’ve lived in Adelaide all my life but don’t speak the local language, Kaurna, even though there are only a few dozen speakers of Kaurna in the world. I can learn community languages for their use, but its dying (and reviving) indigenous languages that really make me care. Learning Gaelic is like discovering part of myself that’s been squashed over the centuries. It doesn’t make sense, here on the other side of the world, but it’s helped me build a community in both countries, and to see the colonial history of Australia in a whole different way. It’s used to be the third-most-spoken language here. There are now less than 1000 speakers in the whole country.

    I’m a TCK. It’s something borne out of three centuries of colonialism and the resultant generational homelessness. There’s always going to be two warring parts of me, one saying “put down roots, form a community” and the other one saying “move already! your horizons are too narrow!” Hopefully one day I’ll be able to do both.

    Until then, don’t get upset over a bunch of twenty-somethings travelling the world and learning languages. They’ll got older and wiser and more pragmatic. They’ll put down roots and get dug into their communities, and their “linguistic tourism” experiences, however colonialistic, will give them a little more perspective than someone who’s stayed cemented in the single community all their life… Will give them, like it’s given you, an extra way of connecting to the others in the community, and of building it up for later generations.

    Sorry about the massive comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Me, Languages, Colonialism, Community and Identity | Rachel's Ramblings

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