Language love can cure America

American independence leads to isolation.
American independence leads to isolation.

The US is sick. Not only the US: we’ve exported our sickness around the globe.

We lack community because our society destroys communities.

In reading Simon Sinek’s Starting with Why, I was reminded that Howard Shultz’s original idea for founding Starbucks was to create a “third space” between home and work for people to build community. But later, as Sinek’s open letter states, Starbucks became about money. This shift in basic beliefs was symbolized by the move from classy ceramic cups and plates to cardboard cups. As Sinek wrote, “Nothing says to a customer, ‘We love you now get out,’ like a paper cup.”

Let me build on that. I went to Spain last summer. One of the reasons I was excited was because of coffee in coffee shops.

What did I find? Spaniards walking around town with cardboard Starbucks cups.

Where else have I seen the problem? Russians, who have been drinking tea as groups out of teapots for centuries, now make individual cups using individual tea bags. Indians are crazy about on-line dating, looking for a personal match rather than including the entire family in the process of continuing the family. The American woman sitting next to me on the plane who bought nuts immediately after turning down the nuts I offered her from my bag.

The pain I feel as an American comes from excessive independence, a lack of interdependence. Everyone can now function completely on his or her own, and it’s destroying us.

Disease-free zones

This excessive independence has not infected everywhere yet.

  • Somalis do not buy life insurance. The mourners at the funeral offer money towards expenses.
  • Recently at an Oromo funeral in Minneapolis, mourners offered enough money to pay for the family to travel back to Ethiopia to lay their father to rest.
  • A Hmong family got together with a brother or two and bought a car together. They did not get credit from a bank; they pooled their money together and shared the car.

Their kids don’t stand a chance, however. US culture bombards them to “assimilate,” so they lose their language and then their culture. Grandchildren literally cannot talk to their grandparents in the same room. The grandchildren have to depend on the culture at large—strangers—because it cut them off from their roots. At this point, the disease is terminal.

“Assimiliate” means act, talk, and think like us. Eliminate the Other in our midst. Lack of assimilation is considered, at best, lazy and, at worst, subversive and destructive. If I have a problem with the Other, it is because the Other causes himself to be Other.

We do not know how to act as community because we no longer know how to love and accept and server the Other.

Now for how languages matter

Languages help in two ways.

  1. The means. I need to learn what these people have, and they speak another language better than English. They have means that can help me build our community. This wisdom will come out best in their language, not in English, because it requires a different cultural matrix to be nuanced correctly.
  2. The ends. By learning their language, I build the community. I connect to them. For me to live fully, I have to connect deeply with those around me. I cannot connect deeply by standing line at Starbucks, grabbing a cup to go. I have to sit and drink it with them. And we have to talk. I could potentially speak English to them. That would, significantly, exclude those who do not speak English well. Moreover, how can I expect them to take on more of a burden to build community than I? If they have to learn English for the sake of community, fine, but I need to be willing to take on that burden, too. I need to take that burden on for the sake of service to others.

So much work awaits us to change the culture. For this reason, I’ve challenged the paradigm of traveling to learn languages learning the languages of those who live far away. When those do not function to build up community, we’re contributing to the problem.

I’ve been called a hypocrite by more than one person because I have traveled to learn languages. That accusation doesn’t bother me so much, because I feel that if a teaching is correct, it’s correct, whether or not the “messenger” practices it or not.

More importantly, however, those travels functioned as a lens for me. They allowed me to hear what is being said in my community. I got plugged into a different way of living, and so I saw clearly what was wrong with my community. Some of my critics accuse me of making people feel guilty about traveling. I saw what was good, too, but I became more interested in improving than resting on my nation’s laurels. I wanted to look hard at the critique to see how I can improve the lives of my family and neighbors. The travels were ultimately good—whether the intentions were good or not—because these travels functioned to build up the community.

Traveling helped me counteract the overwhelming force of the community-busting power of American culture because of language. Speaking languages in my community brings people together, and listening to other languages teaches me what my community needs.

How do you use languages to build your community?

Photo credit: Alvaro A. Novo via / CC BY-NC-SA


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