Which language-learners are imperialists?

The most common power dynamic. How do you upset it?
The most common power dynamic. How do you upset it?

At the point recently, when some people were angry that I called traveling polyglots imperialists, I realized that I did not define clearly what I meant by that word. So I’ve researched some recent use of this word.

Many scholars and social theorists discuss colonialism and neo-colonialism at length. I read a great summary here. I want a way, though, to decide at what point does the polyglot become a force for evil and not good.

As language-learners, we have to be aware of the power dynamics around languages at all times. When we speak with service-workers in touristy areas, when we hire a tutor on iTalki, when we move to a “more affordable” country, when we talk to immigrants in our neighborhood, we have to know how our economic and power differences influence the conversation. In many ways, the fact that we (as the majority of the readers of this blog) come from richer, more politically powerful countries coerces people into talking to us. For the same reason, they are learning our language, and already speak it better that we speak theirs.

Furthermore, we have to look at the economic, political, and cultural power of the language we want to study. Although this girl is amazing at speaking so many languages, I noted that all the languages her mother chose for her—Russian, English, German, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Arabic—carry strong cultural and economic power. In spite of living in Moscow, little Bella’s mom didn’t teach her child Ukrainian, Tatar, or Armenian languages: the most common ethnicities in Moscow after Russian.

People tend to learn languages that give economic, political, and/or cultural advantages. Other languages are learned as exotic or for vacations. Family relationships are another reason one learns languages, though this is much less common. But power dominates reasons for learning languages.

I believe we can counter this uneven flow of power, by seeking the advantages of learning a language that is less economically, politically, or culturally powerful than our own.

We have to contextualize our language-learning in what it does for the local community, whether it helps or hurts in the long run. The way to ensure positive long-term effects is to learn languages to help the community I live in. If I’m going to know the long-term effects, it’s necessary for me to stay around to feel the effects first-hand.

One of the main problems I see in my community is power relations: the ancient problem of the haves vs the have-nots. I happen to find myself in the former group. When I hear languages spoken around me, the speakers tend to be in the latter group, many of them immigrants. The best use of my language is to help these dynamics. I work to let power flow from my abundance to their lack.

Often I hear the critique that the speakers of the other languages want or need to speak more English, so I shouldn’t speak their language; I’m only depriving them of practice. I believe, however, that I should give them a choice. If they want to practice English, so be it. If they want to relax and speak their own language, I should offer that option, as well.

Another complaint was that I was patronizing to immigrants, that I refused to see them as equals. I countered that the power imbalance is a real differentiating quality. The reason I work to balance that power dynamic is actually because I believe that we are all have equal dignity as human beings.

As an ecolinguist, I want to know and understand these power dynamics in my community as they relate to language. Once I understand them, then I want to influence them for the better.

What language power dynamics do you see in your community? How do you respond?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons and is in the Public Domain.

One thought on “Which language-learners are imperialists?

  1. Your post made me think… there is one group which goes out into small communities, learning the language for the sole purpose of imposing their values on them. They are called “missionaries”. Pearl Buck, herself a daughter of missionaries, spoke out against this practice in the first half of last century (at great cost to herself, but then again, she was an exceptionally brave woman), but the franchise just keeps on going…

    Have you heard of missionary-turned-linguist Daniel Everett? He went to stay with Amazonian Indians, and realised that his premise for bothering them was fatally flawed. I’ve been meaning to read this book of his for ages: https://www.amazon.es/Dont-Sleep-There-Are-Snakes/dp/0307386120

    Liked by 1 person

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