I haven’t always lived as a successful ecolinguist. The past couple days I was remembering times when I missed opportunities, times when I found myself in a rich linguistic environment but didn’t take the time to look around and connect with the people around me. While I managed to connect with some of the languages, some of them avoided my grasp.
Fortunately, I found ways to connect better with people around me now, though I still fall short. Observing my environment better at this point, I can at least see how my languages fit in.
I hope that this post will help you look around you to listen to and learn from the people around you. I will show you where and how opportunities to be an ecolinguist exist around you. Once you start to pay attention, you may find that your friends, coworkers, classmates, or neighbors speak languages you didn’t notice.
It was hit and miss for me in high school. I had no idea I wanted to be an ecolinguist, but I knew I wanted to connect with other languages. When my German teacher, who came originally from Haarlem in the Netherlands, retired, I asked her to teach me Dutch. She agreed, and I used to spend one lunch period per week in her basement. I lucked out that I had an actual language teacher who had spare time and an unusual language to teach.
I also had a good friend my senior year who was an exchange student from Germany. We would hang out a lot, and sometimes we would go out for coffee or go for a walk downtown, and I’d practice German.
Other exchange students offered examples I didn’t take advantage of. A German exchange student was in my French class another year, but I never spoke German with him. We had a couple Finnish exchange students come through the school, and I never even learned how to say “hello.” One year a Danish girl came to our school—but she was so beautiful I was terrified just to say “hello” in English!
Of course, Spanish was around, too. I went to school in Denver, so any time I left my suburb I would hear the language. But I never learned it.
If you had come to my college during the 90s, you would have immediately noticed how much Russian was spoken. We had hundreds of new Russian immigrants, enough to have a real Russian subculture. I joked that we had the weekly French, Hebrew, and Spanish tables—but every day was Russian table in the smoking section of the cafeteria. (Yes, we had that.)
I was lucky enough that many Russians did work-study as Russian tutors, so I met weekly one-on-one with a girl from St Petersburg. (She was so beautiful that it was easy to stay motivated.)
We had a similar arrangement with Israeli students for my Hebrew class. Since there weren’t as many, though, I couldn’t meet as often with them. One of my good friends was Israeli, so I took an occasional opportunity to practice with him.
During my first year, I befriended a kid from Amsterdam, and I told him I wanted to continue my Dutch. A German professor and my Indonesian roommate wanted to, too, so we started a little reading circle where we read The Diary of Anne Frank (Het Achterhuis, in Dutch) in the original.
We also had a French table that met once a week. Interestingly, I spoke most of my French with a girl from Mauritius I met there and befriended.
I learned some rudimentary Setswana in a linguistic field methods class, where we learned the techniques for entering into a language community. I remember learning the noun classifiers, verbal affixes, and “hello.”
For my honors thesis I used a lot of Croatian, so I gathered some data from there, but didn’t learn anything conversational.
I never managed to learn Martinique Creole, a form of Dominican Creole French, which I heard a friend speak one time with a cleaning person on campus. It’s a relatively common language in Boston, too. Several Koreans sang in the choir I was in, but I didn’t learn anything from them, sadly.
My third year of university I spent in Kiev, Ukraine. I improved my Russian tremendously, and I also spent a lot of time learning Ukrainian. I was not terribly disciplined with either, meaning that I read occasionally but used both languages almost exclusively speaking in class and in conversations.
I tried to learn some Chinese while I was there. I managed to buy a whole Chinese language set of books and tapes for around $5-10, and I arranged an English-Chinese language exchange with some Chinese students, but they would never show up for more than one lesson. So I learned no Chinese.
Because I was already an outsider, I wasn’t paying attention to what languages were being spoken besides Russian and Ukrainian. Occasionally I ran into Arabs, and my Hebrew teacher knew Roma (I have no idea how or why he knew that language). So while learning the majority language, I wasn’t paying attention to minority ones.
When I lived in Morocco after university, I was learning the local dialect of Arabic, but I missed a huge opportunity to learn Berber. Tashelhit is the most common Berber language spoken in Marrakech, where I lived, though I also met people who spoke another, related language, which I think they called “Mohammedian.” Probably because the majority language was so challenging, I never worked too seriously about learning Tashelhit.
I attended an Eastern Orthodox seminary, and I’m only now realizing the sweet ecolinguistic atmosphere I found myself in back then. I spoke a lot of Russian, and some Ukrainian, and picked up some Serbian because of a large number of native speakers and its similarity to the other two Slavic languages.
Note that there were fewer than 50 students on campus—very small!—but the linguistic environment was very rich. My classmates spoke as native languages Belrusian, Slovak, Amharic, Armenian, Malayalam, Macedonian, and Bulgarian. Just for Arabic, we had Lebanese, Jordanian, and Egyptian dialects spoken. One student spoke Modern Aramaic, and sang us some folk songs in his language with his amazing voice.
That was just on campus. The school was in Westchester County, New York, so during the summer I worked in Manhattan. There, of course, I could find any language not represented by my colleagues.