Learning from immigrants through Language Love

What we encounter here is again the paradox of victimization: the Other to be protected is good in so far as it remains a victim (which is why we were bombarded with pictures of helpless Kosovar mothers, children and old people, telling moving stories of their suffering); the moment it no longer behaves like a victim but wants to strike back on its own, it magically turns all of a sudden into a terrorist/fundamentalist/drug-trafficking Other. — Slavoj Žižek, “The Fragile Absolute,” p. 60.

Learning community languages appears as a typically liberal approach to learning languages, yet it is actually neither liberal nor conservative.

Americans act strange when the weak “other” begins to gain power. In a recent episode of This American Life we hear what it’s like when the Somali community begins to gain power in St Cloud, Minnesota.

One complaint was that Somalis had “taken over” a local park. Another one was that a large group of Somali women were disturbing the peace walking through the streets loudly.

When they were in Somalia, suffering, the US supported President Bill Clinton’s military intervention. Americans wanted to end the suffering of the people so that they could live a normal life.

But when they actually live a normal life in St Cloud, many citizens wanted them to stop coming. Citizens wanted to remove them and prevent more from coming.

This cycle repeated itself multiple times in US history. We were excited in the North to free the slaves, but got nervous when they started coming in large numbers to Northern cities. We praised the nobility of the Native American warrior, but thought of them as terrorists in the 1960s when they demanded more rights in an armed struggle. As long as they remained victims, we were comfortable; once they showed initiative, they got too dangerous.

Turning the tables, however, offers a way to counteract this narrative. We can make an effort to put ourselves below the immigrant, to let the immigrant hold all the initiative. The immigrant is no longer a victim, but a teacher. She is no longer a passive recipient of aid, but the one to hold all the knowledge.

The first step in confronting the problem of the Other is to actually confront the otherness. I cannot assume otherness; I have to learn the actual similarities and differences between me and another person. But it’s all too easy to assume rather than actually learn. In the episode of This American Life a woman described a five-year-old boy at a play area knocking a three-year-old’s head into a wall. Did this happen because the older boy is Somali, or because kids knock each other around?

We don’t know.

We have to have the conversation. How about calling up the mom and having a cup of coffee to discuss?

The second step is to place ourselves under them. We learn from them as we listen to them. They clearly hold some different values and live according to different habits. We want to learn about how to be global citizens. They can teach us.

By learning their language, we can begin by making ourselves the Other, and so confront the first step. We sound strange, we make mistakes, we don’t know what we’re doing, we can’t understand the people around us. As learners, we can confront the second step, and so we place ourselves at the feet of experts—and they’re all experts.

When the person from St Cloud in the This American Life episode complained that the public park had been “taken over” by Somalis, another way to look at that is that people decided to take initiative and live their lives. We can learn what it takes to move from passive interaction with our environment to full agency.

If we learn their language, we must learn more about how they think and act. We must listen and learn.

At this point, neither the liberal nor the conservative is listening. No one wants to submit, no one wants to place himself under the Other.

The solution is to submit to the Other, not wait until they become an equal.

How do you deal with the Other? How can you improve?

Photo credit: kattebelletje via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

One thought on “Learning from immigrants through Language Love

  1. Growing up trilingual and having a sensitive ear to how different languages sound and are placed in social contexts, your post made me reflect. I’m well aware of the associations one has with specific languages and I’ve observed that many would sooner react negatively to a language they can’t understand than to learn it. Such is the world we live in. The whole “taking over” labelling makes me roll my eyes because as a person who speaks and understands more than one language, I want to tell everyone who has prejudicial views like that to at least make an effort to understand before they judge. But it’s all easier said than done.

    Liked by 1 person

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