People haven’t been listening to each other, and they are getting worse at it. The recent election in the US adds more evidence of this. The way our world is going, though, we all need to get better.
Here is the problem we face today. The world isn’t shrinking. It feels like it because population density is growing. We have more people and the same amount of land. Actually, water shortages and rising ocean levels mean that we have less productive land for more people.
Denser population means running into more people. People, on average, live closer to each other than ever before. That means more chances to meet and interact with people different from you, and more chances you’ll meet someone very different from you. Nowadays you have a good chance of running into a Chinese person in Nigeria, an Ethiopian in Oslo, or a Somali in Minnesota.
Polyglots, however, spend hours and hours training themselves to listen to more people who are different from them, and to more conversations that they otherwise couldn’t understand.
We need more polyglots—more languages, more classes, more teachers—to focus on solving problems created by globalization so our society to move forward.
While many people—even the polyglots themselves—see their language-learning as merely a hobby, they will be on the front lines of a changing world. “Globalisation” means that we will hear and see many more people in our neighborhoods who come from far-flung places. We all need to prepare, and polyglots are already in the habit.
Multilingual people are already helping the human tragedies in different countries. Translators without Borders is mobilizing those with knowledge of multiple languages to work as translators, even training those who are proficient in English and Kurdish.
Daryl Baldwin is a linguist who worked to revitalize the Myaamia (Miami) language native the North American Great Lakes region. Beginning with language, he started an academic center that looks into all aspects of the culture. He received a MacArthur Genius Grant for his efforts.
Nevertheless, polyglots risk getting into unhelpful political arguments like everyone else. For example, one polyglot got into a big discussion about Brexit. A bilingual person got angry because white people appropriated non-white culture. Personally, I have criticized by individuals on the left and the right, and neither led to anything productive.
I want to move beyond concern to deeds. How do we polyglots help? What can we do?
- Pick a language from your community to learn. You do not need to attain perfection or fluency. You only need to enjoy learning the language.
- Find a speaker of that language and say hello. On the bus, in the grocery store, at your kids’ school, you will probably hear the language. Say one word and smile.
- Ask a speaker if they’ll help you learn a few words. Pay close attention to what they say, as a student listening to a teacher.
- Make friends with speakers of that language. Ask how their life is, their family is. Find out if they are struggling. Lend a sympathetic ear.
- Repeat. As many times as you can fit another language in your brain.(Hint: your brain has more room than you think.
By the way, you don’t already have to be a polyglot to follow these steps. In fact, if you follow these steps you will become a polyglot.