With assimilation of language comes assimilation of culture, and as the language is lost, so is the culture. The longer we can put off assimilation of language, the more time we have to learn from the culture that accompanies that language. As speakers of a majority language, I must work to preserve a way of thinking and viewing the world that is different from mine.
In a recent article, one of my favorite language-writers, Michael Erard, described the tropes journalists use when writing about dying languages. Journalists make a kind of heart-breaking spectacle so we can watch these helpless languages go the way of the dodo.
I noticed that there is no call to action. While many people know about these sad stories, these stories offer nothing for readers to do. “Linguists” are depicted as tromping out into jungles and steppes to record the last gasps of the language “for posterity.” They are the amber that traps the last member of the species for future scientists to observe.
We all know he spent a good portion of his career in Germany, which explains his very strong German skills.
But let’s think of it this way. When Mark Zuckerberg addressed a Chinese university audience in Mandarin in 2014, the audience literally responded with Oos and Ahs.
(I was disappointed that President Obama spoke so little Bahasa Indonesia after living there as a boy. He got Zuckerberg-style applause.)
Mr. Putin also gives speeches in English, but I don’t hear anyone Oo or Ah.
Why this contrast? Because Americans don’t learn foreign languages to a professional level. A Russian leader is trilingual, and gets modest applause. An internationally-renowned American CEO speaks modest Mandarin and receives great accolades.
Now we have a president who has shown no interest in foreign languages, for himself or for anyone else.
Mr. Putin possesses a clear advantage over President-Elect Trump. When one knows foreign languages, one has insight into other peoples, countries, and cultures.
Spanish makes an appearance in the US presidential campaign. I first became aware of it when I saw the famous George Takei speak it in a plea that immigrants not vote for Trump.
In the ad, he addresses Spanish-speaking Americans, comparing verbal attacks by Trump against Latino immigrants to the US government’s forcing Japanese-Americans—like Mr. Takei himself—into internment camps during World War Two.
I was fascinated to see how he used Spanish as a way to connect with immigrants. He understood that using a language besides English would connect immediately with and show solidarity with immigrants. Moreover, he expressed how he learned Spanish: by living alongside Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles growing up.
Politicos take Spanish seriously. As a result, Spanish-speakers possess power. Spanish may have a future in the US, in spite of the normal forces that eliminate languages other than English from our country.
As I looked further, I found that Spanish political ads are common this season, and they have a history in our country. Other Spanish ads
Ms. Boland suffered at studying this language unsuccessfully at school. She writes, “The disgrace, as I see it, is being forced by the State to study a compulsory language for which I had no aptitude, absolutely no interest in, and no choice about throughout my entire school career. Where is the pedagogic sense in that?” To be honest, this sounds like my 14-year old’s laments about learning to divide polynomials: “How am I ever going to use that?”
I agree with my 14-year old, so I can’t dismiss Ms. Boland’s complaints out of hand.
But the author’s complain goes deeper. Not only did she fail to learn this compulsory subject, her country’s Constitution ties her Irish identity to it. She further argues, “It is written into our Constitution that Irish is our national language and the first official language. English is recognised as a second official language. That does not make sense.” She resents that her Constitution would define her by the subject that she hated and failed in school.
While she is right that Irish cannot be spoken outside of Ireland, does that make it less “useful”? Is this the only standard of “usefulness”? What’s useful?
I love hearing people speak multiple languages around me. Recently I’ve gotten over any nervousness about asking people what language they speak, so I’m always having fun with the people and languages around me.
Nevertheless, I know that this feeling does not permeate all of our culture. Plenty of bosses feel the need to control how people talk to one another. Employees feel excluded when colleagues speak to each other in a language they don’t understand. Customers feel suspicious that workers speaking another language might be saying unflattering things about them. Our society largely distrusts other languages, dividing those who only speak English and everyone else.
Forcing only English to be spoken at work is against the law. It is discrimination. Yet some employers exclude languages at work even while workers talk on the phone to family members or walk to their cars in the parking lot. While I would prefer that people enjoy the languages around them, I am relieved that eliminating all languages besides English at work breaks the law. I wanted to present some examples of real language discrimination, as well as the settlements against it, both in the US and abroad. Read the costs of linguistic discrimination
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, “Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly.” And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, “Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do:and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth:and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth:and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth (Genesis 11:1-9)
Many Americans see multiple languages in our country as a threat. As I presented in my last post the US has suppressed other languages since its inception until today. We always see foreigners as a threat, but if they at least speak English, then they have assimilated to an acceptable degree.
Oddly, the rallying cry of the “English only” crowd is, “Let us not become another Tower of Babel.” (For example, Pat Buchanan says so here, and one of the authors of this article does the same here.) This implies that a lack of official language leads to chaos and the inability to work towards a common goal.
This stance shows that they don’t know what the “Tower of Babel” means. I’d like to go back over the story, so for this reason I cited the story, above. I hold a PhD in Ancient Hebrew and Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), so I place a lot of importance on the interpretation of the Bible. My aim is not to convert anyone here or make anyone religious, but to understand some of the historical background of this biblical story as it relates to the modern US. (If you are interested in hearing a discussion about this story that delves more into the biblical aspects of this story, please listen to this podcast episode of “The Bible as Literature Podcast,” that my friend and I produce.) The US *is* a Tower of Babel
Did you ever feel you take on a new personality when you speak another language? Does it feel like performance? Do you love it?
I love messing with cultural expectations. Greeting Africans at the airport in their own language gives me a rush. Speaking Arabic as a blue-eyed blondie gives me a laugh, too. I also like to speak Russian with a Ukrainian accent, or speak German with a Swabian (Stuttgart area) accent. Sometimes I get a laugh, sometimes anger. The folks at the airport always smile; I make friends during every layover. In contrast, once I was speaking Moroccan Arabic with a Moroccan waitress at a coffee shop, and I was accused of being a Jewish spy and encouraged to leave. (“We’re closing now,” I was told.) I don’t like the cultural rules we’re told to play according to; fooling people’s cultural expectations brings me joy.
Maybe I’m a kind of drag queen, messing with expectations. I recently listened to RuPaul‘s interview on Marc Maron‘s WTF podcast (Episode 498), where he compared drag performance to the “red pill” in The Matrix. We all know what it means for us to act like a man or woman, because in our “Matrix,” each gender follows certain rules–talking, walking, dressing, etc. in its own unique way. Human beings identify with one or the other gender and follow the rules. Society expects you to follow the rules of your gender; anyone who has been to high school knows the shame and horrible epithets that go along with the boy whose speech sounds too feminine or the girl whose hair looks too masculine. We demand that everyone follow the Matrix–otherwise, they threaten reality.
Drag performers take the “red pill” and so reject the Matrix and flaunt the rules and borders of gender. He or she changes identities in an instant: now he’s a woman, now she’s a man. “Ego”–so goes RuPaul’s famous tweet–“loves identity. Drag mocks identity. Ego hates drag.” Drag is threatening because our ego is grounded in an identity, such as gender, but drag shows that gender is just another performance. A man can go on stage and become a woman in actions, mannerisms, and character. He takes on a woman’s identity. Then he takes off the makeup and he acts like a man again. He mocks the rules of identity in the Matrix by never settling in one.
The cultural “Matrix”
The Matrix presents, in addition to rules for gender, rules for culture according to which we act and build our identities. If I am American, I act a certain way. If I am Greek, I act a certain way. If I am Russian, or Oromo, or Iranian, I follow cultural rules to display and maintain my identity.
This compartmentalized view of culture can cause an identity crisis for the children of immigrants. If I am a second-generation Indian, born in Singapore, living in Australia, how am I supposed to act? Indian? Singaporian? Australian? The Matrix doesn’t offer a set of rules for this situation, leaving us in the lurch. The Matrix demands that we despair that we don’t fit, or whittle down our identities to one the Matrix deems “normal.”
Take the red pill!
Languages are the cultural “red pill.” For “third culture” kids, who live between the culture of their parents and of their residence, they can thrive if they learn the languages of both cultures. They can transcend the Matrix and follow their own rules. Like drag queens, they can switch seemlessly from one set of expectations to another. Performing in each culture is unremarkable. When you see one of them switch to the other, however, the jaws drop: “How did he do that?” The Matrix doesn’t allow such fluid change of identity.
You can transcend the Matrix by learning another language and culture, and the more you learn, the less you are held fast by rules. You can connect with people you couldn’t otherwise. New ways of thinking will challenge how you perceive the world. When you have a dilemma or decision, you will suddently realize you don’t have to follow the expected solution; you can draw from ideas outside the normal expectations. Those invested in the Matrix might laugh at or reject you. At the same time, unlikely friends will meet you here; openness will greet you. Through new languages we hope to bring down monoculture and bring about a fertile ecosystem of new thinking and new ideas. We want all of your personalities and cultures.
Are you ready to help overturn the Matrix? “You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
I subvert. I do not tend to like what authority says, simply out of prejudice. I can’t help but question it. Is the authority trying to manipulate me, to make me act in some way? I sometimes wonder if the authority has looked at all the angles. Could these ends be attained in a better way? I wonder if the authority has examined its moral responsibility. Is it a good end they seek? Authority seeks its own ends in its own way, marginalizing those who don’t see things their way.
Forget the powerful. Those on the margins have better, more creative, more compassionate ways of approaching problems. As human beings, they have their problems, of course. Folks like me–insider, comfortable, respected, able-bodied–need to listen to those who are pushed to the side to gain the wisdom that we lack by ourselves.
Automatically questioning the assumptions of authority, can make me cynical. At the same time, this doubt often aligns me with those who are marginalized, since they tend to work according to a different set of presuppositions than the powerful on the inside.
The marginalized have taught me a lot, especially that opening myself will teach me that I don’t have all the answers. I wish that authority figures knew what I know about what was happening on the margins. If we listened more to those on the margins, we would act more morally and connect more deeply with people different from us.
An eye for the subtle
What do you do when you hear someone speaking English (or any other language) with an accent? In the USA, these people are in the margins, and I know that I have a learning opportunity before me. If I’ve got the time, I tend to ask what other languages the other person speaks. This week, I got to have some cool conversations as a result.
Recently at work, I was standing in line in the cafeteria, and I heard an accent in English. I asked if the gentleman spoke a language other than English, and he replied, “Yes–six or seven.” A man after my own heart!
I ventured a guess (in Dutch): “Bent U Nederlander?” (“Are you from the Netherlands?”)
I recruited him for our budding Dutch table at work, and so this week he and I had lunch together, where he taught me a lot. I learned about his job at the company, and about his previous careers that led him to the Middle East and an extended life in Southeast Asia. During our conversation, he admitted he doesn’t speak Dutch much these days, so it was a nice opportunity for him.
Since his native dialect is Flemish, he taught me some of the significant differences between standard Dutch and Flemish, and then some differences between dialects of Flemish. He also told me that the first time he heard Afrikaans, he was surprised how similar it sounded to Flemish. I had known that Afrikaans comes from Dutch, but I never reflected on what variety of Dutch it came from. Dutch is much more varied than I had previously imagined.
We bonded around the idea that life can lead you a lot of different places, and that no job guarantees a particular job path. If we’re open, we can learn how to do a lot of things. Each job teaches skills that we bring to our next job. When we’re open and curious, we can find ourselves on surprising adventures. In addition, I learned that significant differences lie in places most people don’t care to look, even between East and West Belgium.
The world is right here
Then later this week I traveled for short trip to New York City. NYC is a language adventure waiting to happen, but with a short window, I had to keep my ears open.
I struck at my first opportunity. At the rental car desk, I saw that the agent had an unusual last name.
He hesitated here, surely knowing that I wouldn’t have any way to follow what came next. “Ashanti is the main one. My home language is Sehwi. But Sehwi is a small language, from out in the country.”
I said the name of his home language a couple times. It includes a consonant in the middle, where you blow with puckered lips, nearly like a whistle. The exotic consonant felt luxurious in my mouth.
The reulting conversation offered me the opportunity to learn about the current state of this significant West African country. China has been investing there for a while, so we got bring up the question of a potential new colonialism by China in Africa. The nature of colonialism is that countries come in to take what you have and profit from it, without connecting with you and your community. Economic powers do not consider or love to learn from the human strength and wisdom that the multitude of African cultures have to offer. We both hoped for a good future for Ghana and her people.
I encountered other stops on my NYC language journey. At the event I got to speak a little Arabic and hear some different views on politics and history in the US and in the Middle East. On the plane I saw a man studying Talmud in Hebrew and Aramaic. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to stay at these stops–or NYC–as long as I would have liked.
Always open to learn
“When the student is ready, the teacher will come,” the proverb says. I tried to make myself ready this week, and I learned about history, culture, and human struggle. Some struggle leads to great results, some to worse, and some that are yet to be determined. We can learn from all of them.
This week, what are you planning to do that will open you to others who are different from you? I hope that you will learn from them, that their experience will change not only what you know, but also how you live your life. The narrative of life that we receive through the media focuses on making us happy in a short-term, narrow, and shallow way. It does not confront human struggle or weakness in ways that we actually live. Do you hear an accent in someone near you? That’s the sound of a different way of life. Plug in now!
I read National Geographic a lot. Articles about people tend to interest me much more than science or nature. Photos and anecdotes keep me riveted. This week in Oromo class, I felt I was reading through National Geographic, reveling while learning about Oromo language, geography, and culture, both in the Horn of Africa and beyond.
My pleasure, however, is tinged with confusion and guilt. I feel like I’ve packaged up “Africa” for my US sensibility. The National Geographic Society was formed by and for US academics and wealthy patrons to talk about travel in the late 19th century–colonists. Suddenly, my pleasure of hearing and learning about the Oromo people was sullied by the colonial Orientalist and essentialist views from that class of people during the formation of the Society. How do I relate to them? Am I a new colonist or something else? To avoid “colonizing” Minnesota Africa, I must engage with human beings different from me, most importantly opening myself to them, in order to break down any potential elitist barriers.
My last Oromo class
In session 6, my last Oromo class, we covered several important and fascinating topics. We learned about some technical vocabulary. We received a list of technical linguistic vocabulary that we went over. It included some probably classic words, like afoola “oral literature,” but also some newer linguistic terms like xunda xiqqaa “minimal pair.”
I also brought some older textbooks and grammars, and the class enjoyed looking through them. The different books spoke of various dialects, so our teacher put a map of Ethiopia on the projector and pointed out where the main dialects came from. Not all the students knew of these regions and dialects, so it was fascinating for all of us. He also showed areas of Oromomia where the communities were mainly Muslim or mainly Christian.
Our teacher took us on a wonderful mental voyage, to a place that was very exotic for me. He recounted his days in the North of Ethiopia, in the Afar region. He said the weather was so hot–hot for someone from Ethiopia!–that you can live with a little water and a little food; you don’t need clothing. It was so hot that people brought eggs down from the highlands, and chickens hatched in the buckets. Life was a struggle, he said, but it was the most wonderful place on earth. The struggle made you feel alive.
The teacher and students taught me about Oromo diaspora. Evidently, there is a big community in Oslo, Norway, and Berlin, Germany. One of my classmates lived a while in Hamburg, Germany, before coming to the US, but the Hamburg Oromo community was small. My professor lived in Oslo for a time before the US. They have connections all over among active Oromo diaspora communities.
In the midst of all this cultural information, we still worked on language. We continued with practical vocabulary and spelling. It’s amazing how much our teacher was able to squeeze into the class time.
I asked about upcoming Oromo community activities, namely poetry and music. Fortunately, my teacher assured me that there are a lot of such events, and there’s one even coming up at the end of the month. I look forward to staying connected to the community and keeping up my language.
Unfortunately, I will not be able to take the next class, but I hope to stay in touch. Because of vacation and other events, I would have missed half the classes. I look forward to keeping in contact with my teacher and classmates. It’s important for me to see and understand the diversity of my city and community. I need wonderful folks like this to help me get outside of my own way of thinking and doing things. Plus I love my budding afaan oromoo (“Oromo language”).
A good colonist?
I believe that I am learning about Oromo people and language in a way that challenges my way of thinking, and new-found wisdom brings new joy. I don’t want to be a 19th century, salon-frequenting, traveler. Taking photos of the “natives” and discussing them in my comfortable home do not interest me.
I am a colonist who hopes to extract benefit from others, but different in that I hope the colonist is “civilized” and not at the expense of the colonized. I want to engage with them so that my comfort and my home change irreversibly. Wisdom and “civilization” will come to me if I open up my own ignorance and curiosity and learning. I want new ways to enjoy life and extract new joys that I learn from others. By challenging my way of thinking about life and language, my Oromo friends and teachers offer me new, unexpected joy.
Are you a consumer of language and culture? an observer? an engager?
Humans attach value judgments to natural differences among people. For example, one person has a different skin color than another. This is a genetic difference with no inherent value. The human being will, nevertheless, attach a value to one skin color or another. This tendency is inimical to justice. Justice requires equality, not putting one person above another. If we desire to be just, we have to struggle against our inclination to consign humans to one category of value or another.
Language divides groups of people, because, as expected, humans attach various values to different languages. For example, one is more worthy of study than another, or one represents a better civilization than another. If I want to communicate with someone who speaks a language different from mine, at least one of us must learn another language. In the US, we assume that the other will learn English; why should we bother learning a thousand other languages when most of the world already sees the value of learning English? We have to ask another question, however, if we desire to be just: Why should everyone learn English and not the other way around? Is English more valuable? Languages are often connected to their economic and cultural value, and so English is very “valuable.” By the same token, Somali or Hmong or Kunama or Menominee are not valuable. Injustice is embedded in how humans interpret the interaction among languages.
You cannot treat others with justice if you don’t see the value in their language, that is, you value your language above theirs. This attitude is exemplified in the assumption, “Let us speak my language.” My language is worthy to be studied by you; your language is not worthy to be studied by me. If you hold this assumption, you may attempt to act justly, but you cannot succeed. Unless we are willing to speak the language of the other, we cannot treat him or her justly. We cannot be complacent with our language; we have to attempt to learn the other’s language. We might stumble in learning the language, we might fail at anything beyond, “Hello,” but we have to measure ourselves by our success at connecting with and loving the other.
I agree that accessibility to language education is a matter of justice; furthermore, I believe that rejecting language education is also a matter of justice. Denying language education to middle-class American children denies them to learn the value of all languages and, by extension, all people. Already, children are taught the value of all races, all ability levels, all economic levels. Unlike learning languages, they do not have to act on those lessons. If they are offered rich language offerings, they could work towards more justice and love towards their fellows. Taking actions of justice and connection would open their hearts even more.
I’m with Aaron that more people need the opportunity to learn languages. Learning a language does not only offer economic advancement, but also tools for love and respect. Justice requires eliminating the value of one language over another so that as humans we can love and connect with speakers of all languages.
How do you see the relationship between language and justice? Is it ok to view one language as more valuable than another? Should the practical–speaking the most accessible language–trump the ideal–learning the language of the less economically advantaged?