Loving Sign Language in coffee shops: Could we do more?

The staff of DIB Coffees of Hawaii signing
The staff of DIB Coffees of Hawaii signing

We now have an example of retail establishments that cater to speakers of other languages.

Coffee shops are beginning to train personnel to serve members of the deaf community. They learn sign language so that customers who are deaf can have the same experience as customers who hear. Among these, Starbucks has received a lot of recognition. They are not the only one, though.

Can we use this step forward to introduce more languages? Since we know that these baristas can learn sign language, they can clearly learn other languages, like Spanish or Chinese or Somali, so that speakers of those languages can have a great experience in their stores.
How they accommodate


Languages won’t make you more money, so why do it?

If you have to choose between love and money, where does your language motivation lie?
If you have to choose between love and money, where does your language motivation lie?

Let me correct that: English will make you more money. Because the US, UK, Canada, and Australia have a lot of it. With other languages, you’ll have to be lucky.

Learning foreign languages will improve your relationships with others. A more fertile ground for diverse languages will produce a better crop of human beings, better able to understand and respect one another.

Cultivating the environment around us has value that doesn’t show up in standard calculations of “Return on Investment” (ROI). I listened to a speech by environmental activist, Vandana Shiva. Working the land with our neighbors produces a better environment and healthier community, but eating what we produce does not produce wealth that can show up in GDP. In contrast, industrial agriculture, which does produce capital wealth, creates environmental problems and destroys species.

I am a native English speaker. I can get a job paying six-figures without ever learning another language. Not so in, say, the Philippines or India, where English is more valuable for learning potential than a college degree is in the US. When we say that languages are “valuable,” we are saying that the economic system has made one language more valuable than another. I can get a higher-paying job with this language than I can with another.

Economics does not drive my desire to learn languages like these forces drive industrial agriculture. The desire for a healthier community for my children and neighbors drives me to learn languages.
Language ROI

Crime and punishment in loving languages

Excluding languages is against the law
Excluding languages is against the law

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

Set aside your ego, embrace your fear, and learn

How do you neutralize the ego so you can learn?
How do you neutralize your ego so you can learn?

While I worked a little on Somali this week, it hasn’t been the main focus. (Waan ka xumahay!) I’ve been preparing three talks taking place over the course of two weeks, all around cultural awareness. As a reader of this blog, you are probably fascinated with other cultures as I am. I will try to challenge you as I do my live audiences. If you want to know about other cultures, you must work: sitting down, asking questions, and learning. Put your ego aside.

Continue reading “Set aside your ego, embrace your fear, and learn”

Meeting more Language Lovers: Attending MCTLC 2014 Conference

All my best wishes to language lovers--and the ones who teach them!
All my best wishes to language lovers–and the ones who teach them!

Last week I was inspired to meet many language teachers and representatives of educational organizations. I also had the honor of presenting to them. (Preparing for my talk, I took a break from learning new Somali so I just reviewed vocabulary.)

Friday I went to present at the 2014 annual conference of the Minnesota Council on the Teaching of Languages and Culture (MCTLC). The group consists mainly of K-12 (that is, elementary, middle, and high school) teachers of languages. Since this is Minnesota, USA, the most significant language is Spanish, followed by French, and also English for non-native speakers. I also met several Chinese and Japanese teachers and two Swedish teachers, too.
Continue reading “Meeting more Language Lovers: Attending MCTLC 2014 Conference”

Your heart is where your language love is

Your choice of language: what does it say about who you want to connect with?
Your choice of language: what does it say about who you want to connect with?

Just recently a friend turned me on to the fantastic multilingual video of “Let it Go,” the hit song from the Disney movie “Frozen,” and as a polyglot sucker for pop music I’ve been indulging my love of languages and emotional music. This video smoothly blends 25 languages into one, seamless video.

Continue reading “Your heart is where your language love is”

Do robots love language? Bias and Google Translate

Translate Tongan? You'll have to ask him--Google Translate can't help.
Translate Tongan? You’ll have to ask him–Google Translate can’t help.

I tend not to follow the mainstream. I study languages that others don’t, and I’ll often gravitate towards marginal dialects when I can. When I speak Arabic, I try to throw in a little Moroccan when I can. Speaking Russian, I might add a little bit of a Ukrainian accent. Right now, I’m learning Swiss German, which I’m afraid will irritate my standard German-speaking friends.

Google Translate follows the mainstream. It is a tool developed by a savvy business filling a commercial need. People who have and spend money need an application to conduct their business more easily. I addressed the relative value of languages in an earlier post.

Unfortunately, Google Translate reflects the mainstream. It offers the languages of the powerful, and translates using the language of the status quo without respect for what is good or right independent of how things are done. For using language the way most powerful people do, Google Translate works well; those of us who seek out the margins and buck the trend of “standard” speech see clear limitations in the language and gender bias of our world reflected in this software.

Which languages are most important?

I don’t know how I missed it, but I just saw this week that Google Translate expanded into African languages a few months ago.

80 languages at Google Translate
80 languages at Google Translate

You can see that now it includes five African languages: Somali (how did I miss that?!) and Zulu, plus the three most widely-spoken languages of Nigeria (Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa). The only other African languages offered previously were Swahili and Afrikaans from 2009.

The service follows the power structure of the Internet. You can see the stages of growth of the software in this article. Here is the general process of expansion. The first languages were all EU languages, and quickly were accompanied by ones from East Asia. After Arabic and Russian appeared, eastern European and Southeast Asian languages came next. Other Southeast Asian and Central Asian languages arrived, until the first American (Hatian Creole) and African languages were incorporated (including Afrikaans, which some may call a European language). Even though Hindi was one of the earlier languages, other Indian languages surprisingly only came at a late stage–after Latin!–and, finally, in the last stage, a group of African languages and the first Oceanic language, Maori, made it in. No indigenous languages of North or South America are yet to be represented.

I don’t believe Google would have a policy to include or exclude languages. As a successful business, they would naturally gravitate to languages that would bring the most sets of eyes to their site. Also, when they figured out a language so they could add it, adding a closely-related language wouldn’t take much additional effort. For example, adding Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian in the same release makes sense, and once Spanish is well-established, Catalan probably takes minimal effort.

Their stages of development reflect a reality of the internet and commercial value of languages. Europe and East Asia are the most important, then Asia and Southeast Asia, and finally Africa. The indigenous peoples of Oceania and the Americas are insignificant. I noticed some odd anomalies. Hundreds of millions of Indians’ mother tongues were left till quite late. I think there’s an assumption that Indians can just use English. At the same time, Welsh or Irish were added much earlier, in spite of very few monolingual speakers. For some reason, Western European languages received preference that Indian languages did not. I don’t think this is racism, however; Google reflects an economic reality in its amoral inequality of wealth and poverty.

Is Google Translate sexist?

At one time, some people accused Google Translate of gender bias. They noted that phrases that included ambiguous gender sometimes came back with a gender. Some people were scandalized because translations reflected an unwanted stereotype. For example, this article describes gender bias manifested in German. In German, Lehrer can mean a man or woman teacher, while Lehrerin is a woman teacher. I translated “physics teacher” and “math teacher” and they both used Lehrer, while “French teacher” and “cooking teacher” translate with Lehrerin, imposing a gender bias of certain areas of specialization.

I ran another experiment. In Arabic, like many other languages, there is no “it,” so one uses a masculine or feminine pronoun based on the grammatical gender of the noun. So “door” is “he,” while “car” is “she,” for example. I translated, “He fixed the car” into Arabic, and translated it back, and got the same, “He fixed the car.” When I translated, “She fixed the car” into Arabic and back, Google served up, “It fixed the car.” Maybe it is more easily imaginable that a wrench would fix a car than a woman would.

These results reflect the methodology of the translation, which is to draw from a large corpus of incidents. The author of this article interviewed an engineer working on the software who said, “Statistical patterns were used to allow the tool to determine what gender was being referred to. Should the text include the word “dice”, which is Spanish for “says”, the algorithm will not only assess the frequency that this is historically used to refer to a male or female speaker, but also the other words in the inputted text.” The software reflects how the phrase is used. It is a robot reflecting the real use of human language with stereotypes, biases, and all.

We can’t really blame the bias of the software–we can only blame our own biases. The software has no ability to understand the pragmatics of the situation. Modern Hebrew reflects the gender of the subject in present verbs. When I translated, “I am nursing the baby” or “I am giving birth,” the gender was masculine. It seems that when there is little evidence, the software defaults to masculine, even if it can’t make sense in real life. When a real bias comes out of the language, the software presents that as what you, as a “typical” speaker of the langauge, were “probably” getting at. Simply put, people talk more about women as French teachers than as physics teachers in German. Google Translate reflects our world.

Our tool in our world

I love all languages. I think we can use language to lift people up. We don’t have to marginalize languages or individuals with what and how we speak.

But our world is what it is: biased. You can make more ad revenue with some languages than with others. We tend to find fewer women working in math and science than with children. Google reflects this right back at us.

Languages rise and fall and adapt more quickly than our software. Humans can see trends coming that computers can’t. People feel right about speaking one way instead of another.

I buck the trend, though. I want to speak languages that are not money-makers. I want to find ways to focus on the marginalized rather than keep them on the margins. If I want to change the status quo, I can’t rely on Google Translate. I have to learn to speak for myself, with my own words.

Be sure to “Like” if you support the margins, those people and languages who don’t follow the trend.

Photo credit: Light Knight / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


A lesson from history: Languages in 17th century New Netherland

Thayendanegea or Joseph Brant, a Mohawk military and political leader, 1776 (Wikimedia Commons)
Thayendanegea or Joseph Brant, a Mohawk military and political leader, 1776 (Wikimedia Commons)

Last week I blogged about the language geography of the US in Colonial Virginia in the 17th and 18th centuries, and since then I became more interested in what language mixes I could find elsewhere in North America. This week I researched the 17th century in New Netherland: the first Dutch colony on the continent.

I uncovered less information about the languages and everyday life of this region than of the Virginia Colony. The Dutch colonists may have left fewer records and stories because they were largely trappers and traders, in distinction with the English farmers and townspeople. Nevertheless, we see diversity in New Netherland that we don’t in the Virginia Colony. Both the colonists and the natives included people of many mother tongues.

The result of the Dutch commercial venture of New Netherland saddened me. The interactions among the Europeans and natives revolved around commerce. While occasional individuals from various groups intermarried, the reason people came together originally was to become rich. Competition, not mutual understanding, ended in extinction or near-extinction of the dozens of languages–Iroquois, Algonquin, and European–spoken in this area of the 17th century. We need to look to this cautionary tale if we hope to keep our country’s and planet’s linguistic diversity viable for us to benefit from. Only the desire to understand and know each other, not business, will keep us wise and languages alive.


Let me start with a basic historical outline. (You can skip to the next section if you want to go straight to the languages.) The Dutch were already actively trading in the Americas, especially in South America and the Caribbean. In 1609 (two years after the English founded Jamestown in Virginia) they hired Henry Hudson to explore the waterways of modern-day New York and New Jersey, to find a Northwest Passage to Asia (1). He did not find a passage, but he found many Mohawks and Mahicans eager to trade animal skins for European manufactured goods.

The Dutch trader, Hendrick Christiaensen, decided to settle in 1614 on Castle Island by modern Albany, named for the abandoned French trading chateau built there. (This land is no longer an island and is now known as the Port of Albany.) He called it Ft. Nassau, after the ruling house of the Netherlands. It was abandoned and moved nearby in 1618 because of frequent flooding of the island (2).

In 1624 they founded and settled Ft. Orange, a ways south of Ft. Nassau, right after they established in 1623 another Ft. Nassau on the Delaware River in present-day Gloucester, New Jersey (3). They moved Ft. Orange south in 1652 to Esopus (present-day Kingston), named after the local group of natives (4).

To establish a port at the entrance of the rivers towards these trading posts, the Dutch head of the West Indies Company, Peter Minuit, purchased Manhattan Island from the Lenape in 1626 and began constructing the port of New Amsterdam. Once the Dutch government gave city rights to New Amsterdam in 1653, the city that would become New York City was born (5).


Sorting out the languages in New Netherland was more difficult than in the Virginia Colony, as I mentioned. Traders seem to move around more, and more people come to find them, too. I will categorize the languages as European, Native, and Pidgin.

I could not find any information about African languages, but since the Dutch took over the Portuguese slave trade, I assume that the slaves of this time were speaking Ndongo or some other Bantu languages.


The Low Countries (the literal meaning of “Netherlands”) included modern Netherlands, Belgium, and parts of Germany. Dutch was the lingua franca among the colonists, but speakers of multiple languages from the Low Countries found their way into the early colonies, resulting in linguistically-diverse settlements that included multiple Dutch dialects, plus French and German. Peter Minuit, who bought Manhattan from the Lenape, was a German-born Walloon (French-speaking from modern Belgium) who also spoke English (6).

In addition, New Netherland absorbed New Sweden, where Swedish was spoken. I assume that citizens of both colonies had to communicate with each other, probably in German, English, or French (7).

The colony to the north was French (much of modern French Canada) and English to the Northeast (New England) and to the South (Virginia). I did not find information about the interactions, but I can assume that there were enough French and English speakers among the Netherlanders that Dutch was not exclusive.

After the Netherlands lost some of their South American colonies to the Portuguese, speakers of Portuguese, Spanish, and Ladino began to populate New Netherland.


 Portrait of Etow Oh Koam, one of the Four Mohawk Kings, c. 1750 (Wikipedia Commons)
Portrait of Etow Oh Koam, one of the Four Mohawk Kings, c. 1750 (Wikipedia Commons)

The major language group in this area is Algonquin, but Iroquoian languages were also widespread in the area.

Henry Hudson encountered Mohawk (Iroquoian) and Mahican (Eastern Algonquin) speakers in the area of Castle Island. Although tensions existed between the Iroquois and other groups before Europeans came, I imagine that the Mahican and Mohawks had to communicate with each other in one or both of their languages. Mahican became extinct in the first third of the 20th century, while Mohawk is still spoken by about 3000 people in Northern New York State and Southern Canada. One school even offers immersion in the language.

Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Lenape, also called the Delaware, people. Lenape referred to an association of related peoples in this more southern area, who spoke the closely related Unami and Munsee languages. The English missionary, John Heckewelder, documented the two languages in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, noting their similarities and differences. While both are members of the Eastern Algonquin family, they display clear differences in grammar and vocabulary. At present, only a half-dozen native speakers of Munsee are still alive, while Unami is extinct.

Other tribes of the Lenape lived throughout the Hudson valley. The Wequaesgeek, or Wappinger, lived in modern Duchess and Westchester Counties in New York, and they spoke a language very similar to the Munsee. The Hackensack tribe spoke a language related to Unami.

The Minqua, or Susquehannocks as the English called them, lived more to the West. They spoke an Iroquoian language. The language has long been extinct, but about 100 words were preserved by a Swedish missionary of the 17th century (8).

Pidgin languages

The diverse mix of languages forced people to get practical and so the society of New Netherland developed multiple Pidgin languages. A Pidgin language is a mix of languages that naturally forms when two or more groups meet, often for trade, who do not share a common language.

Pidgin Delaware was spoken in the Lenape area, in the region of modern-day New York City and Long Island. It developed as a mix of Unami and Dutch. Significantly, the language showed very little Munsee vocabulary, even though the Pidgin was used by Munsee speakers, as well. It was first mentioned in 1628, but its use spread to Swedish and English speakers in their dealings with the Lenape. The Swedish minister, Johan Campanius, prepared a vocabulary list of Pidgin Delaware and even translated Luther’s Catechism into it.

Jersey Dutch was spoken in today’s northeast New Jersey. The basis was Dutch dialects with some English and a bit of Lenape. The language lived for about 300 years, from the 17th to the 20th centuries. It had two varieties, one that was spoken by descendants of Dutch settlers and another that was spoken by African-descended people only, which showed more influence of grammar from African languages.

Mohawk Dutch formed among the Dutch and Mohawk in the northern reaches of New Netherland. It was used among the Iroquois language speakers in the North, in contast to the Algonquin languages (like Lenape) in the South. The language seems to have existed for a short time in the 17th century–until the English took the northern reaches of New Netherland–and was never documented.


The languages we know about from New Netherland were those involved in commerce. While people spoke scores of Iroqouis and Algonquin languages, the Mohawk, Mahican, and Lenape languages represented the largest trading partners with the Dutch. Among the Dutch, the languages of the “old” Netherlands were all spoken, Dutch, German, and French. Dutch, however, was most important, and English became important as the Dutch and English interacted more in the New World. Swedish declined as they became less economically important, once the Swedish colony was absorbed into New Netherland. Pidgin languages developed as needed, so that language barriers would not stand in the way of commerce.

I was sad that I found no information about the African languages spoken in New Netherland. This fact, though, would follow from the previous assumption, that the traders determined importance, and they spoke only those languages they needed for commerce. The bottom of the hierarchy–slaves and servants–spoke African languages.

As power shifted from the native Americans, those languages became less and less important, until they begin to die in the 19th century. Power shifted from the Dutch, as well, until English took over in the area of New Netherland and, later, of the states of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

People did not learn languages out of a love for the people they were interacting with but for commercial reasons. Both natives and Dutch colonists sought to use each other to enrich themselves. In the end, the richer and more powerful English drove the languages of both groups to extinction in the United States. Their refusal to learn from and understand each other created unnecessary rivalry and tension. If we hope to keep the language diversity of the US and the planet, we must learn languages for love and community, not merely for the sake of business.

What lessons can we draw from history when we pursue languages and interact with each other?


Language love in Colonial Virginia

I think the US got off to a bad start when it comes to language-love. In the beginning of this nation, there were multiple languages spoken, and no language dominated. To get things done, you had to speak multiple languages. Unfortunately, the majority of those who learned languages did so to gain power and money; learning about others and discovering new ways of thinking did not dominate.

My family recently got back from a Spring Break trip to Colonial Williamsburg, where we learned a lot about 17th and 18th century Virginia. We also visited the first permanent English settlement in the Americas (Jamestown), and Thomas Jefferson‘s home (Monticello). For those less familiar with US history, this was the period of the first British colonists (est. 1607) up through the Revolutionary War (1776). I, of course, studied my whole experience there through the eyes of language-love.

I found that in spite of linguistic richness in colonial and pre-Revolutionary America, we learned very little from it. At that time, English was an insignificant language, so we focused on the languages of Europe, where power was concentrated. This period confirmed for me that Americans have always been focused on gaining power, and ignoring the languages of early America exemplifies this bias. We lost out on the wisdom and knowledge that we could have gained if we had embraced the linguistic diversity of this land rather than suppress and homogenize it.

Multi-lingual America

I’m fascinated by the idea of a Tower of Babel right in North America, at a time where no language has dominance. This seems the opposite of today where I can communicate without thinking in any corner of this huge country. I don’t know if the colonists were monolingual, but it could not have been easy because once one left one’s small group of 200 people, one ran into other languages. Here are some of the most significant languages that were spoken at this early period.


Recreated Powhatan village at Jamestown
Recreated Powhatan village at Jamestown

The English encountered natives in what they called “Virginia.” The main confederation of tribes they found were called the Powhatan. At the time the English arrived, around 15,000-20,000 of these people existed. Their language belonged to the Algonquin language family, which included members throughout the Northeast and Upper Midwest of the US, and much of the South and East of Canada.

The most famous Powhatan in our culture is Pocahontas. How much we actually know about her, however, is disputed.

I’m fascinated by the dilemma of how two groups from thousands of miles away discover each other and try to communicate. Absolutely no common language existed; they had to start from scratch. At several points, the Powhatan and English exchanged boys to grow up with the other group. They eventually functioned as messengers and interpreters, although the rulers used them for political ends, as well. One of them, Henry Spelman, wrote about his life among the Powhatan.

The language has long ago become extinct, although some speakers of related languages remain to this day. We only possess two word lists from Powhatan, which together make up about 550 words. Several words entered into common use in English, such as hickory, hominy, moccasin, opossum, persimmon, raccoon, and tomahawk.


Nzinga, Queen of the Ndongo, meets the Portuguese (commons.wikimedia.org)
Nzinga, Queen of the Ndongo, meets the Portuguese (commons.wikimedia.org)

The slave trade sullied the history of the US. Nevertheless, it also diversified the new society that was developing in the Virginia Colony. The first slaves for a long time came from Ndongo, which was a kingdom of the 16th and 17th centuries that existed in present-day Angola. Its people spoke a Bantu language, but we do not have any record of the language itself.

The Ndongo people had to mix and communicate with English and Powhatan people in the US. Moreover, the latter peoples had to have been exposed to their language. When I was in Historic Williamsburg, there were plenty of African-American reinactment actors. I wondered, though, how many of them would have spoken fluent, unaccented English back in the 18th century. In a small town like Jamestown in the 17th century, the English must have heard plenty of Ndongo language in the streets, fields, and homes.

(For a history of the Ndongo Kingdom, click here. For a discussion of the Ndongo and their role in the slave trade, click here.)


Recreated English settlement, Jamestown
Recreated English settlement, Jamestown

During the 17th and 18th centuries, English was not a significant language. International business and politics were conducted in French. French was the official language of England until the 14th century. Russian aristocrats paid top “dollar” for French governesses for their children. In the 17th century, the Portuguese, and Spanish held large, global colonial territories, in addition to the French, Dutch, and English. The Portuguese and Spanish, however, had been at this for a longer time. The English culture and language were a ways down the list.

English was not yet ready for universal use. It only became the official language of England in the early 16th century, only a century before the establishment of the Jamestown colony. Literacy among English speaking people rose from about 30% in the 17th century to about 60% by the time of the American Revolution. Spelling was inconsistent; even rules for capitalization and punctuation were not standard. We shouldn’t forget that this period overlapped with the end of Shakespeare’s production (1613), and standardization of the modern language started with the growing influence of his work.

Without another language, an English-speaker would have been isolated to cultural obscurity.

Limits of language-love in the early US

Since the beginnings of European North America, people judged the importance of a language from a narrow, utilitarian point of view. On our tour of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, the guide spoke proudly of the linguistic abilities of this father of the USA, as he knew Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, and Italian, in addition to his native English. I was less impressed by this as the low esteem of English provided the necessity for Jefferson’s education. A monolingual English speaker would have no access to the most important political, philosophical, or scientific ideas of the day, much like, for example, a monolingual Dutch speaker today.

What saddened me was that no Native American or African languages, such as Powhatan and Ndongo, were among the languages that Mr. Jefferson had learned. He was surely hearing slaves speaking multiple languages, and he was likely dealing with Native Americans on at least an occasional basis. I imagine it would have taken less work to learn those languages than Italian, for example, since speakers were living right in the vicinity.

Language is and always has been a way to access and connect with knowledge outside of one’s culture, and one’s choice of language demonstrates a bias towards whose knowledge one wants to access and connect with. Many in the US–and in most places of the world–one wants to connect with the powerful. In the 18th and 19th centuries, that meant France; in the mid-20th century German was important, and later in the century, Russian was important for a while. In the 2010s, Mandarin is more important as China became more economically powerful. Above all, most people in the world still learn English. Now, just as back then, Native American and West African languages are irrelevant because their people have no power.

Our people, just like most people, have always been biased against the weak and the outsider, and our lack of language-love displays our bias. Humans do not see value in connecting with and learning from those who do not hold power.

I learn wisdom from people whom others overlook. Those who are not powerful understand power in ways that the powerful themselves cannot see. By learning the languages of the “weak” I choose to learn what I could not know in an isolated, English-only bubble. By ignoring the “savage” Native Americans and West Africans in our country, we lost out on knowledge of this land, balance, tradition, poetry, nature, and family that are now lost forever. True language-love must embrace the outsider so that the insider might have a hope of gaining knowledge and wisdom.

Besides “doing business,” what other reasons do we have for learning languages?

People who speak poor English speak another language well

Our assumptions about people can hold back their potential
Our assumptions about people can hold back their potential

I recently tweeted this statement. A Saudi friend of mine responded with surprise at such an obvious assertion. I explained to him that in the US people often view people who speak poor English as stupid, lazy, or exclusive. In the workplace we often view those who speak “poor” English as deficient, inconvenient, or even dangerous. For teachers insufficient English is a huge challenge to overcome, for doctors it can be life-threatening, and in many workplaces it is at least an inconvenience. We have to hire translators and specialists and provide training in English, which is expensive. Overcoming the inconvenience of a lack of English skills is costly however you look at it–from this point of view. If we look at these people from a different point of view, we can see that they offer unique abilities to those around them.

This is the same way that many people talk about “disabled” people. They’re inconveniences. People who can’t see aren’t able to read documents. Those who can’t hear aren’t able to participate fully in meetings. Those who can’t walk are a dangerous liability is the case of a fire or other emergency. Businesses have to make costly accommodations for people with disabilities that we don’t have to make for others.

When it comes to physical disabilities, our society found a way of reversing this viewpoint by focusing on what the person is able to do, rather than unable to do. First, this is a human being with skills, not to be defined completely around one disability. Second, they bring unique abilities to the group. People develop heightened senses when they lack one. People can see the world from the point of view of being overlooked when they spend all day in a wheelchair literally having people look over them. All of them bring unique problem-solving skills because of the way they adapt to a society that doesn’t take them into consideration. When we see the “disabled” as “differently-abled” we all gain a new, indispensable viewpoint for approaching everyday tasks.

When I was recently at the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) conference, I had the fortune to speak about this issue with a bilingual English speaker who moves around in a wheelchair. She informed me about how employers view disabled people as a problem needing accommodation rather than an individual offering different abilities. She works to educate employers of people’s different abilities, rather than their lack of certain abilities. They are not to be pitied or worked-around, but seen as individuals with strengths and weaknesses.

Non-native English speakers–or those who speak no English at all–must be viewed as possessing unique abilities. They are not incompetent in English but highly competent in another language. They are differently-abled. We do not need to look upon them as people who are lacking in a language, but who offer another language to the workplace community.

People who speak poor English speak another language well.

For this reason, I am starting up language tables at my workplace. I want to highlight able, multilingual individuals who possess unique abilities so they can teach their knowledge to the rest of us. They speak a language that most people at work do not speak. Many of them are immigrants, so their life testifies to navigating different cultures and often overcoming adversity and a drastic change in life. Such a life offers important lessons to everyone. Thankfully, they offer knowledge and wisdom at work that others cannot. If people are willing to work at learning from their colleagues, work could help them become wiser and more knowledgable.

If we learn another language we enable higher morale and productivity at work. Those we work with overseas can feel at ease in participating with a foreign firm on equal terms without an atmosphere of imperialism. Domestically, we allow people to bring their whole selves to work. Thus our work environments improve significantly. In addition, we can act on this subtle discrimination (before it might become a legal matter).

Moreover, the individuals at the company can benefit personally. Everyone can learn another language and benefit from another way of life. Those whose communication skills were considered only in relation to their English proficiency will be seen as teachers no matter what their English level is. A deficiency will be considered an advantage for the company. Companies can win when they embrace loving language.

Photo credit: VinothChandar / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)