From Mexican walls to the ivory tower: Polyglots smash the echo-chamber

The media doesn’t tell you what to think, but it tells you what to think about.

How can polyglots end people's isolation in their echo chambers?
How can polyglots end people’s isolation in their echo chambers?

We all live in a personal echo-chamber nowadays, where the same assumptions and world views repeat over and over. One’s echo-chamber, however, remains independent of the chambers of others. So their assumptions never reach my ears, and theirs never reach mine. Some of us want to build walls to keep out the Other, and some of us don’t want to venture outside of our walls to listen attentively to the Other.

After we live in this chamber a while, and here our friends echo it, we think that it is the only discourse going on, that our assumptions are naturally shared by all observant, intelligent people like us.

Until we discover how the Other actually thinks.

Polyglots can change the discourse and remind us of the true complexity out there. They’re already listening. They can save our country!
Calling all polyglots!

HELP! How do I get out of the intermediate level doldrums?

How can you help me progress to the next level?
How can you help me progress to the next level?

I’m running into the doldrums of language-learning, making slow, even imperceptible progress. What do the following language-learning activities have in common?

  1. Translating sentences in my book;
  2. Translating actual news articles or podcasts;
  3. Visiting a Somali cafe.

They are all a) great activities and b) very time-consuming.

Continue reading “HELP! How do I get out of the intermediate level doldrums?”

Poetry translation for language learners

Use poetry in translation to bridge the gap
Use poetry in translation to bridge the gap

Living among Somalis, I’m fascinated by their attachment to poetry.  The 19th century explorer Richard Burton wrote about Somalia, “The country teems with ‘poets, poetasters, poetitoes, poetaccios’: every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines” (from First Footsteps in East Africa).  This feeling has not changed to the present day, even as far away from East Africa as we are in Minnesota.

I know that if I want to know the Somali language, I have to know Somali poetry.  I don’t know what to do because I’m a complete amateur of the Somali language.  Sometimes I’ll look for Somali poetry hoping that I’ll understand it if I just stare at it long enough.  I needed a way to bridge the gap–the chasm–between my basic, basic Somali and the great expanse of Somali literary beauty.

Then my prayers were answered when I found the website  I found poetry by modern Somali poems in the original Somali, once translated literally, and once translated fluidly.  It was perfect!  That way I can read the original and hear the “music” of the rhyme and meter.  Then I can work through the difficult, dense meaning of the poem with a helping hand.

You think this is good: you can listen to some of the poems read by the poets themselves!  This dimension adds to the music and bridges the gap from the written to the spoken word.  For learning the language, this ensures that you’re reading with the correct pronunciation.  Moreover, the poem becomes more intimate, more tied to an actual human.  You can even subscribe to the podcast of the recorded poems (only available through iTunes, unfortunately for me).


Much more than Somali, I found poems of many different languages.  Now I have a great resource for working on my Farsi thanks to several poems in that language, as well as in the closely related languages of Dari and Tajik.  You can find poems in even more obscure languages, too (eg, Assamese, Siraiki, Shuar).  A good portion of the poems come from Asia: from Georgia and Kurdistan, to China and Korea.  If I were learning Chinese, I would especially love that an audio accompanies many of the poems in that language.  The one thing the site lacks (I hate to even say it since the site has so much) is that the site does not offer transcriptions of non-Latin scripts.

Every poem demonstrates painstaking work.  The curators of the site collect these original poems by poets already established among their language communities.  The literal translation offers insight into the translation method, and then the poems are rendered artistically into English, which are themselves worthy of enjoyable reading.

Poetry can help your language

I encourage you to compliment your language-study with this site if possible because it will help you on multiple levels.  First, it will allow you to learn grammar and vocabulary from solid native sources.  Second, it will highlight the way that your language uses imagery to convey ideas.  Third, you will gain insight into what the speakers of you language consider most beautiful in their language, and you will deepen your knowledge about their point of view.  Enjoy your language in its most artistic form!

Have you found unlikely language-learning aids?  Do you use poetry to learn your language?

Photo credit: Valentina_A / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

How to re-start learning a language

Get ready to get back on the horse!
Get ready to get back on the horse!

It’s easy to get off track in one’s language learning (unless you’re one of the lucky few who gets paid to do so).  Work projects become demanding, kids’ schedules take up time, and the spring cleaning needs to get done somehow.  I found myself in this situation over the past couple months; I got off track.  But languages always pull me back.  Fortunately, I’ve thought for a long time about methods for learning languages, and a few of my favorite on-line language-lovers offer good advice that got me going again.  The two pieces of advice that helped a lot: 1) work a little every day and 2) passive learning is important.

No shame in falling off the horse

I admit that I got out of the daily habit of setting aside time for my languages.  This happens to everyone.  I am not independently wealthy, so I spend a lot of time working.  I do not work professionally with languages, so I have to find the time amidst my spare time.  As we all know, spare time ebbs and flows; we have little control over how much we have.  Many voices call out for our spare time, as well.  Family, community, and relaxation all require some of our time–and that’s after coming home from work.

Nevertheless, I want back up on the language horse I fell off of.  I needed to find a way to work on my languages amidst all these demands.  So I recalled some great things I’ve learned from the web.

Everyday language-learning

Aaron Myers at the Everyday Language Learner site constantly reminded me via his Twitter feed (@aarongmyers) to do something every day.  I love the name of his blog because the double-meaning fits me perfectly.  I need to learn languages “every day,” plus I’m a simple, garden-variety “everyday” language learner with cares, demands, and responsibilities like everyone else.

Finding 30 minutes to figure out what exercise I should do, though, was more than I could do.  Learning every day was too much.  So I was hardly learning anything.  This was demoralizing and out-of-character for me.  I had to learn how to do something every day, even if it was 5 minutes.

Passive learning jump-started my active learning

Passive learning allowed me to start up right away with little concentration and commitment, and then it led me easily–and unexpectedly–to more active study.  Steve Kaufmann, who blogs and vlogs about language-learning, advocates passive language input, which will aid language-learning when one turns to more active methods.  While I’m not beginning my language, I thought taking a passive-learning approach for now would help.

The BBC offers a one-hour daily news digest in Farsi, and I challenged myself this week to listen to the whole thing every day.  It’s certainly over my head, but it’s well-produced and discussing topics I already know a little about.  I listened a little in the morning while brushing my teeth, during my commute, and during some of my workouts.  Though I didn’t make it all the way through every episode, and on a couple days I listened to the last few minutes while I was falling asleep at night, I still benefited.  I was remembering words I thought I had forgotten and I looked up words occasionally.  My mind turned again towards Farsi–exactly what I’d hoped for!

On Saturday, then, I started using the great learning app, Anki.  This app soups up my old flash cards.  It offers universal accessibility–platforms for PC (Windows and Linux), Android, and on-line–and keeps track of what words I know best.  It also reminds me when it’s time to study.  Creating new cards I find the hardest, but the application makes it easy to cut and paste from emails, articles, or Google Translate.  I can also tag the source of my word.  Thanks to Anki, I spent 10 minutes in bed this morning reviewing some words, in addition to the 25 minutes (so far today) of listening to the BBC.  I’m back!

Quantity, not quality

Of course, the quality of your language-learning materials are important, but quantity got me back up into language-learning.  Doing something–anything–every day not only helped my language knowledge but also my motivation.  It’s easy to lose focus when life is busy, but 10 minutes that’s over your head is better than nothing.

Another thing I learned was that searching for quality input is important, but can’t stand in the way of practice.  When I’m looking for material more than I’m praticing, I’ve lost my balance.  I can tend to be a perfectionist, so I have to beware of this balance.  “Just do it!” has to be my motto.

This coming week, I’m going to try more of the same.  I’ll listen to the Persian BBC podcast as well as work my Anki cards as much as possible.  We’ll see where I end up.

Are you languishing in your language-study?  Did you fall off the horse?  What’s one thing you can do–even for one day–in the next day or two to work on your language?  Tweet this article and help spread the encouragement!

Photo credit: Eduardo Amorim / / CC BY-NC-SA

Creating “comprehensible input”–my new goal

learning, study, comprehend, understanding, comprehension
Keep learning moving!
Photo credit: rubyblossom. / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Reevaluating how I studied Farsi last year, I decided I would like to do some things differently.  I want to be sure I’m making progress, and I felt my progress in Farsi waned in the last third of 2012 (at least partially because of a move and job change).  I got a lot of help reading Aaron Myers’s planning tips at the Everyday Language Learner, and watching his videos on his YouTube channel.  His tips for language-learning are some of the best, because he deals with the weaknesses that we all run into–lack of focus, waning motivation, making the most of the little time that we have.  He convinced me that I have to re-plan for 2013 to be sure that I learn as much as I can this year.  Creating my own comprehensible Farsi study materials stands at the crux.

Motivation to re-tool comes because last year I made plans on how to work on Farsi, but I didn’t stick to them.  The plan I set last January did not last more than a month, and I did not come back to resetting my goals.  The plan was good in that it had regular goals and used multiple methods.  However, the ones that interacted more with others, such as making videos in the language or making Persian friends, never happened once.  Yet, I learned a lot of words and read a fair amount–and I met my Farsi-speaking neighbors, at least.  The end of the year didn’t feel right, though, so I wanted to think more deeply about how to make the most progress possible in 2013.

The first step proved to be the hardest: setting a goal and putting it into words.  I struggled all weekend till I could finally say, “My goal is to be able to converse with native Farsi-speakers comfortably in multiple subjects.”  While this is vague, it’s progress.  I found I could work with it.

I broke this further into two parts, as “converse” consists of “speaking” and “understanding.”  For speaking, I would need to be able to say what I need to say, and for understanding, I would need to comprehend the responses.  Speaking requires active vocabulary and decent grammar.  I would need an even bigger passive vocabulary for understanding.

The third part of my goal is “multiple subjects,” and I realized I could be more concrete in this area.  So I took my notebook and I wrote in a subject: “My neighborhood.”  I considered what I wanted to be able to say, and I wrote a short essay in English.  Then I started writing the passage in Farsi, looking up the words I need.  Once I finish, I will make a list of the words I had to look up, which will give me good and useful vocabulary for the “speaking” side.  Then I will type up the passage for, where I can get some feedback.  I may record a video on YouTube. After that, I will ask my Italki/Skype friends if they want to talk about this topic. Then I could gain some more vocabulary for the “understanding” part of the equation.  After I’m sick of talking about my neighborhood, I’ll figure out another subject and repeat the process.

I like this method because it keeps me focused on one topic that I can manage with more competence.  Previously, I was spending time gathering vocabulary from difficult sources, such as newspaper articles and podcasts.  Aaron Myers emphasizes “comprehensible input” and describes how to create your own.  “Comprehensible input” is data at my level in the foreign language that is comprehensible, that is, challenging and not overwhelming.  So I’m working towards creating input that I can understand and gain from–just a little bit over my head.

As I create this comprehensible input I can incorporate my native-speaker friends, which is a new goal of mine.  I have several Skype friends I want to talk to and who want to work with me on Persian and on English.  The great thing is talking to them is not only my means but also my goal!  The more I talk to them, the better I get and the more I succeed.  I will also incorporate consuming more videos and podcasts in Farsi to challenge my passive comprehension continuously.  The focuses topics, though, will occupy most of my focus.

Finally, I hope that this method will work for Somali, as well as Farsi.  The comprehensible input for Somali will be different than the input for Farsi in two ways.  One, the Somali input will be all dialogues for now because I have tons of exposure to native speakers.  Two, good books on Somali are rarer, as well as on-line language-learning resources, so I count on my native speakers for finding vocabulary, conjugating verbs, etc.  Writing all by myself is nearly impossible.

Are you re-tooling your language-learning processes or goals?  Please let me know what you’re planning.  If you are re-tooling your learning goals or methods, be sure to check out Aaron Myers’s “Everyday Language Learning” site.

What I learned about language-learning: 2012

Learning from 2012
Learning from 2012

I think that today is the perfect day to review my blog posts from the past year and summarize what I’ve learned about language-learning.  I hope that you have been learning along with me.  Overall, I found that learning languages improves my character, my professional life, and my community.  The process of learning languages teaches me how to set and achieve difficult goals.  Learning languages is not enough, though; I’m learning how to take language love out to my broader community.

Learning languages improves character.

When we learn languages, we train ourselves to think in new ways.  We become more creative and we move outside of our everyday thinking patterns.  As we advance, we talk to new people and take risks in looking silly–facing down immobilizing fears.  Understanding new people comes more easily, and we become more open-minded.  Confronting our fears and opening ourselves up to those who think differently from us forces us to grow and mature.

(See Moving out of Yourself through Language; Living Abroad–Learning Languages?–Enhances Creativity; Vulnerability and Weakness, Growth and Connection; Language Learning for Veterans; Languages: Failure is Gain; A Money-Mouth Situation; Language, fear, and childishness; Seek to understand rather than to be understood; You can learn a new skill!)

Learning languages improves professional success.

For those who work regularly with speakers of other languages, we can engage with them in more positive and constructive ways if we learn their language.  Though they may speak English, we show that we recognize the effort they constantly put forth to speak to us in a language that is foreign to them; we sympathize with them.  Moreover, we understand more deeply the needs and desires of our clients and customers because we have made the effort.  All of us will spend increasing amounts of time in the future with more non-native speakers of English, and the more we speak another language, the more quickly we will succeed in our dealings with those for whom English is not their native language.

(See Are English-Only Speakers Squeezed Out?; Communication Problems Slow Business Growth; Learning Languages for Global Development; Languages, Marketing, and Customer Experience; Languages Benefit US Employees.)

Learning languages improves the lives of expat spouses.

As a corollary to the above lesson, I’ve found that the spouses of expats will experience a more positive, constructive transition if they learn the language of the country they go to.  They can benefit from this exciting adventure, teach their children, advance their career, and grow personally.  Ultimately, the company profits from spouses who have a good expat experience.

(See Relocation Succeeds with Training for Spouses of Expats; Learning the Language Aids the Expat Spouse; Language Training Helps the Careers of Expat Spouses.)

Learning languages offers social benefits.

As Americans we find ourselves in the contradictory position of being surrounded by multiple languages every day, yet understanding none of them.  Our communities are full of language resources that we do not seek to learn from.

At the same time, we Americans hear our news largely from American sources in English.  We lack access to differing points of view because we cannot understand the languages in which those views are formed.  If we sought to benefit from the languages of our fellow-Americans, we would understand the world in a more sensitive, nuanced way.

(See “We have a listening problem”; Learning Community Languages; Language Deficiency; فارسی برای همه Farsi for everyone!; To be American is to be multilingual; Learn Languages for a Different Take on the News.)

Setting goals is important, but one must continually evaluate what is most effective.

This year I decided to learn Farsi.  I wanted to see how much I could learn with the resources I could find, without going to the country.  I set out in the beginning with certain goals for listening, vocabulary, and interactions.

Examining what works always helps, but what works in one phase of learning or of life may or may not work in another phase.  I found some of my learning tasks easy and some of them impossible.  I kept up in some areas but not in others.  Sometimes I lost my “balance.”  I made some fast progress in vocabulary, then lost momentum.  I more recently learned the beauty and necessity of speaking to natives.  Moving and changing jobs radically altered my ability to study my language, but I am still striving to learn however I can.  I learned that setting goals is not the same as setting expectations–goals I aim for, but expectations hurt when I don’t get to them.  Ultimately, the notion “progress, not perfection” will ensure that I learn the language–though not necessarily as quickly as I may like.

(See Setting Goals: Why take on this task?; Stuff happens; Problem of Intermediate Language Learning; Farsi at Six Months; Progress and perseverance in learning languages; Just make progress!; Re-motivation: Sharpening the axe; Overcoming fear to end a slump; Don’t just practice–engage!)

Importance of teaching languages

Finding myself in a community filled with Somali immigrants, I want to develop a local team to figure out ways for us non-Somali Minnesotans to learn from our neighbors.  We need to figure out how to develop more language teachers here.  I want my kids to grow up knowing more than one language, preferably one they can speak every day.  Education will improve overall through greater language education.  I also want the Somalis at my work to teach me and my co-workers their language.  Knowing that learning and teaching languages takes a lot of time, I’m learning how to use lunch time for learning time.

(See Languages at Work; Community Languages in Schools; Team Language-Lover; Certifying immigrant language teachers.)

I hope that you have a happy new year!  I hope next year to enjoy all kinds of improvement in Farsi and Somali.  I want to teach more people how to improve their lives by learning languages in the situation where they find themselves, whether in the US or abroad.  I also hope to develop Somali education in local schools here.  I hope we all love languages even more in 2013!


Don’t just practice–engage!

No bout succeeds without practice, but practice needs a bout!
No bout succeeds without practice, but practice needs a bout!

Learning languages is like boxing.  I have to work out and practice–like Rocky in the meat locker or running up the stairs of Philadelphia Museum of Art.  But I also have to remember that I have to get in the ring.  I’m doing my language exercises so that I can “go the distance” and successfully engage in conversation.  Lately I’ve been struggling with my language study because I lose sight of how all the learning-exercises fit together and how it all fits in my daily schedule.  With recent concrete experiences I’m discovering practical ways to balance learning exercises: to practice my language on my own, but always with the end that I will be talking to people.

I’ve made a cycle through my Farsi resources.  For a long time, I was reading articles and listening to podcasts.  I memorized lots of vocabulary.  I finally burned out on these exercises for two reasons.  One, I was too isolated.  I couldn’t sustain language-learning without my ultimate end before my eyes, that is, the end of talking to people.  Two, my schedule changed and I didn’t have the same kind of time to dedicate to these activities.  I was bored because I was stuck with the same vocabulary words and didn’t have time to look for more.

As a result, I recently turned to the internet and Skype.  I’ve found several generous Iranian students of English through italki who patiently help me with my Farsi.  Two problems have arisen from these conversations.  One, the time difference and my work schedule conspire to block frequent meetings.  Two, my vocabulary is not good enough to say precisely what I want to say and to understand others’ responses.  I’ve recently had a couple of Skype conversations that were frustrating because I was asking people to translate what they said and help me translate what I wanted to say.  The talk was not exactly “conversation.”  Previously I ran into the same problem with our neighbors.

I can classify my learning problems into two categories: time and skills.  I have to work, spend time with my family, and have a social life (even with non-Farsi speakers!).  So I need to figure out how much time I have to work on my language and when.  This re-analysis would be a good task for the new year.  I need to be honest about my time, what I’m spending it on, and how much can I spare on my language.  Also, managing my language time so that I don’t get stuck in an unproductive rut like where I found myself this fall.

For my skills, I have to work constantly with an eye on balance.  I need the vocabulary and I need conversation.  Like a boxer, I have to do push-ups and hit the bag; I also have to get in the ring to spar.  I can’t do one without the other.  Sparring–conversation–shows where my weaknesses are so that I can go and work on the areas that I’m weak in.  Learning vocabulary is the push-ups and punching-bag workouts, but with the goal of engaging with a partner.

One exercise that I’m working on, I’ve mentioned before.  I’m working on dialogues to repeat.  I’m writing ones in English so that language-learners can use them for multiple languages.  Then I’ll translate them into Farsi, and then into Somali.  On Skype these work well because I can have lots of different partners and so repeat the same dialogues over and over.  This reinforces vocabulary as I converse.  I can also use my “unproductive” Skype time to translate something concrete that I can use again later.

I will succeed if I use the little time that I have for languages well.  I will use my time well if I am balancing exercises on my own with conversations with other people.  The goal for both is to “go the distance” in Farsi–and then any other language.

Can you tell me about times when you ran into time problems?  How about problems balancing learning on your own and practicing with others?  I’d love to hear your stories.

Just make progress!

Even with dips--make progress!
Even with dips–make progress!

I’ve been uninspired–but I’m not ready to give up.  Work has been demanding, and my friends and family have kept me busy.  I’m trying to approach my languages differently, hoping the change of pace will inspire me.  I had the flu this last week, which halted some progress, too.  I want to hold fast in my mind that progress of any kind is important progress, even if the results don’t always look how I want.

Last week I Skyped with some new italki pals.  Because Iran is 10 hours later than me, I have to think creatively about how to connect.  Before I leave for work has presented itself as the most convenient time, as it can be free time on my side and it comes right after work in Iran.  Unfortunately, it means I have to get up earlier and plan ahead.  I still have to get used to that.  The advantage is real live Farsi talking!  All the vocabulary I’ve been working on for months is cementing itself finally.

I wrote a little in Farsi this week.  One small feature I like about italki over Livemocha is the “Notebook” feature, where you can write whatever you want.  Native speakers are encouraged to comment and/or correct it.  I wrote about being sick!  I had to learn “headache” and “fever,” which are helpful to know anyway.  The fact I was living through the precise situation, wrote about it, and received feedback on it very quickly helped me learn.

I watched the movie, “Day Break” (“دم صبح”), while I was sick.  I couldn’t do much but lay in bed, but I thought I might as well watch something in Farsi.  I’m glad I did.  The movie was well-acted and produced, and portrayed how one’s regrets and fear of death can trap someone in life.  I learned some Farsi and a lot about life.  I learned about the website, a treasure-trove of high-quality foreign TV shows and movies.  They also have an iPad app.

This combination of active and passive memory work helped me a lot.  I discovered I’ve been doing too little passive memory work.  All my word-memorization during the past several months focused on active memory.  Then, when I talked to the neighbors, I couldn’t understand a response.  Hearing and understanding require work and are necessary.

On a side note, Somali went less well this week.  One of my Somali work friends said on Friday, “You didn’t speak very much Somali this week!”  He noticed before I did.  Thank goodness I have people who can call me on my language use and habits.  I’m just breaking even there.

For encouragement, I watched the great Polyglot Discussion: a roundtable discussion over Google+ of seven well-known polyglots.  They traded views and advice about learning languages.  The advice was not particularly new, but I find a discussion among enthusiastic participants invigorating.  Frankly, it’s one of the reasons I crashed in bed with an Iranian movie rather than a TV show in English.

I have a couple of projects I would like to work on.  I would like to produce some kind of language-learning materials for informal settings.  More specifically, when I speak over Skype or when I meet at the language table with people.  I would like to find a way to take advantage of native speakers, without putting pressure on them to teach when they are not comfortable doing so formally.  So I would like to put together some dialogues with simple vocabulary–like in many textbooks–that apply to the work setting or lunch.  I want to be able to talk about finding means to study languages, eating lunch in the cafeteria, and dealing with the stress of work.  I need to go back to look at some resources that I have for inspiration.  These sorts of resources would help all of us participants learn more and feel more productive.

In the end I learned that I should be easy on myself and work on my language as I can.  When I can, I should do active memory work.  When I’m tired, I can do passive memory work.  I’ll try to get up early when I can so that I can chat on Skype.  In my spare time, I’d like to work on some curriculum.  In the end, making any progress is progress all the same.  It doesn’t always have to be pretty.

Have you been making progress recently?  Any kind of progress?  Be honest!

Anyone want to help make some curricula like I described?

فارسی برای همه Farsi for everyone!

“Female Musician” (from Wikimedia Commons)

As the world speaks more and more about war in Iran, every citizen of the American democracy has a duty to know more about Iran.  This goal stands out of reach of US citizens now, but every American in the humanities or professional groups should take the first steps towards achieving it.  Every American must first realize that when our democratic country speaks about war, we are morally required to influence our government based on broad, intelligent information.

Iran possesses an ancient history and rich literary and artistic heritage.  Their large, diverse country constantly deals with complex political and economic realities. Our moral imperative to influence our government based on broad, intelligent information requires us, ultimately, to know the Farsi language.  Language is a basic step towards achieving a more knowledgeable population.  We must grasp the reality of what Iran is before we can allow our country to prepare for war; otherwise, innocents will suffer because of a war against a straw man.

Money controls education.  Those who fund education influence what we learn and how information spreads through the culture.  We can see how this plays out in the interaction of Farsi language education and the most widespread information about Iran.  Significantly, the US government funds most of the Farsi language education in the US, especially in the areas of foreign service, intelligence, and the military.  As a result, the American people enjoy a plethora of information about Iran in these areas; if Americans know anything about Iran, they know about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s foreign policy (anti-US, anti-Israel) and military intelligence (potential to develop nuclear weapons).  It is not likely a coincidence that the information that the US population knows about Iran coincides with the areas where the US government funds Farsi language education.

The American people lack broader information about Iran because so little money for language education comes from other channels.  Americans know so little about the humanities or businesses in Iran.  Where would an artist turn to learn more about the traditional Persian visual arts?  Where would a vocalist find out about Persian musical culture?  How can a business person learn about traditional views on trade and business?  The artist, vocalist, and business person would have to learn Farsi or find a teacher in their field who knows Farsi.  No area of interest or business can separate itself from world events, yet our information about Iran is limited to so few areas of knowledge.

Community and professional organizations can fill this gap.  Local artistic groups can hire guest speakers from Iran to speak on music or art in Iran.  The speakers can also teach the language so that artists will stay engaged in the discussion of the particular area of art–visual art, music, anything.  Professional and business groups can make up rosters of local or web-based language teachers who can teach many levels of a language, so that the members can learn how Iranian society navigates business, or even law or medicine.

Members of these groups need to spend time and money to ensure that they are learning the language if they want reliable information.  One could argue that the language is not necessary, since the groups can always refer to bilingual Farsi and English speakers.  These groups, however, need the ability to synthesize the information on their own.  The difference is between reading a poem in translation and reading a poem in the original language; or between listening to a meeting through an interpreter and listening in the original language–and engaging all the parallel conversations taking place.  You can understand the gist, but can’t grasp fine details.  Significantly, the US government recognizes this distinction.  US government agencies do not depend solely on the large Iranian expat population in the US; they train new speakers.  Artistic and professional groups need to take the same amount of responsibility in putting time and money into language-training.  In that way, Americans will bring knowledge about Iran to the US about their sphere of interest, producing knowledge to complement what government sources produce.

Once these groups fill in the gap for language education, more Americans will know about the nuances of Iranian culture that relate to areas where the US government does not hold vested interests.  Ideally, every American could access high-quality language education.  With knowledge of the language, specialists in our population are better informed about the broader Iranian culture.  Then the level of knowledge in the US about Iran will rise.  The discussion will nuance the relationship between the US and Iranian populations, and the US democracy will find itself in a better position to decide for or against war in Iran.  But such a drastic action morally requires thorough knowledge of the affected population, and this knowledge will only come through knowledge of the language.  More groups must offer their money and time for language education for the level of foreign-policy discussion to progress beyond foreign policy and the military.

Have you witnessed grass-roots language efforts, in Farsi or other languages?  How have they helped your local community?

Would you like to see grass-roots language efforts?  In what area?  How could we start up such efforts?

What will it take to convince more people that grass-roots language knowledge is necessary for democracy?

Languages: Failure is Gain

Baha'i Temple India
Baha’i Temple India (Photo credit: Paul Ancheta)

An experience yesterday reminded me that a failure at language can be a gain for everyone.  I put my money where my mouth was (see my last post) and I went down to my Iranian neighbors’ house to chat.  Since it was Eid al-Fitr, I made some cookies to bring down to them, and I brought my wife.  I needed some kind of excuse to go visit; I wasn’t brave enough to go “just like that.”  My failures ended wonderfully.

Real life differs from language classes.  In language classes, speaking wrong results in failure.  If I forget my vocabulary, spelling, or grammar, I get counted down.  Imagine if I could get credit in language class simply because I came and spoke some of that language, no matter how flawed?  In reality, when I speak languages with folks, the latter is certainly the case.  My failure is rewarded and prompts me to improve.

When I went to the neighbors’ house I learned two things.  First, I learned that my neighbors are not Muslim as I assumed.  They are Bahai’i.  The wife’s family has been Bahai’i for multiple generations, and the husband is half-Muslim and half-Bahai’i.  He professes to be Bahai’i, though.  I know that the Bahai‘i in Iran have endured terrible persecution.  When I declared, “Eid mubarak!” (“Blessed Eid!”), they gave me puzzled looks.  How does it feel for others to assume you are their oppressors?  Would Russian Jews be happy to be wished, “Happy Easter!” considering Holy Week historically was a typical time for pogroms?  Since I assme the respective answers are “not good” and “no,” I felt pretty uncomfortable wishing my Bahai’i neighbors blessings on this Muslim holiday.

Second, I learned my Farsi is flawed, at best.  I was able to form questions, but was unable to understand responses.  My wife–who does not know Farsi–even interpreted their questions for me somehow.  I forgot how to say “1613” (my house number), and I could barely get out “one-six-one-three.”  At least I nailed “I don’t understand”!  My Farsi seemed to complicate the situation, which made me even more uncomfortable.

My feelings aside, here is the actual reaction: they kissed me and my wife.  The husband grabbed the back of my neck and pulled me in and kissed both cheeks.  The wife did the same with my wife.  This kiss came as a result of my failure.  Unlike language class, reality showed my failure was a success.  They showed that while my gut said “fail,” the reality was “gain.”

We do not need to worry about failing when we focus on other people.  Stumbling on cultural and linguistic matters helps the situation, when we focus on relationships.  At times we need information, so confusion seems like a failure.  If I had a business or legal deal with this family, things would have been difficult (impossible?) because so much information would have been lost.  However, the fact that I went in for the relationship first, the situation ended beautifully.  If I needed to do business with them at this point, I know that now things would go smoothly.  They think of me and my family as good people, as good neighbors who make an effort to know them, their culture, and language.  Effort clearly trumps failure in the long run.

When was the last time you and others benefitted from your language failure?  If you don’t have an example, go fail with your high-school Spanish or your recent Chinese study.  Then come back and let us know what happened!