What do ISIS, the CIA, and the Mormons have in common? Languages!

How do you reach her? recruit her? Do you speak her language?
How do you reach her? recruit her? Do you speak her language?

People use languages to spread their own ideas. If they have ideas they believe deeply in, they gravitate towards learning languages and recruiting speakers of all different languages to further their message more quickly to a broader audience.

ISIS, US defense agencies, and the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS, or “Mormons”) all look to spread ideas. I am not discussing the validity of their different ideas or overall tactics, but the post compares how they use language to reach their objectives. Most institutions with an important idea or object can learn from what each of these organizations is doing.
Recruiting through language

Do language-learning tips work for Oromo? I was surprised! (pt. 2)

What are the best ways to study Oromo?
What are the best ways to study Oromo?

Recently I’ve been talked to some folks about practical tips for learning less well-resourced languages. La Polyglotte works on finding on-line resources for African languages, and Lindsay Dow specializes in practical tips for language-learning. I’ve expressed to them that I have the feeling when I hear language-learning advice that won’t apply to the languages I’m learning.

But let me be honest now. I haven’t actually tried everything that people suggest.

So I decided to run an experiment. Shannon Kennedy authors a great blog as the Eurolinguiste, and she recently blogged on 30 5-minute language exercises. I wanted to test which of these suggestions would work for Oromo. I was surprised not only at how many of them apply, but I also gained insight into what sorts of tips are the most universal.

In this part 2 of this post, I analyzed the second 15. You can find the first 15 in part 1.
Find out what works

Do language-learning tips work for Oromo? I was surprised! (pt. 1)

If I run the numbers, will my feeling still hold true?
If I run the numbers, will my feeling still hold true?

Recently I’ve been talked to some folks about practical tips for learning less well-resourced languages. La Polyglotte works on finding on-line resources for African languages, and Lindsay Dow specializes in practical tips for language-learning. I’ve had the feeling when I hear language-learning advice that won’t apply to the languages I’m learning.

But let me be honest now. I haven’t actually tried everything that people suggest.

So I decided to run an experiment. Shannon Kennedy authors a great blog as the Eurolinguiste, and she recently blogged on 30 5-minute language exercises. I wanted to test which of these suggestions would work for Oromo. I was surprised not only at how many of them apply, but I also gained insight into what sorts of tips are the most universal.

For part 1 of this post, I analyzed the first 15. I’ll finish the last 15 in part 2, in my next post.
Find out what works

Week 29 of Loving Somali: More fruit, thanks to the labor of me and others

Speaking your language in a cafe can really pay off!
Speaking your language in a cafe can really pay off!

Persistence paid off. Please forgive the cliche, but I’ve been trying to manifest in the past several posts—at least to myself—the progress I’ve been able to make over many months. This week I:

  • found a local teacher;
  • carried on a decent conversation;
  • dedicated some time every day to study; and
  • won a Somali grammar contest.

An additional truth came to me this week: I can’t do this alone. If it weren’t for my on-line tutor and my new conversation partner—not to mention my friends at work—my progress would be even slower than it is. I’m very grateful for these supporters I have.
Read how I did it

Week 28 of Loving Somali: Looking honestly at progress

Take a better look--your happiness may surprise your!
Take a better look–your happiness may surprise your!

My life is wonderful, yet sometimes I imagine I’m supposed to be living a different life than the one I’m living. At those moments, I get overwhelmed by so many things, find I’m not letting myself sleep enough, and feel down. Languages are my passion, but they’re not everything in my life, or even the best part of my life. They make me feel alive and happy. The moment they no longer make me feel good reminds me to take a step back and look at the totality of my life and remember how wonderful my life is. What am I really doing in my life? What progress am I actually making in my language?
The reality of my life

Week 26 of Loving Somali: What does a half-year of progress look like?

A six-month victory to celebrate!
A six-month victory to celebrate!

I realized that this week marks six months of learning Somali for me. A couple years ago, I learned from some friends a few phrases that we used often, but I wasn’t learning any grammar or vocabulary regularly. A half-year ago, though, I started getting more serious. Focusing on Somali has been difficult, but looking back I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made. I live a busy life, so I can’t dedicate large chunks to language-study. As a result, I learned what I can accomplish in 6 months.

Are you a busy professional with a full social and domestic life? Do you have lots of demands on you from your home and community? That’s my life. I hope that this list shows what you too can accomplish, even with a busy life.

See what I accomplished!

Week 10 of Loving Somali: No more advice, please. I just want to love languages.

As soon as I quit chasing happiness, I can be happy.
I can be happy today, if I see how good my life is.

Here’s what I intended to do with Somali this week: work on exercises for chapters 1-4 of my book and study vocabulary every day. Maybe I would have a Skype call with a teacher or even take a trip downtown to a Somali coffee shop.

Here’s what I did this week. I studied vocabulary every day and I got half-way through chapter 1 of my book. (I plan to work on more of the book today.)

What happened? Life happened. Continue reading “Week 10 of Loving Somali: No more advice, please. I just want to love languages.”

Week 1 of loving Somali: Exotic discoveries

Has your language produced exotic fruit?
Has your language produced exotic fruit?

So far I’ve kept to my goal of studying two chapters per week of La soco af soomaaliga and memorizing vocabulary daily with Anki. The book is not organized in a really clear way, and it doesn’t translate all the vocabulary. Fortunately, Google Translate manages Somali (barely) and I found an awesome Somali dictionary app.

Continue reading “Week 1 of loving Somali: Exotic discoveries”

The hard work of loving language

Time to get started again!
Time to get started again!

What do you do when language-learning stalls?

I’m trying to get back to work–language work. Other than my brief Portuguese stint, I haven’t done much language-learning this summer. My heart calls out for more languages!

I’m not getting enough from just the feeling of loving languages. A feeling won’t help me get connected with others, won’t give me the rush of new words and sounds and ideas coming through my mouth. Love is an action, isn’t it?

Continue reading “The hard work of loving language”

What is language-love worth?

How does language-love enrich you?
How does language-love enrich you?

Recently I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast, and they had an episode entitled, “Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It.” I listen regularly to this podcast because they, as economists, ask creative questions to understand human behavior quantitatively. In this episode, they wanted to examine quantitatively whether learning a foreign language is “worth it.” In order to quantify this worth, they measured the return on investment (ROI) of learning a foreign language. They found that the ROI is quite low; however, ROI of this skill does not accurately quantify the value of a foreign language because the ROI of a language depends on the wealth of the people using it, not the skill itself. They actually showed that the ROI of a language is high if its speakers are rich.

The findings on Freakonomics

To summarize the findings of the Freakonomics folks, languages help but they usually offer minimal ROI. Languages improve one’s cognitive abilities, such as decision making, namely, one tends to make more rational decisions while thinking in another language. One scientist hypothesized that the emotional detachment one enjoys keeps decisions from becoming irrational.

People earn more money depending on the language they know, but the money is minimal with one exception. One of the researchers concluded, “We know that the lowest return is Spanish, where you get about 1.5 percent, and then French 2.7 percent, and then German 4 percent. ” These figures indicate that language offers minimal ROI benefits. We find one exception to this trend, however: English. “In [similar studies conducted in Turkey, Russia, and Israel], actually speaking English, which would be the second language, was associated with a substantial return of around 10 to 20 percent.” Hence English can offer a substantial ROI over speaking only a non-English language. If you speak English, you will not enjoy a high ROI in learning another language, but if you do not speak English, learning it benefits you substantially.

The problem of ROI as value of language

This calculation of ROI bothers me because it looks at average ROI without the context of the jobs in consideration. People do not necessarily make a lot of money because of skills, but because of the material substance of the person they are working for. For example, I will make more money serving food at a high-end caterer than at a soup-kitchen. The work is substantially the same, but my salary assumes how “demanding” (read, “rich”) my client is. Elton John did not become a knight because he plays piano well; he is a knight because he played it well for aristocrats. A Harvard English professor will make five times what a community college English professor in Idaho makes, even if they have the same PhD and publishing record. The ROI on learning a language depends on wealth: 1) the average wealth of speakers of that language and 2) the average wealth of the actual clients you work with.

The language one learns determines in part the client one would use it for. People in the US who need someone to speak Spanish to them are most likely poor, uneducated immigrants. There are few jobs where you make a lot of money serving poor, uneducated immigrants. Jobs that would require German, however, would imply that you are working with people in Germany engaged in international business of some sort. Hence, jobs that require German offer more money. Americans tend to be rich and monolingual, so learning English for them is important for making money. Moreover, rich, well-educated people throughout the world speak English, so if you’re Turkish and work with Saudis, you can learn Arabic but your ROI will be less than if you learn English. The language you speak selects for the socio-economic class of your client, so the language selects for the salary.

Speaking a language with rich people will make you more money than speaking it with poor people. Most educated people in the world tend to be the richest and they tend to learn English. If I, as an English-speaking American, want to earn a lot of money, then I should work with rich, well-educated people. This is why most American business people are happy to know only English: everyone they work with is wealthy, educated, and knowledgeable in English.

Learn Arabic, for example. You will make much more money if you work with oil companies in Dubai than if you work with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Learn Russian. You will make much more money if you develop natural gas fields than if you help victims of human trafficking. If you want to work in oil or natural gas, though, English will probably suffice.

Other values of learning a language

You have to decide if your motivation is making money or not. How you answer that will determine the ROI on learning a language. Learning a language for working with people who do not speak English will not make you more money. If you are looking to make more money, foreign languages will often not help. But there are two significant benefits to learning a language that this podcast neglects because they are much more difficult to quantify.

Knowledge

First, “uneducated” people do not lack knowledge. Maya Angelou said, “Some people, unable to go to school, are more educated and more intelligent than college professors.” By speaking a language besides English, you will learn more about how people live in ways very different from the relatively materially wealthy lifestyle of the English-speaking world. If you learn Spanish, you can learn about different ways of understanding oneself to be American or about life right alongside Americans. If you learn Somali, you can learn about the importance and dangers of clan relationships and the importance of oral poetry. How does the US look from the margins? How does ancient literature learned through memorization sound to people?

One of the great achievements of humans is understanding how others perceive them, and learning a language allows for this heightened perception. The Freakonomics episode following the language ROI one regards how humans perceive how others perceive them. The human brain naturally focuses on this perception, but it tends to get it wrong. It’s essential to get it right, however. The main professor featured in the podcast stated, “If you can’t understand what other people think [and] how you’re being seen by other people, it’s very hard to lead or manage them effectively.” Thus, in order to be effective in leadership positions, we must develop our accuracy of how we are perceived by others.

Significantly, getting to know others in a foreign language gives you insight into how people perceive you and your culture and your presuppositions. Not just foreign language study, but using it to speak about people’s lives and their interactions and perceptions of others will improve how we lead in our job.

Service

Second, humanity needs people to work with poor people. We cannot value service for its own sake highly. Jobs that require true sacrifice bring a lot of good out of people. As a people, too close of need for material wealth will ruin us. We need to see the value of serving human beings and we can become more kind, more giving people.

We can improve ourselves as human beings as we learn about how we are perceived and as we serve others without constant material gain. Learning a foreign language offers the best means for gain in these areas. You will become a better person, but it may not be measured by your salary.

ROI on language-love

We will earn more money if we find a job that puts us in front of people who have a lot to give. A foreign language may or may not offer that. Some careers are populated by people with more money, but usually they do not require a language besides English.

Languages will make us better human beings and better leaders. We can achieve greater wisdom and more accurate self-perception. Meaningful opportunities to serve others can open up with another language that would not be available without English. To be human and to know humans require us to learn a language.

Why do you love languages? Why do you want to learn a new one? Is money part of the calculus?

Photo credit: epSos.de / Foter / CC BY