The US is truly a Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel

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

Awesome language classrooms create a foreign environment

A foreign experience while still in class!
A foreign experience while still in class!

With the right teacher, you can learn languages quickly and with seemingly little effort.  In my last post, I discussed how language learning progresses best outside the classroom.  Yet some of my best, quickest, most pleasant progress in learning languages took place in classes with fantastic teachers.  Others learners and teachers I know experienced the same.  From my anecdotal evidence, awesome teachers do not focus on grammar but use immersion to emphasize that students listen to and read real speech, and that they talk a lot in the language.

Classes have to focus on communication, not perfection

In my experience, bad classes get bogged down in extraneous details in two common ways.  First, one spends most of one’s time on grammar and paradigms.  I remember praying for sleep in my French class while we were learning the umpteenth irregular verb (voir, I think); staying conscious only produced pain.  In Russian class, we spent literally weeks on declining nouns, and I memorized the same Modern Hebrew verb tables at least 5 times.

Second, teachers grade students according to a native speaker baseline.  For French class, that’s one point off for each article gender missed.  In German, that’s a point off for forgetting the final “n” for the masculine dative, and in Russian it’s missing full credit because you used the wrong variation on the irregular genitive plural.

I found that these minute details do not hinder communication when I saw that native speakers make the same mistakes.  For example, French children miss genders all the time.  When I was in Kiev, my friend corrected her 10-year old niece for using the incorrect genitive plural ending.  My children went to Russian school weekly when they were 4-7 years old.  When they used all sorts of funky verb endings, I mentioned it to their teacher, who simply shrugged–that’s normal for Russian kids, as well.

Native speakers have years to perfect the minutiae of grammar, while we had weeks.  Yet the native speakers could naturally carry on a much better conversation than my classmates could.  Their success came because they focused on natural input and forcing themselves to speak when they were little.  (Any parent will tell you about the wonder when their baby started saying what they wanted rather than just cry.)  My classes were focused on getting it right first, before we could actually communicate.

My awesome experiences: Constant speaking in class

As much as I talk about studying languages on one’s own, some awesome teachers taught me a lot quickly.  When I lived in Kiev, I had an awesome teacher for Ukrainian, Lyudmila.  She was short with big glasses and a high voice and the patience of a kindergarten teacher.  Even though she spoke no languages other than Russian and Ukrainian, she taught Russian and Ukrainian successfully to Americans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Germans, and others.  As a result, my entire lesson was in Ukrainian, and I was forced to speak Ukrainian the whole time.  She proved infinitely patient with no sign of boredom.  She could bring up a new word, and if I couldn’t understand it from context, she could bring up 10 more examples and contexts until I understood.  I came from every lesson with a headache from thinking so hard, and a list of new words that I had learned.  There were no tests.  In the end, I learned to speak Ukrainian such that Ukrainians thought that I was born in Ukraine and emigrated to the US.

During the summer between 9th and 10th grades, I had an awesome teacher for German, Dr. Coates.  It was a 3-week intensive course at an academic camp.  Dr. Coates insisted on everyone speaking on a regular basis, which he accomplish old-school, through recitation.  The first week we spent on pronunciation.  In one common exercise, we had to stand up and recite the German alphabet and vowels/diphthongs “blitzschnell” during class.  The next two weeks he forbade us from speaking English in class.  Each week we learned a couple poems and songs, and we spent a fair amount of time reading and summarizing aloud in German.  At the end of three weeks he had us perform in the camp talent show by acting out the classic 19th century poem, “Der Erlkönig” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  For grammar, we only used the basic book(let) he wrote himself (no exercises).  We only had a couple of quizzes/tests, but no final tally was made that I remember.  To this day I can speak German with very little accent, and I can still recite a couple strophes of “Der Erlkönig.”

Others’ awesome experiences: No English and lots of native input

Speaking German only in German class makes you learn quickly and intensely.  Melissa Bradford taught German at the Latter-Day Saints’ Missionary Training Center (MTC).  (I’ve long jealously admired the resources and expertise the LDS church has put into language-learning.).  In her blog post, How To Raise a Multilingual Child- MUSTS, BESTS & BOOSTS, Melissa wrote,

The MTC was closer to a total immersion experience. As of the first week, our classes of young volunteers were challenged to SYL – Speak Your Language (or speak nothing at all) – although they’d only had 76 ours of instruction.  It got very quiet right about then.  And our students got headaches!  It is hard work to pry out the mother tongue (let’s say it’s English) and replace it with another (there are 52 language taught at the MTC).

We should recognize that 76 hours of instruction is a little more than one standard college semester of a basic language class.  (In the universities I know, the first years of a language met about 5 hours per week for about 12-13 weeks.)  I can only dream of no English spoken after that amount of time.  The LDS missionaries I’ve met around the world speak local languages at a high level because of their focus on speaking with natives many hours per day.

Awesome classroom instruction also includes lots of native input.  A commenter on my blog, mm172001, wrote this comment:

In the full immersion classes we were introduced to culture; ex in Spanish class in high school we would listen to Mexican radio stations and watch Spanish tv with no subtitles. In ASL our teacher would tell us stories about her weekend, when we only knew partial vocab and had to infer the rest to pick up signs.

As he described, they had to navigate through native input right away.  Radio, TV, and story telling required them to work actively in the language from the beginning.

Switching off English and switching on the other language full blast offers a classroom experience in which students really learn quickly and effectively.

Awesome instruction comes from imitating a native environment

Active speaking and listening make awesome language learning possible.  In my best experiences, conversation only in the foreign language and speaking the language through talking and recitation produced my best learning.  For two others I mentioned, only allowing the language in class and encouraging students to engage in active listening produced awesome learning experiences. In conjunction with my point in my last post, the most important point is to speak constantly and grapple with native input all the time, whether inside or outside the classroom.  Only classes based on communication exclusively in the target language will produce awesome results.

Anyone can learn a language, but not always in a classroom

Get out of class and learn your language!
Get out of class and learn your language!

A friend of mine is an immigrant from Russia.  He speaks excellent English, though his pronunciation marks him as a native Russian speaker.  He is a PhD in the sciences, so he is clearly intelligent.  Recently, though, he confided in me that he received two 4’s in school (equivalent to American B’s): in Russian grammar and in English.  It struck me: how could someone who was good at school, bad at these subjects?  And if he supposedly wasn’t so great at these in school, how did he manage to succeed in English as he did now?

In the classroom, he did not do well in English, in spite of his aptitude in other school subjects.  Successful learning for him required Immigrating to the US and surrounding himself with English speakers.  He manifested a basic fact, that any human being can learn another language.  Generations of people without any formal education have become polyglots without much conscious effort; my friend became one more of their number.  Brains are ready to learn multiple languages.  Classroom language education does not work as effectively as the direct approach: learning the language on the street.

The contrast

This conversation reminded me of some of my own personal and second-hand knowledge of language education.  My only non-A’s in high school were German and Russian.  I know of many people whose last experience with a foreign language was a deflating experience in a school language class.  Benny the Irish Polyglot describe this experience vividly in his TED talk.   Everyone struggling to grasp another language in the classroom.

Then I remember my African and Indian friends and Indonesian acquaintances who take no credit for knowing 4-5 languages.  My Russian scientist  friend told me the same is the case in Dagestan, in southern Russia.  Africans and Indians often speak 1-2 linguae francaelike English and French in Africa, or English and Hindi in India.  Then they speak a majority local language, like Yoruba in Nigeria or a state language in India, like Punjabi.  Finally, Mom and/or Dad might come from the village, so that’s an additional 1-2 languages.  Three is easy to come by, and five happens without trying.  When I look on Youtube for the videos of the famous polyglots, I noticed that they are nearly all from the US and Europe.  I have not noticed one Indian and no Africans.  Is this under-representation because polyglots abound in these areas so much that they do not stand out in their culture?

The paradox

Note the main difference between these two groups of people.  The Russians and Americans spent much of their time learning languages in school; the Africans and Indians spent the minority of language-learning time in school.  The more formal education correlates to the worst outcomes.

In the US and Russia, the education system dumped and continues to dump millions of dollars into language education, when the solution is to live among the people and just talk.  Grammar largely doesn’t matter for these language-learners in Africa and Asia.  They took very few tests, and they may not have memorized vocabulary.  They may not have even been literate in that language.  They turned to someone and talked, and that someone talked back, and they worked it out.

One system can’t manage to teach a foreign language to a highly educated scientist; the other teaches multiple languages to people lacking formal education.  Yet the former educational system spends so much money on language-learning that doesn’t work so well.

We have what we need–and it’s free

In the US people always say that you have to live in the country if you really want to learn a language.  Just learning from a book isn’t enough, we admit.  Yet we always say this as we lament a monolingual doom.  We are not doomed to monolingualism, however.  What are the languages of our cities? of our states?  In Minneapolis-St Paul, we have a huge numbers of Spanish, Hmong, and Somali speakers, not to mention Chinese, Vietnamese, and Oromo speakers.

That’s it.  That’s all you need–for the cost of some time and a cup of coffee or a meal.

Ok, so you found someone who speaks the language–what do you do now?  You start with questions, with gestures, with mimicry, and then you continue building on what you learn.  Because your brain was set up to learn multiple languages, you can go in with the knowledge that you can totally learn this language without classroom instruction.  You will learn and make new friends.  If you must use high-tech tools, stick with Anki to create and track flash cards, or maybe organize notes with Evernote.

Effective education

From what I’ve seen, the most effective education in language comes from the street.  Since we’re set up to learn multiple languages, we just need to find the input.  What’s better is that input comes from delightful people all around us.  If classroom instruction would work effectively, it would need to incorporate language-learning truths that cultures have known for centuries.  Like my Russian friend, the best classroom for learning English was outside the classroom.  Languages are not a subject like some others, like science or literature; they come from interaction with others and not from a book.

How about you?  Do you learn languages best in or out of the classroom?  Did you ever have a fantastic language classroom experience?

Photo credit: Orange42 / / CC BY

Cultural intelligence and offshore success, part 2

Cultural intelligence keeps communication from getting stiff.
Cultural intelligence keeps communication from getting stiff.

This week I had an opportunity to help mediate between a company and its offshore help desk.  A friend invited me to participate on a conference-call with overseas managers of their offshore help desk.  I wrote previously about how internal cultural intelligence allows companies to overcome cross-cultural challenges arising from off-shoring work.  I helped my friend’s company by explaining US culture to the overseas managers and I showed my interest in their culture by speaking their language. By speaking two words of their language, I showed my genuine interest in overcoming our communication gap.

The teleconference I attended included some of my friend’s management and the managers from the offshore help desk.  Negative customer feedback–among other reasons–prompted the call.  People who were used to calling the US help desk (back before it was offshore) complained that they could not understand the new help-desk staff and that they felt that the help-desk staff didn’t understand them.  And these people often expressed their sentiments rudely.

I tried to comfort the offshore managers that they were not to blame, even though the comments sounded awfully personal.  I explained to the overseas managers that many Americans did not understand the challenges of cross-cultural communication.  In the context of these managers, many people conducted daily life in more than one language; in the US, most of our people could not do so, even if the opportunity arose.  Many Americans go through their days speaking only English and hearing English entirely from native speakers.  As a result, accented English sounds to them very strange, unfamiliar, and even threatening.

While the meeting continued on in a standard, formal manner, the end took a turn as I spoke a few words of the staff’s language.  During the call, I had brought up the page from with common phrases in their language.  I ended the call with simply, “Thank you.  Good-bye,” in their language.  The formality loosened as they all smiled (presumably) and laughed (audibly).  My friend said this was the sound of a hug; if this had been a face-to-face meeting, they would have hugged me.  One American speaking two words of their language advanced our mutual goodwill tangibly.

As a side note, I coincidentally started that same day speaking French with the same results. The company I work for has an office in Quebec.  I had called someone who had been having some trouble and had reached her French-language voicemail message.  After I sent her an email in French, she emailed back in French.  So I called her up, but this time I left her a voice mail in French.  When she finally called me back, I let her decide what language we would speak in, and she decided on English.  Nevertheless, I could hear her smile over the phone that *she* got to decide what language to speak.  How often does a Quebecois decide which language to speak with someone from the States?

Has your language skills or interests helped lighten a difficult situation?  Have you seen where cross-cultural communication helps a difficult situation?  Have you worked with off-shore help desks?

“Like” this post if you’re ready to have Omniglot at the ready next time you make your next overseas phone call!

Photo credit: Alba Soler Photography / / CC BY-NC-ND