Ecolinguism in Israel: Another place where languages go to die

How many languages can Israel allow to flourish?
How many languages can Israel allow to flourish?

The modern State of Israel recognizes two official languages: Hebrew and Arabic. Nearly all of its Jewish citizens came from somewhere else within the last 2-3 generations. When these immigrants came, they brought their language. Pressure from Israeli society eliminated the vast majority of their languages.

While 49% of Israelis over 20 claim Hebrew as their native language, according to Wikipedia, 18% claim Arabic, and 15% Russian. The other 18% speak Yiddish, French, English, Spanish, and “Other” languages, which include Romanian, German, and Amharic.

The language picture is more complex than at first glance. A language may include multiple dialects, each living its own dynamic. Some of the last speakers of certain language dialects live in Israel. Active violence has also taken place against other languages.

As Hebrew was chosen as the official language, its proponents put in place a system that does not give other languages space to live and grow.

Let’s look at a few of the examples of languages in Israel today.
Language survival

What you miss when you’re not an ecolinguist

What languages can you connect with around you?
What languages can you connect with around you?

I haven’t always lived as a successful ecolinguist. The past couple days I was remembering times when I missed opportunities, times when I found myself in a rich linguistic environment but didn’t take the time to look around and connect with the people around me. While I managed to connect with some of the languages, some of them avoided my grasp.

Fortunately, I found ways to connect better with people around me now, though I still fall short. Observing my environment better at this point, I can at least see how my languages fit in.

I hope that this post will help you look around you to listen to and learn from the people around you. I will show you where and how opportunities to be an ecolinguist exist around you. Once you start to pay attention, you may find that your friends, coworkers, classmates, or neighbors speak languages you didn’t notice.
Be an ecolinguist

Keeping Basque speakers—and making more

Txili Lauzarika, my Euskara teacher for the morning
Txili Lauzarika, my Euskara teacher for the morning

After the Basque class this summer, I had an opportunity to speak with the teacher, Txili Lauzirika. He is a native speaker of Euskara (Basque), with a passion for the language. A teacher and poet by profession, and a sociologist by training, he offered me important insights into the survival of Euskara up to the present, as well as its continued existence into the future.

Because his training was in sociology and not history, he presented me some counter-narratives to the ones we normally hear about Euskara. They offer hope to the future existence of this minority language if we follow some of the basic principles that he noticed.
Survival of Euskara

National, immigrant, and tourist languages

Basque, Spanish, English at a ticket vending machine. Note that a single word of English appears.
In Spain, I noticed a three-tier system of languages. I believe that we find this system often in Europe, but less so in the US. Nevertheless, the system shows up in the US especially since much of it is based in economics.

We must focus on a particular place in order to define these languages.

Here are the three basic levels:

  1. Local languages. These are the languages that find their home in the area in question.
  2. Immigrant languages. When people come from the area of another local language to live in a new area permanently, they bring their language with them. They may crystalize as a distinct community in the new area.
  3. Tourist languages. Some people come for a short time, ready to spend money on specific goods and services, such as souvenirs and museum tickets. Many of them may speak other languages.

In Spain I’ve noticed these levels play out in a particular way.
Ecolinguism in Spain

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

Kiss the babies

Kids can be energetic and unpredictable--why not say "hi"?
Kids can be energetic and unpredictable–why not say “hi”?

The boy points at the baker’s case full of cake and cookies. His mother gazes with deliberate focus behind the counter, which leads the seven-year-old to tap her face in the direction of the sweets. She grimaces as she pushes the hand down.

For the moment her younger children occupy themselves, but she can only count on them not seeing the sweets for so long. In a preemptive act, she buys three muffins, yet her oldest escalates by raising the urgency of his voice and grabbing her face—which now begins to bear a look of defeat. Continue reading “Kiss the babies”

Six ways to get out of the expat bubble

I bet you could practice your language with someone here!
I bet you could practice your language with someone here!

When you go abroad to learn a language, how do you make sure that you’re learning the language? Many people travel with the hope that they will “absorb” the language, and then find that this process does not unfold by itself. Many people get lonely and make friends with the folks they have the most in common with: expats. They quickly get stuck the trap of speaking their native language while abroad rather than the language they’re learning.

How do you get unstuck?

When I visited Spain in college, I had a chance to visit Pamplona for the Sanfermin Festival (the “Running of the Bulls”). In one bar I met a local girl, and we chatted in Spanish. She told me she spent a year in the US—yet she never tried to speak English with me. Surely after a year in the US, she would speak better English than my self-taught Spanish, right?

“Where did you live?” I asked.

“Miami,” she replied.

That explained it! She lived in the US without speaking English.

What could she have done differently? What can you do differently while abroad?
6 ways to get unstuck

Loving languages in NYC: Polyglot Conference 2015

We could affix the languages we spoke to the name tag.
Not often do I get to speak five languages in 2 1/2 days, but I had the fortune of attending the Polyglot Conference last month in NYC. I dreamed that the conference would motivate and focus me on my language-learning, so I used the event itself as motivation. I challenged myself at every opportunity to find out what languages people spoke—whether at the conference itself or not—and practice and learn. I knew my friends and family would ask me what languages I spoke at the conference, and I didn’t want to disappoint.
Read what I spoke!

Entering dangerous territory: Ecolinguism off the beaten path

How do you learn about their story?
How do you learn about their story?

The salesperson just spoke to those people in English, I realized.

“Do you speak English?” I asked the dark-haired young man across the aisle from me. His face showed sun, wrinkles, and fatigue, making it hard to guess his age—somewhere between 25 and 45.

“No,” he shook his head and smiled as he pointed to the young woman sitting next to him. I had noticed her enormous, beautiful brown eyes, which, though tired, never closed during this long train ride.

“What language do you speak with them?” I continued, indicating the older man and younger women he was traveling with.

“Kurdish,” he answered.

I had him: “Bitdhaki al-arabi?” “Do you speak Arabic?”

His face lit up, “Yes, I speak Arabic.”

“Where are you from?”

“Syria.”

“Are you fleeing the war?”

“Yes.”

How do we learn others’ stories?

Week 16 of Loving Somali: Why study Cushitic languages?

Map of Cushitic and Afro-Asiatic languages
Map of Cushitic and Afro-Asiatic languages

Languages opened my mind to new ways of thinking. This statement is so cliched, so let me try to fill it with some meaning.

When I study a language, I have to grasp new ways of expressing oneself. I don’t mean expressing one’s innermost thoughts; I mean trying to parse out mundane things like, “I’m hungry,” or “Please stop that!” To learn that, I inevitably have to talk to people who spend at least part of their lives outside of the monolingual English community I’ve spent most of my life in. That means that they approach the world differently than the people of my community. Again, this is not necessarily a profound difference; I’m talking about a community who sees a huge difference between, say, Ethiopia and Somalia. Basing my thinking on a new set of relevant facts changes my day-to-day concerns.

This week. I wanted to express some of the basic facts about a linguistic realm that few people—even professional linguists—know anything about. I will describe the Cushitic language family, concluding with why someone should care about Cushitic languages.
Discover more