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

Learn a language and listen!

Each has an important story to tell. Listen!
Each has an important story to tell. Listen!

Recently I went to a fundraising dinner for Green Card Voices, a group that records oral histories of immigrants in the US. I love the way that they humanize immigrant experiences from numerous points of view.

During the program, they put us through an exercise that I have suggested for people to try for a long time that will help us understand immigrants through learning languages.
We can do it!

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.
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Writing can divide even when language does not

Writing can divide us even when language unites us
Writing can divide us even when language unites us

Humans excel at discussing how their family, tribe, state, or ethnicity differs from another. Even when everything seems so similar to the outsider, the insider can fixate on one aspect of culture. A dance move, a hand gesture, the use of a spice, a pattern of embroidery–anything can show how you and I are “essentially” different.

Personally, I love these differences, but I can see the downside. When I study languages, I love the little differences. I seek out how Ukrainians pronounce Russian, how different Arabic dialects say the word “now,” how Serbs and Croats pronounce “girl” differently. Variety is the spice of life, right? When discussing these differences with native speakers, sometimes the discussion unfortunately moves to value-based ideas like language “purity” or “progressive” thinking or some other sort of ideology. I dislike ideology because it cements differences by devaluing the Other. Variety and distinctions display the uniqueness of human beings and cultures. The cultural differences I have encountered have shown me that I always have more to learn; I don’t have all the answers.

Writing systems represent a “paralinguistic” phenomenon that cultures can use to distinguish themselves. Even when people speak each other’s language, or even speak the same language, writing divides. Division may be bad, in that it can foment chauvinism, or may be good, in that it can preserve unique cultural traits. In any case, writing distinguishes cultural groups within an otherwise unified linguistic milieu.

Polyglot illiterates in India

Recently I read Michael Erard’s, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. (Anyone who loves languages must read this salute to hyperpolyglots.) In one place, he discusses the polyglot world of India. My experience supports his description, that Indians speak multiple languages. At the same time, each language does not represent an “airtight” container; every Indian seems to be speaking multiple languages simultaneously by dropping in words from whatever language comes to mind. Sid, a Telugu whom I interviewed a while ago, said he chooses the word from the language that suits most what he’s trying to say. Erard discussed the Tamil grammarian, E. Annamalai, who wrote of an Indian “monogrammar,” that is, “While they sound different and use different vocabularies, he said, the grammars are nearly the same” (Erard, 208).

Significantly, among such similar languages, distinct writing systems developed for many Indian languages. India is divided into two major language families, the Indo-Aryan languages in the North, and the Dravidian languages in the South. The four most widely spoken Dravidian languages, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam, each possesses its own writing system. Among my South Indian acquaintances, a working knowledge of at least 2-3 of them is common–but they can’t read them.

The contrast struck me between the common ability to speak many Dravidian languages and inability to read them, prompting me to ask the question of “why?” Human beings use markers to distinguish among groups, whether by food (eg, kosher), clothing (eg, hijab), or language. Since the first two do not distinguish among these South Indian groups significantly, and many people move fluidly among the languages, the societal organism grabbed on to writing as a way to distinguish. As a result, you can place a piece of writing in front of an Indian polyglot to see where in the social structure he or she belongs.

To simplify or not to simplify in China

The Chinese word for "National language&q...
The Chinese word for “National language” (國語; Guóyǔ) written in Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters, followed by Hanyu Pinyin, Gwoyeu Romatzyh, Tongyong Pinyin and Wade-Giles romanizations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After several decades of serious discussion, Chinese intellectuals decided to simplify Chinese writing in the 1950s and ’60s under Mao Zedong.  This reform took off on the mainland; in Hong Kong, Macau, and Republic of China (Taiwan), however, they continue to use the traditional system. The former is called “Simplified,” and the latter, “Traditional.”  For some rarer applications, one can use the standard romanized writing system, Pinyin, for writing in Chinese. I also learned about the Dungan people of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, former Soviet Republics, who write their dialect of Mandarin Chinese in the Cyrillic alphabet. Compared to the other writing systems, though, this one is negligible.

While we think of Chinese writing as difficult, we have to understand that there are two significant Chinese writing systems. Native speakers/writers of each one find the other difficult. Even if speakers in Mainland China and Taiwan speak the same dialect, they may write using systems that are not mutually intelligible. In effect, Chinese writing is bilingual, even if the people are speaking the same dialect.

In this aspect, the writing systems cemented in place the divisions in the country from the ’50s and ’60s. While the Mainland was moving in one direction under Mao, the other areas that were resistant to Mao’s ideas moved in another.

These divisions are still effective today, though I don’t know if anyone has measured the extent. At my company, our IT Service Desk needs distinct teams to be able to handle requests for help in both Traditional and Simplified Chinese. We know that a huge amount of traffic on the internet is “in Chinese.” But this is usually measured as “speakers of Chinese.” Since there isn’t a single written Chinese, then one would have to add the usage in Traditional, Simplified, and Pinyin Chinese writing.

One people divided by religion and writing

Slavs moved into the Balkans in Southeast Europe in around the 5th-6th century. Most believe that they moved from the North, maybe from the area of modern-day Ukraine. (From Wikipedia They were independent tribes, without central leadership.

During successive centuries, part of them came under the influence of the Eastern Christians (Orthodox), centered in Constantinople, and some under the Western Christians (Catholic), centered in Rome. In time, the former came to be known as “Serbs” and the latter, “Croats.” These groups started to develop national identities around their respective religions. Certain geographical areas contained a majority of one group, which became another important part of their cultural identity.

The religious leadership worked to evangelize and educate the Southern Slavs, each in their own writing system. To this day, Serbs read and write principally in Cyrillic writing, and Croats almost exclusively in the Latin alphabet. Linguists recognize a single spoken language, Serbo-Croatian, with local variations that are more tied to place than to religion, though this has changed a lot since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The religious difference is thus bound up in the language through the writing system.

Writing divides where language does not

In India, China, and the former Yugoslavia we see that mutually unintelligible writing systems are used when languages are fully comprehensible. What could motivate this layer of confusion, when mutual understanding is already present?

Human beings show a tendency to identify with a group whose markers function in opposition to others. Thus a Tamil who speaks Tamil and Kannada can say to the Kannada person, “I am not Kannada because I cannot read that writing.” A Taiwanese Mandarin speaker can say to the Mainlander, “We may speak the same language, but I cannot read your writing. If you have something important to say, I’m sure you’ll tell me.” The Croat can say to the Serb, “Your writing looks so Russian! You Serbs have a much more eastern mentality than we do.” The writing systems provide data to demonstrate that our groups, which share so much in common, are different deep down.

Individuals may not pronounce these precise phrases, but they demonstrate how easy it is to move from alphabet or ideogram to identity and to ideology. We must be careful of this ease of motion.

Most importantly for me, I don’t believe in erasing differences among people, though they must be viewed with caution. I believe in these distinctions; differences in culture exist just as attached and unattached earlobes exist. They don’t necessarily imply different ideologies. Varying language systems help preserve diversity, as well. Identifying with one culture over another, though, can be dangerous. Preserving my culture must be as important as preserving your culture, otherwise we end up with self-righteousness and violence. Writing can preserve beautiful cultures, but one must believe in the beauty and value of every culture to avoid degrading ourselves.

Photo credit: Mennonite Church USA Archives /

Developing language education at my job

If we listen to each other, we can learn languages!
If we listen to each other, we can learn languages!

Now I see why American places of business don’t make language-learning an important part of work.  I’m a language enthusiast and a supervisor, and it’s hard for me to incorporate language-learning into my workplace, in spite of opportunities.  We have a speaker of Marathi and Hindi on our team, and we speak every day to people in the Philippines.  Personally I meet weekly on the phone with a colleague in Shanghai, and occasionally with folks in Brazil and Portugal.  Yet I have not emphasized learning languages at work, neither for myself nor for my team.  Because even basic language-study helps empathy and goodwill so much, and deeper language-study improves the mind and problem-solving skills, I will begin incorporating language-study into our work.


We speak every day to folks in the Philippines in a way that we could learn basic greetings really well, though our interactions are not conducive to learning the language deeply. Someone will call in from the Philippines.  A basic transfer of information takes place, and the call ends.  The calls are very short and technical, and the people we’re talking to are very busy.  It’s the equivalent of asking the waiter at a crowded restaurant to offer you grammar tips.

We can limit ourselves for now to basic greetings: hello, good morning/evening, how are you? thank you, good-bye.  I would love to expand it to small-talk: are things busy? is the weather nice?  Maybe we could do numbers, as a lot of the information we get is numbers–though I fear for accuracy, which is important.

One day it would be nice to have a teacher give us a lunch-lesson once per week or twice per month.  He or she could come to our team so we could learn a little conversational Tagalog.  Such lessons offer the full benefits of learning a language.

Marathi & Hindi

One of our teammates is a native speaker of Marathi and Hindi.  He calls Marathi his “mother-tongue,” though he speaks Hindi at home with his wife and child for his child’s sake.  Our interactions are more numerous, longer, and wider-ranging.  We have an opportunity to learn more than Tagalog.

How practical is it to learn these languages?  In reality, our area of town has very few Marathi speakers, though there are a lot of South Indians.  So Hindi could be used much more widely than Marathi.  At the same time, Marathi is no obscure language; it represents the 19th most widely-spoken language in the world with 73 million speakersHindi claims 331 million speakers, the fourth most widely spoken language.  Both of them are official Indian languages, though the latter enjoys more penetration into more of the country.

I would like to incorporate at least Hindi into our daily interactions at work.  All of us can build from each other as we greet our colleague in the morning, ask how his evening was, and offer our greetings to his family at the end of the day.  I would like to have a lesson in the room–if he’s up to it–that would be open to me and the rest of the group.

Mandarin & Portuguese

My team is not exposed to these languages on a regular basis–only I am.  In my weekly meetings with my Chinese colleague, I try to speak a little Mandarin, for example, “Hello” and “Thank you.”  Many Chinese people, including my colleague, pick anglicized names for themselves.  I try to use the actual, un-anglicized name of my colleague as much as possible.

I don’t run into much Portuguese, but it’s around.  Another group is working extensively with folks in Portugal, and I occasionally interact with some counterparts in Brazil.  If I needed to, I could learn this language quickly on my own, since I already know French and Spanish.  Greetings and basic phrases are a breeze, since this is a Romance language.

A Plan

I think it’s time to breach the divide.  I will bring languages into our team.  Hindi and Tagalog would be the most common languages.  I will plan to learn and teach a word or phrase per week at our team meetings.  The phrase will focus on daily interactions and IT.  I will ask my teammate to teach me some Hindi in the room, for maybe 20 minutes once or twice a week.  I can get a book to do a little work on my own to (like for learning the alphabet).  We’ll wait for Marathi, Chinese, and Portuguese.

What are the languages you run into at work?  Are you trying to learn them?  If so, how?  If not, why not?

Photo credit: abhiomkar / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Living Abroad–Learning Languages?–Enhances Creativity

Some research indicates that living abroad and deep multicultural experiences enhance creativity.  My gut has told me this, but recent science is demonstrating it.  These studies are informative, but I would like to know more about how namely the experiences enhance creativity.  My anecdotal evidence suggests that language-study contributes to creativity.

The depth of experience living abroad contributes to creativity in ways that travel does not.  The first study I found is entitled, “Cultural borders and mental barriers: the relationship between living abroad and creativity.”  The second is called, “Multicultural experience enhances creativity: the when and how.”  The abstract of the second study suggests that as one become open to new cultures, one becomes more creative: “The serendipitous creative benefits resulting from multicultural experiences may depend on the extent to which individuals open themselves to foreign cultures.”  Depth of and openness to foreign experience contributes to creativity.

Learning the language of the culture opens oneself up more than anything (except maybe eating the food).  One who learns a language has to be ready to sound dumb–which requires extreme openness–and to see life in a new way.  The old categories no longer work.  If you speak Spanish, you have to think about whether an action was completed or not before you conjugate your past tense.  If you speak Chinese you have to think about the pitch of your voice on every syllable.  If you speak Arabic, you have to think of which word for “love” you’re going to use.  You have to think in someone else’s categories–until those categories become your own and completeness, tone, and vocabulary are second-nature.  The normal way of thinking will no longer work; openness changes and broadens how you think.

I am not a psychologist or a sociologist, but I would like one to run an experiment to answer the following question: Among those who have lived abroad, how much does language-learning contribute to creativity?  Does the creativity of those who live in country where their own language dominates benefit as much as those who have to speak another language?  Does level of fluency affect creativity?  If so, then language-study may enhance the creative benefits offered by “openness” to the other culture.  I’m also interested to understand what other sorts of openness enhances creativity.

Do you find that you are more creative because of your time in another culture or with another language?  What is it about other cultures that improves our creativity?  In what concrete ways does creativity change?

Are English-Only Speakers Squeezed Out?

In the past week I heard two stories about Americans who felt that they were squeezed out of a conversation. I think there is a solution.  Learning a language in both instances could ease tensions and foster empathy.

My friend’s coworker, Amy,* notices that she doesn’t get invited to meetings. This worker collaborates with their office in Israel. She noticed that the Israel office, unfortunately, started scheduling meetings at times when she could not be present. They wanted to hold the meeting in Hebrew, and she doesn’t speak Hebrew. This seemed passive-aggressive. She wants to collaborate with her Israeli colleagues, but they stubbornly insist of excluding her by conducting meetings only in Hebrew and avoiding discussing in English.

One friend, Ahmad,* often does work in China. He enjoys going to China and he likes Chinese people. He finds he has a lot in common with them. Because of putting in time with communicating with non-native English speakers, he has a handle on how to adjust his communication style to fit with the situation.

On occasion he feels marginalized. When he is the only non-Chinese speaker at a meeting, the meeting will lapse into Chinese, and someone will translate the gist of the conversation for him. He knows, though, that he is missing nuances and content that could be valuable for him. Why would they speak Chinese around him when they could just as easily speak in English? Were they trying to push him out of the conversation?

Let me take the Israeli and Chinese point of view for a second. I don’t think the problem is an incompatibility between Americans and Chinese or Israeli people.  Speaking a language is hard, even if one wants to order a croissant after studying French for four years. Understanding the response is even harder. Trying results in painful feelings of inferiority. So experiences the Chinese- and Hebrew-speaker at meetings held in English. Granted, ordering a croissant in English may be easy for them, but collaborating on a project, offering ideas in a positive, nuanced way can easily make them feel stupid when it comes out weird or they can’t fully understand the response of their American counterparts.

These Chinese and Israelis likely are not giving Amy and Ahmad the cold shoulder. They may just be anxious or tired. By learning some Chinese or Hebrew and feeling their pain, Amy and Ahmad would display a desire to sympathize with their colleagues.  The Americans could sympathize with their colleagues’ need to switch out of English, if only to let their brains rest, or to express to each other what they’re really trying to say. The more we English-speakers try to learn others’ language, the more they see us open ourselves to their struggles through sympathy.

Have you felt shut out of a meeting?  Have you managed to make your way back in by learning a language?

* Names have been changed.