Which language-learners are imperialists?

The most common power dynamic. How do you upset it?
The most common power dynamic. How do you upset it?

At the point recently, when some people were angry that I called traveling polyglots imperialists, I realized that I did not define clearly what I meant by that word. So I’ve researched some recent use of this word.

Many scholars and social theorists discuss colonialism and neo-colonialism at length. I read a great summary here. I want a way, though, to decide at what point does the polyglot become a force for evil and not good.
Challenging the power dynamic

The Prime Directive of language love

“The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proved again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.” —Jean-Luc Picard

Who really benefits when we go exploring new lands and civilizations?
Who really benefits when we go exploring new lands and civilizations?

For the Star Trek universe, this directive refers to technology. Why do so many agree with it? Because we see that a huge technology differential hurts the civilization who possesses less technology.

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” —Prof. Steven Hawking

Not based on science-fiction but on history, Dr. Hawking believes that the differential between us and aliens who might contact us would likely destroy us.

Why are people concerned about this difference in technology? Because technology is power, and a huge power differential will destroy the weak.

Nevertheless, the Enterprise continued to boldly go where no man had gone before. Dr. Hawking, in contrast, suggests we avoid aliens. The two differ because the United Federation of Planets assumed that it was more powerful than other civilizations, while Dr. Hawking fears that aliens could clobber us—even by accident.

I’ve recently frustrated some of my readers in comparing language-study as colonial and exploitative. I want to look more deeply here at the situations that bring these traits to the fore.

Power differences can result in unintended consequences. Does loving language threaten others or mediate that threat?
Loving language

Selfish acts of tourism: Languages at home and abroad

What are you doing, O Polyglot, to make sure you're not this guy?
What are YOU doing, O Polyglot, to make sure you’re not this guy?

Bequeathing a good community for my children to live in is my highest priority. More basically, being good means nothing if I’m not doing good. So if I’m spending time, money, or energy on something besides my community, I’m obliged to question it.

I’m a language guy, so I spend a lot of time and energy on languages. If I’m following this assumption, then I should be studying languages for the sake of my community.

Choosing a language, therefore, must also build up my community.

Community, not the “exotic” or “new,” must motivate me. How do I study and acquire languages to build up others, rather than myself?

If traveling runs the risk of exploiting people, even a little, I’d rather stay at home and build up my community.
Loving language

Language love is not about the money—or is it?

Use languages to build your local community = Ecolinguism
Use languages to build your local community = Ecolinguism

I’ve been following recently this discussion about my ecolinguism concept. (If you’re not familiar with this idea I coined, please see this post where I define it.) One direction that the conversation has gone in relates to my post where I critique digital nomads.

The argument in the discussion assumes that we as privileged, rich Westerners have a duty to help others with our wealth. Hence one must address the question: is it better to learn a language in a poorer area, such as Venezuela, or in a richer area, like the suburbs of a major US city? Where the people are poorer, there we have a greater duty to help. Moreover, it is oversimplification to call this action “colonialism” because colonialism brings with it wicked behavior historically. A blogger sitting in a cafe in Bali should not merit this label.

Another line of reasoning undermines any duty we have to immigrants and outsiders by questioning the definition of “needy.” Often Westerners look down on non-Westerners (such as immigrants, especially of other races). They may look down with disdain, and so hate the “intruders,” or with pity, and want to “help” others. The argument goes that the only way to look on these others is as equals. They do not “need” our help, but we reach out to them as brothers and sisters.

I believe that money is not central, and that human beings are not equal.

I believe that I have a duty to leave the world a better place than how I found it. Here’s how I do it by loving languages.
Why loving language

Language hacking ≠ language love

How will you hack your language to help others?
How will you hack your language to help others?

When I first saw Benny the Irish Polyglot’s TEDx talk, I was inspired. Here was a guy who suffered through language-learning in school with no success. Then one day he decided to just start learning on his own in his own way, and he made huge strides. Not only did he discover that he could learn languages, but he loved learning them. He “hacked” the language-learning process.
He created a very successful blog and YouTube channel. You get to see him struggling through the language-learning process as he has conversations with young folks all over the world. You follow his life in great locations like China and Brazil.

Living the dream, he inspired others. Lots of other young folks like him wanted to go live in exotic locations and hang out with cool local people and learn languages in the process. Other YouTube channels were generated.

Aspiring digital nomads (compulsive travelers whose work happens completely on the internet) got on the bandwagon. They wanted to go to exotic locations. Whether their internet connection comes in Bankok, Brasilia, or Barcelona, they could live anywhere—and learn the local language.

The digital nomads became the digital colonists. They came to take advantage of cheap rent—sometimes pricing locals out of whole neighborhoods—and “exoticness” for their own excitement. Rather than try to become part of a local community, they stay until the place is less exciting and then follow their Wanderlust.

Rather than inspire people to become more moral human beings, Benny’s “language hacking” gave people the tools to exploit more people in more countries—and have fun doing it.

It inspired selfishness. Not love.
Why loving language

A lesson from history: Languages in 17th century New Netherland

Thayendanegea or Joseph Brant, a Mohawk military and political leader, 1776 (Wikimedia Commons)
Thayendanegea or Joseph Brant, a Mohawk military and political leader, 1776 (Wikimedia Commons)

Last week I blogged about the language geography of the US in Colonial Virginia in the 17th and 18th centuries, and since then I became more interested in what language mixes I could find elsewhere in North America. This week I researched the 17th century in New Netherland: the first Dutch colony on the continent.

I uncovered less information about the languages and everyday life of this region than of the Virginia Colony. The Dutch colonists may have left fewer records and stories because they were largely trappers and traders, in distinction with the English farmers and townspeople. Nevertheless, we see diversity in New Netherland that we don’t in the Virginia Colony. Both the colonists and the natives included people of many mother tongues.

The result of the Dutch commercial venture of New Netherland saddened me. The interactions among the Europeans and natives revolved around commerce. While occasional individuals from various groups intermarried, the reason people came together originally was to become rich. Competition, not mutual understanding, ended in extinction or near-extinction of the dozens of languages–Iroquois, Algonquin, and European–spoken in this area of the 17th century. We need to look to this cautionary tale if we hope to keep our country’s and planet’s linguistic diversity viable for us to benefit from. Only the desire to understand and know each other, not business, will keep us wise and languages alive.


Let me start with a basic historical outline. (You can skip to the next section if you want to go straight to the languages.) The Dutch were already actively trading in the Americas, especially in South America and the Caribbean. In 1609 (two years after the English founded Jamestown in Virginia) they hired Henry Hudson to explore the waterways of modern-day New York and New Jersey, to find a Northwest Passage to Asia (1). He did not find a passage, but he found many Mohawks and Mahicans eager to trade animal skins for European manufactured goods.

The Dutch trader, Hendrick Christiaensen, decided to settle in 1614 on Castle Island by modern Albany, named for the abandoned French trading chateau built there. (This land is no longer an island and is now known as the Port of Albany.) He called it Ft. Nassau, after the ruling house of the Netherlands. It was abandoned and moved nearby in 1618 because of frequent flooding of the island (2).

In 1624 they founded and settled Ft. Orange, a ways south of Ft. Nassau, right after they established in 1623 another Ft. Nassau on the Delaware River in present-day Gloucester, New Jersey (3). They moved Ft. Orange south in 1652 to Esopus (present-day Kingston), named after the local group of natives (4).

To establish a port at the entrance of the rivers towards these trading posts, the Dutch head of the West Indies Company, Peter Minuit, purchased Manhattan Island from the Lenape in 1626 and began constructing the port of New Amsterdam. Once the Dutch government gave city rights to New Amsterdam in 1653, the city that would become New York City was born (5).


Sorting out the languages in New Netherland was more difficult than in the Virginia Colony, as I mentioned. Traders seem to move around more, and more people come to find them, too. I will categorize the languages as European, Native, and Pidgin.

I could not find any information about African languages, but since the Dutch took over the Portuguese slave trade, I assume that the slaves of this time were speaking Ndongo or some other Bantu languages.


The Low Countries (the literal meaning of “Netherlands”) included modern Netherlands, Belgium, and parts of Germany. Dutch was the lingua franca among the colonists, but speakers of multiple languages from the Low Countries found their way into the early colonies, resulting in linguistically-diverse settlements that included multiple Dutch dialects, plus French and German. Peter Minuit, who bought Manhattan from the Lenape, was a German-born Walloon (French-speaking from modern Belgium) who also spoke English (6).

In addition, New Netherland absorbed New Sweden, where Swedish was spoken. I assume that citizens of both colonies had to communicate with each other, probably in German, English, or French (7).

The colony to the north was French (much of modern French Canada) and English to the Northeast (New England) and to the South (Virginia). I did not find information about the interactions, but I can assume that there were enough French and English speakers among the Netherlanders that Dutch was not exclusive.

After the Netherlands lost some of their South American colonies to the Portuguese, speakers of Portuguese, Spanish, and Ladino began to populate New Netherland.


 Portrait of Etow Oh Koam, one of the Four Mohawk Kings, c. 1750 (Wikipedia Commons)
Portrait of Etow Oh Koam, one of the Four Mohawk Kings, c. 1750 (Wikipedia Commons)

The major language group in this area is Algonquin, but Iroquoian languages were also widespread in the area.

Henry Hudson encountered Mohawk (Iroquoian) and Mahican (Eastern Algonquin) speakers in the area of Castle Island. Although tensions existed between the Iroquois and other groups before Europeans came, I imagine that the Mahican and Mohawks had to communicate with each other in one or both of their languages. Mahican became extinct in the first third of the 20th century, while Mohawk is still spoken by about 3000 people in Northern New York State and Southern Canada. One school even offers immersion in the language.

Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Lenape, also called the Delaware, people. Lenape referred to an association of related peoples in this more southern area, who spoke the closely related Unami and Munsee languages. The English missionary, John Heckewelder, documented the two languages in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, noting their similarities and differences. While both are members of the Eastern Algonquin family, they display clear differences in grammar and vocabulary. At present, only a half-dozen native speakers of Munsee are still alive, while Unami is extinct.

Other tribes of the Lenape lived throughout the Hudson valley. The Wequaesgeek, or Wappinger, lived in modern Duchess and Westchester Counties in New York, and they spoke a language very similar to the Munsee. The Hackensack tribe spoke a language related to Unami.

The Minqua, or Susquehannocks as the English called them, lived more to the West. They spoke an Iroquoian language. The language has long been extinct, but about 100 words were preserved by a Swedish missionary of the 17th century (8).

Pidgin languages

The diverse mix of languages forced people to get practical and so the society of New Netherland developed multiple Pidgin languages. A Pidgin language is a mix of languages that naturally forms when two or more groups meet, often for trade, who do not share a common language.

Pidgin Delaware was spoken in the Lenape area, in the region of modern-day New York City and Long Island. It developed as a mix of Unami and Dutch. Significantly, the language showed very little Munsee vocabulary, even though the Pidgin was used by Munsee speakers, as well. It was first mentioned in 1628, but its use spread to Swedish and English speakers in their dealings with the Lenape. The Swedish minister, Johan Campanius, prepared a vocabulary list of Pidgin Delaware and even translated Luther’s Catechism into it.

Jersey Dutch was spoken in today’s northeast New Jersey. The basis was Dutch dialects with some English and a bit of Lenape. The language lived for about 300 years, from the 17th to the 20th centuries. It had two varieties, one that was spoken by descendants of Dutch settlers and another that was spoken by African-descended people only, which showed more influence of grammar from African languages.

Mohawk Dutch formed among the Dutch and Mohawk in the northern reaches of New Netherland. It was used among the Iroquois language speakers in the North, in contast to the Algonquin languages (like Lenape) in the South. The language seems to have existed for a short time in the 17th century–until the English took the northern reaches of New Netherland–and was never documented.


The languages we know about from New Netherland were those involved in commerce. While people spoke scores of Iroqouis and Algonquin languages, the Mohawk, Mahican, and Lenape languages represented the largest trading partners with the Dutch. Among the Dutch, the languages of the “old” Netherlands were all spoken, Dutch, German, and French. Dutch, however, was most important, and English became important as the Dutch and English interacted more in the New World. Swedish declined as they became less economically important, once the Swedish colony was absorbed into New Netherland. Pidgin languages developed as needed, so that language barriers would not stand in the way of commerce.

I was sad that I found no information about the African languages spoken in New Netherland. This fact, though, would follow from the previous assumption, that the traders determined importance, and they spoke only those languages they needed for commerce. The bottom of the hierarchy–slaves and servants–spoke African languages.

As power shifted from the native Americans, those languages became less and less important, until they begin to die in the 19th century. Power shifted from the Dutch, as well, until English took over in the area of New Netherland and, later, of the states of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

People did not learn languages out of a love for the people they were interacting with but for commercial reasons. Both natives and Dutch colonists sought to use each other to enrich themselves. In the end, the richer and more powerful English drove the languages of both groups to extinction in the United States. Their refusal to learn from and understand each other created unnecessary rivalry and tension. If we hope to keep the language diversity of the US and the planet, we must learn languages for love and community, not merely for the sake of business.

What lessons can we draw from history when we pursue languages and interact with each other?


Language love in Colonial Virginia

I think the US got off to a bad start when it comes to language-love. In the beginning of this nation, there were multiple languages spoken, and no language dominated. To get things done, you had to speak multiple languages. Unfortunately, the majority of those who learned languages did so to gain power and money; learning about others and discovering new ways of thinking did not dominate.

My family recently got back from a Spring Break trip to Colonial Williamsburg, where we learned a lot about 17th and 18th century Virginia. We also visited the first permanent English settlement in the Americas (Jamestown), and Thomas Jefferson‘s home (Monticello). For those less familiar with US history, this was the period of the first British colonists (est. 1607) up through the Revolutionary War (1776). I, of course, studied my whole experience there through the eyes of language-love.

I found that in spite of linguistic richness in colonial and pre-Revolutionary America, we learned very little from it. At that time, English was an insignificant language, so we focused on the languages of Europe, where power was concentrated. This period confirmed for me that Americans have always been focused on gaining power, and ignoring the languages of early America exemplifies this bias. We lost out on the wisdom and knowledge that we could have gained if we had embraced the linguistic diversity of this land rather than suppress and homogenize it.

Multi-lingual America

I’m fascinated by the idea of a Tower of Babel right in North America, at a time where no language has dominance. This seems the opposite of today where I can communicate without thinking in any corner of this huge country. I don’t know if the colonists were monolingual, but it could not have been easy because once one left one’s small group of 200 people, one ran into other languages. Here are some of the most significant languages that were spoken at this early period.


Recreated Powhatan village at Jamestown
Recreated Powhatan village at Jamestown

The English encountered natives in what they called “Virginia.” The main confederation of tribes they found were called the Powhatan. At the time the English arrived, around 15,000-20,000 of these people existed. Their language belonged to the Algonquin language family, which included members throughout the Northeast and Upper Midwest of the US, and much of the South and East of Canada.

The most famous Powhatan in our culture is Pocahontas. How much we actually know about her, however, is disputed.

I’m fascinated by the dilemma of how two groups from thousands of miles away discover each other and try to communicate. Absolutely no common language existed; they had to start from scratch. At several points, the Powhatan and English exchanged boys to grow up with the other group. They eventually functioned as messengers and interpreters, although the rulers used them for political ends, as well. One of them, Henry Spelman, wrote about his life among the Powhatan.

The language has long ago become extinct, although some speakers of related languages remain to this day. We only possess two word lists from Powhatan, which together make up about 550 words. Several words entered into common use in English, such as hickory, hominy, moccasin, opossum, persimmon, raccoon, and tomahawk.


Nzinga, Queen of the Ndongo, meets the Portuguese (commons.wikimedia.org)
Nzinga, Queen of the Ndongo, meets the Portuguese (commons.wikimedia.org)

The slave trade sullied the history of the US. Nevertheless, it also diversified the new society that was developing in the Virginia Colony. The first slaves for a long time came from Ndongo, which was a kingdom of the 16th and 17th centuries that existed in present-day Angola. Its people spoke a Bantu language, but we do not have any record of the language itself.

The Ndongo people had to mix and communicate with English and Powhatan people in the US. Moreover, the latter peoples had to have been exposed to their language. When I was in Historic Williamsburg, there were plenty of African-American reinactment actors. I wondered, though, how many of them would have spoken fluent, unaccented English back in the 18th century. In a small town like Jamestown in the 17th century, the English must have heard plenty of Ndongo language in the streets, fields, and homes.

(For a history of the Ndongo Kingdom, click here. For a discussion of the Ndongo and their role in the slave trade, click here.)


Recreated English settlement, Jamestown
Recreated English settlement, Jamestown

During the 17th and 18th centuries, English was not a significant language. International business and politics were conducted in French. French was the official language of England until the 14th century. Russian aristocrats paid top “dollar” for French governesses for their children. In the 17th century, the Portuguese, and Spanish held large, global colonial territories, in addition to the French, Dutch, and English. The Portuguese and Spanish, however, had been at this for a longer time. The English culture and language were a ways down the list.

English was not yet ready for universal use. It only became the official language of England in the early 16th century, only a century before the establishment of the Jamestown colony. Literacy among English speaking people rose from about 30% in the 17th century to about 60% by the time of the American Revolution. Spelling was inconsistent; even rules for capitalization and punctuation were not standard. We shouldn’t forget that this period overlapped with the end of Shakespeare’s production (1613), and standardization of the modern language started with the growing influence of his work.

Without another language, an English-speaker would have been isolated to cultural obscurity.

Limits of language-love in the early US

Since the beginnings of European North America, people judged the importance of a language from a narrow, utilitarian point of view. On our tour of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, the guide spoke proudly of the linguistic abilities of this father of the USA, as he knew Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, and Italian, in addition to his native English. I was less impressed by this as the low esteem of English provided the necessity for Jefferson’s education. A monolingual English speaker would have no access to the most important political, philosophical, or scientific ideas of the day, much like, for example, a monolingual Dutch speaker today.

What saddened me was that no Native American or African languages, such as Powhatan and Ndongo, were among the languages that Mr. Jefferson had learned. He was surely hearing slaves speaking multiple languages, and he was likely dealing with Native Americans on at least an occasional basis. I imagine it would have taken less work to learn those languages than Italian, for example, since speakers were living right in the vicinity.

Language is and always has been a way to access and connect with knowledge outside of one’s culture, and one’s choice of language demonstrates a bias towards whose knowledge one wants to access and connect with. Many in the US–and in most places of the world–one wants to connect with the powerful. In the 18th and 19th centuries, that meant France; in the mid-20th century German was important, and later in the century, Russian was important for a while. In the 2010s, Mandarin is more important as China became more economically powerful. Above all, most people in the world still learn English. Now, just as back then, Native American and West African languages are irrelevant because their people have no power.

Our people, just like most people, have always been biased against the weak and the outsider, and our lack of language-love displays our bias. Humans do not see value in connecting with and learning from those who do not hold power.

I learn wisdom from people whom others overlook. Those who are not powerful understand power in ways that the powerful themselves cannot see. By learning the languages of the “weak” I choose to learn what I could not know in an isolated, English-only bubble. By ignoring the “savage” Native Americans and West Africans in our country, we lost out on knowledge of this land, balance, tradition, poetry, nature, and family that are now lost forever. True language-love must embrace the outsider so that the insider might have a hope of gaining knowledge and wisdom.

Besides “doing business,” what other reasons do we have for learning languages?