Shoulder the burden: Your language or mine?

How can you should her burden with language love?
How can you should her burden with language love?

Opponents to my community-language approach to language learning persistently argue that immigrants would and should prefer to speak the language of their new community rather than their mother tongue. When I insist on speaking their language, therefore, I’m doing them a disservice by working against their advancement in society.

To be honest, I’m not against this idea. When I was still in college, I got a job at the Spring International Language Center as a “conversation partner,” that is, I got paid to chat with small groups of English language learners. The students came to the US to intensive English classes.

These were not immigrants, however, but visiting students. They came to the school with the expectation that they would learn English before returning home. Each day consisted of English classes, group meals, and afternoon outings. Speaking to them in their language during class, of course, would have detracted from their experience and expectation.

This experience differs from immigrants and refugees, however, who will stay in our country for an indefinite amount of time. They have to make money, pay for living expenses on a regular basis, and organize their own activities (when the opportunity arises). For each of these experiences, speaking English—or whatever language of their new home—plays a part, but it is not the goal. Making a living and establishing themselves in their new country come first.

I want to make lighter the burdens these immigrants carry. So I try to learn their language.
Loving them by loving language

Irish & Basque: Unnecessary languages! (Or are they…?)

What makes a language useful?
What makes a language useful?

Recently I read the article, “Can anybody truthfully say that Irish is a necessary language?,” where the Irish author, Rosita Boland, expresses her frustration at the time wasted (12 years!) at failing to learn the first national language of Ireland.

Ms. Boland suffered at studying this language unsuccessfully at school. She writes, “The disgrace, as I see it, is being forced by the State to study a compulsory language for which I had no aptitude, absolutely no interest in, and no choice about throughout my entire school career. Where is the pedagogic sense in that?” To be honest, this sounds like my 14-year old’s laments about learning to divide polynomials: “How am I ever going to use that?”

I agree with my 14-year old, so I can’t dismiss Ms. Boland’s complaints out of hand.

But the author’s complain goes deeper. Not only did she fail to learn this compulsory subject, her country’s Constitution ties her Irish identity to it. She further argues, “It is written into our Constitution that Irish is our national language and the first official language. English is recognised as a second official language. That does not make sense.” She resents that her Constitution would define her by the subject that she hated and failed in school.

While she is right that Irish cannot be spoken outside of Ireland, does that make it less “useful”? Is this the only standard of “usefulness”?
What’s useful?

Learning sympathy on my linguistic journey

Invisible in a crowd. How do we make the invisible visible?
What does it feel like to be invisible, yet surrounded by people?

When my daughter was 12, she offended one of her friends, who decided to retaliate. “We will shun her,” the friend said to the rest of the group, putting her hand up in my daughter’s face. For the rest of the day, the group would not talk to my daughter. This invisibility brought tears to her eyes.

By learning the languages of the people around me, I strive to make those who are invisible, visible. The immigrants, the lower classes, the ones whom others don’t notice become the source of my learning, so I have to see them; better, I have to look for them.

In a recent encounter, the tables were turned. I became invisible among those who are normally invisible. On this “ecolinguistic expedition” to scout the linguistic ecosystem of my community, I felt the invisibility that many folks in my community feel every day. My white, majority power pulled me out of that state in a way that they can’t, but I learned some sympathy that day.
Feeling invisible

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?”


“Are you fleeing the war?”


How do we learn others’ stories?

Set aside your ego, embrace your fear, and learn

How do you neutralize the ego so you can learn?
How do you neutralize your ego so you can learn?

While I worked a little on Somali this week, it hasn’t been the main focus. (Waan ka xumahay!) I’ve been preparing three talks taking place over the course of two weeks, all around cultural awareness. As a reader of this blog, you are probably fascinated with other cultures as I am. I will try to challenge you as I do my live audiences. If you want to know about other cultures, you must work: sitting down, asking questions, and learning. Put your ego aside.

Continue reading “Set aside your ego, embrace your fear, and learn”

Does my language love bug you?

I'd love to talk to you. I hope I'm not bugging you...
I’d love to talk to you. I hope I’m not bugging you…

People’s greatest strengths are usually their greatest weaknesses. Mine–on both counts–is assuming that people like to have me around. I love to stay at people’s homes. I sometimes invite myself over to people’s houses for dinner. I will assume you will love talking to me if you’re a total stranger who speaks a cool (that is, “any”) language. I feel I may be butting in in Oromo class in some ways, but I think we’re all enjoying each other.

The reason I enjoy other people so much is that I’m so curious. I can’t help myself. I love to learn about people. Fortunately, either people are more generous than you think or I’m more fun that you would expect, because I’ve had very few bad experiences with this approach.

I have no right or reason to feel comfortable in my Oromo class. I’m the proverbial sore thumb. Everyone is Oromo except me. When I show our class picture to my family, I joke, “See if you can pick me out of the group.” Moreover, my language “skill” brings me up to about 2-year-old’s speaking ability, my previous knowledge is not helpful, and I can’t understand the vast majority of what is said in class.

Yet I feel comfortable, and the others in the class are getting comfortable with me. My dear teacher understands my level and ability, and the students are probably just getting over the “weird” factor of my desire to learn Oromo. I see where I stand with the language and focus my attention where I need to.

Fortunately, this week I noticed that I was understanding more in the class. The topic of the class orbits around pronunciation, spelling, and grammar, which keeps the vocabulary from moving too far afield from what I love. “Long,” “short,” “hard,” and “soft,” all appear often, as well as “speak,” “pronounce,” and “vowel.”

My teacher has been especially generous, granting me an extra 15-30 minutes before the beginning of class to go over phrases and grammatical fundamentals. We spent some time on question words and the progressive and past verb forms. He also taught me some basic phrases like, “I am learning Oromo,” and “I understand you.” Spoken and written versions vary slightly, and he showed me how those differences work.

My classmates offer me a lot of help, and they are patient when I keep asking them their names. (I forget names quickly, which gives me more practice in asking, “What’s your name?” If I remembered, I’d soon run out of chances to use this phrase.) They also show me some of the dialectical variations in the language.

I hope my teacher and class don’t mind my intrusion; I certainly enjoy and admire them! Their lives are full of curiosity and hard work. They are working to know their native language better, and they are already at least trilingual. (They speak at least Oromo and Amharic and English.) People say that Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. The wonderful people in my class live, work, and follow Minnesota society’s norms all while speaking and hearing a language not their own. I look forward to speaking better Oromo and getting to know my classmates better. I’m already learning about hard work and a tough spirit from them, and I hope to learn more.

Photo credit: e³°°° / Foter / CC BY-SA


Don’t immigrants love our language?: @CocaCola and #AmericaisBeautiful

Which of these people speaks English?
Bet you can’t tell which of these people speaks English!

The Super Bowl set me on an emotional roller-coaster. First, I’m a Broncos fan. (Thank you for your condolences.) Second, the Coca Cola ad, “America is Beautiful,” got me so excited. How often do we get to hear so many languages during the second biggest US winter holiday festival? If you didn’t get to see this cool commercial, see it here.

Once I went on Twitter and searched #AmericaisBeautiful, though, I realized that some were less excited than me. I don’t want to give any press to the insulting, negative responses, so I won’t quote them here. One common spirit among them, however, was, “This is the US so speak English!” The commercial provoked this reaction because the ad reinforced the idea that it’s perfectly OK for immigrants to speak a language besides English. This sentiment arises from ignorance manifested by a wrong presupposition, namely, the prejudice that immigrants in the US choose not speak English.

Americans tend to be isolated. We’re famous for not knowing our neighbors, not knowing geography, and not knowing languages. We similarly don’t know immigrants. As a result, we don’t know what they are thinking, so we impose our own imagined perception on them.

How often have you heard a non-English speaker say they didn’t want to learn English? Probably never, if you are a “typical” American. The average American does not speak a foreign language, hence they cannot speak to non-English speakers. Most people who claim that non-English speakers do not want to learn English cannot have any direct information to back it up.

The non-English speaking immigrants I’ve talked to from multiple countries universally underscore the importance of learning English in the US. (Fortunately, they’re insulated from the “immigrants should learn English” discussion since it is entirely in English.) Statistics further support the experience that I’ve had. One study showed that about 90% of Hispanics believe that learning English in the US is necessary to succeed. The numbers actually go up among those who are more Spanish-dominant. (See the survey results from the Cato Institute here.)

Nevertheless, some immigrants in the US do not learn English. Why don’t they? Most of those who do not speak English tend to be older, and we know that learning a new language becomes harder the older one becomes. In addition, some simply do not have time, as they work multiple jobs, often physically grueling. (I must add, though, that I saw plenty of folks on the bus in Seattle studying English.) Finally, I know of one refugee where emotional trauma seemed to prevent learning effective English.

Facts show that immigrants believe that learning English is important for getting ahead. Only external circumstances–age, work, health–prevent them. So they agree with their critics, in fact. The critics are incorrect in that they believe that it’s a difference of opinion, that they need to convince non-English speaking immigrants to drop an anti-English “ideology.” These immigrants don’t hold this ideology, and they already have incentives to learn English.

One sees that ignorance breeds further ignorance. Because most Americans don’t speak other languages, they don’t know non-English speakers. Nature abhors a vacuum, so these people invent a “state of mind” for those people based on prejudice rather than facts. On this basis, they want to enact policies that correct this state, thus changing the way those non-English speakers think. The people who push back on such policies thus appear to cling stubbornly to a backwards way of thinking.

In fact, the US is full of intelligent, hardworking, loving bilingual people. (So many that Coke would like to spend millions of dollars to sell their sugary drink to them.) These people offer a different way of thinking about many issues than most Americans know about. For average Americans to benefit from the wealth of knowledge and cultural wisdom that already exists in the US, it would behoove them to learn another language or learn which of the Americans around them–like the girls in the advertisement–are already bilingual.

Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

The “grind” of language love

Knowing how to do the hard work of language love pays off
Knowing how to do the hard work of language love pays off

In order to grow we must find ways to challenge ourselves. Living in our native country, we take for granted the privilege of easily navigating complex social situations. We do not have to struggle to make ourselves understood when we go out in public. We do not have to work at understanding the basic processes of daily life, like government forms, instruction manuals, or websites. As a result of this ease we become mentally flabby, and we might even slip and think that our experience is universal, at which point we can no longer sympathize with those who struggle. My immersive Oromo class has forced me to start at square one, where I can no longer take for granted the very basics of self-expression, and will hopefully lead me to more sophisticated, sympathetic thinking.

This class reminds me that immersion is the only way to learn langauges. Any computer application will be second-best. Through immersion I get alternating input of over my head and back at my level. I’m forced to use the language at my initiative according to my situation, and I see immediately the effectiveness of my language use. Note that I say “effectiveness” and not “accuracy.” I don’t care about accuracy at this point; I just need to get what I want, like a two-year-old. My wonderful teacher and kind classmates are helpful in that way. Like a family, they sometimes correct me and sometimes just respond. I’m so fortunate to find an immersion experience closer than 10 miles from my house!

Before coming to my second lesson in Oromo, I realized I needed to teach myself the basic greetings. I learned how to say “hello,” “how are you?”, and “what’s your name?” I kept “cheat sheets” next to me for “I don’t know” and “I don’t understand.” I arrived to class about 20 minutes early, and my dear teacher was already there, so he helped me with the different greetings for different times of day (morning especially) and their responses. He also gave me a quick run-down of some of the dialectical differences of Oromo. (There are three main dialects of the language.)

As soon as the first student came, I had to get to him before my teacher did. “Hello! How are you? What’s your name?” I managed to get out. Thanks to the quick dialect lesson, I learned that this student speaks a different dialect than the teacher, so what seemed esoteric at first was quite helpful.

When the other students came, class was under way, so I couldn’t try out my greetings on everyone. It was all Oromo again. Most of the lesson covered long (“hard”) and short (“soft”) consonants, which represent distinct phonemes in Oromo. The exercises on the projector were fill-in-the-blank using Oromo proverbs. Because of my language experience, I could hear the differences, so I was able to answer the questions as soon as another student said the correct word. When there were four possible responses, I could say the letter of the multiple choice; when there were two, I asked how to say “first” and “second,” so I got to practice those.

I didn’t want to intrude on the Oromo flow, so I tried not to speak English. I practiced a lot of very practical words, such as “pronunciation” and “meaning.” I would sometimes forget “what” so I came off a little like a two-year old when I would say, “Meaning? I don’t understand. Meaning! Huh? Meaning! Pronunciation? Thank you!”

After class I was able to chat with some of the other students, so I could ask in turn, “What’s your name?” They were helpful and pedagogical as they responded in full sentences, “My name is ______.” I may be the first Caucasian they’ve seen try to pronounce their language, so it likely catch them a little off-balance.

To become a reflective, intelligent person, one must become a good thinker and communicator, and to become a better thinker and communicator, one must challenge one’s normal thinking and communicating skills. Immersive language experience forces you to try really hard to make a single comprehensible utterance. Then, not only do you become smarter, but also more humble.

The great residual lesson was Oromo proverbs! The best one about the value of hard work is, “He who doesn’t know how to grind eats the grain.” I’m certainly sucking on the grain in this class, but I hope to start grinding at least a little bit.

Photo credit: mharrsch / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

More young language lovers

How do we help kids love language?
How do we help kids love language?

Last week we got to visit some of our friends, and I discovered another young, aspiring polyglot.  His name is Nicholas (funny that the other young language-lover I blogged about is named Nico, short for Nicholas) and he’s 7 years old.  Since he still wakes up at an ungodly hour, his parents bought him Rosetta Stone Spanish for him to work one while everyone else is sleeping.

But Spanish is boring to him because “everyone else” learns Spanish.  He wants to learn something that not so many people are learning, like Norwegian or Aramaic.  (When I asked him if he prefers Ancient or Modern Aramaic, he said Ancient.)  Like me, he prefers the obscure language.

What resources are there?  I recommended Nico’s favorite website,  Here you can find trivia about 600 or so languages.  The author has created some silly cartoons in various languages.  There is a lot of information about writing systems, too.  Since Youtube is not safe for kids without adult supervision, Omniglot’s videos are nice to have.

I wonder what becomes of American children who love languages.  Fortunately, his dad loves learning smatterings of languages and delving into the uniqueness of various cutlures.  But I don’t know about other kids.  Our society does not offer them many resources or rewards for following their passion.  How often have you seen a child start speaking a non-native language to someone?  Other than heritage speakers, I haven’t seen it.  Does anyone have ideas to help keep Nicholas motivated?

I also read this article from Language magazine, called “From the Mouth of Babes” (Language, Angelika Putintseva,  Ms Putintseva is striving to offer an environment for small children to be exposed to and speaking multiple languages in her WorldSpeak Language Center daycares.  The article states that kids can learn and speak Spanish, Chinese, French, Russian, and English.  The education focuses on relationships and daily interactions rather than drills and exercises–the natural way that children learn languages.  Ms Putintseva eventually hopes to expand this into a K-5 school.

I researched the school a bit, and a Russian-speaking friend of mine visited the daycare. Maybe some of the article may be too good to be true.  The article was written by Ms Putintseva herself, so it may not be as objective as it could be.  The school is not large, around 20 or so students, though I don’t know if those numbers are just for one campus or for both.  I’m not sure if the French and Chinese programs are still running.  Some on-line reviews (take them for what they’re worth) complain about moving teachers around between campuses arbitrarily.  The program thus may not be as successful as it appears.

Assuming that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, I am on the balance happy that this daycare exists because we need places for people to socialize in multiple languages, even if just in pockets.  I’m pleased that someone is trying to create an atmosphere where people can learn languages like this.  I believe that something like this for adults is also necessary.  Groups of multilingual folks exist where they socialize in and teach each other languages, but they are not so well known.  They are a hobby get-together, not a widely-available teaching resource.

What are ways that we can get children more comfortable with a multilingual environment?  even fluent in multiple languages? What are ways we can engage those who are already enthralled with languages?

Photo credit: Julie70 / / CC BY-NC-SA

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International information technology: The importance of the liberal arts for IT

Can your IT department communicate with overseas partners?
Can your IT department communicate with overseas partners?

I work in IT at a large corporation, and this week I had to confront the practical problems of working across multiple languages and cultures. Our company operates on all continents (except Antarctica, as far as I know). The company is divided roughly into four divisions: Far East (eg, China, Malaysia, Japan), Central (eg, Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Africa), South America, and North America.

After speaking to various IT leaders in the regions, I’m beginning to hear the problems they’re experiencing, namely, that the countries of their respective regions are not communicating with one another and that North America is not communicating effectively with them. Creating an IT team among four leaders, one from each area, challenges any desire to align people along the same goals, unless communication and empathy lie at the core of our interactions.

Differences among the regions

In North America, IT is pretty straightforward. We have a service desk overseas, and the rest of IT is in the US. So if someone has a problem, he or she calls the overseas service desk, and if they can’t help, the call or the issue is escalated to the US IT department.  We all conduct IT support in English, except for one of our extended team who works in Spanish.

In region 1, language differences contribute to confusion. (For the sake of discretion, I will not identify the regions in this post, unless the phenomenon is generic to that region.)  One service desk exists for all of this region, and it provides service in English. English, however, is the native language neither of the callers nor of the service desk. The help sessions, therefore, tend to be awkward. Some folks in this region work around the system by calling in to the local country IT organization directly, bypassing the service desk. This workaround helps because it allows people to receive IT help in their native language. Two issues that arise from this system, however, are 1) local IT organizations end up spending their time on individual associates’ problems and not on bigger IT issues and 2) if the issues are serious enough, they have to be escalated to North American IT, where we only speak English, and some of the description and notes on the problem may be in another language.

In region 2, language and culture inhibit communication among groups. Our company has operated longer in this region than in region 1. Through the history of the company, each country has functioned nearly autonomously. As a result, each country has its own way of dealing with IT issues, creating IT “silos” who don’t necessarily work with each other. The general help desk in region 2 is in a single country and follows the rules of the country where it finds itself. On the one hand, the service desk functions as such; they provide decent service. On the other hand, it doesn’t communicate much with other IT organizations, including IT in the US.

Need to overcome these communication barriers

IT in the regions and IT in North America, therefore, do not align. Each country’s citizens would rather speak to their own country’s IT in their own language. North America would like to create a uniform IT policy for multiple reasons.

  • The company could run more efficiently, for example, if the whole company supported a single piece of software for a certain job, rather than different software for different areas, since any software interacts with the rest of the system in unique ways. The IT environment gets unimaginably complicated without uniformity.

  • The regions function better when they communicate with North America IT because when central IT decides for some change in the IT environment, the regions can participate and adapt quickly.

  • When the regions run into problems, such as a big backlog of associate issues, North America can only help when they understand how the regions function and can understand the problem description and notes that they read.

Criteria for success

Communication lies at the center of a solution for my company’s IT woes. If IT were to work efficiently and smoothly for the technology users, we would have to succeed in these two areas:

  1. Associates would be able to receive good help in a language they can understand;
  2. IT would work closely among the regions.

Even though IT is located in North America, it cannot operate as the only center. It must partner with the other regions and must lead the pursuit to fulfilling, effective cooperation. To this end, it has to appreciate:

  • the diversity in each region,
  • the difficulty in communicating constantly in a foreign language, and
  • the consequences of its actions for those outside of North America.

For example, I admitted to our associates in Europe and Asia that while I spent a lot of time in Europe, and so I understand the cultural distinctions between northern and southern Germans, I couldn’t tell the cultural distinctions between Filipinos and Vietnamese people.

I do, however, deeply feel the frustration and exhaustion of communicating entirely in another language. I believe, though, that the vast majority of IT folks in North America have not experienced this madness; receiving, let alone giving, step-by-step advice in another language can drive you crazy.

Through my travels and study of other languages, I have seen the consequences of the actions of North America in other countries. I have discussed the coming of US missionaries to the former Soviet Union in the 90s, for example, and the involvement of the US in Lebanese politics. Folks in Ukraine and Lebanon feel frustrated that they must passively accept the consequences of decisions made in Washington, DC.

Successful cooperation among the regions thus necessitates deep and broad experiences of other cultures and languages outside English-speaking North America.

Liberal arts and IT

Every large corporation will inevitably run into the tensions in IT that I have described in my company. Every human wants to communicate easily in his or her own language and to have a say in decisions that affect them. Empathy with those outside the US and the desire to communicate with them will determine long-term success. Those who work in IT, therefore, cannot limit themselves to a technical education. They must immerse themselves in the liberal arts. They must learn to think outside of their own culture to see how one’s actions affect others, they must avail themselves of opportunities to travel, they must learn another language. Not only will this help the company’s bottom-line by increasing efficiency, but will enrich the lives of those working in IT and the associates they are assisting.

What do ineffective intercultural IT teams cost international corporations?  What are practical ways that we can prepare our IT teams to work with overseas partners?  How can we ready tech-minded people to communicate in difficult situations?

Photo credit: x-ray delta one / Foter / CC BY-SA