Endangered languages challenge the smugness of the powerful

What can we learn from them? What do they know that we don't?
What can we learn from them? What do they know that we don’t?

With assimilation of language comes assimilation of culture, and as the language is lost, so is the culture. The longer we can put off assimilation of language, the more time we have to learn from the culture that accompanies that language. As speakers of a majority language, I must work to preserve a way of thinking and viewing the world that is different from mine.

In a recent article, one of my favorite language-writers, Michael Erard, described the tropes journalists use when writing about dying languages. Journalists make a kind of heart-breaking spectacle so we can watch these helpless languages go the way of the dodo.

I noticed that there is no call to action. While many people know about these sad stories, these stories offer nothing for readers to do. “Linguists” are depicted as tromping out into jungles and steppes to record the last gasps of the language “for posterity.” They are the amber that traps the last member of the species for future scientists to observe.

So what? Why care about dying languages?

Because you’re too smug.
Cultural challenge


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

Create habitats for endangered languages to thrive

Like endangered species, languages need the right habitat.

Language-preservation efforts focus on languages in the periphery, in isolated communities. I can understand how this works in the short run, but I don’t understand how this can work in the long run.

I am not satisfied with preserving a Native American language, like Myaamia, to live on a reservation. We, as human beings in North America, must find room for it to live and thrive. As speakers of any language, we must find a way to diversify the linguistic biosphere, or “linguisphere.”

An endangered language can only survive if it can thrive. Keeping an animal from dying in a zoo does not move a species out of “endangered” status. The only true success in ecological terms comes from moving more and more of a species into the wild.

That strategy begs the question of the continued existence of wild habitat. Often species become endangered because of a loss of habitat. When that habitat is threatened or destroyed, introducing individuals back into the “wild” becomes impossible because the “wild” no longer exists.
From endangered to thriving

Refugees are a blessing: Unlikely allies for ecolinguists

A lover of language and culture (from the church website)
A lover of language and culture (from the church website)

Over the holiday weekend, I had the opportunity to talk to a relative from Amarillo, Texas. She informed me of the recent controversy over refugees in her city.

The facts show that Amarillo receives the highest ratio of refugees per resident in any city in Texas. In 2012, for example, Amarillo received 480 total refugees, in a city of 195,000 residents.

To put this in perspective, the US accepts around 70,000 to 80,000 refugees each year since the number was reduced in 1996, and Texas receives the largest amount: 11% in 2015.

A controversy is raging in Amarillo. I will discuss here two local voices, one on each side of the issue in the Amarillo Globe-News: David L. Smith, a resident of Amarillo, and Pastor Howard K. Batson, head pastor of First Baptist Amarillo.

Natural allies for ecolinguists dwell in unexpected places…
Value of refugees

From Mexican walls to the ivory tower: Polyglots smash the echo-chamber

The media doesn’t tell you what to think, but it tells you what to think about.

How can polyglots end people's isolation in their echo chambers?
How can polyglots end people’s isolation in their echo chambers?

We all live in a personal echo-chamber nowadays, where the same assumptions and world views repeat over and over. One’s echo-chamber, however, remains independent of the chambers of others. So their assumptions never reach my ears, and theirs never reach mine. Some of us want to build walls to keep out the Other, and some of us don’t want to venture outside of our walls to listen attentively to the Other.

After we live in this chamber a while, and here our friends echo it, we think that it is the only discourse going on, that our assumptions are naturally shared by all observant, intelligent people like us.

Until we discover how the Other actually thinks.

Polyglots can change the discourse and remind us of the true complexity out there. They’re already listening. They can save our country!
Calling all polyglots!

Polyglots needed as world gets smaller

Polyglots shine in difficult conversations.
Polyglots shine in difficult conversations.

People haven’t been listening to each other, and they are getting worse at it. The recent election in the US adds more evidence of this. The way our world is going, though, we all need to get better.

Here is the problem we face today. The world isn’t shrinking. It feels like it because population density is growing. We have more people and the same amount of land. Actually, water shortages and rising ocean levels mean that we have less productive land for more people.

Denser population means running into more people. People, on average, live closer to each other than ever before. That means more chances to meet and interact with people different from you, and more chances you’ll meet someone very different from you. Nowadays you have a good chance of running into a Chinese person in Nigeria, an Ethiopian in Oslo, or a Somali in Minnesota.

Polyglots, however, spend hours and hours training themselves to listen to more people who are different from them, and to more conversations that they otherwise couldn’t understand.

We need more polyglots—more languages, more classes, more teachers—to focus on solving problems created by globalization so our society to move forward.
Calling all polyglots!

Language love and reaching the Other

Who will you reach out to?
Who will you reach out to?

I read the 2016 US presidential election results this morning. After all these months of campaigning, one thing became clear in my mind: both sides failed.

In my mind, both sides failed because no one wanted to speak to the other side. Neighbors won’t talk to each other to even out differing opinions. Instead, self-created opinion bubble exist where its participants all believe they’re right.

This blog exists because I believe in connection. I believe in working to unite people who normally can’t understand each other.

We have a duty to reach out to the Other. We reach out to them because we must, not because we want to. I’m not sentimental at heart.

We are language-learners, and we have a duty to reach out to the Other in the way that we are able. Many of us, though, do not do our duty. We serve ourselves. On the one hand, it feels good to learn a language that is fun, whose culture appeals to us. On the other hand, we can learn the languages of those who live in our community.
Our duty to the Other

Learning from immigrants through Language Love

What we encounter here is again the paradox of victimization: the Other to be protected is good in so far as it remains a victim (which is why we were bombarded with pictures of helpless Kosovar mothers, children and old people, telling moving stories of their suffering); the moment it no longer behaves like a victim but wants to strike back on its own, it magically turns all of a sudden into a terrorist/fundamentalist/drug-trafficking Other. — Slavoj Žižek, “The Fragile Absolute,” p. 60.

Learning community languages appears as a typically liberal approach to learning languages, yet it is actually neither liberal nor conservative.

Americans act strange when the weak “other” begins to gain power. In a recent episode of This American Life we hear what it’s like when the Somali community begins to gain power in St Cloud, Minnesota.

One complaint was that Somalis had “taken over” a local park. Another one was that a large group of Somali women were disturbing the peace walking through the streets loudly.

When they were in Somalia, suffering, the US supported President Bill Clinton’s military intervention. Americans wanted to end the suffering of the people so that they could live a normal life.

But when they actually live a normal life in St Cloud, many citizens wanted them to stop coming. Citizens wanted to remove them and prevent more from coming.

This cycle repeated itself multiple times in US history. We were excited in the North to free the slaves, but got nervous when they started coming in large numbers to Northern cities. We praised the nobility of the Native American warrior, but thought of them as terrorists in the 1960s when they demanded more rights in an armed struggle. As long as they remained victims, we were comfortable; once they showed initiative, they got too dangerous.

Continue reading “Learning from immigrants through Language Love”

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

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