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

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

Be a hero: Cross over with language love

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

Imagine a high school cafeteria. Groups of boys and girls sit together, in small and large groups or by themselves. Certain tables are loud, others, quiet. Loners are silent. At each one, certain topics or mannerisms come up regularly that lend a table its identity: the loud table, the Goth table, the Latino table.

One table’s members might turn their noses up at another table. The members of another table might envy another table, wishing they could sit there instead of where they are at.

When we see this scenario in movies, you know who the hero is? The one from the popular table, who goes to sit at another table, even with a loner. That person cares more about people than about being popular, connections rather than personal gain, doing the right thing rather than the opinion of popular kids.

We may not be in high school, but these groupings still exist. They are the cultures and language groups we work and shop with.

Out in your daily life, you can be like this hero. Learn languages. You can cross over, outside of your group to connect with others. As I’ve been saying for the past few weeks:

I believe that we all should put ourselves out there to love. More specifically, we need to sacrifice for one another, especially for those in need.
Why loving language

You love languages, don’t you?

Your brain was built to connect and communicate
Your brain was built to connect and communicate

Based on my post last week, I’ve been thinking of all the things I have done, do, and would like to do, and how they are rooted in the “why” that I laid out.

My inner circle, my “why” was this:

I believe that we all should put ourselves out there to love. More specifically, we need to sacrifice for one another, especially for those in need.

Let me elaborate. All my language activities now and in the future emerge from this single principle. I think you’ll love languages even more than you do if you read more.
Why loving language

Becoming our betters selves through love and language

Are we ready to leave our comfort to pursue wisdom?
Are we ready to leave our comfort to pursue wisdom?

We are missing out on a learning opportunity as a society. Rather than encourage the perpetuation, growth, and exchange of language, fear drives out languages. Building walls to keep out foreign others takes precedence over listening to new voices that may know more than us. Forcing them, in spite of their past and present struggles, to talk to us in our language insults and degrades them and us.

Alternatively, we could learn the languages around us, and put our resources and our prestige behind teaching these languages to our children. Let my children speak to their friends’ parents in their language, while their friend speaks to me in mine—or teaches me hers. Learning the stories that come from “the old country” holds a mirror up to our society, revealing the good, the bad, and the ugly, for us to celebrate, to correct, or to apologize for.
What are we missing?

Loving language to save your life

Friends who do not know loneliness.
Friends who do not know loneliness. How do we learn from them?

Loving language can save your life. Some talk about languages helping you get a better paycheck or offering cognitive benefits. If you aim to make yourself richer or smarter, learning a language gives you marginal benefits. They will not save your life, though.

Or will they…?

Our society in the US—and more and more in the first world—is developing a serious, deadly condition, that is, loneliness. Note, though, that this is a problem of the first world. It does not afflict those of the third world nearly as much.

By learning a language, especially one of the immigrant groups living near you, you may have a chance of dodging the deadly bullet of isolation that is literally killing people in our society.
Our neighbors have the answer

Assimilation is a two-way street: Learn your neighbor’s language

How do you talk to them? Did you learn their language?
How do you talk to them? Did you learn their language?

We, as a white, upper middle-class society in the US, are unwilling to enter into the suffering of another, especially when the suffering was brought about by our society. The isolation of African-Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and refugees testifies to this truth. African-Americans witness to our enslavement of others, Native Americans to our military conquest of this continent and resulting genocide, immigrants to our greed, and refugees to our misguided crusades.

Not only do we see this in the US, but also in Europe. The recent bombings in Brussels bring up the perennial hand-wringing about the inability of immigrants to assimilate to the culture of their host country, and the lack of avenues to do so.

This post is not about white guilt or atoning for past wrongs; I want to offer you an action you can take today that allows you to enter into the suffering of others and form relationships with others, at the cost of some of your comfort. You can take away the burden of assimilation from others while you take some of it onto yourself. Today. Learn the language of your indigenous, immigrant, or refugee neighbor. Further assimilation

Spanish, Russian, and the light of language-learning

Learning languages enlighten and bring light
Learning languages enlightens and brings light

As you know, Somali is my main pursuit these days. But I realized that I don’t think about pursuing my other languages at this point as any actual progress. Yet I have spoken Spanish every day, since we have a monolingual Spanish speaker staying at our house.

While I believe everyone should learn languages, monolinguals teach me so much. When I have to speak to them, I gain vocabulary and grammar so quickly. Our exchange student’s mom is staying with us, and she only speaks Spanish. I speak Spanish every day now. Without spending any time memorizing vocabulary, certain words are just sticking just so that conversation can continue.

Spanish and others

Week 9 of Loving Somali: Language love to my rescue

A simple chat with a stranger saved me this week!
A simple chat with a stranger saved me this week!

Without my languages I feel anxious and unfulfilled. While I don’t have a lot of time for Somali, I feel the need every day to work on my language, even if it’s five minutes of Anki flash cards or four minutes scanning BBC Somali headlines of which I may only grasp a few words.

Fortunately, I found a Somali teacher who will work with me over Skype. He is very knowledgable about the Somali language, and he has experience teaching foreigners. I am very grateful that he is willing to work with me. Part of me still asks: Will this sustain my language love? Will Skype provide the connection I need?

This week, language love came to my rescue and brought me joy in a moment of stress and anxiety. Work was difficult, and took up a lot of time, causing me stress. I missed my language tables as a result, so I didn’t get to experience much language. I had to go work at offices in different areas, where I luckily got to mix with new people. On the way to a meeting I heard a guy working at a food stand speaking Arabic to another man as I was walking by. On the way back to my car after the meeting, I said to him, Ahlan! Masa ilkheir!” (“Hi! Good afternoon!”) Business was slow for him in the mid-afternoon, so he gave me a can of Coke and told me to sit down.
Continue reading “Week 9 of Loving Somali: Language love to my rescue”

Justice requires learning languages

By denying languages their value are you denying justice?
By denying languages their value are you denying justice?

Humans attach value judgments to natural differences among people.  For example, one person has a different skin color than another.  This is a genetic difference with no inherent value.  The human being will, nevertheless, attach a value to one skin color or another.  This tendency is inimical to justice.  Justice requires equality, not putting one person above another.  If we desire to be just, we have to struggle against our inclination to consign humans to one category of value or another.

Language divides groups of people, because, as expected, humans attach various values to different languages.  For example, one is more worthy of study than another, or one represents a better civilization than another.  If I want to communicate with someone who speaks a language different from mine, at least one of us must learn another language.  In the US, we assume that the other will learn English; why should we bother learning a thousand other languages when most of the world already sees the value of learning English? We have to ask another question, however, if we desire to be just: Why should everyone learn English and not the other way around?  Is English more valuable?  Languages are often connected to their economic and cultural value, and so English is very “valuable.”  By the same token, Somali or Hmong or Kunama or Menominee are not valuable.  Injustice is embedded in how humans interpret the interaction among languages.

You cannot treat others with justice if you don’t see the value in their language, that is, you value your language above theirs.  This attitude is exemplified in the assumption, “Let us speak my language.”  My language is worthy to be studied by you; your language is not worthy to be studied by me.  If you hold this assumption, you may attempt to act justly, but you cannot succeed.  Unless we are willing to speak the language of the other, we cannot treat him or her justly.  We cannot be complacent with our language; we have to attempt to learn the other’s language.  We might stumble in learning the language, we might fail at anything beyond, “Hello,” but we have to measure ourselves by our success at connecting with and loving the other.

I strongly believe that loving someone requires loving his or her language.  In this blog I talked about how businesses do not value languages enough, how people treat others badly because they don’t understand them, how Americans do not bother to learn the languages of their communities.  On the positive side, I wrote on how I and others connect with others by learning their language, how LDS missionaries emphasize teaching in the student’s language, how you can bring happiness to others by speaking in their language even a little, how language offers us an opportunity to move outside ourselves.  Learning a language allows one to connect deeply with another; refusing to do so perpetuates distance. Love requires closeness and connection.

I recently found an interview of the social entrepreneur and one of my favorite language bloggers, Aaron Myers at the Everyday Language Learner blog. Susanna Zaraysky interviewed Aaron Myers about his I-586 project to translate language-learning references into many languages.  Aaron offers free ESL materials in other languages.  Because the English language can propel people in other countries into better jobs, access to English learning can help people economically.  Aaron sees the ability to learn English as a justice issue, so he is making materials available to people in their language who couldn’t normally afford them.

I agree that accessibility to language education is a matter of justice; furthermore, I believe that rejecting language education is also a matter of justice.  Denying language education to middle-class American children denies them to learn the value of all languages and, by extension, all people.  Already, children are taught the value of all races, all ability levels, all economic levels.  Unlike learning languages, they do not have to act on those lessons.  If they are offered rich language offerings, they could work towards more justice and love towards their fellows.  Taking actions of justice and connection would open their hearts even more.

I’m with Aaron that more people need the opportunity to learn languages.  Learning a language does not only offer economic advancement, but also tools for love and respect.  Justice requires eliminating the value of one language over another so that as humans we can love and connect with speakers of all languages.

How do you see the relationship between language and justice?  Is it ok to view one language as more valuable than another?  Should the practical–speaking the most accessible language–trump the ideal–learning the language of the less economically advantaged?

Photo credit: Frederic Poirot / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND