Love language to think differently

You can learn something here you can't learn at Yale: How to think differently.
You can learn something here you can’t learn at Yale: How to think differently.

This week I saw such a contrast, between passionate language students and resisters to language education. The two sides came from unlikely places.

The serious study of language reveals the commitment to the deep knowledge of a culture. That’s why I often talk about “language love,” because love is the deep commitment to another person or persons. One gives up part of one’s self to become a better self in the service of the beloved. Language-love, because of its deep connections, makes one a better person.

In Western culture, though, language education relates to a classroom, not love, not connection. My kids learn Spanish in their Spanish class, as well as “culture,” which includes facts about clothing in Central America and Puerto Ricans in New York.

Language-love, though, comes from dedication to the language. You cannot help but learn about the culture—on a deep level—by talking with the native speakers of the language. Once you love, you learn to see differently.

In the US, we see that language-love and education do not necessarily go with each other. This week I read about great language-love in poor, rural New York State, and language-haters in the hallowed halls of the Ivy League.
Finding the language-lovers

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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

Looking for differences: Polyglots have a solution

There are a billion people in China. A BILLION people! That means that if you’re a one-in-a-million guy, there are a thousand people just like you.
Jerry Seinfeld

Don't always get stuck with people just like you!
Don’t always get stuck with people just like you!

Now that everyone can meet anyone they want, we can fall more easily into a group of people who think just like us. Through the internet and global mobility, people can meet anyone of any background or any point of view from any country. We have a giant pool to draw from. Liberal Muslims in Baghdad can discuss with liberal Christians in Seattle. Hindu nationalists can find sympathetic minds among anti-Muslim Nigerians.

This ability is morally neutral. For the isolated queer kid in a small town, connecting with someone of like mind can literally save their life. At the same time, Daesh can recruit among disaffected youth anywhere in the world.

Either way, our ability to live in an echo-chamber increases exponentially year by year as it’s easier to find people just like us.

Our opportunities to hear challenging or opposing views simultaneously becomes more and more difficult as we surround ourselves with people we agree with. This happens in spite of how easy it is to find opposing views.

As humans, though, we prefer to surround ourselves with people similar to us.

Polyglots, however, tend to surround themselves with people different from them. In order to learn languages, they have to find people from somewhere else, with different assumptions and world views.
Calling all polyglots!

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

Ecolinguism: Languages are wealth

There is a way to avoid responsibility and/or guilt by, precisely, emphasizing one’s responsibility or too readily assuming one’s guilt in an exaggerated way, as in the case of the white male PC academic who emphasizes the guilt of racist phallogocentrism, and uses this admission of guilt as a stratagem not to face the way he, as a ‘radical’ intellectual, perfectly embodies the existing power relations towards which he pretends to be thoroughly critical.
Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, p. 46

Can ecolinguism really undermine privilege?
Can ecolinguism really undermine privilege?

Ecolinguism sounds like a PC scheme to assuage a white, upper middle-class, American man’s guilt. I’ve claimed that ecolinguism can help combat rich, Western privilege. Can my dedication to minority languages really disrupt the power dynamic, or is just a different mode of the typical white privilege that PC liberals rail against?

People probably got upset with me because I sounded just like the academic that Žižek describes. I just replaced phallogocentrism with Anglocentrism, and instead of racism I discussed the desire for the exotic other. But maybe I emphasized my responsibility and assumed my guilt in an exaggerated way.

The first step I took was to admit my role in the system. I have privilege. But is it really this simple?
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

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

Language love can cure America

American independence leads to isolation.
American independence leads to isolation.

The US is sick. Not only the US: we’ve exported our sickness around the globe.

We lack community because our society destroys communities.

In reading Simon Sinek’s Starting with Why, I was reminded that Howard Shultz’s original idea for founding Starbucks was to create a “third space” between home and work for people to build community. But later, as Sinek’s open letter states, Starbucks became about money. This shift in basic beliefs was symbolized by the move from classy ceramic cups and plates to cardboard cups. As Sinek wrote, “Nothing says to a customer, ‘We love you now get out,’ like a paper cup.”

Let me build on that. I went to Spain last summer. One of the reasons I was excited was because of coffee in coffee shops.

What did I find? Spaniards walking around town with cardboard Starbucks cups.

Where else have I seen the problem? Russians, who have been drinking tea as groups out of teapots for centuries, now make individual cups using individual tea bags. Indians are crazy about on-line dating, looking for a personal match rather than including the entire family in the process of continuing the family. The American woman sitting next to me on the plane who bought nuts immediately after turning down the nuts I offered her from my bag.

The pain I feel as an American comes from excessive independence, a lack of interdependence. Everyone can now function completely on his or her own, and it’s destroying us.
Languages can fix it