When language love gets hard

Sometimes, they get weird when you talk to them. What do you do then?
Sometimes, they get weird when you talk to them. What do you do then?

I love walking through the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis. It holds the largest concentration of Somalis in the US. You see Somalis everywhere, smell the amazing blend of spices coming from apartment windows, and hear the beautiful language.

So I take the opportunity to speak at least a little Somali as I walk through the neighborhood. My Somali is still not very strong, but I know how to greet and meet people. As an ecolinguist I love to make connections with people from different cultures, and Somalis are open and easy to talk to.

Along the way I saw a young man, sitting by himself, and I said hello.

Maalin wanaagsan! Nabad? “Good afternoon! How’s it going?”

It got pretty awkward after that as I learned what it really means to connect with a community—every side of it.
Loving language when it’s awkward

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

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

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

Giving up privilege with language-love

I have always found it nice to meet Somalis.
I have always found it nice to meet Somalis.

I want to connect to the margins. In some ways, it’s where I feel comfortable. I lived a lot at the margins. I know what it’s like. In multiple countries, I did not live in an expat community, but immersed myself among locals only in places as diverse as Morocco, post-Soviet Ukraine, and France. At my university, I was a minority Gentile among a majority Jewish population, who taught me about life as a marginalized community.

At the same time, I could never live completely in the margins. I’m an upper-middle-class, English-speaking, graduate-degree-holding, straight white American. We have a lot of privilege. As I was told in Ukraine when I expressed my deep understanding of people in the margin, “It’s different. You can always leave.”

When I say that we need to sacrifice for the margin, I speak as someone who tries to express my appreciation of the marginalized, though any marginalization I ever experienced was temporary.

I can’t avoid my privilege. It’s part of who I am. It’s not evil and it’s not good. The way I use it defines it as good or evil. Previously (here and here) I spoke of my “why” for what I do and write:

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.

We must sacrifice that privilege for the sake of those without.
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

Why are you learning languages? Is it love?

Why learn languages?
Why learn languages?

In Simon Sinek’s TEDx Talk, “How great leaders inspire action”, he posits that great ideas begin not with the “What,” but with the “Why” and then the “How.” That is, every company produces a “what,” but not all delve into the more profound areas of why and how they produce what they do. I’ve learned a lot from this presentation in how to examine what I love doing and what motivates me to keep on going.

Language means everything to me, but so does service to others. In this blog I’ve been trying for many years to express why love and deep connection with others motivates my language-learning.

Now I’m going to lay out why love lies at the center of my learning languages.

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

True language love is in the margins

But as much as this has been an exploration of the history of language in the United States, it has also turned out to be an examination of prejudice and privilege…. [American history] is genocide and slavery and discrimination
Elizabeth Little, Trip of the Tongue (p. 252).

Learn a language and push against the power of privilege
Learn a language and push against the power of privilege

The history of language follows the ebbs and flows of one form of communication to another. It seems that human beings, born in the right circumstances, can switch from one language to another without much effort. One group spoke Hebrew, then Babylonian, then Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Arabic. Generation after generation, language blends into language.

Languages don’t just ebb and flow like tides of the ocean. They fight, kill, dominate, and oppress, like warring chimpanzees. Hebrew speakers sent the Canaanites to the hills, before being conquered by Babylonians, and then the Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs. Each power came and imposed a language of privilege onto the next group. No language disappeared without a fight.
Fight for the marginalized

Teaching Spanish as a US language

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

Following up on last week, I don’t think we should focus on teaching or learning “world” or “foreign” languages. From an ecolinguistic point of view, we observe Spanish spoken all over the place. Let’s focus on how you would teach languages as if they were “local” and not “foreign,” that is, if kids in our school, people at the mall, were speaking those languages.

The example of Spanish works best. In the US Spanish is, in fact, not a foreign language. Since the US became the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, we should no longer teach Spanish as a language spoken “over there.”

Yes, people speak the language in lots of other countries, but that doesn’t make it a “foreign” language. If you lived in Panama would Spanish be a “foreign” language? Of course not. If you lived in Bilbao, would Basque be a “foreign” language? It would be a “local” language.

In reality, we speak many languages here locally in my town, even in our suburb and in our school. What would we need to do to fashion our language class to fill this role for language, especially Spanish?
Learn Spanish for what you’re doing

Stop teaching kids “foreign” languages

They'll do what they have to to hang out--even learn languages.
They’ll do what they have to to hang out–even learn languages.

By raising the prestige of the languages spoken in our schools, we augment the ability of all of our students to learn languages. Children figure out how to do what interests them, and when language is a part of that, they will learn the language.

I was recently listening to an episode of the “I will Teach you a Language” Podcast, entitled, “How can we change language education in schools?,” in which the host, Olly Richards, interviews Lindsay Dow of Lindsay Does Languages. They talk at length about what motivates school kids to learn languages. Good teachers understand these motivations, and, in the ideal school, would help kids discover and plug into the areas they find cool to encourage their language-study.

While the discussion brought in many topics and hobbies to offer kids, they missed an obvious area where they could plug into with their language:

The other kids in the school.
Languages under our noses