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

Language hacking ≠ language love

How will you hack your language to help others?
How will you hack your language to help others?

When I first saw Benny the Irish Polyglot’s TEDx talk, I was inspired. Here was a guy who suffered through language-learning in school with no success. Then one day he decided to just start learning on his own in his own way, and he made huge strides. Not only did he discover that he could learn languages, but he loved learning them. He “hacked” the language-learning process.
He created a very successful blog and YouTube channel. You get to see him struggling through the language-learning process as he has conversations with young folks all over the world. You follow his life in great locations like China and Brazil.

Living the dream, he inspired others. Lots of other young folks like him wanted to go live in exotic locations and hang out with cool local people and learn languages in the process. Other YouTube channels were generated.

Aspiring digital nomads (compulsive travelers whose work happens completely on the internet) got on the bandwagon. They wanted to go to exotic locations. Whether their internet connection comes in Bankok, Brasilia, or Barcelona, they could live anywhere—and learn the local language.

The digital nomads became the digital colonists. They came to take advantage of cheap rent—sometimes pricing locals out of whole neighborhoods—and “exoticness” for their own excitement. Rather than try to become part of a local community, they stay until the place is less exciting and then follow their Wanderlust.

Rather than inspire people to become more moral human beings, Benny’s “language hacking” gave people the tools to exploit more people in more countries—and have fun doing it.

It inspired selfishness. Not love.
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

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

Struggling to connect with language love

10-year old camel herder: how do you do that in Minnesota?
10-year old camel herder: how do you do that in Minnesota?

The last couple of Fridays I’ve been listening wrapt to stories of life in Oromiya, in rural Ethiopia. So many differences from our urban life in the US.

What happens if a woman is past her “youth” but still wants to get married? She leaves her house with a traditional jug on her back full of milk and goes to her suitor’s house.

What is leadership? You may have a strong leader among your cattle, in which case the rest of the cattle will follow all over the place, even through fences. Without a strong leader, all the cows will go here and there, but not very far.

What happens if Oromo folks come to your house, but speak a distant dialect? If you went to school in town, then you learned different dialects from your friends. You can help translate for everyone.

What happens if you leave all of that and move to Minnesota for the rest of your life? You don’t talk about those stories very much…

Immigration consists of heart-wrenching loss, where you may have to limp through the rest of your life. It feels like you are missing a limb. Maybe it’s like Edward Scissorhands, who has fingers, but not the right kind of fingers. You may discover they are useful for some things, but they just don’t work for “normal,” everyday activities.

Because I’ve heard the discussion of immigration take such a nasty turn since 9/11, I want to express some of the losses that immigrants experience—and how I learn from them.
Lost in immigration

Getting to know me: Entering the Somali community

How do I become one of the guys? Is it even possible?
How do I become one of the guys? Is it even possible?

Iska warran? “How are you?” he said as I entered the cafe.
Nabad! Maxaad sheegtay? “Good! How are you?” I responded.

This was the first time a Somali person initiated a conversation with me in Somali. I was shocked. Did I know this man? Had I chatted with him before at the cafe?

Since he was on his way out, I didn’t have a chance to chat further with him, but it made me think, Did my reputation precede me? Am I starting to become a part of something? Maybe I’m “that white guy who comes here speaking Somali.” I’m becoming someone in this part of the Somali world—but who am I becoming?
Feeling visible

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”

Week 19 of Loving Somali: Barasho wanaagsan! Nice to meet you!

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

This weekend I took a trip to a conference Arizona, and even though I wasn’t planning on practicing my Somali much, I ended up doing more than usual. I look forward these days to spending time in airports, looking for East African adventures.

Continue reading “Week 19 of Loving Somali: Barasho wanaagsan! Nice to meet you!”

30,000 views!

Happy to connect with you, Dear Reader!
Happy to connect with you, Dear Reader!

I would like to thank my readers because a couple weeks ago, Dec 16, 2014, this blog hit 30,000 views.

My goal is to create the blog that I wished to read that no one was writing. I’m grateful that it has been useful (fun?) for others, as well.

If you’re interested in guest-blogging any time, please let me know.

Please share this blog with your friends who love languages or want to learn more about how deeply language connects with our human experience.

Photo credit: rAmmoRRison / iWoman / CC BY-NC

Week 16 of Loving Somali: Why study Cushitic languages?

Map of Cushitic and Afro-Asiatic languages
Map of Cushitic and Afro-Asiatic languages

Languages opened my mind to new ways of thinking. This statement is so cliched, so let me try to fill it with some meaning.

When I study a language, I have to grasp new ways of expressing oneself. I don’t mean expressing one’s innermost thoughts; I mean trying to parse out mundane things like, “I’m hungry,” or “Please stop that!” To learn that, I inevitably have to talk to people who spend at least part of their lives outside of the monolingual English community I’ve spent most of my life in. That means that they approach the world differently than the people of my community. Again, this is not necessarily a profound difference; I’m talking about a community who sees a huge difference between, say, Ethiopia and Somalia. Basing my thinking on a new set of relevant facts changes my day-to-day concerns.

This week. I wanted to express some of the basic facts about a linguistic realm that few people—even professional linguists—know anything about. I will describe the Cushitic language family, concluding with why someone should care about Cushitic languages.
Discover more