Languages won’t make you more money, so why do it?

If you have to choose between love and money, where does your language motivation lie?
If you have to choose between love and money, where does your language motivation lie?

Let me correct that: English will make you more money. Because the US, UK, Canada, and Australia have a lot of it. With other languages, you’ll have to be lucky.

Learning foreign languages will improve your relationships with others. A more fertile ground for diverse languages will produce a better crop of human beings, better able to understand and respect one another.

Cultivating the environment around us has value that doesn’t show up in standard calculations of “Return on Investment” (ROI). I listened to a speech by environmental activist, Vandana Shiva. Working the land with our neighbors produces a better environment and healthier community, but eating what we produce does not produce wealth that can show up in GDP. In contrast, industrial agriculture, which does produce capital wealth, creates environmental problems and destroys species.

I am a native English speaker. I can get a job paying six-figures without ever learning another language. Not so in, say, the Philippines or India, where English is more valuable for learning potential than a college degree is in the US. When we say that languages are “valuable,” we are saying that the economic system has made one language more valuable than another. I can get a higher-paying job with this language than I can with another.

Economics does not drive my desire to learn languages like these forces drive industrial agriculture. The desire for a healthier community for my children and neighbors drives me to learn languages.
Language ROI

Week 11 of loving Somali: Living the Polyglot Dream

Living the dream is time for celebration!
Living the dream is time for celebration!

I’m living the polyglot dream. This term was coined by Lucas Lampariello at his blog by the same name, and I mean by it that I managed to keep my love of language at the forefront of my mind and found many opportunities for and much joy in immersing myself in languages. While I set aside time this week to be sure I was working hard on Somali, I kept my ears open when I could speak or listen to other languages. I managed to engage Somali, Amharic, Spanish, French, Russian, Portuguese, and Dutch.

Continue reading “Week 11 of loving Somali: Living the Polyglot Dream”

Do you love the languages around you?

Do you love to learn from those around you?
Do you love to learn from those around you?

I subvert. I do not tend to like what authority says, simply out of prejudice. I can’t help but question it. Is the authority trying to manipulate me, to make me act in some way? I sometimes wonder if the authority has looked at all the angles. Could these ends be attained in a better way? I wonder if the authority has examined its moral responsibility. Is it a good end they seek? Authority seeks its own ends in its own way, marginalizing those who don’t see things their way.

Forget the powerful. Those on the margins have better, more creative, more compassionate ways of approaching problems. As human beings, they have their problems, of course. Folks like me–insider, comfortable, respected, able-bodied–need to listen to those who are pushed to the side to gain the wisdom that we lack by ourselves.

Automatically questioning the assumptions of authority, can make me cynical. At the same time, this doubt often aligns me with those who are marginalized, since they tend to work according to a different set of presuppositions than the powerful on the inside.

The marginalized have taught me a lot, especially that opening myself will teach me that I don’t have all the answers. I wish that authority figures knew what I know about what was happening on the margins. If we listened more to those on the margins, we would act more morally and connect more deeply with people different from us.

An eye for the subtle

What do you do when you hear someone speaking English (or any other language) with an accent? In the USA, these people are in the margins, and I know that I have a learning opportunity before me. If I’ve got the time, I tend to ask what other languages the other person speaks. This week, I got to have some cool conversations as a result.

Recently at work, I was standing in line in the cafeteria, and I heard an accent in English. I asked if the gentleman spoke a language other than English, and he replied, “Yes–six or seven.” A man after my own heart!

I ventured a guess (in Dutch): “Bent U Nederlander?” (“Are you from the Netherlands?”)

Belgie.” (“Belgium.”)

“Ah! U bent Flams.” (“Ah! You’re Flemish.”)

I recruited him for our budding Dutch table at work, and so this week he and I had lunch together, where he taught me a lot. I learned about his job at the company, and about his previous careers that led him to the Middle East and an extended life in Southeast Asia. During our conversation, he admitted he doesn’t speak Dutch much these days, so it was a nice opportunity for him.

Since his native dialect is Flemish, he taught me some of the significant differences between standard Dutch and Flemish, and then some differences between dialects of Flemish. He also told me that the first time he heard Afrikaans, he was surprised how similar it sounded to Flemish. I had known that Afrikaans comes from Dutch, but I never reflected on what variety of Dutch it came from. Dutch is much more varied than I had previously imagined.

We bonded around the idea that life can lead you a lot of different places, and that no job guarantees a particular job path. If we’re open, we can learn how to do a lot of things. Each job teaches skills that we bring to our next job. When we’re open and curious, we can find ourselves on surprising adventures. In addition, I learned that significant differences lie in places most people don’t care to look, even between East and West Belgium.

The world is right here

Then later this week I traveled for short trip to New York City. NYC is a language adventure waiting to happen, but with a short window, I had to keep my ears open.

I struck at my first opportunity. At the rental car desk, I saw that the agent had an unusual last name.

“What sort of name is that?”

“I’m from Ghana.”

“Do you speak any languages besides English?”

“Yes, five or six.”

“Which ones?”

He hesitated here, surely knowing that I wouldn’t have any way to follow what came next. “Ashanti is the main one. My home language is Sehwi. But Sehwi is a small language, from out in the country.”

I said the name of his home language a couple times. It includes a consonant in the middle, where you blow with puckered lips, nearly like a whistle. The exotic consonant felt luxurious in my mouth.

The reulting conversation offered me the opportunity to learn about the current state of this significant West African country. China has been investing there for a while, so we got bring up the question of a potential new colonialism by China in Africa. The nature of colonialism is that countries come in to take what you have and profit from it, without connecting with you and your community. Economic powers do not consider or love to learn from the human strength and wisdom that the multitude of African cultures have to offer. We both hoped for a good future for Ghana and her people.

I encountered other stops on my NYC language journey. At the event I got to speak a little Arabic and hear some different views on politics and history in the US and in the Middle East. On the plane I saw a man studying Talmud in Hebrew and Aramaic. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to stay at these stops–or NYC–as long as I would have liked.

Always open to learn

“When the student is ready, the teacher will come,” the proverb says. I tried to make myself ready this week, and I learned about history, culture, and human struggle. Some struggle leads to great results, some to worse, and some that are yet to be determined. We can learn from all of them.

This week, what are you planning to do that will open you to others who are different from you? I hope that you will learn from them, that their experience will change not only what you know, but also how you live your life. The narrative of life that we receive through the media focuses on making us happy in a short-term, narrow, and shallow way. It does not confront human struggle or weakness in ways that we actually live. Do you hear an accent in someone near you? That’s the sound of a different way of life. Plug in now!

Photo credit: AdamCohn / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

 

Your brain loves language–feed it more

Your brain delights in connecting and communicating
Your brain delights in connecting and communicating

Everyone loves the joy of understanding a new language. When people are speaking with others in a new language–whether in or outside of a classroom–they’re having fun. They might sound clumsy, but good-natured laughter takes the place of gawkiness. A couple of folks might feel frustrated, but if someone engages them, sure enough they’ll get into it. The brain has everything it needs to learn languages, and it will reward itself with giddy ecstasy as it absorbs more words and creates relations with others. It loves to make new language connections and rewards us with cerebral sprays of happy chemicals.

At my work we have a Spanish table during lunch once a week. Anyone of any level of Spanish ability–beginner through native speaker–can come to speak and hear Spanish. The awkwardness delights as we speak slowly, loudly, and with large hand gestures. Google Translate fills in the gaps that the native speakers can’t.

Everyone leaves lunch happy, some even giddy. People who struggle through a sentence see progress after just a couple sessions–and we all enjoy ourselves. I was chatting afterwards with a gentleman who said how cool it was that he was able to put ideas together as he grasped this or that word from what we were saying. I realized that the human brain enjoys comprehending.

Who doesn’t smile when they finally understand a complete thought in a new language? I’ve never seen someone connect the language dots and remain nonchalant. Our brain must shoot some chemical, some endorphin, into itself when it makes that connection. It’s wired to feel happy when it grows in language comprehension.

Every human child works very hard to learn language. We would have been exhausted if the brain didn’t offer itself so many rewards. We get the reward of forging a new brain pathway, plus the emotional connection with another person, someone who wants to understand us and grow closer to us. Language offers the joy of connection–whether between people or neurons.

Brains are buit to love to construct new connections off the beaten (neural) path. What makes everyone laugh? Jokes! What is a joke but using language in a way that subverts our expectations? In everyday life, our brain wires language together to run “typical” processing. When we hear or see language that goes against that wiring, our brain wires language together in a new way–and we love it! (A favorite example: “What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhinocerous?” “Elephino!” [Hell if I know!])

The newer and fresher the joke, the more delight we receive. Kids, with their fresh minds, can repeat the same joke over and over and keep laughing till they lose their breath. Newness is the key. Once a joke becomes ingrained into our internal language matrix, the joke becomes old; when we can guess the punch line, we laugh less.

New languages sit nicely in reach of almost everyone, as the human brain is built to contain multiple languages. We’re all polyglots waiting to happen! In many cultures in the world, throughout history, people grow up speaking multiple languages. People were speaking several languages in colonial North America (see this post regarding English colonies and this one for Dutch), and in modern Singapore and India (see this post and this one). We even see this in the modern US. How often do we meet uneducated immigrants here who speak English in addition to their native language(s) (see this post)? The human brain soaks in new languages with or without formal education. For example, the multi-lingual Dutch fur trappers and the average polyglot citizen of Hyderabad may not be particularly well-educated–if they’re educated formally at all. Humans pick up languages when the environment is correct because the brain loves to absorb them.

Our brain can’t help but love languages. It loves to create new connections. The person who rejects their natural love for languages denies themselves of great joy. When you can finally pronounce “Hello” in Chinese with the correct tones, or when you are shocked that you actually understood a response to your question in Spanish, you will smile–guaranteed. You mastered a new skill and you connected with someone in a new way. Your brain thanks you.

Tell me about the greatest “Aha!” moment of language-learning for you!

Photo credit: Photosightfaces / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A lesson from history: Languages in 17th century New Netherland

Thayendanegea or Joseph Brant, a Mohawk military and political leader, 1776 (Wikimedia Commons)
Thayendanegea or Joseph Brant, a Mohawk military and political leader, 1776 (Wikimedia Commons)

Last week I blogged about the language geography of the US in Colonial Virginia in the 17th and 18th centuries, and since then I became more interested in what language mixes I could find elsewhere in North America. This week I researched the 17th century in New Netherland: the first Dutch colony on the continent.

I uncovered less information about the languages and everyday life of this region than of the Virginia Colony. The Dutch colonists may have left fewer records and stories because they were largely trappers and traders, in distinction with the English farmers and townspeople. Nevertheless, we see diversity in New Netherland that we don’t in the Virginia Colony. Both the colonists and the natives included people of many mother tongues.

The result of the Dutch commercial venture of New Netherland saddened me. The interactions among the Europeans and natives revolved around commerce. While occasional individuals from various groups intermarried, the reason people came together originally was to become rich. Competition, not mutual understanding, ended in extinction or near-extinction of the dozens of languages–Iroquois, Algonquin, and European–spoken in this area of the 17th century. We need to look to this cautionary tale if we hope to keep our country’s and planet’s linguistic diversity viable for us to benefit from. Only the desire to understand and know each other, not business, will keep us wise and languages alive.

History

Let me start with a basic historical outline. (You can skip to the next section if you want to go straight to the languages.) The Dutch were already actively trading in the Americas, especially in South America and the Caribbean. In 1609 (two years after the English founded Jamestown in Virginia) they hired Henry Hudson to explore the waterways of modern-day New York and New Jersey, to find a Northwest Passage to Asia (1). He did not find a passage, but he found many Mohawks and Mahicans eager to trade animal skins for European manufactured goods.

The Dutch trader, Hendrick Christiaensen, decided to settle in 1614 on Castle Island by modern Albany, named for the abandoned French trading chateau built there. (This land is no longer an island and is now known as the Port of Albany.) He called it Ft. Nassau, after the ruling house of the Netherlands. It was abandoned and moved nearby in 1618 because of frequent flooding of the island (2).

In 1624 they founded and settled Ft. Orange, a ways south of Ft. Nassau, right after they established in 1623 another Ft. Nassau on the Delaware River in present-day Gloucester, New Jersey (3). They moved Ft. Orange south in 1652 to Esopus (present-day Kingston), named after the local group of natives (4).

To establish a port at the entrance of the rivers towards these trading posts, the Dutch head of the West Indies Company, Peter Minuit, purchased Manhattan Island from the Lenape in 1626 and began constructing the port of New Amsterdam. Once the Dutch government gave city rights to New Amsterdam in 1653, the city that would become New York City was born (5).

Languages

Sorting out the languages in New Netherland was more difficult than in the Virginia Colony, as I mentioned. Traders seem to move around more, and more people come to find them, too. I will categorize the languages as European, Native, and Pidgin.

I could not find any information about African languages, but since the Dutch took over the Portuguese slave trade, I assume that the slaves of this time were speaking Ndongo or some other Bantu languages.

European

The Low Countries (the literal meaning of “Netherlands”) included modern Netherlands, Belgium, and parts of Germany. Dutch was the lingua franca among the colonists, but speakers of multiple languages from the Low Countries found their way into the early colonies, resulting in linguistically-diverse settlements that included multiple Dutch dialects, plus French and German. Peter Minuit, who bought Manhattan from the Lenape, was a German-born Walloon (French-speaking from modern Belgium) who also spoke English (6).

In addition, New Netherland absorbed New Sweden, where Swedish was spoken. I assume that citizens of both colonies had to communicate with each other, probably in German, English, or French (7).

The colony to the north was French (much of modern French Canada) and English to the Northeast (New England) and to the South (Virginia). I did not find information about the interactions, but I can assume that there were enough French and English speakers among the Netherlanders that Dutch was not exclusive.

After the Netherlands lost some of their South American colonies to the Portuguese, speakers of Portuguese, Spanish, and Ladino began to populate New Netherland.

Native

 Portrait of Etow Oh Koam, one of the Four Mohawk Kings, c. 1750 (Wikipedia Commons)
Portrait of Etow Oh Koam, one of the Four Mohawk Kings, c. 1750 (Wikipedia Commons)

The major language group in this area is Algonquin, but Iroquoian languages were also widespread in the area.

Henry Hudson encountered Mohawk (Iroquoian) and Mahican (Eastern Algonquin) speakers in the area of Castle Island. Although tensions existed between the Iroquois and other groups before Europeans came, I imagine that the Mahican and Mohawks had to communicate with each other in one or both of their languages. Mahican became extinct in the first third of the 20th century, while Mohawk is still spoken by about 3000 people in Northern New York State and Southern Canada. One school even offers immersion in the language.

Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Lenape, also called the Delaware, people. Lenape referred to an association of related peoples in this more southern area, who spoke the closely related Unami and Munsee languages. The English missionary, John Heckewelder, documented the two languages in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, noting their similarities and differences. While both are members of the Eastern Algonquin family, they display clear differences in grammar and vocabulary. At present, only a half-dozen native speakers of Munsee are still alive, while Unami is extinct.

Other tribes of the Lenape lived throughout the Hudson valley. The Wequaesgeek, or Wappinger, lived in modern Duchess and Westchester Counties in New York, and they spoke a language very similar to the Munsee. The Hackensack tribe spoke a language related to Unami.

The Minqua, or Susquehannocks as the English called them, lived more to the West. They spoke an Iroquoian language. The language has long been extinct, but about 100 words were preserved by a Swedish missionary of the 17th century (8).

Pidgin languages

The diverse mix of languages forced people to get practical and so the society of New Netherland developed multiple Pidgin languages. A Pidgin language is a mix of languages that naturally forms when two or more groups meet, often for trade, who do not share a common language.

Pidgin Delaware was spoken in the Lenape area, in the region of modern-day New York City and Long Island. It developed as a mix of Unami and Dutch. Significantly, the language showed very little Munsee vocabulary, even though the Pidgin was used by Munsee speakers, as well. It was first mentioned in 1628, but its use spread to Swedish and English speakers in their dealings with the Lenape. The Swedish minister, Johan Campanius, prepared a vocabulary list of Pidgin Delaware and even translated Luther’s Catechism into it.

Jersey Dutch was spoken in today’s northeast New Jersey. The basis was Dutch dialects with some English and a bit of Lenape. The language lived for about 300 years, from the 17th to the 20th centuries. It had two varieties, one that was spoken by descendants of Dutch settlers and another that was spoken by African-descended people only, which showed more influence of grammar from African languages.

Mohawk Dutch formed among the Dutch and Mohawk in the northern reaches of New Netherland. It was used among the Iroquois language speakers in the North, in contast to the Algonquin languages (like Lenape) in the South. The language seems to have existed for a short time in the 17th century–until the English took the northern reaches of New Netherland–and was never documented.

Conclusion

The languages we know about from New Netherland were those involved in commerce. While people spoke scores of Iroqouis and Algonquin languages, the Mohawk, Mahican, and Lenape languages represented the largest trading partners with the Dutch. Among the Dutch, the languages of the “old” Netherlands were all spoken, Dutch, German, and French. Dutch, however, was most important, and English became important as the Dutch and English interacted more in the New World. Swedish declined as they became less economically important, once the Swedish colony was absorbed into New Netherland. Pidgin languages developed as needed, so that language barriers would not stand in the way of commerce.

I was sad that I found no information about the African languages spoken in New Netherland. This fact, though, would follow from the previous assumption, that the traders determined importance, and they spoke only those languages they needed for commerce. The bottom of the hierarchy–slaves and servants–spoke African languages.

As power shifted from the native Americans, those languages became less and less important, until they begin to die in the 19th century. Power shifted from the Dutch, as well, until English took over in the area of New Netherland and, later, of the states of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

People did not learn languages out of a love for the people they were interacting with but for commercial reasons. Both natives and Dutch colonists sought to use each other to enrich themselves. In the end, the richer and more powerful English drove the languages of both groups to extinction in the United States. Their refusal to learn from and understand each other created unnecessary rivalry and tension. If we hope to keep the language diversity of the US and the planet, we must learn languages for love and community, not merely for the sake of business.

What lessons can we draw from history when we pursue languages and interact with each other?

 

Intermediate language-learning: Beyond the basics

This is the Linguistadores logo for Dutch -- one of several languages
This is the Linguistadores logo for Dutch — one of several languages offered

At this point, the language-learning market is saturated with on-line tools. They tend to fit in two categories: 1) very basic vocabulary and exercises (eg, Transparent Language) and 2) social networks for language exchanges (eg, iTalki).  Very little exists, unfortunately, for more intermediate learning. What do you do if you have the basics of the language down fairly well (eg, verb tenses, noun declensions, 200+ vocabulary words), but want to move on? You don’t know enough for, say, movies without subtitles or podcasts. Conversations with native speakers can’t last very long yet. Linguistadores has imagined the next step by helping your learning through native-language content, geared to your level.

Your choice of media
Your choice of media

This platform offers access to real pop culture items, but broken down for language learners. I tried out Dutch as the language I was learning and English as my native language. First, you have to input your language ability level. Then, the application will serve up material for your level. Materials come from three categories: written, videos, or music. The written are articles from popular periodicals.

From a music video, you can look up a word from the lyrics and add it to your list.
From a music video, you can look up a word from the lyrics and add it to your list.

Videos are popular TV shows or movies hosted on another site (eg, YouTube), and music are videos of pop songs. The pop songs play the video with the words of the song next to the video, but I couldn’t find subtitles for the non-music videos. You can easily look up words from the articles and songs.

You can save and collect words into a list to create flashcards.
You can save and collect words into a list to create flashcards.

Linguistadores also offers you a way to keep track of new words. As you run into unfamiliar words, you can click on them and save them. You can use these lists as flash cards for memorizing the words.

The site is in its beginnings, so I hope that it will grow in a few areas. First, I hope they come up with a mobile platform very soon. I do all my language study on the go. If I’m on a computer, I’m at work. (And I better be working!) I could only watch videos and scroll through the songs’ texts on my iOS and Android devices.

A representative of Linguistadores let me know already (they were very responsive to me on Twitter) that they are working on a mobile platform. I will be giving them my ideas and suggestions — and I’m looking forward to the results. I’m hoping that the word lookup function and the videos will be available in the mobile version.

Second, I hope the language offerings are expanded. Right now, the choices are English, Dutch, German, French, and Spanish. I know these languages fairly well, and I would prefer to spend my time getting my lower languages up to a higher level. I think it will take some time to expand offerings, however, as the quality and quantity of the language materials are very high. It takes a lot of effort to keep things at this level. (How long till they get to Farsi and Somali? LOL)

Third, I wonder about the future of the material they have. How do they plan to keep the offerings fresh? There are only so many music videos, for example. I’m afraid I could possibly get bored if I have to watch the same ones too many times. Also, several of the videos I tried to watch were taken down by the original owner, which is bound to happen down the line.

Nevertheless, I believe that on-line language learning has to go the direction that Linguistadores laid out. As a kid, I stepped up my native language by looking up new words in the dictionary. I also spent a lot of time reading the lyrics to songs I liked, which gave me an ear for how people enunciate in music. I want to get to a point where I can learn on my own from native content, and Linguistadores offers a wonderful stepping-stone.

What are the on-line tools you’re using for language-learning? What do you love about them?