Happy 2017! See you later!

See you in a while!
See you in a while!

It has been a great year in 2016. I’ve been able to write more about the motivations for learning languages—and have successfully stirred up some controversy. My goal has been to highlight privilege among language learners and to shine light on those who speak less-commonly studied languages. For example, here is my most controversial post from 2016: “Language hacking ≠ language love”.

One problem has been that I didn’t spend as much time learning languages as I would have liked. So for 2016, my goal is to spend more time on Oromo and Somali. I may work on a little Serbian, since I used to know some and we have a Serbian exchange student living with us currently. Tagalog may find its way in there, too, as an associate from Manila recently joined my team at work.

In this time of growing intolerance and shrinking globe, learning languages has never been more important or political. While I have been writing discoveries made by learning languages and focusing on the languages of my community, I want to turn back to those languages for a while. Time to get back in the trenches.

I will also work on some other writing projects that have been requiring more attention.

So, I will take the next month off. I will come back in February with a summary of progress up to this point.

See you in a few weeks!

Photo by UW Digital CollectionsUW Digital Images, No restrictions, Link

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

Ecolinguism in Israel: Another place where languages go to die

How many languages can Israel allow to flourish?
How many languages can Israel allow to flourish?

The modern State of Israel recognizes two official languages: Hebrew and Arabic. Nearly all of its Jewish citizens came from somewhere else within the last 2-3 generations. When these immigrants came, they brought their language. Pressure from Israeli society eliminated the vast majority of their languages.

While 49% of Israelis over 20 claim Hebrew as their native language, according to Wikipedia, 18% claim Arabic, and 15% Russian. The other 18% speak Yiddish, French, English, Spanish, and “Other” languages, which include Romanian, German, and Amharic.

The language picture is more complex than at first glance. A language may include multiple dialects, each living its own dynamic. Some of the last speakers of certain language dialects live in Israel. Active violence has also taken place against other languages.

As Hebrew was chosen as the official language, its proponents put in place a system that does not give other languages space to live and grow.

Let’s look at a few of the examples of languages in Israel today.
Language survival

Create habitats for endangered languages to thrive

Like endangered species, languages need the right habitat.

Language-preservation efforts focus on languages in the periphery, in isolated communities. I can understand how this works in the short run, but I don’t understand how this can work in the long run.

I am not satisfied with preserving a Native American language, like Myaamia, to live on a reservation. We, as human beings in North America, must find room for it to live and thrive. As speakers of any language, we must find a way to diversify the linguistic biosphere, or “linguisphere.”

An endangered language can only survive if it can thrive. Keeping an animal from dying in a zoo does not move a species out of “endangered” status. The only true success in ecological terms comes from moving more and more of a species into the wild.

That strategy begs the question of the continued existence of wild habitat. Often species become endangered because of a loss of habitat. When that habitat is threatened or destroyed, introducing individuals back into the “wild” becomes impossible because the “wild” no longer exists.
From endangered to thriving

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

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

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!

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

Selfish acts of tourism: Languages at home and abroad

What are you doing, O Polyglot, to make sure you're not this guy?
What are YOU doing, O Polyglot, to make sure you’re not this guy?

Bequeathing a good community for my children to live in is my highest priority. More basically, being good means nothing if I’m not doing good. So if I’m spending time, money, or energy on something besides my community, I’m obliged to question it.

I’m a language guy, so I spend a lot of time and energy on languages. If I’m following this assumption, then I should be studying languages for the sake of my community.

Choosing a language, therefore, must also build up my community.

Community, not the “exotic” or “new,” must motivate me. How do I study and acquire languages to build up others, rather than myself?

If traveling runs the risk of exploiting people, even a little, I’d rather stay at home and build up my community.
Loving language

Sacrifice your talent for love

Do you have what it takes for language love?
Do you have what it takes for language love?

Don’t follow your love in order to feel good. Follow it so someone else can feel good. Let your talent become a lesson for love. When you learn languages for others, you do what comes naturally to you and bring joy to others.

My wife is a great musician. She has traveled the world in choirs, both as a singer and as a piano accompanist. At her height she sang at Carnegie Hall.

She can play anything. She can accompany anyone. Not a day goes by when she doesn’t think about music.

Eventually, she became a mom—a great mom. Naturally, she taught our kids piano. She also taught private piano lessons at our house to over a dozen kids per week.

Music was not about personal joy to her, however. She played for those who needed more joy in their lives.

Every week, she took our kids and any other kids to a nursing home. Our kids would play whatever they were working on. My wife would play, too, and lead songs for the residents of the nursing home. They came so often that the kids began to develop special relationships with some of the individual residents.

Three times a year, my wife’s students would put on a recital. Each time, it took place in a retirement center. Granted, the center had a great room with a nice piano, but she would coordinate with the center to ensure that all residents were notified and invited to the recital. Kids would even wheel residents unable to walk to the recital.

Who can you bring joy to with your desire to learn languages?

Why loving language