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

¡Euskara es una patria! Language as homeland

The Basque people continue to use their language to define themselves.
The Basque people continue to use their language to define themselves.

When I visited the Basque country this July, I was amazed at how this minority language had survived centuries as a minority language. At a historical moment when people declare with gloom the end to most languages on earth, Basque is spoken by fewer than a million people, and this number is growing.

I spoke to a Basque teacher for adults in the Basque country. He told me that the Basques have always fought to keep their language alive in the face of competing languages. The language survives, he believes, because of the way that Basques conceive of their language. While many peoples consider their territory, religion, or bloodline as the foundation of their home, the Basques consider their language itself as their homeland or, in Spanish, their patria.
Language as homeland

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

Irish & Basque: Unnecessary languages! (Or are they…?)

What makes a language useful?
What makes a language useful?

Recently I read the article, “Can anybody truthfully say that Irish is a necessary language?,” where the Irish author, Rosita Boland, expresses her frustration at the time wasted (12 years!) at failing to learn the first national language of Ireland.

Ms. Boland suffered at studying this language unsuccessfully at school. She writes, “The disgrace, as I see it, is being forced by the State to study a compulsory language for which I had no aptitude, absolutely no interest in, and no choice about throughout my entire school career. Where is the pedagogic sense in that?” To be honest, this sounds like my 14-year old’s laments about learning to divide polynomials: “How am I ever going to use that?”

I agree with my 14-year old, so I can’t dismiss Ms. Boland’s complaints out of hand.

But the author’s complain goes deeper. Not only did she fail to learn this compulsory subject, her country’s Constitution ties her Irish identity to it. She further argues, “It is written into our Constitution that Irish is our national language and the first official language. English is recognised as a second official language. That does not make sense.” She resents that her Constitution would define her by the subject that she hated and failed in school.

While she is right that Irish cannot be spoken outside of Ireland, does that make it less “useful”? Is this the only standard of “usefulness”?
What’s useful?

Multilingual Minnesota

Event flier in Spanish and Somali
Event flier in Spanish and Somali

Bringing languages into my community takes more work than it does at the Wellstone International High School that I spoke of in an earlier post. Fortunately, the ELL (English Language Learners) coordinator organized last week an event, “Many Languages, One District,” for a local school district. I loved attending and talking with so many different people in and about multiple languages.
Read more about this great event

The best school for polyglots

Students at the Wellstone Int'l High School (from their website)
Students at the Wellstone Int’l High School (from their website)

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Wellstone International High School, the coolest, most exciting high school I’ve ever seen, of whose students I will remain eternally jealous. I heard multiple languages as I was shown the school, and had the chance to speak Somali, Spanish, and Arabic—but unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to speak French with the Haitian student.

As I was leaving, a retired teacher said to me, “I envy you.” I replied to him, “You envy me?! You got to come here for work! This is the best place to work I’ve ever seen!” The school sets the standard for what global education can and should be.
The best global education

5 steps you can take to create a healthy lingua-sphere

Let languages thrive in nature, not languish in a zoo.
Let languages thrive in nature, not languish in a zoo.

Preserving language diversity resembles preserving biodiversity. I’ve seen two models of protecting biodiversity: natural preserves and zoos. Natural preserves protect species in a complete ecosystem, while zoos preserve individual species in isolation.

When most people look at language preservation, they take a “zoo” approach, that is, they approach the language in isolation. For example, the Transparent Language company is giving away its technology to preserve languages. Enthusiasts can thus create language courses for learning those languages that are quickly disappearing.

But can this work? Zoos run into problems because the individuals live in an artificial environment, cut off from nature. They can no longer go back. Yet species such as grizzly bears flourish on their own when the habitat, the biosphere, is restored, such as at Yellowstone. More than restoring individual languages, we must create a lingua-sphere wherein multiple languages can thrive without outside intervention. We must challenge the monolingual norms of many nations that are becoming more prevalent by learning and speaking and dignifying other languages.
Healthy lingua-spheres

Why don’t they learn our language? or How did they manage to do it?

How would you study after a day in the life of an immigrant?
How would you study after a day in the life of an immigrant?

Continuing on the theme of “Why don’t immigrants learn our language?” (see this post and this post) I wanted to present why the situation is not as simple as people think.

Most people who complain about this in the US speak English only, and so remain blissfully unaware of the complications of learning another language.

My more sophisticated brothers and sisters in Europe likely learned English, and so understand the difficulties. Nevertheless, they learned their foreign language in the comfort of their local school surrounded by family and friends taking care of them.

Immigrants have it hard because of their circumstances, both the situation they left and the life they have in their new country. Learning a new language creates even more work and difficulties in addition to getting by in this new, foreign place.

Yet they learn.

When I used to teach, I remember the reaction of my students when I would add an extra reading assignment. “We don’t have time,” they would inevitably say. I would smile and tell them that one day they would learn what “busy” meant, but at the moment, they were not busy.

We are not as busy as we think. This is what many of us have to grow into when we think about immigrants, and a valuable lesson immigrants can teach the rest of us.

Let’s look more deeply into their circumstances. It’s humbling. We’ll see that the question is not, “Why don’t they learn our language?” but “How did they manage to learn our language?” At the end, I’ll give you a few ways to use your favorable circumstances to the advantage of others.
How they learned

What can language-preservation accomplish?

What do we learn when we open unknown languages to others?
What can we teach when we open unknown languages to others?

Last week I met a local Anyuak gentleman from Ethiopia, a people numbering about 200,000-300,000. He is excited about documenting more of his language on-line, and our conversation thrilled me while it made me think deeply about language-preservation and its goals.

I have always been a fan of less well-known languages. When I was looking at universities, I remember thinking about the University of Oklahoma because of their Native American linguistics studies. I especially loved my college course in linguistics field methods that taught us how to study a language in its native habitat. Language death makes me sad and frustrated. At the Polyglot Conference in October I got to meet the founders of Wikitongues, an exciting project striving to document all living human languages.

But last week I was giving this line of thinking a second thought. Am I just acting precious about languages? Languages have been dying for millennia, and but we only noticed it about a hundred years ago. Just like animals species have been going extinct since the dinosaurs, languages don’t last forever.

We learned, though, that when we affect the ecosphere so quickly that species die off very quickly, humanity harms itself. In the same way, studying the linguistic ecosphere—“ecolinguism” as I’ve called it—brings to our attention lesser-known languages. By noticing those languages, we challenge ourselves and our assumptions, while we learn from those on the margins.
Why preserve languages?