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!

Polyglots needed as world gets smaller

Polyglots shine in difficult conversations.
Polyglots shine in difficult conversations.

People haven’t been listening to each other, and they are getting worse at it. The recent election in the US adds more evidence of this. The way our world is going, though, we all need to get better.

Here is the problem we face today. The world isn’t shrinking. It feels like it because population density is growing. We have more people and the same amount of land. Actually, water shortages and rising ocean levels mean that we have less productive land for more people.

Denser population means running into more people. People, on average, live closer to each other than ever before. That means more chances to meet and interact with people different from you, and more chances you’ll meet someone very different from you. Nowadays you have a good chance of running into a Chinese person in Nigeria, an Ethiopian in Oslo, or a Somali in Minnesota.

Polyglots, however, spend hours and hours training themselves to listen to more people who are different from them, and to more conversations that they otherwise couldn’t understand.

We need more polyglots—more languages, more classes, more teachers—to focus on solving problems created by globalization so our society to move forward.
Calling all polyglots!

First steps at language love

Time to get started again!
Time to get started again!

Last week I told you to do the minimum for language love; don’t try so hard.

Today, I want to give you some resources for how to start. Basic. Nothing complicated.

First, though, you have to do your research. You have to go on your ecolinguistic exploratory expedition to find out what people are speaking around you. What do you hear spoken? What do you see on signs, not the formal ones, but the hand-written signs taped to light posts and pinned to bulletin boards?

Now you have your language(s). Let’s begin.
Why loving language

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

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

I’m against assimilation: Teachings from Africa

What are you learning from each other?
What are you learning from each other?

Why am I against assimilation? If the African immigrants had “fit in” to the norm here in Minnesota, they could not have taught me many valuable lessons. And if it wasn’t for pursuing their non-English languages, I may not have met as many of these wise people.

I’ve learned a lot from my African neighbors in the Twin Cities

Staring is perfectly acceptable.

Everything starts with networking.

If you want to get to know someone, ask them questions about themselves.

These are a couple of items I’ve learned from East African friends. They’re sinking more deeply into my thinking as I see them in action all around me. For example,

Staring is perfectly acceptable. If I want to know if someone is from Africa, I look a little longer at the person than I would at a white Minnesotan. If the person looks back at me or smiles, the person is likely African.

Everything starts with networking. If I friend an Ethiopian or Somali on Facebook, I know that five people will request to be my friend shortly after. Every time I look for news about Somalis, I learn about another community organizer. I learned that if you ever need to get in contact with a given Somali person, ask a room of 50 Somalis—someone will have that person in their phone.

I’ve learned from my African neighbors that neighbors should not be feared but embraced. Barriers provide only so much usefulness. I love interacting with them.

If you want to get to know someone, ask them questions about themselves. Here’s a great example of what I learned last week.
What I learned

Loving language confusion: Disrupting expectations

Who speaks what language can be confusing.
Who speaks what language can be confusing.

Today an Ethiopian-American friend came to visit. Since he wanted to experience something uniquely Minnesotan, we went to Karmel Mall, the premium Somali Mall in the Twin Cities and the whole Midwest US. If I want to have my Somali tea while immersed in Somali culture, this is where I go.

We managed to confuse the restaurant workers a bit. I greeted them and placed my order—all in Somali. They looked at me a little funny—not unusual. More confusion

How did I end up in Little Oromiya?

How well can fit in? How well are you trying? Do you even want to?
How well can fit in? How well are you trying? Do you even want to?

While I know classrooms from my time as a professor, I forgot life as a student. Familiarity and nostalgia return with excitement as I enter my new class.

Studying languages comes naturally, but I didn’t do so in a classroom for years. This time I am venturing far from Europe, even the Middle East, ending up in the provinces of Ethiopia. When I saw the East African language, Oromo, in the class catalog, when I had to google the language when I saw it, I was taken. Reigniting my language curiosity with the pilot of obscurity, Oromo sets me on fire.

When I show up, the teacher looks like he is expecting me.

The look surprises me. I introduce myself.

“Ah, Richard,” he confirms. Confirms? I taught hundreds of students but never “confirmed” a student when he arrived to class the first day.
Richard in Little Oromiya

Language learning as a political act (A nod to Rick Steves)

How do others help us see ourselves better?
How do others help us see ourselves better?

Many people around us are invisible. Immigrants and refugees, especially those from developing countries, fill our cities in the US and Europe. They tend to perform simple, undesirable jobs, that do not require sophisticated English language abilities. Many airports in the US are full of East African employees. Spanish often wafts from American suburban construction crews. They live and work unseen by the eyes of native-born Americans.

Hearing languages, seeking out languages, gives us new lenses to see the “invisible” people around us. And from those people, we can learn a lot about ourselves.

Acknowledging everyone around us on their own terms goes against the norm. It is a political act. Many people know Rick Steves, the PBS travel guru, but beyond leading tours to exotic locales, he coined the phrase that travel is a political act. Acknowledging those whom others do not see, and learning from them is our political act as polyglots.
Read about my discovery

Ecolinguistic expeditions: Discovering Anyuak in Minnesota

The first step of my discovery--what do you see in your town?
The first step of my discovery–what do you see in your town?

In light of (yesterday’s) UNESCO Mother Language Day, I want to write in my Mother Language about a new language that I discovered this month.  (My readers should understand that when I say “discover,” I mean this in the same way as Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, namely, that I discovered something for myself. These people functioned fully as a community before any Western “discovery.”) Driving down the road in my own suburb of the Twin Cities, Minnesota, I saw the word “Anyuak” on a sign. What did this word even mean?

Read about my discovery