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!

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Agape Vespers: The church service for language-lovers

English: The inside of an Orthodox church. Gre...
A Greek Orthodox Church–and home of a polyglot feast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The church service I went to today caters well to language-lovers like me.  In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the afternoon service on Easter day (technically called “Agape Vespers”) includes reading the gospel selection in multiple languages.   (The selection is John 20:19-25.)  At a minimum, the reading includes English, Greek, and Russian/Slavonic, but I’ve never seen the minimum only.  Even though today the service was lightly attended, I read Hebrew and my wife read Romanian alongside others who read the standards.  At a previous parish, I read Syriac every year.  I’ve heard all kinds of delightfully unexpected languages: Japanese, Mari, ASL, Old English, for example. A rare opportunity to hear some of these languages!

All the language geeks come out of the woodwork for this service, and I always enjoy it.  Since I know what the reading is, I like to try to figure out what words I can decipher from each of the languages.  On a more emotional level, the delightful music of all the languages, one after another, pleases me to no end.  I love practicing my part–my one chance all year to speak ancient Syriac aloud–and I love seeing the love of others to speak the language that they learned at some time.  Today’s service offers an opportunity that is rare in our society: a chance to hear multiple languages and to speak publicly in a language which one may not speak fluently.

Again I see the problem of calling Americans essentially monolingual, because I glimpse how many people from all over can read a foreign language aloud.  People enjoy speaking their language, too, and even the monolinguals seem to enjoy hearing all the languages.  Sometimes the readings are not expert; the reader clearly does not speak the language fluently.  But they feel that they can read well enough and are willing to put work into preparing a text in a foreign language.

Now that I think of it, I realize I would like to see more venues where speaking a little bit of a foreign language was celebrated instead of a point of embarrassment.  Many folks I know lament that they don’t know Spanish/French/etc. “better,” rather than speaking and using what they know.  If these folks could practice whatever they know, just speaking it in public might give them some more motivation to learn a little better.  Rather than beating themselves up for not speaking fluently, they can enjoy speaking to the best of their ability.  For example, I know that I enjoy employing my rote-memorized Somali phrases in a few set situations.  Also, my young polyglot friend–of whom I’ve spoken before–speaks a little Greek.  So when he found out that his Spanish teacher knows some Greek, he brought it out for fun.  This church service manifests that such fun comes out for a lot of people–not just polyglots.

I think if we can make rote use of languages in public common, then we can all strengthen our language foundation, ultimately improving our chances of attaining fluency.  What are opportunities we see regularly or can initiate for people to speak publicly in their budding foreign language?  Comment, share on Twitter or Facebook–let’s see what ideas people have!

Setting goals and moving towards the center

Slight, accurate motion causes great, effective movements
Slight, accurate motion causes great, effective movements

This week I was looking at the website of a guy I know; he gives advice about how to reach goals by using small communities of ambitious friends to support each other.  The first piece of advice that struck me, though, was, in his words, “stop the bleeding.”  He recommended naming bad habits and using time spent on them for the goals we want to accomplish.  One of my bad habits is compulsively checking email and Facebook, so I took some time away from those activities this week, and I accomplished a few things that I would not have done otherwise.  I haven’t done the second important piece of advice–examine “why” I want to do these things.  I’ll discuss that in a minute.

Before I list the things that I accomplished, I’ll briefly mention a simple tool that I used.  I set up a spreadsheet on Google Docs.  I put multiple tabs, one for each large goal: start a side business, expand language offerings in the public schools, learn Farsi, learn Somali, develop methods for learning languages at work, and blog.  On the spreadsheet I write individual tasks that I think well keep me moving.  I date when I put tasks down and when I finish them.  I also want to put down a deadline for myself, but I’m afraid of that much commitment at this point.  This way I can actually see what I’m getting accomplished and plan a little more deliberately.

Here are some of the things I actually accomplished.

  • Business.  I have a website that is nearly complete.  It still needs some photos, so I talked to my friend’s wife, who is a photographer, and some international friends at work who will pose with me.  Once the photos are up, I should be done with the site, ending that phase.
  • Languages in Schools.  I contacted a person who has already been working on Somali language in the Minneapolis Schools.  I’m planning on another meeting maybe next Saturday–I ran the idea past my friend/partner.  I’ve put together a list of names to invite to the meeting, and I created an agenda that is manageable for a 1-1.5 hour meeting.
  • Farsi.  I’ve been watching some Iranian sit-coms every evening or every-other evening.  I IM friends in Iran 2-3 times per week at work.  I spoke over Skype with an Iranian friend for about 15-20 minutes.
  • Somali.  I use my limited Somali every day, but I didn’t really move ahead.  Not much happened here.
  • Languages at Work.  I’ve been inputting dialogues for my languages at work packet.  I solicited more translations and ideas from my Somali friends, and we’re discussing ways to re-introduce our Somali table to our company.
  • Blog.  (This is it!)

I’m amazed that I did all this in moments at home and slow moments at work when I would normally kill time.  I’m grateful for this piece of advice to “stop the bleeding.”

I want to look at why I want to accomplish these goals with the hope of encouraging my deeper motivations.  Figuring out the “why” behind these goals appeals to me, because I know that I can motivate myself at my core.  Back in college, when I studied kung fu, my non-English-speaking sifu used to demonstrate effective technique by taking a rope and swinging it in a circle.  He’d point at the small motions of his hand and the large motion of the rope they caused.  When you push from the center, less effort is necessary for an action.  (See photo.)

The technique of finding out the “why” is to ask why I want to do something, and then ask “why” to that answer, five times.  This way I move towards my own center.  So I want to accomplish this technique this week on at least two of my big goals I mentioned above.

I’d love to learn from my readers how you accomplish your goals–or what stands in your way.  I may or may not have suggestions for you; I’d love to learn something from you.

Do any of my readers use accountability groups for setting and keeping short- and long-term goals?  If so, please describe your process.

How do you stay focused on goals?  What techniques do you use?  Do you have examples?

Photo credit: Steve Corey / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Learn Languages for a Different Take on the News

English: A protester holding a placard in Tahr...
Image via Wikipedia

I heard recently that a foreign affairs analyst can learn everything she needs by talking to people on the street.  She does not need spy satellites or phone taps.  She can talk to the people on the street.

Much of our English news comes from English reporters speaking with English-speakers in countries where English may not be known broadly.  The native filters his knowledge and thinking through English, which the reporter then filters again.  Our knowledge is two steps removed from the people on the street who normally speak and reflect in a medium other than English.

If I get tired of how the US media report on foreign affairs, there is always another medium: the foreign media.  I do not mean the BBC.  I mean the local news, where the reporters think and converses in the same language as the subjects of their stories, where they live within the same dynamic as the subjects.

One reason I like to learn languages is because I can begin to understand what is going on in other countries without the multiple filters on the US news.  I “Liked” Bashar Al-Assad on Facebook so that I get his news feed.  I often get lyrical, militant posts, or Youtube videos of nationalist songs.  I did the same with Sarkozy, and I get to see on my Facebook feed political rhetoric in French (which sounds suprisingly similar to American political rhetoric).

I can learn much more about my world that my media can’t convey.  I can circumvent the media–how political!