How vital is our Minnesotan multilingualism?

What roles do the languages in your community play?
What roles do the languages in your community play?

Multilingualism provides vitality to cities, not just a problem to be solved. As a result, cities must preserve and promote this vitality through policies and services.

Recently, Michael Erard, author of Babel No More, made this claim in an article about multilingualism in cities. He followed the studies by a European consortium called Languages in Urban Communities: Integration and Diversity for Europe (or LUCIDE) in the book, The Multilingual City.

The researchers, Erard explained, studied some of the unofficial ways that languages are used in a cosmopolitan area, such as graffiti, posters, and trash—the “detritus” of less visible communities.

The studies focused on Europe, with some further research in Canada and Australia. They also tended to focus on “European” languages—more highly valued than perceived “foreign” languages like Romani and Arabic.

How would Minneapolis-St Paul, Minnesota, USA, measure up to the multilingualism of these studies?
Minnesota ecolinguism

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

You’re already learning languages like a baby (Don’t be fooled)

Babies have a language advantage: Cuteness!
Babies have a language advantage: Cuteness!

No language-learning program knows what it’s talking about when they say they can show you how to learn a language like a baby. There’s no other way.

My kids revealed the secrets of language-learning to me. I was teaching them Russian with they were between 4 and 7 years old. I spoke with them and they went to a Russian class for an hour per week.

I knew the difficulties of learning Russian, but I was fluent by that point, even having worked as an interpreter and translator. I had figured out the tricky parts of the grammar, but my kids’ grammar was hopeless. I didn’t know what to do.

I told their teacher that the kids always messed up verb conjugations and noun declensions, so that all verbs were second person and all feminine nouns were in the accusative. He smiled and said, “Yeah, kids always mess those up.”

I always messed those up, too!

Russian is just hard!

Distance and stereotypes: Longing for language love in Turkey

Just another tourist in Istanbul
Just another tourist in Istanbul

“Do you have a book in English to learn Turkish?” At the large book fair next to one of the universities in Istanbul, I figured I’d find something I’d enjoy. “In English?”

He handed me a phrase book.

“No. To learn Turkish. Grammar.”

He handed me a Turkish grammar book—in Turkish.

“In English?”

He handed me a learning grammar. This was it.

“How much is it?”

“How much?”

He started leafing through a catalog.

“You have to order it?”

“…sorry. No English me,” and he looked to the ground. He pointed at the price on the page. I paid, said, “Teşekkür ederim” (“thank you”), and left.

I have an easy time connecting with others thanks to my language “superpower.” But what do I do when circumstances eliminate that ability?

Here was a young man, selling language books next to a university. How could we not have something in common? But I would never know. At the end of my recent trip to Greece, I spent a day-and-a-half in Istanbul. Without being able to speak any Turkish, I had a disappointingly difficult time connecting with people there.
Unable to connect?

Know story, know language; no story no language: Stories in the linguistic ecosystem

How can we come together over the language barrier?
How can we come together over the language barrier?

While I continued to talk, I was losing my train of thought. What had I said? What was coming next?

When was this going to be over?

As my face got hot and my chest tightened, I looked out at blank faces of my 17-year-old classmates.

“Est-ce que vous me comprenez?” “Do you understand me?”

Surprised by a direct question, one or two audience-members brightened. “Oui!” I heard.

How soon could I be done with this book report?

* * *

Every student gets nervous presenting in front of the class; mine was in a foreign language. I was delivering my part of a French book-report—French book, French report—on Voltaire’s “Candide.” Stumbling around, I felt like a kid learning to ride a bike: a few good pedals, then a wobble, pedal, wobble—ready to tumble at any time. I had to plumb the depth of Voltaire’s French language, and express it in French in a compelling way.

Finally, my speech was over. I knew my teacher would be merciful, but how about my classmates? At the end, one girl consoled me, “Yours was kind of more interesting, since you spoke without just reading your report.” I wasn’t equipped to even grasp that comment: was that a big deal or a consolation? Was she being nice, or expressing honest relief?

Over 20 years later I still ask myself, “Did I make any sense at all?”

Confronting the language barrier

HELP! How do I get out of the intermediate level doldrums?

How can you help me progress to the next level?
How can you help me progress to the next level?

I’m running into the doldrums of language-learning, making slow, even imperceptible progress. What do the following language-learning activities have in common?

  1. Translating sentences in my book;
  2. Translating actual news articles or podcasts;
  3. Visiting a Somali cafe.

They are all a) great activities and b) very time-consuming.

Continue reading “HELP! How do I get out of the intermediate level doldrums?”

Week 23 of Loving Somali: Have more fun!

Don't overanalyze...have some fun!
Don’t overanalyze…have some fun!

I tend to be pretty “thinky.” Ask anyone who knows me, and they will tell you that I can analyze a situation to the smallest detail until someone makes me stop. At the same time, I tend to overlook or even downplay the important emotional experience in the moment. I have friends who are very empathetic, who are always picking up on the emotions of the room. I’ve learned a lot from these friends about a blind spot of mine.

While this week I didn’t get a lot more done on Somali than usual, I had more fun. A less thinky week. I read aloud my dialogue and I turned to some news sites. I also found some new resources that got me excited. I want to experience fully the excitement, wonder, and discovery of this week, even though I may not speak great Somali compared to last week. I made new connections and enjoyed bursts of delight. Continue reading “Week 23 of Loving Somali: Have more fun!”

Week 10 of Loving Somali: No more advice, please. I just want to love languages.

As soon as I quit chasing happiness, I can be happy.
I can be happy today, if I see how good my life is.

Here’s what I intended to do with Somali this week: work on exercises for chapters 1-4 of my book and study vocabulary every day. Maybe I would have a Skype call with a teacher or even take a trip downtown to a Somali coffee shop.

Here’s what I did this week. I studied vocabulary every day and I got half-way through chapter 1 of my book. (I plan to work on more of the book today.)

What happened? Life happened. Continue reading “Week 10 of Loving Somali: No more advice, please. I just want to love languages.”

Loving a language that plays hard to get: Studying rare languages

How do you connect when he's playing hard to get? Dialogues!
How do you connect when he’s playing hard to get? Dialogues!

As I’ve mentioned before, I love rare languages. From Swiss German to Oromo, their exoticness and unique characteristics draw me in. They’re like the strong, silent types of language: cute, mysterious, captivating. They do their own thing, and you need effort to work your way into their heart.

Continue reading “Loving a language that plays hard to get: Studying rare languages”

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)