I’m a bleeding heart when it comes to language. In post after post, I write about how learning your neighbor’s language will help bring more understanding and peace.
Let’s be honest, though. Does learning the language of another really bring peace? Young Palestinians know Hebrew. Almost all Ukrainians are bilingual in Ukrainian and Russian. Most Ethiopians and Eritreans speak mutually comprehensible languages, as do many Indians and Pakistanis.
This week I had to rethink some of my rhetoric, to tighten it up.
To achieve peace and understanding, learning a language will not be enough. We language-learners must submit and become the students of those who speak other languages. Listening to them, not imposing our view, not manipulating them, must be our goal so that we can challenge our assumptions and gain wisdom. Don’t just learn—listen
Spanish makes an appearance in the US presidential campaign. I first became aware of it when I saw the famous George Takei speak it in a plea that immigrants not vote for Trump.
In the ad, he addresses Spanish-speaking Americans, comparing verbal attacks by Trump against Latino immigrants to the US government’s forcing Japanese-Americans—like Mr. Takei himself—into internment camps during World War Two.
I was fascinated to see how he used Spanish as a way to connect with immigrants. He understood that using a language besides English would connect immediately with and show solidarity with immigrants. Moreover, he expressed how he learned Spanish: by living alongside Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles growing up.
Politicos take Spanish seriously. As a result, Spanish-speakers possess power. Spanish may have a future in the US, in spite of the normal forces that eliminate languages other than English from our country.
As I looked further, I found that Spanish political ads are common this season, and they have a history in our country. Other Spanish ads
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?
Once I was criticized on a language forum for bringing up politics in a way that someone thought was superfluous. The forum was discussing what language everyone wanted to learn. I suggested that choosing a language was a political discussion. “Please don’t,” someone responded.
Recently I went to a fundraising dinner for Green Card Voices, a group that records oral histories of immigrants in the US. I love the way that they humanize immigrant experiences from numerous points of view.
During the program, they put us through an exercise that I have suggested for people to try for a long time that will help us understand immigrants through learning languages. We can do it!
Recently I’ve been talked to some folks about practical tips for learning less well-resourced languages. La Polyglotte works on finding on-line resources for African languages, and Lindsay Dow specializes in practical tips for language-learning. I’ve expressed to them that I have the feeling when I hear language-learning advice that won’t apply to the languages I’m learning.
But let me be honest now. I haven’t actually tried everything that people suggest.
So I decided to run an experiment. Shannon Kennedy authors a great blog as the Eurolinguiste, and she recently blogged on 30 5-minute language exercises. I wanted to test which of these suggestions would work for Oromo. I was surprised not only at how many of them apply, but I also gained insight into what sorts of tips are the most universal.
Yes, I’m focusing on learning the Somali language. Somali takes the majority of my linguistic time and energy. But speaking lots of languages makes me a polyglot—and that brings me so much joy. This week I got to talk to old friends, discover great music, and meet new people. Though I haven’t had much time for more than the bare minimum of Somali, here’s how I worked on my languages this week. My polyglot week
I recently heard about the phenomenon of young Kazakhs who do not know the Kazakh language. With a quarter of the population Russian and Ukrainian, the Russian language seems to dominate, even over the two-thirds majority of ethnic Kazakhs. Whether for cultural or economic or even more complicated reasons, young Kazakhs seem to be turning their backs on the language of their ancestors.
An unlikely challenge to this state of affairs came from Rich D, a Nigerian hip-hop artist, who performs in the Kazakh language. Hear his tribute to the capital, Almaty.
In an interview on Kazakh TV (conducted in Russian) he said, “I am totally shocked that still people don’t speak it (Kazakh). This is one of my tasks, that I simply give to these people who do not hold on to their own language, that foreigners come here and respect this country and even try to speak this language. Why don’t you want to speak this language? Why don’t you respect this language?”
When you go abroad to learn a language, how do you make sure that you’re learning the language? Many people travel with the hope that they will “absorb” the language, and then find that this process does not unfold by itself. Many people get lonely and make friends with the folks they have the most in common with: expats. They quickly get stuck the trap of speaking their native language while abroad rather than the language they’re learning.
How do you get unstuck?
When I visited Spain in college, I had a chance to visit Pamplona for the Sanfermin Festival (the “Running of the Bulls”). In one bar I met a local girl, and we chatted in Spanish. She told me she spent a year in the US—yet she never tried to speak English with me. Surely after a year in the US, she would speak better English than my self-taught Spanish, right?
“Where did you live?” I asked.
“Miami,” she replied.
That explained it! She lived in the US without speaking English.
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, “Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly.” And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, “Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do:and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth:and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth:and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth (Genesis 11:1-9)
Many Americans see multiple languages in our country as a threat. As I presented in my last post the US has suppressed other languages since its inception until today. We always see foreigners as a threat, but if they at least speak English, then they have assimilated to an acceptable degree.
Oddly, the rallying cry of the “English only” crowd is, “Let us not become another Tower of Babel.” (For example, Pat Buchanan says so here, and one of the authors of this article does the same here.) This implies that a lack of official language leads to chaos and the inability to work towards a common goal.
This stance shows that they don’t know what the “Tower of Babel” means. I’d like to go back over the story, so for this reason I cited the story, above. I hold a PhD in Ancient Hebrew and Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), so I place a lot of importance on the interpretation of the Bible. My aim is not to convert anyone here or make anyone religious, but to understand some of the historical background of this biblical story as it relates to the modern US. (If you are interested in hearing a discussion about this story that delves more into the biblical aspects of this story, please listen to this podcast episode of “The Bible as Literature Podcast,” that my friend and I produce.) The US *is* a Tower of Babel