Language love and reaching the Other

Who will you reach out to?
Who will you reach out to?

I read the 2016 US presidential election results this morning. After all these months of campaigning, one thing became clear in my mind: both sides failed.

In my mind, both sides failed because no one wanted to speak to the other side. Neighbors won’t talk to each other to even out differing opinions. Instead, self-created opinion bubble exist where its participants all believe they’re right.

This blog exists because I believe in connection. I believe in working to unite people who normally can’t understand each other.

We have a duty to reach out to the Other. We reach out to them because we must, not because we want to. I’m not sentimental at heart.

We are language-learners, and we have a duty to reach out to the Other in the way that we are able. Many of us, though, do not do our duty. We serve ourselves. On the one hand, it feels good to learn a language that is fun, whose culture appeals to us. On the other hand, we can learn the languages of those who live in our community.
Our duty to the Other

Giving up privilege with language-love

I have always found it nice to meet Somalis.
I have always found it nice to meet Somalis.

I want to connect to the margins. In some ways, it’s where I feel comfortable. I lived a lot at the margins. I know what it’s like. In multiple countries, I did not live in an expat community, but immersed myself among locals only in places as diverse as Morocco, post-Soviet Ukraine, and France. At my university, I was a minority Gentile among a majority Jewish population, who taught me about life as a marginalized community.

At the same time, I could never live completely in the margins. I’m an upper-middle-class, English-speaking, graduate-degree-holding, straight white American. We have a lot of privilege. As I was told in Ukraine when I expressed my deep understanding of people in the margin, “It’s different. You can always leave.”

When I say that we need to sacrifice for the margin, I speak as someone who tries to express my appreciation of the marginalized, though any marginalization I ever experienced was temporary.

I can’t avoid my privilege. It’s part of who I am. It’s not evil and it’s not good. The way I use it defines it as good or evil. Previously (here and here) I spoke of my “why” for what I do and write:

I believe that we all should put ourselves out there to love. More specifically, we need to sacrifice for one another, especially for those in need.

We must sacrifice that privilege for the sake of those without.
Why loving language

What do you know? Languages help you understand terrorism

I’ve recently been on vacation in Spain. I went to enjoy myself and learn more about the Basque language and culture. Because of the attacks of July 14, in Nice, France, I learned about my own society in the US.

On a Spanish train, I was handed a Spanish newspaper, El Pais, which is well-known and mainstream there. On page 2 I read an editorial that ended,

With every terrorist act we re-make the war, militarize our democracies, prolong fear, and lose our identity little by little.[1]

Right below that, I read another with the conclusion,

For the moment, by anti-anxiety means, the French are resisting. But war isn’t going to stop. And every day, more war, fear, and the danger of desperation grows. There the ultra-right Front National party lurks, to regain the votes of those who want quick solutions.[2]

I never read anything so tough in the US mainstream press. The call for calm and anti-violence astounded me. It reminded me that learning another language is a political act, because it disrupts the point of view that my country, society, and community repeat to themselves and to me.
My education

Six ways to get out of the expat bubble

I bet you could practice your language with someone here!
I bet you could practice your language with someone here!

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.

What could she have done differently? What can you do differently while abroad?
6 ways to get unstuck

Week 14 of Loving Somali: Beauty beyond comprehension

Exploring complexity leads to experiencing beauty
Exploring complexity leads to experiencing beauty

Languages bring me into a world I do not understand and reveal complexities I never imagined. Sometimes I feel like Darwin in the Galapagos. Study and observation bring me joy, and when I immerse myself in these complex phenomena, I discover deeper truths. The more complexity, the more beauty, even if comprehension eludes me. And exploring the facets of language lead me to the subtle dynamics of the culture around it. Continue reading “Week 14 of Loving Somali: Beauty beyond comprehension”

Language, fear, and childishness

Courage comes from recognizing fear

Languages have made me braver.  Here’s how I was before I got into languages.  In high school, I tended to sit at the back of the class.  I was smart and I knew the answer most of the time.  I didn’t study much, but I got good grades.  I didn’t take risks.  I didn’t do anything that had a try-out, like sports or performing groups.  I joined the Concert Choir because my friends were in it and they were desperate for boys.  I didn’t like to compete, so I dropped out of band and debate.  I was into fencing for a couple years, but when my coach pushed me to compete more, I dropped out.  Standing out in a group and failing terrified me, so I got out.

I excelled in languages like other academic subjects–but then I went to France as an exchange student my approach to risk-taking changed.  In the beginning, I continued my MO, so in my host family, I was able to sit quietly at meal-time, and then disappear to my room.  On my first day of school, however, I had to change fast.

I was lost.  We had to copy down our class schedule as our teacher explained it–it was not pre-printed–and my French was not so great.  I had to ask a charitable classmate for help.  So I got through the introductory “lesson.”  On the actual first day of school, I couldn’t find my first class, and I was wandering around–the new kid on the After School Special.  Palms sweating I had to ask a teacher for directions, but perhaps because of my brusqueness, she kept on walking.  At this rate, I was going to fail from not showing up.

A change of tactics was necessary.  I stopped and said to myself, “I will be in France 5 months.  In that time, if I sound like an intelligent 5-year-old, I will have succeeded.  Heck, it takes French people five years to get to that point!”  At that, I approached the next teacher I could find, explained my situation extremely slowly and deliberately, and she led me by the hand (literally) to the office to get my schedule and to my first class, already in session for a while.

What did I learn?  I saw that fear would not get me what I needed.  Taking a deep breath, admitting my childishness, and jumping into the water of French language would get me where I wanted to go.  I sounded childish and foolish, I had to stand out, and I succeeded as a result.  I had to keep at it.  After those months, I became fluent in French because I got used to being afraid of sounding dumb–and overlooked the fear to get to my goal.  I don’t think I overcame fear; I learned to set it aside.

Fast forward a few years when I started school in Kiev, Ukraine, and confronted fear and failure again.  Though I was a high-school senior in France, I was a college junior in Kiev.  On most days, I would walk from my apartment to the closest subway stop, where I would meet a couple of classmates who helped me navigate the subway and tram to arrive to campus.  One day, they didn’t show up.  Not knowing the street, address, or even the name of the campus, I had to swallow my pride and ask directions in broken Russian to my own school.  I managed to do it, though I ended walking more than I ever had before, and arrived at least a half-hour late to class.  My teacher’s response to my arriving half-way through class was surprised and unhappy: “Что это такое?!”  (“What is this?!”)  The students who had stood me up stood up to stand up for me.  “He’s our American student and he is still learning how to get here.”  I guess this helped me.  I went from looking careless to just looking stupid.  But I got there as sweaty and stupid as I was.

While I learned that these classmates weren’t terribly reliable, I learned that my own scrappiness got me what I needed.  Sounding like a child, I asked a lot of directions, not sounding so smart, walked a long way, and made it.  I looked bad in my professor’s eyes, even when it worked at as well as it could.  By the end of the year, and after getting lost countless times, I became fluent in Russian (and Ukrainian).

Through language, I learned resourcefulness.  I learned how to tap into all the knowledge I needed: the people around me.  I sounded like a child, but people around me were kind and helpful.  (Except one guy–that’s another story.)  I did not learn how to sound smart–I learned how to deal with sounding stupid, sounding like a child–and that opened me up to volumes of knowledge.

When did you face fear down?  What did you learn?  How did you get over language self-consciousness?