People don’t speak languages, communities do

Entering the community means unexpected conversations
Entering the community means unexpected conversations

I have often heard, “Talking to people is one of the best ways to learn a language.”

The truth is, talking to people is the only way.

People use all sorts of means to learn languages. Recommendations vary from listen to music or watch movies, to study books, memorize vocabulary, and post on social media. Modern technology changed the method of delivery of language data, but not the content.

Nevertheless, every method is preparing you to talk. As a baby, everyone learned how to speak their native language. Reading and writing came way later. Polyglots are judged on how they speak, not how much grammar or vocabulary they mastered.

How do you learn how to speak? You can’t learn how to speak by yourself, or even with one other person. You find a group of native speakers and you talk to them. You need a community.

When I learn community languages, I aim to speak to the people in my town who speak them. Setting speaking in a community as the goal of your language-learning will determine your success.
No language without speaking in community

Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background

English: A portrait of Noam Chomsky that I too...
A major influence on my language love, Noam Chomsky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I believe that everyone speaks the language(s) that exists in his or her mind. I think that’s lovely. The beauty of language is not the sound of a virtuoso at the piano; it’s the sound of birds chirping or a stream flowing, a sound untrained, but not rough, with the heart of a human being, like a child laughing. When I hear those beautiful sounds, I want to capture them and put them inside me. By learning language I can keep the sound going any time I want. As a result, there is no “better” language or “more beautiful” language inside linguistics. That judgment requires other criteria outside linguistics. Read what I learned

No shame in loving language!

Free yourself from perfectionism!
Free yourself from perfectionism!

Perfectionism leads to shame because perfectionists can never live up to their own standards.  Not trying and rationalising lack of action cause less pain than trying and failing.  When people start learning languages they often think of their current level of their native language as the level they should be at.  The task seems so daunting to many that they don’t start.  Yet some still start.  Naturally, after many months and years, they still do not reach the level of their native language.

Often they feel bad about not knowing a language fluently.  They might feel lazy, they might feel stupid–in other words, they feel shame.  In spite of earning a reputation for monolingualism, most Americans I know have learned another language in some capacity, whether Hebrew at synagogue or Spanish on “Sesame Street.”  But they feel shame, they hate themselves because they’re bad at the language.  Excuses begin.

I can help you.  I think you probably know a little of a language, and that’s great.  People often rationalise the reason why they don’t know more.  I’ve included in this post three of the most common rationalisations I’ve heard–and cures for them.  Enjoying what you know and taking yourself a little less seriously will help cure your language perfectionism.

I only know a little–not very much

“All I can say is ‘uno, dos, tres.'”  “I can pronounce the words, but I don’t know what I’m saying.”  “I learned a little in school, but that was a long time ago.”  Phrases like these belie underlying shame for not being good enough at a language.  The one who says it feels like they should know a language better, but just never got around to learning it better.

People seem to think that their “limited” exposure does not measure up to what it should be.  Fluency or nothing seems to lie at the core.  Since they can’t communicate everything they want in the language, they won’t bother.  The language is to have conversations; without that ability, their language knowledge may as well not exist.

Language serves a lot of purposes besides full conversations, namely, to connect people.  If I only know “¿Cómo estás?” then I can use it when I run into a Spanish-speaking person at work.  (If the person answers in Spanish, refer to the next point, below.)  If you say you can only read Hebrew or Arabic and not understand, look again–you probably understand a smattering of words that you can use.  Two words are better than nothing.  A friend of mine went to China with a coworker, and they only learned “hello” and “handsome man.”  They broke the ice in a lot of situations by bringing smiles to people’s faces.  A handful of words won’t carry a whole conversation, but can bring people together.

I can’t understand when people respond

I’ve heard the story many times: I really hunkered down and studied my language.  I took classes, I bought Rosetta Stone, I listened to my language on-line.  Finally, I got the chance to go to the country.  When I took my Coke to the cashier, the lady spoke so fast that I couldn’t understand a single word.  I asked her to repeat, so she said it louder, and I still didn’t get it.  I smiled, showed her my money, and she picked out the right amount.  Humiliated, I realized I am no good at languages and I will no longer try.

Language-learners resemble children in adult bodies.  They look like adults, but you have to talk to them like they’re little kids.  They can’t understand the simplest things!  The tension is unavoidable.  You know what you want to say, and you want to be respected like an adult.  Now it sounds like the adult you’re talking to in your language is yelling at you, scolding you.

I think we can revel in this disconnect.  Rather than feel the shame of a naughty child, we can laugh at the funny man-child (or woman-child) we have suddenly become.  My friend told me about his friend–I’ll call him Jack–in France.  Jack came to France to look for work, but his French was barely existent.  He kept his chin up in this difficult reality.  When he saw quizzical responses on people’s faces, when he couldn’t make out the answer to his request, he laughed.  Because of Jack’s great attitude, he could have a whole boulangerie in stitches when he went to order a croissant; everyone had a good time.  Rather than feel shame for his French, Jack drew attention to his inability to speak “well” and everyone loved him because of it.

I really want to get good at this language before I start another one

A long time ago I was on a message board with folks who love languages.  One person was lamenting that she wanted to learn Russian and Greek, but she didn’t want to start yet because she wanted to get good at Spanish first.

The person held some unrealistic expectations that were holding her back.  First, the point at which one is “good” at a language eludes us–if it actually exists.  As a result, we are tempted to put off the starting point for Russian, Greek, etc, forever, since we can always convince ourselves that we are not yet “good” at Spanish.  Second, the need to wait exposes our tendencies towards perfectionism.  We need to be good first because people might think we’re no good at Spanish or we can’t finish what we’ve started.  Maybe we’ll lose the little Spanish we gained once we start Russian, and then we’ll sound more dumb than we were!

My response was: embrace your inner debutante!  Learn a little bit of Russian while you learn your Spanish.  Find a Spanish textbook on how to learn Greek.  Memorize “hello” and “good-bye” and “I love your language!” in Russian, and then go back to Spanish.  Listen to Greek radio on-line while you memorize your Spanish words.  No chef perfects beef before moving on to chicken–he does both.  He doesn’t have to be the best at both, but he can still learn how to adapt.  Learning is always good.

Perfection is not attainable

Perfectionism lies at the root of our language shame.  We don’t speak enough, we don’t understand others, we shouldn’t start being imperfect at another language–all come from perfectionism.  When we don’t attain that perfection, we feel guilty.

Laughter is the best medicine, and it can cure perfectionism.  Trot out your three words of Spanish, smile when you don’t understand, and love learning a few phrases of a language you’re not focusing on right now.  Any language you can learn will help you–and will help the one you are speaking to.  When our attitude shifts away from our shame towards love and connection, speaking languages will continually bring us–and everyone around–delight.

Photo credit: danorbit. / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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!

Are English-Only Speakers Squeezed Out?

In the past week I heard two stories about Americans who felt that they were squeezed out of a conversation. I think there is a solution.  Learning a language in both instances could ease tensions and foster empathy.

My friend’s coworker, Amy,* notices that she doesn’t get invited to meetings. This worker collaborates with their office in Israel. She noticed that the Israel office, unfortunately, started scheduling meetings at times when she could not be present. They wanted to hold the meeting in Hebrew, and she doesn’t speak Hebrew. This seemed passive-aggressive. She wants to collaborate with her Israeli colleagues, but they stubbornly insist of excluding her by conducting meetings only in Hebrew and avoiding discussing in English.

One friend, Ahmad,* often does work in China. He enjoys going to China and he likes Chinese people. He finds he has a lot in common with them. Because of putting in time with communicating with non-native English speakers, he has a handle on how to adjust his communication style to fit with the situation.

On occasion he feels marginalized. When he is the only non-Chinese speaker at a meeting, the meeting will lapse into Chinese, and someone will translate the gist of the conversation for him. He knows, though, that he is missing nuances and content that could be valuable for him. Why would they speak Chinese around him when they could just as easily speak in English? Were they trying to push him out of the conversation?

Let me take the Israeli and Chinese point of view for a second. I don’t think the problem is an incompatibility between Americans and Chinese or Israeli people.  Speaking a language is hard, even if one wants to order a croissant after studying French for four years. Understanding the response is even harder. Trying results in painful feelings of inferiority. So experiences the Chinese- and Hebrew-speaker at meetings held in English. Granted, ordering a croissant in English may be easy for them, but collaborating on a project, offering ideas in a positive, nuanced way can easily make them feel stupid when it comes out weird or they can’t fully understand the response of their American counterparts.

These Chinese and Israelis likely are not giving Amy and Ahmad the cold shoulder. They may just be anxious or tired. By learning some Chinese or Hebrew and feeling their pain, Amy and Ahmad would display a desire to sympathize with their colleagues.  The Americans could sympathize with their colleagues’ need to switch out of English, if only to let their brains rest, or to express to each other what they’re really trying to say. The more we English-speakers try to learn others’ language, the more they see us open ourselves to their struggles through sympathy.

Have you felt shut out of a meeting?  Have you managed to make your way back in by learning a language?

* Names have been changed.