Ecolinguism: Languages are wealth

There is a way to avoid responsibility and/or guilt by, precisely, emphasizing one’s responsibility or too readily assuming one’s guilt in an exaggerated way, as in the case of the white male PC academic who emphasizes the guilt of racist phallogocentrism, and uses this admission of guilt as a stratagem not to face the way he, as a ‘radical’ intellectual, perfectly embodies the existing power relations towards which he pretends to be thoroughly critical.
Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, p. 46

Can ecolinguism really undermine privilege?
Can ecolinguism really undermine privilege?

Ecolinguism sounds like a PC scheme to assuage a white, upper middle-class, American man’s guilt. I’ve claimed that ecolinguism can help combat rich, Western privilege. Can my dedication to minority languages really disrupt the power dynamic, or is just a different mode of the typical white privilege that PC liberals rail against?

People probably got upset with me because I sounded just like the academic that Žižek describes. I just replaced phallogocentrism with Anglocentrism, and instead of racism I discussed the desire for the exotic other. But maybe I emphasized my responsibility and assumed my guilt in an exaggerated way.

The first step I took was to admit my role in the system. I have privilege. But is it really this simple?
Be an ecolinguist

Shoulder the burden: Your language or mine?

How can you should her burden with language love?
How can you should her burden with language love?

Opponents to my community-language approach to language learning persistently argue that immigrants would and should prefer to speak the language of their new community rather than their mother tongue. When I insist on speaking their language, therefore, I’m doing them a disservice by working against their advancement in society.

To be honest, I’m not against this idea. When I was still in college, I got a job at the Spring International Language Center as a “conversation partner,” that is, I got paid to chat with small groups of English language learners. The students came to the US to intensive English classes.

These were not immigrants, however, but visiting students. They came to the school with the expectation that they would learn English before returning home. Each day consisted of English classes, group meals, and afternoon outings. Speaking to them in their language during class, of course, would have detracted from their experience and expectation.

This experience differs from immigrants and refugees, however, who will stay in our country for an indefinite amount of time. They have to make money, pay for living expenses on a regular basis, and organize their own activities (when the opportunity arises). For each of these experiences, speaking English—or whatever language of their new home—plays a part, but it is not the goal. Making a living and establishing themselves in their new country come first.

I want to make lighter the burdens these immigrants carry. So I try to learn their language.
Loving them by loving language

Language hacking ≠ language love

How will you hack your language to help others?
How will you hack your language to help others?

When I first saw Benny the Irish Polyglot’s TEDx talk, I was inspired. Here was a guy who suffered through language-learning in school with no success. Then one day he decided to just start learning on his own in his own way, and he made huge strides. Not only did he discover that he could learn languages, but he loved learning them. He “hacked” the language-learning process.
He created a very successful blog and YouTube channel. You get to see him struggling through the language-learning process as he has conversations with young folks all over the world. You follow his life in great locations like China and Brazil.

Living the dream, he inspired others. Lots of other young folks like him wanted to go live in exotic locations and hang out with cool local people and learn languages in the process. Other YouTube channels were generated.

Aspiring digital nomads (compulsive travelers whose work happens completely on the internet) got on the bandwagon. They wanted to go to exotic locations. Whether their internet connection comes in Bankok, Brasilia, or Barcelona, they could live anywhere—and learn the local language.

The digital nomads became the digital colonists. They came to take advantage of cheap rent—sometimes pricing locals out of whole neighborhoods—and “exoticness” for their own excitement. Rather than try to become part of a local community, they stay until the place is less exciting and then follow their Wanderlust.

Rather than inspire people to become more moral human beings, Benny’s “language hacking” gave people the tools to exploit more people in more countries—and have fun doing it.

It inspired selfishness. Not love.
Why loving language

An Australian ecolinguist: Arabic and Farsi

How do you start a conversation in your language? How do you make a friend?
How do you start a conversation in your language? How do you make a friend?

Kris Broholm from the Actual Fluency Podcast told me I had to listen to this episode. It features Marcus Furness, an Australian language enthusiast and Masters student from Tasmania, Australia. His language-learning is focused on his community, especially on recent refugee and immigrant arrivals, so he focuses a lot on Arabic and Farsi. I listened and I strongly recommend it to my readers.

The similarities between Marcus and me, as Kris probably noticed, are uncanny. Marcus is a true ecolinguist.
Languages for people

Learn a language and listen!

Each has an important story to tell. Listen!
Each has an important story to tell. Listen!

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!

How did I end up in Little Oromiya?

How well can fit in? How well are you trying? Do you even want to?
How well can fit in? How well are you trying? Do you even want to?

While I know classrooms from my time as a professor, I forgot life as a student. Familiarity and nostalgia return with excitement as I enter my new class.

Studying languages comes naturally, but I didn’t do so in a classroom for years. This time I am venturing far from Europe, even the Middle East, ending up in the provinces of Ethiopia. When I saw the East African language, Oromo, in the class catalog, when I had to google the language when I saw it, I was taken. Reigniting my language curiosity with the pilot of obscurity, Oromo sets me on fire.

When I show up, the teacher looks like he is expecting me.

The look surprises me. I introduce myself.

“Ah, Richard,” he confirms. Confirms? I taught hundreds of students but never “confirmed” a student when he arrived to class the first day.
Richard in Little Oromiya

Why don’t they learn our language? or How did they manage to do it?

How would you study after a day in the life of an immigrant?
How would you study after a day in the life of an immigrant?

Continuing on the theme of “Why don’t immigrants learn our language?” (see this post and this post) I wanted to present why the situation is not as simple as people think.

Most people who complain about this in the US speak English only, and so remain blissfully unaware of the complications of learning another language.

My more sophisticated brothers and sisters in Europe likely learned English, and so understand the difficulties. Nevertheless, they learned their foreign language in the comfort of their local school surrounded by family and friends taking care of them.

Immigrants have it hard because of their circumstances, both the situation they left and the life they have in their new country. Learning a new language creates even more work and difficulties in addition to getting by in this new, foreign place.

Yet they learn.

When I used to teach, I remember the reaction of my students when I would add an extra reading assignment. “We don’t have time,” they would inevitably say. I would smile and tell them that one day they would learn what “busy” meant, but at the moment, they were not busy.

We are not as busy as we think. This is what many of us have to grow into when we think about immigrants, and a valuable lesson immigrants can teach the rest of us.

Let’s look more deeply into their circumstances. It’s humbling. We’ll see that the question is not, “Why don’t they learn our language?” but “How did they manage to learn our language?” At the end, I’ll give you a few ways to use your favorable circumstances to the advantage of others.
How they learned

Bear others’ burdens by learning their language

Are you ready to serve with your language-learning?
Are you ready to serve with your language-learning?

My last post, “Assimilation is a two-way street: Learn your neighbor’s language,” created vehement reactions in a Facebook forum for polyglots. My post suggested that one could and should help immigrants and refugees by learning their language. (For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to both immigrants and refugees as “immigrants,” since refugees are a special sub-class of immigrants.)

Let me be clearer about the paradigm I’m working from. In my mind, the immigrant is a guest and the native is a host. Both have a role to play. Moreover, the host is not allowed to say, “If I were a guest I would…” The host simply does the work of the host. By the same token, the guest can only do the work of the guest. Each bears the burden of the other.

Continue reading “Bear others’ burdens by learning their language”

Assimilation is a two-way street: Learn your neighbor’s language

How do you talk to them? Did you learn their language?
How do you talk to them? Did you learn their language?

We, as a white, upper middle-class society in the US, are unwilling to enter into the suffering of another, especially when the suffering was brought about by our society. The isolation of African-Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and refugees testifies to this truth. African-Americans witness to our enslavement of others, Native Americans to our military conquest of this continent and resulting genocide, immigrants to our greed, and refugees to our misguided crusades.

Not only do we see this in the US, but also in Europe. The recent bombings in Brussels bring up the perennial hand-wringing about the inability of immigrants to assimilate to the culture of their host country, and the lack of avenues to do so.

This post is not about white guilt or atoning for past wrongs; I want to offer you an action you can take today that allows you to enter into the suffering of others and form relationships with others, at the cost of some of your comfort. You can take away the burden of assimilation from others while you take some of it onto yourself. Today. Learn the language of your indigenous, immigrant, or refugee neighbor. Further assimilation

Language love is culture in drag

...And the Red Pill, which activates the Trace...
Will you take the red pill and challenge monoculture? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Did you ever feel you take on a new personality when you speak another language? Does it feel like performance? Do you love it?

I love messing with cultural expectations. Greeting Africans at the airport in their own language gives me a rush. Speaking Arabic as a blue-eyed blondie gives me a laugh, too. I also like to speak Russian with a Ukrainian accent, or speak German with a Swabian (Stuttgart area) accent. Sometimes I get a laugh, sometimes anger. The folks at the airport always smile; I make friends during every layover. In contrast, once I was speaking Moroccan Arabic with a Moroccan waitress at a coffee shop, and I was accused of being a Jewish spy and encouraged to leave. (“We’re closing now,” I was told.) I don’t like the cultural rules we’re told to play according to; fooling people’s cultural expectations brings me joy.

Taking the “red pill

Maybe I’m a kind of drag queen, messing with expectations. I recently listened to RuPaul‘s interview on Marc Maron‘s WTF podcast (Episode 498), where he compared drag performance to the “red pill” in The Matrix. We all know what it means for us to act like a man or woman, because in our “Matrix,” each gender follows certain rules–talking, walking, dressing, etc. in its own unique way. Human beings identify with one or the other gender and follow the rules. Society expects you to follow the rules of your gender; anyone who has been to high school knows the shame and horrible epithets that go along with the boy whose speech sounds too feminine or the girl whose hair looks too masculine. We demand that everyone follow the Matrix–otherwise, they threaten reality.

Drag performers take the “red pill” and so reject the Matrix and flaunt the rules and borders of gender. He or she changes identities in an instant: now he’s a woman, now she’s a man. “Ego”–so goes RuPaul’s famous tweet–“loves identity. Drag mocks identity. Ego hates drag.” Drag is threatening because our ego is grounded in an identity, such as gender, but drag shows that gender is just another performance. A man can go on stage and become a woman in actions, mannerisms, and character. He takes on a woman’s identity. Then he takes off the makeup and he acts like a man again. He mocks the rules of identity in the Matrix by never settling in one.

The cultural “Matrix”

The Matrix presents, in addition to rules for gender, rules for culture according to which we act and build our identities. If I am American, I act a certain way. If I am Greek, I act a certain way. If I am Russian, or Oromo, or Iranian, I follow cultural rules to display and maintain my identity.

This compartmentalized view of culture can cause an identity crisis for the children of immigrants. If I am a second-generation Indian, born in Singapore, living in Australia, how am I supposed to act? Indian? Singaporian? Australian? The Matrix doesn’t offer a set of rules for this situation, leaving us in the lurch. The Matrix demands that we despair that we don’t fit, or whittle down our identities to one the Matrix deems “normal.”

Take the red pill!

Languages are the cultural “red pill.” For “third culture” kids, who live between the culture of their parents and of their residence, they can thrive if they learn the languages of both cultures. They can transcend the Matrix and follow their own rules. Like drag queens, they can switch seemlessly from one set of expectations to another. Performing in each culture is unremarkable. When you see one of them switch to the other, however, the jaws drop: “How did he do that?” The Matrix doesn’t allow such fluid change of identity.

You can transcend the Matrix by learning another language and culture, and the more you learn, the less you are held fast by rules. You can connect with people you couldn’t otherwise. New ways of thinking will challenge how you perceive the world. When you have a dilemma or decision, you will suddently realize you don’t have to follow the expected solution; you can draw from ideas outside the normal expectations. Those invested in the Matrix might laugh at or reject you. At the same time, unlikely friends will meet you here; openness will greet you. Through new languages we hope to bring down monoculture and bring about a fertile ecosystem of new thinking and new ideas. We want all of your personalities and cultures.

Are you ready to help overturn the Matrix? “You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”