First steps at language love

Time to get started again!
Time to get started again!

Last week I told you to do the minimum for language love; don’t try so hard.

Today, I want to give you some resources for how to start. Basic. Nothing complicated.

First, though, you have to do your research. You have to go on your ecolinguistic exploratory expedition to find out what people are speaking around you. What do you hear spoken? What do you see on signs, not the formal ones, but the hand-written signs taped to light posts and pinned to bulletin boards?

Now you have your language(s). Let’s begin.
Why loving language

True language love is in the margins

But as much as this has been an exploration of the history of language in the United States, it has also turned out to be an examination of prejudice and privilege…. [American history] is genocide and slavery and discrimination
Elizabeth Little, Trip of the Tongue (p. 252).

Learn a language and push against the power of privilege
Learn a language and push against the power of privilege

The history of language follows the ebbs and flows of one form of communication to another. It seems that human beings, born in the right circumstances, can switch from one language to another without much effort. One group spoke Hebrew, then Babylonian, then Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Arabic. Generation after generation, language blends into language.

Languages don’t just ebb and flow like tides of the ocean. They fight, kill, dominate, and oppress, like warring chimpanzees. Hebrew speakers sent the Canaanites to the hills, before being conquered by Babylonians, and then the Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs. Each power came and imposed a language of privilege onto the next group. No language disappeared without a fight.
Fight for the marginalized

5 steps you can take to create a healthy lingua-sphere

Let languages thrive in nature, not languish in a zoo.
Let languages thrive in nature, not languish in a zoo.

Preserving language diversity resembles preserving biodiversity. I’ve seen two models of protecting biodiversity: natural preserves and zoos. Natural preserves protect species in a complete ecosystem, while zoos preserve individual species in isolation.

When most people look at language preservation, they take a “zoo” approach, that is, they approach the language in isolation. For example, the Transparent Language company is giving away its technology to preserve languages. Enthusiasts can thus create language courses for learning those languages that are quickly disappearing.

But can this work? Zoos run into problems because the individuals live in an artificial environment, cut off from nature. They can no longer go back. Yet species such as grizzly bears flourish on their own when the habitat, the biosphere, is restored, such as at Yellowstone. More than restoring individual languages, we must create a lingua-sphere wherein multiple languages can thrive without outside intervention. We must challenge the monolingual norms of many nations that are becoming more prevalent by learning and speaking and dignifying other languages.
Healthy lingua-spheres

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)

Writing can divide even when language does not

Writing can divide us even when language unites us
Writing can divide us even when language unites us

Humans excel at discussing how their family, tribe, state, or ethnicity differs from another. Even when everything seems so similar to the outsider, the insider can fixate on one aspect of culture. A dance move, a hand gesture, the use of a spice, a pattern of embroidery–anything can show how you and I are “essentially” different.

Personally, I love these differences, but I can see the downside. When I study languages, I love the little differences. I seek out how Ukrainians pronounce Russian, how different Arabic dialects say the word “now,” how Serbs and Croats pronounce “girl” differently. Variety is the spice of life, right? When discussing these differences with native speakers, sometimes the discussion unfortunately moves to value-based ideas like language “purity” or “progressive” thinking or some other sort of ideology. I dislike ideology because it cements differences by devaluing the Other. Variety and distinctions display the uniqueness of human beings and cultures. The cultural differences I have encountered have shown me that I always have more to learn; I don’t have all the answers.

Writing systems represent a “paralinguistic” phenomenon that cultures can use to distinguish themselves. Even when people speak each other’s language, or even speak the same language, writing divides. Division may be bad, in that it can foment chauvinism, or may be good, in that it can preserve unique cultural traits. In any case, writing distinguishes cultural groups within an otherwise unified linguistic milieu.

Polyglot illiterates in India

Recently I read Michael Erard’s, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. (Anyone who loves languages must read this salute to hyperpolyglots.) In one place, he discusses the polyglot world of India. My experience supports his description, that Indians speak multiple languages. At the same time, each language does not represent an “airtight” container; every Indian seems to be speaking multiple languages simultaneously by dropping in words from whatever language comes to mind. Sid, a Telugu whom I interviewed a while ago, said he chooses the word from the language that suits most what he’s trying to say. Erard discussed the Tamil grammarian, E. Annamalai, who wrote of an Indian “monogrammar,” that is, “While they sound different and use different vocabularies, he said, the grammars are nearly the same” (Erard, 208).

Significantly, among such similar languages, distinct writing systems developed for many Indian languages. India is divided into two major language families, the Indo-Aryan languages in the North, and the Dravidian languages in the South. The four most widely spoken Dravidian languages, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam, each possesses its own writing system. Among my South Indian acquaintances, a working knowledge of at least 2-3 of them is common–but they can’t read them.

The contrast struck me between the common ability to speak many Dravidian languages and inability to read them, prompting me to ask the question of “why?” Human beings use markers to distinguish among groups, whether by food (eg, kosher), clothing (eg, hijab), or language. Since the first two do not distinguish among these South Indian groups significantly, and many people move fluidly among the languages, the societal organism grabbed on to writing as a way to distinguish. As a result, you can place a piece of writing in front of an Indian polyglot to see where in the social structure he or she belongs.

To simplify or not to simplify in China

The Chinese word for "National language&q...
The Chinese word for “National language” (國語; Guóyǔ) written in Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters, followed by Hanyu Pinyin, Gwoyeu Romatzyh, Tongyong Pinyin and Wade-Giles romanizations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After several decades of serious discussion, Chinese intellectuals decided to simplify Chinese writing in the 1950s and ’60s under Mao Zedong.  This reform took off on the mainland; in Hong Kong, Macau, and Republic of China (Taiwan), however, they continue to use the traditional system. The former is called “Simplified,” and the latter, “Traditional.”  For some rarer applications, one can use the standard romanized writing system, Pinyin, for writing in Chinese. I also learned about the Dungan people of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, former Soviet Republics, who write their dialect of Mandarin Chinese in the Cyrillic alphabet. Compared to the other writing systems, though, this one is negligible.

While we think of Chinese writing as difficult, we have to understand that there are two significant Chinese writing systems. Native speakers/writers of each one find the other difficult. Even if speakers in Mainland China and Taiwan speak the same dialect, they may write using systems that are not mutually intelligible. In effect, Chinese writing is bilingual, even if the people are speaking the same dialect.

In this aspect, the writing systems cemented in place the divisions in the country from the ’50s and ’60s. While the Mainland was moving in one direction under Mao, the other areas that were resistant to Mao’s ideas moved in another.

These divisions are still effective today, though I don’t know if anyone has measured the extent. At my company, our IT Service Desk needs distinct teams to be able to handle requests for help in both Traditional and Simplified Chinese. We know that a huge amount of traffic on the internet is “in Chinese.” But this is usually measured as “speakers of Chinese.” Since there isn’t a single written Chinese, then one would have to add the usage in Traditional, Simplified, and Pinyin Chinese writing.

One people divided by religion and writing

Slavs moved into the Balkans in Southeast Europe in around the 5th-6th century. Most believe that they moved from the North, maybe from the area of modern-day Ukraine. (From Wikipedia They were independent tribes, without central leadership.

During successive centuries, part of them came under the influence of the Eastern Christians (Orthodox), centered in Constantinople, and some under the Western Christians (Catholic), centered in Rome. In time, the former came to be known as “Serbs” and the latter, “Croats.” These groups started to develop national identities around their respective religions. Certain geographical areas contained a majority of one group, which became another important part of their cultural identity.

The religious leadership worked to evangelize and educate the Southern Slavs, each in their own writing system. To this day, Serbs read and write principally in Cyrillic writing, and Croats almost exclusively in the Latin alphabet. Linguists recognize a single spoken language, Serbo-Croatian, with local variations that are more tied to place than to religion, though this has changed a lot since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The religious difference is thus bound up in the language through the writing system.

Writing divides where language does not

In India, China, and the former Yugoslavia we see that mutually unintelligible writing systems are used when languages are fully comprehensible. What could motivate this layer of confusion, when mutual understanding is already present?

Human beings show a tendency to identify with a group whose markers function in opposition to others. Thus a Tamil who speaks Tamil and Kannada can say to the Kannada person, “I am not Kannada because I cannot read that writing.” A Taiwanese Mandarin speaker can say to the Mainlander, “We may speak the same language, but I cannot read your writing. If you have something important to say, I’m sure you’ll tell me.” The Croat can say to the Serb, “Your writing looks so Russian! You Serbs have a much more eastern mentality than we do.” The writing systems provide data to demonstrate that our groups, which share so much in common, are different deep down.

Individuals may not pronounce these precise phrases, but they demonstrate how easy it is to move from alphabet or ideogram to identity and to ideology. We must be careful of this ease of motion.

Most importantly for me, I don’t believe in erasing differences among people, though they must be viewed with caution. I believe in these distinctions; differences in culture exist just as attached and unattached earlobes exist. They don’t necessarily imply different ideologies. Varying language systems help preserve diversity, as well. Identifying with one culture over another, though, can be dangerous. Preserving my culture must be as important as preserving your culture, otherwise we end up with self-righteousness and violence. Writing can preserve beautiful cultures, but one must believe in the beauty and value of every culture to avoid degrading ourselves.

Photo credit: Mennonite Church USA Archives /

Holding to core values, suspended between two worlds

Ramesch with his stepdaughter: What will all these cultures produce in her?
Ramesch with his stepdaughter: What will all these cultures produce in her?

This post continues new category of posts, called “Language Dignity,” wherein I seek to interact with and learn from those who are bilingual (or trilingual) in the US. I hope their stories will grant dignity to their languages and cultures, and teach Americans more about the people around them.  For the previous post in this series please go to From Spanish to Latino: New identities formed in the USA and Trilingual in the USA: Staying connected to roots in India.

* * *

Ramesch met his Minnesotan wife in his home country of Singapore.  He grew up in that island’s mix of Chinese, Malay, South Indian, and British culture and language, before he immigrated to the monolingual US.  Ramesch’s family, like most of the Indians there, comes from the South of the India.  But while one hears the Tamil language spoken often in the street, Ramesch’s native language is English; he grew up speaking almost exclusively English at home.  He has always found himelf between cultures, whether in Singapore or in the US, because half of his mind rests in India, even though he has never lived there.

The cultural mix of Singapore

People adapt and borrow from each other’s culture.  Singapore’s students all learn English–of the British variety–in school, so this is their common language.  The Chinese are known to be more reserved in their interactions, and Indians, louder and more expressive.  In business interactions, though, Ramesch explained that the Chinese try to express themselves more and the Indians would have to “tone down” their behavior

His ways of communicating look Indian.  His animated way of expressing himself even alarms his step-daughter and wife on occasion; he seems angry, when he only feels excited.  “Everyone asks why I’m so mad,” he lamented.

Religious beliefs also get mixed in Singapore.  For example, in Singapore the number “eight” could be good luck (Chinese) or bad luck (Indian).  Ramesch came to the US knowing how to negotiate cultures.

In and out of Indian culture

Even though Ramesch is third generation Singaporian, he identifies strongly with India.  He, like many Indians, imagine India as “baradama,” the homeland.  They long for a “return” to India; he equates this to others’ cultural longings: “like a Jew, Israel is always home.”  He loves Indian culture and language, even though he’s only been to India twice.  He spoke English at home, but he nevertheless worked hard at learning his ancestral language, Tamil.  As a teenager, his friends made fun of his broken Tamil, but he got to a point where he could speak it well, though often it goes through a stage of English translation.

Living here in the US, he does not fit exactly into the role of a “typical” Indian.  He converted to Christianity, even though his great-grandfather was a Hindu brahman.  Nevertheless, his morals and values come from his Indian culture.  He and his white, Minnesotan wife receive a lot of attention from other Indians.  For example, when they were in the hospital giving birth to  their second child, they found themselves across the hall from a South Indian couple who would often stare at them.  Ramesch and his wife knew, though, that these looks were not disapproving, but “genuine curiosity.”  At work, Ramesch’s North Indian colleagues expect him to respond to their Hindi, the Indian lingua franca, even though Ramesch never learned it in Singapore.

Raising American children

As he negotiates Indian, Singaporian, and US culture, Ramesch consciously tries to extract the best of all these cultures as he raises his children.  He wants to impart Indian culture to his children, as their heritage, but, at the same time, he recognizes that not all of Indian culture is good.  He is happy that his children are growing up in their US environment.  Ramesch said, “One part of their roots is going to disappear.  On the other hand, it is good that they grow up adapting to this culture the way it is.  They need awareness of where they come from, where I come from, their roots, what I brought over.”  They need to know their present, as well as their past.

He can’t offer them the mix of language and culture that he grew up with, but he insists on teaching them his values–“what I learned as a child.”   While religious celebrations and observances, such as Diwali (the Hindu festival of light) are difficult outside of his home country, he says, “Values are all I can bring over, the only thing that I can adapt.”  He believes in a deep “respect for elders” and “disciplining children at an early age.”  Children need to know the “necessity for hard work.”  Education holds an important place, too, as he said, “Respect for knowledge, respect for books.”  He described that back home he “wouldn’t even put a book on the ground because books are knowledge.”

Mixing the best of different cultures seems to be a trait brought from Singapore.  He translates this experience by teaching his children about what it means to be Indian, educated, and respectful.  He grew up an Indian outside India, and his children will be the same–but what will that mean to them?

Trilingual in the USA: Staying connected to roots in India

This post continues new category of posts, called “Language Dignity,” wherein I seek to interact with and learn from those who are bilingual (or trilingual) in the US. I hope their stories will grant dignity to their languages and cultures, and teach Americans more about the people around them.  For the previous post in this series please go to From Spanish to Latino: New identities formed in the USA.

* * *

Language can connect the current US generation to earlier generations in India
Language can connect the current US generation to earlier generations in India

Sid and Abhi don’t think consciously about the Telugu, Hindi, and English swirling in their heads, but a single sentence might contain words from all three languages.  They came to the US from Hyderabad, India, their multilingual home.  It is located in a Telugu (a Southern Dravidian language) area, but 30-40% of residents are not Telugu-speakers.  Hindi (a Central Indo-Aryan language) is the lingua franca among the residents who come from all over India.  Many additionally speak Urdu, thanks to a sizeable Muslim minority.  Each person there speaks his or her “mother tongue,” but when those from Hyderabad speak, Indians recognize their mixed dialect of “Hyderabadi.”

When they came to the US, they possessed very advanced English; the main challenge came from adapting to the US dialect.  Back in India, Sid and Abhi both spoke Telugu, and they took Hindi and English in school.  Yet it took Abhi six months to get used to American speech.  She had trouble understanding people on the phone, and was intimidated at her first job interviews.  “People couldn’t get a single word!” she laughed.  She said that Sid, who had lived in the US for 10 years longer than Abhi, explained to her at the time, “You need to slow down,” in order to make up for differences in pronunciation.  Sid had faced his own problems as a teaching assistant in grad school: he had to slow down his speech for his lectures, and he “butchered” the names of his Midwestern students.

Hyderabad is in the West of Andhra Pradesh, India
Hyderabad is in the West of Andhra Pradesh, India

As they think in multiple languages, Sid and Abhi navigate multiple associations and emotional landscapes.  Their mother tongue connects them emotionally to India, their family, and their past.  Abhi works here in Minnesota with some of her classmates from India, and occasionally will find herself speaking Telugu with them without thinking.  The association with the past brings out Telugu.  English still occupies much of her mental lexicon, however.  When she is India, for example, she has to remember not to say “fan” in English, but “pankha” (actually Hindi, but used in Telugu, as well).

Sid brings out nuance and history depending on the words he chooses.  When he speaks he tries to “take the full of advantage of all languages,” so his sentences come out a “combination of all langauges” in his native context.  Every word carries not only a meaning, but a nuance and an association.  For him, Telugu is the language of his family, but Hindi relates to school, where many of his classmates came from the North of India and did not speak Telugu, and English now relates to the US.

They are pleased with the diversity of people in their social circles in the US, though at times being Indian can be isolating.  Ironically, the Indian friends of Sid and Abhi in Minnesota reflect greater diversity of Indian culture than what they experienced day-to-day even in India.  At the same time, it is difficult for them to socialize with non-Indians.  After working all day and then attending cultural and religious events and activities for the kids, “no time” is left for socializing with non-Indians.

They worry that their children will grow up without a close emotional connection to their family in India.  Both Sid and Abhi grew up interacting daily with many uncles, aunts, and grandparents in addition to their immediate family.  They don’t worry so much about their children lacking the language (they say that so many kids in Hyderabad speak English and Hindi now that Telugu is less important), but about the family connections that their kids are missing out on.  Sid said, “I don’t want the kids to lose touch with their identity,” which goes along with family connections and language.

Abhi recognizes that the nature of family relations is changing.  When she and her husband travel all over the world, they still connect most closely with the relatives they grew up with.  It will be different with her children.  She is afraid she will miss her children terribly when they will go away to college.  Yet she knows that this fragmentation of family is happening all over, even in India.  Her own relatives are dispersed to the US and the Middle East.  Her kids’ relationships will likely look different from hers.  She wants to remain close to her children–geographically and emotionally–but she doesn’t want her emotions to get in the way of her kids’ development.  Even if they go, she hopes they will come back and stay connected.

How will your children stay connected to your family? your ancestors?

Photo credits: United Nations Photo / / CC BY-NC-ND; Wikimedia Commons

Anyone can learn a language, but not always in a classroom

Get out of class and learn your language!
Get out of class and learn your language!

A friend of mine is an immigrant from Russia.  He speaks excellent English, though his pronunciation marks him as a native Russian speaker.  He is a PhD in the sciences, so he is clearly intelligent.  Recently, though, he confided in me that he received two 4’s in school (equivalent to American B’s): in Russian grammar and in English.  It struck me: how could someone who was good at school, bad at these subjects?  And if he supposedly wasn’t so great at these in school, how did he manage to succeed in English as he did now?

In the classroom, he did not do well in English, in spite of his aptitude in other school subjects.  Successful learning for him required Immigrating to the US and surrounding himself with English speakers.  He manifested a basic fact, that any human being can learn another language.  Generations of people without any formal education have become polyglots without much conscious effort; my friend became one more of their number.  Brains are ready to learn multiple languages.  Classroom language education does not work as effectively as the direct approach: learning the language on the street.

The contrast

This conversation reminded me of some of my own personal and second-hand knowledge of language education.  My only non-A’s in high school were German and Russian.  I know of many people whose last experience with a foreign language was a deflating experience in a school language class.  Benny the Irish Polyglot describe this experience vividly in his TED talk.   Everyone struggling to grasp another language in the classroom.

Then I remember my African and Indian friends and Indonesian acquaintances who take no credit for knowing 4-5 languages.  My Russian scientist  friend told me the same is the case in Dagestan, in southern Russia.  Africans and Indians often speak 1-2 linguae francaelike English and French in Africa, or English and Hindi in India.  Then they speak a majority local language, like Yoruba in Nigeria or a state language in India, like Punjabi.  Finally, Mom and/or Dad might come from the village, so that’s an additional 1-2 languages.  Three is easy to come by, and five happens without trying.  When I look on Youtube for the videos of the famous polyglots, I noticed that they are nearly all from the US and Europe.  I have not noticed one Indian and no Africans.  Is this under-representation because polyglots abound in these areas so much that they do not stand out in their culture?

The paradox

Note the main difference between these two groups of people.  The Russians and Americans spent much of their time learning languages in school; the Africans and Indians spent the minority of language-learning time in school.  The more formal education correlates to the worst outcomes.

In the US and Russia, the education system dumped and continues to dump millions of dollars into language education, when the solution is to live among the people and just talk.  Grammar largely doesn’t matter for these language-learners in Africa and Asia.  They took very few tests, and they may not have memorized vocabulary.  They may not have even been literate in that language.  They turned to someone and talked, and that someone talked back, and they worked it out.

One system can’t manage to teach a foreign language to a highly educated scientist; the other teaches multiple languages to people lacking formal education.  Yet the former educational system spends so much money on language-learning that doesn’t work so well.

We have what we need–and it’s free

In the US people always say that you have to live in the country if you really want to learn a language.  Just learning from a book isn’t enough, we admit.  Yet we always say this as we lament a monolingual doom.  We are not doomed to monolingualism, however.  What are the languages of our cities? of our states?  In Minneapolis-St Paul, we have a huge numbers of Spanish, Hmong, and Somali speakers, not to mention Chinese, Vietnamese, and Oromo speakers.

That’s it.  That’s all you need–for the cost of some time and a cup of coffee or a meal.

Ok, so you found someone who speaks the language–what do you do now?  You start with questions, with gestures, with mimicry, and then you continue building on what you learn.  Because your brain was set up to learn multiple languages, you can go in with the knowledge that you can totally learn this language without classroom instruction.  You will learn and make new friends.  If you must use high-tech tools, stick with Anki to create and track flash cards, or maybe organize notes with Evernote.

Effective education

From what I’ve seen, the most effective education in language comes from the street.  Since we’re set up to learn multiple languages, we just need to find the input.  What’s better is that input comes from delightful people all around us.  If classroom instruction would work effectively, it would need to incorporate language-learning truths that cultures have known for centuries.  Like my Russian friend, the best classroom for learning English was outside the classroom.  Languages are not a subject like some others, like science or literature; they come from interaction with others and not from a book.

How about you?  Do you learn languages best in or out of the classroom?  Did you ever have a fantastic language classroom experience?

Photo credit: Orange42 / / CC BY

Firms succeed offshore by cultivating cultural intelligence at home

A 19th century engraving showing Australian &q...
Offshoring without cultural intelligence–A 19th century engraving showing Australian “natives” opposing the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1770 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently read an article (Ang & Inkpen 2008) that discussed success among companies that off-shore services; companies that already display high cultural intelligence firm-wide will succeed more in their off-shore ventures. Cultural intelligence includes four aspects: 1) challenging one’s cultural assumptions consciously (metacognitive), 2) knowledge of other cultures (cognitive), 3) staying motivated in becoming cultural intelligent (motivational), and 4) performing culturally correct speech and non-speech acts (behavioral).  When a firm already excels in these areas–especially on the executive level–the authors of the article call this firm-wide cultural intelligence.  When firms possess this level of cultural intelligence, they succeed more in offshore ventures.  Cultural intelligence brings success in challenging intercultural situations like off-shoring.

If we assume that offshore ventures will become more common as the global marketplace dominates more of the economy, then firm-wide cultural intelligence will determine companies’ success.  The most important question that remains is how do firms increase firm-wide cultural intelligence?  Firm-wide cultural intelligence requires fostering cultural intelligence among its individuals.  I will now focus on the work necessary to raise individual cultural intelligence through teaching languages.

Learning languages naturally leads to higher overall cultural intelligence based on the four criteria above.  Speaking and listening to a language force one to think in a different way.  One has to move out of an intuitive mode of communication to a highly self-conscious one (metacognitive).  As a result, one gains knowledge about the language and the culture in which it is found (cognitive).  Since no language exists in a vacuum, learning the language keeps one in constant contact with the culture.  Staying motivated to learn a language keeps one learning about the culture (motivational).  Learning about the language heightens interest in the culture the language comes from.  Finally, the language becomes the most essential feature in speaking and acting correctly in the culture (behavioral).

Cultural intelligence in one area offers advantages for another.  Even if I begin my language/cultural study with Mexico, the increased cultural intelligence transfers to, for example, India.  I already know that I have to challenge my cultural assumptions, and that I have to learn aspects of Indian culture.  I’ve demonstrated that I’m motivated, and I’m ready to discover the particular speech and actions that are appropriate for various Indian cultural situations.  After India I can move into another language/culture, such as the Philippines or China.  Cultural intelligence begets more cultural intelligence quickly and easily.  Additionally, the skills I use to learn one language transfer to another language.

Firms would find themselves more successful if they hire and foster culturally intelligent individuals.  Those knowledgeable in another language–any other language–would stand out as the best candidates.  Moreover, by offering ways for workers to increase cultural intelligence–especially through language-study–the firm has more in-house cultural intelligence to draw from for future leadership positions.  Firms will enjoy more long-term success in the global marketplace if they invest time and money in language-learning for employees.

If you’re in favor of firms investing more in language and culture training, please “like” this post.  Since language and culture study do not offer short-term gains for a firm, what are ways to convince firms to invest in this long-term project of increasing cultural intelligence?  Employees already don’t have enough time–where would that time come from?  Please let me know your thoughts, below.

What makes a language useful?

What motivates your language study?
What motivates your language study?

Recently a friend of mine asked what the most useful language to learn is.  I think he was assuming useful for business, so I addressed this assumption.  I responded that the language you learn depends what you’re learning it for.  If you’re planning on working in China, Mandarin is very useful; Mandarin would not be useful at all if you work extensively in India, though.  But Hindi is not useful outside of India.  If you’re planning on working in Minnesota, Spanish and Somali would be very useful.  You can only judge “useful” with respect to some concrete goal.

The goal of language-learning determines what language one studies and how one studies it.  One friend studied Russian to do business there.  Another wants to learn Tamil in order to enjoy his extended stay in Southwest India.  A third wants to learn Arabic because of family ties and love of the culture.  One blogger I read is learning Pitjantjatjara in order to see the world through a different set of eyes.  For all of these language students, their language is the most useful.

The reasons for learning a language determine not just the language, but also what you focus on in learning.  For business in Russia, much of the business will probably be in English, so small talk will be the most important.  Moreover, much of your studying will be done at home, in between trips to Russia.  For Tamil, you would learn what you could now at home–basic pleasantries–before taking it up in earnest in India.  Once you got there, you would be surrounded by media in Tamil and native speakers, and you would try to speak to the people around you.  For Arabic, listening to music and watching films would help, and then making attempts to find Arabs to speak to would bring the passive knowledge into an active register.  For Pitjantjatjara, probably the only source of the language would be native speakers, so study would be intense conversations, and then studying on your own the words and phrases from those conversations.

For one person, Russian is most useful, and probably Rosetta Stone or an on-line resource like would be most helpful.  For another, Pitjantjatjara is most useful, and conversing with people may be the only language resource.

Often, when I’m asked about the most “useful” language, the asker assumes that this is an economic question; in other words: What language will make me the most money?  But we see above that the question of what language to learn and how emerges from various motives, many of which are emotional and not economic.  Unfortunately, I think many institutions assume that economics is the most important question.  For this reason, some universities closed their Classics departments.  In addition, the economic question does not always lead to a single language.  As I said, above, economics may lead you to learn Chinese, Hindi, or Russian.  Recently I read that some Chinese people are learning Shona in order to do business in Zimbabwe.  This choice came because of increased economic ties between Sub-Saharan Africa and China.

So experience shows that the assumption that economics often does not motivate someone to learn a language.  Even if economics does motivate someone, economics does not always lead to the same language.

Why are you studying or want to study your language?  What means are you using to study them?  How did you choose those means?  Please add your answers to the comments section.

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