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
“When you speak Somali to me, I feel close to you.” I heard this last week in Minnesota, not from a friend, but a complete stranger—a taxi driver named Mohammed. Upon seeing him, I immediately spoke only in Somali. “I pick up a lot of people,” Mohammed continued, “but when you speak Somali, you are like my brother—wherever you are from.”
I subvert. I do not tend to like what authority says, simply out of prejudice. I can’t help but question it. Is the authority trying to manipulate me, to make me act in some way? I sometimes wonder if the authority has looked at all the angles. Could these ends be attained in a better way? I wonder if the authority has examined its moral responsibility. Is it a good end they seek? Authority seeks its own ends in its own way, marginalizing those who don’t see things their way.
Forget the powerful. Those on the margins have better, more creative, more compassionate ways of approaching problems. As human beings, they have their problems, of course. Folks like me–insider, comfortable, respected, able-bodied–need to listen to those who are pushed to the side to gain the wisdom that we lack by ourselves.
Automatically questioning the assumptions of authority, can make me cynical. At the same time, this doubt often aligns me with those who are marginalized, since they tend to work according to a different set of presuppositions than the powerful on the inside.
The marginalized have taught me a lot, especially that opening myself will teach me that I don’t have all the answers. I wish that authority figures knew what I know about what was happening on the margins. If we listened more to those on the margins, we would act more morally and connect more deeply with people different from us.
An eye for the subtle
What do you do when you hear someone speaking English (or any other language) with an accent? In the USA, these people are in the margins, and I know that I have a learning opportunity before me. If I’ve got the time, I tend to ask what other languages the other person speaks. This week, I got to have some cool conversations as a result.
Recently at work, I was standing in line in the cafeteria, and I heard an accent in English. I asked if the gentleman spoke a language other than English, and he replied, “Yes–six or seven.” A man after my own heart!
I ventured a guess (in Dutch): “Bent U Nederlander?” (“Are you from the Netherlands?”)
I recruited him for our budding Dutch table at work, and so this week he and I had lunch together, where he taught me a lot. I learned about his job at the company, and about his previous careers that led him to the Middle East and an extended life in Southeast Asia. During our conversation, he admitted he doesn’t speak Dutch much these days, so it was a nice opportunity for him.
Since his native dialect is Flemish, he taught me some of the significant differences between standard Dutch and Flemish, and then some differences between dialects of Flemish. He also told me that the first time he heard Afrikaans, he was surprised how similar it sounded to Flemish. I had known that Afrikaans comes from Dutch, but I never reflected on what variety of Dutch it came from. Dutch is much more varied than I had previously imagined.
We bonded around the idea that life can lead you a lot of different places, and that no job guarantees a particular job path. If we’re open, we can learn how to do a lot of things. Each job teaches skills that we bring to our next job. When we’re open and curious, we can find ourselves on surprising adventures. In addition, I learned that significant differences lie in places most people don’t care to look, even between East and West Belgium.
The world is right here
Then later this week I traveled for short trip to New York City. NYC is a language adventure waiting to happen, but with a short window, I had to keep my ears open.
I struck at my first opportunity. At the rental car desk, I saw that the agent had an unusual last name.
He hesitated here, surely knowing that I wouldn’t have any way to follow what came next. “Ashanti is the main one. My home language is Sehwi. But Sehwi is a small language, from out in the country.”
I said the name of his home language a couple times. It includes a consonant in the middle, where you blow with puckered lips, nearly like a whistle. The exotic consonant felt luxurious in my mouth.
The reulting conversation offered me the opportunity to learn about the current state of this significant West African country. China has been investing there for a while, so we got bring up the question of a potential new colonialism by China in Africa. The nature of colonialism is that countries come in to take what you have and profit from it, without connecting with you and your community. Economic powers do not consider or love to learn from the human strength and wisdom that the multitude of African cultures have to offer. We both hoped for a good future for Ghana and her people.
I encountered other stops on my NYC language journey. At the event I got to speak a little Arabic and hear some different views on politics and history in the US and in the Middle East. On the plane I saw a man studying Talmud in Hebrew and Aramaic. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to stay at these stops–or NYC–as long as I would have liked.
Always open to learn
“When the student is ready, the teacher will come,” the proverb says. I tried to make myself ready this week, and I learned about history, culture, and human struggle. Some struggle leads to great results, some to worse, and some that are yet to be determined. We can learn from all of them.
This week, what are you planning to do that will open you to others who are different from you? I hope that you will learn from them, that their experience will change not only what you know, but also how you live your life. The narrative of life that we receive through the media focuses on making us happy in a short-term, narrow, and shallow way. It does not confront human struggle or weakness in ways that we actually live. Do you hear an accent in someone near you? That’s the sound of a different way of life. Plug in now!