From Mexican walls to the ivory tower: Polyglots smash the echo-chamber

The media doesn’t tell you what to think, but it tells you what to think about.

How can polyglots end people's isolation in their echo chambers?
How can polyglots end people’s isolation in their echo chambers?

We all live in a personal echo-chamber nowadays, where the same assumptions and world views repeat over and over. One’s echo-chamber, however, remains independent of the chambers of others. So their assumptions never reach my ears, and theirs never reach mine. Some of us want to build walls to keep out the Other, and some of us don’t want to venture outside of our walls to listen attentively to the Other.

After we live in this chamber a while, and here our friends echo it, we think that it is the only discourse going on, that our assumptions are naturally shared by all observant, intelligent people like us.

Until we discover how the Other actually thinks.

Polyglots can change the discourse and remind us of the true complexity out there. They’re already listening. They can save our country!
Calling all polyglots!

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

Setting goals and moving towards the center

Slight, accurate motion causes great, effective movements
Slight, accurate motion causes great, effective movements

This week I was looking at the website of a guy I know; he gives advice about how to reach goals by using small communities of ambitious friends to support each other.  The first piece of advice that struck me, though, was, in his words, “stop the bleeding.”  He recommended naming bad habits and using time spent on them for the goals we want to accomplish.  One of my bad habits is compulsively checking email and Facebook, so I took some time away from those activities this week, and I accomplished a few things that I would not have done otherwise.  I haven’t done the second important piece of advice–examine “why” I want to do these things.  I’ll discuss that in a minute.

Before I list the things that I accomplished, I’ll briefly mention a simple tool that I used.  I set up a spreadsheet on Google Docs.  I put multiple tabs, one for each large goal: start a side business, expand language offerings in the public schools, learn Farsi, learn Somali, develop methods for learning languages at work, and blog.  On the spreadsheet I write individual tasks that I think well keep me moving.  I date when I put tasks down and when I finish them.  I also want to put down a deadline for myself, but I’m afraid of that much commitment at this point.  This way I can actually see what I’m getting accomplished and plan a little more deliberately.

Here are some of the things I actually accomplished.

  • Business.  I have a website that is nearly complete.  It still needs some photos, so I talked to my friend’s wife, who is a photographer, and some international friends at work who will pose with me.  Once the photos are up, I should be done with the site, ending that phase.
  • Languages in Schools.  I contacted a person who has already been working on Somali language in the Minneapolis Schools.  I’m planning on another meeting maybe next Saturday–I ran the idea past my friend/partner.  I’ve put together a list of names to invite to the meeting, and I created an agenda that is manageable for a 1-1.5 hour meeting.
  • Farsi.  I’ve been watching some Iranian sit-coms every evening or every-other evening.  I IM friends in Iran 2-3 times per week at work.  I spoke over Skype with an Iranian friend for about 15-20 minutes.
  • Somali.  I use my limited Somali every day, but I didn’t really move ahead.  Not much happened here.
  • Languages at Work.  I’ve been inputting dialogues for my languages at work packet.  I solicited more translations and ideas from my Somali friends, and we’re discussing ways to re-introduce our Somali table to our company.
  • Blog.  (This is it!)

I’m amazed that I did all this in moments at home and slow moments at work when I would normally kill time.  I’m grateful for this piece of advice to “stop the bleeding.”

I want to look at why I want to accomplish these goals with the hope of encouraging my deeper motivations.  Figuring out the “why” behind these goals appeals to me, because I know that I can motivate myself at my core.  Back in college, when I studied kung fu, my non-English-speaking sifu used to demonstrate effective technique by taking a rope and swinging it in a circle.  He’d point at the small motions of his hand and the large motion of the rope they caused.  When you push from the center, less effort is necessary for an action.  (See photo.)

The technique of finding out the “why” is to ask why I want to do something, and then ask “why” to that answer, five times.  This way I move towards my own center.  So I want to accomplish this technique this week on at least two of my big goals I mentioned above.

I’d love to learn from my readers how you accomplish your goals–or what stands in your way.  I may or may not have suggestions for you; I’d love to learn something from you.

Do any of my readers use accountability groups for setting and keeping short- and long-term goals?  If so, please describe your process.

How do you stay focused on goals?  What techniques do you use?  Do you have examples?

Photo credit: Steve Corey / / CC BY-NC

Just make progress!

Even with dips--make progress!
Even with dips–make progress!

I’ve been uninspired–but I’m not ready to give up.  Work has been demanding, and my friends and family have kept me busy.  I’m trying to approach my languages differently, hoping the change of pace will inspire me.  I had the flu this last week, which halted some progress, too.  I want to hold fast in my mind that progress of any kind is important progress, even if the results don’t always look how I want.

Last week I Skyped with some new italki pals.  Because Iran is 10 hours later than me, I have to think creatively about how to connect.  Before I leave for work has presented itself as the most convenient time, as it can be free time on my side and it comes right after work in Iran.  Unfortunately, it means I have to get up earlier and plan ahead.  I still have to get used to that.  The advantage is real live Farsi talking!  All the vocabulary I’ve been working on for months is cementing itself finally.

I wrote a little in Farsi this week.  One small feature I like about italki over Livemocha is the “Notebook” feature, where you can write whatever you want.  Native speakers are encouraged to comment and/or correct it.  I wrote about being sick!  I had to learn “headache” and “fever,” which are helpful to know anyway.  The fact I was living through the precise situation, wrote about it, and received feedback on it very quickly helped me learn.

I watched the movie, “Day Break” (“دم صبح”), while I was sick.  I couldn’t do much but lay in bed, but I thought I might as well watch something in Farsi.  I’m glad I did.  The movie was well-acted and produced, and portrayed how one’s regrets and fear of death can trap someone in life.  I learned some Farsi and a lot about life.  I learned about the website, a treasure-trove of high-quality foreign TV shows and movies.  They also have an iPad app.

This combination of active and passive memory work helped me a lot.  I discovered I’ve been doing too little passive memory work.  All my word-memorization during the past several months focused on active memory.  Then, when I talked to the neighbors, I couldn’t understand a response.  Hearing and understanding require work and are necessary.

On a side note, Somali went less well this week.  One of my Somali work friends said on Friday, “You didn’t speak very much Somali this week!”  He noticed before I did.  Thank goodness I have people who can call me on my language use and habits.  I’m just breaking even there.

For encouragement, I watched the great Polyglot Discussion: a roundtable discussion over Google+ of seven well-known polyglots.  They traded views and advice about learning languages.  The advice was not particularly new, but I find a discussion among enthusiastic participants invigorating.  Frankly, it’s one of the reasons I crashed in bed with an Iranian movie rather than a TV show in English.

I have a couple of projects I would like to work on.  I would like to produce some kind of language-learning materials for informal settings.  More specifically, when I speak over Skype or when I meet at the language table with people.  I would like to find a way to take advantage of native speakers, without putting pressure on them to teach when they are not comfortable doing so formally.  So I would like to put together some dialogues with simple vocabulary–like in many textbooks–that apply to the work setting or lunch.  I want to be able to talk about finding means to study languages, eating lunch in the cafeteria, and dealing with the stress of work.  I need to go back to look at some resources that I have for inspiration.  These sorts of resources would help all of us participants learn more and feel more productive.

In the end I learned that I should be easy on myself and work on my language as I can.  When I can, I should do active memory work.  When I’m tired, I can do passive memory work.  I’ll try to get up early when I can so that I can chat on Skype.  In my spare time, I’d like to work on some curriculum.  In the end, making any progress is progress all the same.  It doesn’t always have to be pretty.

Have you been making progress recently?  Any kind of progress?  Be honest!

Anyone want to help make some curricula like I described?

Re-motivation: Sharpening the axe

Axe (Photo credit: coconinoco)

I read an interesting post at the Mezzo Guild that talked about figuring out the methods that work in language-learning and the methods that don’t.  The post insightfully illustrates lack of progress using a biblical metaphor of a dull axe (Eccl 10:10).  I like this metaphor because it brings out a couple important questions about the tools one uses.  First, are you using the best tool?  For learning languages, one can find a lot of tools out there.  The intelligent language-learner must choose which works the best.  The metaphor presents a second facet, as well, as one asks: Is the tool sharp and ready to work, or is it dull and not doing the work it could?

This week, I’ve been trying to examine my language-learning tools and the condition they’re in.  I want to sharpen my axe, but how?  (To spoil the ending of my post: I enjoyed trying out and talking to native speakers, thanks to readers’ suggestions and the model of Benny, the Irish Polyglot.)

Farsi has been dragging, but I want to figure out how to move forward.  I expressed my frustrations and the fears that are blocking me in a previous post.  I’m grateful for several readers of my blog who offered good suggestions, ranging from giving myself a break to trying out new tools.  Here are the tools I’ve used over the past year.

  • Collecting words and memorizing them off of cards.  I enjoy this a lot because they are portable and convenient.
  • Listening to Pimsleur exercises.  I finished those off a while ago.
  • Listening to podcasts and collect words.  I have not done that for a while.
  • Going through Livemocha exercises.  I have not been on that site since last spring.
  • Reading news articles and collecting words.  Not so common these days.
  • Working through a grammar book.  Not for a long time.

From this list I see multiple tools that engage me in several ways: listening, repeating, reading, writing, memorizing.  They are all tools that help learn a language, and at one time or another, I have benefited from each.  Based on my recent track-record, though, I see that I’m still hacking away without moving forward.  With all of these methods at my disposal, what is the problem?

I see a hole: engaging native speakers in conversation.  I have gone over to my Iranian neighbors’ house a few times, but it’s difficult.  It takes an unknown amount of time, since I don’t know how long I’ll stay, plus the time is taken away from everything else I could do (family, work, writing, etc.).  I don’t understand very much of what they say, though I can explain much of what I want to say.  While I get frustrated, they seem frustrated, too, though I am likely projecting my own frustration onto them.

So I went onto italki and found exactly what I was looking for, that is, some encouragement and some native-speaker engagement.  Within 15 minutes–I didn’t even have time to put up a photo on my profile–I found 3 Iranians who were interested in working with me.  We exchanged Skype info.  One of them didn’t have a headset ready, so I went onto Skype with another.  He was a college student in Esfahan studying to become an English teacher.  We spent 30 min or so chatting, about 50/50 English and Farsi time.  I’m very grateful for this site and my new friend!

Getting the native speaker time was awesome, and helped my attitude.  Just talking to a human encouraged me.  On a more technical level, I realized that I have been learning more and more vocabulary, but because I’m not speaking, nothing is “cementing” the vocabulary in place.  I need the repetition of vocabulary and grammar, as well as serendipity, that come from talking to a native.  While theoretically I know how to conjugate verbs, actual conversation forces me to do so.  I felt like I got better at speaking after one time.  Learning vocabulary on its own does not help if speaking does not engage the vocabulary.

(On a side note, I also went to  a Somali restaurant in Minneapolis this weekend.  I got some native Somali conversation there, in addition to my Farsi conversation on-line.)

This engagement clarified how I use different tools.  The tools I use are not bad or inappropriate; they’ve been overused.  I’ve been hacking at vocabulary with a dull axe.  My language-learning lacks native-speaker engagement–this became clear.  Speaking to natives sharpens my axe.  While my axe still needs some work, I still have opportunities to use italki and Skype.  Eventually, my comprehension will get better and I’ll be eager to start learning words again, but this time with a sharpened axe.

I need some help from my readers, though.  How would you recommend using italki and Skype best for learning languages?  What do you talk about?  How do you deal with uneven language levels, for example, people who have studied English a long time compared to your lower level in their language?

Overcoming fear to end a slump

Overcome fear by action (Image by Stuart Miles,
Overcome fear by action (Image by Stuart Miles,

I’m living a language slump—since the summer, my Farsi has not advanced much. Learning a language, I explain to people, is like filling a bucket with holes. At this point, more is coming out of my Farsi “bucket” than is going in. I know less on December 1 than I did on August 1. This lack of progress makes me feel defeated—and ultimately fear blocks me and keeps me from moving forward.

The surface sources of my slow progress are clear. First, my schedule changed drastically as I moved to a new state and to a new job with a radically different daily schedule and set of expectations. So I spend little time going through my words during the day or looking for new ones. Second, the foreign language I run into most often is Somali, not Farsi, so that language draws more of my attention. Moreover, beginning a new language (like Somali) keeps my attention much more than the intermediate doldrums of Farsi. Third, I’m working on building a Somali/immigrant language movement in my city, and that takes time for communication and organization, which takes time away from potential Farsi study.

Sometimes I long for a teacher. One reason is I want the accountability of a regular language meeting. Another reason is that I need controlled, intermediate input. The input from podcasts and newspapers can be overwhelming; it takes a lot of chewing to digest it. When I spend focused time on them, though, I get something valuable out of it. I want someone else to help me overcome my slump.

In fact, teachers are waiting for me. Through Livemocha—where I haven’t checked in for months—I have tens of friend requests, many from Iran. Iran is ten hours later than me, which means that at 8 or 9 pm my time, I could have an early morning session with someone in Iran, or at 6-7 am my time, I could meet with someone in Iran at the end of the work day. These folks want to learn English, too, so we could do a language exchange.

To be honest, I’m afraid to make the time commitment. My old job used to have a flexible schedule, and I spent 80% of my time by myself. Now I have to be places at particular times and work with people the entire time. Flexible, alone time—especially if it can be at home—has become a terribly valuable commodity.

I have a fear of shortage; this is the real obstacle to my Farsi progress. I’m afraid that I don’t have enough time.  Fear has stopped me, and fear has become my normal state. I need to confront fear and overcome my static inertia, thus moving my self forward again.The next step is to assume the opposite: I have enough time.  By making that initial investment, I will overcome the inertia and get moving.  Investing in a teacher would work; a 30- to 60-minute per week commitment would improve my Farsi by a lot.  These lessons would lead to visible progress—and enjoyment and connection—on a regular basis, so I would feel encouraged to work here and there (e.g., vocabulary cards and podcasts) and to visit my elderly neighbors more often.

What does fear keep you from doing? How do you confront it to overcome the inertia it causes?

فارسی برای همه Farsi for everyone!

“Female Musician” (from Wikimedia Commons)

As the world speaks more and more about war in Iran, every citizen of the American democracy has a duty to know more about Iran.  This goal stands out of reach of US citizens now, but every American in the humanities or professional groups should take the first steps towards achieving it.  Every American must first realize that when our democratic country speaks about war, we are morally required to influence our government based on broad, intelligent information.

Iran possesses an ancient history and rich literary and artistic heritage.  Their large, diverse country constantly deals with complex political and economic realities. Our moral imperative to influence our government based on broad, intelligent information requires us, ultimately, to know the Farsi language.  Language is a basic step towards achieving a more knowledgeable population.  We must grasp the reality of what Iran is before we can allow our country to prepare for war; otherwise, innocents will suffer because of a war against a straw man.

Money controls education.  Those who fund education influence what we learn and how information spreads through the culture.  We can see how this plays out in the interaction of Farsi language education and the most widespread information about Iran.  Significantly, the US government funds most of the Farsi language education in the US, especially in the areas of foreign service, intelligence, and the military.  As a result, the American people enjoy a plethora of information about Iran in these areas; if Americans know anything about Iran, they know about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s foreign policy (anti-US, anti-Israel) and military intelligence (potential to develop nuclear weapons).  It is not likely a coincidence that the information that the US population knows about Iran coincides with the areas where the US government funds Farsi language education.

The American people lack broader information about Iran because so little money for language education comes from other channels.  Americans know so little about the humanities or businesses in Iran.  Where would an artist turn to learn more about the traditional Persian visual arts?  Where would a vocalist find out about Persian musical culture?  How can a business person learn about traditional views on trade and business?  The artist, vocalist, and business person would have to learn Farsi or find a teacher in their field who knows Farsi.  No area of interest or business can separate itself from world events, yet our information about Iran is limited to so few areas of knowledge.

Community and professional organizations can fill this gap.  Local artistic groups can hire guest speakers from Iran to speak on music or art in Iran.  The speakers can also teach the language so that artists will stay engaged in the discussion of the particular area of art–visual art, music, anything.  Professional and business groups can make up rosters of local or web-based language teachers who can teach many levels of a language, so that the members can learn how Iranian society navigates business, or even law or medicine.

Members of these groups need to spend time and money to ensure that they are learning the language if they want reliable information.  One could argue that the language is not necessary, since the groups can always refer to bilingual Farsi and English speakers.  These groups, however, need the ability to synthesize the information on their own.  The difference is between reading a poem in translation and reading a poem in the original language; or between listening to a meeting through an interpreter and listening in the original language–and engaging all the parallel conversations taking place.  You can understand the gist, but can’t grasp fine details.  Significantly, the US government recognizes this distinction.  US government agencies do not depend solely on the large Iranian expat population in the US; they train new speakers.  Artistic and professional groups need to take the same amount of responsibility in putting time and money into language-training.  In that way, Americans will bring knowledge about Iran to the US about their sphere of interest, producing knowledge to complement what government sources produce.

Once these groups fill in the gap for language education, more Americans will know about the nuances of Iranian culture that relate to areas where the US government does not hold vested interests.  Ideally, every American could access high-quality language education.  With knowledge of the language, specialists in our population are better informed about the broader Iranian culture.  Then the level of knowledge in the US about Iran will rise.  The discussion will nuance the relationship between the US and Iranian populations, and the US democracy will find itself in a better position to decide for or against war in Iran.  But such a drastic action morally requires thorough knowledge of the affected population, and this knowledge will only come through knowledge of the language.  More groups must offer their money and time for language education for the level of foreign-policy discussion to progress beyond foreign policy and the military.

Have you witnessed grass-roots language efforts, in Farsi or other languages?  How have they helped your local community?

Would you like to see grass-roots language efforts?  In what area?  How could we start up such efforts?

What will it take to convince more people that grass-roots language knowledge is necessary for democracy?

Languages: Failure is Gain

Baha'i Temple India
Baha’i Temple India (Photo credit: Paul Ancheta)

An experience yesterday reminded me that a failure at language can be a gain for everyone.  I put my money where my mouth was (see my last post) and I went down to my Iranian neighbors’ house to chat.  Since it was Eid al-Fitr, I made some cookies to bring down to them, and I brought my wife.  I needed some kind of excuse to go visit; I wasn’t brave enough to go “just like that.”  My failures ended wonderfully.

Real life differs from language classes.  In language classes, speaking wrong results in failure.  If I forget my vocabulary, spelling, or grammar, I get counted down.  Imagine if I could get credit in language class simply because I came and spoke some of that language, no matter how flawed?  In reality, when I speak languages with folks, the latter is certainly the case.  My failure is rewarded and prompts me to improve.

When I went to the neighbors’ house I learned two things.  First, I learned that my neighbors are not Muslim as I assumed.  They are Bahai’i.  The wife’s family has been Bahai’i for multiple generations, and the husband is half-Muslim and half-Bahai’i.  He professes to be Bahai’i, though.  I know that the Bahai‘i in Iran have endured terrible persecution.  When I declared, “Eid mubarak!” (“Blessed Eid!”), they gave me puzzled looks.  How does it feel for others to assume you are their oppressors?  Would Russian Jews be happy to be wished, “Happy Easter!” considering Holy Week historically was a typical time for pogroms?  Since I assme the respective answers are “not good” and “no,” I felt pretty uncomfortable wishing my Bahai’i neighbors blessings on this Muslim holiday.

Second, I learned my Farsi is flawed, at best.  I was able to form questions, but was unable to understand responses.  My wife–who does not know Farsi–even interpreted their questions for me somehow.  I forgot how to say “1613” (my house number), and I could barely get out “one-six-one-three.”  At least I nailed “I don’t understand”!  My Farsi seemed to complicate the situation, which made me even more uncomfortable.

My feelings aside, here is the actual reaction: they kissed me and my wife.  The husband grabbed the back of my neck and pulled me in and kissed both cheeks.  The wife did the same with my wife.  This kiss came as a result of my failure.  Unlike language class, reality showed my failure was a success.  They showed that while my gut said “fail,” the reality was “gain.”

We do not need to worry about failing when we focus on other people.  Stumbling on cultural and linguistic matters helps the situation, when we focus on relationships.  At times we need information, so confusion seems like a failure.  If I had a business or legal deal with this family, things would have been difficult (impossible?) because so much information would have been lost.  However, the fact that I went in for the relationship first, the situation ended beautifully.  If I needed to do business with them at this point, I know that now things would go smoothly.  They think of me and my family as good people, as good neighbors who make an effort to know them, their culture, and language.  Effort clearly trumps failure in the long run.

When was the last time you and others benefitted from your language failure?  If you don’t have an example, go fail with your high-school Spanish or your recent Chinese study.  Then come back and let us know what happened!

“We have a listening problem”

Communication (Photo credit: P Shanks)

I found this article addresses the important problem of the consequences of not knowing a foreign language.  I believe that when we, as Americans, do not bother to learn another language, we force others to follow our lead if they want to communicate with us.  On our side of the conversation we try to hold all the cards.  This attitude does not foster goodwill with our conversation partners.

When I try to learn the language of the other, I show that I am willing to work to understand that person.  This article says, “Language is a vehicle—a tool—for listening, for communicating, for understanding, for being able to relate to people on their terms.”  Even if I speak that language badly, I still demonstrate effort towards communicating.

Putting forth effort to learn a language that you don’t “have to” learn can confuse people.  Recently I received a very respectful message on Livemocha asking me (in Farsi!) why I would learn Farsi.  True, I’m not in the oil or intelligence business, so that’s a good question.

I’m learning Farsi because I want to learn about another group of people on the planet.  I can read books in English on the modern Farsi speakers in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.  By struggling to understand their language, though, I get some street cred.  I had to move out of my comfort zone–I sound like a 3-year old.  I had to work hard to do so, too.

Here’s how communicating unfolds on a practical level.  I get my foot in the door with a Farsi-speaker first because I approach him or her to speak the language, and then I get a good reaction to begin a nice conversation.  He or she trusts that I am really interested in learning more.  This interaction establishes a relationship based on an initial trust.

Exotic Connection

Life of everyday Kurds in Kurdistan
Life of Everyday Kurds (Image via Wikipedia)

The community structure of Livemocha offers so many hidden surprises.  This afternoon I discovered a few new words I wanted to know.  Farsi, as I’ve mentioned before, does not allow one to guess the pronunciation of a word from its spelling.  I decided to turn to the community for answers.

Livemocha allows you to find speakers of your language on line, and gives you the option to chat with them.  I pinged a few and got one.  He was an ESL teacher in Iran.  He told me he’s a night owl–to my luck, as it was 3 am Iran time.  Interestingly, he is a Kurd who had traveled to Turkey.  We had a nice conversation about the current situation of the Kurds in the region, including Syria.  Oh! and he told me how to pronounce the words.

I was touched to make a nice friendship on this site.  I’m only beginning to take advantage of the community aspect of the site.  I look forward to more such discoveries.