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

The day I fell in love with languages: Dr. Richter and field linguistics

Dr. Richter, who first introduced me to Linguistics
Dr. Richter, who first introduced me to Linguistics

Field linguistics … refers to the collection of primary linguistic data on the basic grammatical facts of a relatively little studied language in a relatively natural setting from ordinary speakers, and to the analysis and dissemination of such data.Pamela Munro

When did I truly fall in love with languages? I had been “dating” languages for a while—French, Latin, German—in my early teens. Then, the summer after my sophomore year in high school, I completely fell for languages after I took a full-blown linguistics class. The class filled me with solid information about the breadth of complexity in the world’s languages, but once we started learning field linguistics I discovered joy in diving in, asking questions, and figuring out the language from the inside, as if I were in the field among speakers of a language completely foreign to me. That joy determined the course of my life, and that joy has never left me.
How can I count the ways?

Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Anything can translate

Is translation impossible sometimes?
Is translation impossible sometimes?

This post follows on the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea, and to the first in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain” and the second in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe.”

3. Anything you can say in one language you can say in another.
This above premise contradicts a widespread notion among language enthusiasts. Indeed, when I originally suggested this point, I received several comments by folks who disagreed with it. All over the internet we find lists of “words with no translation” (note that they assume that the target language is English), but the list begs the question of the nature of translation.

Continue reading “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Anything can translate”

Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe

Prescriptive grammar just punishes people for talking normally
Prescriptive grammar punishes people for talking normally.

This post follows on the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea, and to the first in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain.”

2. We describe grammar, we don’t prescribe it.
Rules such as “no split infinitives” or “There’s no such word as ‘ain’t’” don’t exist in the linguistics that I study. Such rules are called “prescriptive” because they prescribe a particular way of speaking that goes against how people actually speak. The linguistic school to which I belong does not impose a certain way of speaking; instead, we aim to describe the way people actually speak. In this way, everyone who speaks a language is  valued equally in how he or she speaks.

Continue reading “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe”

Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain

Every brain contains the grammar of a language
Every brain contains the grammar of a language

This post follows on the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea.

1. Grammar resides in every human brain.
Chomsky defines grammar as the rules that produce and decode language. As a result, grammar resides inside the human language-speaker. It doesn’t exist “out there” in a book or only well-trained minds.. Moreover, this grammar is not something learned in school; it’s acquired as a child engages in the community of your native language. Continue reading “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain”

Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background

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

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

Week 18 of Loving Somali: The challenge and benefits of writing

How does writing your language inspire and enlighten you?
How does writing your language inspire and enlighten you?

I listened this week to an episode of the “Language as Culture” podcast by David Mansaray. It was called “How to Make the Most of a Language Tutor,” and featured the young German polyglot, Judith Meyer. Ms. Meyer offered several great tips for work that can be done on one’s own preparing for your next lesson.

Following one piece of advice from her, I decided to write a short piece in Somali, describing a friend of mine. Ms. Meyer recommended that one pick a topic that will be relevant, so that the vocabulary and syntax will be useful in more conversations.

Read what I learned

30,000 views!

Happy to connect with you, Dear Reader!
Happy to connect with you, Dear Reader!

I would like to thank my readers because a couple weeks ago, Dec 16, 2014, this blog hit 30,000 views.

My goal is to create the blog that I wished to read that no one was writing. I’m grateful that it has been useful (fun?) for others, as well.

If you’re interested in guest-blogging any time, please let me know.

Please share this blog with your friends who love languages or want to learn more about how deeply language connects with our human experience.

Photo credit: rAmmoRRison / iWoman / CC BY-NC

Week 16 of Loving Somali: Why study Cushitic languages?

Map of Cushitic and Afro-Asiatic languages
Map of Cushitic and Afro-Asiatic languages

Languages opened my mind to new ways of thinking. This statement is so cliched, so let me try to fill it with some meaning.

When I study a language, I have to grasp new ways of expressing oneself. I don’t mean expressing one’s innermost thoughts; I mean trying to parse out mundane things like, “I’m hungry,” or “Please stop that!” To learn that, I inevitably have to talk to people who spend at least part of their lives outside of the monolingual English community I’ve spent most of my life in. That means that they approach the world differently than the people of my community. Again, this is not necessarily a profound difference; I’m talking about a community who sees a huge difference between, say, Ethiopia and Somalia. Basing my thinking on a new set of relevant facts changes my day-to-day concerns.

This week. I wanted to express some of the basic facts about a linguistic realm that few people—even professional linguists—know anything about. I will describe the Cushitic language family, concluding with why someone should care about Cushitic languages.
Discover more

Week 4 of loving Somali: Joy, pumpkins, and goat meat

Do you look like a pumpkin? Is that a good thing?
Do you look like a pumpkin? Is that a good thing?

Studying Somali brings me joy. I love discovering this language. Granted, I’m like Christopher Columbus, “discovering” people who didn’t know they needed discovering; I’m not exactly a pioneer. Nevertheless, my “discoveries” bring my mind to a world that at least I didn’t know, coming in contact with people so much like me, yet from a life that is so different. The newness of contact envigorates me.

This week I didn’t study as much as I planned, but I still had the opportunity to see a new landscape. I learned about a market filled with mango, goat meat, and pumpkins. I also got to see new ways of ordering language, of expressing oneself. Maybe my dear readers would like to help me with some of the sticking points I came across this week? This never gets old for me!
Continue reading “Week 4 of loving Somali: Joy, pumpkins, and goat meat”