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
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, “Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly.” And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, “Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do:and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth:and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth:and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth (Genesis 11:1-9)
Many Americans see multiple languages in our country as a threat. As I presented in my last post the US has suppressed other languages since its inception until today. We always see foreigners as a threat, but if they at least speak English, then they have assimilated to an acceptable degree.
Oddly, the rallying cry of the “English only” crowd is, “Let us not become another Tower of Babel.” (For example, Pat Buchanan says so here, and one of the authors of this article does the same here.) This implies that a lack of official language leads to chaos and the inability to work towards a common goal.
This stance shows that they don’t know what the “Tower of Babel” means. I’d like to go back over the story, so for this reason I cited the story, above. I hold a PhD in Ancient Hebrew and Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), so I place a lot of importance on the interpretation of the Bible. My aim is not to convert anyone here or make anyone religious, but to understand some of the historical background of this biblical story as it relates to the modern US. (If you are interested in hearing a discussion about this story that delves more into the biblical aspects of this story, please listen to this podcast episode of “The Bible as Literature Podcast,” that my friend and I produce.) The US *is* a Tower of Babel
I’m living the polyglot dream. This term was coined by Lucas Lampariello at his blog by the same name, and I mean by it that I managed to keep my love of language at the forefront of my mind and found many opportunities for and much joy in immersing myself in languages. While I set aside time this week to be sure I was working hard on Somali, I kept my ears open when I could speak or listen to other languages. I managed to engage Somali, Amharic, Spanish, French, Russian, Portuguese, and Dutch.
Just recently a friend turned me on to the fantastic multilingual video of “Let it Go,” the hit song from the Disney movie “Frozen,” and as a polyglot sucker for pop music I’ve been indulging my love of languages and emotional music. This video smoothly blends 25 languages into one, seamless video.
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!
I work in IT at a large corporation, and this week I had to confront the practical problems of working across multiple languages and cultures. Our company operates on all continents (except Antarctica, as far as I know). The company is divided roughly into four divisions: Far East (eg, China, Malaysia, Japan), Central (eg, Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Africa), South America, and North America.
After speaking to various IT leaders in the regions, I’m beginning to hear the problems they’re experiencing, namely, that the countries of their respective regions are not communicating with one another and that North America is not communicating effectively with them. Creating an IT team among four leaders, one from each area, challenges any desire to align people along the same goals, unless communication and empathy lie at the core of our interactions.
Differences among the regions
In North America, IT is pretty straightforward. We have a service desk overseas, and the rest of IT is in the US. So if someone has a problem, he or she calls the overseas service desk, and if they can’t help, the call or the issue is escalated to the US IT department. We all conduct IT support in English, except for one of our extended team who works in Spanish.
In region 1, language differences contribute to confusion. (For the sake of discretion, I will not identify the regions in this post, unless the phenomenon is generic to that region.) One service desk exists for all of this region, and it provides service in English. English, however, is the native language neither of the callers nor of the service desk. The help sessions, therefore, tend to be awkward. Some folks in this region work around the system by calling in to the local country IT organization directly, bypassing the service desk. This workaround helps because it allows people to receive IT help in their native language. Two issues that arise from this system, however, are 1) local IT organizations end up spending their time on individual associates’ problems and not on bigger IT issues and 2) if the issues are serious enough, they have to be escalated to North American IT, where we only speak English, and some of the description and notes on the problem may be in another language.
In region 2, language and culture inhibit communication among groups. Our company has operated longer in this region than in region 1. Through the history of the company, each country has functioned nearly autonomously. As a result, each country has its own way of dealing with IT issues, creating IT “silos” who don’t necessarily work with each other. The general help desk in region 2 is in a single country and follows the rules of the country where it finds itself. On the one hand, the service desk functions as such; they provide decent service. On the other hand, it doesn’t communicate much with other IT organizations, including IT in the US.
Need to overcome these communication barriers
IT in the regions and IT in North America, therefore, do not align. Each country’s citizens would rather speak to their own country’s IT in their own language. North America would like to create a uniform IT policy for multiple reasons.
The company could run more efficiently, for example, if the whole company supported a single piece of software for a certain job, rather than different software for different areas, since any software interacts with the rest of the system in unique ways. The IT environment gets unimaginably complicated without uniformity.
The regions function better when they communicate with North America IT because when central IT decides for some change in the IT environment, the regions can participate and adapt quickly.
When the regions run into problems, such as a big backlog of associate issues, North America can only help when they understand how the regions function and can understand the problem description and notes that they read.
Criteria for success
Communication lies at the center of a solution for my company’s IT woes. If IT were to work efficiently and smoothly for the technology users, we would have to succeed in these two areas:
Associates would be able to receive good help in a language they can understand;
IT would work closely among the regions.
Even though IT is located in North America, it cannot operate as the only center. It must partner with the other regions and must lead the pursuit to fulfilling, effective cooperation. To this end, it has to appreciate:
the diversity in each region,
the difficulty in communicating constantly in a foreign language, and
the consequences of its actions for those outside of North America.
For example, I admitted to our associates in Europe and Asia that while I spent a lot of time in Europe, and so I understand the cultural distinctions between northern and southern Germans, I couldn’t tell the cultural distinctions between Filipinos and Vietnamese people.
I do, however, deeply feel the frustration and exhaustion of communicating entirely in another language. I believe, though, that the vast majority of IT folks in North America have not experienced this madness; receiving, let alone giving, step-by-step advice in another language can drive you crazy.
Through my travels and study of other languages, I have seen the consequences of the actions of North America in other countries. I have discussed the coming of US missionaries to the former Soviet Union in the 90s, for example, and the involvement of the US in Lebanese politics. Folks in Ukraine and Lebanon feel frustrated that they must passively accept the consequences of decisions made in Washington, DC.
Successful cooperation among the regions thus necessitates deep and broad experiences of other cultures and languages outside English-speaking North America.
Liberal arts and IT
Every large corporation will inevitably run into the tensions in IT that I have described in my company. Every human wants to communicate easily in his or her own language and to have a say in decisions that affect them. Empathy with those outside the US and the desire to communicate with them will determine long-term success. Those who work in IT, therefore, cannot limit themselves to a technical education. They must immerse themselves in the liberal arts. They must learn to think outside of their own culture to see how one’s actions affect others, they must avail themselves of opportunities to travel, they must learn another language. Not only will this help the company’s bottom-line by increasing efficiency, but will enrich the lives of those working in IT and the associates they are assisting.
What do ineffective intercultural IT teams cost international corporations? What are practical ways that we can prepare our IT teams to work with overseas partners? How can we ready tech-minded people to communicate in difficult situations?
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?