When language love gets hard

Sometimes, they get weird when you talk to them. What do you do then?
Sometimes, they get weird when you talk to them. What do you do then?

I love walking through the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis. It holds the largest concentration of Somalis in the US. You see Somalis everywhere, smell the amazing blend of spices coming from apartment windows, and hear the beautiful language.

So I take the opportunity to speak at least a little Somali as I walk through the neighborhood. My Somali is still not very strong, but I know how to greet and meet people. As an ecolinguist I love to make connections with people from different cultures, and Somalis are open and easy to talk to.

Along the way I saw a young man, sitting by himself, and I said hello.

Maalin wanaagsan! Nabad? “Good afternoon! How’s it going?”

It got pretty awkward after that as I learned what it really means to connect with a community—every side of it.
Loving language when it’s awkward

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Language love is not about the money—or is it?

Use languages to build your local community = Ecolinguism
Use languages to build your local community = Ecolinguism

I’ve been following recently this discussion about my ecolinguism concept. (If you’re not familiar with this idea I coined, please see this post where I define it.) One direction that the conversation has gone in relates to my post where I critique digital nomads.

The argument in the discussion assumes that we as privileged, rich Westerners have a duty to help others with our wealth. Hence one must address the question: is it better to learn a language in a poorer area, such as Venezuela, or in a richer area, like the suburbs of a major US city? Where the people are poorer, there we have a greater duty to help. Moreover, it is oversimplification to call this action “colonialism” because colonialism brings with it wicked behavior historically. A blogger sitting in a cafe in Bali should not merit this label.

Another line of reasoning undermines any duty we have to immigrants and outsiders by questioning the definition of “needy.” Often Westerners look down on non-Westerners (such as immigrants, especially of other races). They may look down with disdain, and so hate the “intruders,” or with pity, and want to “help” others. The argument goes that the only way to look on these others is as equals. They do not “need” our help, but we reach out to them as brothers and sisters.

I believe that money is not central, and that human beings are not equal.

I believe that I have a duty to leave the world a better place than how I found it. Here’s how I do it by loving languages.
Why loving language

Teaching Spanish as a US language

How do we help kids love language?
How do we help kids love language?

Following up on last week, I don’t think we should focus on teaching or learning “world” or “foreign” languages. From an ecolinguistic point of view, we observe Spanish spoken all over the place. Let’s focus on how you would teach languages as if they were “local” and not “foreign,” that is, if kids in our school, people at the mall, were speaking those languages.

The example of Spanish works best. In the US Spanish is, in fact, not a foreign language. Since the US became the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, we should no longer teach Spanish as a language spoken “over there.”

Yes, people speak the language in lots of other countries, but that doesn’t make it a “foreign” language. If you lived in Panama would Spanish be a “foreign” language? Of course not. If you lived in Bilbao, would Basque be a “foreign” language? It would be a “local” language.

In reality, we speak many languages here locally in my town, even in our suburb and in our school. What would we need to do to fashion our language class to fill this role for language, especially Spanish?
Learn Spanish for what you’re doing

Loving language to save your life

Friends who do not know loneliness.
Friends who do not know loneliness. How do we learn from them?

Loving language can save your life. Some talk about languages helping you get a better paycheck or offering cognitive benefits. If you aim to make yourself richer or smarter, learning a language gives you marginal benefits. They will not save your life, though.

Or will they…?

Our society in the US—and more and more in the first world—is developing a serious, deadly condition, that is, loneliness. Note, though, that this is a problem of the first world. It does not afflict those of the third world nearly as much.

By learning a language, especially one of the immigrant groups living near you, you may have a chance of dodging the deadly bullet of isolation that is literally killing people in our society.
Our neighbors have the answer

I saw language loss happen

Every language in the US is on the verge of death. How do you give it life?
Every language in the US is on the verge of death. How do you give it life?

I can see language loss happening under my nose. It’s a process that takes years, but when you see it, you despair for the health of a language.

This week I took my kids to get yogurt, and the young cashier was Somali-American. She had an American look to her, even though she wore a hijab. My daughter thought she might go to her school. I greeted her in Somali.

Maalin wanaagsan! “Good day!”

She gave me a blank look.

That’s when I saw it happen.
Language death

Language of terror vs loving language

Listen--let him tell his story
Listen–let him tell his story

When I go to Cedar Riverside, a neighborhood of Minneapolis, to practice my Somali language, the streets are full of Somali people in the many shops and cafes. Sometimes I find that people will not respond to me in Somali—only in English. I long for someone who cannot speak English so that I can have a conversation in Somali, but I have only ever found a couple.

Now the news is coming to Cedar-Riverside, the biggest concentration of Somalis, and where I happen to go for my weekly Oromo study group. Here is a video of Fox News correspondent, Pete Hegseth, unsuccessfully trying to interview folks on the street.

The reporter claims that he could not find someone who could speak English.

Ha! Not what I’ve seen! Unlike the correspondent at Fox News, no one ever refused to talk to me. But I could never find these monolingual Somali speakers. Was it something he said?
Talk to immigrants

I’m against assimilation: Teachings from Africa

What are you learning from each other?
What are you learning from each other?

Why am I against assimilation? If the African immigrants had “fit in” to the norm here in Minnesota, they could not have taught me many valuable lessons. And if it wasn’t for pursuing their non-English languages, I may not have met as many of these wise people.

I’ve learned a lot from my African neighbors in the Twin Cities

Staring is perfectly acceptable.

Everything starts with networking.

If you want to get to know someone, ask them questions about themselves.

These are a couple of items I’ve learned from East African friends. They’re sinking more deeply into my thinking as I see them in action all around me. For example,

Staring is perfectly acceptable. If I want to know if someone is from Africa, I look a little longer at the person than I would at a white Minnesotan. If the person looks back at me or smiles, the person is likely African.

Everything starts with networking. If I friend an Ethiopian or Somali on Facebook, I know that five people will request to be my friend shortly after. Every time I look for news about Somalis, I learn about another community organizer. I learned that if you ever need to get in contact with a given Somali person, ask a room of 50 Somalis—someone will have that person in their phone.

I’ve learned from my African neighbors that neighbors should not be feared but embraced. Barriers provide only so much usefulness. I love interacting with them.

If you want to get to know someone, ask them questions about themselves. Here’s a great example of what I learned last week.
What I learned

Discoveries on an #Ecolinguistic Expedition

Let's set out together for exploring our hometown!
Let’s set out together for exploring our hometown!

Friday I considered an ecolinguistic expedition day. I set up an Instagram account (richardlanguage) where I started logging the languages I see around me.

Join me by posting pics of the languages around you and tagging them #ecolinguism!

In this first day, I didn’t go out of my way, but recorded why I saw as I walked along my normal Friday afternoon path to Oromo Table.
What I learned

How vital is our Minnesotan multilingualism?

What roles do the languages in your community play?
What roles do the languages in your community play?

Multilingualism provides vitality to cities, not just a problem to be solved. As a result, cities must preserve and promote this vitality through policies and services.

Recently, Michael Erard, author of Babel No More, made this claim in an article about multilingualism in cities. He followed the studies by a European consortium called Languages in Urban Communities: Integration and Diversity for Europe (or LUCIDE) in the book, The Multilingual City.

The researchers, Erard explained, studied some of the unofficial ways that languages are used in a cosmopolitan area, such as graffiti, posters, and trash—the “detritus” of less visible communities.

The studies focused on Europe, with some further research in Canada and Australia. They also tended to focus on “European” languages—more highly valued than perceived “foreign” languages like Romani and Arabic.

How would Minneapolis-St Paul, Minnesota, USA, measure up to the multilingualism of these studies?
Minnesota ecolinguism

Kiss the babies

Kids can be energetic and unpredictable--why not say "hi"?
Kids can be energetic and unpredictable–why not say “hi”?

The boy points at the baker’s case full of cake and cookies. His mother gazes with deliberate focus behind the counter, which leads the seven-year-old to tap her face in the direction of the sweets. She grimaces as she pushes the hand down.

For the moment her younger children occupy themselves, but she can only count on them not seeing the sweets for so long. In a preemptive act, she buys three muffins, yet her oldest escalates by raising the urgency of his voice and grabbing her face—which now begins to bear a look of defeat. Continue reading “Kiss the babies”