Endangered languages challenge the smugness of the powerful

What can we learn from them? What do they know that we don't?
What can we learn from them? What do they know that we don’t?

With assimilation of language comes assimilation of culture, and as the language is lost, so is the culture. The longer we can put off assimilation of language, the more time we have to learn from the culture that accompanies that language. As speakers of a majority language, I must work to preserve a way of thinking and viewing the world that is different from mine.

In a recent article, one of my favorite language-writers, Michael Erard, described the tropes journalists use when writing about dying languages. Journalists make a kind of heart-breaking spectacle so we can watch these helpless languages go the way of the dodo.

I noticed that there is no call to action. While many people know about these sad stories, these stories offer nothing for readers to do. “Linguists” are depicted as tromping out into jungles and steppes to record the last gasps of the language “for posterity.” They are the amber that traps the last member of the species for future scientists to observe.

So what? Why care about dying languages?

Because you’re too smug.
Cultural challenge

Advertisements

Being American doesn’t mean speaking English

This is not the US!
This is not the US!

My family forgot, over the course of 2-3 generations, how to speak German (Swiss Basel dialect and Pennsylvania Dutch), Irish, Welsh, and Scottish. My wife’s family forgot how to speak Russian, French, and German. In the place where I live (Minnesota, USA), they forgot Ojibwe, Lakota, and Menominee, along with a countless number of European, Asian, African, and South American languages. (I have a coworker who personally forgot how to speak Aymara and Quechua.)

They didn’t simply “forget,” though. They were forced to forget. US society forces families and communities to forget. From the physical punishment of African slaves and Native American boarding school students, to the shaming peer-pressure of the modern suburban Middle School, our society squeezes the languages out of communities. Our society makes plain that to be one of “us,” your speech cannot betray any trace of the “Old World.”

Forgetting about the Old World makes us Americans.
Defining ourselves

Language love and reaching the Other

Who will you reach out to?
Who will you reach out to?

I read the 2016 US presidential election results this morning. After all these months of campaigning, one thing became clear in my mind: both sides failed.

In my mind, both sides failed because no one wanted to speak to the other side. Neighbors won’t talk to each other to even out differing opinions. Instead, self-created opinion bubble exist where its participants all believe they’re right.

This blog exists because I believe in connection. I believe in working to unite people who normally can’t understand each other.

We have a duty to reach out to the Other. We reach out to them because we must, not because we want to. I’m not sentimental at heart.

We are language-learners, and we have a duty to reach out to the Other in the way that we are able. Many of us, though, do not do our duty. We serve ourselves. On the one hand, it feels good to learn a language that is fun, whose culture appeals to us. On the other hand, we can learn the languages of those who live in our community.
Our duty to the Other

Love and language

When two come to the table, they must submit to the other in love.
When two come to the table for a dispute, they must submit to the other in love.

I’ve recently been attacked as a “cuck” for being a “pro-diversity pro-immigration liberal.” Another person, described as a “liberal and a first amendment fan,” respectfully disagreed with me. (I appreciated the latter much more than the former, I have to say.)

What was the position that got me stuck between two sides? I believe that dialogue between opposing sides has to take place as a prerequisite for the two sides to come to an agreement. The winner can’t be chosen ahead of time according to ideological criteria. We can’t decide ahead of time that the immigrant is right, or the person of color is right, that the anti-immigrant or racist is right. They have to sit and work it out.

Tyranny of the majority is just as bad as tyranny of the minority or even of the one. The majority, even the “just,” may be on the side of one or the other, but it doesn’t matter when the two are at the table together. Might does not make right.

Two come to the table to work out their dispute on equal terms. This assumes that neither sees himself as greater than the other, but each seeks to submit to the other. This is the ideal that I aim at, one where each seeks to become wise by loving the other in humble service.

Language helps us achieve the goal of resolving disputes. The people at the table cannot come to an agreement without a common language.

As for me, I want to love others in wisdom. I submit to the other in order to love him, even my right to speak my own language. I serve the one I’m discussing with by conceding my language.
Language and loving

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

Languages won’t make you more money, so why do it?

If you have to choose between love and money, where does your language motivation lie?
If you have to choose between love and money, where does your language motivation lie?

Let me correct that: English will make you more money. Because the US, UK, Canada, and Australia have a lot of it. With other languages, you’ll have to be lucky.

Learning foreign languages will improve your relationships with others. A more fertile ground for diverse languages will produce a better crop of human beings, better able to understand and respect one another.

Cultivating the environment around us has value that doesn’t show up in standard calculations of “Return on Investment” (ROI). I listened to a speech by environmental activist, Vandana Shiva. Working the land with our neighbors produces a better environment and healthier community, but eating what we produce does not produce wealth that can show up in GDP. In contrast, industrial agriculture, which does produce capital wealth, creates environmental problems and destroys species.

I am a native English speaker. I can get a job paying six-figures without ever learning another language. Not so in, say, the Philippines or India, where English is more valuable for learning potential than a college degree is in the US. When we say that languages are “valuable,” we are saying that the economic system has made one language more valuable than another. I can get a higher-paying job with this language than I can with another.

Economics does not drive my desire to learn languages like these forces drive industrial agriculture. The desire for a healthier community for my children and neighbors drives me to learn languages.
Language ROI

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