When I first saw Benny the Irish Polyglot’s TEDx talk, I was inspired. Here was a guy who suffered through language-learning in school with no success. Then one day he decided to just start learning on his own in his own way, and he made huge strides. Not only did he discover that he could learn languages, but he loved learning them. He “hacked” the language-learning process.
He created a very successful blog and YouTube channel. You get to see him struggling through the language-learning process as he has conversations with young folks all over the world. You follow his life in great locations like China and Brazil.
Living the dream, he inspired others. Lots of other young folks like him wanted to go live in exotic locations and hang out with cool local people and learn languages in the process. Other YouTube channels were generated.
Aspiring digital nomads (compulsive travelers whose work happens completely on the internet) got on the bandwagon. They wanted to go to exotic locations. Whether their internet connection comes in Bankok, Brasilia, or Barcelona, they could live anywhere—and learn the local language.
The digital nomads became the digital colonists. They came to take advantage of cheap rent—sometimes pricing locals out of whole neighborhoods—and “exoticness” for their own excitement. Rather than try to become part of a local community, they stay until the place is less exciting and then follow their Wanderlust.
Rather than inspire people to become more moral human beings, Benny’s “language hacking” gave people the tools to exploit more people in more countries—and have fun doing it.
I want to connect to the margins. In some ways, it’s where I feel comfortable. I lived a lot at the margins. I know what it’s like. In multiple countries, I did not live in an expat community, but immersed myself among locals only in places as diverse as Morocco, post-Soviet Ukraine, and France. At my university, I was a minority Gentile among a majority Jewish population, who taught me about life as a marginalized community.
At the same time, I could never live completely in the margins. I’m an upper-middle-class, English-speaking, graduate-degree-holding, straight white American. We have a lot of privilege. As I was told in Ukraine when I expressed my deep understanding of people in the margin, “It’s different. You can always leave.”
When I say that we need to sacrifice for the margin, I speak as someone who tries to express my appreciation of the marginalized, though any marginalization I ever experienced was temporary.
I can’t avoid my privilege. It’s part of who I am. It’s not evil and it’s not good. The way I use it defines it as good or evil. Previously (here and here) I spoke of my “why” for what I do and write:
I believe that we all should put ourselves out there to love. More specifically, we need to sacrifice for one another, especially for those in need.
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”→
When you go abroad to learn a language, how do you make sure that you’re learning the language? Many people travel with the hope that they will “absorb” the language, and then find that this process does not unfold by itself. Many people get lonely and make friends with the folks they have the most in common with: expats. They quickly get stuck the trap of speaking their native language while abroad rather than the language they’re learning.
How do you get unstuck?
When I visited Spain in college, I had a chance to visit Pamplona for the Sanfermin Festival (the “Running of the Bulls”). In one bar I met a local girl, and we chatted in Spanish. She told me she spent a year in the US—yet she never tried to speak English with me. Surely after a year in the US, she would speak better English than my self-taught Spanish, right?
“Where did you live?” I asked.
“Miami,” she replied.
That explained it! She lived in the US without speaking English.
“Are you going to eat?” This is my spontaneous Somali phrase I came up with as I bumped into a Somali friend in the cafeteria at work. I left out the mood particle (see below), but he understood me. Hooray for a victory!
Speaking of eating, I learned a little about coffee this week. “Coffee” is the stereotypical brown color in North Africa, it seems.
Anyone who decides to learn a language can do it. It doesn’t take special skills–99% perspiration, to paraphrase Thomas Edison. Deciding to learn a language and staying with it are entirely different, because motivation does not always come easily.
What about people who don’t want to learn languages? I know such people exist, as I see them at my work and in my house. What could motivate them? Is it self-centered even to try to motivate them to do something we love, that makes us polyglots better people, if they don’t love it?
Did you ever feel you take on a new personality when you speak another language? Does it feel like performance? Do you love it?
I love messing with cultural expectations. Greeting Africans at the airport in their own language gives me a rush. Speaking Arabic as a blue-eyed blondie gives me a laugh, too. I also like to speak Russian with a Ukrainian accent, or speak German with a Swabian (Stuttgart area) accent. Sometimes I get a laugh, sometimes anger. The folks at the airport always smile; I make friends during every layover. In contrast, once I was speaking Moroccan Arabic with a Moroccan waitress at a coffee shop, and I was accused of being a Jewish spy and encouraged to leave. (“We’re closing now,” I was told.) I don’t like the cultural rules we’re told to play according to; fooling people’s cultural expectations brings me joy.
Maybe I’m a kind of drag queen, messing with expectations. I recently listened to RuPaul‘s interview on Marc Maron‘s WTF podcast (Episode 498), where he compared drag performance to the “red pill” in The Matrix. We all know what it means for us to act like a man or woman, because in our “Matrix,” each gender follows certain rules–talking, walking, dressing, etc. in its own unique way. Human beings identify with one or the other gender and follow the rules. Society expects you to follow the rules of your gender; anyone who has been to high school knows the shame and horrible epithets that go along with the boy whose speech sounds too feminine or the girl whose hair looks too masculine. We demand that everyone follow the Matrix–otherwise, they threaten reality.
Drag performers take the “red pill” and so reject the Matrix and flaunt the rules and borders of gender. He or she changes identities in an instant: now he’s a woman, now she’s a man. “Ego”–so goes RuPaul’s famous tweet–“loves identity. Drag mocks identity. Ego hates drag.” Drag is threatening because our ego is grounded in an identity, such as gender, but drag shows that gender is just another performance. A man can go on stage and become a woman in actions, mannerisms, and character. He takes on a woman’s identity. Then he takes off the makeup and he acts like a man again. He mocks the rules of identity in the Matrix by never settling in one.
The cultural “Matrix”
The Matrix presents, in addition to rules for gender, rules for culture according to which we act and build our identities. If I am American, I act a certain way. If I am Greek, I act a certain way. If I am Russian, or Oromo, or Iranian, I follow cultural rules to display and maintain my identity.
This compartmentalized view of culture can cause an identity crisis for the children of immigrants. If I am a second-generation Indian, born in Singapore, living in Australia, how am I supposed to act? Indian? Singaporian? Australian? The Matrix doesn’t offer a set of rules for this situation, leaving us in the lurch. The Matrix demands that we despair that we don’t fit, or whittle down our identities to one the Matrix deems “normal.”
Take the red pill!
Languages are the cultural “red pill.” For “third culture” kids, who live between the culture of their parents and of their residence, they can thrive if they learn the languages of both cultures. They can transcend the Matrix and follow their own rules. Like drag queens, they can switch seemlessly from one set of expectations to another. Performing in each culture is unremarkable. When you see one of them switch to the other, however, the jaws drop: “How did he do that?” The Matrix doesn’t allow such fluid change of identity.
You can transcend the Matrix by learning another language and culture, and the more you learn, the less you are held fast by rules. You can connect with people you couldn’t otherwise. New ways of thinking will challenge how you perceive the world. When you have a dilemma or decision, you will suddently realize you don’t have to follow the expected solution; you can draw from ideas outside the normal expectations. Those invested in the Matrix might laugh at or reject you. At the same time, unlikely friends will meet you here; openness will greet you. Through new languages we hope to bring down monoculture and bring about a fertile ecosystem of new thinking and new ideas. We want all of your personalities and cultures.
Are you ready to help overturn the Matrix? “You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
I found that I have a thick skin at work. Sometimes people make fun of me behind my back, sometimes to my face. I found that I have a rare–if not unique–ability to ignore them. When other people might speak against me, I can pretend I didn’t hear the negative talk. As a result, I can focus on the future and on the positive, to be sure that we can keep doing what must be done. The tough situations I went through learning languages gifted me with this ability.
Recently I was moved by a Spanish-learner‘s post on Google+. She described how she worked with native Spanish-speakers who would make fun of her when she spoke Spanish. She was discouraged. I tried my best to comfort her by noting that I had been made fun of in multiple languages over a span of almost 25 years, on more occasions than I can count. Once I wrote this, I realized I had a rare experience–even a privilege!–that had strengthened me as a human being.
For example, when I lived in Ukraine, a classmate humiliated me in public. I was the only American in the class, and one of only two male students. Jealousy had arisen in the class among some of the girls. I had gone to a play with one of them, Alyona, and another, Natasha, a leader in the class, was frustrated with me. When Natasha and I were taking the tram together to class (she lived close to my neighborhood), she started making fun of me and humiliating me. Since I my Russian was still pretty basic at the time, I had a hard time understanding how Natasha was humiliating me and I was defenseless. The scene was so mean, that a middle-aged woman sitting next to us got involved, telling Natasha to cut it out; “How can you talk to him that way? He’s a foreigner!” she said. I was grateful to that woman, as I had no way to defend myself.
When we returned to school, I worked out in my head some sort of retort. I had to tell Natasha that my friends do not speak to me this way, so she could choose to be my friend or not. Not very subtle–it took great efforts to say even that clearly–but she got the message.
When I lived in Morocco, I had to deal with similar situations. A friend of mine introduced me to a couple of girls he thought I might like. My friend kept teasing me, trying to put me on the spot, saying in Arabic right in front of these girls, “Do you like her? You can’t tell her you don’t like her! Do you like her friend better?” I tried to take the pressure off by saying, ‘jbatni “I like her fine.” Unfortunately, I transposed the first root letter to the end and said, jb’atni “I’ve had enough.” (I only realized this mistake a long time later.) They laughed so hard: “Really? You’ve had enough already?” I didn’t know why that was so funny, but tried to smile. I was hoping to dig myself out of the humiliating situation, but I managed to dig myself in deeper.
When I would have dinner with my host family, sometimes they would just make fun of me. Moroccans laugh at each other more than Americans do, so I had to learn to live with it. Simple banter, though, was over my head. I didn’t know what they were saying. I couldn’t be a good sport because I didn’t know what to say back. I had to learn to look like a good sport, even if I was angry, frustrated, exhausted, or confused.
Love in the International House of Pain
These are only two examples. At other occasions, Russians openly mocked my American accent. Moroccan friends mimicked the way I emphasized certain words. French girls talked at me fast and furious, purposely trying to overwhelm me. I had to choose between smiling blankly and walking away. When I was living in another country, though, I often had nowhere to walk away to. On occasion I tried to smack someone, but that never helped the situation; I just looked crazy.
By brute force, I learned how to overlook people’s unkind actions. I could get over blows to my ego without having to strike back. I’m quick to retort in English, but I had to learn a different approach. I had to take my lumps–deserved or not–with both hands tied behind my back. Even though my patience did not come from virtue, but only from trying to keep from being humiliated less, I at least had to act as if I was virtuous. I saw what patience looked like; I had to be what patience looked like. Even if I was patient out of necessity, practice made it a skill that I could later use when needed.
This humiliating language-love taught me patience. I can endure people’s unkindness towards me. These people also taught me how to show kindness to people even when they’re cruel. When people speak this way towards me, I can choose to smile and not retaliate. Maybe even more importantly, I know what it feels like to be an outsider who has to endure humiliation. Language love taught me a new kindness.
Have you been humiliated learning a language? What did you learn from it?
Photo credit: Viewminder / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
If you are the spouse of an expat, you bear two burdens that the expatriot does not. First, you are responsible for household tasks, especially helping the family to adjust as a whole. Second, while the expatriot travels overseas for the sake of his or her career, you might do so at the expense of your career. For example, if your company cannot provide a position overseas, your career may suffer from this perceived “loss of time.” You may have to return to a brand-new job search in the home country with the added blot of “unproductive time” on the resume. In this post I’m going to focus on the second burden, although it overlaps with the first.
A career spouse who learns the host language has hope. If you learn a language you will network more successfully, and finding a job overseas, just like finding one in the US, depends on networking. Beyond the immediate advantages of knowing the language in the host country, learning a language offers new skills that will help your job search upon returning to the US.
Many families depend on the spouse’s career for a second income and giving purpose to the spouse. Companies need to recognize this—though they often do not. As reported on the Expatica blog, Lisa Johnson, Cendant‘s director of consulting services, says that low-level workers–not executives–need more help in job search assistance because they are more often dual-income families. In addition to lack of income, lack of career for the spouse lowers overall family quality of life.
My experience has additional shown me that knowing the language will make you stand out in a positive way. When I visited Morocco, after one-and-a-half days, locals approached me to chat: “There’s the American who speaks Arabic!” The language will get your foot in the door as someone who is smart, sympathetic, and unique. Language will open myriad channels for connection that will help with your career and personal life.
So the above writers demonstrate how learning a language is essential in helping with the immediate problems of integrating into the host country and of finding a job, but they do not stress the importance of learning the language itself for your future job prospects. A language represents a concrete skill that you can put on future resumes. Moreover, learning a language improves communication skills even in the native language. You will gain the ability to see things from multiple points of view. This ability aids in most interpersonal interactions in any workplace. The language and added communication skills fill that dreaded hole in the resume. When you return, future employers will no longer see a gap in your record but an applicant with new hard and soft skills for job advancement.