People don’t speak languages, communities do

Entering the community means unexpected conversations
Entering the community means unexpected conversations

I have often heard, “Talking to people is one of the best ways to learn a language.”

The truth is, talking to people is the only way.

People use all sorts of means to learn languages. Recommendations vary from listen to music or watch movies, to study books, memorize vocabulary, and post on social media. Modern technology changed the method of delivery of language data, but not the content.

Nevertheless, every method is preparing you to talk. As a baby, everyone learned how to speak their native language. Reading and writing came way later. Polyglots are judged on how they speak, not how much grammar or vocabulary they mastered.

How do you learn how to speak? You can’t learn how to speak by yourself, or even with one other person. You find a group of native speakers and you talk to them. You need a community.

When I learn community languages, I aim to speak to the people in my town who speak them. Setting speaking in a community as the goal of your language-learning will determine your success.
No language without speaking in community

5 ways to overcome fear and awkwardness in language learning OR How to talk to strangers

Don't just listen! Break the ice and start talking.
Don’t just listen! Break the ice and start talking.

I get shy sometimes. Some days I hear one of my languages and I jump right in. Other times, I find it hard to insert myself through the awkwardness into a potential conversation.

With Somali I have to count on conversations with people. I have not found many materials, plus I’m getting past the stage where materials help me that much. Now I just have to talk to people. I went to one of my favorite Somali cafes today for conversation.

As eager as I was to talk, I was silent, bashful. When I ordered my food, the gentleman told me to sit and he would bring me my food. I was too shy to sit. “Where do you want to sit?” he said, food in hand. I shrugged.

“Sit here!” He set down my food next to a man about my age in a room of folks involved in a football (soccer) match.

I had to figure out something, or waste my practice visit.

What should I say?
How I overcame the awkwardness

The ecolinguist’s 5 *alternative* New Year’s resolutions for 2016

Now that the party is over, how will you serve others with language?
Now that the party is over, how will you serve others with language?

I see a lot of language-specific new year’s resolutions these days. Studying more, starting new languages, and traveling to exotic places appear at the top of these lists. Language-learners consider the highest good to be the number of their languages and their degree of fluency.

Languages offer learners a great way to experience the world and get more out of overseas trips. Self-fulfillment.

These goals serve the learners themselves, but what about those around them? For an ecolinguist—that is, one sensitive to the ecosystem of languages around them—language-learning goals look much different because they focus on others and not on the learner.

Here is what those goals would look like.
Resolutions of the ecolinguist

Learning languages at the airport

Be brave and meet great people at the airport!
Be brave and meet great people at the airport!

“How are you always finding people?” our exchange student asked me at the airport Tuesday night, after I had struck up several multilingual conversations with strangers.

Airports are full of languages, and this is how I’m “always finding people.” I keep my ears open. I cherish opportunities to talk with fascinating people from all over the world.

I met refugees. I heard about difficulties living in the US. I got to know about American life from a new point of view.

Do you keep your ears open? What languages have you heard spoken recently? How well do you speak them?
Read: 4 languages, 1 night!

Practical tips for learning Somali in Minnesota, Part 1

This is what studying Somali looks like for me.
This is what studying Somali looks like for me.

Languages don’t require a book to learn. They only require a community. Books help when you don’t have people around, but when you meet people who speak your language, make the most of the encounter. Introduce yourself, tell them how much you love their language, and see if they can help you advance.

Let me explain how I learn Somali in Minnesota. Realize that I don’t live close to a Somali community, that is, I don’t run into Somalis on a daily basis. I have to drive intentionally to where I know Somalis frequent.

Memorization lies at the foundation of my Somali work. I read some books and articles just to glean vocabulary—individual words and phrases. I put them into my Anki deck, and I go through my deck every day at about 5am. I do it at that time because the day gets too busy otherwise and I forget.

When I get into Minneapolis, where the largest concentration of Somalis live, I take advantage of my visit.
Read about a recent “lesson”

Polyglot questions: How do we use languages for good?

Nothing beats deep conversations with polyglots!
Nothing beats deep conversations with polyglots!

During my short two days at the Polyglot Conference in NYC (in the midst of my public speaking tour), I spent much of the time chatting with people. Since my talk concerned how to use this talent/hobby/obsession of ours for bettering our community, my fellow polyglots offered their own ideas on this topic. We can use languages to help international aid and speakers of rare—or just less well-known—languages, as well as ourselves.

Here are ten people, in alphabetical order, who offered me some ideas and questions that enriched my thinking.

I recommend you stop by their web page and/or Twitter feed. Please stop by! When you visit them, please say hello from me! Let’s keep the conversation going.
Some important food for thought

Hating Swahili: The cost of bilingualism in the US

Hatred of language: What can you do?
This happened for speaking the “wrong” language.

Advocating for a multilingual public space may seem abstract or a “nice-to-have” feature for an ideal society. A recent event shocked me into the realization that language tolerance matters for life and death. Hatred towards languages begets real violence against others. We must all embrace and engage in public use of multiple languages for the sake of those who would be discriminated against on the basis of language.
The reality of language hate

Learning from anxiety: Waxaan ku hadlay maanta afka soomaaliga! I spoke Somali today!

What did you learn after your crash?
What did you learn after your crash?

I had some great opportunities to speak Somali this week. Since I live in the suburbs, just over the Minnesota River from the largest Somali populations in the US, I took an opportunity to cross the bridge to practice with some folks.

I listened to a podcast this week about language anxiety (listen to part 1 here) and read an article with new research on the same topic.

Language anxiety affects me. By getting out of the “classroom,” however, and into the community, I saw that any anxiety I had was unfounded.

How I enjoyed my anxiety

Entering dangerous territory: Ecolinguism off the beaten path

How do you learn about their story?
How do you learn about their story?

The salesperson just spoke to those people in English, I realized.

“Do you speak English?” I asked the dark-haired young man across the aisle from me. His face showed sun, wrinkles, and fatigue, making it hard to guess his age—somewhere between 25 and 45.

“No,” he shook his head and smiled as he pointed to the young woman sitting next to him. I had noticed her enormous, beautiful brown eyes, which, though tired, never closed during this long train ride.

“What language do you speak with them?” I continued, indicating the older man and younger women he was traveling with.

“Kurdish,” he answered.

I had him: “Bitdhaki al-arabi?” “Do you speak Arabic?”

His face lit up, “Yes, I speak Arabic.”

“Where are you from?”


“Are you fleeing the war?”


How do we learn others’ stories?

Know story, know language; no story no language: Stories in the linguistic ecosystem

How can we come together over the language barrier?
How can we come together over the language barrier?

While I continued to talk, I was losing my train of thought. What had I said? What was coming next?

When was this going to be over?

As my face got hot and my chest tightened, I looked out at blank faces of my 17-year-old classmates.

“Est-ce que vous me comprenez?” “Do you understand me?”

Surprised by a direct question, one or two audience-members brightened. “Oui!” I heard.

How soon could I be done with this book report?

* * *

Every student gets nervous presenting in front of the class; mine was in a foreign language. I was delivering my part of a French book-report—French book, French report—on Voltaire’s “Candide.” Stumbling around, I felt like a kid learning to ride a bike: a few good pedals, then a wobble, pedal, wobble—ready to tumble at any time. I had to plumb the depth of Voltaire’s French language, and express it in French in a compelling way.

Finally, my speech was over. I knew my teacher would be merciful, but how about my classmates? At the end, one girl consoled me, “Yours was kind of more interesting, since you spoke without just reading your report.” I wasn’t equipped to even grasp that comment: was that a big deal or a consolation? Was she being nice, or expressing honest relief?

Over 20 years later I still ask myself, “Did I make any sense at all?”

Confronting the language barrier