Loving Sign Language in coffee shops: Could we do more?

The staff of DIB Coffees of Hawaii signing
The staff of DIB Coffees of Hawaii signing

We now have an example of retail establishments that cater to speakers of other languages.

Coffee shops are beginning to train personnel to serve members of the deaf community. They learn sign language so that customers who are deaf can have the same experience as customers who hear. Among these, Starbucks has received a lot of recognition. They are not the only one, though.

Can we use this step forward to introduce more languages? Since we know that these baristas can learn sign language, they can clearly learn other languages, like Spanish or Chinese or Somali, so that speakers of those languages can have a great experience in their stores.
How they accommodate

Language love is culture in drag

...And the Red Pill, which activates the Trace...
Will you take the red pill and challenge monoculture? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Taking the “red pill

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.”

Trilingual in the USA: Staying connected to roots in India

This post continues new category of posts, called “Language Dignity,” wherein I seek to interact with and learn from those who are bilingual (or trilingual) in the US. I hope their stories will grant dignity to their languages and cultures, and teach Americans more about the people around them.  For the previous post in this series please go to From Spanish to Latino: New identities formed in the USA.

* * *

Language can connect the current US generation to earlier generations in India
Language can connect the current US generation to earlier generations in India

Sid and Abhi don’t think consciously about the Telugu, Hindi, and English swirling in their heads, but a single sentence might contain words from all three languages.  They came to the US from Hyderabad, India, their multilingual home.  It is located in a Telugu (a Southern Dravidian language) area, but 30-40% of residents are not Telugu-speakers.  Hindi (a Central Indo-Aryan language) is the lingua franca among the residents who come from all over India.  Many additionally speak Urdu, thanks to a sizeable Muslim minority.  Each person there speaks his or her “mother tongue,” but when those from Hyderabad speak, Indians recognize their mixed dialect of “Hyderabadi.”

When they came to the US, they possessed very advanced English; the main challenge came from adapting to the US dialect.  Back in India, Sid and Abhi both spoke Telugu, and they took Hindi and English in school.  Yet it took Abhi six months to get used to American speech.  She had trouble understanding people on the phone, and was intimidated at her first job interviews.  “People couldn’t get a single word!” she laughed.  She said that Sid, who had lived in the US for 10 years longer than Abhi, explained to her at the time, “You need to slow down,” in order to make up for differences in pronunciation.  Sid had faced his own problems as a teaching assistant in grad school: he had to slow down his speech for his lectures, and he “butchered” the names of his Midwestern students.

Hyderabad is in the West of Andhra Pradesh, India
Hyderabad is in the West of Andhra Pradesh, India

As they think in multiple languages, Sid and Abhi navigate multiple associations and emotional landscapes.  Their mother tongue connects them emotionally to India, their family, and their past.  Abhi works here in Minnesota with some of her classmates from India, and occasionally will find herself speaking Telugu with them without thinking.  The association with the past brings out Telugu.  English still occupies much of her mental lexicon, however.  When she is India, for example, she has to remember not to say “fan” in English, but “pankha” (actually Hindi, but used in Telugu, as well).

Sid brings out nuance and history depending on the words he chooses.  When he speaks he tries to “take the full of advantage of all languages,” so his sentences come out a “combination of all langauges” in his native context.  Every word carries not only a meaning, but a nuance and an association.  For him, Telugu is the language of his family, but Hindi relates to school, where many of his classmates came from the North of India and did not speak Telugu, and English now relates to the US.

They are pleased with the diversity of people in their social circles in the US, though at times being Indian can be isolating.  Ironically, the Indian friends of Sid and Abhi in Minnesota reflect greater diversity of Indian culture than what they experienced day-to-day even in India.  At the same time, it is difficult for them to socialize with non-Indians.  After working all day and then attending cultural and religious events and activities for the kids, “no time” is left for socializing with non-Indians.

They worry that their children will grow up without a close emotional connection to their family in India.  Both Sid and Abhi grew up interacting daily with many uncles, aunts, and grandparents in addition to their immediate family.  They don’t worry so much about their children lacking the language (they say that so many kids in Hyderabad speak English and Hindi now that Telugu is less important), but about the family connections that their kids are missing out on.  Sid said, “I don’t want the kids to lose touch with their identity,” which goes along with family connections and language.

Abhi recognizes that the nature of family relations is changing.  When she and her husband travel all over the world, they still connect most closely with the relatives they grew up with.  It will be different with her children.  She is afraid she will miss her children terribly when they will go away to college.  Yet she knows that this fragmentation of family is happening all over, even in India.  Her own relatives are dispersed to the US and the Middle East.  Her kids’ relationships will likely look different from hers.  She wants to remain close to her children–geographically and emotionally–but she doesn’t want her emotions to get in the way of her kids’ development.  Even if they go, she hopes they will come back and stay connected.

How will your children stay connected to your family? your ancestors?

Photo credits: United Nations Photo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND; Wikimedia Commons

International students in middle school: Marginal or model?

International students raise everybody's level
International students raise everybody’s level

So many schools in the US profess the importance of producing global citizens. Learning new points of view, becoming “marketable” in an internationally-facing economy, and engaging in different languages and cultures all make up the ideals of a “global curriculum.” Our students, however, sorely lack global competence.

At the same time, our schools are full of speakers of many languages. My own daughters’ school has speakers of Spanish (Latin American and Iberian), Russian, Somali, Oromo, Amharic, Arabic, and Telugu that I’ve heard myself. (Who knows how many more there are?) Their experience spans multiple continents.  All these students are wells of knowledge for everyone at the school; the only problem comes from how to draw it out so all can drink.

Today’s global citizens

The kids from all of these different countries already embody these global ideals. They are truly multi-cultural. They bring in one culture as they absorb America from the cafeteria, the locker room, and their iPods. They are all expected to know a second language–English–at a very high level.  Their English class expects way more than, say, the school’s Spanish class, as it pushes these students to use the language in multiple, challenging contexts, with the high-flung goal of allowing them to compete with native speakers.

Rather than set these kids up as a model, unfortunately, our school and society marginalize these international students. The hijabs of the Somali girls make them “strange,” and kids don’t know how to interact with the Latinos who sit together and speak Spanish at lunch. The Russian kids don’t want to talk about their families’ different traditions, and the Arabs keep quiet so no one hears their accent. Many of them go off to ESL or ELL classes during the day–which is considered remedial, not supplementary. ESL and ELL aids help “accommodate” the kids or their parents. If you hear any language besides English on the playground, you will only hear it in hushed tones.

The wrong model

The monolingual, monocultural kids function, whether we like it or not, as the model. Clearly, we need to teach English and American norms to kids from all countries so they can function and succeed. At the same time, we barely push those kids who lack fluency in a language besides English or display ignorance of any culture or values besides those of the US.  The monocultural kids are already at the top of the class.

We misplace the stigma. Instead of just getting the international kids “up to speed,” we ought to emphasize among the monolingual, monocultural student body that they do not measure up to the high level set by these bright, flexible, intelligent students. (Studies have shown that fluency in more than one culture and language improves cognitive and academic performance.) Our schools should do more to lift up and highlight the unique knowledge and wisdom of these children. As much as our education pushes knowledge of English language and American culture, all would benefit from learning from their multicultural, multilingual example.

Drawing from the well of international students

Our schools could offer much more as they prepare our children for global citizenship if they drew from the very student body of the school.  If I want my child to learn Telugu, why does the school not offer a forum for her to learn from her Indian friend? Taking kids out of “normal” class for ELL classes is important, but why not other languages for other children? If my children learn about world or US history, why do these children’s experience not make up part of the curriculum? Why don’t the kids from the Spanish table at lunch help out the Spanish class? Why do my children not learn in literature class about the beautiful, unique importance of Somali poetry? or Arabic music in choir class?

Students should be rewarded for broad cultural and linguistic heritage, and ignorance should be educated. Grades and assignments should reflect global citizenship. Language arts should include knowledge of another language and international genres of literature. History should include deep knowledge of other countries. Speech and communications should reflect the ability to communicate in other languages.

Will the monocultural and monolingual students cry “no fair!”? I hope so. I hope they realize that it is not fair for them to be consigned to ignorance. We should influence them with grades and peer pressure–the main incentives in middle school–to dive deeply into another culture. Then the global citizen from Russia will get a better grade than the kid born in the US, or the one who is embarrassed of his Chinese accent will outshine the one who doesn’t even try to speak another language. Not only will this produce better global citizens, it more accurately reflects our globalized economy and society.

How do you think schools could draw from the multicultural, multilingual knowledge of all of their students, to the benefit of all?

Photo credit: Éole / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Anyone can learn a language, but not always in a classroom

Get out of class and learn your language!
Get out of class and learn your language!

A friend of mine is an immigrant from Russia.  He speaks excellent English, though his pronunciation marks him as a native Russian speaker.  He is a PhD in the sciences, so he is clearly intelligent.  Recently, though, he confided in me that he received two 4’s in school (equivalent to American B’s): in Russian grammar and in English.  It struck me: how could someone who was good at school, bad at these subjects?  And if he supposedly wasn’t so great at these in school, how did he manage to succeed in English as he did now?

In the classroom, he did not do well in English, in spite of his aptitude in other school subjects.  Successful learning for him required Immigrating to the US and surrounding himself with English speakers.  He manifested a basic fact, that any human being can learn another language.  Generations of people without any formal education have become polyglots without much conscious effort; my friend became one more of their number.  Brains are ready to learn multiple languages.  Classroom language education does not work as effectively as the direct approach: learning the language on the street.

The contrast

This conversation reminded me of some of my own personal and second-hand knowledge of language education.  My only non-A’s in high school were German and Russian.  I know of many people whose last experience with a foreign language was a deflating experience in a school language class.  Benny the Irish Polyglot describe this experience vividly in his TED talk.   Everyone struggling to grasp another language in the classroom.

Then I remember my African and Indian friends and Indonesian acquaintances who take no credit for knowing 4-5 languages.  My Russian scientist  friend told me the same is the case in Dagestan, in southern Russia.  Africans and Indians often speak 1-2 linguae francaelike English and French in Africa, or English and Hindi in India.  Then they speak a majority local language, like Yoruba in Nigeria or a state language in India, like Punjabi.  Finally, Mom and/or Dad might come from the village, so that’s an additional 1-2 languages.  Three is easy to come by, and five happens without trying.  When I look on Youtube for the videos of the famous polyglots, I noticed that they are nearly all from the US and Europe.  I have not noticed one Indian and no Africans.  Is this under-representation because polyglots abound in these areas so much that they do not stand out in their culture?

The paradox

Note the main difference between these two groups of people.  The Russians and Americans spent much of their time learning languages in school; the Africans and Indians spent the minority of language-learning time in school.  The more formal education correlates to the worst outcomes.

In the US and Russia, the education system dumped and continues to dump millions of dollars into language education, when the solution is to live among the people and just talk.  Grammar largely doesn’t matter for these language-learners in Africa and Asia.  They took very few tests, and they may not have memorized vocabulary.  They may not have even been literate in that language.  They turned to someone and talked, and that someone talked back, and they worked it out.

One system can’t manage to teach a foreign language to a highly educated scientist; the other teaches multiple languages to people lacking formal education.  Yet the former educational system spends so much money on language-learning that doesn’t work so well.

We have what we need–and it’s free

In the US people always say that you have to live in the country if you really want to learn a language.  Just learning from a book isn’t enough, we admit.  Yet we always say this as we lament a monolingual doom.  We are not doomed to monolingualism, however.  What are the languages of our cities? of our states?  In Minneapolis-St Paul, we have a huge numbers of Spanish, Hmong, and Somali speakers, not to mention Chinese, Vietnamese, and Oromo speakers.

That’s it.  That’s all you need–for the cost of some time and a cup of coffee or a meal.

Ok, so you found someone who speaks the language–what do you do now?  You start with questions, with gestures, with mimicry, and then you continue building on what you learn.  Because your brain was set up to learn multiple languages, you can go in with the knowledge that you can totally learn this language without classroom instruction.  You will learn and make new friends.  If you must use high-tech tools, stick with Anki to create and track flash cards, or maybe organize notes with Evernote.

Effective education

From what I’ve seen, the most effective education in language comes from the street.  Since we’re set up to learn multiple languages, we just need to find the input.  What’s better is that input comes from delightful people all around us.  If classroom instruction would work effectively, it would need to incorporate language-learning truths that cultures have known for centuries.  Like my Russian friend, the best classroom for learning English was outside the classroom.  Languages are not a subject like some others, like science or literature; they come from interaction with others and not from a book.

How about you?  Do you learn languages best in or out of the classroom?  Did you ever have a fantastic language classroom experience?

Photo credit: Orange42 / Foter.com / CC BY