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

Assimilation is a two-way street: Learn your neighbor’s language

How do you talk to them? Did you learn their language?
How do you talk to them? Did you learn their language?

We, as a white, upper middle-class society in the US, are unwilling to enter into the suffering of another, especially when the suffering was brought about by our society. The isolation of African-Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and refugees testifies to this truth. African-Americans witness to our enslavement of others, Native Americans to our military conquest of this continent and resulting genocide, immigrants to our greed, and refugees to our misguided crusades.

Not only do we see this in the US, but also in Europe. The recent bombings in Brussels bring up the perennial hand-wringing about the inability of immigrants to assimilate to the culture of their host country, and the lack of avenues to do so.

This post is not about white guilt or atoning for past wrongs; I want to offer you an action you can take today that allows you to enter into the suffering of others and form relationships with others, at the cost of some of your comfort. You can take away the burden of assimilation from others while you take some of it onto yourself. Today. Learn the language of your indigenous, immigrant, or refugee neighbor. Further assimilation

Languages: Failure is Gain

Baha'i Temple India
Baha’i Temple India (Photo credit: Paul Ancheta)

An experience yesterday reminded me that a failure at language can be a gain for everyone.  I put my money where my mouth was (see my last post) and I went down to my Iranian neighbors’ house to chat.  Since it was Eid al-Fitr, I made some cookies to bring down to them, and I brought my wife.  I needed some kind of excuse to go visit; I wasn’t brave enough to go “just like that.”  My failures ended wonderfully.

Real life differs from language classes.  In language classes, speaking wrong results in failure.  If I forget my vocabulary, spelling, or grammar, I get counted down.  Imagine if I could get credit in language class simply because I came and spoke some of that language, no matter how flawed?  In reality, when I speak languages with folks, the latter is certainly the case.  My failure is rewarded and prompts me to improve.

When I went to the neighbors’ house I learned two things.  First, I learned that my neighbors are not Muslim as I assumed.  They are Bahai’i.  The wife’s family has been Bahai’i for multiple generations, and the husband is half-Muslim and half-Bahai’i.  He professes to be Bahai’i, though.  I know that the Bahai‘i in Iran have endured terrible persecution.  When I declared, “Eid mubarak!” (“Blessed Eid!”), they gave me puzzled looks.  How does it feel for others to assume you are their oppressors?  Would Russian Jews be happy to be wished, “Happy Easter!” considering Holy Week historically was a typical time for pogroms?  Since I assme the respective answers are “not good” and “no,” I felt pretty uncomfortable wishing my Bahai’i neighbors blessings on this Muslim holiday.

Second, I learned my Farsi is flawed, at best.  I was able to form questions, but was unable to understand responses.  My wife–who does not know Farsi–even interpreted their questions for me somehow.  I forgot how to say “1613” (my house number), and I could barely get out “one-six-one-three.”  At least I nailed “I don’t understand”!  My Farsi seemed to complicate the situation, which made me even more uncomfortable.

My feelings aside, here is the actual reaction: they kissed me and my wife.  The husband grabbed the back of my neck and pulled me in and kissed both cheeks.  The wife did the same with my wife.  This kiss came as a result of my failure.  Unlike language class, reality showed my failure was a success.  They showed that while my gut said “fail,” the reality was “gain.”

We do not need to worry about failing when we focus on other people.  Stumbling on cultural and linguistic matters helps the situation, when we focus on relationships.  At times we need information, so confusion seems like a failure.  If I had a business or legal deal with this family, things would have been difficult (impossible?) because so much information would have been lost.  However, the fact that I went in for the relationship first, the situation ended beautifully.  If I needed to do business with them at this point, I know that now things would go smoothly.  They think of me and my family as good people, as good neighbors who make an effort to know them, their culture, and language.  Effort clearly trumps failure in the long run.

When was the last time you and others benefitted from your language failure?  If you don’t have an example, go fail with your high-school Spanish or your recent Chinese study.  Then come back and let us know what happened!