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

Intermediate language-learning: Beyond the basics

This is the Linguistadores logo for Dutch -- one of several languages
This is the Linguistadores logo for Dutch — one of several languages offered

At this point, the language-learning market is saturated with on-line tools. They tend to fit in two categories: 1) very basic vocabulary and exercises (eg, Transparent Language) and 2) social networks for language exchanges (eg, iTalki).  Very little exists, unfortunately, for more intermediate learning. What do you do if you have the basics of the language down fairly well (eg, verb tenses, noun declensions, 200+ vocabulary words), but want to move on? You don’t know enough for, say, movies without subtitles or podcasts. Conversations with native speakers can’t last very long yet. Linguistadores has imagined the next step by helping your learning through native-language content, geared to your level.

Your choice of media
Your choice of media

This platform offers access to real pop culture items, but broken down for language learners. I tried out Dutch as the language I was learning and English as my native language. First, you have to input your language ability level. Then, the application will serve up material for your level. Materials come from three categories: written, videos, or music. The written are articles from popular periodicals.

From a music video, you can look up a word from the lyrics and add it to your list.
From a music video, you can look up a word from the lyrics and add it to your list.

Videos are popular TV shows or movies hosted on another site (eg, YouTube), and music are videos of pop songs. The pop songs play the video with the words of the song next to the video, but I couldn’t find subtitles for the non-music videos. You can easily look up words from the articles and songs.

You can save and collect words into a list to create flashcards.
You can save and collect words into a list to create flashcards.

Linguistadores also offers you a way to keep track of new words. As you run into unfamiliar words, you can click on them and save them. You can use these lists as flash cards for memorizing the words.

The site is in its beginnings, so I hope that it will grow in a few areas. First, I hope they come up with a mobile platform very soon. I do all my language study on the go. If I’m on a computer, I’m at work. (And I better be working!) I could only watch videos and scroll through the songs’ texts on my iOS and Android devices.

A representative of Linguistadores let me know already (they were very responsive to me on Twitter) that they are working on a mobile platform. I will be giving them my ideas and suggestions — and I’m looking forward to the results. I’m hoping that the word lookup function and the videos will be available in the mobile version.

Second, I hope the language offerings are expanded. Right now, the choices are English, Dutch, German, French, and Spanish. I know these languages fairly well, and I would prefer to spend my time getting my lower languages up to a higher level. I think it will take some time to expand offerings, however, as the quality and quantity of the language materials are very high. It takes a lot of effort to keep things at this level. (How long till they get to Farsi and Somali? LOL)

Third, I wonder about the future of the material they have. How do they plan to keep the offerings fresh? There are only so many music videos, for example. I’m afraid I could possibly get bored if I have to watch the same ones too many times. Also, several of the videos I tried to watch were taken down by the original owner, which is bound to happen down the line.

Nevertheless, I believe that on-line language learning has to go the direction that Linguistadores laid out. As a kid, I stepped up my native language by looking up new words in the dictionary. I also spent a lot of time reading the lyrics to songs I liked, which gave me an ear for how people enunciate in music. I want to get to a point where I can learn on my own from native content, and Linguistadores offers a wonderful stepping-stone.

What are the on-line tools you’re using for language-learning? What do you love about them?

Can you preserve a culture without the language?

Culture is about how you communicate, not just how you dress
Culture is about how you communicate, not just how you dress.

Disappearing cultures cause me to panic. The permanent loss of languages and ways of life make me imagine humanity impoverished. Over the weekend I watched the 2010 documentary, “Voices in the Clouds,” about a Taiwanese-American man, Tony Coolidge, who reconnects to his Atayal (one of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan) heritage after the death of his mother. Coolidge connected with activists who are working to preserve the heritage of these various cultures from this Island. When I didn’t hear the Atayal language spoken, though, I worried about the viability of this culture in the near future.

Cultural relics

I had mixed reactions to this film. On the one hand, the children amazed me as they sang and danced with such passion and skill beyond their years. Their teacher’s success is know internationally.  The film also highlighted those who continued traditional handicrafts, especially beautiful embroidery.

On the other hand, I missed hearing the language. Most of the movie was in English and Mandarin. I’m assuming the songs were in the native languages. I did not, however, hear anyone conversing in the Atayal language. When Coolidge met one of the Atayal elders and introduced himself, the woman immediately asked in Mandarin, “Do you speak Atayal?” The answer was “no” and so the conversation continued in Mandarin.

To me, the rest of the culture rang hollow with the language; it felt like looking at a museum. Rather than living and communicating in the most normal way, which happened to be Atayal, the life and crafts and music were about preservation. It was like “living history”–but history all the same. One very old woman talked about life in her mountain village, before she moved to the city: “We used to sing in the trees.” They simply sang; they didn’t sing to preserve a culture.

Cultural viability

When a people speak a language with each other, they are still producing new culture. Something essential is preserved with the original language. For example, if a people relocates to another place and starts wearing jeans and t-shirts, the culture doesn’t feel lost. But if the children wear jeans and t-shirts and can no longer speak to their grandparents, the culture is dying. When the kids wear “modern” clothing, but make up songs in their native language, the culture is perfectly alive.

Recently I heard a leader of a local Lakota community say, “If you don’t speak Lakota, you are not Lakota.” I don’t think he was trying to exclude anyone, but to challenge his community. Unless the people are speaking in this language, they are acting like their ancestors, not following in their footsteps. Loss of traditional hunting and housing have caused distress in indigenous communities, but the level of worry has risen as they see the viability of the language disappear.

Work to preserve a culture

The hardest part of a culture to preserve is the language. A workshop–or 100–will not make you an expert in a language. It’s a lifelong process of hard, beautiful, social work as you connect with those who connect with the culture on its deepest level.

Those of you who are learning a language, you are continuing a culture. Those of you who want to preserve a culture, learn the language and teach it to others. You and your conversation-partners will benefit by extending the life–both in time and in numbers–of another culture.

How will you continue a culture?  Which culture?  Why?

Photo credit: betta design / Foter / CC BY-NC

Shame and pride of bilingualism: How everyone can benefit from bilinguals

Some marginal people have hidden bilingual powers--a force of good for all
Some on the margins of society have hidden bilingual powers–a force of good for all

Bilinguals represent the margin of US society, and monolingual English speakers, the mainstream. I belong to the mainstream, though I have a deep interest, curiosity, and admiration for the margins. I’ve found how my interest connects with something joyful with speakers of other languages. At the same time, I’ve seen people who are embarrassed of their language, and the descendants of this embarrassment. In both cases, the mainstream and marginal cultures suffer loss.

This week I saw an odd contradiction represented by a couple of different ways that bilingual folks view their native language. Briefly put, one was ashamed to speak about their language; the other didn’t want to stop talking about it. (I’ve changed some details to protect people’s identities.) I also saw an ethnic community here in Minneapolis, where the language pretty much disappeared, leaving only the names of a few foods. These experiences showed me that preservation of languages in the US require engagement from both the mainstream and marginal linguistic communities. When we engage individuals’ interest in their language, the language continues to the next generation, and all of society benefits.

Pride in one’s language

At work I learned a lot about the Hmong language. I had the opportunity to talk to a co-worker who is a native speaker of this language. I learned about the dialects. There are two, not entirely mutually-comprehensible dialects spoken in China and Laos because the Hmong people originated in China before they moved south. As far as I know, the Hmong immigrants in the US come almost exclusively from Laos. My friend told me that a group of Chinese Lao folks came to Minnesota, and their songs sounded Chinese to him.

He also taught me about the complex writing systems of Hmong. The most standard writing system uses the Latin alphabet. It uses letters to represent the tones. For example, the word for hello is written “Nyob zoo,” but is pronounced “Nyaw zhong.” The “b” at the end of the first word stands for a high tone. (This differs from Vietnamese that uses complex diacritics for tones.)

We could have talked for hours. I don’t know how often he gets to talk about his native language, but it was clearly a delight for both of us.

Shame in one’s language

In contrast, I recently met a friend of my daughters who speaks Tagalog (Philippines) at home–and she had no interest in talking about it. She speaks the language at home, though she speaks English mostly with her sisters. Her aunt, though, does not speak English, so they have to speak Tagalog to each other.

I asked how to say names of food and “hello,” and she claimed not to know anything, that she never speaks the language. I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to learn some of this language, but it didn’t happen. We talked a little about Philippino food, but that was as far as it went.

Consequences of bilingual shame

This week I also went to an ethnic festival; the identity of the ethnicity I saw does not matter because it demonstrates the standard fate of ethnicities in the US. The festival included a handful of foods, referred to by their traditional names, and some costumes. The only time I heard the language spoken was by recent immigrants. Some older folks of this ethnicity in their 70s spoke only English.

These people’s parents or grandparents probably went through the same thing as my Tagalog acquaintance. When they were little, they were embarrassed about being different, so they shoved the language aside, so by the next generation, the language was gone from the community, completely replaced by English. Only the foods and clothing remained.

Standing out as a bilingual

I saw this week that people have a deep love of their language. Though they may not have many chances to talk about it, they love the opportunity. At the same time, this can be a source of embarrassment. After a while, the embarrassment causes the language to atrophy, so that it plays no role, or maybe a very reduced role, in the next generation.

Some think that the way to bring non-English speakers into the mainstream of US culture, we need to teach them English, but we could be more successful if we brought their native or home language to the dialogue. When we show interest in the language of the bilinguals around us, we allow them to integrate into society better because they can engage their whole self–including their language.

Moreover, the mainstream culture benefits, too. Every member learns more ways of thinking and problem-solving. Diversity of thought leads to more intelligence. Highlighting bilinguality even encourages our monolingual culture to learn another language so that everyone can benefit from another language–and the joy it brings.

What can the mainstream do to encourage bilinguals? How can bilinguals benefit the mainstream?

Photo credit: c@rljones / Foter / CC BY-NC

No shame in loving language!

Free yourself from perfectionism!
Free yourself from perfectionism!

Perfectionism leads to shame because perfectionists can never live up to their own standards.  Not trying and rationalising lack of action cause less pain than trying and failing.  When people start learning languages they often think of their current level of their native language as the level they should be at.  The task seems so daunting to many that they don’t start.  Yet some still start.  Naturally, after many months and years, they still do not reach the level of their native language.

Often they feel bad about not knowing a language fluently.  They might feel lazy, they might feel stupid–in other words, they feel shame.  In spite of earning a reputation for monolingualism, most Americans I know have learned another language in some capacity, whether Hebrew at synagogue or Spanish on “Sesame Street.”  But they feel shame, they hate themselves because they’re bad at the language.  Excuses begin.

I can help you.  I think you probably know a little of a language, and that’s great.  People often rationalise the reason why they don’t know more.  I’ve included in this post three of the most common rationalisations I’ve heard–and cures for them.  Enjoying what you know and taking yourself a little less seriously will help cure your language perfectionism.

I only know a little–not very much

“All I can say is ‘uno, dos, tres.'”  “I can pronounce the words, but I don’t know what I’m saying.”  “I learned a little in school, but that was a long time ago.”  Phrases like these belie underlying shame for not being good enough at a language.  The one who says it feels like they should know a language better, but just never got around to learning it better.

People seem to think that their “limited” exposure does not measure up to what it should be.  Fluency or nothing seems to lie at the core.  Since they can’t communicate everything they want in the language, they won’t bother.  The language is to have conversations; without that ability, their language knowledge may as well not exist.

Language serves a lot of purposes besides full conversations, namely, to connect people.  If I only know “¿Cómo estás?” then I can use it when I run into a Spanish-speaking person at work.  (If the person answers in Spanish, refer to the next point, below.)  If you say you can only read Hebrew or Arabic and not understand, look again–you probably understand a smattering of words that you can use.  Two words are better than nothing.  A friend of mine went to China with a coworker, and they only learned “hello” and “handsome man.”  They broke the ice in a lot of situations by bringing smiles to people’s faces.  A handful of words won’t carry a whole conversation, but can bring people together.

I can’t understand when people respond

I’ve heard the story many times: I really hunkered down and studied my language.  I took classes, I bought Rosetta Stone, I listened to my language on-line.  Finally, I got the chance to go to the country.  When I took my Coke to the cashier, the lady spoke so fast that I couldn’t understand a single word.  I asked her to repeat, so she said it louder, and I still didn’t get it.  I smiled, showed her my money, and she picked out the right amount.  Humiliated, I realized I am no good at languages and I will no longer try.

Language-learners resemble children in adult bodies.  They look like adults, but you have to talk to them like they’re little kids.  They can’t understand the simplest things!  The tension is unavoidable.  You know what you want to say, and you want to be respected like an adult.  Now it sounds like the adult you’re talking to in your language is yelling at you, scolding you.

I think we can revel in this disconnect.  Rather than feel the shame of a naughty child, we can laugh at the funny man-child (or woman-child) we have suddenly become.  My friend told me about his friend–I’ll call him Jack–in France.  Jack came to France to look for work, but his French was barely existent.  He kept his chin up in this difficult reality.  When he saw quizzical responses on people’s faces, when he couldn’t make out the answer to his request, he laughed.  Because of Jack’s great attitude, he could have a whole boulangerie in stitches when he went to order a croissant; everyone had a good time.  Rather than feel shame for his French, Jack drew attention to his inability to speak “well” and everyone loved him because of it.

I really want to get good at this language before I start another one

A long time ago I was on a message board with folks who love languages.  One person was lamenting that she wanted to learn Russian and Greek, but she didn’t want to start yet because she wanted to get good at Spanish first.

The person held some unrealistic expectations that were holding her back.  First, the point at which one is “good” at a language eludes us–if it actually exists.  As a result, we are tempted to put off the starting point for Russian, Greek, etc, forever, since we can always convince ourselves that we are not yet “good” at Spanish.  Second, the need to wait exposes our tendencies towards perfectionism.  We need to be good first because people might think we’re no good at Spanish or we can’t finish what we’ve started.  Maybe we’ll lose the little Spanish we gained once we start Russian, and then we’ll sound more dumb than we were!

My response was: embrace your inner debutante!  Learn a little bit of Russian while you learn your Spanish.  Find a Spanish textbook on how to learn Greek.  Memorize “hello” and “good-bye” and “I love your language!” in Russian, and then go back to Spanish.  Listen to Greek radio on-line while you memorize your Spanish words.  No chef perfects beef before moving on to chicken–he does both.  He doesn’t have to be the best at both, but he can still learn how to adapt.  Learning is always good.

Perfection is not attainable

Perfectionism lies at the root of our language shame.  We don’t speak enough, we don’t understand others, we shouldn’t start being imperfect at another language–all come from perfectionism.  When we don’t attain that perfection, we feel guilty.

Laughter is the best medicine, and it can cure perfectionism.  Trot out your three words of Spanish, smile when you don’t understand, and love learning a few phrases of a language you’re not focusing on right now.  Any language you can learn will help you–and will help the one you are speaking to.  When our attitude shifts away from our shame towards love and connection, speaking languages will continually bring us–and everyone around–delight.

Photo credit: danorbit. / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND