I’m pleased that this blog received its 20,000th view on March 14, 2014. That means that on 20,000 occasions people have plugged into the greatest love of my life: languages and connecting with others. I have learned so much from writing this blog, and from the challenging comments I’ve received from commentors here and on Twitter.
Language is humans’ principle means to connect to each other, to come out of ourselves. I hope to continue to advocate for language love in every way I can, and to serve my readers in bringing us all together under the umbrella of language-love. In modern culture, languages are looked at narrowly–if at all. I want to provide my readers and my culture every reason and means to study languages as I possibly can.
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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?
As a polyglot, I love the feeling of talking to and understanding people who come from communities all over the world. I feel a visceral buzz when I successfully connect. From my teens to my twenties I pursued this bliss from continent to continent. Where does this elation come from? Language overcomes an existential gap between me and others, fulfilling my need to connect with people and seeing the world through another’s eyes.
Separated from each other
We are cut off from each other’s thoughts by an existential gap. Humans can only experience their thoughts first-hand, subjectively. The outside world must be sensed objectively and then translated into subjective thoughts before we can experience it. For example, I know what I see of the outside world because the light enters my eyes, triggering sensory receptors that connect to my brain. Once a sight hits my brain and becomes thought, then I can experience the outside world.
Encountering another human being complicates my situation because we can’t experience each other’s subjective thoughts–and this can be frustrating, even leading to despair. I have to translate my thoughts into something that the other person can sense objectively and translate into his or her own subjective thoughts, and vice-versa. Only when we translate our thoughts for each other can we feel that we’ve connected.
Human beings long for and benefit from this connection. Our language and literature are full of these longings. We want to be understood; we want to connect; we want friendship; we want love. As people come from different ways of thinking and unique experiences, this encounter can broaden our view of the world as we see anew through another’s eyes. When I feel that I’m not understanding another or the other doesn’t understand me, deep longing, anxiety, or even terror can well up. Once we’ve felt that we connected with another, we tend to feel strong emotion and loyalty towards that person. We’ve overcome the existential gap.
Language bridges gap between us
Language endows us with the means to overcome that gap, even helping us to connect to the divine. With language we can connect in profound ways; without language we languish alone. People speak of other sorts of deep connection, but language always plays a part. Sex connects people strongly, but sex always includes connecting through language, from the pick-up line to “Was it good for you?” We desire to experience the other’s thoughts, and we require that the other translate his or her subjective thoughts into language. Language always accompanies the experience as our need to connect and bridge the existential gap drives us.
My grandmother lost her self when she lost language. She had a stroke at age 85, from which she lost her ability to speak and read. When she spoke her aphasia confused her words so that her language came out as nonsense, and so she lost he ability to bridge her existential gap. In two years, she could no longer take the suffering and at age 87 stopped eating until she passed away. Standing at the existential gap with no bridge led to an ultimate existential crisis.
Coming to a new country with a new culture and unfamiliar language, bridging the existential gap is frustrating, even to the point of anguish. One cannot express oneself and cannot grasp others’ thoughts. Even gestures can differ cross-culturally, so one cannot even count on that rudimentary medium of communication to bridge the gap. Without knowledge of language and culture, despondency waits on our side of the gap.
The deepest aspects of religion require language to convey their truths. The Abrahamic religions esteem a sacred book filled with words from the deity. The ancient Babylonians understood that the gods “wrote” messages in sheep livers and in the flight of birds, and the trained human could discern the thoughts of the gods through these means. Native Americans teach basic religious truths through oral stories. Even Jewish mystics derive ineffable truths from the language of the Torah, and then express it in the language of poetry. Language, therefore, bridges not only the gap between humans, but between humans and the numinous. (I borrowed this idea from Rene Girard.)
Need for connection drives my language love
Like everyone else, I wait at the existential gap, ready to move across it. When I’m stuck, I can’t understand others, and they don’t get me, I get frustrated. When I find a way to express myself clearly, when I finally discern another’s thoughts, that connection exhilarates me.
More languages, more travel, more friends offer me multiple fora for experiencing that exhilaration. As a polyglot I can always find new, exciting ways to understand and be understood. Significantly, the more exotic the language, the more euphoria I experience. I prefer speaking and conversation to reading and writing in languages because the buzz of bridging the gap comes more immediately when I speak with a liver person. Yet studying ancient languages allows me the only way to enter into the minds of those long dead, as well.
The love of languages is the euphoria of bridging the gap. I realize that I am not alone in my thoughts, but connected to others. New languages offer means of connecting with new people and seeing the world in new ways. Novelty and fulfilling my need for connection drive me through love to continue to learn languages.