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

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

A month of public speaking and an end to my blogging hiatus

Need a public speaker for the importance of learning languages? Please contact me.
Need a public speaker on the importance of learning languages? Please contact me.

I’m glad you’re still with me, dear readers! I haven’t blogged for a few weeks because of several public speaking opportunities, where I’ve been able to discuss the importance of connecting with local communities, namely, through learning community languages.

I love public speaking. If you need someone to speak to your group about the importance of learning languages, languages as a cultural bridge in your community, or practical tips for learning a language, please contact me. My experience and enthusiasm will surely exceed your expectations.

Lots of good stories are coming soon, arising both from my public talks and from recent language-learning experiences.

Here are my public talks from the last month:
Click to see what they were

I can’t make you love languages

No interest? No motivation? What motivates you?
No interest? No motivation? What motivates you?

Anyone who decides to learn a language can do it. It doesn’t take special skills–99% perspiration, to paraphrase Thomas Edison. Deciding to learn a language and staying with it are entirely different, because motivation does not always come easily.

What about people who don’t want to learn languages? I know such people exist, as I see them at my work and in my house. What could motivate them? Is it self-centered even to try to motivate them to do something we love, that makes us polyglots better people, if they don’t love it?

Continue reading “I can’t make you love languages”

Do you love the languages around you?

Do you love to learn from those around you?
Do you love to learn from those around you?

I subvert. I do not tend to like what authority says, simply out of prejudice. I can’t help but question it. Is the authority trying to manipulate me, to make me act in some way? I sometimes wonder if the authority has looked at all the angles. Could these ends be attained in a better way? I wonder if the authority has examined its moral responsibility. Is it a good end they seek? Authority seeks its own ends in its own way, marginalizing those who don’t see things their way.

Forget the powerful. Those on the margins have better, more creative, more compassionate ways of approaching problems. As human beings, they have their problems, of course. Folks like me–insider, comfortable, respected, able-bodied–need to listen to those who are pushed to the side to gain the wisdom that we lack by ourselves.

Automatically questioning the assumptions of authority, can make me cynical. At the same time, this doubt often aligns me with those who are marginalized, since they tend to work according to a different set of presuppositions than the powerful on the inside.

The marginalized have taught me a lot, especially that opening myself will teach me that I don’t have all the answers. I wish that authority figures knew what I know about what was happening on the margins. If we listened more to those on the margins, we would act more morally and connect more deeply with people different from us.

An eye for the subtle

What do you do when you hear someone speaking English (or any other language) with an accent? In the USA, these people are in the margins, and I know that I have a learning opportunity before me. If I’ve got the time, I tend to ask what other languages the other person speaks. This week, I got to have some cool conversations as a result.

Recently at work, I was standing in line in the cafeteria, and I heard an accent in English. I asked if the gentleman spoke a language other than English, and he replied, “Yes–six or seven.” A man after my own heart!

I ventured a guess (in Dutch): “Bent U Nederlander?” (“Are you from the Netherlands?”)

Belgie.” (“Belgium.”)

“Ah! U bent Flams.” (“Ah! You’re Flemish.”)

I recruited him for our budding Dutch table at work, and so this week he and I had lunch together, where he taught me a lot. I learned about his job at the company, and about his previous careers that led him to the Middle East and an extended life in Southeast Asia. During our conversation, he admitted he doesn’t speak Dutch much these days, so it was a nice opportunity for him.

Since his native dialect is Flemish, he taught me some of the significant differences between standard Dutch and Flemish, and then some differences between dialects of Flemish. He also told me that the first time he heard Afrikaans, he was surprised how similar it sounded to Flemish. I had known that Afrikaans comes from Dutch, but I never reflected on what variety of Dutch it came from. Dutch is much more varied than I had previously imagined.

We bonded around the idea that life can lead you a lot of different places, and that no job guarantees a particular job path. If we’re open, we can learn how to do a lot of things. Each job teaches skills that we bring to our next job. When we’re open and curious, we can find ourselves on surprising adventures. In addition, I learned that significant differences lie in places most people don’t care to look, even between East and West Belgium.

The world is right here

Then later this week I traveled for short trip to New York City. NYC is a language adventure waiting to happen, but with a short window, I had to keep my ears open.

I struck at my first opportunity. At the rental car desk, I saw that the agent had an unusual last name.

“What sort of name is that?”

“I’m from Ghana.”

“Do you speak any languages besides English?”

“Yes, five or six.”

“Which ones?”

He hesitated here, surely knowing that I wouldn’t have any way to follow what came next. “Ashanti is the main one. My home language is Sehwi. But Sehwi is a small language, from out in the country.”

I said the name of his home language a couple times. It includes a consonant in the middle, where you blow with puckered lips, nearly like a whistle. The exotic consonant felt luxurious in my mouth.

The reulting conversation offered me the opportunity to learn about the current state of this significant West African country. China has been investing there for a while, so we got bring up the question of a potential new colonialism by China in Africa. The nature of colonialism is that countries come in to take what you have and profit from it, without connecting with you and your community. Economic powers do not consider or love to learn from the human strength and wisdom that the multitude of African cultures have to offer. We both hoped for a good future for Ghana and her people.

I encountered other stops on my NYC language journey. At the event I got to speak a little Arabic and hear some different views on politics and history in the US and in the Middle East. On the plane I saw a man studying Talmud in Hebrew and Aramaic. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to stay at these stops–or NYC–as long as I would have liked.

Always open to learn

“When the student is ready, the teacher will come,” the proverb says. I tried to make myself ready this week, and I learned about history, culture, and human struggle. Some struggle leads to great results, some to worse, and some that are yet to be determined. We can learn from all of them.

This week, what are you planning to do that will open you to others who are different from you? I hope that you will learn from them, that their experience will change not only what you know, but also how you live your life. The narrative of life that we receive through the media focuses on making us happy in a short-term, narrow, and shallow way. It does not confront human struggle or weakness in ways that we actually live. Do you hear an accent in someone near you? That’s the sound of a different way of life. Plug in now!

Photo credit: AdamCohn / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

 

A lesson from history: Languages in 17th century New Netherland

Thayendanegea or Joseph Brant, a Mohawk military and political leader, 1776 (Wikimedia Commons)
Thayendanegea or Joseph Brant, a Mohawk military and political leader, 1776 (Wikimedia Commons)

Last week I blogged about the language geography of the US in Colonial Virginia in the 17th and 18th centuries, and since then I became more interested in what language mixes I could find elsewhere in North America. This week I researched the 17th century in New Netherland: the first Dutch colony on the continent.

I uncovered less information about the languages and everyday life of this region than of the Virginia Colony. The Dutch colonists may have left fewer records and stories because they were largely trappers and traders, in distinction with the English farmers and townspeople. Nevertheless, we see diversity in New Netherland that we don’t in the Virginia Colony. Both the colonists and the natives included people of many mother tongues.

The result of the Dutch commercial venture of New Netherland saddened me. The interactions among the Europeans and natives revolved around commerce. While occasional individuals from various groups intermarried, the reason people came together originally was to become rich. Competition, not mutual understanding, ended in extinction or near-extinction of the dozens of languages–Iroquois, Algonquin, and European–spoken in this area of the 17th century. We need to look to this cautionary tale if we hope to keep our country’s and planet’s linguistic diversity viable for us to benefit from. Only the desire to understand and know each other, not business, will keep us wise and languages alive.

History

Let me start with a basic historical outline. (You can skip to the next section if you want to go straight to the languages.) The Dutch were already actively trading in the Americas, especially in South America and the Caribbean. In 1609 (two years after the English founded Jamestown in Virginia) they hired Henry Hudson to explore the waterways of modern-day New York and New Jersey, to find a Northwest Passage to Asia (1). He did not find a passage, but he found many Mohawks and Mahicans eager to trade animal skins for European manufactured goods.

The Dutch trader, Hendrick Christiaensen, decided to settle in 1614 on Castle Island by modern Albany, named for the abandoned French trading chateau built there. (This land is no longer an island and is now known as the Port of Albany.) He called it Ft. Nassau, after the ruling house of the Netherlands. It was abandoned and moved nearby in 1618 because of frequent flooding of the island (2).

In 1624 they founded and settled Ft. Orange, a ways south of Ft. Nassau, right after they established in 1623 another Ft. Nassau on the Delaware River in present-day Gloucester, New Jersey (3). They moved Ft. Orange south in 1652 to Esopus (present-day Kingston), named after the local group of natives (4).

To establish a port at the entrance of the rivers towards these trading posts, the Dutch head of the West Indies Company, Peter Minuit, purchased Manhattan Island from the Lenape in 1626 and began constructing the port of New Amsterdam. Once the Dutch government gave city rights to New Amsterdam in 1653, the city that would become New York City was born (5).

Languages

Sorting out the languages in New Netherland was more difficult than in the Virginia Colony, as I mentioned. Traders seem to move around more, and more people come to find them, too. I will categorize the languages as European, Native, and Pidgin.

I could not find any information about African languages, but since the Dutch took over the Portuguese slave trade, I assume that the slaves of this time were speaking Ndongo or some other Bantu languages.

European

The Low Countries (the literal meaning of “Netherlands”) included modern Netherlands, Belgium, and parts of Germany. Dutch was the lingua franca among the colonists, but speakers of multiple languages from the Low Countries found their way into the early colonies, resulting in linguistically-diverse settlements that included multiple Dutch dialects, plus French and German. Peter Minuit, who bought Manhattan from the Lenape, was a German-born Walloon (French-speaking from modern Belgium) who also spoke English (6).

In addition, New Netherland absorbed New Sweden, where Swedish was spoken. I assume that citizens of both colonies had to communicate with each other, probably in German, English, or French (7).

The colony to the north was French (much of modern French Canada) and English to the Northeast (New England) and to the South (Virginia). I did not find information about the interactions, but I can assume that there were enough French and English speakers among the Netherlanders that Dutch was not exclusive.

After the Netherlands lost some of their South American colonies to the Portuguese, speakers of Portuguese, Spanish, and Ladino began to populate New Netherland.

Native

 Portrait of Etow Oh Koam, one of the Four Mohawk Kings, c. 1750 (Wikipedia Commons)
Portrait of Etow Oh Koam, one of the Four Mohawk Kings, c. 1750 (Wikipedia Commons)

The major language group in this area is Algonquin, but Iroquoian languages were also widespread in the area.

Henry Hudson encountered Mohawk (Iroquoian) and Mahican (Eastern Algonquin) speakers in the area of Castle Island. Although tensions existed between the Iroquois and other groups before Europeans came, I imagine that the Mahican and Mohawks had to communicate with each other in one or both of their languages. Mahican became extinct in the first third of the 20th century, while Mohawk is still spoken by about 3000 people in Northern New York State and Southern Canada. One school even offers immersion in the language.

Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Lenape, also called the Delaware, people. Lenape referred to an association of related peoples in this more southern area, who spoke the closely related Unami and Munsee languages. The English missionary, John Heckewelder, documented the two languages in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, noting their similarities and differences. While both are members of the Eastern Algonquin family, they display clear differences in grammar and vocabulary. At present, only a half-dozen native speakers of Munsee are still alive, while Unami is extinct.

Other tribes of the Lenape lived throughout the Hudson valley. The Wequaesgeek, or Wappinger, lived in modern Duchess and Westchester Counties in New York, and they spoke a language very similar to the Munsee. The Hackensack tribe spoke a language related to Unami.

The Minqua, or Susquehannocks as the English called them, lived more to the West. They spoke an Iroquoian language. The language has long been extinct, but about 100 words were preserved by a Swedish missionary of the 17th century (8).

Pidgin languages

The diverse mix of languages forced people to get practical and so the society of New Netherland developed multiple Pidgin languages. A Pidgin language is a mix of languages that naturally forms when two or more groups meet, often for trade, who do not share a common language.

Pidgin Delaware was spoken in the Lenape area, in the region of modern-day New York City and Long Island. It developed as a mix of Unami and Dutch. Significantly, the language showed very little Munsee vocabulary, even though the Pidgin was used by Munsee speakers, as well. It was first mentioned in 1628, but its use spread to Swedish and English speakers in their dealings with the Lenape. The Swedish minister, Johan Campanius, prepared a vocabulary list of Pidgin Delaware and even translated Luther’s Catechism into it.

Jersey Dutch was spoken in today’s northeast New Jersey. The basis was Dutch dialects with some English and a bit of Lenape. The language lived for about 300 years, from the 17th to the 20th centuries. It had two varieties, one that was spoken by descendants of Dutch settlers and another that was spoken by African-descended people only, which showed more influence of grammar from African languages.

Mohawk Dutch formed among the Dutch and Mohawk in the northern reaches of New Netherland. It was used among the Iroquois language speakers in the North, in contast to the Algonquin languages (like Lenape) in the South. The language seems to have existed for a short time in the 17th century–until the English took the northern reaches of New Netherland–and was never documented.

Conclusion

The languages we know about from New Netherland were those involved in commerce. While people spoke scores of Iroqouis and Algonquin languages, the Mohawk, Mahican, and Lenape languages represented the largest trading partners with the Dutch. Among the Dutch, the languages of the “old” Netherlands were all spoken, Dutch, German, and French. Dutch, however, was most important, and English became important as the Dutch and English interacted more in the New World. Swedish declined as they became less economically important, once the Swedish colony was absorbed into New Netherland. Pidgin languages developed as needed, so that language barriers would not stand in the way of commerce.

I was sad that I found no information about the African languages spoken in New Netherland. This fact, though, would follow from the previous assumption, that the traders determined importance, and they spoke only those languages they needed for commerce. The bottom of the hierarchy–slaves and servants–spoke African languages.

As power shifted from the native Americans, those languages became less and less important, until they begin to die in the 19th century. Power shifted from the Dutch, as well, until English took over in the area of New Netherland and, later, of the states of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

People did not learn languages out of a love for the people they were interacting with but for commercial reasons. Both natives and Dutch colonists sought to use each other to enrich themselves. In the end, the richer and more powerful English drove the languages of both groups to extinction in the United States. Their refusal to learn from and understand each other created unnecessary rivalry and tension. If we hope to keep the language diversity of the US and the planet, we must learn languages for love and community, not merely for the sake of business.

What lessons can we draw from history when we pursue languages and interact with each other?

 

Language for love and service: LDS missionaries rock languages

The Book of Mormon in Afrikaans, Hmong, Chinese (Simplified), Catalan, and Turkish
The Book of Mormon in Afrikaans, Hmong, Chinese (Simplified), Catalan, and Turkish

US education, as well as do the majority of US companies, lacks motivation in teaching languages.  They generally see learning a foreign language as extra, a hobby, for those who have a deep interest in the particular culture.  Sometimes we need to communicate with someone who speaks another language, however.  In those cases, we prefer to “outsource” that education by counting on multilingual immigrants or on other countries’ education systems (eg, Scandanavian, German, Indian, Vietnamese).  Money motivates language-learning for most US institutions.

Except one very American institution: the Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) or Mormon Church.  They teach hundreds of missionaries every year, and those going overseas require in-class and in-country immersion.  If you’ve met an LDS missionary overseas, you know how successfully their missionary system trains them in languages.  I’ve met fluent Mormon speakers of French, Italian, and Polish, and the Missionary Training Center’s (MTC) website boasts exotic languages, such as Icelandic and Malagasy.  (The website itself can be read in languages such as Aymar Aru and Fosun Chuuk.)  If you don’t believe me or their website regarding their education’s quality, note that the US State Department, CIA, and FBI actively and enthusiastically recruit former LDS missionaries.

The question arises: when no other US institution expends the resources necessary to teach languages successfully, why does the LDS Church do so?  LDSers believe whole-heartedly that they possess a teaching that they themselves should communicate to all human beings, no matter the education or nationality of their audience.  Out of love and service for their audience, they speak to them in their language.

Business approach to languages

Our businesses and educational system largely do not successfully teach language.  Business exists to make money.  As a result, they will focus on rich people, who generally receive the best education.  As a result, rich people in other countries more likely speak English than other local people do.  The business message is not intended for everyone, but for those who can pay; most often it’s only secondarily for poor, uneducated people.

When business enters a country, therefore, the people look for those who can speak English.  Rather than the Americans expending time and money learning the local language before and during the time they are in the country, they count on the fact that the locals already expended the resources to learn English.

Let’s say, for example, I want to sell a new cell phone in Vietnam. I need to sell to the people with money.  I can’t just start knocking on doors.  If I did just knock on doors, the people I find most likely won’t speak English, and probably won’t have enough money for expensive cell phones  Fortunately, I will probably find some well-educated English-speaking Vietnamese advertisers who can help me.  For a little money, I can hire them to communicate my message targeting potential customers with enough money.

US public education tends to support this model.  They train kids to succeed in this business environment, to produce the one who can invent the cell phone or who can sell it in Vietnam.  Therefore, our system focuses way more resources on math and English than other subjects.  Our educational system is a long way from teaching Vietnamese.

LDS Church diverges from business model

Members of the LDS Church believe themselves primarily as messengers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  (I’m not endorsing this idea; I’m just trying to reflect LDS theology.  If I’ve mis-represented it, please correct me in the comments.)  This message teaches about love and service towards the weaker neighbor.  Any human, rich or poor, is capable of receiving it.  Language should not be a barrier.

The LDS Church could follow the same model as the cell-phone vendor, above.  Go to the country, find local English-speakers who want to spread your idea in the local language.  Many US churches actually follow that model.  Other churches focus on training local bilinguals in their church’s theology, to then teach it to the local non-English speakers.  It probably costs much less money and time than teaching the language to every missionary who goes to the country.

Fulfilling the calling of messenger offers its own rewards because it is (or should be, at least) based on loving service.  The LDS missionary conceives of his or her job principally as loving service, whether serving in New York City or the mountains of Peru.  The president of the Missionary Training Center (MTC) wrote, “There is great joy as you participate in this most important work, and we know that you will reap great blessings as you serve.”  An earlier president likewise wrote, “If you serve a mission faithfully and well, you will be a better husband, you will be a better father, you will be a better student, a better worker in your chosen vocation. Love is of the essence of this missionary work. Selflessness is of its very nature.”  In the end, the missionary gains by becoming a more loving, service-oriented person.

Learning the language is itself and act of loving service because it enables the missionary to speak to and connect with any local person in this act of loving service.  The local person’s education or economic status does not matter.  Practicing loving service in other countries as a missionary requires knowing the local language in order to connect, and working on connecting makes the missionary a better person.

Language and love

Connecting with others in their own language expresses love.  If we have an important thing to say, we want to say it in the language the hearer understands.  (Remember Henry V’s attempt to speak French to Katherine of Valois?)  We take on the burden of communication; we don’t “outsource.”   Rather than make someone learn our language, we learn theirs.

The difference between succeeding and failing in language education is motivation.  Many people have started learning a language, and then stopped as motivation ran out.  The LDS missionaries succeed where no one else does because serving and loving others is baked into the motivation.  The missionaries are always working to be sure that this service stands at the fore of their minds as they work on their language.

This rule can apply to any of us.  When any of us take actions of love, we become better at loving actions.  Our loving actions make us loving people.  When we extend ourselves through language, our love makes us better people.

Please help me understand this question: Why is learning someone else’s language an act of love or service?  Help me understand why the system works the way it does.

Photo Credit: Philip Newton (pne) from Flickr. Some rights reserved.