I’ve recently been on vacation in Spain. I went to enjoy myself and learn more about the Basque language and culture. Because of the attacks of July 14, in Nice, France, I learned about my own society in the US.
On a Spanish train, I was handed a Spanish newspaper, El Pais, which is well-known and mainstream there. On page 2 I read an editorial that ended,
With every terrorist act we re-make the war, militarize our democracies, prolong fear, and lose our identity little by little.
Right below that, I read another with the conclusion,
For the moment, by anti-anxiety means, the French are resisting. But war isn’t going to stop. And every day, more war, fear, and the danger of desperation grows. There the ultra-right Front National party lurks, to regain the votes of those who want quick solutions.
I never read anything so tough in the US mainstream press. The call for calm and anti-violence astounded me. It reminded me that learning another language is a political act, because it disrupts the point of view that my country, society, and community repeat to themselves and to me. My education
Why am I against assimilation? If the African immigrants had “fit in” to the norm here in Minnesota, they could not have taught me many valuable lessons. And if it wasn’t for pursuing their non-English languages, I may not have met as many of these wise people.
I’ve learned a lot from my African neighbors in the Twin Cities…
Staring is perfectly acceptable.
Everything starts with networking.
If you want to get to know someone, ask them questions about themselves.
These are a couple of items I’ve learned from East African friends. They’re sinking more deeply into my thinking as I see them in action all around me. For example,
Staring is perfectly acceptable. If I want to know if someone is from Africa, I look a little longer at the person than I would at a white Minnesotan. If the person looks back at me or smiles, the person is likely African.
Everything starts with networking. If I friend an Ethiopian or Somali on Facebook, I know that five people will request to be my friend shortly after. Every time I look for news about Somalis, I learn about another community organizer. I learned that if you ever need to get in contact with a given Somali person, ask a room of 50 Somalis—someone will have that person in their phone.
I’ve learned from my African neighbors that neighbors should not be feared but embraced. Barriers provide only so much usefulness. I love interacting with them.
If you want to get to know someone, ask them questions about themselves. Here’s a great example of what I learned last week. What I learned
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?”)
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.
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!
Some research indicates that living abroad and deep multicultural experiences enhance creativity. My gut has told me this, but recent science is demonstrating it. These studies are informative, but I would like to know more about how namely the experiences enhance creativity. My anecdotal evidence suggests that language-study contributes to creativity.
Learning the language of the culture opens oneself up more than anything (except maybe eating the food). One who learns a language has to be ready to sound dumb–which requires extreme openness–and to see life in a new way. The old categories no longer work. If you speak Spanish, you have to think about whether an action was completed or not before you conjugate your past tense. If you speak Chinese you have to think about the pitch of your voice on every syllable. If you speak Arabic, you have to think of which word for “love” you’re going to use. You have to think in someone else’s categories–until those categories become your own and completeness, tone, and vocabulary are second-nature. The normal way of thinking will no longer work; openness changes and broadens how you think.
I am not a psychologist or a sociologist, but I would like one to run an experiment to answer the following question: Among those who have lived abroad, how much does language-learning contribute to creativity? Does the creativity of those who live in country where their own language dominates benefit as much as those who have to speak another language? Does level of fluency affect creativity? If so, then language-study may enhance the creative benefits offered by “openness” to the other culture. I’m also interested to understand what other sorts of openness enhances creativity.
Do you find that you are more creative because of your time in another culture or with another language? What is it about other cultures that improves our creativity? In what concrete ways does creativity change?