It has been a great year in 2016. I’ve been able to write more about the motivations for learning languages—and have successfully stirred up some controversy. My goal has been to highlight privilege among language learners and to shine light on those who speak less-commonly studied languages. For example, here is my most controversial post from 2016: “Language hacking ≠ language love”.
One problem has been that I didn’t spend as much time learning languages as I would have liked. So for 2016, my goal is to spend more time on Oromo and Somali. I may work on a little Serbian, since I used to know some and we have a Serbian exchange student living with us currently. Tagalog may find its way in there, too, as an associate from Manila recently joined my team at work.
In this time of growing intolerance and shrinking globe, learning languages has never been more important or political. While I have been writing discoveries made by learning languages and focusing on the languages of my community, I want to turn back to those languages for a while. Time to get back in the trenches.
I will also work on some other writing projects that have been requiring more attention.
So, I will take the next month off. I will come back in February with a summary of progress up to this point.
There is a way to avoid responsibility and/or guilt by, precisely, emphasizing one’s responsibility or too readily assuming one’s guilt in an exaggerated way, as in the case of the white male PC academic who emphasizes the guilt of racist phallogocentrism, and uses this admission of guilt as a stratagem not to face the way he, as a ‘radical’ intellectual, perfectly embodies the existing power relations towards which he pretends to be thoroughly critical.
— Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, p. 46
Ecolinguism sounds like a PC scheme to assuage a white, upper middle-class, American man’s guilt. I’ve claimed that ecolinguism can help combat rich, Western privilege. Can my dedication to minority languages really disrupt the power dynamic, or is just a different mode of the typical white privilege that PC liberals rail against?
People probably got upset with me because I sounded just like the academic that Žižek describes. I just replaced phallogocentrism with Anglocentrism, and instead of racism I discussed the desire for the exotic other. But maybe I emphasized my responsibility and assumed my guilt in an exaggerated way.
The first step I took was to admit my role in the system. I have privilege. But is it really this simple? Be an ecolinguist
The US is sick. Not only the US: we’ve exported our sickness around the globe.
We lack community because our society destroys communities.
In reading Simon Sinek’s Starting with Why, I was reminded that Howard Shultz’s original idea for founding Starbucks was to create a “third space” between home and work for people to build community. But later, as Sinek’s open letter states, Starbucks became about money. This shift in basic beliefs was symbolized by the move from classy ceramic cups and plates to cardboard cups. As Sinek wrote, “Nothing says to a customer, ‘We love you now get out,’ like a paper cup.”
Let me build on that. I went to Spain last summer. One of the reasons I was excited was because of coffee in coffee shops.
What did I find? Spaniards walking around town with cardboard Starbucks cups.
Where else have I seen the problem? Russians, who have been drinking tea as groups out of teapots for centuries, now make individual cups using individual tea bags. Indians are crazy about on-line dating, looking for a personal match rather than including the entire family in the process of continuing the family. The American woman sitting next to me on the plane who bought nuts immediately after turning down the nuts I offered her from my bag.
The pain I feel as an American comes from excessive independence, a lack of interdependence. Everyone can now function completely on his or her own, and it’s destroying us. Languages can fix it
Once I was criticized on a language forum for bringing up politics in a way that someone thought was superfluous. The forum was discussing what language everyone wanted to learn. I suggested that choosing a language was a political discussion. “Please don’t,” someone responded.
Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Wellstone International High School, the coolest, most exciting high school I’ve ever seen, of whose students I will remain eternally jealous. I heard multiple languages as I was shown the school, and had the chance to speak Somali, Spanish, and Arabic—but unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to speak French with the Haitian student.
As I was leaving, a retired teacher said to me, “I envy you.” I replied to him, “You envy me?! You got to come here for work! This is the best place to work I’ve ever seen!” The school sets the standard for what global education can and should be. The best global education
In part 2 of my interview, I tell some more stories of learning my languages and my experiences at the Polyglot Conference in NYC. (See part 1 of the interview here.) Since the next Polyglot Conference will take place in Thessaloniki, Greece, I float the idea that fellow-polyglots delve into not just Greek, but into Arabic and Kurdish. Let’s use our language-learning to show solidarity with Greece’s newest populations.
A couple months ago, I was invited to an interview with Kris Broholm of the Actual Fluency podcast. I enjoy Kris’s work, as he fell in love with languages during a difficult period in his life. When I met him at the Polyglot Conference, we got to talk about how languages helped him with his depression.
1. Grammar resides in every human brain.
Chomsky defines grammar as the rules that produce and decode language. As a result, grammar resides inside the human language-speaker. It doesn’t exist “out there” in a book or only well-trained minds.. Moreover, this grammar is not something learned in school; it’s acquired as a child engages in the community of your native language. Continue reading “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain”→
I’m trying to get back to work–language work. Other than my brief Portuguese stint, I haven’t done much language-learning this summer. My heart calls out for more languages!
I’m not getting enough from just the feeling of loving languages. A feeling won’t help me get connected with others, won’t give me the rush of new words and sounds and ideas coming through my mouth. Love is an action, isn’t it?
I read National Geographic a lot. Articles about people tend to interest me much more than science or nature. Photos and anecdotes keep me riveted. This week in Oromo class, I felt I was reading through National Geographic, reveling while learning about Oromo language, geography, and culture, both in the Horn of Africa and beyond.
My pleasure, however, is tinged with confusion and guilt. I feel like I’ve packaged up “Africa” for my US sensibility. The National Geographic Society was formed by and for US academics and wealthy patrons to talk about travel in the late 19th century–colonists. Suddenly, my pleasure of hearing and learning about the Oromo people was sullied by the colonial Orientalist and essentialist views from that class of people during the formation of the Society. How do I relate to them? Am I a new colonist or something else? To avoid “colonizing” Minnesota Africa, I must engage with human beings different from me, most importantly opening myself to them, in order to break down any potential elitist barriers.
My last Oromo class
In session 6, my last Oromo class, we covered several important and fascinating topics. We learned about some technical vocabulary. We received a list of technical linguistic vocabulary that we went over. It included some probably classic words, like afoola “oral literature,” but also some newer linguistic terms like xunda xiqqaa “minimal pair.”
I also brought some older textbooks and grammars, and the class enjoyed looking through them. The different books spoke of various dialects, so our teacher put a map of Ethiopia on the projector and pointed out where the main dialects came from. Not all the students knew of these regions and dialects, so it was fascinating for all of us. He also showed areas of Oromomia where the communities were mainly Muslim or mainly Christian.
Our teacher took us on a wonderful mental voyage, to a place that was very exotic for me. He recounted his days in the North of Ethiopia, in the Afar region. He said the weather was so hot–hot for someone from Ethiopia!–that you can live with a little water and a little food; you don’t need clothing. It was so hot that people brought eggs down from the highlands, and chickens hatched in the buckets. Life was a struggle, he said, but it was the most wonderful place on earth. The struggle made you feel alive.
The teacher and students taught me about Oromo diaspora. Evidently, there is a big community in Oslo, Norway, and Berlin, Germany. One of my classmates lived a while in Hamburg, Germany, before coming to the US, but the Hamburg Oromo community was small. My professor lived in Oslo for a time before the US. They have connections all over among active Oromo diaspora communities.
In the midst of all this cultural information, we still worked on language. We continued with practical vocabulary and spelling. It’s amazing how much our teacher was able to squeeze into the class time.
I asked about upcoming Oromo community activities, namely poetry and music. Fortunately, my teacher assured me that there are a lot of such events, and there’s one even coming up at the end of the month. I look forward to staying connected to the community and keeping up my language.
Unfortunately, I will not be able to take the next class, but I hope to stay in touch. Because of vacation and other events, I would have missed half the classes. I look forward to keeping in contact with my teacher and classmates. It’s important for me to see and understand the diversity of my city and community. I need wonderful folks like this to help me get outside of my own way of thinking and doing things. Plus I love my budding afaan oromoo (“Oromo language”).
A good colonist?
I believe that I am learning about Oromo people and language in a way that challenges my way of thinking, and new-found wisdom brings new joy. I don’t want to be a 19th century, salon-frequenting, traveler. Taking photos of the “natives” and discussing them in my comfortable home do not interest me.
I am a colonist who hopes to extract benefit from others, but different in that I hope the colonist is “civilized” and not at the expense of the colonized. I want to engage with them so that my comfort and my home change irreversibly. Wisdom and “civilization” will come to me if I open up my own ignorance and curiosity and learning. I want new ways to enjoy life and extract new joys that I learn from others. By challenging my way of thinking about life and language, my Oromo friends and teachers offer me new, unexpected joy.
Are you a consumer of language and culture? an observer? an engager?