The biggest struggles language-lovers face: Solved!

Let's overcome the struggle together!
Let’s overcome the struggle together!

I need your help. I’m to solve some of these, the most difficult questions any language-lover has encountered.

Are you learning to speak a language? What do you do if you have the following problems?
Solutions

From Mexican walls to the ivory tower: Polyglots smash the echo-chamber

The media doesn’t tell you what to think, but it tells you what to think about.

How can polyglots end people's isolation in their echo chambers?
How can polyglots end people’s isolation in their echo chambers?

We all live in a personal echo-chamber nowadays, where the same assumptions and world views repeat over and over. One’s echo-chamber, however, remains independent of the chambers of others. So their assumptions never reach my ears, and theirs never reach mine. Some of us want to build walls to keep out the Other, and some of us don’t want to venture outside of our walls to listen attentively to the Other.

After we live in this chamber a while, and here our friends echo it, we think that it is the only discourse going on, that our assumptions are naturally shared by all observant, intelligent people like us.

Until we discover how the Other actually thinks.

Polyglots can change the discourse and remind us of the true complexity out there. They’re already listening. They can save our country!
Calling all polyglots!

Language love is not about the money—or is it?

Use languages to build your local community = Ecolinguism
Use languages to build your local community = Ecolinguism

I’ve been following recently this discussion about my ecolinguism concept. (If you’re not familiar with this idea I coined, please see this post where I define it.) One direction that the conversation has gone in relates to my post where I critique digital nomads.

The argument in the discussion assumes that we as privileged, rich Westerners have a duty to help others with our wealth. Hence one must address the question: is it better to learn a language in a poorer area, such as Venezuela, or in a richer area, like the suburbs of a major US city? Where the people are poorer, there we have a greater duty to help. Moreover, it is oversimplification to call this action “colonialism” because colonialism brings with it wicked behavior historically. A blogger sitting in a cafe in Bali should not merit this label.

Another line of reasoning undermines any duty we have to immigrants and outsiders by questioning the definition of “needy.” Often Westerners look down on non-Westerners (such as immigrants, especially of other races). They may look down with disdain, and so hate the “intruders,” or with pity, and want to “help” others. The argument goes that the only way to look on these others is as equals. They do not “need” our help, but we reach out to them as brothers and sisters.

I believe that money is not central, and that human beings are not equal.

I believe that I have a duty to leave the world a better place than how I found it. Here’s how I do it by loving languages.
Why loving language

An Australian ecolinguist: Arabic and Farsi

How do you start a conversation in your language? How do you make a friend?
How do you start a conversation in your language? How do you make a friend?

Kris Broholm from the Actual Fluency Podcast told me I had to listen to this episode. It features Marcus Furness, an Australian language enthusiast and Masters student from Tasmania, Australia. His language-learning is focused on his community, especially on recent refugee and immigrant arrivals, so he focuses a lot on Arabic and Farsi. I listened and I strongly recommend it to my readers.

The similarities between Marcus and me, as Kris probably noticed, are uncanny. Marcus is a true ecolinguist.
Languages for people

The ecolinguist’s 5 *alternative* New Year’s resolutions for 2016

Now that the party is over, how will you serve others with language?
Now that the party is over, how will you serve others with language?

I see a lot of language-specific new year’s resolutions these days. Studying more, starting new languages, and traveling to exotic places appear at the top of these lists. Language-learners consider the highest good to be the number of their languages and their degree of fluency.

Languages offer learners a great way to experience the world and get more out of overseas trips. Self-fulfillment.

These goals serve the learners themselves, but what about those around them? For an ecolinguist—that is, one sensitive to the ecosystem of languages around them—language-learning goals look much different because they focus on others and not on the learner.

Here is what those goals would look like.
Resolutions of the ecolinguist

HELP! How do I get out of the intermediate level doldrums?

How can you help me progress to the next level?
How can you help me progress to the next level?

I’m running into the doldrums of language-learning, making slow, even imperceptible progress. What do the following language-learning activities have in common?

  1. Translating sentences in my book;
  2. Translating actual news articles or podcasts;
  3. Visiting a Somali cafe.

They are all a) great activities and b) very time-consuming.

Continue reading “HELP! How do I get out of the intermediate level doldrums?”

Kindness, grace–and the humiliating love of language

It's a skill to respond kindly when you have pie on your face
It’s a skill to respond kindly when you have pie on your face

I found that I have a thick skin at work. Sometimes people make fun of me behind my back, sometimes to my face. I found that I have a rare–if not unique–ability to ignore them. When other people might speak against me, I can pretend I didn’t hear the negative talk. As a result, I can focus on the future and on the positive, to be sure that we can keep doing what must be done. The tough situations I went through learning languages gifted me with this ability.

Recently I was moved by a Spanish-learner‘s post on Google+. She described how she worked with native Spanish-speakers who would make fun of her when she spoke Spanish. She was discouraged. I tried my best to comfort her by noting that I had been made fun of in multiple languages over a span of almost 25 years, on more occasions than I can count. Once I wrote this, I realized I had a rare experience–even a privilege!–that had strengthened me as a human being.

Public humiliation in Ukraine

For example, when I lived in Ukraine, a classmate humiliated me in public. I was the only American in the class, and one of only two male students. Jealousy had arisen in the class among some of the girls. I had gone to a play with one of them, Alyona, and another, Natasha, a leader in the class, was frustrated with me. When Natasha and I were taking the tram together to class (she lived close to my neighborhood), she started making fun of me and humiliating me. Since I my Russian was still pretty basic at the time, I had a hard time understanding how Natasha was humiliating me and I was defenseless. The scene was so mean, that a middle-aged woman sitting next to us got involved, telling Natasha to cut it out; “How can you talk to him that way? He’s a foreigner!” she said. I was grateful to that woman, as I had no way to defend myself.

When we returned to school, I worked out in my head some sort of retort. I had to tell Natasha that my friends do not speak to me this way, so she could choose to be my friend or not. Not very subtle–it took great efforts to say even that clearly–but she got the message.

Mockery in Morocco

When I lived in Morocco, I had to deal with similar situations. A friend of mine introduced me to a couple of girls he thought I might like. My friend kept teasing me, trying to put me on the spot, saying in Arabic right in front of these girls, “Do you like her? You can’t tell her you don’t like her! Do you like her friend better?” I tried to take the pressure off by saying, ‘jbatni “I like her fine.” Unfortunately, I transposed the first root letter to the end and said, jb’atni “I’ve had enough.” (I only realized this mistake a long time later.) They laughed so hard: “Really? You’ve had enough already?” I didn’t know why that was so funny, but tried to smile. I was hoping to dig myself out of the humiliating situation, but I managed to dig myself in deeper.

When I would have dinner with my host family, sometimes they would just make fun of me. Moroccans laugh at each other more than Americans do, so I had to learn to live with it. Simple banter, though, was over my head. I didn’t know what they were saying. I couldn’t be a good sport because I didn’t know what to say back. I had to learn to look like a good sport, even if I was angry, frustrated, exhausted, or confused.

Love in the International House of Pain

These are only two examples. At other occasions, Russians openly mocked my American accent. Moroccan friends mimicked the way I emphasized certain words. French girls talked at me fast and furious, purposely trying to overwhelm me. I had to choose between smiling blankly and walking away. When I was living in another country, though, I often had nowhere to walk away to. On occasion I tried to smack someone, but that never helped the situation; I just looked crazy.

By brute force, I learned how to overlook people’s unkind actions. I could get over blows to my ego without having to strike back. I’m quick to retort in English, but I had to learn a different approach. I had to take my lumps–deserved or not–with both hands tied behind my back. Even though my patience did not come from virtue, but only from trying to keep from being humiliated less, I at least had to act as if I was virtuous. I saw what patience looked like; I had to be what patience looked like. Even if I was patient out of necessity, practice made it a skill that I could later use when needed.

This humiliating language-love taught me patience. I can endure people’s unkindness towards me. These people also taught me how to show kindness to people even when they’re cruel. When people speak this way towards me, I can choose to smile and not retaliate. Maybe even more importantly, I know what it feels like to be an outsider who has to endure humiliation. Language love taught me a new kindness.

Have you been humiliated learning a language?  What did you learn from it?

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

Poetry translation for language learners

Use poetry in translation to bridge the gap
Use poetry in translation to bridge the gap

Living among Somalis, I’m fascinated by their attachment to poetry.  The 19th century explorer Richard Burton wrote about Somalia, “The country teems with ‘poets, poetasters, poetitoes, poetaccios’: every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines” (from First Footsteps in East Africa).  This feeling has not changed to the present day, even as far away from East Africa as we are in Minnesota.

I know that if I want to know the Somali language, I have to know Somali poetry.  I don’t know what to do because I’m a complete amateur of the Somali language.  Sometimes I’ll look for Somali poetry hoping that I’ll understand it if I just stare at it long enough.  I needed a way to bridge the gap–the chasm–between my basic, basic Somali and the great expanse of Somali literary beauty.

Poetrytranslation.org

Then my prayers were answered when I found the website poetrytranslation.org.  I found poetry by modern Somali poems in the original Somali, once translated literally, and once translated fluidly.  It was perfect!  That way I can read the original and hear the “music” of the rhyme and meter.  Then I can work through the difficult, dense meaning of the poem with a helping hand.

You think this is good: you can listen to some of the poems read by the poets themselves!  This dimension adds to the music and bridges the gap from the written to the spoken word.  For learning the language, this ensures that you’re reading with the correct pronunciation.  Moreover, the poem becomes more intimate, more tied to an actual human.  You can even subscribe to the podcast of the recorded poems (only available through iTunes, unfortunately for me).

Bonus

Much more than Somali, I found poems of many different languages.  Now I have a great resource for working on my Farsi thanks to several poems in that language, as well as in the closely related languages of Dari and Tajik.  You can find poems in even more obscure languages, too (eg, Assamese, Siraiki, Shuar).  A good portion of the poems come from Asia: from Georgia and Kurdistan, to China and Korea.  If I were learning Chinese, I would especially love that an audio accompanies many of the poems in that language.  The one thing the site lacks (I hate to even say it since the site has so much) is that the site does not offer transcriptions of non-Latin scripts.

Every poem demonstrates painstaking work.  The curators of the site collect these original poems by poets already established among their language communities.  The literal translation offers insight into the translation method, and then the poems are rendered artistically into English, which are themselves worthy of enjoyable reading.

Poetry can help your language

I encourage you to compliment your language-study with this site if possible because it will help you on multiple levels.  First, it will allow you to learn grammar and vocabulary from solid native sources.  Second, it will highlight the way that your language uses imagery to convey ideas.  Third, you will gain insight into what the speakers of you language consider most beautiful in their language, and you will deepen your knowledge about their point of view.  Enjoy your language in its most artistic form!

Have you found unlikely language-learning aids?  Do you use poetry to learn your language?

Photo credit: Valentina_A / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

How to re-start learning a language

Get ready to get back on the horse!
Get ready to get back on the horse!

It’s easy to get off track in one’s language learning (unless you’re one of the lucky few who gets paid to do so).  Work projects become demanding, kids’ schedules take up time, and the spring cleaning needs to get done somehow.  I found myself in this situation over the past couple months; I got off track.  But languages always pull me back.  Fortunately, I’ve thought for a long time about methods for learning languages, and a few of my favorite on-line language-lovers offer good advice that got me going again.  The two pieces of advice that helped a lot: 1) work a little every day and 2) passive learning is important.

No shame in falling off the horse

I admit that I got out of the daily habit of setting aside time for my languages.  This happens to everyone.  I am not independently wealthy, so I spend a lot of time working.  I do not work professionally with languages, so I have to find the time amidst my spare time.  As we all know, spare time ebbs and flows; we have little control over how much we have.  Many voices call out for our spare time, as well.  Family, community, and relaxation all require some of our time–and that’s after coming home from work.

Nevertheless, I want back up on the language horse I fell off of.  I needed to find a way to work on my languages amidst all these demands.  So I recalled some great things I’ve learned from the web.

Everyday language-learning

Aaron Myers at the Everyday Language Learner site constantly reminded me via his Twitter feed (@aarongmyers) to do something every day.  I love the name of his blog because the double-meaning fits me perfectly.  I need to learn languages “every day,” plus I’m a simple, garden-variety “everyday” language learner with cares, demands, and responsibilities like everyone else.

Finding 30 minutes to figure out what exercise I should do, though, was more than I could do.  Learning every day was too much.  So I was hardly learning anything.  This was demoralizing and out-of-character for me.  I had to learn how to do something every day, even if it was 5 minutes.

Passive learning jump-started my active learning

Passive learning allowed me to start up right away with little concentration and commitment, and then it led me easily–and unexpectedly–to more active study.  Steve Kaufmann, who blogs and vlogs about language-learning, advocates passive language input, which will aid language-learning when one turns to more active methods.  While I’m not beginning my language, I thought taking a passive-learning approach for now would help.

The BBC offers a one-hour daily news digest in Farsi, and I challenged myself this week to listen to the whole thing every day.  It’s certainly over my head, but it’s well-produced and discussing topics I already know a little about.  I listened a little in the morning while brushing my teeth, during my commute, and during some of my workouts.  Though I didn’t make it all the way through every episode, and on a couple days I listened to the last few minutes while I was falling asleep at night, I still benefited.  I was remembering words I thought I had forgotten and I looked up words occasionally.  My mind turned again towards Farsi–exactly what I’d hoped for!

On Saturday, then, I started using the great learning app, Anki.  This app soups up my old flash cards.  It offers universal accessibility–platforms for PC (Windows and Linux), Android, and on-line–and keeps track of what words I know best.  It also reminds me when it’s time to study.  Creating new cards I find the hardest, but the application makes it easy to cut and paste from emails, articles, or Google Translate.  I can also tag the source of my word.  Thanks to Anki, I spent 10 minutes in bed this morning reviewing some words, in addition to the 25 minutes (so far today) of listening to the BBC.  I’m back!

Quantity, not quality

Of course, the quality of your language-learning materials are important, but quantity got me back up into language-learning.  Doing something–anything–every day not only helped my language knowledge but also my motivation.  It’s easy to lose focus when life is busy, but 10 minutes that’s over your head is better than nothing.

Another thing I learned was that searching for quality input is important, but can’t stand in the way of practice.  When I’m looking for material more than I’m praticing, I’ve lost my balance.  I can tend to be a perfectionist, so I have to beware of this balance.  “Just do it!” has to be my motto.

This coming week, I’m going to try more of the same.  I’ll listen to the Persian BBC podcast as well as work my Anki cards as much as possible.  We’ll see where I end up.

Are you languishing in your language-study?  Did you fall off the horse?  What’s one thing you can do–even for one day–in the next day or two to work on your language?  Tweet this article and help spread the encouragement!

Photo credit: Eduardo Amorim / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Setting goals and moving towards the center

Slight, accurate motion causes great, effective movements
Slight, accurate motion causes great, effective movements

This week I was looking at the website of a guy I know; he gives advice about how to reach goals by using small communities of ambitious friends to support each other.  The first piece of advice that struck me, though, was, in his words, “stop the bleeding.”  He recommended naming bad habits and using time spent on them for the goals we want to accomplish.  One of my bad habits is compulsively checking email and Facebook, so I took some time away from those activities this week, and I accomplished a few things that I would not have done otherwise.  I haven’t done the second important piece of advice–examine “why” I want to do these things.  I’ll discuss that in a minute.

Before I list the things that I accomplished, I’ll briefly mention a simple tool that I used.  I set up a spreadsheet on Google Docs.  I put multiple tabs, one for each large goal: start a side business, expand language offerings in the public schools, learn Farsi, learn Somali, develop methods for learning languages at work, and blog.  On the spreadsheet I write individual tasks that I think well keep me moving.  I date when I put tasks down and when I finish them.  I also want to put down a deadline for myself, but I’m afraid of that much commitment at this point.  This way I can actually see what I’m getting accomplished and plan a little more deliberately.

Here are some of the things I actually accomplished.

  • Business.  I have a website that is nearly complete.  It still needs some photos, so I talked to my friend’s wife, who is a photographer, and some international friends at work who will pose with me.  Once the photos are up, I should be done with the site, ending that phase.
  • Languages in Schools.  I contacted a person who has already been working on Somali language in the Minneapolis Schools.  I’m planning on another meeting maybe next Saturday–I ran the idea past my friend/partner.  I’ve put together a list of names to invite to the meeting, and I created an agenda that is manageable for a 1-1.5 hour meeting.
  • Farsi.  I’ve been watching some Iranian sit-coms every evening or every-other evening.  I IM friends in Iran 2-3 times per week at work.  I spoke over Skype with an Iranian friend for about 15-20 minutes.
  • Somali.  I use my limited Somali every day, but I didn’t really move ahead.  Not much happened here.
  • Languages at Work.  I’ve been inputting dialogues for my languages at work packet.  I solicited more translations and ideas from my Somali friends, and we’re discussing ways to re-introduce our Somali table to our company.
  • Blog.  (This is it!)

I’m amazed that I did all this in moments at home and slow moments at work when I would normally kill time.  I’m grateful for this piece of advice to “stop the bleeding.”

I want to look at why I want to accomplish these goals with the hope of encouraging my deeper motivations.  Figuring out the “why” behind these goals appeals to me, because I know that I can motivate myself at my core.  Back in college, when I studied kung fu, my non-English-speaking sifu used to demonstrate effective technique by taking a rope and swinging it in a circle.  He’d point at the small motions of his hand and the large motion of the rope they caused.  When you push from the center, less effort is necessary for an action.  (See photo.)

The technique of finding out the “why” is to ask why I want to do something, and then ask “why” to that answer, five times.  This way I move towards my own center.  So I want to accomplish this technique this week on at least two of my big goals I mentioned above.

I’d love to learn from my readers how you accomplish your goals–or what stands in your way.  I may or may not have suggestions for you; I’d love to learn something from you.

Do any of my readers use accountability groups for setting and keeping short- and long-term goals?  If so, please describe your process.

How do you stay focused on goals?  What techniques do you use?  Do you have examples?

Photo credit: Steve Corey / Foter.com / CC BY-NC