Endangered languages challenge the smugness of the powerful

What can we learn from them? What do they know that we don't?
What can we learn from them? What do they know that we don’t?

With assimilation of language comes assimilation of culture, and as the language is lost, so is the culture. The longer we can put off assimilation of language, the more time we have to learn from the culture that accompanies that language. As speakers of a majority language, I must work to preserve a way of thinking and viewing the world that is different from mine.

In a recent article, one of my favorite language-writers, Michael Erard, described the tropes journalists use when writing about dying languages. Journalists make a kind of heart-breaking spectacle so we can watch these helpless languages go the way of the dodo.

I noticed that there is no call to action. While many people know about these sad stories, these stories offer nothing for readers to do. “Linguists” are depicted as tromping out into jungles and steppes to record the last gasps of the language “for posterity.” They are the amber that traps the last member of the species for future scientists to observe.

So what? Why care about dying languages?

Because you’re too smug.
Cultural challenge

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Love language to think differently

You can learn something here you can't learn at Yale: How to think differently.
You can learn something here you can’t learn at Yale: How to think differently.

This week I saw such a contrast, between passionate language students and resisters to language education. The two sides came from unlikely places.

The serious study of language reveals the commitment to the deep knowledge of a culture. That’s why I often talk about “language love,” because love is the deep commitment to another person or persons. One gives up part of one’s self to become a better self in the service of the beloved. Language-love, because of its deep connections, makes one a better person.

In Western culture, though, language education relates to a classroom, not love, not connection. My kids learn Spanish in their Spanish class, as well as “culture,” which includes facts about clothing in Central America and Puerto Ricans in New York.

Language-love, though, comes from dedication to the language. You cannot help but learn about the culture—on a deep level—by talking with the native speakers of the language. Once you love, you learn to see differently.

In the US, we see that language-love and education do not necessarily go with each other. This week I read about great language-love in poor, rural New York State, and language-haters in the hallowed halls of the Ivy League.
Finding the language-lovers

Looking for differences: Polyglots have a solution

There are a billion people in China. A BILLION people! That means that if you’re a one-in-a-million guy, there are a thousand people just like you.
Jerry Seinfeld

Don't always get stuck with people just like you!
Don’t always get stuck with people just like you!

Now that everyone can meet anyone they want, we can fall more easily into a group of people who think just like us. Through the internet and global mobility, people can meet anyone of any background or any point of view from any country. We have a giant pool to draw from. Liberal Muslims in Baghdad can discuss with liberal Christians in Seattle. Hindu nationalists can find sympathetic minds among anti-Muslim Nigerians.

This ability is morally neutral. For the isolated queer kid in a small town, connecting with someone of like mind can literally save their life. At the same time, Daesh can recruit among disaffected youth anywhere in the world.

Either way, our ability to live in an echo-chamber increases exponentially year by year as it’s easier to find people just like us.

Our opportunities to hear challenging or opposing views simultaneously becomes more and more difficult as we surround ourselves with people we agree with. This happens in spite of how easy it is to find opposing views.

As humans, though, we prefer to surround ourselves with people similar to us.

Polyglots, however, tend to surround themselves with people different from them. In order to learn languages, they have to find people from somewhere else, with different assumptions and world views.
Calling all polyglots!

Ecolinguism: Languages are wealth

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

Can ecolinguism really undermine privilege?
Can ecolinguism really undermine privilege?

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

When language love gets hard

Sometimes, they get weird when you talk to them. What do you do then?
Sometimes, they get weird when you talk to them. What do you do then?

I love walking through the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis. It holds the largest concentration of Somalis in the US. You see Somalis everywhere, smell the amazing blend of spices coming from apartment windows, and hear the beautiful language.

So I take the opportunity to speak at least a little Somali as I walk through the neighborhood. My Somali is still not very strong, but I know how to greet and meet people. As an ecolinguist I love to make connections with people from different cultures, and Somalis are open and easy to talk to.

Along the way I saw a young man, sitting by himself, and I said hello.

Maalin wanaagsan! Nabad? “Good afternoon! How’s it going?”

It got pretty awkward after that as I learned what it really means to connect with a community—every side of it.
Loving language when it’s awkward

Why are you learning languages? Is it love?

Why learn languages?
Why learn languages?

In Simon Sinek’s TEDx Talk, “How great leaders inspire action”, he posits that great ideas begin not with the “What,” but with the “Why” and then the “How.” That is, every company produces a “what,” but not all delve into the more profound areas of why and how they produce what they do. I’ve learned a lot from this presentation in how to examine what I love doing and what motivates me to keep on going.

Language means everything to me, but so does service to others. In this blog I’ve been trying for many years to express why love and deep connection with others motivates my language-learning.

Now I’m going to lay out why love lies at the center of my learning languages.

I believe that we all should put ourselves out there to love. More specifically, we need to sacrifice for one another, especially for those in need.
Why loving language

Language of terror vs loving language

Listen--let him tell his story
Listen–let him tell his story

When I go to Cedar Riverside, a neighborhood of Minneapolis, to practice my Somali language, the streets are full of Somali people in the many shops and cafes. Sometimes I find that people will not respond to me in Somali—only in English. I long for someone who cannot speak English so that I can have a conversation in Somali, but I have only ever found a couple.

Now the news is coming to Cedar-Riverside, the biggest concentration of Somalis, and where I happen to go for my weekly Oromo study group. Here is a video of Fox News correspondent, Pete Hegseth, unsuccessfully trying to interview folks on the street.

The reporter claims that he could not find someone who could speak English.

Ha! Not what I’ve seen! Unlike the correspondent at Fox News, no one ever refused to talk to me. But I could never find these monolingual Somali speakers. Was it something he said?
Talk to immigrants

Irish & Basque: Unnecessary languages! (Or are they…?)

What makes a language useful?
What makes a language useful?

Recently I read the article, “Can anybody truthfully say that Irish is a necessary language?,” where the Irish author, Rosita Boland, expresses her frustration at the time wasted (12 years!) at failing to learn the first national language of Ireland.

Ms. Boland suffered at studying this language unsuccessfully at school. She writes, “The disgrace, as I see it, is being forced by the State to study a compulsory language for which I had no aptitude, absolutely no interest in, and no choice about throughout my entire school career. Where is the pedagogic sense in that?” To be honest, this sounds like my 14-year old’s laments about learning to divide polynomials: “How am I ever going to use that?”

I agree with my 14-year old, so I can’t dismiss Ms. Boland’s complaints out of hand.

But the author’s complain goes deeper. Not only did she fail to learn this compulsory subject, her country’s Constitution ties her Irish identity to it. She further argues, “It is written into our Constitution that Irish is our national language and the first official language. English is recognised as a second official language. That does not make sense.” She resents that her Constitution would define her by the subject that she hated and failed in school.

While she is right that Irish cannot be spoken outside of Ireland, does that make it less “useful”? Is this the only standard of “usefulness”?
What’s useful?

Watch your politics, Polyglots!

Who do we choose to pay attention to?
Who do we choose to pay attention to?

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.

Is that possible? Can we pick a language to study without making a political statement?

When you choose a language, you decide who you want to listen to, whose stories are most important to you.
Political Decisions

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