My family forgot, over the course of 2-3 generations, how to speak German (Swiss Basel dialect and Pennsylvania Dutch), Irish, Welsh, and Scottish. My wife’s family forgot how to speak Russian, French, and German. In the place where I live (Minnesota, USA), they forgot Ojibwe, Lakota, and Menominee, along with a countless number of European, Asian, African, and South American languages. (I have a coworker who personally forgot how to speak Aymara and Quechua.)
They didn’t simply “forget,” though. They were forced to forget. US society forces families and communities to forget. From the physical punishment of African slaves and Native American boarding school students, to the shaming peer-pressure of the modern suburban Middle School, our society squeezes the languages out of communities. Our society makes plain that to be one of “us,” your speech cannot betray any trace of the “Old World.”
Bequeathing a good community for my children to live in is my highest priority. More basically, being good means nothing if I’m not doing good. So if I’m spending time, money, or energy on something besides my community, I’m obliged to question it.
I’m a language guy, so I spend a lot of time and energy on languages. If I’m following this assumption, then I should be studying languages for the sake of my community.
Choosing a language, therefore, must also build up my community.
Community, not the “exotic” or “new,” must motivate me. How do I study and acquire languages to build up others, rather than myself?
If traveling runs the risk of exploiting people, even a little, I’d rather stay at home and build up my community. Loving language
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.
Yes, I’m focusing on learning the Somali language. Somali takes the majority of my linguistic time and energy. But speaking lots of languages makes me a polyglot—and that brings me so much joy. This week I got to talk to old friends, discover great music, and meet new people. Though I haven’t had much time for more than the bare minimum of Somali, here’s how I worked on my languages this week. My polyglot week
Not often do I get to speak five languages in 2 1/2 days, but I had the fortune of attending the Polyglot Conference last month in NYC. I dreamed that the conference would motivate and focus me on my language-learning, so I used the event itself as motivation. I challenged myself at every opportunity to find out what languages people spoke—whether at the conference itself or not—and practice and learn. I knew my friends and family would ask me what languages I spoke at the conference, and I didn’t want to disappoint. Read what I spoke!
Many languages are struggling to survive. Each bears something to offer humanity, but a deluge of powerful, imperical languages push them towards extinction as children ignore the language of their forefathers and embrace the modern language of the world around them.
Polyglots wield the power to stave off this tide—if they choose carefully the languages they study. While the morality of polyglottery is rarely discussed, polyglots’ choice of language affects communities of people trying to hold on to a history and a tradition. We must choose based not on what merely looks and sounds nice personally, but on what will preserve the dignity of language communities, and the diversity of languages—an ecolinguist preserving the lingua-sphere. More about ecolinguism
Humans excel at discussing how their family, tribe, state, or ethnicity differs from another. Even when everything seems so similar to the outsider, the insider can fixate on one aspect of culture. A dance move, a hand gesture, the use of a spice, a pattern of embroidery–anything can show how you and I are “essentially” different.
Personally, I love these differences, but I can see the downside. When I study languages, I love the little differences. I seek out how Ukrainians pronounce Russian, how different Arabic dialects say the word “now,” how Serbs and Croats pronounce “girl” differently. Variety is the spice of life, right? When discussing these differences with native speakers, sometimes the discussion unfortunately moves to value-based ideas like language “purity” or “progressive” thinking or some other sort of ideology. I dislike ideology because it cements differences by devaluing the Other. Variety and distinctions display the uniqueness of human beings and cultures. The cultural differences I have encountered have shown me that I always have more to learn; I don’t have all the answers.
Writing systems represent a “paralinguistic” phenomenon that cultures can use to distinguish themselves. Even when people speak each other’s language, or even speak the same language, writing divides. Division may be bad, in that it can foment chauvinism, or may be good, in that it can preserve unique cultural traits. In any case, writing distinguishes cultural groups within an otherwise unified linguistic milieu.
Recently I read Michael Erard’s, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. (Anyone who loves languages must read this salute to hyperpolyglots.) In one place, he discusses the polyglot world of India. My experience supports his description, that Indians speak multiple languages. At the same time, each language does not represent an “airtight” container; every Indian seems to be speaking multiple languages simultaneously by dropping in words from whatever language comes to mind. Sid, a Telugu whom I interviewed a while ago, said he chooses the word from the language that suits most what he’s trying to say. Erard discussed the Tamil grammarian, E. Annamalai, who wrote of an Indian “monogrammar,” that is, “While they sound different and use different vocabularies, he said, the grammars are nearly the same” (Erard, 208).
Significantly, among such similar languages, distinct writing systems developed for many Indian languages. India is divided into two major language families, the Indo-Aryan languages in the North, and the Dravidian languages in the South. The four most widely spoken Dravidian languages, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam, each possesses its own writing system. Among my South Indian acquaintances, a working knowledge of at least 2-3 of them is common–but they can’t read them.
The contrast struck me between the common ability to speak many Dravidian languages and inability to read them, prompting me to ask the question of “why?” Human beings use markers to distinguish among groups, whether by food (eg, kosher), clothing (eg, hijab), or language. Since the first two do not distinguish among these South Indian groups significantly, and many people move fluidly among the languages, the societal organism grabbed on to writing as a way to distinguish. As a result, you can place a piece of writing in front of an Indian polyglot to see where in the social structure he or she belongs.
While we think of Chinese writing as difficult, we have to understand that there are two significant Chinese writing systems. Native speakers/writers of each one find the other difficult. Even if speakers in Mainland China and Taiwan speak the same dialect, they may write using systems that are not mutually intelligible. In effect, Chinese writing is bilingual, even if the people are speaking the same dialect.
In this aspect, the writing systems cemented in place the divisions in the country from the ’50s and ’60s. While the Mainland was moving in one direction under Mao, the other areas that were resistant to Mao’s ideas moved in another.
These divisions are still effective today, though I don’t know if anyone has measured the extent. At my company, our IT Service Desk needs distinct teams to be able to handle requests for help in both Traditional and Simplified Chinese. We know that a huge amount of traffic on the internet is “in Chinese.” But this is usually measured as “speakers of Chinese.” Since there isn’t a single written Chinese, then one would have to add the usage in Traditional, Simplified, and Pinyin Chinese writing.
One people divided by religion and writing
Slavs moved into the Balkans in Southeast Europe in around the 5th-6th century. Most believe that they moved from the North, maybe from the area of modern-day Ukraine. (From Wikipediahttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Slavs.) They were independent tribes, without central leadership.
During successive centuries, part of them came under the influence of the Eastern Christians (Orthodox), centered in Constantinople, and some under the Western Christians (Catholic), centered in Rome. In time, the former came to be known as “Serbs” and the latter, “Croats.” These groups started to develop national identities around their respective religions. Certain geographical areas contained a majority of one group, which became another important part of their cultural identity.
The religious leadership worked to evangelize and educate the Southern Slavs, each in their own writing system. To this day, Serbs read and write principally in Cyrillic writing, and Croats almost exclusively in the Latin alphabet. Linguists recognize a single spoken language, Serbo-Croatian, with local variations that are more tied to place than to religion, though this has changed a lot since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The religious difference is thus bound up in the language through the writing system.
Writing divides where language does not
In India, China, and the former Yugoslavia we see that mutually unintelligible writing systems are used when languages are fully comprehensible. What could motivate this layer of confusion, when mutual understanding is already present?
Human beings show a tendency to identify with a group whose markers function in opposition to others. Thus a Tamil who speaks Tamil and Kannada can say to the Kannada person, “I am not Kannada because I cannot read that writing.” A Taiwanese Mandarin speaker can say to the Mainlander, “We may speak the same language, but I cannot read your writing. If you have something important to say, I’m sure you’ll tell me.” The Croat can say to the Serb, “Your writing looks so Russian! You Serbs have a much more eastern mentality than we do.” The writing systems provide data to demonstrate that our groups, which share so much in common, are different deep down.
Individuals may not pronounce these precise phrases, but they demonstrate how easy it is to move from alphabet or ideogram to identity and to ideology. We must be careful of this ease of motion.
Most importantly for me, I don’t believe in erasing differences among people, though they must be viewed with caution. I believe in these distinctions; differences in culture exist just as attached and unattached earlobes exist. They don’t necessarily imply different ideologies. Varying language systems help preserve diversity, as well. Identifying with one culture over another, though, can be dangerous. Preserving my culture must be as important as preserving your culture, otherwise we end up with self-righteousness and violence. Writing can preserve beautiful cultures, but one must believe in the beauty and value of every culture to avoid degrading ourselves.
As a polyglot, I love the feeling of talking to and understanding people who come from communities all over the world. I feel a visceral buzz when I successfully connect. From my teens to my twenties I pursued this bliss from continent to continent. Where does this elation come from? Language overcomes an existential gap between me and others, fulfilling my need to connect with people and seeing the world through another’s eyes.
Separated from each other
We are cut off from each other’s thoughts by an existential gap. Humans can only experience their thoughts first-hand, subjectively. The outside world must be sensed objectively and then translated into subjective thoughts before we can experience it. For example, I know what I see of the outside world because the light enters my eyes, triggering sensory receptors that connect to my brain. Once a sight hits my brain and becomes thought, then I can experience the outside world.
Encountering another human being complicates my situation because we can’t experience each other’s subjective thoughts–and this can be frustrating, even leading to despair. I have to translate my thoughts into something that the other person can sense objectively and translate into his or her own subjective thoughts, and vice-versa. Only when we translate our thoughts for each other can we feel that we’ve connected.
Human beings long for and benefit from this connection. Our language and literature are full of these longings. We want to be understood; we want to connect; we want friendship; we want love. As people come from different ways of thinking and unique experiences, this encounter can broaden our view of the world as we see anew through another’s eyes. When I feel that I’m not understanding another or the other doesn’t understand me, deep longing, anxiety, or even terror can well up. Once we’ve felt that we connected with another, we tend to feel strong emotion and loyalty towards that person. We’ve overcome the existential gap.
Language bridges gap between us
Language endows us with the means to overcome that gap, even helping us to connect to the divine. With language we can connect in profound ways; without language we languish alone. People speak of other sorts of deep connection, but language always plays a part. Sex connects people strongly, but sex always includes connecting through language, from the pick-up line to “Was it good for you?” We desire to experience the other’s thoughts, and we require that the other translate his or her subjective thoughts into language. Language always accompanies the experience as our need to connect and bridge the existential gap drives us.
My grandmother lost her self when she lost language. She had a stroke at age 85, from which she lost her ability to speak and read. When she spoke her aphasia confused her words so that her language came out as nonsense, and so she lost he ability to bridge her existential gap. In two years, she could no longer take the suffering and at age 87 stopped eating until she passed away. Standing at the existential gap with no bridge led to an ultimate existential crisis.
Coming to a new country with a new culture and unfamiliar language, bridging the existential gap is frustrating, even to the point of anguish. One cannot express oneself and cannot grasp others’ thoughts. Even gestures can differ cross-culturally, so one cannot even count on that rudimentary medium of communication to bridge the gap. Without knowledge of language and culture, despondency waits on our side of the gap.
The deepest aspects of religion require language to convey their truths. The Abrahamic religions esteem a sacred book filled with words from the deity. The ancient Babylonians understood that the gods “wrote” messages in sheep livers and in the flight of birds, and the trained human could discern the thoughts of the gods through these means. Native Americans teach basic religious truths through oral stories. Even Jewish mystics derive ineffable truths from the language of the Torah, and then express it in the language of poetry. Language, therefore, bridges not only the gap between humans, but between humans and the numinous. (I borrowed this idea from Rene Girard.)
Need for connection drives my language love
Like everyone else, I wait at the existential gap, ready to move across it. When I’m stuck, I can’t understand others, and they don’t get me, I get frustrated. When I find a way to express myself clearly, when I finally discern another’s thoughts, that connection exhilarates me.
More languages, more travel, more friends offer me multiple fora for experiencing that exhilaration. As a polyglot I can always find new, exciting ways to understand and be understood. Significantly, the more exotic the language, the more euphoria I experience. I prefer speaking and conversation to reading and writing in languages because the buzz of bridging the gap comes more immediately when I speak with a liver person. Yet studying ancient languages allows me the only way to enter into the minds of those long dead, as well.
The love of languages is the euphoria of bridging the gap. I realize that I am not alone in my thoughts, but connected to others. New languages offer means of connecting with new people and seeing the world in new ways. Novelty and fulfilling my need for connection drive me through love to continue to learn languages.