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.
We all know he spent a good portion of his career in Germany, which explains his very strong German skills.
But let’s think of it this way. When Mark Zuckerberg addressed a Chinese university audience in Mandarin in 2014, the audience literally responded with Oos and Ahs.
(I was disappointed that President Obama spoke so little Bahasa Indonesia after living there as a boy. He got Zuckerberg-style applause.)
Mr. Putin also gives speeches in English, but I don’t hear anyone Oo or Ah.
Why this contrast? Because Americans don’t learn foreign languages to a professional level. A Russian leader is trilingual, and gets modest applause. An internationally-renowned American CEO speaks modest Mandarin and receives great accolades.
Now we have a president who has shown no interest in foreign languages, for himself or for anyone else.
Mr. Putin possesses a clear advantage over President-Elect Trump. When one knows foreign languages, one has insight into other peoples, countries, and cultures.
At the point recently, when some people were angry that I called traveling polyglots imperialists, I realized that I did not define clearly what I meant by that word. So I’ve researched some recent use of this word.
Many scholars and social theorists discuss colonialism and neo-colonialism at length. I read a great summary here. I want a way, though, to decide at what point does the polyglot become a force for evil and not good. Challenging the power dynamic
“The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proved again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.” —Jean-Luc Picard
For the Star Trek universe, this directive refers to technology. Why do so many agree with it? Because we see that a huge technology differential hurts the civilization who possesses less technology.
“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” —Prof. Steven Hawking
Not based on science-fiction but on history, Dr. Hawking believes that the differential between us and aliens who might contact us would likely destroy us.
Why are people concerned about this difference in technology? Because technology is power, and a huge power differential will destroy the weak.
Nevertheless, the Enterprise continued to boldly go where no man had gone before. Dr. Hawking, in contrast, suggests we avoid aliens. The two differ because the United Federation of Planets assumed that it was more powerful than other civilizations, while Dr. Hawking fears that aliens could clobber us—even by accident.
I’ve recently frustrated some of my readers in comparing language-study as colonial and exploitative. I want to look more deeply here at the situations that bring these traits to the fore.
Power differences can result in unintended consequences. Does loving language threaten others or mediate that threat? Loving language
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
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!
I tend not to follow the mainstream. I study languages that others don’t, and I’ll often gravitate towards marginal dialects when I can. When I speak Arabic, I try to throw in a little Moroccan when I can. Speaking Russian, I might add a little bit of a Ukrainian accent. Right now, I’m learning Swiss German, which I’m afraid will irritate my standard German-speaking friends.
Google Translate follows the mainstream. It is a tool developed by a savvy business filling a commercial need. People who have and spend money need an application to conduct their business more easily. I addressed the relative value of languages in an earlier post.
Unfortunately, Google Translate reflects the mainstream. It offers the languages of the powerful, and translates using the language of the status quo without respect for what is good or right independent of how things are done. For using language the way most powerful people do, Google Translate works well; those of us who seek out the margins and buck the trend of “standard” speech see clear limitations in the language and gender bias of our world reflected in this software.
You can see that now it includes five African languages: Somali (how did I miss that?!) and Zulu, plus the three most widely-spoken languages of Nigeria (Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa). The only other African languages offered previously were Swahili and Afrikaans from 2009.
The service follows the power structure of the Internet. You can see the stages of growth of the software in this article. Here is the general process of expansion. The first languages were all EU languages, and quickly were accompanied by ones from East Asia. After Arabic and Russian appeared, eastern European and Southeast Asian languages came next. Other Southeast Asian and Central Asian languages arrived, until the first American (Hatian Creole) and African languages were incorporated (including Afrikaans, which some may call a European language). Even though Hindi was one of the earlier languages, other Indian languages surprisingly only came at a late stage–after Latin!–and, finally, in the last stage, a group of African languages and the first Oceanic language, Maori, made it in. No indigenous languages of North or South America are yet to be represented.
I don’t believe Google would have a policy to include or exclude languages. As a successful business, they would naturally gravitate to languages that would bring the most sets of eyes to their site. Also, when they figured out a language so they could add it, adding a closely-related language wouldn’t take much additional effort. For example, adding Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian in the same release makes sense, and once Spanish is well-established, Catalan probably takes minimal effort.
Their stages of development reflect a reality of the internet and commercial value of languages. Europe and East Asia are the most important, then Asia and Southeast Asia, and finally Africa. The indigenous peoples of Oceania and the Americas are insignificant. I noticed some odd anomalies. Hundreds of millions of Indians’ mother tongues were left till quite late. I think there’s an assumption that Indians can just use English. At the same time, Welsh or Irish were added much earlier, in spite of very few monolingual speakers. For some reason, Western European languages received preference that Indian languages did not. I don’t think this is racism, however; Google reflects an economic reality in its amoral inequality of wealth and poverty.
Is Google Translate sexist?
At one time, some people accused Google Translate of gender bias. They noted that phrases that included ambiguous gender sometimes came back with a gender. Some people were scandalized because translations reflected an unwanted stereotype. For example, this article describes gender bias manifested in German. In German, Lehrer can mean a man or woman teacher, while Lehrerin is a woman teacher. I translated “physics teacher” and “math teacher” and they both used Lehrer, while “French teacher” and “cooking teacher” translate with Lehrerin, imposing a gender bias of certain areas of specialization.
I ran another experiment. In Arabic, like many other languages, there is no “it,” so one uses a masculine or feminine pronoun based on the grammatical gender of the noun. So “door” is “he,” while “car” is “she,” for example. I translated, “He fixed the car” into Arabic, and translated it back, and got the same, “He fixed the car.” When I translated, “She fixed the car” into Arabic and back, Google served up, “It fixed the car.” Maybe it is more easily imaginable that a wrench would fix a car than a woman would.
These results reflect the methodology of the translation, which is to draw from a large corpus of incidents. The author of this article interviewed an engineer working on the software who said, “Statistical patterns were used to allow the tool to determine what gender was being referred to. Should the text include the word “dice”, which is Spanish for “says”, the algorithm will not only assess the frequency that this is historically used to refer to a male or female speaker, but also the other words in the inputted text.” The software reflects how the phrase is used. It is a robot reflecting the real use of human language with stereotypes, biases, and all.
We can’t really blame the bias of the software–we can only blame our own biases. The software has no ability to understand the pragmatics of the situation. Modern Hebrew reflects the gender of the subject in present verbs. When I translated, “I am nursing the baby” or “I am giving birth,” the gender was masculine. It seems that when there is little evidence, the software defaults to masculine, even if it can’t make sense in real life. When a real bias comes out of the language, the software presents that as what you, as a “typical” speaker of the langauge, were “probably” getting at. Simply put, people talk more about women as French teachers than as physics teachers in German. Google Translate reflects our world.
Our tool in our world
I love all languages. I think we can use language to lift people up. We don’t have to marginalize languages or individuals with what and how we speak.
But our world is what it is: biased. You can make more ad revenue with some languages than with others. We tend to find fewer women working in math and science than with children. Google reflects this right back at us.
Languages rise and fall and adapt more quickly than our software. Humans can see trends coming that computers can’t. People feel right about speaking one way instead of another.
I buck the trend, though. I want to speak languages that are not money-makers. I want to find ways to focus on the marginalized rather than keep them on the margins. If I want to change the status quo, I can’t rely on Google Translate. I have to learn to speak for myself, with my own words.
Be sure to “Like” if you support the margins, those people and languages who don’t follow the trend.
I think the US got off to a bad start when it comes to language-love. In the beginning of this nation, there were multiple languages spoken, and no language dominated. To get things done, you had to speak multiple languages. Unfortunately, the majority of those who learned languages did so to gain power and money; learning about others and discovering new ways of thinking did not dominate.
My family recently got back from a Spring Break trip to Colonial Williamsburg, where we learned a lot about 17th and 18th century Virginia. We also visited the first permanent English settlement in the Americas (Jamestown), and Thomas Jefferson‘s home (Monticello). For those less familiar with US history, this was the period of the first British colonists (est. 1607) up through the Revolutionary War (1776). I, of course, studied my whole experience there through the eyes of language-love.
I found that in spite of linguistic richness in colonial and pre-Revolutionary America, we learned very little from it. At that time, English was an insignificant language, so we focused on the languages of Europe, where power was concentrated. This period confirmed for me that Americans have always been focused on gaining power, and ignoring the languages of early America exemplifies this bias. We lost out on the wisdom and knowledge that we could have gained if we had embraced the linguistic diversity of this land rather than suppress and homogenize it.
I’m fascinated by the idea of a Tower of Babel right in North America, at a time where no language has dominance. This seems the opposite of today where I can communicate without thinking in any corner of this huge country. I don’t know if the colonists were monolingual, but it could not have been easy because once one left one’s small group of 200 people, one ran into other languages. Here are some of the most significant languages that were spoken at this early period.
The English encountered natives in what they called “Virginia.” The main confederation of tribes they found were called the Powhatan. At the time the English arrived, around 15,000-20,000 of these people existed. Their language belonged to the Algonquin language family, which included members throughout the Northeast and Upper Midwest of the US, and much of the South and East of Canada.
The most famous Powhatan in our culture is Pocahontas. How much we actually know about her, however, is disputed.
I’m fascinated by the dilemma of how two groups from thousands of miles away discover each other and try to communicate. Absolutely no common language existed; they had to start from scratch. At several points, the Powhatan and English exchanged boys to grow up with the other group. They eventually functioned as messengers and interpreters, although the rulers used them for political ends, as well. One of them, Henry Spelman, wrote about his life among the Powhatan.
The language has long ago become extinct, although some speakers of related languages remain to this day. We only possess two word lists from Powhatan, which together make up about 550 words. Several words entered into common use in English, such as hickory, hominy, moccasin, opossum, persimmon, raccoon, and tomahawk.
The slave trade sullied the history of the US. Nevertheless, it also diversified the new society that was developing in the Virginia Colony. The first slaves for a long time came from Ndongo, which was a kingdom of the 16th and 17th centuries that existed in present-day Angola. Its people spoke a Bantu language, but we do not have any record of the language itself.
The Ndongo people had to mix and communicate with English and Powhatan people in the US. Moreover, the latter peoples had to have been exposed to their language. When I was in Historic Williamsburg, there were plenty of African-American reinactment actors. I wondered, though, how many of them would have spoken fluent, unaccented English back in the 18th century. In a small town like Jamestown in the 17th century, the English must have heard plenty of Ndongo language in the streets, fields, and homes.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, English was not a significant language. International business and politics were conducted in French. French was the official language of England until the 14th century. Russian aristocrats paid top “dollar” for French governesses for their children. In the 17th century, the Portuguese, and Spanish held large, global colonial territories, in addition to the French, Dutch, and English. The Portuguese and Spanish, however, had been at this for a longer time. The English culture and language were a ways down the list.
Without another language, an English-speaker would have been isolated to cultural obscurity.
Limits of language-love in the early US
Since the beginnings of European North America, people judged the importance of a language from a narrow, utilitarian point of view. On our tour of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, the guide spoke proudly of the linguistic abilities of this father of the USA, as he knew Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, and Italian, in addition to his native English. I was less impressed by this as the low esteem of English provided the necessity for Jefferson’s education. A monolingual English speaker would have no access to the most important political, philosophical, or scientific ideas of the day, much like, for example, a monolingual Dutch speaker today.
What saddened me was that no Native American or African languages, such as Powhatan and Ndongo, were among the languages that Mr. Jefferson had learned. He was surely hearing slaves speaking multiple languages, and he was likely dealing with Native Americans on at least an occasional basis. I imagine it would have taken less work to learn those languages than Italian, for example, since speakers were living right in the vicinity.
Language is and always has been a way to access and connect with knowledge outside of one’s culture, and one’s choice of language demonstrates a bias towards whose knowledge one wants to access and connect with. Many in the US–and in most places of the world–one wants to connect with the powerful. In the 18th and 19th centuries, that meant France; in the mid-20th century German was important, and later in the century, Russian was important for a while. In the 2010s, Mandarin is more important as China became more economically powerful. Above all, most people in the world still learn English. Now, just as back then, Native American and West African languages are irrelevant because their people have no power.
Our people, just like most people, have always been biased against the weak and the outsider, and our lack of language-love displays our bias. Humans do not see value in connecting with and learning from those who do not hold power.
I learn wisdom from people whom others overlook. Those who are not powerful understand power in ways that the powerful themselves cannot see. By learning the languages of the “weak” I choose to learn what I could not know in an isolated, English-only bubble. By ignoring the “savage” Native Americans and West Africans in our country, we lost out on knowledge of this land, balance, tradition, poetry, nature, and family that are now lost forever. True language-love must embrace the outsider so that the insider might have a hope of gaining knowledge and wisdom.
Besides “doing business,” what other reasons do we have for learning languages?