Language love and reaching the Other

Who will you reach out to?
Who will you reach out to?

I read the 2016 US presidential election results this morning. After all these months of campaigning, one thing became clear in my mind: both sides failed.

In my mind, both sides failed because no one wanted to speak to the other side. Neighbors won’t talk to each other to even out differing opinions. Instead, self-created opinion bubble exist where its participants all believe they’re right.

This blog exists because I believe in connection. I believe in working to unite people who normally can’t understand each other.

We have a duty to reach out to the Other. We reach out to them because we must, not because we want to. I’m not sentimental at heart.

We are language-learners, and we have a duty to reach out to the Other in the way that we are able. Many of us, though, do not do our duty. We serve ourselves. On the one hand, it feels good to learn a language that is fun, whose culture appeals to us. On the other hand, we can learn the languages of those who live in our community.
Our duty to the Other

“We have a listening problem”

Communication
Communication (Photo credit: P Shanks)

I found this article addresses the important problem of the consequences of not knowing a foreign language.  I believe that when we, as Americans, do not bother to learn another language, we force others to follow our lead if they want to communicate with us.  On our side of the conversation we try to hold all the cards.  This attitude does not foster goodwill with our conversation partners.

When I try to learn the language of the other, I show that I am willing to work to understand that person.  This article says, “Language is a vehicle—a tool—for listening, for communicating, for understanding, for being able to relate to people on their terms.”  Even if I speak that language badly, I still demonstrate effort towards communicating.

Putting forth effort to learn a language that you don’t “have to” learn can confuse people.  Recently I received a very respectful message on Livemocha asking me (in Farsi!) why I would learn Farsi.  True, I’m not in the oil or intelligence business, so that’s a good question.

I’m learning Farsi because I want to learn about another group of people on the planet.  I can read books in English on the modern Farsi speakers in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.  By struggling to understand their language, though, I get some street cred.  I had to move out of my comfort zone–I sound like a 3-year old.  I had to work hard to do so, too.

Here’s how communicating unfolds on a practical level.  I get my foot in the door with a Farsi-speaker first because I approach him or her to speak the language, and then I get a good reaction to begin a nice conversation.  He or she trusts that I am really interested in learning more.  This interaction establishes a relationship based on an initial trust.