The modern State of Israel recognizes two official languages: Hebrew and Arabic. Nearly all of its Jewish citizens came from somewhere else within the last 2-3 generations. When these immigrants came, they brought their language. Pressure from Israeli society eliminated the vast majority of their languages.
While 49% of Israelis over 20 claim Hebrew as their native language, according to Wikipedia, 18% claim Arabic, and 15% Russian. The other 18% speak Yiddish, French, English, Spanish, and “Other” languages, which include Romanian, German, and Amharic.
The language picture is more complex than at first glance. A language may include multiple dialects, each living its own dynamic. Some of the last speakers of certain language dialects live in Israel. Active violence has also taken place against other languages.
As Hebrew was chosen as the official language, its proponents put in place a system that does not give other languages space to live and grow.
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.”
Let me correct that: English will make you more money. Because the US, UK, Canada, and Australia have a lot of it. With other languages, you’ll have to be lucky.
Learning foreign languages will improve your relationships with others. A more fertile ground for diverse languages will produce a better crop of human beings, better able to understand and respect one another.
Cultivating the environment around us has value that doesn’t show up in standard calculations of “Return on Investment” (ROI). I listened to a speech by environmental activist, Vandana Shiva. Working the land with our neighbors produces a better environment and healthier community, but eating what we produce does not produce wealth that can show up in GDP. In contrast, industrial agriculture, which does produce capital wealth, creates environmental problems and destroys species.
I am a native English speaker. I can get a job paying six-figures without ever learning another language. Not so in, say, the Philippines or India, where English is more valuable for learning potential than a college degree is in the US. When we say that languages are “valuable,” we are saying that the economic system has made one language more valuable than another. I can get a higher-paying job with this language than I can with another.
Economics does not drive my desire to learn languages like these forces drive industrial agriculture. The desire for a healthier community for my children and neighbors drives me to learn languages. Language ROI
Bringing languages into my community takes more work than it does at the Wellstone International High School that I spoke of in an earlier post. Fortunately, the ELL (English Language Learners) coordinator organized last week an event, “Many Languages, One District,” for a local school district. I loved attending and talking with so many different people in and about multiple languages. Read more about this great event
In part 2 of my interview, I tell some more stories of learning my languages and my experiences at the Polyglot Conference in NYC. (See part 1 of the interview here.) Since the next Polyglot Conference will take place in Thessaloniki, Greece, I float the idea that fellow-polyglots delve into not just Greek, but into Arabic and Kurdish. Let’s use our language-learning to show solidarity with Greece’s newest populations.
A couple months ago, I was invited to an interview with Kris Broholm of the Actual Fluency podcast. I enjoy Kris’s work, as he fell in love with languages during a difficult period in his life. When I met him at the Polyglot Conference, we got to talk about how languages helped him with his depression.
As you know, Somali is my main pursuit these days. But I realized that I don’t think about pursuing my other languages at this point as any actual progress. Yet I have spoken Spanish every day, since we have a monolingual Spanish speaker staying at our house.
While I believe everyone should learn languages, monolinguals teach me so much. When I have to speak to them, I gain vocabulary and grammar so quickly. Our exchange student’s mom is staying with us, and she only speaks Spanish. I speak Spanish every day now. Without spending any time memorizing vocabulary, certain words are just sticking just so that conversation can continue.
Learn how to roll you “r” in Spanish, Italian, and Russian! Did you know that if you speak American English, you’re already half-way there? In this video I explain how to position your tongue and control your breath to make this sound correctly. These are the methods that I used to teach myself how to make this sound back in the day.
Many people get overwhelmed with the idea of sounding like a native in studying a foreign language. Speaking with an accent seems like a normal state. However, with a few tips on being aware of how our mouth makes sounds, a little concentration can produce great results. I made this video series to show you how to increase your awareness of all the parts of your speaking apparatus.
You can sound like a native in any language. Even though speaking with a foreign accent seems like a normal state, you can learn how to make the sounds that sound easy in the mouths of natives. This video series increases your awareness of all the parts of your mouth you use for speaking. A language never felt so good!
Speaking a language feels wonderful as you work to move your mouth like a native.
Dr. Thomas Coates blew my mind. He taught me how my tongue, lips, jaw, and teeth create language. Like a Chinese calligrapher learns how each finger holds a brush, like a yogi breathes with specific depth and stretch of her diaphragm, I took the first steps towards mastering language: losing my accent.
This is how I imagine what my Modern Greek sounds like: a combination of Shakespeare and Tarzan. You see, I’m bad at Greek. (It’s not all Greek to me, but a good portion of it is.) I can read some Biblical Greek (a simpler version of Ancient Greek a la Homer), but I know only a little Modern Greek—and it’s words with very little grammar. A foreigner from the 10th century.
I’m living the polyglot dream. This term was coined by Lucas Lampariello at his blog by the same name, and I mean by it that I managed to keep my love of language at the forefront of my mind and found many opportunities for and much joy in immersing myself in languages. While I set aside time this week to be sure I was working hard on Somali, I kept my ears open when I could speak or listen to other languages. I managed to engage Somali, Amharic, Spanish, French, Russian, Portuguese, and Dutch.
The church service I went to today caters well to language-lovers like me. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the afternoon service on Easter day (technically called “Agape Vespers”) includes reading the gospel selection in multiple languages. (The selection is John 20:19-25.) At a minimum, the reading includes English, Greek, and Russian/Slavonic, but I’ve never seen the minimum only. Even though today the service was lightly attended, I read Hebrew and my wife read Romanian alongside others who read the standards. At a previous parish, I read Syriac every year. I’ve heard all kinds of delightfully unexpected languages: Japanese, Mari, ASL, Old English, for example. A rare opportunity to hear some of these languages!
All the language geeks come out of the woodwork for this service, and I always enjoy it. Since I know what the reading is, I like to try to figure out what words I can decipher from each of the languages. On a more emotional level, the delightful music of all the languages, one after another, pleases me to no end. I love practicing my part–my one chance all year to speak ancient Syriac aloud–and I love seeing the love of others to speak the language that they learned at some time. Today’s service offers an opportunity that is rare in our society: a chance to hear multiple languages and to speak publicly in a language which one may not speak fluently.
Again I see the problem of calling Americans essentially monolingual, because I glimpse how many people from all over can read a foreign language aloud. People enjoy speaking their language, too, and even the monolinguals seem to enjoy hearing all the languages. Sometimes the readings are not expert; the reader clearly does not speak the language fluently. But they feel that they can read well enough and are willing to put work into preparing a text in a foreign language.
Now that I think of it, I realize I would like to see more venues where speaking a little bit of a foreign language was celebrated instead of a point of embarrassment. Many folks I know lament that they don’t know Spanish/French/etc. “better,” rather than speaking and using what they know. If these folks could practice whatever they know, just speaking it in public might give them some more motivation to learn a little better. Rather than beating themselves up for not speaking fluently, they can enjoy speaking to the best of their ability. For example, I know that I enjoy employing my rote-memorized Somali phrases in a few set situations. Also, my young polyglot friend–of whom I’ve spoken before–speaks a little Greek. So when he found out that his Spanish teacher knows some Greek, he brought it out for fun. This church service manifests that such fun comes out for a lot of people–not just polyglots.
I think if we can make rote use of languages in public common, then we can all strengthen our language foundation, ultimately improving our chances of attaining fluency. What are opportunities we see regularly or can initiate for people to speak publicly in their budding foreign language? Comment, share on Twitter or Facebook–let’s see what ideas people have!