Agape Vespers: The church service for language-lovers

English: The inside of an Orthodox church. Gre...
A Greek Orthodox Church–and home of a polyglot feast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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!

Language and class in the US

Changing our attitude about language is the first step
Changing our attitude about language is the first step.

Americans carry a linguistic assumption that will ultimately hold us back.  As a society, we judge you based on one linguistic question: How good is your English?  Based on the answer to this question, we can begin to decide on your worth as a person.  The centrality of this question displays chauvinism and inflexibility, as it degrades any other linguistic abilities a person has.  More importantly, the question prevents us from learning and improving ourselves.  Until we recognize the linguistic abilities of those who might speak “bad English,” we will never take advantage of the learning opportunities standing right before us.

Here are a couple of examples that came to my attention this week.  I work in customer service, and our company has recently sent our help desk off-shore.  (I’m leaving out some identifying details, but the point can probably apply broadly.)  I spent many hours this week fixing problems that our help desk couldn’t help with.  When the help desk couldn’t help the customers, the customers called their boss, who called me.  When I talked to several frustrated customers, one problem kept coming up with clear anger, “And I could hardly understand what they were saying!”  The question refers to the perceived quality of their English.  Then I would hear about how the help desk is broken–of which their lack of quality English being a major symptom.  I heard clear disdain for non-native English speakers.

One of my co-workers is an intelligent, hard-working immigrant.  Because his English is clearly accented and he is soft-spoken, I hear frustration arise sometimes among those who communicate with him.  It breaks my heart.  Obviously, these frustrated people do not know that he possesses encyclopedic knowledge of poetry and music from his culture, writes about the grammar of his native language in his spare time, speaks about 4-5 languages, and heads a non-profit organization that aids development in his native country–all without a college education.  Moreover, the hardships he has endured has given him a depth of soul and feeling that I rarely see in people.  He has the mind of a professor, yet circumstances do not allow him to develop and use his gifts to that extent.

Neither one–the offshore helpdesk worker or the US immigrant–is respected for their knowledge because Americans perceive them through one particular lens: How good is their English?  As a result, the Americans do not realize their opportunity to learn; similarly, those who possess this knowledge do not perceive what they know as valuable.

These people are often seen as poorly educated and/or disadvantaged, in other words, lower class, despite their knowledge of multiple languages.  Their knowledge of another language means that English is not their first language, so they stand on a lower rung of the social hierarchy.  Sometimes they are treated poorly, such as what I hear about the offshore helpdesk workers.

You can only be multilingual and respected under one condition: your English is nearly perfect.  A Swede who speaks flawless English, or an American who speaks native English and learned Chinese–both are considered intelligent and educated.  But our public housing projects are full of multilingual people who do not speak “good English.”  The multilingual people who serve those non-English speakers in the projects do not get rich, either, in spite of their knowledge.

If the US wishes to perform an important role in the world and the global economy in the near future, Americans will have to understand how valuable knowledge is, even if it comes in another language besides English.  Every day Americans stand at the path to the global village, but they don’t take the first step.  We will never get there.  Our language teacher is on the phone already; our introduction to world language and culture is sitting next to them at work.  In the same way, the Mexican landscaper and Vietnamese nail salon worker who struggle with English bear valuable knowledge. Once our people see that they can learn from the interaction on the phone or at work can make them better world citizens, will be ready for a more cosmopolitan and multi-lingual future.  We will be people who seek to learn and understand people from other cultures and contexts.  Let’s change our question and ask ourselves: How good is our Spanish? Hindi? Cantonese? Tagalog?

What languages can your learn–even if just a few words–from the people you interact with every day?  I have “thank you” in Amharic on a sticky-note in my cube for when the Ethiopian maintenance worker comes by to empty my trash.  I also ask about the differences in regional Spanishes from the Bolivian and Nicaraguan I work with.

What I learned about language-learning: 2012

Learning from 2012
Learning from 2012

I think that today is the perfect day to review my blog posts from the past year and summarize what I’ve learned about language-learning.  I hope that you have been learning along with me.  Overall, I found that learning languages improves my character, my professional life, and my community.  The process of learning languages teaches me how to set and achieve difficult goals.  Learning languages is not enough, though; I’m learning how to take language love out to my broader community.

Learning languages improves character.

When we learn languages, we train ourselves to think in new ways.  We become more creative and we move outside of our everyday thinking patterns.  As we advance, we talk to new people and take risks in looking silly–facing down immobilizing fears.  Understanding new people comes more easily, and we become more open-minded.  Confronting our fears and opening ourselves up to those who think differently from us forces us to grow and mature.

(See Moving out of Yourself through Language; Living Abroad–Learning Languages?–Enhances Creativity; Vulnerability and Weakness, Growth and Connection; Language Learning for Veterans; Languages: Failure is Gain; A Money-Mouth Situation; Language, fear, and childishness; Seek to understand rather than to be understood; You can learn a new skill!)

Learning languages improves professional success.

For those who work regularly with speakers of other languages, we can engage with them in more positive and constructive ways if we learn their language.  Though they may speak English, we show that we recognize the effort they constantly put forth to speak to us in a language that is foreign to them; we sympathize with them.  Moreover, we understand more deeply the needs and desires of our clients and customers because we have made the effort.  All of us will spend increasing amounts of time in the future with more non-native speakers of English, and the more we speak another language, the more quickly we will succeed in our dealings with those for whom English is not their native language.

(See Are English-Only Speakers Squeezed Out?; Communication Problems Slow Business Growth; Learning Languages for Global Development; Languages, Marketing, and Customer Experience; Languages Benefit US Employees.)

Learning languages improves the lives of expat spouses.

As a corollary to the above lesson, I’ve found that the spouses of expats will experience a more positive, constructive transition if they learn the language of the country they go to.  They can benefit from this exciting adventure, teach their children, advance their career, and grow personally.  Ultimately, the company profits from spouses who have a good expat experience.

(See Relocation Succeeds with Training for Spouses of Expats; Learning the Language Aids the Expat Spouse; Language Training Helps the Careers of Expat Spouses.)

Learning languages offers social benefits.

As Americans we find ourselves in the contradictory position of being surrounded by multiple languages every day, yet understanding none of them.  Our communities are full of language resources that we do not seek to learn from.

At the same time, we Americans hear our news largely from American sources in English.  We lack access to differing points of view because we cannot understand the languages in which those views are formed.  If we sought to benefit from the languages of our fellow-Americans, we would understand the world in a more sensitive, nuanced way.

(See “We have a listening problem”; Learning Community Languages; Language Deficiency; فارسی برای همه Farsi for everyone!; To be American is to be multilingual; Learn Languages for a Different Take on the News.)

Setting goals is important, but one must continually evaluate what is most effective.

This year I decided to learn Farsi.  I wanted to see how much I could learn with the resources I could find, without going to the country.  I set out in the beginning with certain goals for listening, vocabulary, and interactions.

Examining what works always helps, but what works in one phase of learning or of life may or may not work in another phase.  I found some of my learning tasks easy and some of them impossible.  I kept up in some areas but not in others.  Sometimes I lost my “balance.”  I made some fast progress in vocabulary, then lost momentum.  I more recently learned the beauty and necessity of speaking to natives.  Moving and changing jobs radically altered my ability to study my language, but I am still striving to learn however I can.  I learned that setting goals is not the same as setting expectations–goals I aim for, but expectations hurt when I don’t get to them.  Ultimately, the notion “progress, not perfection” will ensure that I learn the language–though not necessarily as quickly as I may like.

(See Setting Goals: Why take on this task?; Stuff happens; Problem of Intermediate Language Learning; Farsi at Six Months; Progress and perseverance in learning languages; Just make progress!; Re-motivation: Sharpening the axe; Overcoming fear to end a slump; Don’t just practice–engage!)

Importance of teaching languages

Finding myself in a community filled with Somali immigrants, I want to develop a local team to figure out ways for us non-Somali Minnesotans to learn from our neighbors.  We need to figure out how to develop more language teachers here.  I want my kids to grow up knowing more than one language, preferably one they can speak every day.  Education will improve overall through greater language education.  I also want the Somalis at my work to teach me and my co-workers their language.  Knowing that learning and teaching languages takes a lot of time, I’m learning how to use lunch time for learning time.

(See Languages at Work; Community Languages in Schools; Team Language-Lover; Certifying immigrant language teachers.)

I hope that you have a happy new year!  I hope next year to enjoy all kinds of improvement in Farsi and Somali.  I want to teach more people how to improve their lives by learning languages in the situation where they find themselves, whether in the US or abroad.  I also hope to develop Somali education in local schools here.  I hope we all love languages even more in 2013!


Overcoming fear to end a slump

Overcome fear by action (Image by Stuart Miles,
Overcome fear by action (Image by Stuart Miles,

I’m living a language slump—since the summer, my Farsi has not advanced much. Learning a language, I explain to people, is like filling a bucket with holes. At this point, more is coming out of my Farsi “bucket” than is going in. I know less on December 1 than I did on August 1. This lack of progress makes me feel defeated—and ultimately fear blocks me and keeps me from moving forward.

The surface sources of my slow progress are clear. First, my schedule changed drastically as I moved to a new state and to a new job with a radically different daily schedule and set of expectations. So I spend little time going through my words during the day or looking for new ones. Second, the foreign language I run into most often is Somali, not Farsi, so that language draws more of my attention. Moreover, beginning a new language (like Somali) keeps my attention much more than the intermediate doldrums of Farsi. Third, I’m working on building a Somali/immigrant language movement in my city, and that takes time for communication and organization, which takes time away from potential Farsi study.

Sometimes I long for a teacher. One reason is I want the accountability of a regular language meeting. Another reason is that I need controlled, intermediate input. The input from podcasts and newspapers can be overwhelming; it takes a lot of chewing to digest it. When I spend focused time on them, though, I get something valuable out of it. I want someone else to help me overcome my slump.

In fact, teachers are waiting for me. Through Livemocha—where I haven’t checked in for months—I have tens of friend requests, many from Iran. Iran is ten hours later than me, which means that at 8 or 9 pm my time, I could have an early morning session with someone in Iran, or at 6-7 am my time, I could meet with someone in Iran at the end of the work day. These folks want to learn English, too, so we could do a language exchange.

To be honest, I’m afraid to make the time commitment. My old job used to have a flexible schedule, and I spent 80% of my time by myself. Now I have to be places at particular times and work with people the entire time. Flexible, alone time—especially if it can be at home—has become a terribly valuable commodity.

I have a fear of shortage; this is the real obstacle to my Farsi progress. I’m afraid that I don’t have enough time.  Fear has stopped me, and fear has become my normal state. I need to confront fear and overcome my static inertia, thus moving my self forward again.The next step is to assume the opposite: I have enough time.  By making that initial investment, I will overcome the inertia and get moving.  Investing in a teacher would work; a 30- to 60-minute per week commitment would improve my Farsi by a lot.  These lessons would lead to visible progress—and enjoyment and connection—on a regular basis, so I would feel encouraged to work here and there (e.g., vocabulary cards and podcasts) and to visit my elderly neighbors more often.

What does fear keep you from doing? How do you confront it to overcome the inertia it causes?

Team Language-Lover

By “digitalart” (

Language-lovers sit at a strange nexus between extro- and introversion.  On the one hand, we speak languages, and so we need speakers.  We have to extrovert.  On the other hand, we need to study a lot to keep them up.  Study only comes with introversion.  Our paradox lies between our need to study by ourselves to speak with others.  Both extro- and introversion serve our passion.

The joy–the love–of languages works both directions, as well.  Our joy comes when we speak with others.  Part of this joy arises from the delight of the other who sees this foreigner speaking their language.

Our language-study subsists, though, on our foreignness.  When we start a new language, we consign ourselves again to being a foreigner.  We seek out those who are natives to that language.  We fall in love with being an outsider; we no longer seek out staying at home.  Being the perpetual other motivates us.

I realized recently, though, that I enjoy working on a team.  That means everyone working together on a single goal.  Delight comes from working together and the work only succeeds when we see each other as equals.  Teamwork contrasts strongly with my pursuit of languages.

Only working for my own languages no longer satisfies me.  So I’ve been working on education.  I want to provide language education for others.  I do not see enough language students, language schools, or language advocates around me.  As a result, I want to start that change.

To have a real effect requires a team.  Finding language students means talking to teachers, starting language schools requires entrepreneurs, and advocacy requires organization.  I cannot work on my own on this project.  I want to offer Somali-language education as a possibility for schools and others here in the Twin Cities.  I’m building a team to do the work this agenda requires.

I have started building a team, but I’m trying to find the most dedicated people for my vision.  I want people who love languages.  They must understand the inherent worth of learning languages.  Education must also sit at the forefront of their minds.  I need members of team “teach language.”

Is building a team hard for you?  What are ways to build a team?  How do you find people in your area who are passionate about your same passion?  Do you other language-lovers run into the same challenges as I do?

Living Abroad–Learning Languages?–Enhances Creativity

Some research indicates that living abroad and deep multicultural experiences enhance creativity.  My gut has told me this, but recent science is demonstrating it.  These studies are informative, but I would like to know more about how namely the experiences enhance creativity.  My anecdotal evidence suggests that language-study contributes to creativity.

The depth of experience living abroad contributes to creativity in ways that travel does not.  The first study I found is entitled, “Cultural borders and mental barriers: the relationship between living abroad and creativity.”  The second is called, “Multicultural experience enhances creativity: the when and how.”  The abstract of the second study suggests that as one become open to new cultures, one becomes more creative: “The serendipitous creative benefits resulting from multicultural experiences may depend on the extent to which individuals open themselves to foreign cultures.”  Depth of and openness to foreign experience contributes to creativity.

Learning the language of the culture opens oneself up more than anything (except maybe eating the food).  One who learns a language has to be ready to sound dumb–which requires extreme openness–and to see life in a new way.  The old categories no longer work.  If you speak Spanish, you have to think about whether an action was completed or not before you conjugate your past tense.  If you speak Chinese you have to think about the pitch of your voice on every syllable.  If you speak Arabic, you have to think of which word for “love” you’re going to use.  You have to think in someone else’s categories–until those categories become your own and completeness, tone, and vocabulary are second-nature.  The normal way of thinking will no longer work; openness changes and broadens how you think.

I am not a psychologist or a sociologist, but I would like one to run an experiment to answer the following question: Among those who have lived abroad, how much does language-learning contribute to creativity?  Does the creativity of those who live in country where their own language dominates benefit as much as those who have to speak another language?  Does level of fluency affect creativity?  If so, then language-study may enhance the creative benefits offered by “openness” to the other culture.  I’m also interested to understand what other sorts of openness enhances creativity.

Do you find that you are more creative because of your time in another culture or with another language?  What is it about other cultures that improves our creativity?  In what concrete ways does creativity change?

Moving out of Yourself through Language

The Immigrant
The Immigrant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To improve our problem-solving capabilities, we all need to see things from a new perspective.  We may be successful in our careers and relationships.  But our successes possess some parts that are not working as well as they could.  We can’t see them, though.  When we live inside our mind, the mind that has figured out how to be successful, we learn to skim over the gaps in our lives.

Learning a language forces us to struggle for success.  We can’t live under the illusion of inevitable success in our lives; our constant failures in basic communication remind us of our shortcomings.  We sit in front of someone who has great success in speaking this language; the native speaker’s every at-bat appears to result in an inevitable home run.  In stark contrast to the native speaker, we struggle just to hear the crack of the bat.

The other person has a different complement of successes and failures in their experience.  When we build a relationship with that person, we enjoy the opportunity to learn.

When we struggle with a language, we can plug into a new world of success and failure.  An immigrant, for example, has struggled with great loss, moving away from their entire support system in order to support themselves in a new way.  This movement brings loneliness through separation.  Immigrants also likely struggled with languages, leaving them trapped in their poorly-expressed thoughts.  When we move into their comfort zone, we leave ours, and we are ready to learn: about a new person, a different life, a foreign way of thinking.

Have you had such an encounter learning a language or a new way of thinking?  How did it affect you?