Happy 2017! See you later!

See you in a while!
See you in a while!

It has been a great year in 2016. I’ve been able to write more about the motivations for learning languages—and have successfully stirred up some controversy. My goal has been to highlight privilege among language learners and to shine light on those who speak less-commonly studied languages. For example, here is my most controversial post from 2016: “Language hacking ≠ language love”.

One problem has been that I didn’t spend as much time learning languages as I would have liked. So for 2016, my goal is to spend more time on Oromo and Somali. I may work on a little Serbian, since I used to know some and we have a Serbian exchange student living with us currently. Tagalog may find its way in there, too, as an associate from Manila recently joined my team at work.

In this time of growing intolerance and shrinking globe, learning languages has never been more important or political. While I have been writing discoveries made by learning languages and focusing on the languages of my community, I want to turn back to those languages for a while. Time to get back in the trenches.

I will also work on some other writing projects that have been requiring more attention.

So, I will take the next month off. I will come back in February with a summary of progress up to this point.

See you in a few weeks!

Photo by UW Digital CollectionsUW Digital Images, No restrictions, Link

Endangered languages challenge the smugness of the powerful

What can we learn from them? What do they know that we don't?
What can we learn from them? What do they know that we don’t?

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.

So what? Why care about dying languages?

Because you’re too smug.
Cultural challenge

Learning from immigrants through Language Love

What we encounter here is again the paradox of victimization: the Other to be protected is good in so far as it remains a victim (which is why we were bombarded with pictures of helpless Kosovar mothers, children and old people, telling moving stories of their suffering); the moment it no longer behaves like a victim but wants to strike back on its own, it magically turns all of a sudden into a terrorist/fundamentalist/drug-trafficking Other. — Slavoj Žižek, “The Fragile Absolute,” p. 60.


Learning community languages appears as a typically liberal approach to learning languages, yet it is actually neither liberal nor conservative.

Americans act strange when the weak “other” begins to gain power. In a recent episode of This American Life we hear what it’s like when the Somali community begins to gain power in St Cloud, Minnesota.

One complaint was that Somalis had “taken over” a local park. Another one was that a large group of Somali women were disturbing the peace walking through the streets loudly.

When they were in Somalia, suffering, the US supported President Bill Clinton’s military intervention. Americans wanted to end the suffering of the people so that they could live a normal life.

But when they actually live a normal life in St Cloud, many citizens wanted them to stop coming. Citizens wanted to remove them and prevent more from coming.

This cycle repeated itself multiple times in US history. We were excited in the North to free the slaves, but got nervous when they started coming in large numbers to Northern cities. We praised the nobility of the Native American warrior, but thought of them as terrorists in the 1960s when they demanded more rights in an armed struggle. As long as they remained victims, we were comfortable; once they showed initiative, they got too dangerous.

Continue reading “Learning from immigrants through Language Love”

Ecolinguism: Languages are wealth

There is a way to avoid responsibility and/or guilt by, precisely, emphasizing one’s responsibility or too readily assuming one’s guilt in an exaggerated way, as in the case of the white male PC academic who emphasizes the guilt of racist phallogocentrism, and uses this admission of guilt as a stratagem not to face the way he, as a ‘radical’ intellectual, perfectly embodies the existing power relations towards which he pretends to be thoroughly critical.
Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, p. 46

Can ecolinguism really undermine privilege?
Can ecolinguism really undermine privilege?

Ecolinguism sounds like a PC scheme to assuage a white, upper middle-class, American man’s guilt. I’ve claimed that ecolinguism can help combat rich, Western privilege. Can my dedication to minority languages really disrupt the power dynamic, or is just a different mode of the typical white privilege that PC liberals rail against?

People probably got upset with me because I sounded just like the academic that Žižek describes. I just replaced phallogocentrism with Anglocentrism, and instead of racism I discussed the desire for the exotic other. But maybe I emphasized my responsibility and assumed my guilt in an exaggerated way.

The first step I took was to admit my role in the system. I have privilege. But is it really this simple?
Be an ecolinguist

Language love can cure America

American independence leads to isolation.
American independence leads to isolation.

The US is sick. Not only the US: we’ve exported our sickness around the globe.

We lack community because our society destroys communities.

In reading Simon Sinek’s Starting with Why, I was reminded that Howard Shultz’s original idea for founding Starbucks was to create a “third space” between home and work for people to build community. But later, as Sinek’s open letter states, Starbucks became about money. This shift in basic beliefs was symbolized by the move from classy ceramic cups and plates to cardboard cups. As Sinek wrote, “Nothing says to a customer, ‘We love you now get out,’ like a paper cup.”

Let me build on that. I went to Spain last summer. One of the reasons I was excited was because of coffee in coffee shops.

What did I find? Spaniards walking around town with cardboard Starbucks cups.

Where else have I seen the problem? Russians, who have been drinking tea as groups out of teapots for centuries, now make individual cups using individual tea bags. Indians are crazy about on-line dating, looking for a personal match rather than including the entire family in the process of continuing the family. The American woman sitting next to me on the plane who bought nuts immediately after turning down the nuts I offered her from my bag.

The pain I feel as an American comes from excessive independence, a lack of interdependence. Everyone can now function completely on his or her own, and it’s destroying us.
Languages can fix it

When language love gets hard

Sometimes, they get weird when you talk to them. What do you do then?
Sometimes, they get weird when you talk to them. What do you do then?

I love walking through the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis. It holds the largest concentration of Somalis in the US. You see Somalis everywhere, smell the amazing blend of spices coming from apartment windows, and hear the beautiful language.

So I take the opportunity to speak at least a little Somali as I walk through the neighborhood. My Somali is still not very strong, but I know how to greet and meet people. As an ecolinguist I love to make connections with people from different cultures, and Somalis are open and easy to talk to.

Along the way I saw a young man, sitting by himself, and I said hello.

Maalin wanaagsan! Nabad? “Good afternoon! How’s it going?”

It got pretty awkward after that as I learned what it really means to connect with a community—every side of it.
Loving language when it’s awkward

Language love is not about the money—or is it?

Use languages to build your local community = Ecolinguism
Use languages to build your local community = Ecolinguism

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

First steps at language love

Time to get started again!
Time to get started again!

Last week I told you to do the minimum for language love; don’t try so hard.

Today, I want to give you some resources for how to start. Basic. Nothing complicated.

First, though, you have to do your research. You have to go on your ecolinguistic exploratory expedition to find out what people are speaking around you. What do you hear spoken? What do you see on signs, not the formal ones, but the hand-written signs taped to light posts and pinned to bulletin boards?

Now you have your language(s). Let’s begin.
Why loving language

Don’t try so hard: Do the minimum for language love

Don't get worried. Just open up and start speaking.
Don’t get worried. Just open up and start speaking.

I recently met the inventor of Fetch-a-Phrase, a method of keeping all the key phrases you need for a language in your back pocket. You take basic phrases for you language, correlate the words from one language to the other, and then use the correlations to build new sentences.

You don’t have to be great at languages. You just have to care. You don’t have to be fluent in a language. You just have to try. You don’t need to understand everything. You just have to say something. You don’t have to impress anyone. You just have to do something for someone else.

Lower the bar. Perfection is not the friend of language-love.
Why loving language