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

Polyglots needed as world gets smaller

Polyglots shine in difficult conversations.
Polyglots shine in difficult conversations.

People haven’t been listening to each other, and they are getting worse at it. The recent election in the US adds more evidence of this. The way our world is going, though, we all need to get better.

Here is the problem we face today. The world isn’t shrinking. It feels like it because population density is growing. We have more people and the same amount of land. Actually, water shortages and rising ocean levels mean that we have less productive land for more people.

Denser population means running into more people. People, on average, live closer to each other than ever before. That means more chances to meet and interact with people different from you, and more chances you’ll meet someone very different from you. Nowadays you have a good chance of running into a Chinese person in Nigeria, an Ethiopian in Oslo, or a Somali in Minnesota.

Polyglots, however, spend hours and hours training themselves to listen to more people who are different from them, and to more conversations that they otherwise couldn’t understand.

We need more polyglots—more languages, more classes, more teachers—to focus on solving problems created by globalization so our society to move forward.
Calling all polyglots!

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

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

Giving up privilege with language-love

I have always found it nice to meet Somalis.
I have always found it nice to meet Somalis.

I want to connect to the margins. In some ways, it’s where I feel comfortable. I lived a lot at the margins. I know what it’s like. In multiple countries, I did not live in an expat community, but immersed myself among locals only in places as diverse as Morocco, post-Soviet Ukraine, and France. At my university, I was a minority Gentile among a majority Jewish population, who taught me about life as a marginalized community.

At the same time, I could never live completely in the margins. I’m an upper-middle-class, English-speaking, graduate-degree-holding, straight white American. We have a lot of privilege. As I was told in Ukraine when I expressed my deep understanding of people in the margin, “It’s different. You can always leave.”

When I say that we need to sacrifice for the margin, I speak as someone who tries to express my appreciation of the marginalized, though any marginalization I ever experienced was temporary.

I can’t avoid my privilege. It’s part of who I am. It’s not evil and it’s not good. The way I use it defines it as good or evil. Previously (here and here) I spoke of my “why” for what I do and write:

I believe that we all should put ourselves out there to love. More specifically, we need to sacrifice for one another, especially for those in need.

We must sacrifice that privilege for the sake of those without.
Why loving language

Loving language to save your life

Friends who do not know loneliness.
Friends who do not know loneliness. How do we learn from them?

Loving language can save your life. Some talk about languages helping you get a better paycheck or offering cognitive benefits. If you aim to make yourself richer or smarter, learning a language gives you marginal benefits. They will not save your life, though.

Or will they…?

Our society in the US—and more and more in the first world—is developing a serious, deadly condition, that is, loneliness. Note, though, that this is a problem of the first world. It does not afflict those of the third world nearly as much.

By learning a language, especially one of the immigrant groups living near you, you may have a chance of dodging the deadly bullet of isolation that is literally killing people in our society.
Our neighbors have the answer

Can the airport stay multilingual?

Airports are great for languages. How do we use them to teach?
I recently blogged about traveling through the Denver airport, and the languages that I saw there. Last week I had a different experience at my own local airport, MSP, Minnesota-St Paul. I spoke Somali, Oromo, and Amharic, while I heard a family conversation in Russian and a few phrases of Turkish. An international airport is a treasure-hunt and a paradise for language-lovers.
Experiencing multilingualism