Is language-love a colonial pursuit?

Do we love language through observation or engagement?
Do we love language through observation or engagement?

I read National Geographic a lot. Articles about people tend to interest me much more than science or nature. Photos and anecdotes keep me riveted. This week in Oromo class, I felt I was reading through National Geographic, reveling while learning about Oromo language, geography, and culture, both in the Horn of Africa and beyond.

My pleasure, however, is tinged with confusion and guilt. I feel like I’ve packaged up “Africa” for my US sensibility. The National Geographic Society was formed by and for US academics and wealthy patrons to talk about travel in the late 19th century–colonists. Suddenly, my pleasure of hearing and learning about the Oromo people was sullied by the colonial Orientalist and essentialist views from that class of people during the formation of the Society. How do I relate to them? Am I a new colonist or something else? To avoid “colonizing” Minnesota Africa, I must engage with human beings different from me, most importantly opening myself to them, in order to break down any potential elitist barriers.

My last Oromo class

In session 6, my last Oromo class, we covered several important and fascinating topics. We learned about some technical vocabulary. We received a list of technical linguistic vocabulary that we went over. It included some probably classic words, like afoola “oral literature,” but also some newer linguistic terms like xunda xiqqaa “minimal pair.”

I also brought some older textbooks and grammars, and the class enjoyed looking through them. The different books spoke of various dialects, so our teacher put a map of Ethiopia on the projector and pointed out where the main dialects came from. Not all the students knew of these regions and dialects, so it was fascinating for all of us. He also showed areas of Oromomia where the communities were mainly Muslim or mainly Christian.

Our teacher took us on a wonderful mental voyage, to a place that was very exotic for me. He recounted his days in the North of Ethiopia, in the Afar region. He said the weather was so hot–hot for someone from Ethiopia!–that you can live with a little water and a little food; you don’t need clothing. It was so hot that people brought eggs down from the highlands, and chickens hatched in the buckets. Life was a struggle, he said, but it was the most wonderful place on earth. The struggle made you feel alive.

The teacher and students taught me about Oromo diaspora. Evidently, there is a big community in Oslo, Norway, and Berlin, Germany. One of my classmates lived a while in Hamburg, Germany, before coming to the US, but the Hamburg Oromo community was small. My professor lived in Oslo for a time before the US. They have connections all over among active Oromo diaspora communities.

In the midst of all this cultural information, we still worked on language. We continued with practical vocabulary and spelling. It’s amazing how much our teacher was able to squeeze into the class time.

I asked about upcoming Oromo community activities, namely poetry and music. Fortunately, my teacher assured me that there are a lot of such events, and there’s one even coming up at the end of the month. I look forward to staying connected to the community and keeping up my language.

Unfortunately, I will not be able to take the next class, but I hope to stay in touch. Because of vacation and other events, I would have missed half the classes. I look forward to keeping in contact with my teacher and classmates. It’s important for me to see and understand the diversity of my city and community. I need wonderful folks like this to help me get outside of my own way of thinking and doing things. Plus I love my budding afaan oromoo (“Oromo language”).

A good colonist?

I believe that I am learning about Oromo people and language in a way that challenges my way of thinking, and new-found wisdom brings new joy. I don’t want to be a 19th century, salon-frequenting, traveler. Taking photos of the “natives” and discussing them in my comfortable home do not interest me.

I am a colonist who hopes to extract benefit from others, but different in that I hope the colonist is “civilized” and not at the expense of the colonized. I want to engage with them so that my comfort and my home change irreversibly. Wisdom and “civilization” will come to me if I open up my own ignorance and curiosity and learning. I want new ways to enjoy life and extract new joys that I learn from others. By challenging my way of thinking about life and language, my Oromo friends and teachers offer me new, unexpected joy.

Are you a consumer of language and culture? an observer? an engager?

Photo credit: US Army Africa / Foter / CC BY



No shame in loving language!

Free yourself from perfectionism!
Free yourself from perfectionism!

Perfectionism leads to shame because perfectionists can never live up to their own standards.  Not trying and rationalising lack of action cause less pain than trying and failing.  When people start learning languages they often think of their current level of their native language as the level they should be at.  The task seems so daunting to many that they don’t start.  Yet some still start.  Naturally, after many months and years, they still do not reach the level of their native language.

Often they feel bad about not knowing a language fluently.  They might feel lazy, they might feel stupid–in other words, they feel shame.  In spite of earning a reputation for monolingualism, most Americans I know have learned another language in some capacity, whether Hebrew at synagogue or Spanish on “Sesame Street.”  But they feel shame, they hate themselves because they’re bad at the language.  Excuses begin.

I can help you.  I think you probably know a little of a language, and that’s great.  People often rationalise the reason why they don’t know more.  I’ve included in this post three of the most common rationalisations I’ve heard–and cures for them.  Enjoying what you know and taking yourself a little less seriously will help cure your language perfectionism.

I only know a little–not very much

“All I can say is ‘uno, dos, tres.'”  “I can pronounce the words, but I don’t know what I’m saying.”  “I learned a little in school, but that was a long time ago.”  Phrases like these belie underlying shame for not being good enough at a language.  The one who says it feels like they should know a language better, but just never got around to learning it better.

People seem to think that their “limited” exposure does not measure up to what it should be.  Fluency or nothing seems to lie at the core.  Since they can’t communicate everything they want in the language, they won’t bother.  The language is to have conversations; without that ability, their language knowledge may as well not exist.

Language serves a lot of purposes besides full conversations, namely, to connect people.  If I only know “¿Cómo estás?” then I can use it when I run into a Spanish-speaking person at work.  (If the person answers in Spanish, refer to the next point, below.)  If you say you can only read Hebrew or Arabic and not understand, look again–you probably understand a smattering of words that you can use.  Two words are better than nothing.  A friend of mine went to China with a coworker, and they only learned “hello” and “handsome man.”  They broke the ice in a lot of situations by bringing smiles to people’s faces.  A handful of words won’t carry a whole conversation, but can bring people together.

I can’t understand when people respond

I’ve heard the story many times: I really hunkered down and studied my language.  I took classes, I bought Rosetta Stone, I listened to my language on-line.  Finally, I got the chance to go to the country.  When I took my Coke to the cashier, the lady spoke so fast that I couldn’t understand a single word.  I asked her to repeat, so she said it louder, and I still didn’t get it.  I smiled, showed her my money, and she picked out the right amount.  Humiliated, I realized I am no good at languages and I will no longer try.

Language-learners resemble children in adult bodies.  They look like adults, but you have to talk to them like they’re little kids.  They can’t understand the simplest things!  The tension is unavoidable.  You know what you want to say, and you want to be respected like an adult.  Now it sounds like the adult you’re talking to in your language is yelling at you, scolding you.

I think we can revel in this disconnect.  Rather than feel the shame of a naughty child, we can laugh at the funny man-child (or woman-child) we have suddenly become.  My friend told me about his friend–I’ll call him Jack–in France.  Jack came to France to look for work, but his French was barely existent.  He kept his chin up in this difficult reality.  When he saw quizzical responses on people’s faces, when he couldn’t make out the answer to his request, he laughed.  Because of Jack’s great attitude, he could have a whole boulangerie in stitches when he went to order a croissant; everyone had a good time.  Rather than feel shame for his French, Jack drew attention to his inability to speak “well” and everyone loved him because of it.

I really want to get good at this language before I start another one

A long time ago I was on a message board with folks who love languages.  One person was lamenting that she wanted to learn Russian and Greek, but she didn’t want to start yet because she wanted to get good at Spanish first.

The person held some unrealistic expectations that were holding her back.  First, the point at which one is “good” at a language eludes us–if it actually exists.  As a result, we are tempted to put off the starting point for Russian, Greek, etc, forever, since we can always convince ourselves that we are not yet “good” at Spanish.  Second, the need to wait exposes our tendencies towards perfectionism.  We need to be good first because people might think we’re no good at Spanish or we can’t finish what we’ve started.  Maybe we’ll lose the little Spanish we gained once we start Russian, and then we’ll sound more dumb than we were!

My response was: embrace your inner debutante!  Learn a little bit of Russian while you learn your Spanish.  Find a Spanish textbook on how to learn Greek.  Memorize “hello” and “good-bye” and “I love your language!” in Russian, and then go back to Spanish.  Listen to Greek radio on-line while you memorize your Spanish words.  No chef perfects beef before moving on to chicken–he does both.  He doesn’t have to be the best at both, but he can still learn how to adapt.  Learning is always good.

Perfection is not attainable

Perfectionism lies at the root of our language shame.  We don’t speak enough, we don’t understand others, we shouldn’t start being imperfect at another language–all come from perfectionism.  When we don’t attain that perfection, we feel guilty.

Laughter is the best medicine, and it can cure perfectionism.  Trot out your three words of Spanish, smile when you don’t understand, and love learning a few phrases of a language you’re not focusing on right now.  Any language you can learn will help you–and will help the one you are speaking to.  When our attitude shifts away from our shame towards love and connection, speaking languages will continually bring us–and everyone around–delight.

Photo credit: danorbit. / / CC BY-NC-ND

Languages: Failure is Gain

Baha'i Temple India
Baha’i Temple India (Photo credit: Paul Ancheta)

An experience yesterday reminded me that a failure at language can be a gain for everyone.  I put my money where my mouth was (see my last post) and I went down to my Iranian neighbors’ house to chat.  Since it was Eid al-Fitr, I made some cookies to bring down to them, and I brought my wife.  I needed some kind of excuse to go visit; I wasn’t brave enough to go “just like that.”  My failures ended wonderfully.

Real life differs from language classes.  In language classes, speaking wrong results in failure.  If I forget my vocabulary, spelling, or grammar, I get counted down.  Imagine if I could get credit in language class simply because I came and spoke some of that language, no matter how flawed?  In reality, when I speak languages with folks, the latter is certainly the case.  My failure is rewarded and prompts me to improve.

When I went to the neighbors’ house I learned two things.  First, I learned that my neighbors are not Muslim as I assumed.  They are Bahai’i.  The wife’s family has been Bahai’i for multiple generations, and the husband is half-Muslim and half-Bahai’i.  He professes to be Bahai’i, though.  I know that the Bahai‘i in Iran have endured terrible persecution.  When I declared, “Eid mubarak!” (“Blessed Eid!”), they gave me puzzled looks.  How does it feel for others to assume you are their oppressors?  Would Russian Jews be happy to be wished, “Happy Easter!” considering Holy Week historically was a typical time for pogroms?  Since I assme the respective answers are “not good” and “no,” I felt pretty uncomfortable wishing my Bahai’i neighbors blessings on this Muslim holiday.

Second, I learned my Farsi is flawed, at best.  I was able to form questions, but was unable to understand responses.  My wife–who does not know Farsi–even interpreted their questions for me somehow.  I forgot how to say “1613” (my house number), and I could barely get out “one-six-one-three.”  At least I nailed “I don’t understand”!  My Farsi seemed to complicate the situation, which made me even more uncomfortable.

My feelings aside, here is the actual reaction: they kissed me and my wife.  The husband grabbed the back of my neck and pulled me in and kissed both cheeks.  The wife did the same with my wife.  This kiss came as a result of my failure.  Unlike language class, reality showed my failure was a success.  They showed that while my gut said “fail,” the reality was “gain.”

We do not need to worry about failing when we focus on other people.  Stumbling on cultural and linguistic matters helps the situation, when we focus on relationships.  At times we need information, so confusion seems like a failure.  If I had a business or legal deal with this family, things would have been difficult (impossible?) because so much information would have been lost.  However, the fact that I went in for the relationship first, the situation ended beautifully.  If I needed to do business with them at this point, I know that now things would go smoothly.  They think of me and my family as good people, as good neighbors who make an effort to know them, their culture, and language.  Effort clearly trumps failure in the long run.

When was the last time you and others benefitted from your language failure?  If you don’t have an example, go fail with your high-school Spanish or your recent Chinese study.  Then come back and let us know what happened!

Vulnerability and Weakness, Growth and Connection

Doubts (Photo credit: Rickydavid)

The decision and process of learning a language can initiate an internal change that leads to becoming a more confident, innovative, and creative person.  I have noticed more discussion about the positive aspects of delving into the areas in our life where we are least comfortable.  Anyone who has learned a foreign language has very likely experienced discomfort and even embarrassment.  That element of vulnerability can transform us into a better person.

Brené Brown‘s TED talk demonstrates that becoming vulnerable opens up oneself and others to creativity and dynamism.  (Brené Brown: Listening to shame)  Dr. Brown says at one point, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. ”  Most of our life, we run from vulnerability; we hide from shame.  This reaction prevents us from being great and courageous, and so by avoiding our weakness, we cannot fully tap into our strengths.  When you speak to another with the halting, imperfect, even accidentally insulting words of a foreign language, you enter into a space where you confront your weakness and open yourself to deeper learning.

In the article, “Sure Enough” by Diana Rico (Ode July/August 2012, vol. 10, no. 4 [article not on line yet, but I hope it will be soon]), we see that uncertainty fuels knowledge, as doubt releases us from conflict.  She describes how confronting her doubt that she can perform a particular yoga pose “gives way to the most delicious feeling of spaciousness in my hip.”  Once she confronted her doubt in herself, she came into a greater feeling of strength.  Rico also presents the results of a study, in which scientists and philosophers identified “uncertainty” as the scientific concept that “would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit.”  Opening oneself to the fact that one may not be correct–doubt–one becomes open to new knowledge.  One who practices doubt with others learns.  A language-learner never knows if he or she is saying the right thing, and so becomes a person who is learning constantly.

Peter Blomquist at TEDxRanier describes the way to become more innovative (specifically in the area of global development) by entering into other another culture.  He makes three suggestions: 1) Challenge your assumptions.  2) “Zip it”–listen and learn.  3) Accept the hospitality of others.  This challenge equals doubt, which allows one to be the learner I mentioned above.  Blomquist moves one step beyond the others above by mentioning hospitality.  I see this movement also applies to language-learning.  By doubting and learning, one enters into communion with another; you join together at the table of the other.  Much language can be learned when all are open to one another, learning from each other, spending that time together.  Those who have become fluent in a language have surely spent much time at the table of speakers of that language.

I invite you to tap into your strength by confronting weakness and vulnerability.  You can become more creative and more innovative, and ultimately move into closer relationships with others.

When has your moment of vulnerability brought about more closeness with others?

Definitely *not* loving language

Miranda Washinawatok Menominee

Ignorance of languages can exacerbate mistrust.  The United States’–and many other countries’–history demonstrates oppression of language as a natural part of suppressing culture.  This article demonstrates that indigenous languages continue to strike fear in the hearts of some non-indigenous Americans.  Immigrant languages can cause the same problem.  In the 90s I witnessed an altercation on a public bus between a working-class white guy who started yelling at a pair of working-class Latinos who were speaking Spanish.  The white guy appealed to the driver: “You never know if they’re talking about you!”

That the ones in power feel threatened strikes me.  Whites do not risk an “Indian uprising” or anything like that, and Latinos seem to adapt to white political structures.  Nevertheless, the expression of thoughts in ways that whites cannot understand is a threat on its own.  Perhaps an underlying mistrust is coming to the surface.

What do you think the solution is?  My solution is to teach Spanish in the schools, from the first grade, alongside another community language, depending on the location–Menominee, Hmong, whatever.  Creating a bi- or trilingual population will smooth over the mistrust.  Finns decided to require Swedish language education for all the population because of its Swedish minority and proximity to Sweden.  And the Finns’ educational system does well, as far as I know.  I think Americans are capable of learning more languages–our indigenous and immigrants demonstrate this.

“We have a listening problem”

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.