What you miss when you’re not an ecolinguist

What languages can you connect with around you?
What languages can you connect with around you?

I haven’t always lived as a successful ecolinguist. The past couple days I was remembering times when I missed opportunities, times when I found myself in a rich linguistic environment but didn’t take the time to look around and connect with the people around me. While I managed to connect with some of the languages, some of them avoided my grasp.

Fortunately, I found ways to connect better with people around me now, though I still fall short. Observing my environment better at this point, I can at least see how my languages fit in.

I hope that this post will help you look around you to listen to and learn from the people around you. I will show you where and how opportunities to be an ecolinguist exist around you. Once you start to pay attention, you may find that your friends, coworkers, classmates, or neighbors speak languages you didn’t notice.
Be an ecolinguist


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

Why don’t they learn our language? or How did they manage to do it?

How would you study after a day in the life of an immigrant?
How would you study after a day in the life of an immigrant?

Continuing on the theme of “Why don’t immigrants learn our language?” (see this post and this post) I wanted to present why the situation is not as simple as people think.

Most people who complain about this in the US speak English only, and so remain blissfully unaware of the complications of learning another language.

My more sophisticated brothers and sisters in Europe likely learned English, and so understand the difficulties. Nevertheless, they learned their foreign language in the comfort of their local school surrounded by family and friends taking care of them.

Immigrants have it hard because of their circumstances, both the situation they left and the life they have in their new country. Learning a new language creates even more work and difficulties in addition to getting by in this new, foreign place.

Yet they learn.

When I used to teach, I remember the reaction of my students when I would add an extra reading assignment. “We don’t have time,” they would inevitably say. I would smile and tell them that one day they would learn what “busy” meant, but at the moment, they were not busy.

We are not as busy as we think. This is what many of us have to grow into when we think about immigrants, and a valuable lesson immigrants can teach the rest of us.

Let’s look more deeply into their circumstances. It’s humbling. We’ll see that the question is not, “Why don’t they learn our language?” but “How did they manage to learn our language?” At the end, I’ll give you a few ways to use your favorable circumstances to the advantage of others.
How they learned

Spanish, Russian, and the light of language-learning

Learning languages enlighten and bring light
Learning languages enlightens and brings light

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.

Spanish and others

Six ways to get out of the expat bubble

I bet you could practice your language with someone here!
I bet you could practice your language with someone here!

When you go abroad to learn a language, how do you make sure that you’re learning the language? Many people travel with the hope that they will “absorb” the language, and then find that this process does not unfold by itself. Many people get lonely and make friends with the folks they have the most in common with: expats. They quickly get stuck the trap of speaking their native language while abroad rather than the language they’re learning.

How do you get unstuck?

When I visited Spain in college, I had a chance to visit Pamplona for the Sanfermin Festival (the “Running of the Bulls”). In one bar I met a local girl, and we chatted in Spanish. She told me she spent a year in the US—yet she never tried to speak English with me. Surely after a year in the US, she would speak better English than my self-taught Spanish, right?

“Where did you live?” I asked.

“Miami,” she replied.

That explained it! She lived in the US without speaking English.

What could she have done differently? What can you do differently while abroad?
6 ways to get unstuck

Kindness, grace–and the humiliating love of language

It's a skill to respond kindly when you have pie on your face
It’s a skill to respond kindly when you have pie on your face

I found that I have a thick skin at work. Sometimes people make fun of me behind my back, sometimes to my face. I found that I have a rare–if not unique–ability to ignore them. When other people might speak against me, I can pretend I didn’t hear the negative talk. As a result, I can focus on the future and on the positive, to be sure that we can keep doing what must be done. The tough situations I went through learning languages gifted me with this ability.

Recently I was moved by a Spanish-learner‘s post on Google+. She described how she worked with native Spanish-speakers who would make fun of her when she spoke Spanish. She was discouraged. I tried my best to comfort her by noting that I had been made fun of in multiple languages over a span of almost 25 years, on more occasions than I can count. Once I wrote this, I realized I had a rare experience–even a privilege!–that had strengthened me as a human being.

Public humiliation in Ukraine

For example, when I lived in Ukraine, a classmate humiliated me in public. I was the only American in the class, and one of only two male students. Jealousy had arisen in the class among some of the girls. I had gone to a play with one of them, Alyona, and another, Natasha, a leader in the class, was frustrated with me. When Natasha and I were taking the tram together to class (she lived close to my neighborhood), she started making fun of me and humiliating me. Since I my Russian was still pretty basic at the time, I had a hard time understanding how Natasha was humiliating me and I was defenseless. The scene was so mean, that a middle-aged woman sitting next to us got involved, telling Natasha to cut it out; “How can you talk to him that way? He’s a foreigner!” she said. I was grateful to that woman, as I had no way to defend myself.

When we returned to school, I worked out in my head some sort of retort. I had to tell Natasha that my friends do not speak to me this way, so she could choose to be my friend or not. Not very subtle–it took great efforts to say even that clearly–but she got the message.

Mockery in Morocco

When I lived in Morocco, I had to deal with similar situations. A friend of mine introduced me to a couple of girls he thought I might like. My friend kept teasing me, trying to put me on the spot, saying in Arabic right in front of these girls, “Do you like her? You can’t tell her you don’t like her! Do you like her friend better?” I tried to take the pressure off by saying, ‘jbatni “I like her fine.” Unfortunately, I transposed the first root letter to the end and said, jb’atni “I’ve had enough.” (I only realized this mistake a long time later.) They laughed so hard: “Really? You’ve had enough already?” I didn’t know why that was so funny, but tried to smile. I was hoping to dig myself out of the humiliating situation, but I managed to dig myself in deeper.

When I would have dinner with my host family, sometimes they would just make fun of me. Moroccans laugh at each other more than Americans do, so I had to learn to live with it. Simple banter, though, was over my head. I didn’t know what they were saying. I couldn’t be a good sport because I didn’t know what to say back. I had to learn to look like a good sport, even if I was angry, frustrated, exhausted, or confused.

Love in the International House of Pain

These are only two examples. At other occasions, Russians openly mocked my American accent. Moroccan friends mimicked the way I emphasized certain words. French girls talked at me fast and furious, purposely trying to overwhelm me. I had to choose between smiling blankly and walking away. When I was living in another country, though, I often had nowhere to walk away to. On occasion I tried to smack someone, but that never helped the situation; I just looked crazy.

By brute force, I learned how to overlook people’s unkind actions. I could get over blows to my ego without having to strike back. I’m quick to retort in English, but I had to learn a different approach. I had to take my lumps–deserved or not–with both hands tied behind my back. Even though my patience did not come from virtue, but only from trying to keep from being humiliated less, I at least had to act as if I was virtuous. I saw what patience looked like; I had to be what patience looked like. Even if I was patient out of necessity, practice made it a skill that I could later use when needed.

This humiliating language-love taught me patience. I can endure people’s unkindness towards me. These people also taught me how to show kindness to people even when they’re cruel. When people speak this way towards me, I can choose to smile and not retaliate. Maybe even more importantly, I know what it feels like to be an outsider who has to endure humiliation. Language love taught me a new kindness.

Have you been humiliated learning a language?  What did you learn from it?

Photo credit: Viewminder / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Language, fear, and childishness

Courage comes from recognizing fear

Languages have made me braver.  Here’s how I was before I got into languages.  In high school, I tended to sit at the back of the class.  I was smart and I knew the answer most of the time.  I didn’t study much, but I got good grades.  I didn’t take risks.  I didn’t do anything that had a try-out, like sports or performing groups.  I joined the Concert Choir because my friends were in it and they were desperate for boys.  I didn’t like to compete, so I dropped out of band and debate.  I was into fencing for a couple years, but when my coach pushed me to compete more, I dropped out.  Standing out in a group and failing terrified me, so I got out.

I excelled in languages like other academic subjects–but then I went to France as an exchange student my approach to risk-taking changed.  In the beginning, I continued my MO, so in my host family, I was able to sit quietly at meal-time, and then disappear to my room.  On my first day of school, however, I had to change fast.

I was lost.  We had to copy down our class schedule as our teacher explained it–it was not pre-printed–and my French was not so great.  I had to ask a charitable classmate for help.  So I got through the introductory “lesson.”  On the actual first day of school, I couldn’t find my first class, and I was wandering around–the new kid on the After School Special.  Palms sweating I had to ask a teacher for directions, but perhaps because of my brusqueness, she kept on walking.  At this rate, I was going to fail from not showing up.

A change of tactics was necessary.  I stopped and said to myself, “I will be in France 5 months.  In that time, if I sound like an intelligent 5-year-old, I will have succeeded.  Heck, it takes French people five years to get to that point!”  At that, I approached the next teacher I could find, explained my situation extremely slowly and deliberately, and she led me by the hand (literally) to the office to get my schedule and to my first class, already in session for a while.

What did I learn?  I saw that fear would not get me what I needed.  Taking a deep breath, admitting my childishness, and jumping into the water of French language would get me where I wanted to go.  I sounded childish and foolish, I had to stand out, and I succeeded as a result.  I had to keep at it.  After those months, I became fluent in French because I got used to being afraid of sounding dumb–and overlooked the fear to get to my goal.  I don’t think I overcame fear; I learned to set it aside.

Fast forward a few years when I started school in Kiev, Ukraine, and confronted fear and failure again.  Though I was a high-school senior in France, I was a college junior in Kiev.  On most days, I would walk from my apartment to the closest subway stop, where I would meet a couple of classmates who helped me navigate the subway and tram to arrive to campus.  One day, they didn’t show up.  Not knowing the street, address, or even the name of the campus, I had to swallow my pride and ask directions in broken Russian to my own school.  I managed to do it, though I ended walking more than I ever had before, and arrived at least a half-hour late to class.  My teacher’s response to my arriving half-way through class was surprised and unhappy: “Что это такое?!”  (“What is this?!”)  The students who had stood me up stood up to stand up for me.  “He’s our American student and he is still learning how to get here.”  I guess this helped me.  I went from looking careless to just looking stupid.  But I got there as sweaty and stupid as I was.

While I learned that these classmates weren’t terribly reliable, I learned that my own scrappiness got me what I needed.  Sounding like a child, I asked a lot of directions, not sounding so smart, walked a long way, and made it.  I looked bad in my professor’s eyes, even when it worked at as well as it could.  By the end of the year, and after getting lost countless times, I became fluent in Russian (and Ukrainian).

Through language, I learned resourcefulness.  I learned how to tap into all the knowledge I needed: the people around me.  I sounded like a child, but people around me were kind and helpful.  (Except one guy–that’s another story.)  I did not learn how to sound smart–I learned how to deal with sounding stupid, sounding like a child–and that opened me up to volumes of knowledge.

When did you face fear down?  What did you learn?  How did you get over language self-consciousness?

Languages Benefit US Employees

Two woman in a traditional chalet in the summe...
What will you do if they don’t speak English? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This essay by the VP of Middlebury language programs, Michael Geisler, lays out multiple reasons why learning a language benefits you.  Languages aid cognitive skills, allow access to subtle nuances of a culture, help national security, keep US workers competitive, and prevent loss to the US should “global English” no longer be used as a lingua franca.  He focuses most of his time on the competitiveness of US workers, saying that Americans are now and will continue to be missing out on business opportunities.

First, overseas companies often recruit multi-lingual employees.  As I see it, even in a country like Sweden, where English-education succeeds so broadly, if a worker only spoke English, he or she would not be able to communicate with everyday people in a way that they were comfortable.

Second, assuming that non-English-speaking counterparts will speak English puts strain on the conversation, and hence the relationship.  Speaking English is not easy for non-native speakers.  Geisler writes, “[S]peaking English is not the same as being truly proficient in English. Many non-native speakers of English around the globe speak enough English to get by, but perceive it as a strain and revert to their own language at any opportunity.”  I think that English-speakers who have not worked at conversing in a non-native language do not understand the effort that their interlocutors expend in every conversation.  When I first went to Ukraine–where no one I knew spoke English–I slept 9+ hours per night because talking was exhausting.  I’ve heard English speakers say they don’t have the time or energy to learn the others’ language.  At present the n have to work really hard non-native English speakers bear the burden of communication and would like native English speakers to share the burden.  Geisler also discusses this “etiquette”: not investing in meeting the other person half-way on communication can be insulting.

Third, some non-English speaking-countries are rising on the world economic stage.  I can think of China, of course, and India.  But Brazil and Turkey are gaining market share.  As they grow in importance, speaking those languages rises in value.  Would a Turk rather do business with a Spaniard who speaks Turkish, or an American who only speaks English?  Learning languages will allow entry into new markets now and in the future.

Geisler concludes with difficult questions about the US educational system.  We do not prioritize language education, and what education there is does not always measure up.  He does not offer concrete ways to develop better standards or implement them, and we know that implementing them will be expensive.

I think he makes his case on the importance of languages in education.  So how do we act on Geisler’s imperative in a time of fiscal crisis in US education?  What are ways to help the US emphasize language education, without making huge demands on the strained education budgets?

Problem of Intermediate Language Learning

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve finished Pimsleur 1A and 1B of Farsi.  I can talk about basic things in Farsi.  When I ask for  sentences from Farsi and Dari speakers, I can break down the grammar OK to extract the new words.  I can work through a newspaper article with a dictionary.

Now begins what in my mind is the intermediate slog.  The excitement of new discovery does not characterise this phase.  I’ve gotten past a quick, “Hello!  How are you?” and bumble around with, “What are you working on?” and not understanding the answer.  My interlocutors feel uncomfortable, wondering whether to try to continue to speak in Farsi or avoid the pain of answering “What?” after every sentence (at least).  I find motivation hard to come by.

So now I have to commit to some patient friends–who are willing to talk to me.  They would rather speak English, usually.  That’s why I’ve had more success in other countries: more monolingual speakers.  When I learned Russian in Ukraine, folks didn’t know another language, so they had to explain and re-explain, or at least move to another topic, but still in Russian.

At this point, I memorize vocabulary.  I listen to podcasts where the victories of comprehension are rare (“Oh!  He just said ‘also’!”).  I recently found a good way to use podcasts that go way beyond my comprehension.  I listen along till I hear a word I can pronounce.  I try to write it, and then I look it up.  I might do 1-2 words a day.  I listen to the same podcast a number of times.  I recognize these words out of a stream of words, and it tastes like sweet victory.  It feels like a game of cryptogram, where you take a sentence of scrambled letters, and one-by-one replace the wrong letter with the right one.

What techniques or resources do you use in the intermediate phase?  How do you stay motivated during your “slog”? or maybe you love this part of the language-learning process?