When I go to Cedar Riverside, a neighborhood of Minneapolis, to practice my Somali language, the streets are full of Somali people in the many shops and cafes. Sometimes I find that people will not respond to me in Somali—only in English. I long for someone who cannot speak English so that I can have a conversation […]
It’s been about six years since I began my polyglot journey, and while I don’t have all the experiences of seasoned veterans, so to speak, like Timothy Doner and various other individuals, there are a lot of things I’ve learned about being and becoming a polyglot. I am also somewhat of a social activist, and it’s in the past three years that I’ve truly realized the overlap between these two interests of mine.
Being a polyglot means that you’re willing to commit yourself to the learning of many languages and participate in the culture of those languages languages. I say that believing that the latter is mandatory; learning a language in isolation from its culture(s) is dangerously close to a kind of appropriation. Not to mention it’s a very incomplete kind of learning, since the culture around a language contextualizes its expressions and its particular features.
Choosing not to engage in the society of a language, to some extent, can imply that the learner has little respect for that society. When you come into a language that is not your own, you generally defer to native speakers and their cultural practices (obviously with some amount of discretion or common sense). It’s like going into someone else’s house; would you start making the same food that you do in your own house? Would you start changing their decorations and furniture? No, you’d very politely observe that you are a guest in someone else’s home. You see what they make at home, and how they see their own house. One of the predominant features of cultural appropriation in general is effectively a guest acting like they own their host’s house.
So, how does this link being a polyglot with social activism?
Well, social activism, as most people understand, is a form of advocating on the behalf of minority communities for certain issues. Polyglots, because they are involved in this agreement to participate in the traditions of various communities of certain languages, are also involved in their protection and defense, in varying degrees.
Many polylgots start their journeys well aware of the culture (in varying degrees) of the languages they study, having an inherent interest and appreciation for it. Learning languages expands their worldview as well as allows them to understand the various social and political dilemmas of different communities. This is because being involved with language means being involved in an organic aspect of human life, one that is employed in many different spaces and by all sorts of people.
Going back to the house metaphor, social activism in being a polyglot also means recognizing the humanity behind a language. We often make snap judgements about people because of the way they look or what they ostensibly do in public, but how can we ever claim to really know who they are without talking to them first? Without being in their home and see how they are? Obviously, you going into their home is a latter stage of the process. Learning a language is talking to a person, and warming up to them. Getting more and more acquainted with a language makes you more sensitive to people’s perceptions of that language. Social activism is very much like sticking up for one of your friends; polyglots stick up for languages and their communities in a show of solidarity rather than an aim to represent them. And the thing is, not all of us do this intentionally. It just ends up happening, because we are immersing ourselves in another culture’s language and traditions. The degree of actual activism that polyglots participate in varies from person to person.
But what problem am I trying to get at?
In my six years of polyglot-ing, so to speak, I’ve seen a lot of new polyglots pop, mostly through Tumblr as well in my own community around me. Granted, such people are of a certain type and it entails some amount of selection bias. However, it does show me a somewhat concerning (if not disturbing) trend: that being a polyglot is somehow becoming seen as trendy. Not trendy like New York hipster, obscure coffee shop trendy, but more like activist trendy, where things like political correctness are given, at times, excessive weight in a discussion that may require honesty. It’s subtle, but noticeable.
These younger (or rather newer) polyglot-aspirants are very keen and eager to start on their “journey into languages and diversity” (something like that). They tend to forget that the languages aren’t just some kind of accessory that you put on your resume; you have to treat it much like a person who you’re asking for help to expand your world view. Recognizing the humanity behind a language is so important. Korean’s not just the language of K-pop, it’s also the language of an entire country with a rich history of monarchs expanding arts and literacy through language, as well as imperial intrusions that have shaped their beliefs, norms, and even the language itself. This isn’t to diss K-pop enthusiasts, since learning Korean because you like K-pop is fine, but Korea is so much more than K-pop. And that’s just one example of how people can unintentionally fetishize the society and more importantly the people that speak a language.
While I’m not saying polyglots should be historians or anything, but we should be conscious of the fact that we are stepping into another world, someone else’s home, by learning a language. As such, we should take care to respect and patiently observe the constructs and conventions of the language and society, rather than seek to impose our own onto it. So remember this when it comes to learning languages: always know that you’re a guest, until the host invites you into their home as a friend.
I hope this post was interesting and informative! Please don’t forget to share this and talk about it with your friends!
Take a look at this article before reading on: http://blog.angryasianman.com/2016/06/40-civil-rights-groups-demand.html
When I read this post from Angry Asian Man, I became an angry Asian man, to say the least. This kind of ignorance needs to be stamped out. In an age where Islamic terrorism threatens the lives of innocent Muslims who live in the diaspora, we need to be more vigilant on the behalf of these members of our societies. It is our responsibility to listen to them when they decry Islamic terrorism, rather than ignore them and then ask why they don’t say anything.
But more than anything, this incident’s relation to language struck me particularly strongly. Why the hell are these two men being arrested because some idiotic passenger thinks that any brown-skinned people speaking a language they don’t understand is a terrorist. When this keeps happening on planes, buses, and other forms of public transport, I’m just floored by the people who say they should have been speaking English. Let’s consider the facts: these two men are foreign nationals (Pakistani and Indian respectively) who don’t speak English very well and are in a land very far from home. It’s only natural that they would find solace in finding someone else who speaks their language in a foreign land. Why do people suddenly have to place a label of suspicion on people who haven’t done anything, or cannot be proven to have done anything?
The lack of respect for the Sikh man’s violation of his person by removing his turban, a sacred item in the Sikh religion, is not enough, apparently. This man is apparently not even allowed speak his own language with someone else who does.
Something similar happened with a Chinese woman in Arizona (you can read the article here). Getting punched by someone for speaking your mother tongue in public is racist, prejudiced, and unbelievably horrible in so many ways. Even though I live and go to school in fairly liberal places (California and New York, respectively), I’m dreading the day where I have to be careful about what language I speak in public. As an aspiring polyglot who aims to specialize in Mandarin and Arabic translation/interpretation, these incidents are of great concern to me. These people who hear Arabic, Punjabi, Chinese, and other Asian and Middle Eastern languages in public and then react in these ways are a problem. This needs to stop. But what can we do?
- If you hear or see someone making private or public accusations of terrorism based on someone’s appearance or what language they’re using, you tell them that’s not okay. Just because you can’t tell the difference between Punjabi and Arabic doesn’t automatically mean they’re Middle Eastern, and that definitely doesn’t mean they’re terrorists even if they were. Leave them alone!
- Start learning other languages! Those who know other languages are frequently more open-minded than others and are exposed to a wider variety of opinions and beliefs than they might be otherwise. We should be instituting the teaching of Arabic and immigrant languages in schools rather than traditionally taught languages like French, Latin, or Spanish. Mandarin in schools is a step in teh right direction.
- Help out non-English speaking communities by employing your language to supply them with opportunities for jobs, community, basic amenities, and other necessities for living in a country where few people speak your language.
- To immigrant children: Don’t let go of your language. If you never knew it, try to get back in touch with it. Help out those in your community who need you. If you don’t speak it well, it’s never too late to start brushing up (as I can testify in the case of my Kannada skills).
And no, just because this is America doesn’t mean you have to speak English all the time. This isn’t a refusal to speak English at all. But if I want to have a conversation in another language, I have every right to do so. You have no business regulating what and what I can’t say, since we have the freedom of speech. Not everything we say has to be for public consumption. Immigrants and other people use their languages because it’s what’s comfortable for them. We are under no obligation or responsibility to use English if we don’t need or want to. Don’t tell us what to speak.
Stop demonizing immigrants and their languages.
Thanks to Angry Asian Man for these articles. They have inspired me to be more active and political in my involvement with language.
In honor of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, this post will be concerning a central issue in the APIDA (Asian/Pacific Islander/Desi American) communities.
In the United States, particularly on the coasts, there are a series of institutions that teach language skills. You may have heard of some of them, like the ABC Language Exchange, the Middlebury Language School, or the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, all of which offer classes in particular foreign langauges. These are more mainstream and broadly-reaching institutions, but there is another class of language institute, with a very different place within the community.
These are the foreign language schools, particularly for Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. Where I live in the Bay Area, you could find these just about anywhere. I had a lot of Chinese and Korean friends growing up, and many of them talked about their experiences going to “Chinese school” or “Korean school”. There are also Japanese day schools where the Japanese community can take classes, such as Sakura Gakuen, a particularly famous school in the Bay Area. The events of Japanese American internment, unfortunately, did cause these schools to decline. These schools are more about the community than the language itself, because they exist for a very specific purpose.
Immigrant communities that speak foreign languages, in varying degrees, want to preserve their languages in their children that are born abroad, in order to foster some kind of appreciation for or connection to their heritage. These schools allow for the parents of these communities to send their children to after-school or weekend classes to have their children learn their mother tongue. This kind of place is helpful to parents who have busy jobs and can’t be with their children as much as they’d like, or parents who want their children to have particular degree of competency in their mother tongue. These schools give these families an opportunity to immerse their children in their heritage and community.
Now, my Chinese and Korean friends, by and large, hated going to Chinese and Korean school. This is to be expected, since most children don’t like being given extra work, especially when they want to play or do other things in their free time. But I have noticed that some of them, especially now that a lot of us are in university, regret not paying attention in their Chinese or Korean classes, or regret making their parents taking them out of classes completely. But the thing is that these Chinese and Korean Americans are able to come together and foster a sense of community through their mutual experiences as well as language.
As an Indian American, this is something that I wish I had while growing up. I grew up not being able to speak my mother tongue well, if at all, and it was only after I asked my parents to finally teach me so that I could talk to my family in India that I finally learned. Many Indian Americans don’t really have the opportunity to go to any kind of after school or weekend class for their language, partly due to the sheer diversity of languages spoken by Indians. There isn’t an established tradition of sending children to such classes anyway, because many Indian immigrants can speak English at least conversationally, if not fluently. Many Indian immigrants feel that teaching their children anything other than English is not useful and therefore neglect teaching their children at all. Some also are under the impression that it will confuse their children to teach their children two languages. The latter, at least, has proven by many linguists to be absolutely false. Many children do grow up bilingual, quite successfully (evidenced by me, my brother, and many other children in the APIDA community as well as other communities).
Part of it is that these schools in the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese communities have sprung from a need to create community since parents may not speak English and children can learn about their heritages through these communal centers. Another thing is that these communities have been in the United States for much longer than the Indian community (and South Asian communities in general), and are more established, which helps them in establishing these community centers. Language is often the binding glue of community, and brings people together in ways that other things do not, since it is the medium of communication. I think that as time passes, and that South Asian communities do become more established, there will be time where at least Hindi-Urdu language schools will become more commonplace.
(This post is a Portuguese translation of an earlier post I wrote called: A Language Few Cared to Know. You can use this as reading practice for learning Portuguese, if you want, though it’s more for people who speak Portuguese, as well as an exercise in the language for me.)
Ter crescido nos Estados Unidos como filho de imigrantes tem-me presenteado circunstâncias únicas, particularmente com respeito à língua e à cultura. Eu tinha crescido imerso em duas línguas diferentes, ao contrário da maioria das minhas colegas na escola primária e ainda no ensino médio. Quando eu era pequeno, eu tinha um problema na fala que impedia-me a falar em frases completas. Quando os médicos diziam a meus pais que duas línguas confundir-me-iam, obviamente escolheram o inglês (aliás, esta noção que línguas múltiplas confundem às crianças é completamente falsa). Como resultado, o canarim foi virtualmente inexistente na minha infância. E foi como um nimbo-estrato, as pontadas de peso a bater-me.
Ainda que eu não podia falar o canarim bem, formava parte da minha vida. Meus pais usavam o canarim na casa para falar comigo, apesar do que eu quase sempre respondia no inglês. E quando eu tentava responder na minha língua materna, era miserável. Só depois de anos de prática heurística eu podia falar em canarim bastante bem. Isto concedido, eu ainda tenho problemas de ritmo quando falo, e uma tendência lamentável de falar demais rapidamente. Embora, o projeto do Duolingo para o canarim tem-me ajudado a expandir o meu vocabulário e conhecimento da língua.
Ainda assim, o canarim é muito presente na minha vida. Quando criança, eu confundi palavras do canarim com palavras do inglês. Muitos dos meus amigos na escola falavam o tamil, telugu, bengali, ou gujarati. Os amigos da minha família falavam o hindi. Não havia muitas pessoas que falavam o canarim na minha vizinhança, exceto a minha família. Por isso, o canarim parece-me um pouco formal ou arcaico. No presente, eu tento do manter contato com a minha língua maternal o máximo possível, porque eu sou apaixonado pelo canarim para passá-lo aos meus filhos. Na Universidade da Nova Iorque, não há muitas pessoas que falam canarim, e por isso, eu falo-me para praticar.
No decorrer dos anos, eu tornei-me muito ciente da pouca demanda para o canarim. Eu aceito esta realidade, porque eu não posso cambiá-lo num instante. Mas isso não quer dizer que eu gosto desta situação. Nem sequer é que eu desejo que precisavem-se mais do canarim. Os meus amigos eram de lugares e nacionalidades diferentes, e por isso compartilhavam os seus costumes. Eu nunca tenho conhecido uma pessoa interessada no canarim, até como gesto polido. O canarim era uma língua que pouca gente queriam saber.
Eu parcialmente espero que este projeto de Duolingo ajudar para trazer percepção à comunidade de canarim. A juventude da comunidade nos Estados Unidos precisa desesperadamente do que o canarim seja modernizado, e precisa de oportunidades de falar com gente da sua idade. A falta destas oportunidades de falar com a nossa comunidade na nossa língua impede-nos. Por quê falariamos esta língua se não houvesse pessoas para praticar, e mesmo assim, em maneiras limitadas? Por exemplo, eu quase nunca falo da política no canarim, e por essa razão, o meu vocabulário sobre a política e virtualmente inexistente. Haveria muitos anglicismos, palavras que ainda um anglófono poderia entender. Poder discutir muitos temas diferentes com várias palavras ajuda a fazer que a língua seja mais útil. Pelo menos, eu acho assim.