A Guest in a Someone Else’s House: Polyglots and Social Activism

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!

TTMIK Review

As a Korean learner, I find TTMIK (Talk To Me In Korean) extremely helpful. It doesn’t place too much stress on the grammar, but also makes it relatively important. You can visit the site here. There are three cool features of this site that I’d like to point out.

1. The grammar lessons. While not excessively centered on this aspect, TTMIK stresses grammatical structures enough to make the learner want to learn. By giving various examples for proper usage and the basic form of expressions, the learner can be more flexible with their sentences, instead of just repeating phrases from a traveler’s guide. Moreover, the lessons are brief, concise, and clear, which makes grammar that much easier. If you want more in-depth grammar stuff, you’re better off looking at Luke Park’s Guide to Korean Grammar, which you can download from his site.

2. The miscellaneous lessons. I call them miscellaneous because they don’t fall under any one category, and concern idioms, culture, and other things with something to do with Korean. There are a variety of ways to practice your Korean and get help, including “Ask Hyojin”, “Idiomatic Expressions,” and “Learn Korean Through K-Pop”. These resources are invaluable to any Korean learner, and I highly suggest you visit the site frequently!

3. Books. If you’re not willing/looking to spend any money, then this may not matter to you. But TTMIK has a couple of books that supplement Korean learning, including, “Street Korean,” and, “My Weekly Korean Vocabulary.” They have dialogues and videos to help you practice your listening skills, too.

Even though this was a relatively short review, I hope this convinces you enough to take a look! Leave any comments if you have any thoughts. And don’t forget to share this on Facebook, Tumblr, and Google Plus!

Watching Films and Other Media in Other Languages

Since I was a little kid, it always fascinated me to watch films that my family had at home in other languages. After watching the film, I would immediately want to go to, “Setup,” and change language, and put subtitles. Now, I find it an invaluable source to watch familiar films in Spanish to practice my listening skills, which I find the hardest thing to do in my Spanish class, because the speakers on the audio tracks speak so fast.

I definitely think that films should be available in other languages for this reason, more so than they are now, anyway. You get French and Spanish on most US films, but little else (I think I saw Italian once). I actually watched Frozen in Latin American Spanish yesterday, and I found that I could understand maybe 65% of what was said (and that’s being a bit generous). As of now, I’ve yet to find a site that provides films in multiple languages. I imagine such a site would charge monthly fees in much the way that Netflix does, and it doesn’t seem like it’s that out the question for such a service to exist. Many foreign language teachers often have to go out of their way to find films in the language they teach. To watch a film in the target language would be an invaluable learning tool, because not only do learners enjoy watching a familiar film, but they also learn by doing so.

Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Hindi learners have perhaps some of the greatest resources when it comes to media in the target language. J-Pop, K-Pop, C-Pop (yes, that’s a thing), and Bollywood songs are ubiquitous, as you can buy them on iTunes or download them off the internet, due to the genres’ immense global popularity. They also have access to a number of dramas, as many sites let you watch dramas for free, or sometimes paid when they’re higher quality and have more options. The thing about dramas, especially Korean and Indian dramas, despite their very specific situations, contain most of the words you need to have a functional knowledge of the language. This is also the case with the infamous telenovela of Latin American countries. Bollywood movies are also very accessible, and in some Indian grocery stores, there is an entire section full of Indian movies in many different Indian languages. Sadly, not many animated movies are dubbed in Hindi, because many people in India  know English, and animated movies are not very popular.

However, overall, your options are pretty limited when it comes to finding movies or TV shows in a language such as say, Russian or Portuguese. You can find a lot of Disney movie songs in other languages, but not always the movie itself. You’re not going to be able to get Aladdin in Russian very easily in the US, unless you import it.

If anyone finds a site that shows films in other languages, please post it in the comments!