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!

The Right to Struggle and a Starter’s Kit for Language Protection

Recently, I had someone say to me, “Language is dynamic. To hold on to the past is simply being stubborn.” The conversation was about the pronunciation of various loanwords in English, but it brought up a completely different topic in my mind. There are many people in the world who think that working to promote a minority language is meaningless because it’s going to die anyway or that English is more important anyway. As much as I don’t like to admit it, language death is something we, those who seek to promote language survival and general study, must readily accept as a possibility. But that doesn’t mean a language should die lying down.

Language death is indeed preventable. At least, with a great deal of effort and support. Hebrew did it and Catalan has made a significant rebound in recent years with an upsurge in local support. Even Yucatec Maya shows signs of a return to a healthier state. But most importantly, you need to be realistic and ambitious at the same time. Never ever let other people tell you that the cause isn’t worth it. Just like nothing stopped major civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, you have to be prepared to withstand anything and everything. I’m not saying I’m a pro at this or anything, but I’m fairly certain I can talk about what language advocate should aspire to do. Now, prepare for a crash course in how to start your very own campaign to protect a language!

1. Know the language. Or at least get started on it, anyway. You can’t possibly have a legitimate campaign without knowing the language. There are plenty of resources for all sorts of languages. Just look around on the internet. You should have at least a conversational command of the language to really get yourself and others moving.

2. Know your limits. And break some too. Everyone has their limitations and there are things we can’t do alone. Get your friends together to bring awareness to your work and what you want to do with. But you need to be ambitious as well. Try not to second-guess yourself about what’s right and wrong. Take risks and be willing to make mistakes.

3. Read up on other language revival efforts. It never hurts to learn from experts. Highly recommended histories to read are the revival of Hebrew, Catalan, and Basque, which all have very important lessons to be learned from.

4. Don’t restrict yourself to one place. You should be prepared to bring your advocacy anywhere and everywhere you go. A language can’t take back its place in the modern world if it doesn’t exist outside of its place of origin. People need to know about it too. The whole point is to give the language its presence in the world back. You can’t expect others to take your campaign seriously if they don’t know about it.

5. Consider other languages as well. (Two meanings to this one) a.)There is a very real possibility that the language that you choose to advocate has a “negative” history for certain people. Be considerate of other people’s feelings about it and don’t expect everyone to be your biggest fan or supporter. Don’t give people a reason (even if it’s not a rational or fair one) to hate on the language. For example, you’re obviously not going to advocate Welsh in certain parts of Britain, especially pro-English areas, because Welsh was formerly (and to some extent still is) associated with rebellion and public dissent. b.) If you’re really stuck on what language to promote, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to promote a language like Spanish. The United States does have a very large Spanish-speaking population, but advocacy for Spanish is different. It encourages people to reach out to a different demographic that has a very strong political presence in the country, and you might promote it because you feel that it is unfairly repressed or discouraged as an object of study.

6. Get other people involved. Like I’ve said at least a thousand times in other posts, language is a social experience. Encourage your friends to advocate the language with you. Find native speakers or people who come from that background. Obviously be polite about it, and explain that it’s for a good cause.

7. Finally: never get down yourself when you’re not making progress. Remember, bringing awareness to a language is hard work. It is very important you feel motivated, even when you’re aware that there is a chance that you will fail. But that’s a part of being an advocate. The failure of a language to survive brings awareness to it in death, in much the same way that when a person dies, people think about them much more once they’ve passed on. People don’t treasure what they have until it’s gone. But obviously, you should be trying to keep the language alive anyway!

And to the speakers of minority languages everywhere: Remember, it is your right to struggle. The right to your ethnic or linguistic background is as much a human and natural right as the freedoms of speech, expression, or religion, or anything else. To Americans (and hopefully the rest of the world), this should resonate. Our country is founded on the pursuit of happiness and treasuring of personal freedom to be who we want to be. Never let anyone tell you any different. Even if you die trying, the world will know you and the cause you fight for.

This was a bit of a more empowerment and encouragement piece, even though I haven’t written anything recently. Please remember to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

A Conflict of Interests: What To Do When People Don’t Listen

I recently came across a post on a language learning forum about when people learning each other’s languages meet. Specifically, when both want to speak each other’s language, and one (or both) refuses to comply with the other. This is likely a situation that every language learner will encounter sooner or later. I had this problem once with a middle school kid learning English in India. I was volunteering at a local school near my grandparents’ house, and I was instructed to use Kannada most of the time. But this kid was beginning to sass me, and had the temerity to accuse me of not being able to speak Kannada at all. While I was trying to exercise my Kannada more than I was used to, this kid was trying to use English way more advanced than the current assignments in class.

It is situations such as this, where there is a conflict of interests. As I have said before in my post, Practicing a Foreign Language By Yourself, language is a social experience. It is necessary that you recognize that there is more than one person involved, and that person leads their own life, which means they have their own goals and needs. An issue with some language learners is that they completely disregard the person they’re talking to, because they assume that the person is totally willing to oblige and help you practice. Remember, they’re people, too. And people are not all-knowing. You need to establish with the other person that you are a learner, and if they’re learning your language, you should come to a mutual understanding. Take turns speaking each other’s languages, and help each other out. Granted, my situation was quite different, but it serves its purpose here.

Remember, if the person you’re talking to is what I described earlier: assuming you’ll oblige, and they aren’t listening to you, you have little choice: oblige and speak to them in their target language. However, once there, you should inform them that you want to practice their language as well, and then they may understand. But again: people are stubborn sometimes, and may not listen anyway, at which point you kind of have to give up on practicing your target language with that person. Help them out, even if you’re not getting the practice you wanted.

Hope this helps with your encounters with speakers of other languages! Please share this on Facebook and Tumblr, or leave your thoughts in the comments!