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!

Language is Social

It feels as if it’s been forever since I posted last. I hope all of you who have summer vacation are enjoying some relaxation in whatever way that pleases you. Anyway, my topic this time is about language as a social experience.

By definition, language is a communicative tool, and for communication to be what it is, there has to be two or more people involved. You have to be involved with other people when speaking a language. You’re never going to get your practical skills down unless you practice with someone else. Besides, humans, by nature, are a gregarious species. We like to be with others of our own kind (most of the time), and we want to get our ideas across to other people as best as we can.

Many of the most basic words in any language have to do with relations with other people and social interactions. For example, take the word, “mother,” or, “mom.” It’s easily one of the most common words that people use in their mother tongues (there’s a reason that term is phrased that way) starting from early childhood. Languages wouldn’t have a word for it if the word didn’t really matter to the people who speak it. Now, let’s take a more complex word: saudade. It’s a word in Portuguese describing an intense feeling of longing or yearning for something that has been lost or has gone away, and usually will not return. Portuguese people use this word primarily in reference to people, because you usually don’t have such an intense feeling in relation to an inanimate object.

Learning a language, therefore, must also be a fundamentally social activity. You can get only so far in learning by yourself, looking up grammar and vocabulary, and talking to yourself. When you learn a language, you should engage someone else in the process. There are three set-ups to this:

1. You and a native speaker (Student to Teacher)

2. You and another person, each speaking (a) language(s) the other wants to learn (Teacher to Teacher)

3.  You and another person, both learning the same language (Student to Student)

So, get out there and learn with someone! There’s always someone out there who’s willing to walk with you on the path to learning a new language!