6 Attitudes you Should Adopt for the Sake of the Future’s Linguistic Diversity

Yes, I understand that not everyone wants to learn an endangered or minority language. I’m perfectly okay with that (as long as you don’t mock or put down people who do).

I’ve put forth enough cases as to why learning rarer languages is a good career move, a good move from a moral standpoint (whether you look at the world as a whole or what it does to you) as well as a character builder.

This is not that article.

Instead, I’m going to write about various attitudes you can adopt in order to ensure that you can change the contemporary climate (present in many places) that is encouraging people to give up their smaller cultures and languages and thereby cause the continued extinction of our beloved human tongues from all over the world.

I learn languages like Breton, Tongan, Yiddish and Krio. I realize that that path isn’t for everyone. That’s perfectly okay. There is, however, one thing that I really would like to change, and that is a general set of opinions that I think most people would be do well to do away with for the sake of our cultural diversity.

Here goes:

 

  • Stop referring to languages as “useless”

 

I remember talking to a Burkinabe bartender once. He spoke ten languages fluently but he said that aside from English and French there was “nobody” that spoke languages like Mossi, Fulani, etc.

A few months later I spoke to a Spanish-speaker (you don’t think I was using English, did you?) at a polyglot event and he said that he had a Fulani-speaking taxi driver (Fulani is a language spoken in many places in West Africa and Burkina Faso is among them. Fulani-speakers were also sadly well-represented among the many victims of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Well, so much for “nobody speaks it”, right?

And of course that one time there was a Bulgarian girl in New York City who told me that “there would be better things to do with your time than learn it [that is to say, the Bulgarian language]”. Apparently she was so imprisoned by a culture of “smaller languages and cultures are economically useless” that she seemed to imply that her culture was something that was holding her back…and based on my prior experience I know that she wasn’t the only one…

Esperanto, Cornish, Tajik and all Creole Languages are among the languages on my list that I’ve heard regularly insulted the most and some have even gone so far as to question my judgment as to why I would want to learn them.

Thinking different will always get you validated in the end. Trust me on this one.

But in the meantime, stop referring to languages as “useless” and try to stop other people from exploring the world. It just serves to perpetuate cultural destruction which goes hand-in-hand with income inequality (believe it or not).

 

  • Referring to Certain Groups of Languages as “Dialects”

 

Ah, yes, referring to Italian Regional Languages / Creole Languages / Yiddish and Afrikaans as “dialects”.

This really doesn’t serve any purpose except for silencing other people’s decisions to go off the beaten path. If there’s anything that threatens the current order of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, it’s thinking differently.

It’s one thing to refer to American English and British English as dialects of the same language, but to refer to various regional dialects within places like the Arab World / Italy / Persian-speaking countries is misleading. Keep in mind whether your choice to call another language a dialect is actually privileging one dominant culture over another. Be very careful about that.

Scots, Nigerian Pidgin and Trinidadian Creole are separate languages in their own right because they feature grammatical patterns and distinctive vocabularies that distinguish them from the English in which you are now writing this. It is true that speakers of these languages can understand what I am writing right now, but by calling their languages mere dialects you rob them of a distinctive personality and the ability for others, certainly in the academic world, to take their differences seriously.

 

  • Saying that “Having Everyone Speaking One Language is a Good Thing” or that English is the only language worth studying.

 

Perhaps the first part is true, but with this way of thinking we’ve seen the proliferation of terrible habits because of it.

For one, a lot of cultures throughout the world may see themselves as duly inferior to the grand culture of the United States of America and their language as inferior to American English, the language of money and science.

Having a lingua franca is a necessity and we’ve seen that wherever empires are, all over the world. However, saying that only one language is worth study is poisonous. It seriously will prevent other people from exploring other languages and ways of thinking. Other ways of thinking is the one reason why corporate power hasn’t taken root any more strongly than it already has. With diversity of thought becomes a diversity of leadership, and when a handful of people control nearly half the wealth in the world, I doubt that they might be looking for any competition in the slightest…

 

  • Refusing to Use Your Native Language with Learners

 

This. Is. A. Big. One.

And this has collectively caused more damage to global language learning than almost anything.

The “why bother if everyone just speaks English?” myth.

And yet, so many people will just do the lazier thing and use whatever language is made “easier” rather than doing what the right thing for human diversity is, to encourage usage of many human tongues rather than only the tongues of empire.

It’s okay if you want to “juggle” the sort of languages you know with other people. I do it. I understand that people see my English-language abilities (as a native speaker) as a gift that they want to learn from. Even if they speak a language that I’ve never spoken before and I want to practice, I wouldn’t withhold it from them if they really want to speak English with me (for example, speakers of Spanish, Hebrew, German and Russian, so I’ve noticed, can get very self-conscious about their English skills if you continuously address them in their native language. I’ve seen the looks in people’s eyes. And I doubt these four are the only ones.)

But if you can’t even be bothered to use a handful of basis phrases with a learner, or, even worse, use English with me when I’ve demonstrated that I’m fluent in your language, then I will see you as terribly insecure and / or just plain mean. (The latter situation has only happened a handful of times, including one in which I got THIS *makes hand gesture* close to telling someone off very rudely)

There is one exception I’ll make: if your native language has painful memories associated with it (e.g. my memories of that Jewish school of hard knocks weren’t always very nice in the slightest, and hearing Yeshivish-English at times gives me very uncomfortable feelings, I’m sorry to say). I’ll find it out eventually one way or another and I’ll understand it. Oh, and if you forgot your native language later in life (which DOES happen, surprisingly!)

 

  • Saying that “dying languages should just die off and we should only care about those that are still alive”

 

I think if your family were dying, or if a family member of yours were dying, or if your species were dying, I bet someone would want to save him/her/you/them, right? How do YOU like it?

 

  • Saying that Only Political Powerful Languages are Worth the Effort

 

This is a big one that the press and journalism is largely responsible for, including “which languages to learn to earn the most money”, “which languages are the most ‘useful’”, and other clickbait mind-controlling garbage of this sort.

I understand if you only want to learn global languages. I’m even okay with that! As long as you respect the choice and the possibility for OTHERS to learn whatever languages they want. Several of my friends wouldn’t consider learning endangered languages but have been very thankful and supportive of my efforts to encourage other people to do so.

There is this one YouTuber who is not my friend and who I’ve never met and whose opinions I do not respect. He pretty much does nothing but insult several of my friends and acquaintances who have inspired thousands all over the globe. He pretty much said in a comment that only learning languages that give you a “bang for your buck “are useful, proceeding to list languages of the UN as the gold standard.

Does he know how often I got solicited by translators who wanted stuff from Greenlandic, Icelandic, Yiddish, Faroese (back when I knew it) and even the Melanesian Creoles, and it got so “bad” when I had Lyme Disease that I even CLOSED MY ACCOUNT on a translation forum because I was getting so many messages? Do you think that if I chose the UN official languages (English, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, French and Spanish) that I would come ANYWHERE CLOSE to how many solicitations I got?

This troll obviously never worked as a translator in which the odder pairs and choices will usually be more hunted after, judging by my experience of having people beg me “pleeeeeaase don’t turn this job down!” (When I had Lyme Disease, well…I sorta had no choice…but I didn’t know I had the disease at the time, I just knew that I was feeling very weak and “not feeling up to it today. Sorry”).

I probably made more money off my languages that he has in a lifetime over his. And I’m probably half his age. But that’s none of my business in the slightest. (I would say that Scandinavian Languages and Yiddish have netted me the most earnings, followed by Greenlandic and Hebrew…translating from all of these languages into English, of course)

If it sounds to you that I am discouraging you to study global languages, don’t take it that way.

Just be aware of the benefits that various languages will net you on a market (e.g. Spanish will give you a lot more material online and many opportunities to speak it in person, but not much leverage as a translator or in employment markets in which “every idiot learns Spanish”. Small national languages like Danish or Bulgarian will be more balanced in this regard, fewer materials and opportunities to speak it but more leverage as a translator and in employment markers. And then, of course, the glass cannon of the endangered or minority language. May not have almost any opportunities to use it, depending on where you are, but it will you will STAND OUT to your employers because of it. And there are probably many other categories that fall between these, and whatever you choose is good as long as you choose it from the heart and not for the sake of conformity or “money” or “job opportunities” in a vaguely defined sense).

In conclusion, I realize that there may not be a lot I can do to assist with attitude changes in the language-learning community. But this post is a start. And whenever I hear opinions the likes of which I have heard, I feel like an arrow shot me in the gut.

Maybe the world will come to know healing. If so, I want to know that I’ve been a part of that.

And you can, too!

ga

Polyglot Report Card, March 2015 Edition, and Diagnoses (Part 1)

With the constant notion that the Polyglot Conference is coming up in October, I have to be mindful of how I focus my energies with my projects from now until then.

Having a routine is good. Keeping the routine is better. So I published this post to reflect, as well as to “poke” me into following that routine.

English: I have to get that true American accent back. Somehow. Right now it sounds like a “mixture”, and almost everyone I know has remarked on that fact. People that knew me from before my big trips abroad and met me afterwards have noticed that my voice has changed. But can I change it back?

That’s worthy of another blog post in its own right…

Hebrew: Thanks largely to a lot of classes, I feel very confident. It seriously slipped when I was living in Germany, but thanks to the JTS folks I feel good about it again…

What I need to do: just browse the dictionary at points. I’ve had enough exposure to the language that I should be able to think of contexts without trouble…

Yiddish: Almost the exact same situation, except for the fact that on very rare occasions I worry about mixing up German and Yiddish, although it almost never happens now. (A friend of mine said that his professor said that when he wanted to speak German, he just used Yiddish with a British accent…hmmm…)

So what I also need to do for Yiddish is browse dictionaries and keep a good exposure with books and texts. The fact that I’m enrolled in an Advanced Yiddish texts class right now ensures that I have that.

With German, it is pretty much the exact same thing.

And now comes Spanish, the language that I feel I screwed up on more occasions than any other. As a very sensitive person, I have difficulty separating it from some of my failures involving it (not passing an AP exam during my senior year of high school has been a sort of never-live-it-down moment).

Right now, I know what I need:  my passive understanding is very good, and so I can watch television without problems. I need to convert that into active understanding by ensuring that I watch that television more often. Oh, and somehow divorce the negative experiences I’ve had with the language. Otherwise I’ll never get good at it…

Danish, in part because of my obsession with Greenland, has surged with progress ever since I got back to the United States. I never thought that I would get this good at the language while I was living in Sweden! I’ve had enough exposure via television that watching Danish TV now seems like as much of a waste of time as watching TV in English.

Now I’ll need to turn my attention to reading. And not on the computer! Print the articles or find books and get readin’ em.

Norwegian is a bit similar, although I’m not really as confident with it. I don’t believe that Norwegian TV is as much of a “waste of time” as watching English TV, so I still have to get to that ultra-confident point yet. In the meantime, using the same strategy as I have for Danish (getting articles) isn’t going to hurt at all.

Swedish has weakened. Significantly. I’ve just been lazy. On a side note, I do encounter a LOT of Swedes in New York City. I can’t really say that I can be proud of my progress in that language. And my accent still needs improvement…

My core vocabulary is strong, however. A lot better than it ever has been, especially when I was living in the country…I need to watch a lot of television in Swedish, and then, when I feel as good about it as I do with Danish, then I get more reading practice. I remember buying a Swedish-language book about seals when I was there. It is probably somewhere in that book stash in Connecticut…that would be just what I may need!

Dutch. Neglected. I almost considered forgetting it altogether. But the fact that it is similar to German and Yiddish ensured that it was pretty much a non-option. If I want to get better, then I know what I need to do: get a dictionary, and browse it. And watch TV in Dutch.

I only have one real problem with Greenlandic at this point: I need a stronger vocabulary than what I have. My accent is really good, I can get the flow and I’ve had a bit too much exposure to the language. I found the vocabulary for this language the hardest to acquire out of any of I’ve studied. I’m going to have to break out comprehensive vocabulary lists and start putting them into Memrise!

Northern Sami: I’m not as used to the flow of this language as I am with Greenlandic. My grammar could also use some brushing up (the cases I’m good with, I don’t even need to worry about consonant gradation anymore…if you want to know what that is, just go to the tag categories and click “Northern Sami” and read until you encounter something about it. Or ask me in the comments). My vocabulary could use some strengthening, primarily by…exposure to more Northern Sami language media.

I just turned on NRK Sápmi as I’m writing this. I could read vocabulary lists, but it would be BETTER if I were to expose my brain to the language more often.

And one last language for the time being, Faroese. Grammar is my biggest issue. And sometimes listening comprehension. I have more reading practice than I know what to do with. Listen, listen, listen…and find those scholarly works on Faroese grammar and know it as well as you can.

To be continued in Part 2

kegn dem shtrom

Le Français: My (Not Exactly) First Impressions

It’s not quite a secret, but French is actually my second language. My father had a desire to visit/work in French West Africa, and as a result bought himself some tapes for kids. My sister and I were quite young children then, and we picked it up, even going so far as to attend weekly French lessons at some point.
But then, because of disuse, both she and I forgot all of it…well, almost all. Thanks largely to the not-always civil exchange between France and Britain, not also to mention the Norman invasion, the French language is the biggest source for English import words, more than any other language on earth.
In honor of Bastille Day yesterday, I betrayed the expectation set in my own blogpost and I went ahead with the French Duolingo course anyway (I often do things like this in honor of certain calendar dates). I haven’t gotten very far, nor do I even consider myself even close to having my first conversation, but I thought that now would be a good time to write down what my “first impressions” are…even if they aren’t first impressions at all…
Thanks to having learned so many languages to varying degrees, I know that the first element to encounter is always frustration and hopelessness. I remember when I was going to Hebrew University for the first time, I was in Newark airport by myself, confused about what to do, wondering if my luggage would actually find its way to Tel-Aviv, and then, I was nagged by the following thought…
“You know, Jared, you could always just quit. You could just decide that you’re not going anymore and just stay here in the cozy U.S. of A…”
Well, good thing that I didn’t.
I know this feeling all too well. I remember seeing in a Lonely Planet advertisement that the hardest part of any journey is deciding that you’re going to go. This is true for many things and language learning is definitely one of them.
Did I go off topic? Yes, I think I did.
I found the pronunciation particularly difficult, but thanks largely to one of my previous linguistic adventures, I didn’t find myself as intimidated.
Throughout the lessons as well as trying to grapple with TV shows for children and seeing how many words I could make out, I had constant flashbacks to my first steps in learning Danish.
Mention Danish to a native speaker of Swedish or Norwegian and you may get treated to a certain homily about how written Danish is very familiar to him or her, but when it is spoken it sounds “as strange as Chinese”.
Both with Danish and with French, I had a lot more familiarity with the written language before I even started studying it to any degree. In Sweden, Swedish, Finnish and Danish are the most common languages (in that order) on product labels. Because I was exposed to it just by sight-reading, I had a “leg-up” with Danish and I expect my French journey to provide a similar advantage.
I learned Danish after having studied both Swedish and Norwegian to significant degrees, and similarly, I have had my Portuguese and Spanish adventures (not also to mention some vague knowledge of Italian) that have been vaguely helpful in understanding what little French I encountered yesterday. One way in which the situations are not comparable, however, is the fact that the Scandinavian trifecta’s members are a lot closer to each other than the biggest of the Romance Languages could ever hope to be.
Within my first few weeks of Elementary Polish back in June 2011, I remember being frustrated so much by saying certain words out loud that I almost threw my laptop across the room. I imagine that French may frustrate me in a similar manner somewhere along the journey (and all of my languages have, although some more than others…and the journey is continuing with all of them…my native language included), but I keep on having to tell myself that I’ve encountered far worse obstacles.
The fact that it is one of the world’s most commonly studied languages will make it easier for me in every regard. For one, every single one of the basic phrases had an air of familiarity about it, thanks largely to Anglophone popular culture. Finnish, on the other hand, provided only about five import words in the whole English language, the best known of which is “sauna”.
Part of me also feels a little bit guilty for starting it this late again. After adventures in stranger languages, I something tell myself, “Jared, what took you so long?”
I’m just on the first few steps. I’m developing a good sense of the phonemes (which are always the most important part and, in some cases, could always use improvement throughout the learning process, no matter how advanced you are).
The most important thing that I should tell myself is that I shouldn’t expect magical results instantly, especially when I’m not putting in as much effort as I could. But after Lord-knows-how-many-times of doing the same, I know that already.
I remember one time when I was learning Greenlandic in a cafeteria and putting together a sentence for someone, I was told, “it’s interesting…to you, Greenlandic is just another language…”
I have adopted the same mentality in this case. French is just another language.
As is Faroese, which I will write about…some other time!