Is it a Waste of Time for Americans to Learn Foreign Languages in 2018?

Way too often have I encountered this idea that, for native English speakers, especially from North America, time spent with languages could best be done doing “other things that are more important”.

(But given that a lot of American youth I’ve really lived with, with noteworthy exceptions, did spend a lot of time on English-language TV and YouTube more than pretty much anything else outside of the workplace, I’m extremely skeptical when it people making such claims, certainly in this country. Fun fact about me and video games: whenever I play them, I have educational podcasts or language-learning materials playing in the background!)

Indeed, I think if a lot of people from English-speaking countries would be fully aware of the realities and histories of other places in the world, they would be in a state of permanent shock.

With each new language I study the more I realize (1) how awful human beings truly can be and (2) how imperialism and colonialism are almost COMPLETELY responsible for virtually every single conflict present in the world. What’s more, this imperialism and colonialism is consistently rooted in shallow greed.

Yes, it is possible to learn a language on the surface without getting to the core elements of the culture(s) attached to that language, but to TRULY be good at any given language you need to understand many elements of local history and cultural mindsets.

For international languages, picking one country to anchor that cultural knowledge will usually suffice (it will also make your accent better so that it doesn’t sound like a mixture and your knowledge of colloquialisms can be deeper and more believable).

With that cultural knowledge comes a willingness to discover the human experience beyond your immediate surroundings.

Now let’s get back to the original question: is learning languages, for Americans, a waste of time in 2018?

Let’s get this over with:

No.

Here’s why not.

The first reason is that, given how FEW Anglophones truly want or even try to learn languages in detail, you will consistently be given fantastic treatment from native speakers.

Granted, some languages are more susceptible for getting you special treatment than others (In the United States, speaking high-school or even college Spanish isn’t going to have the same effect on your Venezuelan bartender as speaking even basic Hungarian with your new acquaintance who speaks it as a first language. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. Now Spanish in a place like Southeast Asia is an entirely different manner!)

But regardless if you want to learn Spanish or Hungarian or Fijian or Mandarin or anything else, there’s one thing you’re doing that is ESSENTIAL in maintaining the United States’ general health right now:

You’re bringing down barriers built by a system that wants to keep people permanently confused and embattled.

Donald Trump peddled fearful rhetoric about Mexicans and Chinese during his campaign and more recently rhetoric of a similar nature towards Haitians and residents of Sub-Saharan Africa.

His rhetoric was appealing to a large portion of the electorate because of a system that we as American language learners have the power to fix!

When I speak languages or even relate some of my cultural knowledge or even, heaven forbid, ask questions, I get people to open up.

My Taiwanese-American friend who is also Jewish told me that in his entirely life (he’s 30 at the moment) he never heard anyone ask meaningful questions about his identity until he met me. An acquaintance from West Bengal told me that I was “amazing”, “knowledgeable” an “brilliant” because I…knew that Assamese was a language (“You’re probably one of three white people in the world who knows what Assamese IS!!!”)

People from small countries the world over are told by liberals and conservatives alike that their culture aren’t important and that they and the languages associated with them don’t mean much to the world (or that they’re not “economically useful”).

When I speak languages like Finnish or Icelandic with these people, it has an almost therapeutic effect, as if to say “your place and your identity have value to me”.

More people giving up their culture in favor of becoming more Americanized only benefits the same system that has created income inequality more great than human history has ever seen.

Even if there might have been someone who wanted to use English with me instead, even the fact that I TRIED to use their language may have caused them to rethink the idea that becoming more like a powerful culture is the road to success or happiness.

Now imagine that every American learned languages of many sorts. Let’s say every American learned at least a little bit of a series of languages the way that Professor Alexander Arguelles recommended (e.g. a language close to your own, a language far away from your own, a personal language of your heritage, a personal language relevant to the history of your passport country or countries and/or your area, etc. For me, those could be Swedish, Greenlandic, Yiddish and Irish)

Not everyone has a time commitment to become readily fluent in five languages or so, but perhaps a few phrases in five languages would be something easily manageable by anyone. Even ONE PHRASE in five different languages. (I know I get impressed by, let’s say, Polish people rehearsing the five Finnish phrases they know on me)

In that world, Americans see the world as a collection of cultures and a collection of peoples.

In contrast to this there stand the idea that the world is, first and foremost, about money and monetizeable skills, that the world is to be exploited and that the winners of that wealth are to be celebrated, that places on the planet that don’t provide money are as good as dead. (“Who the hell cares about Nauru?” says someone who isn’t aware of the fact that that attitude may have lead to an entire country being reduced to poverty and ruin and then used as a dumping ground for unwanted refugees from powerful countries.)

An activist friend told me that thanks to Manifest Destiny and other factors set in place earlier in American history, the country has had “shallow values” for centuries, namely the philosophy of “more, more, more!” and of entitlement (much like the idea that all of the land from California to the Atlantic coast is OURS and deserves to be OURS).

There are other elements of American culture that I believe to be noble. The open-mindedness I see among young Americans is unparalleled by the youth in other places. The curiosity of these same young people is also unmatched. Americans living in cities are globalized story-collectors that are the envy of the world and rightly so.

Well, you may say, you’ve made a case that learning languages even to a simple degree and learning about cultures is certainly NOT a waste of time for Americans and may actually end up SAVING THE WORLD, but what about learning a language to fluency?

And here comes something:

The better you learn a language as an outsider, the more readily you gain someone’s trust.

Even if they do speak English fluently, they use that language to communicate with outsiders. They CAN’T go on outsider mode with you, in using their L1 they have NO CHOICE but to address you in the same dimension that their cultural insiders are in. Granted, there are some light exceptions to this (e.g. some languages may have modes in which locals speak to foreigners or foreign-looking individuals, I believe Japanese and many East Asian Languages are guilty of this, not also to mention Fijian and Samoan having different modes of speaking depending on whether or not you’re an outsider). But even if someone is engaging with me, in any degree, in their native tongue, this means that I am the guest with special treatment.

It’s like getting premium access to an entire culture. And with it come invitations, free drinks, people asking you questions and wanting to do business with you, and even romance.

On top of that, you may encourage another person to become a polyglot (or even a hyperpolyglot) as well. If not that, then maybe someone like Ari in Beijing who devoted himself to near-native fluency in one language, one that (because near-native fluency as an L2 is so unbelievably rare) provided with him celebrity treatment in Chinese subcultures EVERYWHERE.

But most importantly, our system of destruction in the name of profit depends on making us teams of humans fighting against each other, distracting us with infighting while they commit unspeakable acts of destroying the planet.

The infighting starts to disappear, to however small a degree, when you decide to learn the language or languages of your dreams.

come back when you can put up a fight

Here’s Why Corporate Power Doesn’t Want You To Learn Languages

It has been more than a year since Donald Trump was elected and I know I’m not alone in being positively furious, but in a way that my fury has further impassioned me to change the world.

One thing that I’ve brought into conversation, seldom with disagreement, is the fact that ever since that fateful night, I’ve been seeking to cut the toxic influences of American culture than enabled Donald Trump to happen (that is to say, sensationalism, the idea that money is life’s report card, conformity, extreme divisions within our society with not a lot of dialogue, being directed by mass media to be angry for the sake of being angry and not in a productive manner, among many other things).

After all, saying “Fuck you, Donald Trump” is easy. Looking at your life choices and realizing what sort of choices you can make to create a culture less likely to choose and promote someone of that sort takes effort and sacrifice.

All the while I see that America continues to be a land in which the dream that brought my ancestors here continues to be more and more elusive. Behind it all is a military-industrial complex, op-eds that seek to confuse, emotionally manipulate and gaslight the public, and a mass media culture so great that resisting it completely requires the self-discipline of a spiritual giant.

Granted, there are many aspects that I really like about American culture, and I have no doubt that my hyperpolyglotism came about in part because of the many intercultural conversations and intersections that only the United States can provide. But that’s for another time, although I realize that in order to criticize a society you need to affirm yourself as a friend of said society. And all things considered, I truly do love the United States, given as I may have not been given the opportunity to live had it never existed (given my Jewish roots).

One thing that I thoroughly dislike about it is the fact that I hear a lot of people say extremely predictable things, over and over again. This is in part because many people in this country read the exact same newspapers, watch the exact same television shows and consume many of the same contemporary popular songs. (People often ask me how on earth I can manage to learn so many languages to fluency and I tell them consistently that it requires you taking in entertainment in other languages and downsizing your entertainment intake in your native language. Guess how many people I’ve spoken to [outside of polyglot communities, that is] who have actually followed through on that plan after I told them what to do.)

Often I hear almost headache-inducing ideas of “you’re good with languages” or “I heard that it’s no use learning a language” or “I tried learning a language for a decade and I can’t speak any of it”. I know why I hear these same things continuously

And it’s primarily by design.

Look, if the ruling class in the United States truly wanted it, the secrets of Language Hackers and my friends at the polyglot conference would be known to 4 out of every 5 citizens living in this country. The knowledge is available freely on blogs in English. My advice is free and I’m glad to share any of my stories and the uglier sides of my struggles to fluency.

But instead, the same old myths persist.

Because a corporate dominated society doesn’t want a broad citizenry of open-minded languages learners.

Here’s why not:

 

  1. Income inequality is very much based on pitting people (or groups of people) against each other. Language Learners build bridges.

 

“The Arabs”, “The Russians”, “The Jews”, “The Iranians”, “The Europeans” … I’ve heard all of these referenced very frequently in dismissive tones in conversation from people in many different political arenas.

 

Truth be told, division is essential as a distraction tactic. This fear of the other also drives the military-industrial complex which is probably the one thing that has endangered the biosphere most severely in human history.

I’ve met language learners from all continents, from all over the globe. They’re certainly not perfect people, but they’re bridge-builders and peacemakers. They view people different from them as potential friends and hobbies, not something to spark fear. Many of them see themselves and doing “divine work” (even if they don’t believe in a higher power), and rightly so.

They learn about cultures that the corporate state boils down into stereotypes. They realize that problems are more readily solved with dialogue, understanding and respect than with force and violence.

They are the very antithesis of a system that keeps people divided and distrustful of one another.

 

  1. A lot of sensationalized news stories (many of their owners and writers also seeking to prop up income inequality and perpetuate it) strategically make people afraid of other places. Language learners recognize all countries of people with ordinary dreams.

 

I’ve met people from the majority of countries on this planet, thanks to my time in New York City. Believe me when I say that people are remarkably the same everywhere in terms of many things, although social conditioning is one aspect in which there is a lot of difference.

If you take away a lot of the mythologies that our various national and/or religious agendas have instilled into us, we are pretty much all the same.

And yes, there are hateful and destructive people on every corner of the globe, but they exist by virtue of the fact that, in some respect, they’ve been derived of something, whether it be economic opportunity or a caring support system, or even taken in by a system of “us vs. them” that is almost entirely promoted by self-serving politicians and people who want to keep the system in place in which the rich keep getting richer. And I haven’t even touched on limiting beliefs yet, the almighty slayer of dreams.

Our governments divide us but at our language exchange events and in our online forums, we’re bringing the world together. There’s difficulty in having such tasks come about, but almost all of us strive for it. And in a world in which any culture in the WORLD can be yours to explore within a few mouse clicks, YOU can be on the right side of history!

 

  1. Neoliberalism frames countries as their governments and economies foremost, rather than their cultural stories. Language learners get to the heart of places’ cultural stories that are often hidden.

 

“China’s gonna take over the world!”, “Saudi Arabia is an evil country!”, “Israel is a cancer!”, “Russia hates everything about the west”, and on and on and on.

Again, division at work. And yes, there are a lot of political problems present throughout the world, but seldom if ever do people investigate the cultural roots of conflicts and even more seldom do they try to administer dialogue and healing.

With language learning you can delve into the cultural story of anywhere you’d like, complete with its flaws and darkest chapters. Usually a lot of the “issues” that have come about in which people are afraid of other countries are present for reasons that are not visible on the surface. The path of least resistance is to be angry and call names. That’s what the system depends on, meaningless rage and emotional manipulation in which people are tricked into thinking that they’re helping when they’re actually not.

True peace doesn’t come about with divisions like this, it comes about through realizing that we have shared cultures and dreams that all humans understand. These commonalities are far stronger than our differences, however big a world of income inequality would like these differences to be.

 

  1. If enough people explore other places, even virtually, the entire framework of fear which serves as a distraction from the problems of capitalism will fall apart completely.

 After so many emotional headlines and frantic googling when I had Lyme Disease (believe me, you don’t want Lyme Disease) and again in the months leading up to Trump’s election as well as after it, it occurred to me that there was just a lot of … fearmongering…and not a lot of productive dialogue.

No doubt there is productive dialogue (that I have particularly found among independent journalists), but usually it’s just click-farming, dumbing down and making people more scared.

Right now at this very moment I remember when I met the Chief Rabbi of Norway, Rabbi Michael Melchior. He told me boldly the following statement (and I PROMISE I’m not making this up!): “I’ve spoken to the most extreme Jihadist in the West Bank, and when I was done talking with him, he agreed that a Two-State Solution was the best possible outcome” (!!!)

In 2013, I couldn’t believe it. In 2017, I can. After having encountered tons of people throughout the world, I realize that if we just strip away our fears one by one, we’d lead fulfilled live of peace and harmony as a species from then on out.

But instead, our current system depends on fear. Fear to distract from the genuine problems of capitalism that threaten the future of our species. A good deal of that fear depends on misunderstanding other people.

I don’t misunderstand other people and other cultures, I only seek to explore. And I can’t even begin to tell you how many people have sneered at me telling me that I was fraternizing with “countries that hate Jews and Israel” (exact words).

Surprisingly, I’ve come to the conclusion that anyone’s xenophobia, however microscopic it may be, can be whittled away to nothing with choosing to explore other cultures and languages. I’ve seen it happen. And close-minded people are created by being made to be fearful of others first and foremost. Being in other countries, I realized my fears about other places were largely just imagined.

Some of my acquaintances haven’t been as lucky to achieve this path to open-mindedness as I and my polyglot friends have, but it’s always available and we’d love to have you.

The world depends on your being an explorer.

So go explore!

just-visiting-in-jail

If you don’t explore, this might as well be you. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

Does Learning Languages ACTUALLY Make You More Open-Minded?

Let’s start this one out with an incontrovertible fact: most of the planet speaks more than one language. It knowing more than one language actually led to being more open-minded, it would follow that most of the planet is, by that metric, open-minded and non-hateful. It seems that the correlation is actually nowhere to be found.

In other words, if multilingualism led to open-mindedness and we could dispel hatred from the world by just teaching people multiple languages, given that most of the planet already knows more than one language, it would have happened by now.

However, learning more than one language CAN lead to being more open-minded, and I’ll relate how to in a moment.

But first, I would like to mention the fact that I’ve been addicted to polyglot culture since I first encountered it in 2013 in Germany and then in 2014 in the United States. I’ve been to WAAAAY too many meetings and social events to count.

Regardless of whether you take into account people who spoke several languages from birth and those who learned several languages later on in their life (even anywhere from 6+), I encountered very curious people who wanted to explore the world and ask questions, and others who were painfully judgmental about the world and other cultures.

In some cases, there were those that event insulted my choice of languages OR insulted other people’s accents and attempts to speak their language to their face (the latter was quite a rarity although sadly the former really isn’t).

Let’s put it this way: in my personal experience, speaking multiple languages does not necessarily lead to an enlightened understanding of the world and a general curiosity to learn about other people.

Nor is it the amount of languages either. I’ve met people who spoke only 2-3 languages who were significantly more curious and open-minded than some of those who spoke seven.

And yes, this also needs to be said: some people who speak only one language can be significantly more open-minded than those who speak several!

But by now you’ve probably read countless articles about how “language learning makes you experience the world differently and will make you understand more cultures and make you a better human”, and now you’ve encountered my experience and you wonder, “What? Are you possibly for real?”

And no, education level also doesn’t play a significant role in how open-minded (or not) you are, especially given how many degree-chasers there are just because of a supposed or real employment advantage.

Here’s what is probably meant when people say “learning languages makes you a more open-minded person…”

The Reasoning Behind Your Choice Matters

As some of you know, I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish environment during my teenage years (I’ve written about it many times on this blog).

Throughout my time there, there was a lot of distrust in the air for many different people groups, real or imagined. Some of them included:

  • Jews of other denominations, especially, at times, secular Israelis.
  • Eastern Europeans
  • Scandinavians
  • Muslims of any variety
  • Arabs (Mizrakhi culture was, in my memory, never brought up at school, nor did I even know that Arab Christianity was a major force in many Arab countries until the late 2000’s).
  • Anything smacking of the secular Yiddish culture, including having one rabbi respond to my speaking Yiddish (not to him) with resentment and fury (although there was one from New Square who heard me speaking Yiddish and he smiled and said, “so that’s what they teach you at college!” Oh, that was one time when I came back, not in the early 2000’s when I was actually in the school)
  • African-Americans, Afro-Caribbean peoples, and Africans in general.

Because of the prevalence of liturgical Hebrew as well as the fact that knowledge of the French language (and Latin) was highly prized there, my school wasn’t a monoglot environment.

It is very possible to have knowledge of multiple languages, even living languages, and still be closed off and, in a way, close-minded and fearful.

Later on in life, having my eyes opened by my experience at Wesleyan University, I began learning Polish (months before I knew that I was actually going to be spending my first year outside of college in Krakow).

I did it for several reasons. For one, I had heard stories about Poland being backward and anti-Semitic (it’s no different than the United States in many regards, and I doubt many Polish people would disagree). I also wanted to discover many pieces of my heritage and realize that I could use the opportunity to be a peace-maker of sorts (which I have, since then, definitely become).

I gave up on Polish several times, last year I came back to it although I don’t really think I’d call myself fluent…yet…and I haven’t been giving it my full effort, to be honest…

In more recent times, I only hear Hungary being spoken about in the context of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán, and as a result I embarked on a long-overdue quest to discover the many faces of contemporary Hungary as well as its fascinating history that my ancestors were a part of.

The Hungarians that I have spoken to since I began my journey earlier this year feel like long-lost relatives to me, and I even get to see my father’s side of the family in a whole new light. (Note: I’m not really that good at Hungarian yet, if you have any music recommendations in the language, PLEASE let me know so I can get addicted!)

Throughout the world I’ve seen cultures misimagined, viewed with distrust, or otherwise dismissed. Israel. The Scandinavian Countries. Papua New Guinea. Pretty much all of Africa and all of the Pacific Islands. Greenland.

And I haven’t even mentioned anything about Muslim-majority countries in general (Tajik and Mossi / Mòoré have been the two languages from such countries that I have focused on the most, even though I’ve read some things saying that Burkina Faso is actually majority Animist!)

What did I do?

I realized that I could be the healer.

I realized I could step in that I could introduce people to these cultures.

I realized I could be the bridge, the peacemaker, and turn people away from their prejudices.

I realized that, whatever little prejudice I have in my, I could uproot.

I could encourage people to study their family histories and learn the languages of their ancestors.

I could encourage people to learn more about cultures that their family or the TV or the media has taught them to be afraid of.

That’s how you learn languages to become more open-minded.

And you can even pick global languages like Spanish and French and use them as an opportunity for healing and discovery! (I remember Olly Richards having written a post on why Donald Trump should learn Spanish. Given what’s sadly happened since he wrote that [before the November 2016 election], it would seem that the family should probably invest in many more languages as well…)

I wonder how many people would live boring lives of wishing they were more and quiet lives of conformity, knowing that in 2017 and beyond, the whole world and knowledge of everything in it could be theirs…

Go get ‘em!

20170525_165915