Episode 9: Language: Challenge & Promise: A Conversation with David Bong

David Bong
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
Episode 9: Language: Challenge & Promise: A Conversation with David Bong

Language will continue to be the dominant force in our world that unifies or divides us. We have an obligation to strive toward efforts that use language to bring us together. Not to crush individuals’ languages or to force them to speak the dominant language, but to help them – to help all of us – be proficient in more than one language.”

In Episode 9, my guest, David Bong, takes a clear-eyed and optimistic view of the power of language to transform lives for the better. But is insightful to note, conversely, how the lack of linguistic and cultural understanding can divide and hurt the world community.

David notes: Language is who we are. It’s how we express ourselves. It reflects the image we have of ourselves….It can be a point of pride and identity. But it can also be a point of division: someone who does not speak your language is “the other.” His conversation, like his work in promoting individuals’ celebration of and measured success in language, explores how we can go from not valuing or resisting language study and use to welcoming, celebrating, and promoting language learning and multilingualism.

As a young person in a high school language class, David says, he didn’t know what language was for. But then he met a person from a different culture and language group whom he admired, and in following that language trail (to Japan), he discovered the magic of connecting with others to make himself known and to know others. In those moments, language became very much alive, and he knew exactly what it was for: bringing humanity, person by person, up close.

We’re at a real crossroads in our world. We are suffering together, yet approaches to the experience and story of that suffering vary according to culture. We have a common need to discover solutions to disease, conflict, and inequality; while insights into solutions are being considered and applied around the world, sharing those ideas can be hampered by lack of understanding of language for dialog and discussion.

What will our path be? Will it be celebration, collaboration, and entering into that most human of experience, language? Or will we trust only our own native tongue and culture, and rely solely on the perspective they bring?

Listen to this episode with David Bong to get a clear vision of the impact of our understanding of and attitude toward language on individuals and the world.

And consider: What is your identity and role in the world through your language?

Enjoy the podcast.

Transcript appears below.

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It’s About Language – Episode 09 – Language: Challenge and Promise: A Conversation with David Bong

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Episode 08 – Language: Challenge and Promise A Conversation with David Bong – Audiogram with Captions

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Want to hear more? Access previous episodes, and get to know the wonderful people I talk with through the It’s About Language page, or by clicking on the Podcast tab above.

You can also connect with me for presentations and workshops. Also connect with me for presentations on what language proficiency is, how we grow it, measure it, and apply it effectively in life and work. Educators, organizations, and businesses will all find these topics highly relevant and practical.


0:00:03.3 David Bong: Language will continue to be the dominant force in our world that unifies or divides us. And we have to… My belief is we have an obligation to strive towards efforts that will use language to bring us together, not to crush individuals’ languages and force them to speak the dominant language, but to help them help all of us be proficient in more than one language.

0:00:37.4 Norah Jones: Hi, I’m Norah Jones. Welcome to, “It’s About Language.” This podcast connects language and culture to life, learning, and hope. You’ll experience insightful conversations with creative leaders in the fields of education, business, arts, and science. My guests shed light on the impact of language and culture on individuals and society as they share their stories and experiences. You’ll be informed and inspired as we explore how language and culture make us human and bring hope in the midst of a challenging world. Well, it’s a great pleasure today to welcome to the podcast my friend, David Bong. Hi, David.

0:01:22.3 David Bong: Hey, Norah. How are you?

0:01:23.5 Norah Jones: I’m doing well, and I’m very excited to talk with you because you always have such strong insights into language, language learning, language proficiency, why language even exists. And there’s some things that really struck me about your background, David. And I’d like to start with you and some of these aspects and why you express these aspects in your background into the language world. Okay?

0:01:50.6 David Bong: Sure.

0:01:51.0 Norah Jones: Alright. First of all, that I recognize that there’s a lot of things that you do that have to do with opening opportunities to people, giving access. Why the access, David? Why so much emphasis on enabling accessing?

0:02:10.1 David Bong: Well, that’s a good question. I’m not sure quite how to answer that, but I think life is all about creating opportunities for yourself and for others. It’s why we live, is to make this world a better place. And if people don’t have opportunities to grow to become more than they think they can, then you’re not fulfilling the blessing that we have to be alive as a human being at this time and in this place. There’s always been a sense that it’s important to do those kinds of things, to create opportunity. That was the way I was raised. As a kid in church, we were always brought around to different faith groups and taught that people all basically believed the same things. They expressed them in different ways, they had certainly different beliefs, but we all believed many of the same truths that we are here on earth, it’s a blessing, and we have to make the best of what we’re doing to make life better for others, to preserve the world that we have. So I don’t know, just going on here, but I think that’s what it’s all about, is creating opportunities.

0:03:40.5 Norah Jones: You went and created so many of these opportunities in the direction of language and language excellence. Why going in that direction, David?

0:03:51.3 David Bong: Norah, that’s kind of weird. Growing up, I grew up in Boston or just outside of Boston, and I was very provincial in the sense that I had never been out of New England until I was 18. I don’t think I ever had been to Connecticut, which is only like 50 miles away.


0:04:09.4 Norah Jones: Very exotic, Connecticut, right?

0:04:10.9 David Bong: Very exotic. Yeah. And I remember taking French and Latin in high school, and I was not a terribly good language student. I just couldn’t connect with that, I didn’t understand what it was for. But I was lucky I was in a good high school, and they did prepare us well for French. But way back then, I won’t say how long ago, [laughter] we were taking proficiency-oriented French. And so now if I’m in France, I can still get around, even after many, many years. But I first… It’s a weird thing, but my first exposure to anything international when I was at wrestling camp, wrestling was a big part of my life. And there was a champion, an Olympic champion from Japan, Mr. Ichiguchi, and I was just struck by his presence. He was powerful, but calm and quiet and gentle. And from that moment on, I always had sort of a fascination with Japan. And I went to college and ended up being a Japanese history major.

0:05:28.6 Norah Jones: Interesting.

0:05:29.2 David Bong: And that started to open up my eyes to Japan. And I decided if I’m going to do something related to Japan, I’d better get over there and really learn the language. So that was my introduction to language. Once I was in Japan, I was hooked and I could never disconnect from it. And that began to open my eyes to the much bigger world out there.

0:05:51.8 Norah Jones: Well, and you said… You used the phrase that you didn’t know what language was for in high school. How did your experience in Japan change that?

0:06:05.8 David Bong: Yeah, I think virtually all of us who are monolingual growing up and had the experience of learning a second language are just amazed when the first experience happens that you can actually communicate with somebody in another language. And I remember sitting on a train going into Tokyo from where I was staying out in the suburbs, and I actually had a conversation where I understood a few words of the guy sitting next to me. And he understood a few words that I said, and it was just, it was breathtaking. All of a sudden there was an entire world open to me. When I was in Japan, you have to speak the language to eat, right? You just can’t avoid the language. And then it came alive, and I just was just so endlessly fascinated by everything Japanese.

0:07:02.6 Norah Jones: How long did you spend in Japan, David?

0:07:04.4 David Bong: Oh, altogether, it was a little over 10 years.

0:07:07.9 Norah Jones: And what did you do there? How did you use the language then, once you were embedded?

0:07:14.4 David Bong: Well, the first time I was over there, I was a language student, so I went to immersion school for a couple of years and I teach English on the side like everybody did. Then I went back and worked as a translator and worked as a businessman in a health food business, which was kinda interesting. And then finally my third stint, I was there for five years as a… I set up and ran the, as far as I know, the only private investigative firm in Japan. It was a branch of a US based firm from New York. So we were engaged in all kinds of investigations into frauds, extortions, background investigations for acquisitions by US companies, problems Japanese companies had overseas. And that was really fascinating.

0:08:08.4 Norah Jones: You came to a conclusion there, did you not, about how folks got fooled by not understanding language and culture. Explain what you experienced and what the impact was, then, in your understanding of what happens when people do not understand language and culture as they might.

0:08:35.1 David Bong: Well, there’s often a gap between management of international companies and their workforces. So in Japan, there are a large number of international firms from the west primarily who would send over managers from Europe or the US or wherever. And they generally were expert in the company culture of a company, but they didn’t speak Japanese or have much background in Japanese culture. And generally, or we would frequently see, not generally, but we would often see that these managers would surround themselves with people who spoke really good English. And these were usually, in our experience, not the most capable people necessarily in the company. Some of the most capable people didn’t speak English that well, and/or they were shy or whatever, but they did not rise to the level where they would be advising the CEO. And so this gap was created and the CEO didn’t understand what was going on in the company. The bulk of the company was not comfortable with decisions being made by management. And there would, in many cases, be some kind of a problem that emerged. We saw a number of really big cases where the employees basically rebelled and threatened to expose company secrets.

0:10:04.3 Norah Jones: Wow.

0:10:05.8 David Bong: And extorted the company. So our job was to go in and find out who were the bad guys. But in fact, that is sort of an interesting term because the problem was being caused largely by poor management. It was also interesting that management generally had it wrong as to who the bad guys were.

0:10:28.5 Norah Jones: Interesting. And behind this all was some cultural and linguistic, say, artificial gaps, gaps imposed by not recognizing what was lacking.

0:10:42.2 David Bong: Mm-hmm.

0:10:42.3 Norah Jones: Well, David, the aspect of language and culture and using language then to accomplish our personal goals and so forth. You were engaged specifically in working with language proficiency, improving language learning, taking a look at standards and so forth. This is an in-depth plumb that you’ve gotten into, when you started out by not really knowing what language was for in high school. How have you turned the… Why are you turning attention to these external, for example, standards and demonstrations?

0:11:21.9 David Bong: Well, through my experience in Japan, I became very focused on the importance of language in terms of identity. And so the importance of effective language learning became apparent. And when my wife, Sheila, and I moved back to the States after being in Japan on that five-year stint I mentioned, we decided we wanted to do something to improve language learning in the US because we saw the impact, as I had described, of not being proficient in a language. So if you look at any endeavor, people are tested all the time, and if they know what the goals are that they’re going to be tested on, then they’re more effective at reaching those goals. Language testing is a, what word to use here, but it’s an artifice right? It’s a… You sample what people can do. You can never have a perfect test because the perfect test is going out in the streets and living every day.

0:12:32.0 Norah Jones: Yeah.

0:12:32.0 David Bong: Are you effective at doing that or not? So the perfect test would be to capture 24 hours in somebody’s life and see how they engage with people in different situations that were important to them. But the best thing next to that, in terms of helping people understand goals, helping educators be more effective at getting learners to reach those goals, is to build and deliver an assessment that measures those goals effectively and is scalable and allows assessment to be done in an effective way.

0:13:13.6 David Bong: David, making sure that people can speak language well, we have sort of traditional ways, we’ve talked about it already a little bit here of the purpose of language to be able to go and to open new doors and have new experiences and so forth and so on. But take a look more deeply in the experience that you have in reflecting on language and language use in your life. I’m going to ask that question again that you asked in high school. What’s language for?


0:13:47.7 David Bong: Yeah, so language is just endlessly fascinating. The more engaged I’ve been with it, the more I’ve realized the importance of it. And the definition of language is really squishy and I’m not even going to attempt to address that point. But language is who we are. It’s how we express ourselves. It’s how we… It reflects the image that we have of ourselves. So when I was growing up, I tried, I worked very hard at developing a real intense Boston accent because I really wanted to identify as a kid from Boston.


0:14:25.6 David Bong: And so that’s an accent, but it’s also language, and it’s who I wanted to be and who I was. They say what’s the difference between a dialect and a language? Well, a language is a dialect with an army. And that’s the world as it’s probably always existed, that the more powerful elements in the world, their way of expressing themselves, their image of themselves becomes the dominant element. We in the United States have a rather unusual situation in that, except for people who are immigrants or children of immigrants, generally by the third generation, the language that people bring to the US disappears. And so we’re still a sadly, largely monolingual population. Gregg Roberts has said that monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century. And I agree strongly with him, but it’s different from the rest of the world where people grow up speaking one language and they have to speak another language just to get around. So language in the US is sometimes used as a way of dividing us. The English-first movement wants to define the American language as English. There’s pushback, people like Greg, or Dick Brecht, who’s been very instrumental in creating the American languages movement where all of the languages spoken in our country are valuable. So language is your identity. It’s a lot of who you are.

0:16:37.4 Norah Jones: Yeah. Okay.

0:16:41.6 David Bong: And that can be a point of pride and identity, or it can be something that creates division and people who don’t speak your language are other and give rise to chauvinism and unhealthy attitudes, I would say.

0:17:05.5 Norah Jones: And how then, as a person who values language and has worked with language, how do you discuss language? What do you show about language to those who might consider the language other to be divisive?

0:17:28.2 David Bong: Well, that’s a really good question, and I don’t know if I have an answer for that. Other than doing what we can to explain or describe the journeys that people have had who have learned a second language and it’s opened their hearts and minds and made them more creative, more effective as human beings, I think certainly strengthening language programs in schools is something that can really help. The Global Seal and the State Seal movement are really important because they celebrate language skills instead of taking the traditional… I would say somewhat traditional stance of many places in the US where heritage languages, people who bring languages to school are looked down upon because their English may be accented or not perfect. Instead we celebrate those. And so I’m not so sure there’s much we can do in the short run to change people’s minds who are dead set against anything having to do with promoting second language learning, or to celebrating people who bring a second language to the society that we live in. But we can celebrate those skills ourselves and make the people who have those skills feel proud of them and not have to hide them. As a society, I think we’re foolish to not celebrate those skills because they benefit us psychologically, economically. There’s no question that as a society, languages help us in terms of building a more powerful country, economically and socially, so.

0:19:34.5 Norah Jones: Talk about some of those. What are some of the ways, because not everybody does understand the economic impact of monolingualism or of the putting aside languages, heritage languages, that have not been learned in school, which is a traditional way that the United States tends to think about how languages are learned, learned in school, not brought from somewhere else. What are some of the economic and social impact there?

0:20:07.6 David Bong: Well, certainly economically, if a company is eager to do business internationally, having employees who speak another language tremendously supports those goals. Willy Brandt, the mayor of Berlin, once said, Well, if I want to sell something to you, I’m going to speak in English, [laughter] but you want to sell me something, then you better speak German.

0:20:37.1 David Bong: And I think that’s true. So if we really want to grow, we need to speak the languages of the world. And English is just not enough. There’s also the importance of understanding the culture of another company, or country, rather, and language group. So this is one of the insights that Sheila had when she worked for a large trading company in Japan, Sheila, my wife, partner. So she would be sitting on the Japanese side negotiating with Americans over some deal.

0:21:18.1 David Bong: She was working in Biotech Joint Ventures, and they’d have a discussion. And afterwards, the Americans would come up to her and say, oh, what’s next? They said, your boss said, we’ll think about it. And so they said, well, what’s next? And she said, no, no, you don’t get it. They said, the answer is no. They didn’t understand that by gently saying, well, we’ll consider it, the Japanese are saying, no, we’re not interested. And that’s a very kind of simple example, but there were so many examples in her experience and mine as well, where there was just a disconnect, where people just didn’t understand what the other culture, the other language was expressing through its words or through its body language. And that lack of understanding generates huge economic losses. There’s all kinds of statistics about how the lack of language skills causes billions of dollars in lost revenue for companies in America, largely in English-speaking countries, because we tend to be the guiltiest of not speaking another language.

0:22:31.5 Norah Jones: David, look again at heritage speakers in the United States. What is the potential role of heritage speakers? How do we communicate with those who are not familiar with what heritage speakers can contribute so that their roles are more clearly understood and supported?

0:22:57.9 David Bong: So first of all, I think the Seal of Biliteracy movement, both the state and the global Seals have played a substantial role in improving the understanding, both on the part of heritage speakers themselves, but also society at large, of the important skills that the heritage language speakers bring to our society. There are countless job opportunities out there for people who speak another language. Spanish is clearly the language that’s the most in demand, but there are other languages as well. Banks need tellers who speak Spanish, stores need clerks. There’s just a huge demand for people who have a second language. Now, many heritage speakers have… There’s all kinds of terminology for it, but let’s say less formal language. So it’s the language of the home, the kitchen, whatever, but it’s not literacy. And that’s why the seals of biliteracy are so important, because to become literate is important if you’re going to get a job in that language.

0:24:25.6 David Bong: And so expanding programs that teach literacy, having a reward, again, it’s that goal. The goal of literacy becomes more important when you have something that celebrates it, and then it becomes more economically viable, which isn’t to say that those home variations or varieties of language, kitchen, whatever you want to call it, aren’t valuable or important. Those are the languages that are spoken at home. Those are real languages. They’re valuable. They allow communication. But they’re not necessarily what you need in order to get a job or become a part of the economy using the language. So I think there’s just a whole set of elements that make those skills, those language skills more economically important, more socially recognized, and more psychologically beneficial to the people who bring those languages, the Seal, the incentive, and the measurement, the recognition of those skills in schools, the teaching of those skills, both by schools. There’s a huge movement in the heritage language community or community-supported heritage language schools. There are many, many languages that are taught on Saturdays, typically Saturday schools. Those are really important for the infrastructure in our country.

0:26:03.0 Norah Jones: Speak more about that.

0:26:07.1 David Bong: We have a lot of interaction at Avant, my company, with languages that are brought to the United States. Many languages from the country of India, Pakistan, Asia, all over the world. There are community schools that teach those languages, and they’re increasingly being brought into the mainstream of language education in the US. And we think this is a very healthy movement because it promotes those, the learning of those more formal elements of the language that make the language more economically valuable. And also add to the pride of the community and the, I think, the individual pride that students have as they grow in the language that they speak at home and the skills that they bring. Joy Peyton has led a group, the Community-Based Heritage Language School conference, and there’s increasing understanding that those schools have to work with existing standards, the proficiency guidelines that are used in educational systems across the United States, so that they begin to teach in alignment with the other programs and they’ll improve the, if you will, the academic or the literary skills of these students.

0:27:51.0 Norah Jones: That’s fascinating. And one of the things that keeps bubbling up here is the pride of the individual and so forth, the nature of language as affirming the individual. What kinds of progress have you seen in that with regard to the kinds of activities and your company or organizations that you’re engaged with, helping individuals to reflect on their own pride?

0:28:27.9 David Bong: Ah, that’s a good question. Certainly, the work that these community schools are doing, they work in education systems across the country, the state of Washington, Texas, New Jersey, have been leaders in competency-based credits. So students who can demonstrate proficiency, in all four skills, reading, writing, speaking, listening, usually through testing, can receive high school credits. There was a study that the Gates Foundation funded in the Greater Seattle area a few years back, and we were providing much of the testing for that, where they funded testing for heritage students to qualify them for high school credits. And they found that about 32% of the students who were Hispanic, Spanish-speaking heritage kids needed those credits to graduate from high school. So the credits that they earned through that program allowed them to graduate from high school.

0:29:40.9 Norah Jones: Interesting.

0:29:41.6 David Bong: And we see this across the country that just recognizing skills that students bring to the classroom enables them to graduate from high school. Another… I think it was 13% of those students needed those credits in order to qualify for higher education. ‘Cause most… Certainly four-year institutions require at least two years of language study. That was huge.

0:30:11.5 Norah Jones: No question. Wow. Okay, so David, we’ve been talking about basically solving problems, moving in positive directions, making a difference, and slow going, but on the way. But you’ve said to me at one point that some things will just stay confused. That’s language.


0:30:33.6 Norah Jones: What do you think will just plain old stay confused?

0:30:39.1 David Bong: My goodness. Well, what is a language, right? Is it a dialect? Is it a creole, or is it an accent? What’s the definition? That’s always going to stay confused. Are we moving towards a single language? Well, probably not. And actually, I hope not, but there’s English, which has become the lingua franca of the world, if you will, using mixed linguistic.


0:31:08.1 Norah Jones: That was good.

0:31:11.6 David Bong: I’ll understand. And I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think the world is evolving just very, very quickly, languages are changing very quickly. I looked up some numbers before this. Now, 50% of the world speaks 20 languages.

0:31:30.5 Norah Jones: 50% of the world speaks 20 languages.

0:31:33.6 David Bong: Right.

0:31:33.9 Norah Jones: Wow.

0:31:34.9 David Bong: 4% of the world speaks 96% of the total languages out there, the 7000 or so that exist. We have a language dying every 14 days.

0:31:44.8 Norah Jones: Oh!

0:31:45.1 David Bong: So is it important to maintain those languages? We believe so, but we think it’s critical. Why? Because as I said in a couple different ways through this conversation, that language is identity, but language can also be a tremendous barrier to peace and harmony in our world. How do we get to the point where people can have their identity and their pride that comes from their language, and yet be able to communicate and integrate with the rest of the worlds? I have a good friend who, spent many years in West Africa translating Bibles and his perspective was that the language that the colonizers brought and enforced on the population, in this case, French, was a unifying factor in many of these countries where the individual languages were a divisive element. But French, because there was no tribal connection to it, minimized or reduced some of the friction and the tension in the warfare between groups. So it can be a unifying factor. Esperanto was started back in the late 1800s as a language that the creator of it thought would be helpful so that people could maintain their original, their own, their own cultural attachment to their language, but have a common language that everybody could speak. And of course, this has gone on throughout history.

0:33:45.8 David Bong: You’ve got Swahili in East Africa as the language of commerce. You’ve got Chinook out here on the northwest coast. That was the Native American trading language where people needed something to transcend their own language that had boundaries and limitations. But they wanted to maintain that, that identity that came with the language they, held in their own culture. In Japan, we saw a very sad case of a student who his parents had meant well for this young Japanese boy, but they kind of shuttled him back and forth between Japan and the United States, going to private school in the States, then back to Japan to school. And he was basically non-lingual in the sense that he didn’t have a dominant language. And so he was kind of lost. He wasn’t fluent in either language and he was just kind of bereft.

0:34:54.8 Norah Jones: Wow.

0:34:55.3 David Bong: And this is rare, but you do see it, it’s also very rare to see truly bilingual people. We have a couple of friends in Japan who speak perfect accent-less English with having received Master’s degrees in Ivy League schools, and also speak perfect Japanese. They operate in Japan as high level professionals, but those people are pretty, pretty rare. But in any event, language will continue to be, I think, the dominant force in our world that unifies or divides us. And we have to… My belief is we have an obligation to strive towards efforts that will use language to bring us together, not to crush individual’s languages and force them to speak the dominant language, but to help them, help all of us be proficient in more than one language.

0:36:06.6 Norah Jones: Beautifully said, David. I would like you now to turn, if you will, your attention to the folks that are listening to this podcast and give them one last invitation, exhortation, warning, [laughter] whatever you’d like to interpret. What would you say to our listeners specifically now?

0:36:33.9 David Bong: Recognize the value of language, the beauty that it brings to our lives and see it as a unifying, not as a dividing element. There’s one event that I think is going to be really important for people to participate if they would like to participate in. And that’s the Global Seal of Biliteracy’s event coming up in December called Global CRED, Credentialing and Recognizing Excellence and Determination, which is in my mind, what it takes to become proficient in a second language. It’s an event that’s going to bring language learners together from around the world, educators. And it’s going to give insights into how to become more proficient in a second language, what it means, share our experiences. So I hope, you’ll all be able to participate in it. It’s a free event.

0:37:34.6 Norah Jones: That’s phenomenal, and I’m sure as powerful as it’s likely to be, David, that it will be an annual, at least, event. I certainly hope so.

0:37:43.9 David Bong: As do we.

0:37:45.3 Norah Jones: That’s Fantastic. David, thank you so much for sharing your insights today. Always very thoughtful, very touching, and very much oriented at transforming the world as always. Thank you, David.

0:38:01.3 David Bong: Thank you, Norah, for all you do.

0:38:04.4 Norah Jones: Thank you so much for listening to this episode. If you enjoyed it, please share it with your friends, family, and colleagues. Let’s continue the conversation. Be sure to check out my website, fluencyonline.com, to learn more about our guests and to check out the resources and information they’ve shared with us there. I have other ideas, resources, and opportunities there for you too. Again, thanks so much for listening and until next time.

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