Episode 51 – Why It’s About Language

“We’re at a real crossroads with how we talk to one another…We’re at a real crossroads with how we include people and how we exclude people – and it all comes through language.”

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My invitation throughout this podcast is to reflect on your own personal “novel” – the story of your life as reflected in the roles and impact of language on you, the chief protagonist.

As I share my own background of being ignorant of language, learning language in school and through family immersion, finding that language unexpectedly led to my life’s work and continues as my life’s meaning, I always turn to you and invite you: What’s your language journey? Where have you been included? Where excluded? Where engaged? What have you done with language, and what has language done for and to you?

Language shapes our identity, our families, our groups, and, to a large extent, our destinies. That’s what this podcast and all episodes of It’s About Language are all about, looking at those powers and paths. I invite you to do so by reflecting on my own journey and seeing what it prompts in yours.

In 2022 I am looking forward to inviting a wide variety of guests whose backgrounds, experiences, and identities are different from mine in many of the external markers that we have decided on in our societies. But what I know we all have in common, because it is the one common thread of all humanity, is language. Language plays a unique role in all those aspects of who we are and what we can — and cannot — become.

So as you listen to this podcast, stop it wherever a statement, an idea, or a stated “certainty” of mine strikes a chord with you. Take time to reflect on your own history, experiences, perspectives, and “certainties.”

I also invite you to use the various links to forms on this site to share your thoughts, make your points, or reach out to me for our further talk or work together.

Let’s meet here, let’s meet on social media, and let’s meet, always, at the juncture of language, where we share our humanity.

Enjoy the podcast.


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It’s About Language – Episode 51 – Why It’s About Language

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Transcript

You know, I’m really excited about the podcast for 2022, but I thought potentially it would be helpful for all of us if I were to give you a little bit of a, well, a background into why I’m approaching it the way I am, and how we can listen to ourselves together — because I always invite you to find your voice.

So, I’ve divided for my own thinking purposes, the podcasts in 2022 into three major groupings. One is about language in life. The other is about language and business or work. And the third is about language for fun.  And realizing that that’s actually just the way my life has been arranged around language. And as I share some of my stories, I promise you to take a look at what the implications are for who I ask to be podcast guests, what kinds of ways I approach these podcasts and blog topics, and how we can exchange information together. Where I’m coming from, in short. And give you time to see, what’s your background? Where are you coming from? That you resonate with certain things and not with others. Let’s take a look at it together, then. ///

So the first and major part for me is actually the family I was born into. My dad was a refugee immigrant from Croatia, from the former Yugoslavia, and he brought with him a great hunger to, well, stay alive, and to learn about his new culture. He wasn’t allowed to speak the Croatian of his heritage when he came to Mississippi to live with his uncle, as the young man sent by his family.

And when I was born, he didn’t want to talk about that heritage language stuff. It was now for him the English that he had learned, the life that he had built for himself. And so, he was very active in the excitement of English and, frankly, being a very intelligent man, he was really good at it. And he liked to have fun with it. So, my life as a kid was lived with lots of books, lots of opportunities to talk and read together, and lots of puns. Especially understanding the importance of how language made an impression on other people, from the very beginning, as a very small kid. But always in English.

Now my first foray into learning another language besides English happened as so many people do when they come up in a monolingual world, namely in school. And in my case when I lived in California, the extent of the exposure to new language was the rolling in of the television twice a week for 20 minutes to listen to Madame Slack. As a matter of fact, I imagine there are some people listening to this podcast today that actually know the person I’m talking about. Not many, but some! Madame Slack. I’m not sure what she talked about, except that I did remember one phrase from it years later, that’s going to be part of the story that I’ll tell in just a minute. But that was my exposure to language: 20 minutes, twice a week, as a second-grader.

My next exposure came when I was in seventh grade. At the time I lived in Virginia, and in Fairfax County there was a rich experience of language that you could sign up for, or at least so I imagined.

I mean, seventh and eighth grade was the equivalent of Spanish one, and I don’t remember much about the teacher, but I do remember that she seemed to be truly enjoying herself up there.

So, I enjoyed taking Spanish and it was a brand new world for me inside the classroom.

Here’s another thing that was happening, though, because of my dad’s interest and because of this new Spanish and just because of think the way I’m built, I had been creating my own secret languages and secret writing systems. So take a moment and think, what is your background with language learning as a child with potentially the development of secret codes and secret languages?

When did you start taking your first formal language if indeed you do not already have a heritage language? Let’s ponder over how that brings our perspective on the world.

Here’s what I know about my perspective though when it came to school.

When I got into ninth grade I was still taking Spanish but I was supposed to sign up for other things and I signed up for chorus. It was an extremely undisciplined class and I really like to sing. So that was really disappointing to me and finally after six weeks in the school year of trying to put up with this, I decided I’d had enough. And so I went and I said I wanted to sign up for Russian. I wanted to sign up for Russian because my father had majored in it when he went to Berkeley — again, very good at languages, my father with his background — and because I found that if I had taught myself the Russian alphabet, which I did before ninth grade, that I could write secret notes to myself that nobody could read because they couldn’t read the Cyrillic alphabet. So it was kind of natural to want to take Russian.

I can tell you that I was highly discouraged from doing so by the guidance department, but they did not forbid me, so I entered the Russian class, six weeks late.

I stayed in Russian and in Spanish for the rest of my high school career, enjoying the intriguing, shall I say cultural experience of “Elizavyeta Nikolayevna” and standing up and having to greet her formally in the very much Russian tradition, although I believe she put a little bit of Serbian in that too. And then the more loose and multiplicity of teachers found in the Spanish experience.

As a matter of fact, to this day, I have no idea whether I in fact have an accent from any particular Spanish speaking culture. I know that I am told by native Spanish speakers that I have a very good, sometimes native, accent — I know that can’t quite be true — but also the fact is that I don’t know what my identity would be if I did talk about having a Spanish accent, because I had teachers from all different cultures. So as a result, the Spanish language is a tool that I have to use, but is not deep in the identity of where I come from. How about you? When you took languages in school, if you did, did you have any success with them? Did you experience any sense of identity through them? Were they being connected in your family that was not happening in mine, because none of my family background was from the Spanish-speaking world but rather eastern or northern Europe.

All right, so here’s another question for you. Did you ever find when you were growing up, that there was a language or that the some of the ideas about language were kind of ridiculous?

Here’s a true confession. As a Spanish student, I was really happy to be part of the big group, at the time. As a Russian student I felt like I was learning something esoteric and almost personal. But we used to say — true confessions here! — used to really make fun of our French friends or the students that were taking French, because we thought of them as being well, just a little bit over there. I don’t even know how to put it outside of that  But I do know that we would, because this was the audio lingual method, repeat their opening dialogue, one line of which, for those of you that may know about the audio lingual method, was in the very first dialogue of the first week of the first year in focus.

“Il faut que j’aille à la bibliothèque. We loved that phrase! “It is necessary that I go to the library.”

You know, it’s interesting, because language can get down deep in all of us. That sentence I remember to this day, not only because it was part of my growing up period in my high school groupings and un-groupings.

But it also reminded me, when I did, by accident, become a world language educator, that students were able to understand lexically an idea that was way past their grammatical understanding.  “Il faut que j’aille à la bibliothèque” is a subjunctive phrase which…”subjunctive is so scary for grammatical instruction!” Except not.

It’s fascinating how our own backgrounds help us to understand how to go and find pathways to accomplishing things for ourselves and others.

This particular opportunity to be able to be in a rich linguistic school setting meant that I was exposed to a variety of languages in a variety of ways. Some of which captured my interest, some of which did not but all which led to some decisions about how language works.

Now, In the meantime, because of my interest in language, and now the exposure that I was having through my courses to culture, and because I was getting older, I realized when I was in the eighth grade that my father was from this place called Yugoslavia. I didn’t know his language. I didn’t really know too much about his culture outside of listening to his interesting music downstairs in the basement that he would turn on in the evenings and sit and listen to the old songs of the sea and the mountains.

So in the eighth grade when we were talking about potentially having a vacation, I said to my father, “How about we go and see my grandmother, your family, Instead of taking a vacation to more typical places?

And for the first time, he realized how great that would be. And we planned on it. And we did it.

Now remember that I told you that he didn’t teach me any Croatian here.

1But what we did when we got there was the other way that language can come to us. Those of you that have been listening that are from heritage backgrounds, are bilingual from very early on, or have lived in neighborhoods that were highly multilingual, highly multicultural…..

What I discovered when I got there, that language was this living entity that was going on all the time around me. The immersion, yes. Immersion in my family, in this case.

And so where I knew all sorts of vocabulary words in Spanish and in Russian…I could speak these excellent sentences and I could do substitution drills thanks to the audio-lingual method, until my brains fell out… when I got to my family in Croatia, I started over like a little babe, and I learned, not only the words that were most important (which are usually about food and getting dressed and helping around the house and what the weather was like today because we wanted to go swimming…this was the Dalmatian coast! Swimming in the Adriatic! Whoo!) — What I learned was all the subtleties, the intonation patterns. The pauses. The idiomatic phrases. And because my father was from a small fishing village off the main coast on the “wrong side” of the mountains, if you will, I learned what I can only characterize with a smile on my face, please, I can only characterize as hick Croatian.

It was heavy and still is in Italianisms from when Venice controlled the area around my father’s village, from Dubrovnik (called Ragusa back when the Venetian Republic was large).

So I’m speaking this language fluently, with the correct accent, the correct intonation, the correct idioms, with a more limited focus, if you will, as far as life skills, but with much more depth and much more identity than I had ever had from my school learning.

So, all right, what have you been able to relate to so far? Let’s try a little bit more.

Going to college, I was bored out of my skull by Spanish by the time I got into my fifth year of Spanish and my senior year in high school. So, matter of fact, we fifth year students were basically kicked out of the classroom so we can go do our own thing, so that the Commander could be —yes, we called him Commander — so that the Commander could take care of the Spanish 4 larger group.

I understand as an educator why he did that, but it’s still it was intriguing. We were in another room so what we did in that room during that time, all of us, is we studied German together using the same ALM [Audio Lingual Method] method and just teaching ourselves German while we were in there. That was fun.

But by the time I got to college. I really, really did not want to continue Spanish anymore. I enjoyed the conversation but I didn’t want to continue. So I decided, well, if I had started learning German with my compatriots that I would take German. However, the German professor was not really interested in teaching German but rather talking politics, and I’m truly interested in languages. Can you tell?

So I decided that I would go and, yes, despite all of the egotism in my school, that I would go ahead and take French.

And I remember to this day, something that I share with you, because this is the kind of excitement that… I don’t know, there’s little vignettes like this in our lives with language, isn’t there? And for those that are learning about the power of language: This is the things that are open up life to you, here goes and it’s small for you I know but large for me and I still enjoy sharing it with you.

Namely, before the professor said hello to me I stopped. I put my hands on his shoulders and I said no, before you say anything to me. Let me to say something to you and see if it makes any sense and see if it sounds like French in any way.

 And I said, the little phrase. The only thing I remembered from my second grade 20 minutes with Madame Slack on the TV, where the young man approaches his grandfather who holds up a little puppy and he says, “Voila un petit chien. C’est pour moi? Oui, c’est pour toi. Comment s’appelle-t-il? Il s’appelle Rififi.”  Is that a puppy. It’s for you. What’s his name? Rififi.

He looked at me and he said, perfect.

And then he gave me the experience that all of us that love learning languages, or know what students can experience learning languages, look for. This powerful man, who had the condition of albinism, wore glasses that were two or three bottle glasses thick. And he had to come up close to us and to his paper to see anything. And he was dynamic, and he was a native French speaker, and he puh and puh pih puh the whole time he talked. And he would come over and he would express himself, and he would spit all over you and all over your paper with his excitement over the culture and the language of French. I ate it up with a spoon.

When I transferred from that university to William and Mary – it was Wesleyan and I transfer to William and Mary in Virginia afterwards, for other reasons — he told me, go ahead and skip the next year and go on into the upper level French. And what I found, then, is another thing that I invite those of you that are listening to think about. What kind of opportunities do we provide for folks, well, like me, but ones that are speakers, be they heritage speakers or speakers that have learned in varieties of ways of school…what do we offer to continue that excitement?

Well I can tell you that I was very grateful to be at William and Mary because one thing I wasn’t interested in doing, frankly, frankly (sorry about this, guys) is learning literature, talking about literature. I wanted to talk to people. I knew what it felt like to be in a family during the summers when I would go to Croatia and sit and talk with people and be out in the, the parties with my cousins and with young people. I wanted that conversation and, outside of that sophomore year that I came into, there were no more courses at that time.

And I said, I can’t do…. I love languages. Don’t want to major in one. Don’t want to stop talking. And luckily William and Mary was extremely flexible and helpful, and provided me with both brand new conversation courses that other students are interested in, as well as independent courses that lasted through my senior year.

I am immensely grateful for that. Because what William and Mary allowed me to do was to create my own major, international studies, using multiple languages and not having to major in something that did not bring me interest.

The “cahiers de doléances,” that is to say the complaint documents of the peasants of the French Revolution was my honors thesis. And I was glad to use the French for that.

But it was that conversation, it was that life, living language that really, really called to me. How about you? If you have been at any level of schooling that touched on language in any way whatsoever – in what ways have you expressed your interest in language, or have been discouraged in doing so? At elementary? Middle? High? If you’ve gone on to college, college? Beyond? Let’s think about that for a second.

Well, lest you think I’m going to spend the rest of your day talking about my background with relationship to language at this depth, I can tell you that pretty much the pieces are set. And I would love for you to spend a bit of time thinking about your personal novel, your personal story, what pieces are set in place in your life in the earliest years no matter what age you are right now. Take a look back and see, because here’s what happened next to me.

I, well, I didn’t go to Europe and become part of the UN and get to be a translator like everybody that likes languages seems to think of at least that I had come across.

I met and married a man who came from a rural area of Virginia, and I settled in and discovered that, well, with all due respect to dairy cows that probably wasn’t going to float my boat.

And my mother said, “You like to explain things.” (I believe I’m doing that right now.) Anyway,  “You like to explain things, why don’t you become a teacher?”

Well I already confessed that I was just making it up as I went along in college and William and Mary, I greatly appreciate, indulged me in all of that. So when I took my transcript and an application form to the local school system and said I’d like to be a teacher, they literally laughed at me and told me that I needed to forget trying to become a teacher because there was no way I was going to meet any of their criteria.

I had not had any education courses for one thing. But interesting isn’t it, my dear friends who know language or who would recognize the power of language in the world:  two days before school was to start, later that year, two days, I got a call. Turned out that the French teacher that they had had had decided to retire.

Unfortunately, the French department had dwindled to two classes, and I was the only person that had come across the door of the school system with any French in their background — I feel like I could spit on a piece of paper right now, puh puh — and so they had a good bet. They gave me a couple classes of English, a couple of classes of American history, and two classes of French.

And it turned out that language was exactly what I wanted to share with young people.

Turns out I absolutely adored teenagers and still do.

Turns out that my love of language was something I could express potentially in the way that that seventh and eighth grade Spanish teacher did for me, way back when. That it’s not necessarily that I remember her that well, but I remember that she was excited. It turned out that I was having fun with that.

And it turned out also that at the time in the Virginia Department of Education, there were three amazing specialists: David Cox, Marshall Brannon, Helen Warriner Burke. To this day, I honor their names and their lives because when they came in and saw me teach, instead of looking at me and going, “what a ridiculous novice,” they affirmed who I was.

“You really know the language and you’re having fun, and you’re making it fun for the students.”

They then engaged me in a bit of a conversation. “What do you think went well? What do you think could be improved?” And then they talked with me about what I could improve, which was, by the way and won’t surprise you, let the kids talk more.

And then, after affirmation, and after engagement, they invited me to something. They said, we’d like you to serve on a panel, for our annual conference, on proficiency in small and rural schools.

You’re going to hear so many stories in 2022. You’re going to see on my blog. I can’t help it. The power that happens when we have experiences like that moment.

The door opens to allow you to come in. You bring your enthusiasm and then other people affirm, engage, and invite you, and you can turn around and learn how to affirm, engage, and invite others.

Whether you’re a teacher teaching students and doing it to the young people around you; a supervisor doing that to the folks that are under your charge, be it in education or in business; family members:  all of these life lessons of language and why I’m talking with you about this today. I can’t help but bring in this perspective, and neither can you help but bring in your perspective. Let’s think about what those perspectives are. Because when I came in then to affirm, engage, and invite my students; to do the same thing with my colleagues as a supervisor, and to receive the same: to become a person that was engaged with leadership in world language organizations.

To recognize that there are resources in materials that can help to just like any good tool can help me to be free to bring about my best understanding of teaching, without having to write everything from scratch, which then led me into writing things for publishers and finally being invited to work with books first as a salesperson, the, as a professional trainer, so that the idea of educational publishing and about business came into the middle of my life. What I was not looking to do was to sell. What I was looking to do was to bring opportunities and options and openings for people, in this case, educators, trying to discover new ways of approaching students in a way that I could see could open doors for the students to have joy, and for the teachers to feel like they could live through it.

I myself as an educator had gotten so involved with trying to write everything trying to do everything trying to be everything for my students and for my family and for everything else that I was wearing out.  A good quality tool, in this case, a book series, helped me to stay alive. And I thought I could bring some of that perspective as well as the joy of teaching to the folks that I served. And I got that job, and I still believe as I’m talking to you, everything that we do, no matter what we name ourselves, has to do then with the language of how we name ourselves. I name myself, still, a provider of options, opportunities, and hope.

I happen to do it through language. I happen to do it through writing. I happen to do it through educational publishing. Now I’m working with doing it through podcasting and blogging and bringing all these cool people for you to listen to that have that, the message of their lives to bring.

So in this year, then, when we take a look at language in life, living language in our lives, in our families, in our organizations, with our colleagues… When we take a look at how language means business, how the same kinds of aspects of language that make language a positive learning tool for young people is the same thing that can help to attract, motivate, retain, grow our colleagues in business – language means business… When we look at how much fun language is: the puns and the jokes and the games… all three of those aspects have been part of my life, and I know they’ve been part of yours.

So let’s enjoy 2022 together. But now you know a little bit more about me, what’s motivating me, what’s touching on my spirit, what’s makes me hurt, what makes me happy, the kinds of people that I’m eager to listen to, that I’m eager to share with you.

And as I work with my website, please write me, let me know that you’d like to be a podcast guest, let me know that you know people that would be interested in being podcast guests — I can do it as individuals, I can use panels. Tell me about things you’d like to read more about. Get up with me if I can help to talk with your teams or your schools or your group about the power of language in the world. All of these things are absolutely critical for 2022 and beyond.

We’re at a real crossroads with how we talk to one another. And that happens through language. We are at a real crossroads in how we name what our world is all about. Through our background, through our language. We’re at a real crossroads with how we include people, how we exclude people, and how we name what we include them through, and how we exclude them – and it all comes through language. Language is the quintessential human experience. No other animal has it like us. No other animal.

Let’s do it together. We can make a huge difference, and we certainly have to try.

Thank you so much for listening to this podcast today. Write me. Share your stories. Let’s continue the conversation together and happy learning and using of language out there!

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