Episode 67 – How Can Language Help Us Confront Fear and Hate

How Can Language Help Us Confront Fear & Hate
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
Episode 67 - How Can Language Help Us Confront Fear and Hate
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“As a linguist and as an educator, I believe 100% that I can help us to reflect on how language gives us an insight into why acts of violence, fear, and hate are happening, and more importantly pathways to change this, pathways to open new grounds for working together, new pathways to understanding.”

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This is the letter I wrote to the guests of the episode that was SUPPOSED to be #67.

Sometimes we are supposed to stop in our tracks. This is one of those times.

Hello, dear colleagues,

I’m writing to let you know that I have delayed the release of your SCOLT podcast one week, releasing it next Thursday, June 2, at 11 AM Eastern.

I’ve done this because I felt that it was important to share in a timely fashion language-based and language-specific thoughts with listeners in this country and beyond on the extraordinarily important and devastating issues facing our country and world that we know are directly related to the results of not valuing language.

At the disappointing but peaceful end of the spectrum, there is the end-of school decisions of boards leading to the loss of world language and DLI programs in egregious circumstances that impact students negatively; in one case such recent decision has removed my own family members from programs they have been in for seven years.

On the horrific end of the spectrum, the recent murders, reflecting decades and, frankly, centuries of violence around this country motivated by the fear of “the other” and the ghastly concept of “replacement,” both areas of belief which, I believe firmly, are specifically those areas which the learning of language and culture reveal as lies, and can and do render powerless to damage the psyche of all but the most traumatized of our youth.

And then, just this week, yet another disaster and tragedy, the Uvalde massacre. I imagine that you, like I, were rendered speechless at first, in the face of such horror.

But I found my voice.

And I felt that I must speak out on our behalf. We need to be heard: language learning can set the stage for not fearing and thus not hating the other.

In the recording I have made which will be released either tomorrow or Friday, I refer to your upcoming podcast several times – yours, and your SCOLT colleagues who preceded you in the release of episode 66. (Please listen to it if you have not.)  You say, over and over – you, and the NECTFL attendees, and the podcast guests previously who have taken language – that you fell in love, “caught the bug,” saw the promise of a powerful exciting life of language and culture because of a mentor or a very special teacher. YOU learned, through language, to love the world. YOU learned, through language, how to greet “the other” not in fear but in curiosity, in welcome, even in fascination.

Be it about supporting and growing language programs, defusing hate, and calming fears, our language work is critical. I had to say this, this week. Your energy, joy, and insights will say it next week. Forgive the delay in the release, but we have to join our voices in this work.

Thank you, thank you for your collegial love and support. May our work sow more seeds that blossom into peace and community.

Norah

Enjoy the podcast.


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Episode 67 – How Can Language Help Us Confront Fear and Hate

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Transcript

Norah Jones:

Today, I’m going to take you outside here where I live in Central Virginia so that we can chat together a bit as a linguist, as an educator, as a parent, and grandparent. These last couple of weeks reflect and seem like a culmination of years now of struggle with hate, and fear, and disappointment in our human relationships. And I believe 100% that as a linguist and as an educator, I can help us to reflect on how language gives us an insight into why such things are happening and more importantly pathways to change this, pathways to open new grounds for working together, new pathways to understanding. I believe this and I want to share it with you today, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Norah Jones:

Hi, I’m Norah Jones. Welcome to It’s About Language. So, what is language all about? Well, it’s about learning and sharing, opening doors in education, work, and life. Language is about creating communities and creating boundaries. It’s all about the mystery of what makes us human. So, our conversations will explore that mystery and the impact of what makes us human. It’s about language in life, it’s about language at work, it’s about language for fun. Welcome to the podcast.

Norah Jones:

So, how do we look at fear through the lens of language? Every podcast that I’ve had now for the last two years has touched in one way or another, each guest, each panel has touched on the idea of identity. Language is the unique human experience of sharing identity, of sharing labeling of the world. So, first of all, we have to stop and think about the fact that this is a miracle that happens every day. We forget it’s a miracle because it happens every day but it still is a miracle. Now, part of that miracle is that if we’re not careful, then we apply our human language not in a thoughtful way, but in a way like a weapon. We have our identity then in our language and so do all the others around us.

Norah Jones:

What we’ve discovered by listening in the podcast and what I know as an educator is that when young people, especially little ones, but at any age, when young people begin language study, begin to study a language outside of their own, they discover some interesting and important things. For one thing, they discover that there are other words for the world, other expressions that imply say that one did not cause an accident but that an accident happened to one, okay, or that trees are alive or that there are different ways of talking to people that show respect or disrespect according to where you live, the culture in which you find yourself. And therein lies an important key about language. Language is based in culture.

Norah Jones:

So, inevitably, when we learn a new language, we learn about the culture or cultures in which it is embedded. And this is its promise. This is a promise that is not understood by everyone. We recognize this, especially in the United States. There are very few people that study languages in the United States relative to other cultures. It’s getting better. My guest, recent guest, Fabrice Jaumont, who has a wonderful book about the bilingual century that he has published just recently is very bullish about the growth of language study in the United States, and that’s wonderful. And I celebrate that and thank him again for having that optimistic point because we need that optimism.

Norah Jones:

But right now, we are still struggling in the United States to get people to understand that studying language gives us all as humans an opportunity to understand that language provides a new perspective. Language helps us to understand new cultures. And here’s the other part, it does not supplant. It does not replace us as the persons that we are. If a person, for example, is a native speaker of English and they begin to study Spanish, they don’t stop being an English speaker. They don’t stop being who they are having grown up in the culture into which they have grown. They add a new language. They add a new understanding. They add new skills.

Norah Jones:

Now, in these past decades, those of us in the language profession know that we have been sharing with administrators, and with guidance counselors, and with parents, and with communities, and school boards, and state boards data that shows that language learning is a powerful, positive gift to the individual. We have all sorts of statistics, and white papers, and graphs, and wonderful things that we’ve shown millions literally of people that show that the brain grows and it’s protected against dementia, and it becomes more flexible, and it becomes better at the executive function which helps folks to keep a check a bit on their emotions as they’re growing up and to make good decisions. It helps to bring health.

Norah Jones:

But that fear that’s underlying some of the experiences that people have with language is that somehow, the new language being learned will supplant the current language and the current identity. No, it’s additive. It helps a young person, it helps an adult to understand that their language is precious and that it is part of a culture. It does, of course, this is part of our point as educators, it does also allow us to understand that our cultural references are just that, culture. Those who have not been exposed to a lot of travel and cultural experiences as they’re growing up as I’ve mentioned in some of my blogs and podcasts themselves are not even aware that they have a culture.

Norah Jones:

I’ve also had, in the case of LJ Randolph, thank you LJ, point out that for those who are in minority positions, they’re well aware that there is a larger culture and that they are in a culture that is not necessarily recognized as mainstream. So, what we do with language study is we bring along more, and more, and more of our young people and adults, our young children, our youth to understand that their culture is to be honored but they first have to understand that it’s a culture and not just truth. When they understand that it is a culture, then they can celebrate it, and honor it, and bring it into the midst of a conversation, and celebrate others. And when we do that, then the practices that we ourselves have become fascinating to others.

Norah Jones:

Educators have watched this happen over and over again in language classrooms where a child comes in with a practice that they think of as just “normal”. And when seen by those that come from other cultural backgrounds, and it could be in the same neighborhood, when they see in their peers the look of astonishment, and surprise, and interest, delight even, the eyes are opened. They begin to realize that what they thought was normal is actually fun, interesting, has a background. They begin to think about their own family background. I’ve watched this year after year. And those of you that are in the education scene in language have seen it too, seeing young people realize that their cultural background is unique and to be celebrated.

Norah Jones:

I keep emphasizing this because this is the ground for everything that those of us that have been working so hard to get languages into the schools, to get the heritage languages celebrated, to go into those community schools that Joy Peyton has talked about, that the whole month of April of 2022 was about celebrating heritage languages. Because as we celebrate heritage languages, all languages, what we are celebrating is those speakers of languages becoming aware that they bring joy into the world. But how do they know that, my friends? They know that because they have compared it with others. And when they begin to compare, they begin to understand.

Norah Jones:

We begin to understand that that which we cherish, we should cherish and that which they cherish, they can cherish too and that it’s not an affront on us that they do something different, nor is our work in our cultural and linguistic segment an affront to them. By studying this under the leadership of an adult, when especially as a small child, this becomes then a guided way of realizing that human miracle of language and culture is something that helps us to understand and live with one another. Language in schools sometimes has been certainly and can sometimes still be considered a bit of elitist. Back before all people had a chance to go to school, it kind of was. But it’s a reading skill then mostly. It is a spoken skill we understand now.

Norah Jones:

Those of you that haven’t been in the classroom recently, go and be in a classroom and watch and see. It’s not charts anymore. It’s speaking. It’s using language to communicate and to communicate with those then that have different perspectives and different cultures. And by doing this gently day after day, year after year, what language and culture studies do is help us to understand who we are more deeply but simultaneously to learn who everybody else is in a way that is not threatening. So, taking language in school is no longer elitist. Here’s another problem, and this is one of the disappointments. I happen to know, in my particular case, of a program that has at least for the moment been discontinued of dual language instruction for elementary school students, in this case, in Southern Rhode Island.

Norah Jones:

The concept that, first of all, students are somehow just learning enough when they start in kindergarten and go all the way to sixth grade to be ready for Spanish 1 in eighth grade means that we still have so much work to do in the language education field. Showing that when students are immersed in language, which is what dual language immersion does, dual language immersion says young people come in and study the world using both the language that you speak at home and a new language as a tool to understand math, science, social studies, as a tool to read, when that is seen as something that potentially, apparently in the minds of some administrators as basically the equivalent of list of colors, and clothing, and foods, and seasons, so as to be ready for Spanish 1. And even in those materials we try to move quickly to get something real going, but these students have had it for years.

Norah Jones:

The understanding of what it is that language does as a tool for young people, that’s not elitist. That’s the basics of how language is used in human life. That’s the basic on how language makes us fully human and able to function. And imagine students that are in such classes in those K through six and above dual language immersion concepts or ones like it are prepared to look at the world through different lenses, that’s not elitist, that’s inclusionary. And it also means that those students have likely come across those teachers who come from the cultures in which these are the primary languages and therefore they’ve had a chance to experience through those teachers’ lenses the excitement of different ways of approaching the world.

Norah Jones:

Even I having not been grown up in, for example, French or Spanish speaking cultures, have brought my Croatian culture and the concept of how life is looked at a little bit differently into my classroom. The experience of young people going through such immersion programs is just extraordinary. But my point here again is this. How does language address fear? Language addresses fear by helping students to realize that then when they try language in front of others, they’re celebrated. When they learn new words, they open new doors. And when they experience the cultures in which these languages are found, then they recognize that these cultures celebrate life like their own culture celebrates life.

Norah Jones:

And that allows them to walk more with confidence in the direction of creating connections with new peers in the classroom, peers across neighborhoods, across regions, across the nation, across the world. These programs should be everywhere, not pulled back, but everywhere because the investment in the future of lowering fear pays off in a more peaceful understanding of how human beings exist in this country, in all countries globally. So, I’ve started out by speaking about education of young people because in some languages, by the way, the word educate is actually elevate, lift up. And that’s what we’re doing with our young folks always, of course, taking them and lifting them up to the possibility of seeing and being in their adult life.

Norah Jones:

Let’s help them then to see over some of the fences that we’ve constructed. Let’s go back to what language learning does as far as illuminating our understanding of the way that people think and live. Now, I’m always encouraging folks to learn multiple languages because it’s just great to have those additional tools. But today, it’s also important to recognize that what we know as linguists and educators in the language field is just, again, as I said it earlier, the process of learning language itself illuminates the fact that the words that we use are those which bind us to a certain understanding of the world. And that when we learn that other people have other words for things, that just begins to bring in new light on the fact that there’s a lot of neat perspectives, a lot of perspectives.

Norah Jones:

I just gave a good, a judgment call that I think it’s phenomenal. But clearly, the idea that there are additional perspectives is frightening to some people. But I say to you today that that’s because they were not given the opportunity to learn a language and to see that the language and the culture of this additional human or humans next to them meant that they were the same type of human being that just had different experiences, that it’s critical, that we expose ourselves to this in order to survive. We are not replacing anyone, we are adding. Our language, when it’s understood as being a gift to us but also one among many gifts, allows us to be patient with those that don’t speak our language.

Norah Jones:

There’s a history in this and many other cultures of repressing and forbidding languages being spoken by young people and old because it was considered to be a threat to the majority. Today, it’s important. In the midst of all of the things we’ve experienced with the violence over these decades, horrifically culminating here in these last several weeks in the United States in this case, it’s important for us to be able to face this history. We’ve been afraid of language because we’ve known it’s about identity. But the identity that we have feared is actually that which can provide the gifts that make us even more aware of and effective in applying our own. It’s not a replacement, it’s an addition. Language and culture are additive, not replacing.

Norah Jones:

If we step away from our fear by being given an opportunity to learn, especially when young, that this is how language works. Now, some people are naturally attuned to this. I think about the podcast that Carolyn Gill provided where she specifically said how much she looked forward to learning about the other. There are just some people that are attuned to wanting to learn about other and otherness in life. But I understand that that’s not true for many. It’s also more difficult if you happen to have a traumatic background. All of this is understood. Which is why in order to ensure that societally, we help to lay as much of a foundation as we can for the peaceful understanding that humanity is all engaged together, that this aspect of language and culture must be addressed.

Norah Jones:

This is not a cute little additive to education. If we feel like it, if we have enough money, if we have enough time, I certainly could add. But I believe the same thing about art and music which are humanity at its base. But that’s not my area of expertise, but language sure is. And I address everyone today to say this. As a society, if we want to stop the hatred and violence that travels distances in order to murder, in order to destroy the other that we need to be investing and that which can stop it, and we can stop it through teaching from the very earliest years of our children’s lives that language is various around the world and yet unified in helping people to communicate and to create connections.

Norah Jones:

There is no need for it to be a barrier and certainly no need for it to be a weapon. When approached as the gift and miracle of humanity that it is, it brings joy. We already know that. We already see it. We already experience it in the classrooms around this country and around the world where these educational opportunities are provided. We see it happen. We’re not guessing. But when we say to ourselves our commitment is to bring this to young people so that they calm down basically, so they calm down, so that when they become a teen and an adult, they don’t feel personally threatened when they hear someone speaking a language that they don’t understand. They enter into it with creativity. If they see someone that was trying to learn their own language, that they enter into sharing it with joy, and with humility, and with mutual interest.

Norah Jones:

This is about adding to their experiences, I say over and over again, not subtracting from it, not replacing who they are. When we decide to commit as a culture here in the United States or wherever it is that this message needs to be heard, it’s not just the United States, but it is especially noticeable here because we have so many ways of acting out our hate in a destructive pattern. Language and culture are so tied with identity that when we start our young people understanding that language is a human miracle that they can share and celebrate their own and others, and that language again is found in culture and they can celebrate their own and others that what we build up, we build up or in educational parlance, we scaffold an understanding of humanity that brings more acceptance.

Norah Jones:

Is it 100% foolproof, we won’t have any hate anymore if we do this in our country? No, of course not. People vary, their individual experiences vary. But our commitment to the overall understanding of the powerful impact of language and cultural studies from the earliest grades can change this in such a powerful way that we would see the effects. It will not happen in the next month, in the next quarter. It needs to be a commitment that is understood that it changes the generation so that that generation can change the next, so that we can live together. We have watched now violence that comes from turning to another who’s actually a human being just like us. And instead of accepting and understanding their different ways of looking, acting, and sounding, our fear takes over and we act out, this can help to solve it.

Norah Jones:

Now, in the meantime, the joy that is experienced is healthy. The inclusion that comes from this addresses some of our most important needs in this country. The equity that comes from being able to say to young people that have different heritage backgrounds, “Congratulations, and thank you for sharing what it is that you know. Help us to learn more about you and help us to learn about your culture and your language and we’ll add it to ours.” Who knows where all these wonderful things can lead outside of the positives of celebrating diversity including all in our society bring about the opportunity for everybody to participate which brings healthy psychology and helps to just avoid some of these traumas? Avoid a hundred percent? No.

Norah Jones:

But folks, let’s get started. Let’s get started. If you have an opportunity to set up a program of immersion studies of language in your school district, in your area, please do it. Don’t wait. Let’s not go backwards on any of these. Let’s go forward. This is not about just providing something fun and interesting to do. It is fun and interesting. This is about the survival of our society. I speak as an educator and linguist. Look inside and you know it’s true. We have to invest in this. Language as the human miracle can help to turn this around because it’s embedded in everything we are, everything we believe, everything we do.

Norah Jones:

Support programs that bring language education to young people, any age, let’s start any age. Now, those of you that know about language acquisition know that it’s a natural skill of human beings to be able to learn language. For those of you that perhaps are not as familiar with it, young people can learn language up until about age 14 just as naturally as they breathe. There’s a special part of the brain that absorbs language. Babies, toddlers, young people, it seems like they’re confusing language at first, but they’re not really, they’re setting the brain up. People can learn two, three, four, five multiple languages and not because they’re amazing but because they’re human. Humans are amazing. Let them.

Norah Jones:

Each one of those languages brings a deeper understanding of who that individual is to themselves, makes them more and more themselves, not less and less, more and more, gives them confidence, gives them hope, gives them a sense of identity, gives them a sense of where they can have impact in the world. These are all things that are basic to the needs of humanity. Gives them a chance to survive, gives them a chance to belong and gives us a chance to have impact, that’s a modified Maslow scale of what human needs are. Survival, belonging, impact comes through language. Let’s give that gift to each person. And at about age 14, when that language acquisition device in the brain turns off, eh, who cares? Keep studying.

Norah Jones:

So, your language program starts in eighth or ninth grade. And it’s a little late, but that’s okay, do it anyway. Because even just the beginnings of exposure, turn light bulbs on. For teens, for adults, any age, turn on the light bulb of understanding what your identity really is. Turn on the light bulb that says, “Everybody’s got this.” Turn on the light bulb that says, “I can add this and other people can add what I know to their repertoire.” Turn on the light bulb that says, “I don’t have to hate. I can find out more. I don’t have to be afraid.” That’s, my friends, why language study is important. We shouldn’t be afraid. Let’s stop being afraid of each other. It happens through language.

Norah Jones:

Next week, when I share with you the ensembled recording from the Southern Conference on Language Teaching, that SCOLT conference, the first episode of which I’ve already shared, you’ll hear again what you heard in episodes 55 and 56 when I did that same on the road recording with the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Language. Educator after educator after educator in the language field said this, “I had a mentor. I had this amazing teacher from,” name a country, name a region, “I learned from,” and often what the person learned from was a person that was from another culture or at the very least, they learned from a person that had fallen in love with another culture.

Norah Jones:

And when they entered that classroom, these educators say, listen to them, these educators say, “When I entered that classroom, I realized that there was a big world out there. Thanks to that teacher who opened my eyes.” And there was no turning back to the joy and the confidence they experienced. Listen for that next week. Go back and listen for it in the previous episodes where educators talk about the mentor. Go back and listen to podcasts where folks have talked about how their identity was enriched, their confidence was enriched, their sense of belonging was enriched, their impact in the world was enriched because of their language exposure, their language study. We don’t have to be afraid, but we have to start by helping our young ones to learn.

Norah Jones:

Please go out there and help make it happen. We need everybody on this heavy lift. And in your own world, please, whether you know another language or not, recognize how language is the miracle in your life and it’s the miracle that surrounds you every day all around. Folks that are speaking another language are not speaking it so you can’t understand them, are not speaking it to say anything else but to live their lives. Go find out more about them. Try a language yourself if you haven’t. Don’t be afraid. And let’s help each other to not be afraid and to be able to live together, welcome one another and make this the powerful, and exciting, and cherished place it can be, this country and this world. Thank you for listening to the podcast today.

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