Through Language We Name Our Worth

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As those know who listened to It’s About Language IAL podcast 66, the first half of my sojourn at the SCOLT conference, I asked attendees four simple questions as they went about their activities: “Who are you? Why are you at this conference? What got you into the language profession? What’s your superpower?” These same questions are before the interviewees in podcast episode 68, to be released June 2.

That is, for conference attendees I asked questions that led from concrete and simple self-knowledge (name, title) to those which required more and more abstract self-understanding.

I found it interesting that quite a few of my interviewees, either before they began their recording or during it (as I invite you to hear), questioned whether they even knew the answer to the final and most abstract question, “What’s your superpower?” It’s both amusing and sweet that these talented educators often had not considered themselves as even having a superpower. It is doubly interesting — try this for yourself! — to listen to a passionate professional clearly demonstrate a multiplicity of gifts and insights as they talk, that is, clearly shine with their superpower, and yet not name it when they get to their own words for it.

Because all the other questions these amazing people can easily answer, we can smile at this last humble moment. They do know what they do (or what they want to do). They do know why they got into the profession (that is, how they fell in love with language).

However, it should give us pause, this fact that even such amazing professionals in the very field of language do not always know or admit in which ways they are powerful, in which ways they make a huge impact in others’ lives. If they, whose lives are all about language, have not fully identified their “life commission” as it were, what of those who have not yet found their path, those who do not yet know the importance of language to name and thus make real the power in their own lives?

In podcast episode 67 I paused to share a personal reflection on one basic truth, after the latest horrors of Buffalo, Uvalde, Dallas, Laguna Hills: through language we name our own worth and learn of the worth of others. But without language, without being led to the tools of self-expression, we do not have the words, and we do not have the training, and therefore we learn neither of our own worth nor that of others.

When we do not or even cannot name our worth, we lose hope. We see such loss of hope in the world-wide epidemic of drug use, depression, disruptive behaviors, and suicide.

Then, loss of hope when combined with a sense of anger over the loss builds resentment.

When we have not been guided to observe and name the worth of others, the resentment builds to hate. The violence of word and deed we see in the worldwide web and on the ground in my country (the United States) and around the word comes from neglecting the language of affirmation for oneself and others from the very earliest years of an individual’s life.

This violence to self and others comes from the neglect of the language of connection with and belonging to the community of human beings in such a way that can continue to grow the circle of belonging, rather than drawing tighter and boundaries around those considered part of “our group.” The violence of word and deed comes from not being able to name and claim even a bit of power to change the world for the positive. So, in the hunger we all have by the nature of our being human to make an impact on the world, we embrace even the methods of destruction and violence so that we might at least feel some semblance of control.

How can we heal this breach between language needed and language provided? How can we save lives by using the one, unique human gift, language, to give hope and health and purpose?

First, we need awareness that this cycle of language-based understanding of ourselves exists. As I have said in my podcasts and workshops, just because we use language every day doesn’t mean it isn’t a miracle. Note: if we label something a miracle, we pay attention and potentially react with awe or at least bewilderment. What we consider mundane experiences we tend to dismiss. But language is not mundane. It is unique. It is central to who we are. It makes or breaks us. It always has been our make-or-break gift.

Second, it is part of human nature to understand more clearly that which we study not by itself alone but in comparison with something else. To a baby everything fuzzy on four legs is a “dog” until they learn the word “cat,” and at that point the clear seeing of the multiplicity of nature’s animals is off and running. Once “cat” exists alongside “dog,” all else is possible. Once we realize our interior world is not the same as everyone else’s, we begin the journey to accept the other as a full person like ourselves. We begin to add categories of being, like the toddler adds categories of animals.

This is world urgently needs to fast-track these life-saving additions, these life-saving insights.

We need to do it through greatly expanded programs of language study, study of not only one native language but at least of one other language.

Language study – or support of those families and groups that are by upbringing bilingual or in active use of heritage languages — brings about this life-saving understanding from the very first word. From the very first word! Whether the listener is a small child, teen, or adult, the moment they hear a new sound comes out of a human’s mouth to refer to something the person knows in a different way, their mind is opened to new categories of being. Wow! It turns out there are multiple languages, so we now more easily understand the possible multiplicity of ethnicities, skin colors, cultures, histories, and opinions! It is the nature of humanity to react in this way: to happily add cats to dogs, then bunnies and horses, and on an on…to add categories of how humans can be. Also note: we do not become someone else in this process, but rather a richer version of ourselves!

So, let’s keep that in mind as we go about our lvies. And if you can listen to podcasts 66 and/or 68, you can ask yourself as you listen:

  • What have these educators themselves experienced that helped them to add categories to what they defined humans to be?
  • How do their experiences compare to yours?
  • As you listen, what do you hear them sharing that shows they understand they are sharing the opening of the mind of their students to see humanity more fully and richly?
  • How does their work compare to what you have seen bring a sense of well-being and acceptance into the lives of others?

There’s so much more I plan on sharing with you! But for the moment, let this blog be an opener conversation for us.

An invitation: connect with me and let’s see how we can do this work together.

(A version of this blog appears as the introduction to It’s About Language [IAL] podcast 68.)

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