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The absolutely most fun thing about having a podcast about language is that, since language is the center of everything human, there’s basically not a topic that doesn’t have me running to the computer or phone to catch up with yet another amazing individual who can give an insight into life that can enlighten us all.
I’ve been amazingly blessed to know thousands of astonishing and compelling individuals as I’ve traveled around the world. As I mention each time I talk about how the podcast got its start, I just couldn’t bear the idea of being cut off from these amazing human beings because of Covid – and could image all too well, in our bleakest moments, a world where not getting to know about and hear from such amazing people would leave our world sadder, sicker, and more impoverished.
It was an honor to have as my guest for my first episode my friend and colleague Sharon Deering, who had suffered a debilitating stroke that left her without speech – but not without thought and a desire to share her thoughts. Her bravery in speaking with me, in using her shallow reserves of energy to make it through a conversation, still stands as the most powerful testament to the importance of speech in reflecting identity and belonging in the world. The impact of the stroke on Sharon opened up for our discussion all the themes that unfolded as the months went by: language as identity; the reaction of listeners to imperfect or accented speech; working to create accurate expression of the meaning and images in our minds; the differing roles of each language in a multilingual person, and much more.
Though I’ve always been fond of asking others questions about themselves and standing back to listen carefully for a long time, the podcast format’s power surprised me nevertheless. The voice – the voice – was the sole focus and it unlocked ideas and feelings, insights and fears, and deeper introspection by my guests than they themselves had expected. We have so little time for each other, now. My podcast was an invitation to an extended period of focus fully on them. It was an invitation to tell a story with my full attention on their words and the underlying experiences and emotions revealed around and through them.
From what I hear of other podcasts, there are often questions provided ahead of time and quite a bit of editing to smooth out the finished product. Not so with It’s About Language. Each guest has a conversation with me ahead of recording time to get to know me if they are new to my “circle of friends,” or, if they are already someone I have known, to realize that the podcast is going to be a simple conversation, just like ones we’ve had many times before. There may be a main idea we decide we’ll start with, but after that, the only preparation they have is, as I tell them, being who they are. And because of he focus on their lived experience, the stories flow, the language is smooth, and my questions are exactly like those of interested family members around a table or friends around a campfire.
Language is like that: when we tap into our deepest selves, our language comes out fluently, clearly, powerfully, full of personal truth, full of insights that invite all listeners to drink and think deeply.
Humanity is about language. That’s why I just have to keep going with this podcast: we have so much we need to hold on to in the storm; we need to hear each other’s voices to know we are not alone; we need to share our stories to hear them for ourselves. Let’s keep telling our stories. No matter the “dialect,” our human family is made of language.
Enjoy the podcast.
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Thank you for always focusing on the possibilities, opportunities and the power of language and what it can do for us individually - and collectively!
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Yes, @NorahLulicJones definitely has the talent of "bringing out" the best in others or allowing them to showcase themselves in the best light! Thank you for directing the spotlight on others who have great stories and talents to share with others.
Your podcasts are exceptionally relevant and applicable, thought-provoking and insightful, easy-to-follow and enjoyable!
You have an immense talent to draw the best from your participants.
Norah knows how to LISTEN - she really "hears" the message - and the interview is richer because of it. New questions come from the hearing.
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 find this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter.
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Norah Jones: So this week is a little bit different as one of my guests, Steven Sacco, the guest for episode 71, turns the tables and interviews me as the guest for It’s About Language. Steven, with his background in connecting languages with business, engineering and organizations, wanted to get a little bit more insight into why I established this podcast and what it is that we are saying to the world about the importance of languages to help to bring about a more peaceful and secure future. So I hope you’ll enjoy this interview and I hope we’ll give you some insights into It’s About Language from my perspective.
Steven Sacco: Hello, language professionals. Welcome to It’s About Language. As you can see, I am not Norah Jones. So please don’t touch that dial. I am Steve Sacco, Professor Emeritus of French and Italian from San Diego State University. I’m here today to interview Norah Jones, podcaster and language advocate extraordinaire. A few weeks ago, I talked to Norah about being podcasted and she accepted. I knew that Norah Jones who is so talented in interviewing her guests had a compelling story of her own, so she said yes. Just a little background.
Steven Sacco: Norah started It’s About Language in May 2020 in an effort to fought the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic on language educators. Over the last three years of the podcast, It’s About Language has captivated over 25,000 listeners representing 60 countries during her 90-plus podcasts. Norah has interviewed many of the top language professionals in the field, and It’s About Language is arguably the leading podcast of its type on the planet. So today, turn about this fair play, instead of Norah interviewing her latest expert, I will be interviewing Norah Jones. Good afternoon, Norah. Welcome to It’s About Language. I hope you’re not nervous.
Norah Jones: Well, I thank you for this welcome to the podcast, and I am so much looking forward to the conversation that we will have because it’s always a delight to talk with you. And I’m quite sure it’s going to be a fascinating experience to be interviewed by you, Steven.
Steven Sacco: I hope so. There’s a lot of pressure on me right now, it’s like shooting two free throws with five seconds left in a basketball game when I was a high school senior. Okay, Norah, many of your listeners are intrigued about you, your background, and your motivation for creating It’s About Language. Tell us more about the story behind creating this platform.
Norah Jones: Well, Steve, it’s interesting because I have enjoyed so many amazing experiences over my career as an educator. I didn’t plan on going into education at all. I just knew I loved languages and I had taken them as many at a time and as long as I could, and traveled as much as I was able when I was younger. And when I got married and ended up in a place that I wasn’t expecting to end up, but for love did, namely South Central Virginia, and I discovered that cows were a delightful species, but not exactly the way I wanted to spend my days, I stumbled into happily a lateral entry into teaching first French and then having Spanish added to it when the principal realized that I didn’t implode.
Norah Jones: So from the very beginning, I felt very welcomed into the education community and into the language segment of it in particular, having wonderful colleagues from the very beginning that taught me about how to be vulnerable and how to welcome vulnerability in students, and having a personality that apparently wandered into board meetings that I wasn’t supposed to be in. And you know what happens if you show interest in spending time with a group, they’ll invite you to do so. So over the decades of my work, I had a chance to meet incrementally more and more people in my community, in my state, in my region, in the nation, and I just have enjoyed the relationships tremendously.
Norah Jones: So when Covid hit and the world came to a stop, and family needs created the same kind of decision-making in my life as it made for many, namely that I needed to make a change in order to make sure my family could remain secure and safe and financially solvent that I left my full-time job and of course the whole world left being able to be together. And when I looked out at a world where I was going to lose an opportunity to stay in connection with the wonderful and amazing people that I had come across in my years within World Language Education, I had said to myself, and I think I’ve even said this in a podcast before. I said to myself, if I call my friends and they’re very busy with their own needs at this very difficult time, they may be delighted to hear from me, but they may not have time to talk with me.
Norah Jones: But if I say, hey, I’d like you to be a podcast guest that maybe they would be interested. And so I looked into what it took to start a podcast and decided that I would just start as best as I could. And because of those connections, because of the kindness of my colleagues, because they have so many things to share with the world, it was such a rich experience for me, and I knew that it would continue to be for listeners. So it’s been very good feeling to know that indeed people have been receptive to the amazing skills, insights, humor, and humanity of those that I had connected up with over these two and a half years.
Steven Sacco: That’s incredible. Notice that I mentioned to you a few weeks ago that I thought maybe podcasting is gonna be truly for us the future, because we get to express ourselves without having any kind of reviewers marking up the page and telling us what to say, etcetera. We get to express ourselves on podcasts like yours in original language, original thought without any kind of interference from others.
Norah Jones: Steve, I’m so glad you brought that back because I know that that was something that was dear to your heart that we did talk about when we had you here as the guest on It’s About Language. And I can affirm that I just recently, yet again, I was in a meeting and there was a person that found out that I had a podcast and she was like, oh, wonderful, I’m going to go look for it right now, and I’m going to subscribe right now, this will be so exciting. I really wanna hear what you have to say. I just love podcasts.
Norah Jones: And when you say what you just said, I realize that while we’ve all had, say, blogs or things we’ve written that are articles or any number of written things, that I don’t know if I’ve ever had anybody come up to me and basically as it were, clutch my lapel and say how much I love reading. But the podcasts, because it’s the voice, and you know that my take on language is that language is voice, language is primarily what we hear and work with and is spoken, that that is still appealing to folks. So yes, I think podcasts and the voice in general have an extraordinarily strong future, as well as a very important and critical past.
Steven Sacco: Excellent, going back just a little bit, we both started teaching high school at about the same time, and you said that you started with Spanish and French, kind of like I did, but you left out a couple of languages. Russian, ESL. Holy Mackerel, at that time, you were a one-woman language department. Did you get four salaries or they just pay you one salary for teaching four languages?
Norah Jones: The last, I would say one salary for four languages, but what it did do, I think the multi-lingual aspect here, especially in an area where there are not a tremendous… There’s not a tremendous number of resources, I mean, not that it’s impoverished in that way, but it’s not an urban area in which I live. It’s a rural and small city area. When you have someone that comes in with the multiplicity of languages and backgrounds like that, and exposure to the world and you have lots of needs, that is helpful to the system, but it also opens doors. It opened doors for me. I’m always grateful that one of the things that was discerned was that instead of having a supervisor as a new position in our county for languages, because of what can be considered to be central office overhead, they came up with the creative and money-saving idea of having instructional specialists.
Norah Jones: And they started with world language and social studies, which happened to be a good friend and colleague of mine. And I was, I interviewed for and got that position. That opened a tremendous number of doors because I was able to first full-time in the office, and then I requested that if we were going to continue, which they wanted to, to be able to be inside the school and do supervision at the same time. Well, if you have a nut case on your hands that enjoys these various languages, does these various languages, has this kind of background and is willing to both teach pretty much full-time and supervise, well, that’s a pretty easy bet then, but the door is open because of the multilingualism and because of that exposure. And I’m always grateful for that.
Steven Sacco: So in this rural setting, you had the opportunity of teaching Russian, which I’ve never seen in a rural high school before. Tell us a little bit about that.
Norah Jones: Yes, and that is such an important opportunity, I think. And one of the aspects of it is it didn’t come as fully about as I would have liked, because I guess in general, maybe for school systems that are in areas where people aren’t flocking in for all sorts of reasons or potentially because of how the principal and staff were thinking about my potential trajectory, the principal didn’t want to make it a full program ’cause he was afraid I was going to leave. So what I started was a program that I experimented with before school started a full class period and after.
Norah Jones: It turned out after was better. After having a full period and providing for credit through testing for those levels that I was offering. The irony is that a year or two after I started that there was another hire that came into our building who with her military background, knew Russian, and so there were actually two of us Russian speakers in the school at the same time. Yet, we still didn’t have a Russian program. We both taught Spanish officially, but it was a delightful and effective way to introduce students to a language that they might not otherwise have gotten
Steven Sacco: That is remarkable. As we discussed last year, the Department of Defense has come up with a program to… It’s basically 3 million over five years to either strengthen or introduce critical languages, especially for ROTC members at the high school level. So do you see this as a possibility of strengthening Russian, languages like Russian or Chinese?
Norah Jones: Well, you know, Steven, the thing is, we’re talking about Russian, we’re talking about so many important languages that are not commonly taught here in the United States. And when it comes to your question specifically about, say the military need, that’s especially powerful. I mean, I just finished last week from this recording being with the Joint National Committee on languages, the JNCL-NCLIS Language Advocacy Days. And what we did there virtually because of just the nature of trying to see senators and congress people now, is those of us that were delegates from all over the country got to meet with our legislators. And one of the bills that it needs to be continued the appropriation, but it’s there is what’s called WLARA basically stands for the opportunity in those schools and school systems that have Junior ROTC programs to be funded because of the security needs of the United States.
Norah Jones: And what we’re adding to that in our request is for a brand new legislation which would allow that kind of grant funding for innovation in languages, especially those that are of deep security need, economic need that have not commonly been taught in United States, which play such a strong role in our upcoming future, for those languages to also receive grants from potentially an office in the US Department of Education. So that’s an ongoing ask that we hope to be able to bring to bear. It’s important because all students need access to these languages that have so much of a role to play for our security and our economic security. And we’re delighted that they’re already available for those that are engaged in the military enterprise but we’d like to spread that around a little bit. But I do believe that because we are facing the needs of the global security, global interaction, global politics, global economics, that there is a future for those languages despite sometimes feelings to the contrary in this interesting country we have where not to many people take languages.
Steven Sacco: Well, we’ll be looking forward to that because last year there was no DOD grant, and so only nine schools got funded in the first year, one in the Atlanta area that I recall, one in Coronado, California. And we were hoping for a second year, but it never happened, and now the third year, so there are gonna be a lot more proposals this time around, if JNCL can advocate on our behalf.
Norah Jones: I certainly hope so, and thank you for those specifics because it’s important that everyone that has young people in school, everyone that they themselves are interested in learning be it at collegiate or adult level, anyone who’s engaged in understanding the role that languages play in our economic and security lives, should be, in fact, very energized by knowing how much need there is compared with often how much funding or availability there is.
Steven Sacco: So how did you get started? First of all, you’re a high school teacher like me, and then all of a sudden you become an advocacy expert in the Southeastern United States and within the state of Virginia. How did that come about?
Norah Jones: Well, you know, I think every single language educator is an advocate, whether they know it or not. Their advocacy, especially for those that are engaged in this very humanistic experience of teaching the human talent, language, are people that are excited about the words that come out of humans mouths and excited about the cultures in which those languages live. So every language teacher is an advocate in their own way. If they’re a strong and good advocate they excite young people and invite these young adults into a future where language can play a role in their lives. If they are the kind of person that recognizes the bigger picture, or has the energy and the personality to reach out more, they become advocates in the more formal sense of the word, getting engaged in World Language organizations or even in JNCL, which is the advocate for language education in ways that help their voice to be heard better.
Norah Jones: That’s a path that happened for me, I saw the change in the lives of my young people, I saw how their growth was, I saw their excitement, I saw the opportunities open for them, and I also looked around, especially the more and more I got into boards and organizations, and then into publishing. The more that I saw, the more I realized that there were opportunities for languages to be offered, where it wasn’t necessarily being offered, being offered at the right ages for human growth and development and wasn’t necessarily being necessarily happening. And certainly with a heart for what we call less commonly taught languages and their power to grow the understanding of the world, to see that that wasn’t being done as much as my heart would like, all of those things lead to, I think, a natural sense of wanting to be an advocate more formally.
Steven Sacco: So in addition to a great teaching career and you continue as a major advocate leader, you mentioned in your couple of two or three sentences earlier about publishing. Tell us about you’re publishing because it started, I guess in 1997, and it’s still going on.
Norah Jones: Well, actually, it’s interesting that you ask it that way, because it started back in the late 1980s when I was the Department Chair for our school and the supervisor for our county. So I was engaged in, say, textbook evaluations and taking a look at textbook adoptions with my colleagues of course, but as the supervisor, I was kind of the point person, and I tend to look in depth in front of the folks that are sent from the various publishing companies at the content about what seems to be an effective way to express something or how best activities might be made. I happened to have said something in front of the person that had showed up for our county, who happened to be a national sales manager about the fact that they understood accurately the nature of how to do a formative assessment for listening.
Norah Jones: Well, when you start talking about things like that, you start talking almost in writerese, If I can coin that phrase for a language then… And if you’re a group which the county did discerned that they did want the materials that happened to have been presented, it sort of comes together where they reached back out and you dangle a worm in front of a hungry fish, which I seem to always be. Would you like to take a look at our newest book that we’re developing? Sure. Would you like to comment on some of the content? Sure. Can we send you manuscript galleys that aren’t even complete? And each level the publishing does that, now I know from the inside, they’re seeing whether or not you provide some decent feedback, whether you’re answering what they asked for, whether you’re helping them and saving them time rather than wasting time.
Norah Jones: And I seemed to keep running that track and jumping over some of those hurdles until, finally, I was engaged in being asked to take… I was called to a representative job, a sales representative job, and it was supposed to start right away, like in the January or February of the year. And I thought and prayed a lot about it because that was a big, big deal. I loved my students and I loved what I was doing in the county, but it had been quite a while and I thought maybe it’s time for a new adventure. I turned them down for leaving during the school year, I believe in my contract, and I didn’t want to break a contract. So I had said I could start in the summer and see how it turned out.
Norah Jones: They allowed me to start part-time, like I say, I’m in that case, that does help. If I’ve started part-time, so I worked in the evenings on some of the things that could help move that adoption process forward, which is what they were in a hurry about, it turned out that I enjoyed it. And so for a couple of years, I stayed in publishing. My own children had not yet graduated from high school yet, so after a few years, I went back to the classroom, luckily, I went back to the same positions that I had had, I felt very blessed with that. And once they graduated from high school, I had been contacted by another publisher, and so I was able to ease into that publishing and to be able to continue, and then got called by the third publisher.
Norah Jones: So I was… I’ve been in three publishing companies as an employee, first by looking at materials, then by writing, because I did write the introductory… This. I shouldn’t say introductory. The contextual materials, the activities for the material that was being produced by what’s now called Vista Higher Learning, back when it was first being developed. And I considered that to be very interesting and a great honor, and it was a lot of fun, and it also kept my name in the pot as it were, and I just enjoyed talking about it and teaching others to talk about why resources and good teaching and instructional approaches are just critical to making students lives open up.
Norah Jones: It’s an interesting experience to watch the relationship now between educational institutions and the resources that they use. And here’s where I’m coming from, it is extremely important and extremely positive that we have been finally emerging from our 18th and 19th century approach to limited educational access with an emphasis on classical studies that have fossilized previous to the last, say, 40 to 50 years, language studies as an approach of the classical type, that is to say a Latin style reading and grammatical study. It is extremely important, in my opinion, that we have moved slowly, surely, sometimes quickly. Sometimes it’s pretty quick, but often slowly and surely, but absolutely necessarily in the direction of understanding that modern language is just that.
Norah Jones: It’s a spoken phenomenon, it’s a living phenomenon, it’s consistently changing phenomenon, it is embedded in culture, it must be understood in culture, it’s about connecting people that are alive right now and there are interesting things to read. Yes, there are many of that, and for some, sitting with a good book and the second or third language that they have learned is the greatest pleasure in their lives. Wonderful, but for so many young adults and small children, certainly it is true that connecting with humans that are alive is critical. I am so delighted to see the growth and the understanding that authenticity of content and approach, connecting with real life human beings and bringing in the living experience, which is always changing, is the way that we’re going with World Language Education. What I think is an interesting phenomenon then is the attitude towards and the development of resources.
Norah Jones: Resources and how I live my life, resources are those things that we take that save us time and can change our lives for the better. I speak with more passion potentially than some because I was exhausted as a teacher. My nature of my job, the nature of my leadership meant that I kept giving myself the wide range of languages and levels so that my newer teachers were not feeling overwhelmed. So that they could become part of the community of educators in the language world and feel like they could make it, so that they could be mentored by others and not drown. But it meant that I was having a lot on my plate, which I enjoyed, but I also watched. I know, Steve, what it feels like to talk a language with people in my travels, in my family history and going to Croatia in the summer and being plopped in the middle of the family with my cousins and my aunt and my grandmother.
Norah Jones: And not being able to say a thing, and just being immersed and sink or swim, that I knew how it felt to be able to achieve language in that way. And I was watching my students when were speaking, but I didn’t feel like they were speaking in the way that I knew that they should, that they could. That they felt they were succeeding, their parents felt they were succeeding, the administration felt they were succeeding, everyone was telling me they’re succeeding, but I felt like there’s got to be more, but I’m so tired. And what I discovered… And again, this was the late 80s. What I discovered that that was the material that was handed to me, that… Yes, I didn’t go through it from page two to page 247. Here’s an exercise two, here’s exercise three, here’s exercise… But it was a resource that I could use.
Norah Jones: I didn’t have to create everything. I could sit back and allow students to have a tool in front of them, and then we could create together, and that’s when the tide turned for me, in understanding what created resources provided to our exhausted educators could do. So tying it back together, what I just said, authenticity, the reality, the change, a constantly changing nature of the language and culture, we are blessed now because we have digital world that’s allowing more and more of that to come in and become part of a structured resource that I still say helps those that are busy to know that they’ve got a support system so that they can be creative, but that they have the resources that they need.
Norah Jones: And when I look out at districts and schools that have created good quality resource sets or buying the resources so that their teachers are not constantly having to create from scratch, that’s the direction I’m excited for it, because that can bring in any kind of language, be it traditional or less commonly taught. It can create possibilities, but it’s about to be a combination. Good quality resources combined with teachers that are excited and can be creative. That I know will help to bring about a positive language future. I just don’t want folks to get exhausted thinking they’ve gotta create everything themselves, so I’m still a resource creator junkie, so I say.
Steven Sacco: Yep, yep. Well, Norah, you kind of answered my last question, but I wanna ask it anyway, in case there’s any other answers that you wanna provide. As you know, the Modern Language Association is painting a bleak bleak picture of enrollments in certain languages. I’m thinking of my own language, the major language that I taught, French. French programs are disappearing from high schools, and not only that, but as majors disappearing from colleges and universities. Despite those numbers and all the podcasts that I’ve listened to, I hear this optimistic tone that you continue to hold on to about the future of language.
Norah Jones: Absolutely, I am optimistic for our future because I know that humans cannot be human without language. I know that as people begin to address their fears and concerns, that they’re going to, by definition, realize they have to turn to one another. And in doing so, I am optimistic that even by itself, that folks will realize that the connectedness with other humans means that it is good to know how someone else thinks so that one can work with them. They know that, they think that through their language. They cannot tell you their deepest thoughts, they cannot provide you a seamless experience if you are constantly working at translating back and forth. They cannot provide you the cultural insight that allows us to be able to cooperate and achieve what we need to achieve in keeping ourselves healthy and safe without understanding each other.
Norah Jones: So there’s always this return to the humanity, which is language and language and culture, but… And now I have a nefarious cackle that adds even to my typical optimistic approach. I am absolutely fascinated by and very excited by what will happen to exactly what I’m talking about based on the AI, the Artificial Intelligence that’s coming up, in particular, the release and this explosion about chatGPT and other types of artificial intelligence writing. Uncanny that, everyone says, and yes, we’re the limitations here and there, but here is where I’m very excited because already, even though this conversation, if you will, just started back in November, already we’re reaching the horizon where those that are in the know about how artificial intelligence self-grows, there’s so much input now.
Norah Jones: They’re the smart work that is coming with artificial intelligence is going past that, which we’ve kind of been, I don’t know, not maybe joking about, but certainly talking about in casual conversation. And here’s where it’s going. It’s going to where we will not have to sit down at a keyboard and type in strange messages in order to be able to communicate with a machine, with a digital interface to be able to make things happen. We will talk to the computer. When we talk to a computer, we will be using human language. We have to use human language, be it to write it in and the keyboard in human language like I’m talking it or speaking it into a microphone like I am right now. We will have to learn how to continue the precision that has made us good communicators with each other in order to be able to teach and work with the machine so they can help us with those kinds of writings and activities that people are already talking about.
Norah Jones: It’s gonna be taken over computer. But we have to talk to them about how to make that happen. We’re gonna talk to each other and we’re going to talk to the artificial intelligence in human language, all languages. Not just one language. I’m excited about that. I’m reading about that now from those who know AI, which I barely do, except for reading incessantly about this, but I also remember several years ago at our national conference, the future is talking about the future is voice, not the kind of coding and texting we’re doing. The future is voice, that Steven is a human future, that’s a future, we return to that which is our deepest skill, our deepest love, our deepest identity. And I am bullish about that, I am optimistic about that, and I think it’s going to be just crazy, won’t it? That our human language can bring about the tools that will help us to live together, work together and solve problems together with humans and with computers all through language.
Steven Sacco: I’m glad I asked the question. Norah, we gotta have you as a guest more often.
Norah Jones: Well, Steven, I would like to congratulate you on your official interview debut.
Steven Sacco: On a podcast.
Norah Jones: Absolutely, thanks for this opportunity to be interviewed today, and I hope that you feel as the interviewer that you got the answers to the questions that you wanted.
Steven Sacco: I sure did. I sure did.
Norah Jones: Great, well, thank you, Steven.
Steven Sacco: Okay, you take care. God bless.
Norah Jones: So, I hope you enjoyed this podcast and get an idea about why it’s important to me that your voice be heard, that our voices for language be heard, to help to make more secure and joyful future. Look forward to sharing more podcasts with you in the upcoming weeks and months. And until soon, take care. [music]Become a Sponsor