By Richard Benton, PhD
When people think of learning other languages, images of faraway, exotic landscapes and peoples flood their minds. When they arrive in that distant land, they imagine they will observe those new people before returning home to show photos and recount tales of adventure.
I have lived this life, but recently I questioned this purpose. Is travel about bringing home photos and stories? Is it about exciting experiences? Or is it more profound?
When I got home, I began to hear the languages around me. As a language-lover, I had to meet people who spoke them so I could learn them. They told me their stories, and they penetrated me, shining light on my privilege and nurturing an imperative to serve others.
They taught me that I was traveling wrong.
Travel was not about capturing an image or an experience for myself, but about connecting with and learning from others. Now that I was home, I traveled in my own community, learning languages, hearing stories not for myself, but in order to serve others.
A life of travel
I have traveled extensively to exotic locations. I ventured into a tiny French village in high school to learn French. To learn Russian and Ukrainian I trekked into Kiev as a student with some of the first Westerners, shortly after the fall of the USSR. In the neighborhood where I lived in Marrakech, I was the only white person, speaking the local Arabic dialect with kids playing in the dirt roads.
Meeting the people motivated me more than anything. I loved to spend hours talking with them, learning about another history, another way of looking at the world. Plus, I was attracted to the connection, becoming close with another human being by overcoming the linguistic and cultural divide.
But I lacked depth. I didn’t realize how my life affected theirs, and their lives did not change me. Granted I learned a lot about their culture and their concerns and their suffering. They opened my eyes. When I returned home, however, I only had a vague notion that their difficulties would continue, in spite of the smiling faces frozen in my photos. They didn’t really change me.
After I settled into the US again, looking around at where I lived began to change me. Opportunities to travel do not come as often, now that I was married with children and working full time. But I discovered in my own community new peoples and cultures—and languages! (I think of myself as Christopher Columbus, discovering new peoples who didn’t realize they needed discovering.)
Once I started exploring my local landscape of people and languages, I was hooked. I loved the experience of discovering new things and speaking other languages. When I lived two years in Seattle, I spent many Saturday afternoons over popcorn and tiny cups of sweet coffee with refugees from Eritrea. Since moving to Minnesota, I’ve become serious about learning Somali, and I learn a little Oromo and Amharic on the side, so I’ve met many people from East Africa.
We’ve spent many hours together—and we enjoyed each other. We were making a connection, just like I had abroad. It reminded me of my days of traveling.
Yet there was one difference: I wasn’t leaving. I was home.
Foreign among the familiar
I was home, and these people made up part of it. They were home, and I could visit them whenever I wanted, no plane ticket required. What a discovery!
Then I noticed, I was alone in my excitement. I talked to language teachers, international development workers, and polyglots, and no one seemed to want to spend time here with this part of their community. While they professed love of language and culture, this love didn’t seem to extend into their own city.
At the same time, I noticed that the most common words I heard about the Somali or Ethiopian communities bore either hate or pity. Neither side saw them as fully human with good and bad sides, but as caricatures pre-defined by race, power, religion, and class. No one came to sit with them to talk.
Our common experience
I recalled the experience of being a foreigner in many countries. Some folks loved me, others hated me, just because of my face and accent. They didn’t know me; they only knew what their media said about people like me.
My new Somali acquaintances and I share something in common: foreignness. Layers on complicated layers. Abroad I was foreign; in my home they are foreign, even though many have lived in Minnesota a decade more than I have. In their coffee shops, they experience a little home; in the same location, I experience the exotic. When they get to relax into their own language, I’m flexing my language-learning muscles. When they leave this coffee shop, they enter into the foreign culture, foreign language, and foreign weather of Minnesota, USA, where they have made of my home their new home.
One big difference is the superficial narrative placed on us. One receives me as white, powerful, and rich; one perceives Somalis as black, poor, and Muslim. The narratives told about us are strong and divisive, in spite of many common points of experience.
From objects to humans
The closer I became to these people in my community, the more my thinking shifted about them. When I used to travel more, I enjoyed hearing about them and their lives. I took photos of street children, of s–hepherds, of old men on donkeys. Their lives differed so strongly from mine.
In Minnesota, I realized that “foreign” people had a story to tell—and that I needed to hear it. Learning languages and chatting with different people all the time facilitated these conversations. Somalis lived through terrible war and flight through multiple countries. Many Oromos suffered at the hand of people in power. I needed these stories, as I wasn’t hearing them anywhere. As an American, I saw how much ease and leisure played a part in my life. I challenged myself with questions:
Does my privilege only mean that I put a larger TV in a larger house with faster wifi? Or does it mean that I work harder for my community?
Their stories challenged mine. Everything that I possess, everything that many of these people came here to attain, needed to serve a higher purpose and to do so I had to learn from them. They taught me that I must serve.
They stopped functioning simply as objects to observe, as their stories penetrated my mind. They taught me, changed me, so that I might serve others better.
Love of community languages
Love of language and travel brought me to these new people. I want to connect with them. I want to become closer to this part of my community, a part that is largely overlooked and segregated.
I learned about humanity, as well, that learning and struggling with a language in a foreign land can bring us together.
My mind shifted. Exotic was not only abroad, it was home. Fascinating experiences and people—they all dwell in my city. They were not here to serve me, however; they were here for me to serve. I did not learn languages just to speak them, but to hear them, hear their stories, and allow them to soften my heart.
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