Does it piss you off if you hear someone near you speaking Spanish? How about Chinese?
Does it make you angry if you hear someone near you speaking an East European language? How about Arabic?
Do you adore the sound of French or Italian, but not German or Filipino?
Do the sounds of some languages make you laugh and others make you cringe? Does Chinese sound like ching-chong to you and Swedish like bork-bork?
If you answered yes to any of these, then you've got a serious language bias and I'm here to inspire you. I've learned a hundred languages from around the world, some big, some small... and I've noticed some interesting patterns emerge.
In the past few years, I've just been alarmed by several news stories, mostly coming out of the United States, but sometimes these things happen in other countries which don't make the news in the anglophone world. Some examples:
A woman becoming outraged in a restaurant because the table next to her was speaking a Middle Eastern language.
A man waiting in line told the woman to go back to Mexico if she wanted to speak Mexican. She said she was speaking Navajo and told him to go back to England if he wanted to speak English. (Navajo has been spoken for thousands of years before the United States came and set up shop on their land).
Aaron Schlossberg, a New York lawyer, apparently went crazy over a sandwich in May 2018 after hearing a customer and worker happily speaking to each other in Spanish. Obviously he was angry they were happy and he wasn't, but "foreign language" was a great excuse to make a scene and demonstrate that you can still make infantile temper tantrums even when approaching senescence.
And we've seen videos of rants by people on public transport from Australia and England as well. You see these news because you're in the Anglophone news-sphere, but they're also getting reported in other countries and in other languages. For example, intolerance in Japan, Thailand, or Russia towards foreigners or the way they speak or act. We've also heard of inhumane work practice in places like Dubai where people of certain origins are treated with less dignity and respect.
Biases can be stronger in countries that are more homogeneous but start to have increasing numbers of immigrants. Biases also crop up more often than not due to established human interaction and also of perceived behavior. The lack of either of these is not really sufficient to establish negative biases. So you're more likely to have a neutral bias towards cultures and languages that you have never seen or heard before, until you start using one or the other to construct your opinions.
For example, how do you feel about the way Azerbaijani sounds and the way the people act? No bias whatsoever? Is that because you've never seen or heard them? How about Iranians? How about Iranian Azerbaijanis? Are you starting to get mixed feelings based on political stances? Are you able to stay objective?
Is it no wonder that Anthony Bourdain could connect our cultures, despite the politics and hatred, and show the world how we all come down to the same common denominator: food. Here is a man that showed us how to love our fellow humans, showing that we all really are the same on this little blue dot in the universe.
So what's the problem? Where and how do biases arise?
To our immature ears, strange and exotic sounds coming out of people's mouths sound like the funniest thing in the world. But hopefully you're past the age of six.
As linguists who study many of the world's minority languages, we find that biases are part of human nature. And although small communities may perceive their own size as a weakness and acknowledge and encourage foreign culture and customs to permeate their own, there are still many small communities that are vehemently against any outsiders.
It's no joke that Sentinelese is the hardest language to learn in the world. Simply because nobody can even approach their island to hear it spoken. As it is with languages: If we can hear it, we can decipher it. The local population on the island prevents all contact with the outside world and have killed all those who have tried, which is why the Indian government now forbids anybody to get close. The same has been true for some Amazonian tribes in Peru in recent decades, but in 2015 it was reported that many of these tribes have started initiating contact with the outside world. But it's still something they need to get used to as not every indigenous person is onboard with the idea, as proven when someone succumbed to injuries after getting an arrow through the heart. Our fear of outsiders and the overwhelming differences sometimes causes knee-jerk reactions like shooting an arrow. But deep down inside, we have the same body parts, the same emotions, and even our languages all express the same palette of human experience and emotions from nourishment and love to family and community.
There are cultures that are prone to being more open to outsiders, and there are those that are more closed off to outsiders. I've known people of all races who say that they have enjoyed living in Chinese communities, whether in China or Taiwan or other locations. Within China a foreigner of white or black skin is quite rare and gets some attention, lots of curiosity and questions. But this is a benign form and quite a friendly form of bias. It's true that you'll get treated differently in China unless you prove yourself to be as local as everyone else. I have white skin and sometimes appear to have aberrant behavior, but as a near-native speaker of Chinese can pass for as local as I want to be.
China is not a homogeneous country: there are 52 minorities that when counted in numbers are sometimes bigger than whole countries. The 10 or so million Hmong within China are very well integrated with Chinese society. The Yi minority, on the other hand, has been very resistant to integration within Chinese society. Chinese, the language, has so many different dialects and accents that nobody expects any two people to speak alike. So there is a lot of tolerance for differences within China. The Chinese don't react when somebody next to them is speaking Cantonese, Hmong, Yi, Russian, English, Swahili, or otherwise. They're usually too involved in their own rowdy conversation to notice! Here in the small area of Taiwan, we have three different Chinese cultures all living side by side, with influence from 16 indigenous cultures and immigrant cultures, and some mixing between all of them which creates a very unique, peaceful and heterogeneous culture.
The Chinese do have their biases towards Southeast Asians who mostly show up as manual laborers doing menial jobs. They tend to be looked down upon, treated differently, not integrated well, simply because of their behavior and the kinds of jobs they do. But I've also known quite a few successful Filipinos, Indonesians, and Thais who have done quite well to integrate within Chinese communities and gain respect and prestige, simply because of the kind of work they choose to do, and the confidence they exude.
The French and Italian people have their haute culture: coffee shops full of mannerisms, exquisite dining, fashion, expensive clothing and cars, and design. And of course, carefully worded polite phrases with vous and voudrais and vorrei. In fact, it is often the English native speaker that is viewed as more crass in comparison. Where does the English speaker find bias in someone speaking French or Italian? It seemingly never comes up.
But there is one place of discontent: the Italian connection with the mafia. So again, it comes down to associated and perceived organizational behaviors which can become the scapegoat for a whole culture that doesn't even approve of it itself.
So we have these biases. How can we improve ourselves to become better year after year?
How to Cure Your Bias
Why do People Speak Other Languages
I want to adjust your mindset for a moment. Let's be the other guy for a moment.
Imagine that you're a white guy from Des Moines, Iowa who now works in Chicago. Now imagine that you're in a big city very far away, called Berlin, because you were sent there to have a meeting. You've even got a phrasebook in your pocket and can already say a few greetings in German, plus your old rusty German classes from high school vague in your memory.
You're in an elevator at your hotel and you nod at the other guy in the elevator who starts chatting with you. You both find out that you're from Des Moines, Iowa. And you're both thinking, No Way! In fact, you even went to the same high school. No Way! You start chatting so happily about life and things, and how you ended up in the same elevator in Berlin.
Suddenly as you leave the elevator someone yells at you, how dare you speak in your foreign language scheming against us!
Of course, no German person in their right mind would ever mutter such a thing! This is a made up scenario. But it's a scenario that people face every day.
Would you feel shocked?
Why were you speaking your language to that guy from the same place as you?
Is it not true that when people from similar backgrounds get around each other, they automatically revert to their "home"-style way of doing things and speaking? It brings back memories, it feels good, it reminds them of home cooking, and of life back home. Why would you put on airs and pretend to be someone you're not? If you connect with someone in that way, why would you switch to the official language when it sounds so off-putting? In fact, you wouldn't be able to make that human connection if you were speaking that official language.
Official languages are actually created languages (in most countries). They have been manipulated in some way in the last 200 years to try and unify everybody in a single country so that everyone can speak to everyone else. Examples of official languages based on former regional lects: American English, BBC English, Mandarin, Filipino, Finnish, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Arabic, Swahili, Thai, Indonesian, and the list just goes on and on.
The chance of two people from the same town speaking one of these official languages above is near zero. Because it destroys whatever connection you were supposed to have to begin with.
If you can't acknowledge your problem to other people, then at least acknowledge it to yourself. Make a note, and say: I'm going to become a better person. You can reach this goal by the end of the year. And you'll be a better person next year because of it.
There is no correlation between the sounds of language and our cultures. Human mouths are universally the same: there are various points for the tongue to make contact within the mouth, and as babies learning to speak, our tongues get "stuck in a rut" using only about four or five movements for all sounds. Other languages have different "ruts". These ruts developed over millennia and morph very slowly over hundreds of years so each language and dialect is unique. A dialect is simply one where the ruts are all the same, but only off by a tiny little bit.
All humans are capable of any other human language. If you grew up within that community as a baby, it is most likely that you'll speak their language like a native speaker, no matter what your skin looks like. Because generally speaking, skin pigment has no correlation with tongue movements. (I know, but you'd be surprised how many people can't figure this out).
Our culture doesn't necessarily restrict us to what we can achieve. Just because someone is stuck in manual labor doesn't mean that they could have achieved something else given the right education, the right mindset, and the right direction. A lot of people get stuck in what they're doing, or continue a reality of within their own comfort zone. There are plenty of people who achieve a great number of successes, no matter what their background.
We often see that those with the fire burning in their heart who are born into poverty or where the odds are stacked up against them are the ones who are able to break out and become tremendous successes. But have you to get out of your comfort zone and be audacious. And you have to be relentless in your pursuit of what you want to achieve. All cultures and all races are capable of the same.
But we need to cut our bias of others to give them a chance as well.
First acknowledge whether or not you're granting other people the benefit of the doubt without letting any bias show. Judge people on merit, not by where they're from or how they look.
Second: Exposure, Exposure, Exposure
If you have a bias or a fear of some other culture or language, take a trip to their country or to their community. Make friends, sit down and eat, and connect as humans over food, as Anthony Bourdain taught us to do. Listen to their stories. Listen to their humanity. The more you listen and learn, the more you realize they're the same as you, just living in different circumstances.
One of the best things to do is to start listening to what their language sounds like through Glossika. And what Glossika does is not just let you sample the language, but actually repeats the basic patterns so that you start to hear meaning in the language rather than just random sounds. This can be accomplished without having to study any vocabulary, grammar, or pronunciation. Just turn it on and let it do its thing.
You can choose the language from the list, and then listen to the bilingual audio for a thousand reps (do one session per day and that will take about a week). I recommend doing 10,000 reps to break down any biases you have. Because at 10,000 reps, you've started to understand the language. You break through the noise of foreign sounds and start to actually listen to what people are saying. Big difference!
When you start understanding a foreign language, and you're not just hearing ching-bork sounds anymore, stuff starts to make sense, and your humanity starts to shine through. You start to strive to understand and communicate with other people rather than building up walls and blocking them off.
Third: Learn, Learn, Learn
Language is the key to everything. Language drives our world, our lives, our commerce, our families, everything. Governments and laws could not have been established without language. Tech giants like Alphabet (haha that name), Facebook, and Twitter are platforms based off of you using language.
When you look at a foreigner in the face, and listen to their words, in their voice, and understand what they're saying, you've now opened up your world and your eyes to a great number of new possibilities. You can now start to share ideas with one another, make human connections, and eat together.
No matter how small the effort or ability of your own, if their language is a smaller one, it shows them that you care, respect, and understand about their existence, that you're willing to go out of your way to learn not just their name, but to understand and connect with them. And that goes a lot farther than defaulting to the official language without making that connection.
Fourth: Don't rely on machine translation
Machine translation might help you when you're stuck trying to get or give directions or get food or get where you need to go.
But don't rely on machine translation to replace human connection. If we continue to do this more and more, we're only going to become a world full of more biases.
A husband and wife should speak each other's languages and only rely on tech to learn but not replace communication. I can only imagine that a relationship built entirely on machine translation would lead to a rather shallow, if not artificial, relationship. And the same applies to why we should speak face to face rather than always communicate through text.
It's a bad attitude to say: "I only have to communicate with that guy out of necessity and I don't want to have to learn anything, so I'll let the machine do it for me, and who cares if it gets it right or not."
Of course when neither of you share a language in common, that might be necessary. But if this is an investment into a long-term partnership or friendship, find common ground and make an effort to learn each other's languages and connect with people at a local level.
Part of the reason why Google has been so successful is because right from the beginning they realized the importance of all the languages out there in the world and allowing people to find the information they sought. In recent years Google has gotten "local" knowing that what you're looking for makes better sense when it's close to you geographically. So understanding your language and helping you find things in your area is one of the key's to Google's success.
As humans, learn to treat people at a local level.
No, you can't speak for your whole country or demand that people throw away their local connections in favor of an official, universal way of speaking. Because it's evil to strip them of the very connection that brought them together in the first place. Don't be evil guys.
My Challenge to You
Learn the language that you hate the most. Force yourself to do it. Start today.
It'll change the way you look at the world. It'll make you a better person. You'll treat everybody differently because of the insight you've gained.
Is it worth it? Definitely. The whole world will thank you.