Monday, February 07, 2011

Learning their language

A small section of my mom's massive collection
of yarn and thread. I'm not a weaver, like she is,
but I think I could pass the basic knowledge test.
Ever felt your forehead or the corners of your mouth tightening in frustration, or your eyelids drooping in fatigue as you listened to someone go on and on about their latest passion, a topic about which you knew nothing? Keep listening, even just a little, and in time you may start to pick it up. You may become like a second- or third-generation immigrant who knows what Grandma's saying when she speaks Spanish, Hindi, or Czech, even if you couldn't put together more than a few sentences of your own in that language. The wall between you starts to crumble. Life becomes more of a shared experience.

My friend K, his wife is one of those women who likes to quilt and sew and do craft projects. K's favorite craft may be beer-making. But he's given himself the husband's class in textiles; he knows the difference between teal and turquoise, and if she asks him to pass the scalpel (or the quilter's equivalent of it), he recognizes the word and is happy to oblige. He doesn't say, "Quilting is her thing. I don't know the first thing about it. Gotta go. The game's on." They have different skills and interests, but neither of them has written off the other's world.  

Have you discovered how much more fun the world can be when you take a little interest in other people's interests? It comes more naturally to me than most, and after spending enough time doing cross-cultural anthropology projects it's almost automatic. It's been my job "to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations" as they say on Star Trek. 

Someday I'm going to have to write that book, the one about how to learn another language - how to ask good questions about stuff you know nothing about and get people to open up their worlds to you.  Engaging ways to invite people to teach you the basics, to show them you want to learn; that would be an early chapter. How to pick up and use "native terms" to discover how other people tick, that would be another. I want to take those cross-cultural skills and put them in the hands of people who never go overseas but could use a few tools to better engage with the world around them. 

On the other hand, whether this book would sell, whether it would change things for people who read it, might still really depend on the question of motivation. Do you care? Do you want to know what's going on in that person's head or why they do what they do? If that motivation is there, maybe that's more important than all the learning skills I could give you. You may not need to take the class or read the book.  
  • I have to admit, I don't know anything about that. I'd like to know more.
  • Tell me about a project you're working on now.
  • How did you get into this? How did you learn about it? 
  • What are some of the things you've discovered along the way?
  • What's that called? How do you use it? What's the difference between ____ and ____?
  • So a ______ is for ______. Right? What else can you do with it?
  • Can you show me how it works?


@ngie said...

Marti, the concept of basic learning skills has been vital for us on the field not only in the acquisition of language and culture but also in helping other people learn to learn. Really enjoyed reading this post.

Marti said...

Thanks Angie! I had fun writing it. It's much easier to stay motivated to learn when you are living, incompetent, in another culture, but I think the world would be a better place if we brought those skills home, too! The classic text on doing ethnography in English is James Spradley's =The Ethnographic Interview=, a slim paperback that, as a college text, runs some $80 I think. I want to write "Spradley for dummies." I bet you find yourself passing on a lot of helpful, transferable "learning" skills with your kids!

Scott Fields said...

First, let me point out that YOU were the one who opened the door to Star Trek references. I want that clearly established so--at the very least--no one thinks I'm the ONLY Trekker-crouton around here. Having said that. . . .

One of the best Star Trek episodes I ever saw involved the Enterprise encountering a species that had been categorized as "unintelligible" by Starfleet. No one could grasp the rudiments of their language. To bridge the gap between them, the alien captain took Captain Picard down to the planet below where together they faced a common threat--and learned to understand one another along the way. All they really needed was context. After that, the language itself was easy.

That's what jumped to mind as I read your (excellent) entry here. What's most interesting is that this same wall exists between many people who speak the same language. Our separations aren't entirely philological after all.

One last thought on this: wouldn't we love it if people began taking a sincere interest in OUR passions. . . ? Why, then, should we hesitate to make the same attempt with others first?

- Scott

Marti said...

Nice geeky addition, Mr. Scott :-) Yes, Star Trek provides lots of fodder for cross-cultural insight. I think I remember that episode... A similar one made it into one of my newsletters I believe. When I lived in Sofarawayistan we used to watch them together.

It's human nature to tune out stuff we're not interested in. But if we value the people who are interested in what we're not interested in, we might take an interest... and find the world that much more - interesting!

Thanks for your comment!