How learning a language can help you build empathy and expose prejudices you never knew you had
But as we grew up, we realised we had other prejudices built into us that we inherited from our surroundings. Society — and even our family and friends — tell us things about people of other cultures that make everyday racism feel totally normal.
Every time we feel there’s some prejudice inside us — being subtly scared of people of another culture, having a broad and general impression of them that lacks nuance — we feel embarrassed and think “we should correct this”. But how?
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In today’s age, xenophobia is on the increase everywhere. It’s triggered by anything involving an “other”, whether it’s against the Chinese due to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, against anyone from the Middle East post-911, or against Syrians and Afghans (and others of Arab descent) in the 2015-onward European migrant crisis.
Britain, which recently exited the European Union, has long been the least multilingual country in the region. It’s a correlation, definitely, but a striking one, especially when you read of sporadic incidents like people writing public signs saying “we will not tolerate people speaking languages other than English”.
There are many approaches that open-minded people take to learn more about the world around them. These include watching documentaries and films, reading articles and books, trying to make friends in other ethnic communities, or even eating food.
Nothing is wrong with any method of beating out inner prejudice, and if great food can bring about peace, then eat to your heart’s content. In no time, I’m sure you’ll have a great deal of sensitivity towards Japanese, Koreans, Italians, Peruvians, the Taiwanese, and any other place that’s great for great food for cultural immersion (a list we have to make because every list I found online had some major flaw!).
Our method of choice for breaking down xenophobia is learning a language. It’s not just us that think it’s an effective tool — experts also agree that learning languages breaks down cultural barriers.
We wanted to share a little below about how language learning breaks through xenophobia and share some examples of what languages to learn.
How Learning Languages Combats Xenophobia
There are a few ways in which learning languages helps you beat xenophobia.
Xenophobia, by the way, means “fear of others”. It means having a generic fear towards people who are different to you in some way — culturally, religiously, ethnically, or just from a different town nearby (in more medieval times, perhaps, or in The Simpsons).
But there are a few distinct things we learn via learning another language that can surprise us, and we want to share those.
1. We learn to hear the beauty in another language.
A common racist trope is to describe another language as “ugly” or “unpleasant sounding”.
I heard this many times about Cantonese when in Hong Kong. I have heard it about many other languages, too.
It’s easy to describe any language as “ugly”. Just associate a language with someone yelling something loudly and maybe angrily — maybe threateningly — and it becomes ugly.
But once you start associating a language with pleasant memories and friendly people it becomes more beautiful.
The more we learn languages, the more we have chances to make friends with people just like us — but who speak another language. Because they’re like us, we see them as a reflection of ourselves. We don’t think of ourselves as “ugly”, and so we start to associate how we perceive ourselves as how we perceive people speaking it, and thus the language.
2. By learning a language we learn how to better appreciate other people’s cultural values.
There are some values that are universal to all of us, everywhere around the world. Everyone values things like family and children, safety, income security, health, and the environment — though we all do so in different ways.
But the more time you spend learning the language of another culture, the more you start noticing certain words and themes that exist that don’t have a precise translation into English (or your native language), and which you seem to hear more often.
For example, in Persian, we have a concept called aaberoo (آبرو). Loosely, this word means “a sense of shame”. It’s a more common theme in Eastern cultures and languages — Chinese people will be thinking “hey, is it like 面子, or face?” and yes, it kind of is.
This concept of “shame” or “honour” dictates a lot of what Persians and Chinese consider appropriate behaviour. You do things or don’t do things because you’re concerned with how they’re perceived. You might understand this intuitively (after all, every culture has shame), but the way the words are used in Persian and Chinese give you a bit of insight into just how important shame is in those cultures.
There are many examples like this one very language. I’m just learning now about the concept in Korean of “not showing the whites of your eyes”. It crops up in a lot of Korean dramas. When someone wants someone else to be apologetic — and often the other person is defiantly refusing and staring at the person they’ve offended — the offended person will ask them to “lower their eyes” (“눈, 깔아!”).
3. You’ll get to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
There’s something magical about using someone else’s language. Because you’re learning to express your thoughts using the way other people phrase theirs, you inevitably start expressing parts of other people’s thoughts.
For example, in a few other languages, it’s really common to describe something “really good” as “really not bad”. In French it’s vraiment pas mal. In Chinese it’s 相当不错. This kind of expression sounds really funny to English speakers like me who just want people to commit to a feeling. “Just say it’s good!” But to say something is good is a little too strong in many cases.
Or inevitably, when learning to speak Arabic, you learn a lot of words including the word الله, or “Allah”, the Arabic and Muslim word for God. At first, this seems really seriously religious. But the word Allah infuses Arabic so much that non-Muslims and even non-religious people use those words all the time.
For example, when appreciating someone else’s children, it’s customary to say “مَا شَاءَ ٱللَّٰهُ”, ma sha Allah, which means “God has willed it”. This is part of a complex tradition involving an element of superstition (depends on who you ask), but basically it’s an acknowledgement that everything good comes from God. When people use this expression, they’re not necessarily saying they’re Muslim or religious or anything. It’s just an expression. Christians, use it, atheists use it, I use it.
The Three Best Languages to Combat Xenophobia
OK, so here they are.
The way we chose these languages, by the way, was to think
- What are the biggest groups of people that other people are afraid of?
- Is there another language to learn to bridge the gap?
So here’s what we think people should learn: Arabic, Chinese, and… any major African language.
Arabic (A spoken dialect or Modern Standard Arabic)
Since as long as I can remember, people in the West have misunderstood Arabs.
This has definitely been the case since long before I was born. There are smatterings of evidence in history and popular media of misunderstandings of Arabs by most people, for example in the book the Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia), written in the early part of the 20th century. In it, Lawrence described being unable to describe what the British were doing to the Arabs, and what the Arabs were doing to the British. Both sides were incapable of understanding each other.
Non-Arabs have been confused about Arabs (and Islam, by association) especially since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and 9/11 in the USA. People are mystified by any group of foreigners that wear turbans or alternative forms of dress.
But learning Arabic can help you figure out a weird and different part of the world.
Even learning ABOUT Arabic is a great start. For example, check out our list of Arabic facts (in progress).
A few things we learned via learning Arabic:
- Even though Arabic is the language of Islam, not all Arabic speakers are Muslim. Many are Christian or non-religious. Anyway, by exposure they’d definitely be quite familiar with Islam.
- Arabic influences a surprising number of other languages — Persian I knew about, there are a lot of Arabic words in Persian. But also Swahili, Hausa, and Urdu.
- You don’t learn to speak one kind of Arabic — you learn to speak a dialect. And the differences between dialects are huge.
That’s just a snapshot.
The main takeaway we got from studying Arabic and living in Egypt for a bit was making friends with people of Arab/Egyptian background of all walks of life. It was part of us that felt empty, and it’s on the path to being less empty now.
Next stop for us now is Lebanon to learn Levantine Arabic… and also to check out living in Beirut, which we hear is a lot of fun.
An unfortunate consequence of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is that many people see it as an excuse to be racist again.
It happens everywhere around the world. Asians (of any origin) tell stories of people coughing at them, blurting out “corona” as they walk past, or even being physically assaulted.
In China, xenophobia is rising against foreigners. Superficially, shop holders are being instructed to (or deciding to) stop serving foreigners.
In these times, innocent people of Asian background — who make up a quarter of the world’s population — are becoming afraid of being Asian again.
The best way I can recommend to help bridge a gap of fear between the non-Asian and Asian world is to learn an Asian language. Japanese and Korean will do, but learning Chinese is probably the best bang-for-your-buck option.
Also read: Here are 20+ really interesting facts about Chinese you might enjoy.
Chinese is quite hard to learn. Even though the grammar is quite simple compared to most other major languages, the tones and the lack of homonyms makes building vocabulary a challenge for many Westerners.
So you don’t have to learn too much before you start building a few bridges across cultures.
Some of the things I learned about Chinese culture while learning about Chinese language were:
- Chinese cultural values: Among many other cultural values that are common to many cultures (like respect, honesty and so on), filial piety (孝, xiào) is so important in Chinese society that it has pervaded most of East Asia. Ask anyone in Korea, Japan, or Thailand what the duties of a child are and they’re likely to mention taking care of their parents.
- Chinese comedy: Comedy is different everywhere. Before studying Chinese I didn’t think of China as having particularly interesting comedy. But while studying Chinese I learned about “crosstalk” (相声, xiāngsheng), a kind of “Abbot & Costello” style of repartee between two people in character. Because it’s all acting and people are in character, Crosstalk is often a way people can slyly make fun of the government without any individual being responsible for the words. “It’s all in character!”
- Chinese attitudes to government: In the West people assume everyone in China loves the government, or has no idea about the massacres, or the cultural revolution and so on. Spending time talking to Chinese people helped me see nuance. People are coy about what they believe, but the more time you spend, the more time you see… Chinese people know what’s going on.
Before I studied Chinese and went to China I felt like they were a different people. Now, my eyes brighten every time I hear Mandarin or Cantonese spoken. “These are people I understand”, I think. I often have to hold back from spontaneously saying something.
Writing this article makes me want to go back to China. Hopefully in 2021, if everything clears up.
Any major African language
It’s not newsworthy that there is prejudice and fear of Black* people in most parts of the world (other than in Africa).
In the US, Black people are Americans, like anyone else. There’s no other language that Black Americans necessarily speak. So learning a language doesn’t help bridge that gap.
But in most parts of the world, the Black people that people misunderstand and fear are those that are from the continent of Africa.
Growing up in Australia, I had almost no exposure to Black people of any nationality other than Aboriginal Australians. I always knew it was a gap in my knowledge, and even after having travelled to Africa and learned Swahili, it’s still a gap.
The problem is that there’s no one indigenous language that unites all of Africa. The closest thing to a universal language in Africa is English. After that, there are several predominant regional languages.
I suggest you pick a place you want to go to and go learn that language.
Here are some suggestions
- East Africa: Learn Swahili. You can do this in Tanzania or Kenya, and afterwards you can put your skills to use anywhere in those regions — particularly on the Swahili coast.
- Nigeria: Learn Hausa, Yoruba, or Igbo.
- West Africa: Learn French. Yes, it’s a colonial language, but in many countries, people completely own it.
- Ethiopia: Learn Amharic or Oromo. Amharic is the official language, but there are more Oromo speakers
- North Africa: Learn Arabic, specifically a North African dialect (see here for an overview of spoken Arabic dialects).
There are many other languages you could learn to figure out a part of Africa, live there for a while, and try to blend in. But the above is a pretty great start.
* We capitalise Black following an emerging trend of recognising and giving voice to Black Americans.
Which language should you learn to fight Xenophobia?
It’s hard to choose one single language to learn. I’d generally suggest picking the one you have more of a natural affinity for — you might have friends of that background, or a desire to travel to the region, or an attraction to the TV shows or media that region produces.
It’s hard enough to learn languages when it’s not fun. So you may as well pick something you’re motivated to learn.
Whatever it is… good luck!