The surprising unpredictability of language in use

This morning I recieved an e-mail from an international professional association that I belong to. The e-mail was in English, but it was not written by an American. As a linguist, I recognized the differences in formality and word use as signs that the person who wrote the e-mail is speaking from a set of experiences with English that differ from my own. Nothing in the e-mail was grammatically incorrect (although as a linguist I am hesitant to judge any linguistic differences as correct or incorrect, especially out of context).

Then later this afternoon I saw a tweet from Twitter on the correct use of Twitter abbreviations (RT, MT, etc.). If the growth of new Twitter users has indeed leveled off then Twitter is lucky, because the more Twitter grows the less they will be able to influence the language use of their base.

Language is a living entity that grows, evolves and takes shape based on individual experiences and individual perceptions of language use. If you think carefully about your experiences with language learning, you will quickly see that single exposures and dictionary definitions teach you little, but repeated viewings across contexts teach you much more about language.

Language use is patterned. Every word combination has a likelihood of appearing together, and that likelihood varies based on a host of contextual factors. Language use is complex. We use words in a variety of ways across a variety of contexts. These facts make language interesting, but they also obscure language use from casual understanding. The complicated nature of language in use interferes with analysts who build assumptions about language into their research strategies without realizing that their assumptions would not stand up to careful observation or study.

I would advise anyone involved in the study of language use (either as a primary or secondary aspect of their analysis) to take language use seriously. Fortunately, linguistics is fun and language is everywhere. So hop to it!

Great description of a census at Kakuma refugee camp

It’s always fun for a professional survey researcher to stumble upon a great pop cultural reference to a survey. Yesterday I heard a great description of a census taken at Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The description was in the book I’m currently reading: What Is the What by Dave Eggers (great book, I highly recommend it!). The book itself is fiction, loosely based on a true story, so this account likely stems from a combination of observation and imagination. The account reminds me of some of the field reports and ethnographic findings in other intercultural survey efforts, both national (US census) and inter or multinational.

To set the stage, Achak is the main character and narrator of the story. He is one of the “lost boys” of Sudan, and he found his way to Kakuma after a long and storied escape from his war-ravaged hometown. At Kakuma he was taken in by another Denka man, named Gop, who is acting as a kind of father to Achak.

What is the What by Dave Eggers

What is the What by Dave Eggers

“The announcement of the census was made while Gop was waiting for the coming of his wife and daughters, and this complicated his peace of mind. To serve us, to feed us, the UNHCR and Kakuma’s many aid groups needed to know how many refugees were at the camp. Thus, in 1994 they announced they would count us. It would only take a few days, they said. To the organizers I am sure it seemed a very simple, necessary, and uncontroversial directive. But for the Sudanese elders, it was anything but.

—What do you think they have planned? Gop Chol wondered aloud.

I didn’t know what he meant by this, but soon I understood what had him, and the majority of Sudanese elders, greatly concerned. Some learned elders were reminded of the colonial era, when Africans were made to bear badges of identification on their necks.

—Could this counting be a pretext of a new colonial period? Gop mused.—It’s very possible.
Probable even!

I said nothing.

At the same time, there were practical, less symbolic, reasons to oppose the census, including the fact that many elders imagined that it would decrease, not increase, our rations. If they discovered there were fewer of us than had been assumed, the food donations from the rest of the world would drop. The more pressing and widespread fear among young and old at Kakuma was that the census would be a way for the UN to kill us all. These fears were only exacerbated when the fences were erected.

The UN workers had begun to assemble barriers, six feet tall and arranged like hallways. The fences would ensure that we would walk single file on our way to be counted, and thus counted only once. Even those among us, the younger Sudanese primarily, who were not so worried until then, became gravely concerned when the fences went up. It was a malevolent-looking thing, that maze of fencing, orange and opaque. Soon even the best educated among us bought into the suspicion that this was a plan to eliminate the Dinka. Most of the Sudanese my age had learned of the Holocaust, and were convinced that this was a plan much like that used to eliminate the Jews in Germany and Poland. I was dubious of the growing paranoia, but Gop was a believer. As rational a man as he was, he had a long memory for injustices visited upon the people of Sudan.

—What isn’t possible, boy? he demanded.—See where we are? You tell me what isn’t possible at this time in Africa!

But I had no reason to distrust the UN. They had been feeding us at Kakuma for years. There was not enough food, but they were the ones providing for everyone, and thus it seemed nonsensical that they would kill us after all this time.

—Yes, he reasoned,—but see, perhaps now the food has run out. The food is gone, there’s no more money, and Khartoum has paid the UN to kill us. So the UN gets two things: they get to save food, and they are paid to get rid of us.

—But how will they get away with it?

—That’s easy, Achak. They say that we caught a disease only the Dinka can get. There are always illnesses unique to certain people, and this is what will happen. They’ll say there was a Dinka plague, and that all the Sudanese are dead. This is how they’ll justify killing every last one of us.
—That’s impossible, I said.

—Is it? he asked.—Was Rwanda impossible?

I still thought that Gop’s theory was unreliable, but I also knew that I should not forget that there were a great number of people who would be happy if the Dinka were dead. So for a few days, I did not make up my mind about the head count. Meanwhile, public sentiment was solidifying against our participation, especially when it was revealed that the fingers of all those counted, after being counted, would be dipped in ink.

—Why the ink? Gop asked. I didn’t know.

—The ink is a fail-safe measure to ensure the Sudanese will be exterminated.

I said nothing, and he elaborated. Surely if the UN did not kill us Dinka while in the lines, he theorized, they would kill us with this ink on the fingers. How could the ink be removed? It would, he thought, enter our bodies when we ate.

—This seems very much like what they did to the Jews, Gop said.

People spoke a lot about the Jews in those days, which was odd, considering that a short time before, most of the boys I knew thought the Jews were an extinct race. Before we learned about the Holocaust in school, in church we had been taught rather crudely that the Jews had aided in the killing of Jesus Christ. In those teachings, it was never intimated that the Jews were a people still inhabiting the earth. We thought of them as mythological creatures who did not exist outside the stories of the Bible. The night before the census, the entire series of fences, almost a mile long, was torn down. No one took responsibility, but many were quietly satisfied.

In the end, after countless meetings with the Kenyan leadership at the camp, the Sudanese elders were convinced that the head count was legitimate and was needed to provide better services to the refugees. The fences were rebuilt, and the census was conducted a few weeks later. But in a way, those who feared the census were correct, in that nothing very good came from it. After the count, there was less food, fewer services, even the departure of a few smaller programs. When they were done counting, the population of Kakuma had decreased by eight thousand people in one day.

How had the UNHCR miscounted our numbers before the census? The answer is called recycling.

Recycling was popular at Kakuma and is favored at most refugee camps, and any refugee anywhere in the world is familiar with the concept, even if they have a different name for it. The essence of the idea is that one can leave the camp and re-enter as a different person, thus keeping his first ration card and getting another when he enters again under a new name. This means that the recycler can eat twice as much as he did before, or, if he chooses to trade the extra rations, he can buy or otherwise obtain anything else he needs and is not being given by the UN—sugar, meat, vegetables. The trading resulting from extra ration cards provided the basis for a vast secondary economy at Kakuma, and kept thousands of refugees from anemia and related illnesses. At any given time, the administrators of Kakuma thought they were feeding eight thousand more people than they actually were. No one felt guilty about this small numerical deception.

The ration-card economy made commerce possible, and the ability of different groups to manipulate and thrive within the system led soon enough to a sort of social hierarchy at Kakuma.”

I conducted my first diversity training today…

One of the perks of my grad program is learning how to conduct diversity training.

Today I was able to put that skill to use for the first time. I conducted a workshop for a local parents group about Talking with your Kids about Race and Diversity. I co-facilitated it with Elvira Magomedova, a recent graduate from the MLC program who has more experience and more of a focus in this area. It was a really interesting and rewarding experience.

We did 4 activities:

1. We introduced ourselves by telling our immigration stories. I saw this last week at an open house at my daughter’s middle school, and it profoundly reminded me about the personal ways in which we all embody global history and the immigrant nature of the US. Between feuding clans in Ireland,  narrow escapes from the holocaust and traveling singers in Europe, this exercise is both powerful and fun. Characters and events really come alive, and everyone is left on a more equal footing.

2. For the 2nd activity, we explored the ways in which we identify ourselves. We each put a circle in the center of a sheet of paper, an then we added four bubble spokes with groups or cultures or ways in which we identify ourselves. The exercise came from Cultural Awareness Learning Module One. At the bottom of the page, we explored these relationships more deeply, e.g. “I’m a parent, but I’m not a stay at home parent” or “I’m Muslim, but I’m not practicing my religion.” We spoke in depth about our pages in pairs and then shared some with the group.

3. This is a fun activity for parents and kid alike. We split into two groups, culture A and culture B. Each culture has a list of practices, e.g. standing close or far, making eye contact or not, extensive vs minimal greetings or leavetaking, shaking or not shaking hands, … The groups learn, practice, and then mingle. This is a profoundly awkward activity!

After mingling, we get back into the group and discuss the experience. It soon becomes obvious that people take differences in “culture” personally. People complain that it seemed like their interlocuters were just trying to get away from them, or seemed overly interested in them, or…. They also complain about how hard it is to adjust your practices to act in the prescribed way.

This exercise is a good way for people to understand the ways in which conflicting cultural norms play out, and it helps parents to understand how to work out misunderstandings with their kids.

4. Finally, my daughter made a slide show of people from all over the world. The people varied in countless physical ways from each other, and we used them to stimulate conversation about physical differences. As adults, we tend to ascribe a bevvy of sociological baggage to these physical differences, but the reality is that, unless we’re Steven Colbert, there are striking physical differences between people. As parents, we are often taken aback when our kids speak openly about differences that we’ve grown accustomed to not talking about. It’s natural and normal to wonder how to handle these observations.

The upshot of this conversation is that describing anyone by a single physical category doesn’t really make sense. If you’re talking about a physical description of someone, you have a number of physical features to comment on. Whereas referring to anyone by a single physical feature could be offensive, a more detailed description is simply a more accurate physical description. We don’t have to use judgmental words, like “good hair,” but that shouldn’t stop us from talking about curly, straight, wavy, thick or thin. We can talk about people in terms of their height or body shape, face shape, hair texture, color or style, eye shape or color, mouth shape, ear size, nose style, skin tone, and so much more. Artificial racial or ethnic groupings don’t *really* describe what someone looks like, talks like, or has experienced.

More than this, once we have seen people in any kind of action, we have their actions and our relationship with them to use as resources. Given all of those resources, choosing race or ethnicity as a first descriptive level with our kids, or even using that descriptor and stopping, sends the message to the kids that that is the only feature that matters. It draws boundaries before it begins conversations. It passes “us and them” along.

Race and ethnicity are one way to describe a person, but they are far from the only way. And they, more than any other way, carry the most baggage. Does that mean they should be avoided or declared taboo?

This week in my Ethnography of Communication class, we each went to Gallaudet, the deaf university in DC, and observed. One of my classmates commented about her discomfort with her lack of fluency in ASL, or American Sign Language. Her comment reminded me of my kids and their cousins. My kids speak English, and only a little bit of Amharic and Tigrinya. Some of their cousins only spoke Tigrinya when they met. Some only spoke Swedish. Some spoke English with very different accents. But the language barriers never stopped them from playing with each other.

In fact, we talk about teaching our kids about diversity, but our kids should be the ones to teach us!

Here are the main lessons I’ve learned from my kids:

1. Don’t cut yourself off from people because you don’t share a common language. Communication actually runs much deeper than language. I think, for example, of one of my sisters inlaw. When we first met, we didn’t have a common language. But the more I was able to get to know her over time, the more we share. I really cherish my relationship with her, and I wouldn’t have it if I had let my language concerns get in the way of communicating with her.

2. People vary a lot, strikingly, in physical ways. These are worthy of comment, okay to notice, and important parts of what make people unique.

3. If you cut yourself off from discomfort or potential differences, you draw a line between you and many of the people around you.

4. It is okay to be wrong, or to still be learning. Learning is a lifelong process. Just because we’re adults doesn’t mean we have to have it all down pat. Don’t be afraid to fail, to mess up. Your fear will get you nowhere. How could you have learned anything if you were afraid of messing up?

In sum, this experience was a powerful one and an interesting one. I sincerely hope that the conversations we began will continue.

* Edited to Add:

Thandie Newton TED talk, Embracing Otherness

Chimamanda Adichie TED talk: The danger of a single story

GREAT letter with loads of resources:

an interesting article that we read in class: why white parents don’t talk about race

another interesting article: Lippi Green 1997 Teaching Children How to Discriminate