Further Reflections from the Polyglot Conference

Much to everyone’s delight, the polyglot conference was extended by another week, and we have been able to continue listening to the hundred or so lectures by various speakers on an incredible variety of topics, and avail ourselves of the various language chat rooms and general meeting room on Zoom. This has been one of the most wonderful experiences in recent years, and one that has truly made me feel like I have found my tribe! I have learned so much about the world, people, and languages, but also so much about myself. Here are some of the things I have been reflecting on.

-Monolingual cultures are really insular and lacking. I always felt like an oddball growing up bilingual, but I have grown to really appreciate it and have come to see that there are so many others in America who are natively bilingual or trilingual or more. Many other polyglots I have spoken with have commented on the negatives about monolingual cultures (especially in the context of our Anglophone countries) and it is something I see more clearly now. English-speaking countries, as a whole, really do seem to take an attitude of “the rest of the world speaks English, so why should I learn a language?” Frequently, someone in an Anglophone country says that they had X number of years of Y language in school, but they can’t remember a word. Why not? Granted, there are always individuals who do not learn languages well, but this type of statement should not be considered a proud confession and instead a reflection on the flaws in our education system. There is no impetus to use foreign languages on a regular basis in America, unless one makes a certain effort or is able to speak with people in ethnic community. This really needs to change.

-It is perfectly normal and wonderful to have a deep passion for words and languages. I have met people who have been studying Ancient Hittite, Eastern Armenian, and the languages of indigenous Californians. I have met people who love learning different scripts as much as I do, even someone who knew how to spell my name in Tamil! There is nothing wrong with being curious about the various dialects of any given language, and knowing the differences between them and discussing them with others. These kinds of things often make one a freak in mainstream American society. But one does not need to be a scholar or trained in linguistics in order to be highly knowledgeable about any language or languages–I’ve met people from various walks of life, from warehouse worker to professor to computer programmer.

-It is perfectly normal and wonderful to have a deep passion for geography. One group activity involved people filling out the different regions of different countries, and it was really amazing to see how knowledgeable people were in knowing the different areas of so many different countries like India, Germany, and more. This is so necessary in a world that has become extremely globalized.

-Knowing multiple languages really changes your brain structure. If you grow up bilingual or multilingual, this has really shaped your brain and cognition, and even if you have learned languages later, this is very important as the brain has so much neuroplasticity. I enjoyed watching talks by neuroscientists and scholars who showed data and images from fMRI studies. There are even some studies that show that learning languages can keep Alzheimer’s at bay!

-Language is inseparable from culture and meaning. How we use gestures, express certain thoughts, ideas, and shades of meaning all relate to language and our need to communicate. Certain concepts exist in some languages, but not in others. Grammar reflects the subtleties of expression; the more cases in a language, the more precise it is about relation.

-Language is connected to history. It is endlessly fascinating to learn about how various languages developed and branched off within any given language family. Sometimes this process has been over millennia, and at other times, in a matter of centuries. The history of English is incredibly fascinating and complex, and the more we know about its linguistic roots, the more we can understand how we think and what influences shaped our language.

And finally,
-Humor is humor, regardless of the language, and is truly global. People from all over the globe will keep giggling when trying to pronounce the Georgian word, gvprtskvni, that is all consonants except for the final letter. Everyone will find it funny that someone is still awake at 5 AM to be on a Zoom chat, like a vampire. Several people will ask, in a Hindi lesson, for expressions on how to bargain, knowing that that is an ingrained part of Indian culture. And my favorite, a question posted in the chat on what country you will end up in if you dig a hole through the earth from your country? Whether people were from Uruguay, America, or Sweden, the answer was China!

Language can often divide us and is what makes us so distinct and unique from culture to culture. But, as this polyglot conference has shown, it can really unite us in the most amazing ways. Many thanks to everyone I’ve learned from and connected with!

Fighting Fair: Military Technology and its (Mis)uses–Guest Post

Today, I will comment on something completely different—-politics and power. Some might argue that war and military conflict are inevitable, that warfare has existed since the beginning of humankind, and that rather than try to eliminate it, we must set conventions in order to “fight fair.” Certainly, numerous treaties, conventions, rules, and organizations exist, such as NATO. And yet, there are always those who will choose to violate or ignore the guidelines set by international organizations or national governments. For example, the Ottawa Treaty to ban landmines has not been signed by 40 countries—-including the United States!—-and this has certainly been a point of controversy. This leads us to ask, Why does our foreign policy often not stem from a more comprehensive, international perspective? That is, can the United States not benefit from incorporating other countries’ point of view when making our own security and defense decisions?

I now turn the discussion over to Professor Priya Satia of Stanford University, to share with readers her own thoughts on the matter, and have included a link to her latest article on publicserviceeurope.com
I am a professor of modern British history at Stanford University. My first book, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East (OUP, 2008), explored the origins of the British “air control” schemes in the Middle East after World War I. It was published just as the United States began pursuing aerial approaches to counterinsurgency in the War on Terror. The British past sheds fascinating light on today’s strategy and its chances for success–that has been my motivation in writing and speaking about drones in recent years. My academic work has also appeared in several edited collections as well as journals such as the American Historical Review, Past & Present, and Technology and Culture. I have also written for popular media like the Financial Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Nation. Currently, I am working on a book on the gun trade in the eighteenth-century British empire as a way of understanding the role of the state and war in the industrial revolution.


Priya Satia is associate professor of history at Stanford University