Sunday, October 10, 2010

Small-Scale Ambassadors

To those who have recently joined this blog, my apologies for not posting much lately. I have once again become very busy, working part-time at an engineering firm, teaching an engineering class at a local college, and enrolling in a college class myself.

The college class in which I am enrolled provides the theme for this week's post, which is a continuation of my recent posts on the role that immigrant communities can play in helping Americans form resilient neighborhoods in the face of economic contraction and collapse. There is much to be learned from communities of recent immigrants and of immigrants who have managed to maintain their culture in the face of the prevailing pressure to become “Americanized.” But how shall we thoroughly Americanized, native-born U.S. citizens learn from our immigrant fellow people unless we expand our horizons and learn to go out to immigrant communities right here in the U.S.A.?

One big part of that outreach consists of learning the languages of other nations and cultures. This summer, after the summer teaching session ended and before I realized that I would be teaching this fall, I decided that I was going to do something fun for myself and I signed up for a college-level introductory Russian class. I saw this as a means of facilitating communication between myself and the many Russian families in my neighborhood, along with their children, some of whom come to my house on a regular basis.

The class for which I originally signed up was to be a simple, community education-oriented introduction to Russian language and culture. It was canceled due to lack of enrollment, so I gave up on the idea, somewhat relieved because by then I found out that I myself would be teaching engineering. And then...through a strange set of circumstances, I found myself being invited to audit a for-credit Russian class for people on a degree track in languages. I must have been crazy for doing so, but I accepted the invitation. Now my time is quite fully occupied. The class is very nearly a full-immersion experience in which the teacher speaks mainly in Russian and where anyone caught speaking English is likely to be gently admonished with “По-Руский, Пожалуйста!”

This class has gotten me thinking. Many people are now writing about the need to form resilient neighborhoods composed of self-sufficient people who are disconnecting themselves from our major societal systems which are now in the process of breaking down. Some are now even starting to add their voices to the discussion of the value of learning from immigrant communities. Yet most writers seem to have missed the very obvious community-building step of learning other languages. Many of our attempts to build resilient communities are taking place and will continue to take place within urban areas that have by now become quite ethnically diverse and multicultural. Moreover, the rise of multi-ethnic communities is no longer limited to urban areas.

The need for knowledge of other languages is obvious to those “boots on the ground” in the neighborhoods I frequent, as I observed in a couple of conversations I had this week, one with a Russian high school student who is a friend of mine and who is taking Spanish, and another with a friend of mine from church who understands the realities behind our collapsing economy and who is actively pursuing steps of sustainable living. To those who want to take steps toward building resilient neighborhoods in the places where they live, one bit of advice I'd give is to learn at least one other language (and preferably two if you can manage it).

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