Tag: languages

Why I don’t make fun of Hasidic English

Why I don’t make fun of Hasidic English

Recently, I saw a fellow young progressive Jew write a pretty nasty Facebook post.  With all the rancor going on about the election, you might assume it was about politics.  But actually, it was about language.

The person had taken a picture of Kosher food packaging that had misspelled the word “cookies” as “kookies”.  All sorts of giggling ensued.

While perhaps a small chuckle is warranted – after all, we all make mistakes – I was concerned when I saw some pretty nasty comments making fun of how ignorant Hasidim were.

This, frankly, is where I draw the line.  Let’s start at the very beginning (to quote one of my favorite musicals).  With the exception perhaps of the Chabad community, Hasidic Jews largely speak Yiddish as a first language.  It’s a phenomenon almost unknown in the language preservation world.  Most minority languages that have survived to this day are doing so thanks to government support (see: French in Quebec or Catalan in Catalonia).  The fact that Yiddish is starting to rebound is due in large part to the resilience of the Hasidic Jews who speak it.  So let’s give credit where credit is due.

People who make errors in Standard English often do so because they are native speakers of another language.  For example, a Spanish-speaker from Bolivia might accidentally write “Jonathan” as “Yonathan” because the Spanish “y” more closely approximates an English “j”.  An Arabic-speaker from Syria might write “Bebsi” instead of “Pepsi” because there are no “p” sounds in their dialect and the “b” is the next closest thing.  I promise you English-speakers do the same thing when they speak other languages.  It’s natural and a part of the learning process.

In the case of Hasidic Jews, there is also evidence that actually a new dialect is forming.  That, notwithstanding this one spelling mistake, Hasidic Jews (somewhat like other American Jews) have developed a Yiddish-infused English.  Some scholars call this “Jewish English“.  If I think about myself, a Reform Jew, I could see how sometimes I speak this English.  I could say, for instance, “I’m going to put on my yarmulke and go to Shabbat services.  I’m going to stay for the oneg to shmooze and do some tikkun olam with my friends from NFTY.”  Most Reform Jews would understand this thought.  But the average non-Jewish American would probably be lost.

Hasidic Jews do much the same thing.  Take this sentence, for example: “We do all that shtik to be mesameach the chosson v’kaloh.”  In Standard English, this means: “We do all those routines to entertain the groom and bride.”  If that’s not a dialect, I’m not sure what is.

A lot of cultures do this.  Growing up, I learned Standard Spanish.  I was exposed to different accents, but all of them were varieties of Spanish.  When I started working at a Mexican-American non-profit, I was exposed to Spanglish.  I had to reconfigure the way I spoke both English and Spanish to learn this new way of using the language.  “Órale pues, let’s go to the cine but afterwards, quiero bailar.”  You might translate this as “Ok, let’s go to the movies but afterwards, I want to dance.”  It’s a new thing, and once you get used to it, it can be kind of fun.

If you’re not inclined to make fun of a Latino for either misspelling something in English or speaking Spanglish, then I hope you’d reconsider whether it makes sense to ridicule a Hasidic Jew for doing the exact same thing.

This isn’t to say you can’t disagree ideologically with Hasidic Jews- I certainly do (and a lot of them disagree amongst each other!).  As the Yiddish saying goes: “tsvey yidn dray shuln” or “two Jews, three synagogues”.  I also don’t mean to suggest there isn’t a role for more secular education in the Hasidic world, as some advocates like Lipa Schmeltzer have pushed for.

All I’m saying is this: treat others with kindness and respect.  Hasidic Jews are keeping the Yiddish language alive and inventing a new dialect of English.  They’re busy!  If they misspell something in English once in a while, give them a break and I’m sure they wouldn’t mind a correction.  Show a little rakhmones!




Linguisticism is my philosophy that the more languages you speak and the better you speak them, the better you understand the world around you and life itself.

Although not a religion in the sense of worshipping a particular deity, linguisticism is similar in the sense that it is a holistic worldview. Languages are not merely things you learn, they change the way you see the world around you and your relationship to it.

When you learn another language, you open yourself up to new ways of thinking, new cultures, and new relationships. Every language I’ve learned, regardless of how many people speak it, has enriched my life. I have made friends who speak the languages I speak and due in no small part to our linguistic connection. Because when you speak to someone in their language, a spark, a spiritual energy is created. When you speak to someone in their language, their heart opens in a way that it may not have otherwise. It is pure joy, it is connection. While you may have become friends with that person in your native language, it is doubtful that your relationship would be as strong or as meaningful.

So it is with translation. While reading translated news, literature, and poetry is better than not reading anything at all about the rest of the world, it is an incomplete view at best. So much nuance is lost in translation. There are even untranslatable words that other languages can only approximate. And in doing so, some of the meaning, the cadence, the subtleties can be lost. It could even be said that a translated text is in fact a new cultural creation because the translator’s talent should be respected as a form of art and because you can never fully capture the original text.

And so while linguisticism is not a religion, this worldview has an impact on how we understand religion itself. Because if we understand that language is a gateway to knowledge, so is it a tool by which people can better understand religion. For instance, I am a Jew. While as recently as last century, the majority of the world’s Jews spoke Jewish languages (primarily Yiddish but also Ladino, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic, and others), the majority no longer do. And if they do speak a Jewish language, it is Modern Hebrew, a relative of Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew but somewhat of a linguistic anomaly having been revived from near death.

Today’s rabbis, particularly in the United States, may speak Modern Hebrew with varying degrees of fluency (often no better than an Israeli third grader) and have some comprehension of older forms of Hebrew and Aramaic, but almost none speak Yiddish, Ladino, or other Jewish languages. Naturally this limits their Jewish knowledge. Can one really be a rabbi, a Jewish leader, but not be able to read the original Me’am Loez, a Ladino Biblical commentary from 1730 or the Yiddish blessing in the Worms machzor from 1272? And these are just the explicitly religious texts. What about hundreds of years of Jewish literature, poetry, music, political writing, and more? Is a rabbi really a good rabbi if he or she is only versed in Jewish civilization through translation (or ignorant of much of its existence)?

Because Jews have abandoned their ancestral languages, Judaism has in some cases turned towards an obsession with ritual practice rather than a holistic understanding of peoplehood and spirituality. This is not just the case with ultra-Orthodox communities. Even Reform and Conservative Jews have become so focused on the ritual aspects of Judaism that they have forgotten about culture and language. It’s nothing short of a shanda that when I emailed two rabbis about connecting me with congregants who spoke Yiddish, that neither of them could come up with a single name- out of several thousand members!

Meanwhile, there are political consequences for Jews’ forgetfulness of their languages. Just as American Jews, for instance, were losing touch with their most widely spoken language, Yiddish, they suddenly adopted Israeli Hebrew pronunciation in synagogue in the 1960s. Suddenly shabbos became Shabbat and adonoy became Adonai. Out of affinity for Zionism or a deep-seated self-hatred and insecurity, most American Ashkenazim “shed” their traditional Hebrew accent in favor of an Americanized version of Israeli Hebrew pronunciation because it was perceived as more “modern”. American Jewish institutions obsession with propping up the oppressive Israeli government (sometimes even to the consternation of left-wing Israelis) is directly correlated with the fact that American Jews abandoned Yiddish and their Ashkenazi accents in shul. They quite literally lost their tongues and so they decided to parrot someone else’s speech and politics instead of their own.

All of this is to say that when one loses his or her language, it is as if a whole world is destroyed. American Jews, in this example, lost touch with the Yiddish socialist teachings and activism that dominated American Jewish life in the early 20th century. They forgot that Judaism is also about culture, not just ritual and Zionism and waving flags. When today’s rabbis can’t even read the progressive social teachings of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, why does it surprise us that their linguistic failure results in political obtuseness?

And so this example may be about the Jews, but it could be applied to other religious communities too. How easily do right-wing evangelicals twist and contort the Bible and yet so few of them could utter but one Hebrew word aloud? When we divorce our worldviews from linguistic knowledge, we lose a part of ourselves. We become unanchored, ignorant, and susceptible to deceit. That I can read the Bible in its original language empowers me to interpret it better than any backwards fire-and-brimstone preacher.

Language provides insight into the world around us. Religion, culture, music, poetry, politics, history. We can become more well-rounded, tolerant people if we open ourselves up to learning more languages and learning them better. Linguisticism, although it has implications for religious knowledge, is not a religion. You do not need to worship linguisticism nor believe in G-d, but you should embrace this philosophy and promote it. The world is devolving into misunderstandings and learning languages is our best hope for building bridges of communication and peace.

Take a class, find a tutor, speak your languages with pride. Don’t shy away from practicing- make mistakes, learn, grow, build relationships with people from different cultures. This is the way we’ll repair the world. Or sit at home and watch the same old English-language TV shows and listening to the music on the top 40 radio station, never venturing out and exploring, shocked and surprised when the world around you erupts in violence and chaos, wondering why people just can’t get along.

Talking with Catalans about American elections

Talking with Catalans about American elections

I had the amazing opportunity to talk to Xavier Vilà of Catalunya Ràdio (kind of like Catalonia’s BBC) about the American presidential election, Hillary Clinton, and of course why I want Elizabeth Warren to run for President.  Special thanks to Xavier for inviting me to talk with him and also my Catalan professor Alba Girons for teaching me this beautiful language.  If you’ve studied Spanish or French, you can probably understand a good bit of the interview, so give it a listen.  Fins aviat!

Interview with Dr. Robert Barnett: “Tibetan Language: Policy and Practice”

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve taken an interest in Tibet. As a high schooler, I was a member of Students for a Free Tibet and last year, I participated in the International Campaign for Tibet’s lobby day in D.C. As a Jew, I feel great solidarity with the Tibetan people- a people displaced from their land and striving to maintain their culture both at home and in their Diaspora.

A key aspect of culture is language. In this interview, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Tibet expert Dr. Robert Barnett from Columbia University about the Tibetan language. The language is complex and in fact there are various dialects that are (upon first encounter) mutually unintelligible. A Tibetan told once told me his mother met the Dalai Lama. He asked her how it went. She said “it would’ve been better if he spoke Tibetan”- the two spoke different dialects. Dr. Barnett sheds light on the dialects of Tibetan as well as political, economic, and educational issues facing the language. I am grateful for the time he took to share his thoughts with me. Here is the unedited interview below:

1. To what degree is the Lhasa dialect of Tibetan emerging as a lingua franca (in diaspora communities and/or within Tibet) and why?

The Tibetan spoken among exiles is more or less a variant of Lhasa Tibetan – you can hear some differences in accent and phraseology, but there’s no problem for speakers of each variant to understand each other. So Lhasa Tibetan has become a standard for those who interact with exiles, and is the form of Tibetan that’s usually taught to foreigners. That’s a function of history and politics, not statistics, though: the exiles are not significant numerically – 97% of Tibetans remain in Tibet – but they are influential outside Tibet through their engagement with the media, politics, and religion. Within the entire Tibetan area, Lhasa Tibetan is spoken or understood by roughly half the population and is the dialect used on Tibet TV, so it’s the most prevalent form of Tibetan.

But Amdo Tibetan, spoken by about a fifth to a quarter of all Tibetans, is of huge and growing importance, even though Lhasa Tibetan and Amdo Tibetan are mutually unintelligible at first encounter. But it only takes about a month of familiarization for a Tibetan to become accustomed to the differences, which are mostly vowel changes and consonantal switches (for example, ‘b’, ‘j’, ‘e’ and ‘i’ in Lhasa are sounded approximately as ‘w’, ‘shj’, ‘a’ and ‘e’ in Amdo), so speakers of one can quickly learn the other. Amdo Tibetan is now competing with Lhasa Tibetan as a major form of the language, simply because so much cultural and intellectual creativity – music, film, television dramas, poetry, fiction, essays, commentaries and debate – is produced by Tibetans from the Amdo area, including among exiles, and circulated on dvds or other media. This is partly because language policy is much more progressive there than in the Lhasa area. Kham Tibetan, also spoken by about a fifth of all Tibetans, is easily intelligible in its standard form to both Amdowans and Lhasa Tibetans, and recently has been given a television station of its own, so it is significant too.

2. How has Chinese occupation impacted the Tibetan language?

The Chinese take-over of Tibet introduced mass media to Tibetans for the first time – modern printing, radio, and later television and more recently DVDs and so forth. It also imposed a certain, limited set of ideas and vocabulary on the population and established an official, foreign language as the dominant form of discourse, with the result that Tibetan became “minoritized” and seen as secondary or deficient. This kind of aggressive intervention in a society comes at a very high cost for traditional culture and for the people, but it leads to beneficial outcomes too, such as compulsory education, increased literacy and some standardization of local languages. The Chinese concentrated at first on translation of Chinese texts into Tibetan, but only texts with certain politically-approved ideas, with intensive repetition of certain key political words, terms and concepts – a kind of force-feeding of socialism, modernization theory, and Chinese nationalism. You can see how damaging this is if you talk with Tibetan political leaders of a certain kind who have been brought up on this narrow range of concepts; it is often a painful experience. Tibetan prose style in newspapers and political texts has been damaged beyond belief by the bureaucratic style and format of Chinese communist verbiage. The Chinese also introduced a special, invented form of Tibetan for use by broadcasters on television which was intended to be pan-regional, but is actually rather ugly. During the high Maoist era they also tried to remove all forms of honorific language from Tibetan too (something which only exists in Lhasa Tibetan, and which is not universally popular among Tibetans), but this effort had been abandoned by the 1980s.

Today, in the post-Mao era, the language of state mouthpieces like the newspapers, television, radio and official texts (including history texts) is still locked in the Leninist era from 35 years ago – to read an official Tibetan newspaper day after day, with its wooden terminology and endless praise of the state, is a mind-numbing experience. And China’s education policies in Lhasa and the Tibet Autonomous Region are very damaging for Tibetan language: all middle schools there (unlike Qinghai) are required to use Chinese as the teaching medium. This is starting to happen in kindergartens now too. So a lot depends on whether the Qinghai or the Lhasa model of education is adopted in the future.

But, although there is much they are not allowed to write about, other areas of culture and language in Tibet that are less important to the state have flourished since the 1990s, making claims of cultural genocide seem overstated. The huge increase in education, publishing and distribution of commercial media has led to a surge in creative writing and publishing in Tibetan, particularly in poetry, short story writing, popular music, religious texts, and more recently in film, particularly in Amdo. But the larger problem is that Tibetans who are fluent in Tibetan find it hard to get good jobs, even in Qinghai, so in the longer term this is likely to act as a general economic disincentive for the future of Tibetan language, and the current renaissance faces serious risks and challenges unless progressive policies are introduced.

3. What is the greatest challenge faced by people trying to preserve the Tibetan language?

We can see that the use of Tibetan is becoming partial: it’s vibrant in some areas, like the countryside, many people’s homes, the monasteries, and the areas of cultural renaissance by Tibetan artists and intellectuals. There are also Tibetan-language dramas on television, and newspapers in Tibetan, though these are almost all translated from Chinese. But in other areas of society and life, the language faces severe challenges: can Tibetan-speakers find worthwhile jobs, other than as language teachers? Certainly, it would be very rare to get a white-collar job without being fluent in Chinese, and the same for technical and commercial jobs as well. Almost all discussions and writing in China about anything considered important are done in Chinese. And, despite the regulations and the laws, officials in any meeting where a Chinese person is present revert to Chinese language. In other words, Chinese is hegemonic, it dominates all the sectors seen as “modern” and important. And Chinese policy-makers and thinkers seem to have no concept of true bilingualism: their policies are termed bilingual but are always Chinese-dominant. It’s as if they’ve never been to India, Hong Kong, or Scandinavia, where equal fluency in two languages or more is common. The struggle to put Tibetan on the same level as Chinese is huge.

4. What role can non-Tibetans play in preserving Tibetan language and culture?

Maybe we should refuse to let visiting officials from Tibet talk to us in Chinese, as they almost always do? But few of us get that chance, and even fewer would dare to take it. Small gestures sometimes help: I admire a former student of mine who walked out of a screening of a Tibetan film at MoMA once because they showed it in a Chinese-language version. If we visit Tibet, we should demand that tour guides and operators are fluent in Tibetan. And showing whenever possible that we value Tibetan culture is worthwhile, too – and not just the bits that westerners find useful, such as religious teachings, but all forms of expression.

In theory, we should be able to help by sharing with Chinese people the lethal histories of colonialism and cultural swamping by our own societies, so that they can pressure their leaders to avoid repeating that cycle before it is too late. But we’re no position to lecture others, sadly. Even so, admitting the failures in our own cultures, we should try, each in our own way. As for bilingual language policies, we should be encouraging China’s planners to go to countries where these have been shown to work, and certainly not the US or the UK, to witness how successful policies operate. And we should be producing and disseminating research that shows the long-term economic value that comes from a strong bilingual education system.


Robert Barnett is the Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University in New York. His books include Tibetan Modernities: Notes from the Field (with Ronald Schwartz, 2008), Lhasa: Streets with Memories (2006) and A Poisoned Arrow: The Secret Petition of the 10th Panchen Lama (1997). He has published articles on modern Tibetan history, Tibetan films and television dramas, and women and politics in Tibet, as well as on religious policies, political leadership, oral history, and exorcism rituals in contemporary Tibet. From 2000 to 2006 he ran the annual Summer Program for foreign students at Tibet University in Lhasa, as well as training projects in Tibet on ecotourism, teaching and oral culture. He was the founder and director of the Tibet Information Network, an independent news and research organization based in the UK. He is a frequent commentator and writer on Tibet-related issues for the BBC, NPR, the New York Times and other media outlets.

Multilingual America

In 2011, Texas State Senator Chris Harris told an immigrant rights activist that using an interpreter to translate his Spanish testimony was “insulting“.  One can find examples of this disheartening “English only” attitude in many parts of the United States, although it is particularly rich for a white man in Texas to tell someone to not speak Spanish in a place that used to be part of Mexico and where Spanish was spoken before English.

“English only” activists like this Senator would like us to believe that English has always and should always dominate the linguistic landscape of our country.  They want us to think that unlike in today’s multicultural America, in Early America, people only spoke English.

In this post, I intend to prove them wrong by demonstrating that America has always been a multilingual place, even in colonial times and the early years of our nation.

Many of our founding fathers were multilingual.  Benjamin Franklin taught himself French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek.  James Madison knew Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.  John Adams spoke French and Latin.  The most impressive polyglot was Thomas Jefferson, who spoke French, Italian, and Latin, had some reading proficiency in Greek and Spanish, and may have spent time studying Gaelic, Welsh, Arabic, and German as well.  He advocated for his daughters and young correspondents to learn French and (gasp) Spanish “because of the increasing diplomatic importance Spain would presumable hold in U.S. foreign relations.”  According to the book Language Loyalties by James Crawford, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush was also an advocate for multilingualism.  He wanted German and French taught in schools and for German to be preserved as an asset for the new nation.  He said that people who feared Germans in Pennsylvania were “narrow-minded” and that “a man who is learned in the dialect of a Mohawk Indian is more fit for a legislator than a man who is ignorant even in the language of the learned Greeks.”


(Thomas Jefferson’s Paris house memorial)

Early Americans used many languages besides English.  According to Crawford, “[p]rior to the arrival of the Europeans, more than 500 languages were spoken in North America.”  He notes that “[m]any churches offered services in different languages” and that there were French and German language schools, societies, and libraries in both the North and South.  In fact, none other than Noah Webster (of dictionary fame) suggested that our primary language not even be called English and said that “circumstance render a future separation of the American tongue from the English necessary and unavoidable.”  In Webster’s view, the way Americans speak would become as different from English as “modern Dutch, Danish, and Swedish are from…German.”  New Amsterdam (today’s New York) was incredibly diverse where “18 languages were spoken on Manhattan Island as early as 1646.”  In what is today New York, “English not even introduced into Dutch schools until 1774.”

The Early American press was multilingual.  In 1732, Ben Franklin published Philadelphische Zeitung, the first ever German or non-English paper in what is today the United States.  Crawford notes that “acceptance of and support of French and German newspapers” was common throughout the country.  Die Freyheits-Fahne was founded in Pennsylvania in 1814 and there were at least eight other German papers and at least two French papers in the state by the early 1800s.  Americans even founded a French language paper in South Carolina, Echo du Sud, Moniteur Francais, in 1801.  The book Language Loyalties notes that the Continental Congress even issued publications in French and German to persuade the local population to join the revolutionary cause.  One of those documents was the Articles of Confederation, which you can find here in French.

Philadelphische Zeitung

(Ben Franklin’s German paper published in Philadelphia)

In conclusion, people like State Senator Chris Harris want you to believe that speaking languages other than English is un-American.  However, our history shows that America has always been a multilingual place.  Speaking other languages is as American as Ben Franklin and as patriotic as Thomas Jefferson.

(Plaque honoring Ben Franklin’s arrival to France)

I’d like to extend a special thanks to Rachel Jirka, the Research Services Librarian of the Society of the Cincinnati, who generously offered her time to help me research this piece.