Written by Dyami Millarson
Every now and then, it is relevant to state clearly what we are not. Three antitheses of what Foundation Operaton X stands for are guerrilla linguistics, polyglottery and activism. I will talk more about them here. I do definitely hope that my article is not too strongly worded and I am trying to avoid controversy as much as I can here. Nevertheless, I do wish to address some issues properly and explain why we resolutely distance ourselves from certain modes of thinking. We do, however, respect the right of individuals to follow whatever philosophy they believe in and think is best for them and theirs. We do by no means believe that we have all the answers, yet we do believe that our attitude makes sense in our given context. We will keep learning and we hope that people who support the ideas we reject can understand why we are paving our own way. We have no ill will towards such individuals, we simply have a different philosophy about what matters and how to achieve our goals.
No Guerrilla Linguistics
What is guerrilla linguistics?
John Freivalds defines guerrilla linguistics as “the art of giving the impression that you know more about the language and business culture than you really do – and how to accomplish this with a minimum of study.”
Freivalds elaborates more on this idea in another article:
The necessity behind Guerrilla Linguistics is simple: You have to travel to a totally new country in a couple of days, so how do you make a favorable impression or improve your negotiating position? The language establishment of major universities and language schools would say, “No can do. You have to take immersion classes, work in the language lab, listen to tapes and do the homework.” By interjecting a phrase that reflects some understanding of the local business situation, you can keep others unsure of just how much you do or do not know about a language. Knowing the standard phrases doesn’t go far in enhancing your image. All the non-fluent tourists in loud sport shirts know how to say “hello” and “goodbye” and “where’s the bathroom.” So what can you do?
First, you can’t study this skill in a traditional way. Take for example the visitor to Mexico City. In Mexican Spanish there is no better term for describing the way local business practices relate to government rules and officials than “la grilla.” Yet no dictionary or travel guide that I’ve found contains that phrase except pertaining to a barbecue. And every country where they speak Spanish has a different form. Even in Spain the people there don’t say they speak Spanish but rather “Castellano.”Guerrilla Linguistics, written by John Freivalds, published in Global Trade on 15 January 2014
I can understand the context John Freivalds is talking about. He is talking about the fast world of business. However, the context of Foundation Operation X for languages, cultures and perspectives is different.
Guerrilla linguistics practically means the lack of substantial knowledge and requires a style of learning that runs counter to the purpose of our work. It doesn’t fit our line of work and in our work context, it is particularly counterproductive to fake fluency. We gain nothing by faking linguistic knowledge.
I will not try psychoanalysing the rationale for faking fluency too much. It may have to do with narcissistic tendencies or other motivations. I can certainly imagine one might get an ego boost from faking knowledgeability.
Stephen Dolainski has the following to add: “Although guerrilla linguistics may bring momentary success, the tactic is only temporary and probably works best for someone who has much global experience and speaks several languages.”
Faking stuff is perhaps part of modern culture, and I have observed this tendency is common in the polyglot movement as well, which is one of the things that has turned me away from polyglottery despite initial sympathy. Superficial knowledge is not what we need for the conservation of the world’s linguistic diversity. Speed is, nevertheless, definitely useful considering how dire the situation is, but speed cannot come at the cost of quality. Our goal is to guarantee high-quality and in-depth knowledge, we do not stand for the superficiality which plagues modern culture for various reasons that I can’t really empathise with.
People want quick results in this modern world. When they see us learning languages fast, they might not realise how intense our studies really are. We put effort into the languages we learn, and this goes beyond knowing a few phrases. Language-learning involves hard work, and if you are going to learn it fast like we do, it is even more intense. After learning languages very fast, I have to take a break because I have completely exhausted myself. It is like high-level sports; you can demand a lot from yourself, but you will have to pay the debt for your exertions sooner or later.
We learn languages fast, yet this takes years of training, which is an effort most people are not willing to make. People who are good at surviving in the wilderness possess many skills that are second nature to them and it took effort to learn these skills, no doubt. Likewise, we have skills we can rely on for language-learning such as being able to read and transcribe into the international phonetic alphabet (IPA), being able to identify phonetic phenomena, being able to correctly determine the etymology of words, being able to reconstruct earlier stages of languages or missing words, and being able to understand and use a huge variety of grammatical terms and being able to accurately describe novel grammatical phenomena. These are part of our basic skill set for being able to learn languages fast.
We are open to whatever useful and practical knowledge linguistics can provide us with for describing languages. Someone practising guerrilla linguistics, for instance, will generally not have any extensive knowledge of etymology, reconstruction, etc. Nor have I seen polyglots being deeply interested in the work behind the comparison, classification, and so on of languages. (Polyglots genuinely interested in linguistic comparison, like Alexander Arguelles, seem rather to be in the minority.) We believe in combining true science with the study of languages is the most efficient, and we believe our approach proves its merits. Our approach is, however, not useful to someone who wishes to only have superficial knowledge.
We are perfectionistic when it comes to pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. Some prominent polyglots may disagree with our perfectionistic way of thinking as they have given up on perfection and may regard this as a hindrance to their learning, but our aim is nothing short of perfection and we work hard to achieve it. Our desire is to sound exactly like natives, understand natives fully and talk like natives. We 100% reject the culture of repeating pre-learned phrases. We do not even learn standard phrases. Instead, we focus on the production of unique sentences and this is also why we absolutely forbid the translation of articles over here. We do not want to encourage a culture of unoriginal repetition. If we wish to repeat anything that has been said earlier, we wish to do this in an original fashion demonstrating we are no mere parrots.
I do absolutely not recommend guerrilla linguistics in the context of the study of endangered languages. It is not only disingenuous, but it is also disrespectful to the last speakers. No false promises should be made no last speakers, nor any false hopes should be given to them. The study of endangered languages requires discipline and integrity.
Instead of using our language-learning skills for enhancing our ego as self-identified polyglots do, we chose to put these skills to good use by helping endangered languages. We wanted to do something positive for others rather than benefit ourselves. We could be doing anything but learning endangered languages, yet we chose this because we believe in it. For picking up girls and impressing people at work, it would be much more practical not to spend so much time on “obscure languages.”
What is polyglottism or polyglottery? According to polyglot Steve Kaufmann, the term polyglottery originated with Alexander Arguelles.
Let me quote polyglot Alexander Arguelles on the definition of polyglottery:
Polyglottery is really a scholarly discipline. It embodies a search to build up an encyclopedic mind and also to philosophically comprehend the nature of your awareness with the passionate, in-depth, and sincere study of as a number of languages as you possibly can, focusing both upon their diachronic evolution as actual entities and upon the intellectual heritage they’ve left within the type of great texts. Being an academic discipline, Polyglottery may be the direct descendent and heir of Comparative Philology.
I have to draw a clear distinction here between what Arguelles is doing and what we are doing. The explicit or implicit goal of most self-identified polyglots – including Arguelles – is to study as many languages as possible. Polyglots care about quantity, they want to crank up the number as much as possible, and by doing so, they can get lots of attention and get cult-like status. I am, however, not saying that the attention that polyglots receive is necessarily undeserved, there are polyglots working hard for that attention and if that attention motivates them to work hard, well, good for them! Of course, this might not be the case for all polyglots, some may be doing it since they love literature or they love the routine. Arguelles himself ostensibly seems to be falling into the latter category, he likes literature and enjoys having a rigorous learning routine. Trying to psychoanalyse every single polyglot is not the purpose here, yet a feature is certainly that they focus on quantity, which is why they often explicitly state how many languages they know and since our focus is different, we refuse to do this (for instance, I refuse to answer the question of how many languages I can speak because this is a distraction from our purpose whilst we would rather tell the specific story of any language community we have become a part of). I should, in any case, emphasise that polyglots know their own motivations better than I do. I have been more sympathetic to the polyglot movement in the past, yet factors such as focus on quantity turned me away and made me look for an alternative.
In any case, we are not motivated by attention and neither are we interested in the quantity of languages we can speak and write because it is about the name and story of each language, they are no mere numbers as I have often emphasised when I was trying to make clear why I refuse to answer how many languages I speak; many polyglots will proudly and fondly tell others about how many languages they speak. We are not trying to get attention for ourselves and our linguistic accomplishments, but we are trying to raise attention to the languages we learn, we want to tell their interesting stories, we want to share what we learned with the world, and we are not interested in learning as many languages as possible, though it may be said we are interested in effectively helping as many language communities as possible and saving as many languages as we possibly can. To achieve this, we need to do our utter best and in many cases, failure and imperfection are simply unacceptable. We do learn languages under immense pressure as we are trying to absorb all the knowledge accurately, it is not about quantity but about quality. So this is not polyglottery in the sense that we are trying to learn as many languages as possible for the sake of it. We are, instead, dedicating our skills to supporting endangered languages.
There are many reasons why I do not wish to be associated with polyglottery, and I do not think that I can cover all of it here. I will try to just scratch the surface and explain why Operation X does not align with the polyglot movement. In some ways, we have been inspired by polyglots because they are not all bad, but there are also some things that are worth saying with regards to why we do not want to be considered polyglots or a polyglot organisation.
One of the possible reasons: polyglots may have an attention-seeking, clownish approach to language-learning. They may wish to be the centre of attention and they may wish to act like a clown who can entertain people. Some dating articles even suggest that polyglots are fun because they can show off their skills. See this article for instance:
If your date is foreign, their accent will blow you away, and they’ve had to learn your language from scratch so the conversation will always be interesting and they’ll love practising with you. If they are the same nationality as you, they can still impress you by talking to the French waiter or explaining the foreign dishes on the menu. And don’t even get me started on post-date activities; you are not limited to flirting in just one language..!6 Reasons You Should Date A Polyglot, published on the website of European Language Cafe
I can understand that acting like a magician with some interesting magical tricks can get the attention of the girls. However, this is not what I want to be associated with while I am making a serious effort studying endangered languages. I am not doing it for dating girls, having a sexy accent or anything of that sort. I am simply no entertainer, nor do I have a particular goal of gaining anything from my learning efforts, I just want to contribute to communities, it is a selfless act.
Psychology blogger Jeremy Dean said in an article on humility published in May this year that “[p]eople are increasingly competitive, attention-seeking, narcissistic, obsessed with their appearance and entitled.”
The general trend that Jeremy Dean describes is one of the main problems I have with the polyglot movement as well as the self-improvement movement. Language-learning is not about me, but about something greater than me; it is about interacting with others, it is about giving something to others, it is about being part of a community and being aware of the knowledge that should be allowed to disappear due to the death of that community’s language.
People are too self-centred rather than attentive to others and their surroundings. I like giving the spotlight to different small communities and so on, I do have the role of speaking about their language and informing the public about their community but this is not to boost my ego, this is rather an opportunity for familiarising the outside world with otherwise obscure languages. I would prefer staying out of the spotlight if it weren’t for the positive contribution I can actually make to these communities. I really see their strong emotions about their languages, and recognising that these languages actually matter, I believe the right thing to do is to learnt hese languages, integrate into these communities and inform the rest of the world about why these communities and their languages are valuable.
Alexander Arguelles offers a definition of polyglot in a 2019 article as follows:
Even though there are no known societies with six or more shared languages, there are individuals who know six or more languages. There are even some who know dozens or scores of languages. These individuals are “polyglots.” One difference, then, between “multilinguals” and “polyglots” lies in the number of languages they know. There is no set definition of a polyglot, but the word usually refers to someone who knows six or more languages.
I do not identify as a polyglot, nor do my friends with whom I work. We reject the label “polyglot” for describing ourselves; we are no self-identified polyglots, period. Polyglots may disagree with me and say “a polyglot is what you are, it is not what you choose to be.” In fact, I choose not to call myself a polyglot because I am paving my own way and I discourage people from calling me that. I have no particular issue with multilingualism, but I analyse polyglottery as a movement with a set of ideals that are alien to mine.
If someone wants to boost their ego, it makes sense to join the polyglot movement. It gives them recognition they seek as individuals. However, I require no recognition. Joining the efforts of Operation X requires humility. and discipline, it is no playground for attention-seekers of any kind no matter how entertaining a clown or magician can be during a party. It is about giving recognition to others. We are trying to make contributions to the world with our own personal sacrifices. We are, in fact, sacrificing our ego and this attitude is challenging yet rewarding in the long term. We like being part of the communities whose languages we have learned, we really enjoy being able to have access to their traditional knowledge and way of life.
To be truly part of a family, you have to make certain sacrifices and realise others’ dreams may be more important than your own, you aren’t living for yourself the moment you become part of something bigger. I know that polyglots wouldn’t want to be part of such tight-knit communities because it restricts them and it gives no boost to their ego. These communities are often very critical and only slight deviations from the linguistic or cultural norm will draw comments. One might get the feeling that one is never good enough, and one will simply have to learn to live with the fact that the elders know the language best and you have to respect them and their knowledge about the language.
In my experience, Confucianism teaches how to deal with the family values that are prevalent in small language communities. Confucian values are generally well-received by the language communities we interact with: respect your elders, put the family (i.e., language community) first, be diligent with learning, and so on. These values are alien to polyglots generally, who are much more on the same cultural wavelength as how Jeremy Dean described modern cultural tendencies.
What is activism?
The American Heritage dictionary defines activism as “[t]he use of direct, often confrontational action, such as a demonstration or strike, in opposition to or support of a cause.” The Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary defines activism as “the practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving political or other goals, as by demonstrations, protests, etc.”
Our support for endangered languages has elicited calls for activism. People asked me: “If you support Frisian, why do you not take part in this or that protest?”
I will never take part in such political action because it breaks my principle of political neutrality.
As an organisation, we absolutely reject activism as a counterproductive route for already vulnerable languages. One can support endangered languages without any political affiliation or political action. In fact, political neutrality is a much better contribution to language conservation/transmission than anything else. Activism may draw negative attention that could actually derail the cause of an endangered language. It is best to be politically silent, yet determined to uphold linguistic and cultural heritage regardless of the political circumstances.
We are focusing on acquiring and sharing knowledge. What is transmitted to us, we wish to transmit to others. This is our role. As a group of politically neutral individuals, we will not stand in the way of those who believe in political activism, yet we will stand firmly by our principles and we will focus on becoming more knowledgeable rather than shouting slogans in the streets, flying flags and possibly getting a brick or two thrown at our heads or hurdling a few back.
We rather believe in a Confucian approach and we will seek to transform the world through learning.
I hope that this article makes it sufficiently clear why we at Operation X do not condone guerrilla linguistics, polyglottery and activism and we hope to attract like-minded language learners who can put the plight of other human beings before their own ego. We also hope to make clear why we do absolutely not wish to be associated with guerrilla linguistics, polyglottery and activism – no matter whether people have the right or wrong reasons for pursuing these. We are simply pursuing our own goals and we are doing what we believe is best for the communities we are involved with.
We really love the communities whose languages we speak, and we do not want to bring trouble to them, but rather contribute something meaningful to their respective languages and cultures. We will not stop anyone from pursuing what they believe is right, yet we firmly stand by our own principles and we will not change course as we are paving our own way with our own unique approach. Everyone ought to do what they believe is best, the results will speak for themselves.
Whoever wishes to join our efforts is welcome and whoever thinks our methods are not right is free to discuss with us, yet there should be no expectation that we will change course on a whim because we really believe in what we are doing and we think our approach is for the best. After all, we want no part of unnecessary drama and we simply wish to be a source of stability, hope and inspiration for others. An unstable environment with lots of drama is detrimental to the cause in our eyes. Rather than superficiality, we hope to inspire in-depth learning; rather than being focused on quantity, we hope to inspire people with respect for the individuality and uniqueness of each language; and rather than being politically active, we hope to inspire people with non-political means to achieve the goals of language conservation.