Name: Ariel Koren
Languages: Arabic, ASL, English, French, Hebrew, Italian, Ladino, Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
In spite of being one of the most linguistically diverse countries, the U.S. has one of the world's highest levels of intergenerational language loss and of language incompetency. The U.S. is home to 19% of the world's migrants, and yet 85% of U.S. students lack access to foreign language education before highschool. Growing up, the relatively stifled access I had to the rich linguistic diversity of my own Jewish family, whetted in me an innate awareness of the ways that language diversity is systemically negated by the U.S.´ education system and its ubiquitous Anglo-centricity. As I grew older, this awareness ultimately extended into a broader passion for promoting and defending language democracy and access. I grew to challenge the idea that Americans are somehow inherently monolingual or less adept at learning languages. The pervasiveness of American monolingualism is not some sort of inexplicable linguistic accident, but rather an explicit symptom of a system intentionally designed to marginalize non-English speaking migrants. We often buy into this myth that Americans simply suck at languages, but the truth is that Anglo-centricity is an oppressive linguistic structure wielded intentionally to make mobility impossible for linguistically diverse populations.
In 1939-1940, U.S. diplomat Breckinridge Long implemented the infamous, nearly-impossible 8-foot visa application form printed in tiny type and only made available in English; he used language and Ango-centricity as a tool to justify the U.S.´ rejection (and deportation) of asylum seekers that ultimately led to thousands of deaths during the Holocaust. Today the U.S. continues this legacy of language violence as we see trivial details like a mis-spelled word and the general weaponizing of language technicalities to justify rejected asylum claims even whilst asylum seekers are systematically denied access to qualified interpreters at the hands of a rogue, racist, carceral immigration system. My anger at the normalization of language injustice has led me to serve as an interpreter and later to found Respond Crisis Translation, a coalition of multilingual people mobilizing to provide emergency translating and interpreting services to folks moving through asylum processes or facing any sort of medical, legal, or personal crisis. (Please consider joining and supporting us... And meet the team in this video!)
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
Ladino! I would love to have more opportunities to speak in this beautiful language so resonant with history, resilience, anti-colonialist tradition, and the stories of the Jewish women who have preserved it through the years in spite of the odds. Here is a verse from my favorite poem:
Kuando se bozea tu linga, kuando se deskae desaziendose en el mabul… kuando no ai nada ke meldar en tu lingua, dinguno de tus amigos por avlarla kon ti… saves ke la moerte avla por tu boka. La moerte avla por mi boka . . . A vedrá dezir, ya esto moerto yo.
It describes the pain of seeing your language, endangered, become erased by the mainstream and by the many complex forces behind language extinction. It equates the feeling of speaking a language that is no longer read or understood by anyone you know to the sensation of death speaking through your mouth.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
My sister Tamara is a deaf activist and budding ASL (American Sign Language) teacher. I hope to become a signer fluent in ASL and LSM.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
I think any language whose words are wielded with confidence, with passion, with respect - has the immense potential to be captivating, sensual, and sexy. Across languages, so many of us -- especially women, femmes, and non-binary folks -- are socialized not to speak about our sexuality and desire. Our capacity to heal from collective and individual sexual trauma through storytelling, our propensity to ¨apalabrar¨ and ¨resignificar¨ - to imbue our fantasies with new meaning and words and noises - is sexy and game-changing in every language.
Regardless of language, I feel ¨turned on¨ by the voices of artists and speakers who own their sexual choices and orientations and histories, while at the same time carefully choosing words to critique the dominant structures and oppressive systems that too often violate and impede the fluidity, the autonomy, the expression, the freedom that are so key to sexual fulfillment and orgasm. I find Aristophanes (潘韋儒), who writes and raps in Mandarin about sex and love and society, to be extremely empowering and sexy. There is an inspiring and beautiful sexiness and power about her nimble maneuvering of phonemes and words to deliver sharp, energizing, commentary in a dexterously orgasmic, divinely ¨feminine¨ tone. I also find everything by Iza, but especially ¨Dona de mim¨ and her mantra ¨se você tem boca, prende a usar¨ to be extremely sexy and beautiful and powerful. Eslabrava is another artist whose words and art are sexy to me.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
So many things. One of my favorite parts is being able to serve as a translator. The role of the translator is to be this invisible actor who, instead of taking up space, provides a platform for someone to amplify their voice, their thoughts, their story. I think an important part of ¨speaking¨ ¨many¨ languages is also knowing when to just shut up and listen. Translation and language advocacy have given me a beautiful and humbling channel through which to do that.
6. Some people say the world is really just going to have a few languages left in a 100 years, do you think this is really true?
I hope not, but language extinction around the globe has long been at crisis levels. We often talk about language loss from the perspective of what the loss of the history that an endangered language represents could mean for humanity as a whole, as if language preservation is an issue only because endangered languages have inherent value for those of us who are not their native speakers. I believe instead we should confront language loss as an urgent social justice crisis - a symptom of the systemic linguistic violence that marginalized, and disproportionately indigenous, communities face when dominant capitalist structures deny them access to the institutional powers that allow some languages, and not others, to be memorialized.
Language loss expert Gregory Anderson summarizes part of the complex challenge that is language extinction with the explanation: "Economic activity is generally dominated by the majority language and the majority-language-speaking ethnic group, so therefore, it's logically associated with advancement, socioeconomic development, [and] wealth acquisition." If there is hope for language loss to be reversed, we have to do more than just record and digitize endangered languages. We need to dismantle the systems that perpetuate Anglo-supremacy, white supremacy, and dominant language structures that impede the upward mobility and institutional access of communities who speak endangered languages.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
My message is to learn your languages in as much depth as you can! To remember that language learning is most beautiful when it isn´t performative or about how many languages you speak, but rather about the depth and insight and intimacy and relationships that the process affords you. And, to remember that language is access, which is power, which is privilege, which is responsibility. I hear from a lot of polyglots who reject the idea that becoming ¨language people” should politicize and sensitize and radicalize us. I find language learning to be inherently political and mobilizing. By becoming polyglots we gain access to history, to community, to truth, to a certain degree of ¨authority¨. And we can (must!) choose to reject ¨language tourism” or even ¨language imperialism¨ by owning the unique position that our multilingualism affords us to transcend borders and nationalism, to mobilize resources and access and privilege, to recognize the plethora of ways in which language violence is institutionalized, and to defend language democracy and freedom of mobility.