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Learn a Language for a Neighbor?

Across borders, language learning follows two main patterns. Neither leaves room for learning a language for the sake of building a community.
(Photo: nata-lunata/Shutterstock)

(Photo: nata-lunata/Shutterstock)

Muharrem, a young deaf man, lives in Istanbul. His life is an endless obstacle course. Routine chores—buying bread, getting a cab, making phone calls—quickly turn into hurdles. Until Samsung Turkey gives him a hand. Or rather, many hands.

An advertisement created by a Leo Burnett branch and gone viral since its unofficial YouTube release on March 3 zooms in on a group of Istanbulites learning sign language to participate in a carefully orchestrated surprise. “All for Muharrem to have one day, with no barriers,” the tagline reads.

Filmed with “lots of cams” from just about every angle imaginable is a day in the man’s life. It’s the day when he leaves home to discover that everyone around him suddenly speaks sign language—from a street passer-by to a cab driver. The video shows Muharrem’s initial bafflement turn to the tears of someone touched and astonished. Many among the video’s nine million viewers (and counting) wept, too: “I had tears watching this.... Human kindness and Love spread all over the world like this will allow barriers to be broken, absolutely,” one commenter wrote. “Hearts melt,” NPR added. And even journalists, usually skeptical about corporate tearjerkers, were “prepared to park ... cynicism to one side.”

All of this certainly merits a good cry. Not just because Muharrem appears so genuinely moved. Or because his authentic-looking helpers may have been hired actors long fluent in sign language, in which case, nobody would have learned a new way to communicate. Or because this may have been the protagonist’s one and only day without barriers—what if, after the stint is over, the community falls apart? Or because Muharrem himself may have been but a character and his tears but the mark of a strong performance. Or because a corporation has chosen to speculate on human emotions to peddle its goods, with some success. No, most tear-worthy is the myopic reception itself.

It has two main strands. One is to commiserate with the deaf. As a YouTube viewer puts it, “if it’s the production of an ad that brings out humanity in a community and raises awareness for those who often face difficulty on account of ‘disabilities’, then that’s fantastic.” The other is to bash corporations: “Nice video. Too bad it’s Samsung and their TVs record your conversations and sell off the information to other companies. Wonder what kind of information they will be selling from what they record from the hearing impaired now with this.”

My parents’ immigrant friends would routinely get bouts of diarrhea before appointments with German doctors or bureaucrats. Some still break out in sweat, stutter, and get high blood pressure 15 years after the move.

Both strands miss the fundamental question that underpins the video, be it reality or fiction (the distinction, in this case, may not matter): Would you learn a language—any language—for a neighbor? If not, all you’ve got is armchair empathy or anger.

Because, unless you are a hermit, you probably have a neighbor whose native tongue is not one of your country’s official. Maybe you already speak it or are trying to; if so, I’m moving closer. But if not, perhaps your neighbor is so proficient at your language that you take his or her fluency for granted. To cite an article comment: “I know plenty of friends who speak Spanish, and quite a few Indian languages. They communicate just fine in English.” Then you relax, sit back, and enjoy the show on the receiving end. Sometimes, you gently poke fun at the accent (“Ah, those rolled r’s—strrrong like bull”) or an odd idiom (“A stick with two ends—never heard that one”), or simply ask, “Say it again?” several times in the course of a conversation. Your neighbor is good, but there is always room for improvement.

Or, perhaps, the issue is the exact opposite, and the person next door is a recent (or poor or aging or fill-in-the-blank) immigrant reliant on his or her child or a social worker to get by. In this case, you cry over Muharrem’s day without barriers but outsource dismantling real-life barriers to others. They should knock on your door when they’re ready to break the spell of their splendid isolation.

Examples know no borders. Mine belong with my earliest memories.


Growing up in a military neighborhood of Lviv, Ukraine, I saw hundreds of highly mobile Russian-speaking families go to great lengths to exempt their kids from learning Ukrainian, the language of their neighbors. They inevitably succeeded, which did nothing to improve Russia-Ukraine relations.

But Muharrem’s story is not one for sarcasm. Unlikely as it may seem, the success of the Samsung commercial can start new conversations about language policy and language learning in more than a few countries. This is because the video flips the dominant views of both. And precisely these views have kept myriads of people from learning a language of and for a neighbor—be it sign language or something else entirely.

The video’s first paradigm flip concerns language policy, i.e. the way societies—even those lacking a formal set of such prescriptions, like the United States—shape the relationship between a language community and an individual outside of it. More often than not, this relationship comes down to integration—the linguistic kind before any other. As a rule, the pressure to integrate is on the individual. Society may offer help, sometimes more and sometimes less.

In a country like Germany, where an articulated language policy exists for home and abroad, help awaits at every corner. German is the language of all official communication, even if it is not constitutionally recognized as national. Integration classes are a must for migrants who know none—my parents were assigned one within two weeks of arriving in the country in the 1990s. Currently, an hour costs 2.94 Euros, half of which the government subsidizes; tuition is free for those with social welfare eligibility. This seems like a great deal, especially since migrants themselves describe successful integration as a sum of a school diploma and the ability to speak, write, and have a circle of German acquaintances, all of which pivot on language.

But Germans themselves are not typically required to learn any of the migrants’ tongues—not even in jobs tied to social services. Credentials of welfare office volunteers who enlist to help refugee children with school homework include “openness to other cultures” but mention no special language competencies. Sizeable minority languages like Arabic and Turkish are valued in theory but not in practice. Russian, my parents’ native tongue, is viewed as a holdover from Cold War-era East Germany. Instead, English (not exactly a migrant language, unless one counts the many thousands of big-city hipster expats) tops the popularity rankings (82 percent in 2013). It breeds, discerning critics warn, “reductive bilingualism” instead of multilingualism.

ASL, according to the latest Modern Language Association report, has the fastest-growing enrollments. “I think it’d be a lot more useful than the French I took,” a reader of an article writes.

Translated into the idiom of the Samsung ad, the logic of the German example (just one among many) implies that Muharrem should switch from gestures to spoken words. Of course, vis-à-vis a deaf person, the suggestion is plain sadistic—both impossible and hopelessly isolating. But the same proposition is not much less cruel vis-à-vis hearing people who face a new society.

Their stress can be physically paralyzing: My parents’ immigrant friends would routinely get bouts of diarrhea before appointments with German doctors or bureaucrats. Some still break out in sweat, stutter, and get high blood pressure 15 years after the move. In this context, any uni-directional integrationist language policy looks isolating. This is not to say that migrants shouldn’t learn the hosts’ language(s) but rather that it takes two to tango—cue Samsung. Basically, an integrated community, whatever its size, should function like a decent integrated school.

This brings me to the video’s second paradigm flip, connected to the simple question: Why learn languages? The past year’s Anglophone headlines have spewed a host of reasons with a neo-liberal, individualist slant. Language learning has become the latest wellness fad. Chinese, Arabic, or Spanish, we hear, are good for brain development and memory, math skills, careers, national GDPs, labor markets, and economies. When I poll my college-level language students about their motivations, at the most they add interactions with close family members or significant others to the list. In short, many have already been seduced by the system that offers no room for learning a language for entirely unselfish reasons. Isn’t it deeply ironic that it takes a corporate commercial to hint at an alternative?

It seemed to inspire a few viewers. “I asked myself how come we don’t learn [sign] ‘language’ at school. It’s time to change that,” one commented on YouTube. And it is changing. A month ago, New Jersey Senate passed bill S1760, meant to recognize American Sign Language as a foreign language sufficient to fulfill the state’s high school graduation requirement. The bill is now at the Assembly Higher Education Committee. If the reaction to Muharrem’s tears is any indication, the law ought to be eagerly anticipated. Instead, ambivalence prevails.

On the one hand, there is no lack of lobbyists for the change: ASL, according to the latest Modern Language Association report, has the fastest-growing enrollments. “I think it’d be a lot more useful than the French I took,” a reader of an article writes. Several mothers of dyslexic children second that.

On the other hand, many endorsements come with a cynical edge: “If you’re going to force kids to learn a foreign language, this option has some good benefits,” another commenter adds. The second chimes in: “Frankly, more widespread use of ASL could have some benefits; the first that comes to mind is less noise. :) I imagine there may be others.” “Excellent idea ... as long as it is an elective, not a requirement,” suggests the third. Several oppose: “A foreign language should not be a requirement to begin with.” In short, discussions of ASL get bogged down in the same quagmire of objections as those of any other language. Because it is just another language. And because people don’t see a use for it beyond the neo-liberal wellness-career mantra.

But there is a use. Over the past 15 years, language professionals have been obsessing with the so-called “5 C's,” the cornerstones of language learning: communication, culture, connections, comparisons, and communities. Is it an accident that communities (“learners use the language both within and beyond the classroom to interact and collaborate in their community and the globalized world”) is the last item on the list? “The lost C” has been the despairing educators’ shorthand for them. It’s time to go find it.

Then, with Muharrem’s tears in mind, #learnalanguageforaneighbor? So that corporations like Samsung don’t come off more human than people.