Schwa Fire - Michael Erard Q&A

Q&A with Michael Erard

Journalist and linguist Michael Erard discusses the importance of language, the future of language education and the launch of his new web magazine on language.

August 4, 2014

When and how did you get your start in language/linguistics?

I developed an interest in linguistics in middle school, but this went unrealized because everything I found to read was too technical and not narrative enough. It helped that my father had been in the seminary and was always spouting Latin and German phrases, and my younger sister was always learning this or that language. (She’s the polyglot of the family.) I flirted with Esperanto but otherwise was stuck in Spanish classes, which didn’t inspire me. Things began to click my junior year of college, which I spent living in Colombia and using Spanish to read, navigate the city, do ethnographic work and have fun. I learned a lot more about language acquisition first-hand teaching English in Taiwan after college and learning Mandarin, where I became really interested in what was happening to me and my students, as well as how languages as systems work. 

I retained my interest in narrative, and I’ll always be someone who learns best when I set the goal myself and learn what I need to meet that goal. I knew I was ready for linguistics, so at that point I headed to graduate school.

I've been a teacher, a writer, a journalist and a researcher. My career has been a shuttling between getting at language through other methodologies (such as journalism) or getting at topics (such as behavior change) through linguistic methodologies (like designing and testing metaphors).

Why is language important?

Language is the thing that humans do from which everything else stems; in a very deep humanistic way, language is the root of it all. Because it’s everything, language is like air: it’s transparent and fades into the background. In a more contemporary sense, most aspects of the knowledge economy depend on language. I would also say that linguistics are important too, because you can’t understand the basis of humanity or operate in the modern economy if you can’t understand how and why language and languages work. You don’t have to be a linguist now any more than everyone in the 19th century had to be a coachman, but people then knew a lot about horses. I doubt that modern people know a commensurable amount about language.

Why did you start Schwa Fire, and what are your goals for the publication?

Oh, I have so many goals for this. I started Schwa Fire because I like reading and writing long-form journalism, which is something I’ve done for over a decade. New digital publishing platforms (like Creatavist, the one I’m using) make it easy to produce and sell quality stories. I want to make “language journalism” as much a definable practice as “science journalism” or “financial journalism,” and I want to serve the language audience. Another goal is to increase people’s fluency at talking about all aspects of language and languages.

What has been the reaction to Schwa Fire?

Everyone reacted very positively to the Kickstarter campaign that ran at the end of 2013, which raised more than the $25,000, and Schwa Fire got some really great coverage in Fast Company, BoingBoing and io9.com.

When the first issue came out in mid-May, the reactions were very positive there, too -- we picked up a mention in the New York Times and had some very nice reviews from Australian and Dutch publications (there’s a well-defined “taaljournalism” in the Netherlands). Subscriptions jumped 25%, and we got nearly 10,000 unique visitors in the first month.

Where do you see language education going over the next 10 years? 20 years?

Based on the book I wrote about high-intensity language learners, Babel No More, I foresee a growth in tools and learner communities that are online and open source. That’s the direction that the hyperpolyglots have all gone.

There are also a lot of things that I’d like to see happen, but I’ll focus on one: I’d like to see more resources especially in the U.S. go to families that want to add another language to their repertoire and identity. This isn’t just about my family, it’s about the entire discourse about learning languages in the U.S. (and also the U.K.), which is about individuals, whether you’re taking about individual challenges, aptitudes, outcomes, pedagogical approaches, or the economic opportunities. But this kind of messaging is not only not working, it’s never worked. The language establishment has been trying to engineer a more multilingual society using individuals as a building block, and it’s not working. So instead of focusing on the individual as the basic unit of learning, we should look at other levels of social organization. 

The best candidate is the family. There’s a very strong sense in the U.S. that the family is a fundamental sphere for certain kinds of early experiences for children as well as a shelter against prevailing societal norms, so the safety of that affiliative group can be a really effective pedagogical domain that also accounts for the psychosocial dynamics of behavior change and identity change. In his book, Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon talks about horizontal and vertical identities. 

The vertical ones are identities passed between generations; the horizontal ones are those acquired from peers or non-family groups. The bureaucrats who sadly broke the native communities speaking indigenous languages understood this very well; by taking kids away from their parents, they severed the vertical identities. As tragic as that was, I’m suggesting that the inverse could be a desirable social goal: in order to get a more multilingual society, help families build vertical identities of multilingualism. (Someone will say, we already do that with heritage languages, but I’m saying that it could be done with monolingual families. Believe me, the interest is there.)

Michael Erard is a writer, journalist, linguist and founder/editor of Schwa Fire, a web magazine focusing on long-form language journalism. He is the author of two books on language, including Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Science, Wired, Slate, The Atlantic and other major publications. A graduate of Williams College, Michael earned his M.A. in linguistics and Ph.D. in English, with concentrations in rhetoric and linguistics, from the University of Texas at Austin.

Stacey Rainey
A long-time Bostonian, Stacey’s new Vermont life is highlighted by trial-and-error gardening, embracing the outdoors in Vermont’s subarctic climate, traveling with her family and sneaking out for noontime yoga (oh, and she may like “Scandal” a bit). Stacey, who joined Middlebury Interactive in January 2012, serves as Chief Strategy Officer and supports a fun and talented (if slightly off-kilter) team of edtech pros who do some amazing work for students across the country.
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