03 July 2012

Foreign Language

The Gormogons | The Czar | Sometimes Extinct Isn't Forever

And by the way, languages disappear for very simple reasons: not because the people are dying out, or are the victims of some physical or cultural genocide—they generally die out for two main reasons: (1) the language (like Latin) becomes so unmanageable that it splinters into easier-to-speak dialects that evolve into new languages or, more commonly, they don’t cut it anymore.
Yes. Thank you. Languages are tools. If they aren't as good as other available tools, people should discard them.

(Although there are some exceptions in which languages were purposefully supressed, like Musolini did to Sicilian in order to promote Italian nationalism. In fact every example I can think of was in service to nationalism.)
English is responsible for the ongoing decay and dissipation of (perhaps) most of the world’s languages. And why not? It is easy to learn, is incredibly flexible, is superbly suited for technology programming, precise enough for business and legal applications, rapid enough for international airline travel, and is well-supported by a network of hundreds of millions of speakers, reinforced by books, motion pictures, television shows, and more. English is a great way to go, and some countries (such as Korea and Sweden) make learning English mandatory for students.
I disagree. I think the Czar is overthinking this. English isn't popular because of any intrinsic quality. It's not uniquely well suited to people's needs. (I think it's so ad hoc it might actually be maladapted.) English is popular because it's popular. Simple as that. It has bigger network externalities than any other language right now. End of story.


On a related note, I am one of very few people I know who does not think we should be teaching more foreign languages in schools. (I'm not even sure we should be requiring it at all.) My reason is simple: every hour spent learning a foreign language is an hour not spent learning something else. It would be swell if our children could speak seven languages like that charming European guy you met when you were back-packing, but it would also be nice if they knew statistics, economics, etc.

Yes, yes, knowing [foreign language] will help you communicate better with others. Sure; however:
  1. Is this the most efficient way to communicate with them? Probably not, especially if the language you are learning has fewer speakers than English, which is true of every language except Mandarin. It sounds selfish and imperialist to say everyone should just learn the (current) lingua franca, but just because it benefits us doesn't make it a bad idea.
  2. Why not learn rhetoric or oratory or practice any number of other communication skills which will allow you to communicate with anyone, including the one-billion-plus English speakers in the world? I'm baffled that people will spend thousands of hours learning a second language but have no interest in spending even a dozen hours getting better at their first.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, you're absolutely right about English, it's so funny whenever people talk about how easy it is. Well yeah, it's easy because it's what you grew up with! If we were all raised in Mandarin, English would be ludicrously difficult...

    Re: learning languages: learning a foreign language helps you to understand English better; when we're forced to struggle with different grammar, it makes us understand our own grammar all the better. But you're right that this should be analyzed in terms of cost-effectiveness, E.G., would it be better to require everyone take a semester of public speaking?

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