Tim Worstall pointed me in the direction of this article by Mark Herbert of the British Council, the 3,934,561st in a series of 79,804,227 about the dire state of foreign language teaching in British schools. Tim Worstall’s post is followed many entertaining comments from people who have learned, taught and forgotten foreign tongues. But I liked my own comment enough to bring it round here, chop it up and add stuffing until it became a post in its own right.
The trouble with Mr Herbert’s article is that, like 95% of articles about the state of foreign language learning in Anglophone countries, it’s saying things that are just not true. He writes, “We need far more of our young people to learn languages in order to boost their own job prospects and to ensure the UK stays competitive on the world stage.”
In real life the job and salary prospects of most native English speaking pupils are almost unaffected by having studied a foreign language. Of course there are exceptions – one of my children is one – but for the vast majority of students a language qualification simply adds to your UCAS points total or local equivalent. A language qualification has some extra value as an unfakeable subject, but no more than a STEM qualification does. As for the objective of ensuring the UK “stays competitive on the world stage”, (a) who gives a damn about UK competitiveness in their personal choices? (b) if bureaucrats do care, that objective is vastly better advanced by getting the brats to study some subject related to an area in which the UK has a comparative advantage. Which, famously, ain’t languages.
A later comment by MyBurningEars describes the major reason for the decline in the study of languages by English speakers succinctly:
“The costs and benefits of learning languages are very asymmetric – it is clearly worthwhile for many Danes to learn English, often to a high level, yet this renders it almost completely futile (from a professional standpoint) for a Brit to learn Danish. London has hundreds of bilingual speakers of every major language, and many minor ones to boot. What would the point be for me to learn Urdu or Mandarin, an exercise which (to reach worthwhile levels at a professional level) would take years of solid study – far higher than GCSE or A level?”
Exactly. The decline that Mr Herbert laments is not happening because Brits and Yanks are becoming more arrogant or more stupid. It is happening because they are consistently making a rational judgement of a changing situation regarding the likely benefits to them, as individuals, of language study. Or as the famously well-travelled Michael Jennings put it in a comment to this post by Brian Micklethwait on the triumph of English,
“What is new, is that lingua francas other than English are in most places dying as lingua francas. In most places on earth, where two people from different cultural groups needs to communicate, they now do this in English.”
Some lingua francas (linguae francae?) other than English are still gaining ground regionally, such as Swahili. But this trend is only likely to continue while East Africa remains relatively isolated from the world economy. Globally, the rise of English has reached and passed a tipping point. English will now be the first world lingua franca, something humanity has never had before. Nothing human lasts forever, but it won’t be easily dislodged from that position, certainly not by a change as minor as China becoming economically dominant. The retooling costs are too great, particularly if Chinese sticks with its current beautiful but impractical writing system. English already gets you the world and there are no more worlds to conquer. What might dislodge it? Worldwide economic collapse, worldwide tyranny, or machine translation (both written and spoken) much better than we have now.
My feelings about the triumph of English are not particularly triumphant. Yes, if there is to be a world language I would prefer it to be mine. That does not mean I rejoice to see the slow strangulation of rival languages. Perhaps I had better pray for translation software – or brain augmentation – to get so good that all this, the rise and fall of “Empires of the Word”, ceases to be a zero-sum game.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, the choice of what subject to spend several years of your finite supply of life studying is fairly close to a zero-sum game and the choice between languages even closer to one. It is not entirely a zero-sum game; it is reasonable to suppose that study of all kinds exercises the brain, and learning one foreign language certainly makes learning others easier. But the fact remains: to learn a new language is hard. Most people only do it because they have to. English speakers don’t have to. The monetary return on investment of learning another language is not that great for English speakers. Promises to the contrary are not true. People should stop making them.
I am vastly more sympathetic to apparently airy-fairy justifications for learning foreign languages, like “you will gain an insight into other ways of thinking”, or “you will enjoy your time abroad”, or “when you meet attractive foreign persons your suit will be more likely to prosper”. These promises are quite likely to be true if you apply yourself. The “you will have proved to yourself and others that you can learn something difficult” factor can also be honestly promised.
Intrigued by the possibility of some hitherto unknown Polynesian/Celtic linguistic cross-fertilisation, I clicked on this YouTube video clip.
Watching it saddened me. Intrepid sailors though they were, the ancestors of the Maori people never made it to Wales. The Welsh did reach New Zealand, but in steamships rather than coracles. Bidding farewell to a pair of outré alt-hist scenarios was not the reason for my sadness, however. What depressed me about this video was that, like almost every other discussion of preserving minority languages that I have ever seen, it was fixated on compulsion.
According to the video, an excerpt from a New Zealand TV programme, what Maori and Welsh have in common is that they are only kept going by forcing people to speak them and ain’t that wonderful. One minute into the clip, the commentary says,
“Four New Zealand teachers on a British Council “Linking Minds” scholarship were given a chance to see how compulsion is helping to save the Welsh language, Cymraeg, from extinction.”
Just after that one of the teachers, Nichola McCall, says to camera,
“The Welsh people have used law to support the use of the language, used it to build its status, used it to change public opinion. I think the law has really encouraged or helped education to do what it’s doing with the language, to help with its revival, to help bring it equal status with the English language here.”
Later on Ann Keane, Chief Inspector of Education and Training in Wales says at 3:24,
“If you live in Wales then you are entitled to learn something about its culture, its history and to learn something of its language.”
Who could object to that? I could, because she is using the word “entitled” in an Orwellian sense that I first noticed being used among educational opinion-formers when I was a teacher a quarter of a century ago. In Educratese “you are entitled to do this” means “you are not entitled not to do this”. Ms Keane continues:
“The time was right in Wales to bring Welsh in as a compulsory, as a mandatory, part of the National Curriculum in 1990.”
Emphasis added. The use of locutions such as “the time was right” or “the situation demanded” to describe how a law came to be passed is another trick of speech I have long hated. It makes it sound as if, rather than one more-powerful bunch of humans forcing another less-powerful bunch to do their bidding, it all happened by the irresistible pressure of some force of nature.
Just to reinforce that “entitled” is being used in this particular and deceptive sense, the commentator purrs approvingly:
“Ann believes all peoples living in Wales and New Zealand are entitled as citizens to learn the language of the land”.
This is immediately followed at 3:59 by Professor Mac Giolla Chriost of Cardiff University, who says that he thinks:
“the arguments for compulsion are much more powerful and convincing than the arguments against compulsion.”
We never get to learn what the arguments against compulsion are, so this claim is difficult to judge. The professor continues:
“There are very good arguments for making sure that all young people in New Zealand are allowed access to Maori as a part of their national identity . . . the only way of doing that, then, is compulsion.”
“Allowed access to Maori,” is another variant of “entitled to learn Maori” or “have the right to learn Maori”. As used here all of them actually mean “will be forced to learn Maori”. It just sounds prettier if a pose is maintained that someone – probably an Englishman in imperialist headgear – is trying to stop eager pupils from learning Maori or Welsh, and the “right” or “entitlement” or “demand for access” is being asserted against such oppression. I do not know about New Zealand but that picture of Anglophone oppression was certainly true of Wales at one time, although most accounts of cruel practices such as the Welsh Not skirt around the fact that its use was supported by Welsh-speaking parents who saw English as the route to prosperity for their children. My late mother-in-law, for whom Welsh was the much-loved “language of the hearth”, confirmed to me that it was common in her childhood for Welsh-speaking parents to discourage the Welsh speech of their children. Few would have wished to punish Welsh in the home by means of the hairbrush or the belt, but plenty were happy to have the teacher do it in school, where they did not have to see their child cry. No doubt many African parents nowadays make the same calculation.
→ Continue reading: What do the Maori and Welsh languages have in common?
I might as well add my two penny-worth on this issue (or whatever currency the Scots might end up using, Ed). Scottish independence is now a very real prospect, not just a distant one. There is a flurry of commentary in the media at the moment about how any divorce could be painful and bitter: rows about how to divide up responsibility for the National Debt; relocation of defence forces from Scotland; North Sea oil rights; EU and Nato membership (Scotland could arguably be kicked out of both and might not be able to reapply soon), etc. Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, has a bit of a weepie on the subject.
The classical liberal in me says that so long as Scottish people who want to be fully self-governining do so for broadly pro-freedom reasons, that is not at my expense and I wish the new, separate nation luck. I will, however, take a far less benign view if there is any nonsense from Edinburgh about how the evil South must pay it off, by shouldering all accumulated debts, or demanding continued financial disbursements from the rest of the UK, or controls over matters not in its purview any more. I feel no very great emotional attachment to Scotland these days (I am about one-fifth Scottish through my mother’s family), although I certainly do respect and admire the great contributions to human civilisation from Scotland, as demonstrated in this excellent book published a few years ago by Arthur Herman.
It is perhaps naive to think that an independent Scotland would take its cue from the pro-market traditions most gloriously established by the likes of Adam Smith and other figures in the Scottish Enlightenment. (The Adam Smith Institute has had smart things to say about an independent Scotland, by the way.) There is no reason in principle why that cannot happen, of course, but looking at the sort of political figures who are prominent in Scotland these days, the picture is not encouraging. Perhaps the Scots, free of the ability to blame London for their ills and forced to rely on their own resources, might experience independence as a bracing learning experience and an understanding of the need to be pre-enterprise will take hold. As long as SNP leader Alex Salmond is around, the prospects don’t look good. He comes across as a bit of a thug and a bit too pleased with himself.
A final thought: if the Scots do break free (will that mean lots of visa queues at the border? Ed) it could galvanise separatist movements in other parts of the world, such as in EU member states such as Italy (Lombardy) and Spain (Catalonia). And even in the US, Scottish-influenced parts of the country will take a closer look. When countries break up, it raises possibilities. The Scottish independence vote is not just a private matter for these islands.
I strongly agree with Dan Klein and Kevin Frei that “liberal” and “liberalism” are words that should never be relinquished to those who don’t believe in liberty. They have started something called Liberalism Unrelinquished. Good for them.
We the undersigned affirm the original arc of liberalism, and the intention not to relinquish the term liberal to the trends, semantic and institutional, toward the governmentalization of social affairs.
Way back in 2010, I did a posting here entitled They are not liberals and they are not progressives, so I strongly agree about the “liberal” bit of what Klein and Frei are saying.
The Adam Smith Institute’s Sam Bowman recently talked with Klein (Bowman’s posting being how I heard about LU), and Klein also had this to say:
The left gains enormously by getting away with calling itself “liberal,” so getting them to give up the goods is not even a prayer. Partly, I just want to self-declare, like Popeye, “I yam what I yam.” An Adam Smith liberal; a lovely little subculture. Next, I’d love to see the center-left, in the US, the Democratic Party people, be called by others something other than “liberal” simpliciter.
An important distinction. We can’t change how they talk, but we can change how we talk. (Bowman’s italics are emboldened.)
But then comes this:
Progressive, Democratic, social democratic, leftist, or left-liberal – all good.
No, not “all good”. “Progressive”?
Here’s what I said about that in 2010:
… the word “progressive” is just as wrong as the word “liberal”. The statists who argue for the destruction of the dollar and for bank bail-outs (again) and for nationalised derangement of medical care and for green-inspired economic sabotage aren’t “liberals”. They do not believe in liberty; they believe in curtailing liberty. But neither do they believe in anything which it makes sense to anybody except them to call “progress”. Progress is the exact thing these statists are now trying and have always tried to destroy, and just lately have been doing a pretty damn good job of destroying. Progress means things getting better. These self styled “progressives” are only making things worse.
My piece got linked to by Instapundit, and I like to think it may have set some brain cells in motion on the other side of the Atlantic. Perhaps it even contributed in a tiny way to the founding of LU. If so, it’s a pity that Klein didn’t register the Progressive bit of my argument. I hope he registers it now.
Klein’s answer might be that when campaigning, you do one thing at a time. Quite so. Klein and Frei are right to concentrate on “liberalism”. This word deserves all the focus that they will be bestowing upon it.
But, if they succeed in stopping us opponents of these anti-liberal but self-declared “liberals” from calling them Liberals, it won’t be nearly such a victory if instead these anti-progressive self-declared “progressives” are merely described by us, their truly progressive opponents, as Progressives.
This is no mere quibble. If we say that “liberals” aren’t liberals but are “progressives”, we are conceding to these … whatever-we-call-these-people, a horrible falsehood as being a truth, namely the falsehood that human liberty and human progress are antithetical ideas and that the only way to accomplish human progress is to diminish human freedom. This is a disastrously wrong idea. What these people unleash upon the world is not progress. It is sterility, stagnation, and often far, far worse.
I, and Klein and Frei, are all liberals, and we are all progressives by any sane meaning of the word “progress”.
So, to quote Instapundit: What do we call them?
The Klein/Frei Liberalism Unrelinquished project is positive. They want to keep that word for their side, and mine. Good.
This posting of mine is mostly negative, just as my 2010 posting was mostly negative. Both are about how not to use certain words. Don’t call them liberals, and don’t call them progressives. But two positives are implied. We are liberals. And yes, although I am not for one moment suggesting that Liberalism Unrelinquished should be given a more unwieldy and less focussed name, we are progressives.
→ Continue reading: Don’t call them liberals but don’t call them progressives either
Last Thursday, exactly a week ago, there were two speaker meetings occurring in London, both of which I wanted to go to, both addressed by Samizdatistas.
I picked the one at Christian Michel’s home, addressed by Philip Chaston, who talked about various efforts by English science fiction writers to talk up apocalyptic threats to mankind, such as climate threats and invasion threats of various kinds, by writing stories about such things actually happening. It was a very good talk. But because of attending that talk, I missed the talk given by Paul Marks to Libertarian Home that same evening, about the influence of Germanic thought upon the English speaking world.
My journey through tube-strike-deranged London to Philip’s talk looked like being – and in fact was – easier than the journey to Paul’s talk might have been, but I do confess that the biggest reason I chose Philip’s talk was my guess that Paul’s would soon be viewable on video. That guess has now been proved right. The talk only lasted a little over twenty minutes, and I highly recommend it. For those allergic even to that much video, Simon Gibbs has also appended some admirably detailed notes on what Paul said.
The big thing I want to add to what Paul Marks said is to emphasise the extreme importance of the subject he chose to talk about. Because of how the Germanic version of state-worship eventually turned out in the twentieth century, the Anglo-Saxon world has ever since been understandably embarrassed by how huge had been Germany’s intellectual and political influence upon it. The entire episode is well on the way to being forgotten by all but a few libertarians, of the Paul Marks variety. Yet for several decades, the military prowess of Prussia and then of the greater Germany that was assembled around Prussia, seemed to many like a crushingly effective argument for statism and against liberty. Even Germany’s World War One war effort, eventually an utter failure, was still a mightily impressive effort while it lasted. Both those who admired Germany’s intellectual and political notions and those who hated them believed such things to be necessary for national success. To put it another way, even those who hated Germanic political culture also feared it, and regarded it as something that simply had to be copied, rather as there was a similarly misguided little spurt of enthusiasm in the West for the methods of the Sputnik-era version of the USSR. But the urge to copy Germany went on for far longer and was far more strongly felt and defended and argued for. Germanic thought became dug into Anglo-American academia, for example, and the consequent intellectual poison has yet to be purged.
While most others prefer to forgot this story, we libertarians have everything to gain from keeping the memory of all this very much alive. We should all pay attention to the tale Paul told last Thursday, and be passing it on to everyone we argue with about both the attractiveness and the effectiveness of the freedom idea, in contrast to the kinds of ideas that deranged nineteenth and twentieth century Germany, and which are still deranging the world because of Germany’s earlier example.
A feature of British reporting on American affairs is that even newspapers that sell themselves as right wing or too grand to take a side in US politics take their tone straight from the Democratic party. For instance, this Times report of the State of the Union address appears in the news section, not the opinion pages, yet in this paragraph
Offering a shopping list of practical plans to speed up growth and give people new ladders of opportunity into the middle class, he told members of Congress: “I’m eager to work with all of you”.
the writer, David Taylor, takes it for granted that President Obama’s plans are “practical” and indubitably will “give people new ladders of opportunity”. Was there not room for a little “intended to” anywhere in that line, Mr Taylor?
Again, this report from Peter Foster in the supposedly right wing Telegraph takes one look at Obama performing the standard politician’s trick of admitting to the fault of excessive reasonableness, and falls in love:
However, that optimism was tempered with a frank admission that America’s politics had become paralysed by the “rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government”. The president wearily admitted that reversing the tides of decline “won’t happen right away, and we won’t agree on everything.”
We all understand where the problem lies: with the rancorous ones who argue about the proper size of government. If only they would stop doing that our weary hero could rest.
I am ready to be told in the comments that the Dems and the Repubs really are not that different. Allow me to agree in advance. It is just that the way that the Times and Telegraph maintain faithful station like Greyfriars Bobby long after their better paid friends in the Boston Globe and New York Times have noticed that the object of their devotion is politically dead is making a vein throb. Which reminds me, we were not always thus. As the great Malcom Tucker put put it during his visit to Washington (2 minutes 10 seconds into the clip):
“We burnt this tight-arsed city to the ground in 1814 and I’m all for doing it again.”
(Warning: occasional words in the compilation of scenes from In the Loop linked to above are not viciously obscene.)
I note with pride that two hundred years ago arguments about the proper size of the federal government were settled in a decisive yet still gentlemanly fashion. Wikipedia’s account of the burning of Washington says that “The British commander’s orders to burn only public buildings and strict discipline among the British troops are credited with preserving the city’s private buildings.” We even spared one of the more useful government buildings:
It is written that a loaded cannon was aimed at the Patent Office to destroy it. Thornton “put himself before the gun, and in a frenzy of excitement exclaimed: ‘Are you Englishmen or only Goths and Vandals? This is the Patent Office, a depository of the ingenuity of the American nation, in which the whole civilized world is interested. Would you destroy it? If so, fire away, and let the charge pass through my body.’ The effect is said to have been magical upon the soldiers, and to have saved the Patent Office from destruction.
Despite this lapse, Major General Robert Ross did burn to the ground the White House, both houses of Congress, the War Office, the State Department and the Treasury, although I gather someone has rebuilt them since.
A great deal longer ago than I now enjoy remembering, I rashly promised the authors of America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century – Why America’s Greatest Days Are Yet to Come, James C. Bennett and Michael Lotus, that I would, very soon, write something here about this book. But this is not a regular book review. I have an agenda of my own to plug with regard to America 3.0, which is, in two words: Emmanuel Todd.
I have greatly admired Emmanuel Todd, the French anthropologist and historian, ever since, in a 1980s remainder shop, I first encountered English translations of two of his most important books, the English titles of which are The Explanation of Ideology and The Causes of Progress, my copies of these two books being among my most treasured possessions. America 3.0 is in no small measure the book that it is because Bennett and Lotus have also acquainted themselves with Emmanuel Todd’s style of thinking, and have applied it to America. And the most interesting fact about America 3.0, from where I sit, is that its publication may prove to be some sort of breakthrough for Emmanuel Todd in the place that James Bennett himself has dubbed the Anglosphere. My hope concerning America 3.0 is not so much that what it says about America will captivate lots of Americans, although I’d be very happy if it did, but that it may, because its authors based it partly on a foundation constructed for them by Emmanuel Todd, help to spark what I think is a long overdue debate throughout the Anglosphere, a far grander debate than a merely American discussion about America. This debate will encompass the entirety of Emmanuel Todd’s grand narrative, and will concern the entire world.
The historian Alan MacFarlane, author of, among other books, one called The Origins of English Individualism, whose work is aligned with that of Emmanuel Todd, is one of the few historians writing in English to have given Todd the time of day. The authors of America 3.0 tell me that in an email to them, MacFarlane said that Todd is “roughly right” in what he says. Which sounds like rather faint praise. But when you realise that what MacFarlane reckons Todd to be “roughly right” about is one of the most confidently reductionist, yet original and interesting, and above all persuasive explanations of the entire process of political and economic modernisation that has been accomplished and is still being accomplished by our relentlessly formidable and complicated and belligerent and inventive species, everywhere on earth during the last five centuries and more, and for at least the next several decades, then you begin to see where my admiration for Emmanuel Todd is coming from. Many very capable and admirable historians score eight, nine or even ten out of ten for their life’s work. Compared to them, I would give Todd about eight hundred out of a thousand and counting. The man is operating at a different level of explanatory reach to all other historians I have ever read, or have ever read about or heard of. Yes indeed, as MacFarlane’s comment illuminates, Todd has, over the years, got quite a few of the details of his grand narrative somewhat wrong, in fact he probably gets far more things wrong than most good historians ever get right. But what he does get right … well, it is an epic story, and furthermore, a story that I now believe, with MacFarlane, to be “roughly right”.
So, what has Emmanuel Todd been saying?
→ Continue reading: First thoughts on America 3.0 – the Emmanuel Todd connection
I did so enjoy contemplating the coming inevitable defeat of Julia Gillard and the Australian Labor Party. Unimportant in the greater scheme of things, I know, but just to contemplate the ululations of grief and ritual cries of “misogyny” that would have come from the Guardian the morning after the next Australian election was a little thing that gave me a few snatched moments of innocent pleasure in this hard world.
An unexpected pleasure, leftists chocking at the sight of people celebrating Margaret Thatcher, has just got even better.
The Daily Mail informs us that the “Thatcher haircut” is the rage in central London, with one salon claiming to be overwhelmed by demand.
Italian-born Christina Bellucci, 37, a digital consultant, said she felt the look reflected a modern attitude.
‘This is a strong style and gives me authority,’ she said.
‘When I walk out the door I feel a few inches taller, it gives me power without sacrificing any of my femininity.’
The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave . . . Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.
– Patrick Henry, March 23, 1775, at the second of the Virginia Conventions.
The full speech is available here It’s not long so, as Glenn Reynolds would say, “read the whole thing.”
“The world financial crisis has provoked a stark feeling of decline among many in the West, particularly citizens of what some call the Anglosphere: the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. In the United States, for example, roughly 73 percent see the country as on the wrong track, according to an Ipsos MORI poll—a level of dissatisfaction unseen for a generation.”
So write Joel Kotkin and Shashi Parulekar. And as they go on to point out, the idea that the English-speaking nations are in imminent danger of being crushed by some sort of Asian/other menace is – with all due respect to the likes of Mark Steyn and Co, wildly overblown. And of course, given that trade is not a zero-sum game, there is nothing to lose from the hopefully long-term enrichment of countries such as Brazil or India.
R is a programming language for statistical analysis and visualisation that I’m taking an interest in for a work project. It’s another open source tool that makes us richer. One way it does that is by being used by Steve McIntyre to plot climate data and replicate (or not) the hockey team’s research.
While researching R, I found R-bloggers, and in particular a post about the use of an R-generated image in Facebook’s IPO filing. The image was originally created a couple of years ago by Facebook intern Paul Butler.
But when Paul switched from plotting every friend pair to instead plotting every city pair with a great-circle line whose transparency was determined by the number of friend-pairs in those cities, something beautiful emerges: a clear image of the world, with friendship bonds flowing between the continents
Paul posted a Facebook page about it and also linked to a high resolution version of the image.
The Anglosphere should be discernable in the image, or at least the original data. Lines from Britain to the USA do look brighter than those from Europe. Many of the lines obscure each other, unfortunately. A 3D version might help.
More map porn can be found on Reddit.