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The morality of not teaching your child English

Some decisions made for an infant are not easily undone. Circumcision, for instance. Hence the controversy on this blog. Or the decision of what language the child will hear first, and whether and when a second one is taught. This topic seems to generate similar anger for similar reasons.

My long post, a sequel to this one on how those who wish to preserve minority languages are self-destructively fixated on the use of force as the only possible means of doing so, is stalled. A line about how Welsh-speaking parents should be free to delay teaching their children English if they wish grew until it took over the post. I have cut off that part as one cuts off the end of a… worm. Let’s see if it can live independently and wriggle off into some new direction of its own.

We are libertarians, right? We defend fee-paying schools, religious schools, selective schools, single-sex schools, schools where the children do not have to attend lessons, “unschooling” and homeschooling. We do not wimp out from defending all these just because they may not be where we would choose to send our own children. Yes, I meant Islam. Islamic schools must be free to exist on the same grounds that Islamic speech must be free to exist. Compared to many of the controversial types of school above, the average Welsh, Maori, Irish Gaelic or Navajo medium school is beloved by all. I must say, I would prefer that no school were funded by force, i.e. by taxation, but that happy state is at present no more than a dream.

As for schools, so for languages. We defend everyone’s right to his or her own language and culture, this time joined by practically the entire developed world. It was not always so here in the UK, nor in the rest of the English speaking world, and even now there are many countries where minority languages are still suppressed covertly and overtly. In modern rich countries the boot is very slightly on the other foot, but by the standards of world oppression it’s not a big deal.

As for languages, so for passing on your language to your children. The idea that being bilingual confers a cognitive advantage is not utterly universal, but it is very widespread, and, for what it’s worth, intuitively makes sense to me. I have never met a bilingual who wished they were not one; I have met several people who lament that they could have been raised bilingually but were not. Fine for the kids, then… but maybe not so fine for the minority language. Bilingualism does not seem to be stable. “Half the world is bilingual,” say the enthusiasts. Yes, and half the world’s languages are in danger of dying out. Welsh, the minority language I know most about, is comparatively healthy with its half million plus speakers, but its trendline gently noses downwards. Every Welsh speaker also speaks English. That’s the trouble. There is this myth that when an English person comes into a pub all the locals start speaking Welsh. They don’t. On the contrary. I have lost the link for this*, but when I saw it I believed it instantly from personal observation: there is research to show that when a single person who only speaks English joins a Welsh-speaking social group every other person in the network switches to English, out of politeness. And then comes the internet, and pop music, and the TV, and the adverts, and the whole great wave of English… increasingly, Welsh-schooled or not, young people in Wales seem to be jumping in and enjoying the surf. Often they are sad later that they have let their Welsh go, but gone it has. The same pattern of decline applies to young speakers of other languages spoken in proximity to English.

Some might calculate that only way to ensure the survival of these languages is to increase the exit costs.

“Calculate” is too cold a word. Let’s imagine that as you look down at the baby in your arms the idea that she would grow up as one more interchangeable particle in the homogenized world-culture, cut off from the sounds and literature of the ancient tongue that formed you, becomes unbearable. You vow that you will give her every blessing a parent can give a child; love, society, ethical teaching, mental and physical stimulation, play, and abundant access to information about the world. You will have to greatly restrict her TV and internet use, but that does not keep her from learning; previous generations did without these devices entirely. The only thing this liberal education will lack is lessons in how to speak English. Possibly you will teach other foreign languages, but not that one, the one that cannot seem to help devouring its neighbours. For mutual support you will join with other like minded parents raising their children the same way. No one will be imprisoned. When the children grow up they can choose to leave your community, and if they wish can then learn English as a foreign language as hundreds of millions have before them. Is that so bad?

I would feel a little awkward if I were to meet the parent I described and hear them enthusiastically outline their baby’s future, but I would find it difficult to say decisively that it was wrong (though I think I would say it, indecisively). Bloody hell, though, have you any idea how many children are left to grow up like animals, scarcely hearing a word in any language, parented by nothing better than the glowing box in the corner? Compared to that all too common situation, the type of gentle fanatic I describe is likely to provide excellent parenting. Anyway, we are libertarians, right? We defend freedom of association, freedom to disassociate, and freedom to raise your child according to your own values. Even people who are not libertarians often recognise the right to separation of religious groups such as the Amish who, like my imaginary new tribe, raise their children somewhat strangely, somewhat apart, with the freedom to go or stay when they grow up.

Talking of tribes, is it not strange that we find the idea of an Amazonian tribe living apart and speaking its own language quite romantic but recoil at the idea of people who were once like us becoming even slightly like them? Why should “what your recent ancestors did” be the test?

Welsh has over half a million speakers and a magnificent corpus of poetry, literature and song. Speaking Welsh alone does not remotely count as linguistic imprisonment. But what if the language were spoken by fewer and, however dear to its speakers, did not have such a literary tradition? There are about 170,000 people who speak Navajo at home, about 7,600 of them elderly monolinguals. Numbers of speakers of the created language Esperanto are of the same order, though much more widely spread. Interestingly, Esperanto has about a thousand native speakers all of whom are bilingual with other languages and many of whom are multilingual. So far as I know there is no one other than small children who speaks only Esperanto. But even if there were, half the world lives in a smaller linguistic community than that. Is it wrong to bring your child up to speak only a language with 50,000 other speakers? Surely not, but how about 5,000? Or 500? How about raising them in a language with no native speakers, only writers?

History does give one example of a language that has gone from being purely a literary and scriptural language to being spoken by millions: Hebrew. Its rebirth was largely the work of one man, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. This is how slow that work was:

He determined that his family would only speak Hebrew and attempted to convince other families to do so as well, founded associations for speaking Hebrew, began publishing the Hebrew newspaper HaZvi, and for a short while taught at Hebrew schools, for the first time making use of the method of “Hebrew in Hebrew.” Yet Ben Yehuda’s efforts were not all too fruitful: In 1902, over two decades into his efforts, his wife recorded that she baked a cake for the tenth family to agree to speak only Hebrew.

Can someone tell me, do we know what those first children thought of it all? Who did they play with – or have I taken the words “speak only Hebrew” too literally, and they also spoke Yiddish or some European language?

Very recently the Cornish language has been revived. 557 speakers claim it as their main language, 20 young children are native speakers. Let me stress that in real life all of these children are being brought up to be bilingual in Cornish and English. But when you get down to a group of that size and imagine its children being brought up monolingually, the mental walls do begin to close in.

How small would the village be before it became a prison?

*Update: I have found the link. It referred to Irish and was found in a website in which a writer called R.A. McCartney advocated the building of an exclusively Gaelic-speaking new town. Some of the proposals show a fairly high level of coercion, such as the outright banning of mobile phones. Whatever view one takes of this particular writer’s proposals, it is possible to conceive of a community binding itself by quite harsh-seeming rules without breaching the rights of its members, so long as the covenant is freely entered into and they are free to leave. Of course such an exclusively Irish-speaking town or its equivalent for Welsh would be illegal under discrimination law in either the UK or the Republic of Ireland.

Another update: Commenter “another_anon” brought up the analogy to the various controversies about deaf culture and sign language, particularly the debate about whether deaf children should be fitted with cochlear implants – seen at its most bitter when deaf parents decline to have implants fitted to their children.

Adults can decide for themselves, of course, but deciding the question for your children is a very close parallel to the scenario of deliberate linguistic isolation I am discussing here. Some of the Deaf (the capital letter is a marker of cultural pride) activists opposing implants for their children strike me as crossing the line from wanting to pass on their language to their children to wanting to use their children as mere tools in their efforts to perpetuate their culture.

However people should remember that implants don’t work for everyone, can cause tinnitus, and can actually damage whatever residual hearing the patient has. And if you are deaf, particularly if both parents are deaf, and your home language is sign language, it must be a difficult thought that you are inevitably going to partially “lose” your child to a foreign culture. As I wrote in 2002, “For all that, I can see the sadness. If the numbers of deaf people drop too far a unique culture will become unviable. People’s bodies are their own: if they want to stay deaf, that’s their right. And, although this is harder to say, it would be intolerable for the government to force people to have an implant operation on their children.”

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61 comments to The morality of not teaching your child English

  • Languages dying is just something that has always happened as mankind has increased the size of networks. If you were a farmer in Gascony in the 18th century, illiterate, looking after cattle, marrying a girl in the village, knowing Occitan probably did the job. Eventually, you get trains, books, cinema, people start moving around the place and pretty soon, Occitan is useless, or at least French is a lot more useful.

    I don’t have a problem with someone taking the time to learn old English so they can read Beowulf as it was originally written, the problem with many campaigns to keep old languages going is that they are driven by politics and old grievances and funded by taxation. Welsh in Wales is basically a dead language. Less than 20% of the population speak it. If you go into a shop, there’s no point asking for a packet of biscuits in Welsh. 4/5 chance they wont understand you. Speak English, 5/5 chance they will understand you. If I lived there, I’d rather my kids spent time learning Korean, German or Japanese.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    I agree that most “language activists” are mired in statist attitudes, but I’m interested to know if you, and other commenters, would think it wrong for a group of people to voluntary band together, without the state being involved, to raise their children as monolingual speakers of a minority language. I can already see from your comment you would regard it as a very bad decision, but would you regard it as morally wrong?

  • bloke in spain

    Mmmmm… Isn’t it it a case of practicality?
    Look, I’m a “bloke”, so could only be a born English speaker. If you ain’t, you don’t qualify. But I’m generally to be found lurking in non-English speaking countries. I regard it as an obligation to learn the language of the locality. How ever tough I find it. Because, how can one be a member of the community if one can neither understand, nor be understood?
    And that’s point about language, isn’t it? It’s not a possession. An object. It’s a flow. A flow of ideas. If it’s not flowing, not carrying ideas, what use does it have?
    Luckily, for me, where I’ve lived of late has been a very multinational community. English is our lingua franca. But that hasn’t stopped me adding bits of Russian, Romanian, even T̶r̶o̶l̶l̶i̶s̶h̶ Finnish. Even if the only thing I’m communicating is “at least I’m trying”.
    What exactly’s the point of being one of the 557 Kernow speakers? Unless you’re planning a holiday in B̶r̶e̶i̶z̶h̶ B̶e̶r̶t̶a̶è̶y̶n̶ B̶r̶e̶t̶a̶g̶n̶e̶ Brittany? How much would you have to say to each other, hadn’t already been said?
    ̶

  • bloke in spain

    @ The Stig
    Would I be the only person here who’s actually stayed in a house where the language of the house was Occitan? Yep. It’s still a live’un.

  • Rob Fisher

    Right now I’m struggling to imagine how one would argue that it’s morally wrong for parents to raise a child exclusively in Welsh as you described. I can’t even see it as particularly detrimental. Learning English can easily be done later in life, if desired.

  • bloke in spain

    Here’s a thing. The bloke (honourary, awarded) spoke Occitan was the guy taught me dry stone walling. At a time when my French was abysmal & he spoke no English. But we both spoke “builder”. Ideas flowed.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Rob Fisher, I’m pretty clear that raising a child exclusively in a relatively widely-spoken language like Welsh would be no great wrong, although it is not always easy to pick up languages later in life. The question that is troubling me is how small a language would have to be before the parents were breaching the rights of the children – effectively imprisoning them.

    It’s worth remembering that much of the world’s population does speak a language spoken by only a few thousands, and many more live in remote villages that (never mind language) are isolated simply by being far from anywhere else. We don’t call someone a bad parent for bringing up their kids in a hamlet with a population of 500.

    But what about a language only spoken by 50 people? The extreme would those horrible cases of children brought up in complete isolation. I don’t want to think about that! But when should my robust libertarian defence of the right to eccentric and ill-judged parenting choices give way to a defence of the rights of the child to participate in human society?

  • That’s quite a slippery slope there.

    If you can’t raise your child to speak only pig latin, then can you also be prevented from raising your child to embrace improper social attitudes? Can white parents be legally required to instill a sense of racial shame in their children? Can parents who don’t recycle have their children taken from them for setting a bad social example?

    I think the libertarian position has to be that parents get to decide what is best for their children in terms of their education. However much the results might disturb us.

  • Rob Fisher

    Ok, it takes a village to raise a child, probably. So the child needs to communicate with the village. Probably at least 10 people.

    After that, I start to have problems when the child expresses a desire to communicate with more people and the parents actively prevent this. I’m assuming also the parents are not lying to the children about the outside world. That seems immoral. So the child should be able to find out that there are more people out there and they speak English, to be able to have the desire (or not) to speak to them.

    By the way, look up the movie Dogtooth.

  • Rich Rostrom

    I very much doubt that one can “give a child every blessing” while restricting the child to an obscure language spoken only by a handful. (I don’t see that it would have any preservationist effect to exclude English while including Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, French, or Russian.)

    The preservation of traditional culture should be voluntary. An adult should not make a child the vehicle of his choices at the expense of the child.

    I think of Mike Resnick’s short SF story “Kirinyaga”, which won the Hugo Award in 1989. The protagonist is a Kenyan intellectual who rejects “Western” ways, and persuades a group to join him in recreating a pre-modern Kikuyu tribe on an orbital habitat. As mundumugu (shaman) of the “tribe”, he keeps the colonists and their descendants in a primitive state, as illiterate farmers and herdsmen. He enforces even the most brutal elements of Kikuyu tradition, such as leaving the elderly and infirm out in the bush to be eaten by jackals, and killing any baby born feet first as a demon.

    He does this because it makes him feel good, which is far more important to him than the lives of the babies, or any other suffering by the members of his “tribe”.

    I think the analogy to parents who impose an archaic language on their children is obvious.

  • Mobile phones should be banned so that only land lines are used for phone and internet connections (these can be monitored unobtrusively by electronic scanning for use of the English language).

    Ok this is a cult. What is Irish for “Kool-Aid”?

  • Rob Fisher

    No, this is the really chilling bit: “A panel of experts, such as sociolinguists, anthropologists, psychologists, economists and urban planners should be established to supervise the town”

  • An interesting question and a well stated one. As a linguistics hobbyist, I view the prospect of widespread extinction of languages (the estimates I’ve seen say 80%, not just 50%) with great regret. On the other hand, I can’t sympathize with the idea that people should be compelled to isolate themselves from world commerce and culture to keep a bunch of local languages with a few hundred speakers alive.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Rich,

    He does this because it makes him feel good, which is far more important to him than the lives of the babies, or any other suffering by the members of his “tribe”.

    Wow, is that a doozy! He sounds like any mass-murderer … or SJW/Proggie/Lefty/Socialist/communist who is married to the Cause.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Rob Fisher, absolutely agreed.

    William, your comment makes me realize I must be missing something. Is it perhaps not just the language but also the traditions and customs and culture and indeed the lifestyle (at least to a degree) that these people want to keep alive?

    Because there’s nothing preventing them from forming clubs, even quite large ones if the interest is there, at the meetings and get-togethers of which the members will restrict themselves to Old Norse or whatever. Given sufficient interest in the language, there could be resort vacations devoted to the language, and it’s possible that eventually people will spend their vacations living in thatch-rooved huts and whatnot, speaking Old Norse.

    Or High Elvish….

  • aplofar

    I don’t think that anybody needs to necessarily *approve* of raising a child monoligually in a tiny language if they think it’s a bad idea, but I think there’s no real alternative to *allowing* it (especially since it’s not really as permanent as some of the physical alterations that can be made – circumcision, scarification, lip rings, whatever.) I mean, how would you prevent it? How far would you have to go, in terms of coercion? Who would make that decision?

    I was raised bilingually to the age of 12 – in English at home and French at school. In Anglo Canada where I live, the demand for French Immersion schooling is quite high, even (or especially!) in parts which have never had much of a Francophone presence, like Vancouver and Toronto. When we immigrated to Canada, my parents’ decision on where to live was based in part on where they could get the kids into French immersion. English schooling is of course the norm, but plenty of parents want to get their children speaking French, most of whom are not Francophones themselves.

    The situation is reversed in Quebec, where you have a very hard time getting into any school but a French one. People schooled in English after a certain date can get their children into an English school, but everybody else (including speakers of Arabic, Cantonese, Spanish, etc.) have no real chance, outside the small privately-funded sector. So while Anglophones outside Quebec are being encouraged to educate their children in French, Anglophones inside Quebec have very strong incentives to have their children educated in English – otherwise their grandchildren will lose their right to choose. So this means of ‘preserving’ French among the North American “Ocean of English” is actually driving people away from the language, where in other parts of the country, there is a widespread demand to learn it. I fear that any scheme that would force parents to educate their children in the language of the state’s choice would end up replicating all the absurdities (and bitterness, and communal strife) that exists around the Quebec educational system, which, practically, has a mandate to squeeze all other languages out of the province.

  • Julie, I don’t know, though I imagine it varies. For an outsider like me, the tragedy lies in having the language itself vanish; but to a native speaker, it likely lies more in having the community of speakers diminish.

    S.M. Stirling’s series “The Change,” now midway into its fourth set of novels, has a group of survivors of the fall of civilization turning Sindarin into a living language. And I’ve heard stories of parents trying to raise their children bilingual in English and Klingon. In terms of individual freedom of choice inventing a language to speak together seems just as legitimate as preserving a language inherited from one’s grandparents.

  • Julie near Chicago

    William, agreed on both points. Although personally I would prefer High Elvish to Klingon, I think. Wikipedia, by the way, tells us how to pronounce “Éowyn” properly.

    I’ve always been interested in languages, and I even tried auditing a linguistics course for awhile in college (but gave up–it was way over my head, and it did seem more important to concentrate on my major *g*). But I only speak English, plus bits and pieces of French, from high school and college, not that I remember anything from the latter, and bits and pieces of very pidgin German just from being alive on the planet. The point is, though, that I sympathize with your feeling for languages — I too hate the thought of languages lost.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    William H. Stoddard,

    So far as I know it was only one person who spoke to his child only in Klingon while the child’s mother spoke to him in English. I think it was only kept up for eighteen months or so; when the child began to notice that the people he met outside didn’t speak this language he began to stop talking in it (a common way for attempts to raise bilingual children to break down, as I’m sure you know), and the father did not persist and risk damaging his relationship with the child. It was getting to be a pain for the father too, as Klingon doesn’t have equivalents for a lot of the everyday English words that the boy was meeting as his world expanded. Given that the child also learned English, the only ethical issue, and a much smaller one, was whether one should make one’s child mildly famous as an experiment. To avoid inflicting possibly unwelcome publicity on the the now grown up person concerned I have not included a link.

    The kid picked up Klingon pronunciation just fine as one would expect, and Mark Okrand did his job well – it works as a language.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    aplofar, the bitterness and perverse incentives caused by the use of force that you describe in your last paragraph are the topic of the longer post I mentioned, on which I am currently stalled. I have added your comment to my “clippings file”.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Julie, the get-togethers you describe do occur for languages real and imaginary. I enjoyed a book called In the Land of Invented Languages. The author describes a SF convention in which some of the participants take a vow not to speak anything but Klingon on certain days. The author joins in. Though not previously a Star Trek fan, she speed-learned quite a lot of Klingon herself in order to participate. I liked the fact that she acknowledges how embarrassed she felt when she left the con hotel and went with all these guys in costume to order a meal speaking only Klingon – yet she does not jeer. In fact she gets quite angry at how people ridicule many of the speakers of invented languages she meets, when absurdities like changing your style of clothes constantly because of the dictates of fashion are completely accepted.

  • David

    Having worked in the City of London for most of the last 15 years I’ve met quite a few bilinguals who have moved here from outside the UK and many of them share an unusual characteristic. They have forgotten a large part of their native language so much that when they go back for holidays, they struggle with it. Has anyone else come across this?

  • john malpas

    as a lotta people dont speak english proper – ain’t you all a bit fanciful.
    Why not try for reading riting and rithmatic
    Linguistic cruelty to chuldren may become a reason for a visit fromn the socisl workers.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Natalie, that’s very interesting and I am delighted to hear it! I trust they all had a wonderful time, and that at the next SF-Con they will repeat the exercise.

    (Although, she said shaking her head dolefully, Why Klingon? Surely Elvish is much more mellifluous, as well as more plentifully supplied with, well, words. Maybe they need to change over to Fantasy-Con.)

    As to the question you posed in your posting: However ill-served a few children might be if their parents are not forced to make them, or allow them to, use the normal language of their culture, my neck hairs rise along with my blood pressure and my bile at the thought of the State or anyone else forcing its, or his, dictates to be followed by parents in all but the most egregious cases. I do think anybody who would sign up for that proposed town has the IQ of a cabbage, especially if the contract prohibited exit and were, in fact, enforceable under the law of the land.

    But where the parents allow, encourage, or even press their children to learn a language other than the usual one in their society, I see no harm in that. All parents must be allowed to do what they think best for their children, even when most people would think they are rather obviously wrong. The question, as always, is where to draw the line…. After all, different children react differently to the same (or nearly the same) treatment. People vary.

    Still, one hopes that all parents everywhere will have good judgment as to their children, and that all children everywhere will have a healthy and informative start to life. And that tomorrow morning one will wake up to find Shadowfax in residence, and of course housebroken. :>)

    And now, excuse me. I have to visit your link.

  • Phil B

    Here in New Zealand, where approximately 700,000 or 15% of the population self identify as Maori, there is substantial Government cash shoveled at them to maintain the Maori language. Ok – so far it’s the usual rob the population and give to a minority cause.

    However, there IS an active organisation that is compiling Maori dictionaries and inventing new terms to describe the modern world. For example, there is a Maori word now for a compact disk (CD) kōpaepae …

    I’m not sure of the derivation of this but it is likely to mean something along the lines of “The spinning thing that remembers”. I kid you not. As a true example, the new prison being built in Auckland is called Kohuora which is translated as “coming out of the mist into the new world of the living”. yeah, right …

    Money well spent? I’ll leave that to the deeper thinkers on here.

    One of the BIG advantages of English is that it can absorb and effectively use words from other languages or artificial words such as television, telephone etc. Unless a stupidly disproportion of cash is spent inventing new words that describe the modern world by all of the minority languages, then my opinion is that they will become increasingly irrelevant for communicationg in the modern world.

  • Clovis Sangrail

    Bilingual is as bilingual does.

    Very small number of students instructed at school in Welsh attend my (or any other English) university.
    It’s very noticeable in Maths that the very few who do come are actually struggling with the language in lectures and small classes.

    “Meh”, you say. Let them speak cake Welsh.
    “OK” I say. But the best will surely miss out on an opportunity.

    I don’t really know where this is going, but I suspect that the social pressure thing occurs already across the “language of instruction ” parts of Wales, and it’s linked with “serendipitous” social exclusion.
    I suppose that the nationalists are winning by engineering this – whether they realise it or not.

    What I love about resolutely nationalist resurgences like that of Welsh is that they take their spavined limited vocabulary and add to it by stealing from English (nothing wrong with that-English steals all the time) but then they try to conceal it by rewriting.
    So we get ambiwlans (ambulance); ysbyty (hospital); frigad (brigade); coffi (guess!); craen (crane) etc.

    OK. I’m going to hide in my bunker now.

  • Mr Ed

    My grandmother was born and raised in England to two native Irish Gaelic speakers, in Edwardian times. She and her 4 siblings were deliberately raised in English, partly so that their parents could converse privately in Gaelic, but they all picked up some Gaelic words for household tasks and items, which they remembered into the 1980s. A pragmatic approach by 2 immigrants. It would have been nice to have kept the Gaelic going through the generations but almost totally practically useless.

    I once did some legal work in North Wales and one of our witnesses, a man in his mid-20s, came across as having difficulty in understanding his own statement, a pained look came across his face in discussing the fine detail of an incident, almost as I imagined the expression of Gandalf the White discussing Durin’s Bane. It turned out, unknown to his boss and me, that he was raised a monoglot Welsh speaker and had only learnt English in his teens, and he struggled with the finer points of recounting an incident in English. I actually thought that it was wonderful that he had avoided English and that there were parts of Wales where English had not penetrated. My grandfather was in North Africa in WW2, and a Welsh comrade of his used to get rid of child hawkers selling ‘best English grapes’ by talking to them in Welsh, utterly baffling them.

    I suppose the question to put to parents trying to raise a monoglot child is: “What are you trying to achieve as a priority?“. Is it a) your child’s best interests, or b) the survival of a language? If a is regarded as a sub-set of b, then they should be fine. It strikes me that a man speaking to his child in Klingon is likely to be a bit of a knob.

  • It strikes me that a man speaking to his child in Klingon is likely to be a bit of a knob.

    The child should embrace Klingon culture, assassinate the parent with a bat’leth (but a cricket bat will suffice) and declare themselves head of the family. Qapla!

  • Julie,

    There’s a scene in one of Stirling’s novels where twin sisters, Mary and Ritva Havel, who speak fluent Sindarin are discussing ordering a meal. There is some authorial reflection on the difficulty of figuring out how to say “a cheeseburger with French fries” in Sindarin. There is also, elsewhere, discussion of the lack of suitable words for swearing, though the young woman who starts the whole thing off initially gets a fair bit of mileage out of yrch.

    The appeal of Sindarin certainly includes the elegant phonology. The appeal of Klingon, to my mind, is more the intentionally exotic grammar; as I understand it the language features both ergativity and polysynthesis! On the other hand, my enjoyment of exotic grammar has lately been satisfied by exposure to Japanese. . . .

  • another_anon

    I’m surprised nobody has mentioned Deaf Culture. Seems pretty analogous to Natalie’s thought experiment.

  • My parents (mom only alive) regret to this day not teaching me Yiddish. It was considered declasse when I was growing up.

    All I learned were the swear words. You know – knafka – putz and worse.

  • Google tells me the proper spelling is nafka.

  • A list.

    http://thoughtcatalog.com/nico-lang/2013/10/61-hilarious-yiddish-insults-you-need-to-know/

    But it leaves out one I heard often. “Klop cop afen vant” – Beat your head against the wall. A waste of energy.

    And most un PC – goyisher cop – Doesn’t think like a Jew. Stupidest of stupid. No sense.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    another_anon, good point. I wish I’d thought to include it*, particularly the controversies about whether children should be fitted with cochlear implants. Adults can decide for themselves, of course, but deciding the question for your children is a very close parallel. Some of the Deaf activists opposing implants for their children strike me as crossing the line from wanting to pass on their language to their children to wanting to use their children as mere tools in their efforts to perpetuate their culture.

    However people should remember that implants don’t work for everyone, can cause tinnitus, and can actually damage whatever residual hearing the patient has. And if you are deaf, particularly if both parents are deaf, and your home language is sign language, it must be a difficult thought that you are inevitably going to partially “lose” your child to another culture.

    I had remembered to include discussion in the famous stalled post (if it ever does get finished) of the way that Deaf culture, like the culture of many “protected” minority groups, has been pushed by its reliance on subsidy into directions that reduce its appeal to those considering whether to join it.

    *Having written this I remembered that I have control of my own post, and did include it. Thank you for reminding me of this very relevant parallel.

  • We shouldn’t forget that WW2 pretty much settled the language question. The lingua franka of the world is English.

  • Let me add – I work in a technical field – electronics – and all the documents of the devices are at least in English. It is quite amusing to read some of the docs. It is obvious that English is a second language for many of the writers. The Dutch are pretty good at it (NXP). The French/Italians (STM) can be and often are obscure. The orientals (Japan, China) are often barely comprehensible. Which is to say incomprehensible.

  • Niall Kilmartin

    Freedom is the opposite of “Everything not forbidden is compulsory”. The space of freedom is the space between “It’s illegal” and “It’s illegal to criticise it”. I agree with Natalie that parents who wish to educate their child in Welsh or Quenya or Kilingon should be able to attempt to do so. If the child is not being ill-treated in other ways (e.g. locked in the house all the time and forbidden playmates) then the attempt to keep them monolingual in a bizarrely restrictive language will fail. If the attempt is feasible, but the cultural scope of the language still much inferior to that of English (or whatever wider rival is the alternative), then the children will do poorly, and fewer and fewer parents will do this. Like many other things, it would sort itself out in time if definitely bad, and less so if less definitely bad.

  • Snorri Godhi

    There are several issues here.
    First of all, there is a factual issue: is it true that “much of the world’s population does speak a language spoken by only a few thousands” as Natalie claimed @11:36? No, that’s mathematically impossible, since there are about 7K languages in the world (as per one of Natalie’s links). Assuming for the sake of argument that “a few thousands” means less than 10K, then there cannot be more than 70M people speaking 7K languages, each spoken by less than 10K people.
    (Sorry to be pedantic.)

    Then there are ethical issues: (a) is it good to raise children speaking minority languages only? (b) is it moral for parents to prevent their children from learning English? and finally the political issue: (c) does the State have the moral right to interfere in language learning?

    I’ll just address the middle question for now: it seems to me that the parents’ first obligation is to their children. Parents ought to raise their children in the language(s) that they think best for their children’s intellectual development. Personally, i think that English should be one of them, not only because they’d be able to read Samizdata, but also because they’d have a choice of competing translations of all the world’s classics, without having to learn Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Sanskrit, Mandarin, and most important Icelandic.
    But i also think it is good to grow up speaking a language without a future tense.
    No doubt all languages have some advantages such as the absence (or indeed the presence) of a future tense if you look hard enough, but if parents care about their children, then they should not look too hard, if you see what i mean.

  • Mr Ed

    (Sorry to be pedantic.)

    I’m sorry to take you to task for apologising for being pedantic.

  • Mr Ed

    Well Snorri, I wish we could ask Bomber Harris what he would have thought about the value of German as a language with a ‘weak’ future tense.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Snorri Godhi writes, No, that’s mathematically impossible in response to my “much of the world’s population does speak a language spoken by only a few thousands”.

    Sorry to be pedantic, Mr Godhi, but you have an incorrect understanding of the mathematical terms “Much of” and “only a few”.

    Both come into an interesting class of functions, being simultaneously hyperbolic, complex, unbound and incomplete. Mapping these functions to real world situations is not for the amateur, but suffice to say that rigorous investigation has proved that they mean whatever I damn well say they mean.

  • Mr Ed

    Sorry to be pedantic, Mr Godhi, but you have an incorrect understanding of the mathematical terms “Much of” and “only a few”.

    ‘Much of’ is the antithesis of a mathematical term, being indeterminate, ditto ‘only a few’.

    Please provide an example for her Ladyship Snorri.

  • bloke in spain

    I find this an interesting thread from libertarians, because it seems to be missing out on the most libertarian aspect of all. Languages operate in the most cut throat, red in tooth & claw, free market of the lot. They actively compete. Failures fall by the wayside. Successful ones prosper. Useful parts of poor languages get adopted to fill the gaps in their betters. (Oh boy! Yiddish has words where English doesn’t even have the concepts.)
    As someone blundering about between Andalus & the Latin American flavour of Castilian, I can’t wait ’til we’re all speaking the same English/Mandarin/Hispanic hybrid.

  • “They have forgotten a large part of their native language so much that when they go back for holidays, they struggle with it.”

    I grew up fully bilingual — English and Afrikaans, with no trace of the “other” when speaking either — but when I emigrated to the U.S., of course, the Afrikaans went by the wayside. (For obvious reasons I didn’t speak Afrikaans to my son, either, so nw he speaks French [my third language] with greater fluency.) But for the longest time I had “conversational fluency” in Afrikaans, in that I could speak to and understand Afrikaner South Africans whenever I met them.

    Anyway, some time ago I tuned in to a cricket broadcast (SA vs the West Indies), and for some reason the station screwed up the telecast, broadcasting the Afrikaans commentary instead of the English one. I couldn’t understand it at all, not a single word other than the articles and some of the verbs. Certainly, all the technical terms were as incomprehensible as if uttered in Burmese.

    Amazing what you can forget in twenty-eight years, n’est ce pas?

  • As for the “vanishing language” thing, I can only look forward to the day when Afrikaans disappears.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    David: “They have forgotten a large part of their native language so much that when they go back for holidays, they struggle with it. Has anyone else come across this?”

    I worked with some French programmers who spent their entire careers since university in England. They say it would be hard to go back to France to work, because there are so many technical terms they don’t know the French for.

    I have a vague memory of there being some talk about France insisting on inventing French words for technical terms when everyone would otherwise just use the American term.

    I’m not sure I am remembering correctly, but I did find some evidence for my memory: http://www.frenchtoday.com/blog/learn-some-french-computer-terms

  • Oh, and as for the morality of not teaching your kids English: in today’s world, it’s like not teaching them to walk. Sure, they’ll be able get by; but they’ll be severely handicapped.

  • Nicholas (Self-Sovereignty) Gray

    As it happens, here in Australia, I have ‘created’ an artificial language by mixing and matching a lot of Aboriginal words, so that from the three-hundred-plus languages there is a broader tongue, which could become an Australia-wide 2nd tongue. The words for Tongue-Second are Vurla-Wiynna. I hope to use this to preserve the best bits of Aboriginal tongues. As English becomes the world language, Australia might want its’ own distinctive voice, which Vurla-Wiynna could supply.

  • “As English becomes the world language, Australia might want its’ own distinctive voice”

    I always thought that Australians already had their own distinctive voice: Strine.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Natalie, May 17 at 8:49–

    I see you have taken note of the fact that it is not only mathematical functions which can have simultaneously the properties of being “hyperbolic, complex, unbound[ed] and incomplete.”

    How gratifyingly oblique. Well spun!

  • Nicholas (Self-Sovereignty) Gray

    Unfortunately, pure Strine is disappearing as Hollywood saturates the world with American accents. You hardly even hear ‘rough end of a pineapple’ anymore, or other colourful phrases.

  • Lee Moore

    when a single person who only speaks English joins a Welsh-speaking social group every other person in the network switches to English, out of politeness.

    I’ve noticed a related phenomenon in Hong Kong, amongst visiting mainlanders. In the hotel lift, when a whitey is spotted, mainlanders will switch from Chinese to English. Not to talk to the whitey(s), but to talk to each other. I’m confident that this is not politeness – not something one looks for from mainlanders – it’s just showing off – “I can speak English.” Local Cantonese – the ones that do speak English – don’t bother with this.

  • Lee Moore

    As usual, libertarian folk need to separate the questions

    1. is trying to pen your child into a minority language a good thing to do ?

    and

    2. what, if anything, is the state’s role in policing this sort of parental choice about how to bring up your child ?

    As to 1, I think Rich made the essential point – your child belongs to itself, not to you, so you shouldn’t treat it as a means to your ends. So if you want to teach it to be monolingual in Welsh, if you are doing this for your child’s good, then you are not using your child as a means; if you are doing it for the good of your beloved Welsh language, then you are using your child as a means to your ends, and that’s naughty. An ancient example is British families in India during the Raj starting their children off in the local language, and not teaching it English, before sending it back to Britain to be educated n English. The object being to prevent the child acquiring a sing-song Indian accent from the servants. Since the object was to prevent the child acquiring an accent that would have been socially disadvantageous to the child, that would seem to fall into the “not using you child as a means” slot.

    As to 2 – we’ve already seen how eager Child “Services” are to enforce on parents their view of the right way to bring up children. So in drafting a law to set the boundaries of when parents doing their own thing are going too far, and must be presumed to be harming their children, then I’d be drafting it pretty close to the “if they start amputating” line. Any further “discretion” granted to the state authorities is asking for trouble.

    btw – somebody said “they can always learn English later.” This is – statistically – false. Humans learn languages easily and effortlessly from age 0-7 or so, and fairly easily, if immersed, from 7-14. But after that it gets much harder – although some people retain their easy language learning ability into adulthood-and some people are good hard studiers so they can learn even when it gets hard.

    Learning a language is something we’ve evolved to do early in life. From about the age when we start learning chemistry, learning a language becomes – for most of us – as hard as learning chemistry.

  • Plamus

    Having worked in the City of London for most of the last 15 years I’ve met quite a few bilinguals who have moved here from outside the UK and many of them share an unusual characteristic. They have forgotten a large part of their native language so much that when they go back for holidays, they struggle with it. Has anyone else come across this?

    Pick me, pick me. However, it’s not so much forgetting the native language (although there is some of that), but:
    – Your knowledge of it is stuck two decades ago. Most terms and idioms you have learned since either do not translate, or take time to translate, leading to lots of erm-ing.
    – For a lot of terms there is either no equivalent in the native language, or the term may exist but is not nearly as frequently used, so if you do use it (correctly) you get blank stares (e.g. cognitive dissonance, path dependence, fallacy).
    – Because of the above two points, when you communicate with other expats, you end up using a mix of the two languages – often ~80% native language, interspersed with ~20% English. This can become your default for “speaking native language” and can be very difficult to turn off on command. It’s very confusing to my parents, and very amusing to my brother, who speaks English as a second language.

  • Phil B

    Language is a tool to communicate with the rest of the population and, ultimately with the outside world.

    By all means, teach your child Klingon as its sole language if you want but once the child tries to get a job and interact with the population but can’t, don’t expect me to pay for that person to sit on its arse for the rest of its life on unemployment benefit.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Lee Moore writes,

    your child belongs to itself, not to you, so you shouldn’t treat it as a means to your ends. So if you want to teach it to be monolingual in Welsh, if you are doing this for your child’s good, then you are not using your child as a means; if you are doing it for the good of your beloved Welsh language, then you are using your child as a means to your ends, and that’s naughty.

    Absolutely, but of course it is very likely that a parent who greatly loves the Welsh language is also likely to think that being a native speaker of Welsh is a benefit in itself. Every human language provides a unique way of seeing the world. These days it’s considered polite to assume in public that all ways of seeing the world are equally valid, but it’s not a necessary assumption. For some languages speakers might also literally believe if their children do not speak their tribe’s language they will lose a spiritual benefit.

  • Lee Moore

    These days it’s considered polite to assume in public that all ways of seeing the world are equally valid, but it’s not a necessary assumption.

    Absolutely right back at ya. The question is, when are we going to let the state determine which ways to see the world, in re the raising of children, are insufficiently valid ? And my answer is “deep deep deep into the heart of the territory which I happen to think is invalid, and nowhere near the border.”

    Actually I have a cunning plan for this kind of thing. Special juries. Each area should have a special jury elected by PR to decide matters of “reasonableness” in childcare intervention cases. If the state wants to interfere, it needs to get all 12 jurors to agree.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Lee Moore:

    Humans learn languages easily and effortlessly from age 0-7 or so, and fairly easily, if immersed, from 7-14. But after that it gets much harder

    Count me skeptical about this — unless “it gets much harder” means “few people manage to become fluent speakers” as opposed to “few people are capable of becoming fluent speakers”.
    The fact is that few adults need to, or are willing to, submit themselves to total immersion in a language in which they are not fluent. When they do, they become pretty fluent: the number of immigrants who become fluent speakers of English, should be evidence enough.
    This brings up a problem with the world dominance of English: once you are fluent in English, it requires much more determination to subject yourself to total immersion.

    Much depends on the teaching method, though. It is important for the student to be motivated by noticeable initial progress. In my intensive Dutch-language class, the teacher completely stopped speaking English by the 3rd day, and we could still follow the lesson. I bet that children younger than 7 could not learn that fast!
    By contrast, in my intensive Danish-language class, the teachers HAD to speak English even after 4 weeks. That’s because they had been teaching us to pronounce Danish “correctly” (ie unintelligibly), rather than teaching us to converse in it.

  • bradley13

    I live in the German part of Switzerland, where we speak Swiss German. Even though there are several million of us, you can see the process:
    As recently as 30-40 years ago, every town had its unique dialect, but the variation is dwindling fast. In the very near future, I expect all but the most remote areas to be subsumed into a single, national dialect. At the same time, the increasing number of Germans moving into the country means that – much like Welsh – you find yourself speaking German most of the time anyway. Certainly in the office, because you work with Germans; if you socialize with them as well, then in the evenings as well. When you aren’t speaking German, nowadays you’re speaking English. In 50 years, Swiss German will be mostly gone.

    On the one hand, that’s a shame. I like Swiss German. It’s unique, it has some fun linguistic features. But you know what? Once it’s gone, no one will care. Languages change, die, mutate, evolve. As society becomes ever more mobile, there is room for fewer languages. The Internet has accelerated this tremendously. Trying to stop this process is like trying to stop the tide: it can be done in small areas, for a short time, at a ridiculous cost. Frankly, there are better things to do with our limited resources.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Lee Moore – May 18, 2015 at 4:39 am:

    Humans learn languages easily and effortlessly from age 0-7 or so, and fairly easily, if immersed, from 7-14. But after that it gets much harder – although some people retain their easy language learning ability into adulthood-and some people are good hard studiers so they can learn even when it gets hard.

    I have a prediction. Sometime in the next 25 to 50 years, neuroscientists will work out the basis of language plasticity and develop methods for inducing it at will. It will become possible for almost anyone of any age to learn a new language easily.

    This will lead to preservation of declining languages and to revival of “prestige languages”, such as classical Latin and Greek. (By 2100, there may be more new writing in Latin than there is surviving classical text.)

  • […] is true? Search me. In my post of a month ago, “The morality of not teaching your child English”, I asked at what point the right of parents to raise their child according to their values must […]