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Home truths about why English-speaking students are turning away from foreign languages

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.

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51 comments to Home truths about why English-speaking students are turning away from foreign languages

  • Fraser Orr

    I entirely agree that the benefits of learning another language are not generally financial, however, that doesn’t mean (as your last paragraph indicates) that there is no benefit to doing so. But I agree that for English speakers it is more like a “useful hobby” than a life changing benefit. And most of that benefit can be had by learning the language to a level of basic competence rather than full on fluency. You can get much of the benefit of learning Chinese for example, but learning to speak it, which is much easier than learning to read or write it.

    Of course the truth about language learning is that it should be a lot less hard than it is. If one were to design the worst possible way to teach a foreign language, it would not differ much from what we see in our school systems. Giving people an occasional half hour of instruction, and making that instruction about rote memorization of the utterly tedious, is the best way possible to kill the joy of communication.

    Schools could teach kids a foreign language in an entirely different way. Instead of spreading the learning out for three half hour periods a week, they could instead have two weeks at different points in the school year where all they did was learn. This consisting of speaking it and listening to it. For less than the the instruction time currently standard then could have a massively improved language acquisition. However, schools don’t work that way.

    A guy who used to work for me had a big deal in Brazil. He used Rosetta Stone and became functionally fluent in Portuguese in less than six weeks. Of course the benefit to him actually was financial here, but that is certainly the exception. I’ll grant you that he was already a fluent Spanish speaker, and I am sure his conjugations made a few Cariocas snicker, but it he was strong enough in the language to negotiate business deals, so he must have been doing alright.

    BTW, Rio is the most beautiful and most dangerous place I have ever been. Nobody should die without visiting at least once.

  • I spent time working in Norway, and felt bad for a while at parties when everyone had to switch language for my benefit. But they didn’t seem to mind, and pointed out that anywhere in Europe they go, they speak English.

  • Having worked for nearly two decades in Europe, I can confirm the truth of this, the tipping point came about with the exponential rise of the internet which started as an anglophone phenomenon and despite attempts to resist the dominance of English, they haven’t really succeeded.

    Sure I can go to a French website and order a modem in French, but Amazon will probably be cheaper.

    As for entertainment, the bulk of it is primarily English. If you wanted to watch Breaking Bad in German it was about 18-months behind the US release, but if you could understanding English you could download and watch it the day after its first broadcast – same with Game of Thrones or Doctor Who.

    These are the accelerators of Lingua Franca English.

  • Phil B

    I think that the argument that Mr Herbert is advancing can be summarised thus:

    “Learn a foreign language otherwise a lot of teachers will be out of a comfortable, well paid job”.

    I detect a bit too much vested interest in the claims.

  • woodsy42

    I have noticed in France on holiday that it’s difficult to practice ones french because as soon as they realise (instantly) that you are from the UK they all want to practice and show off their English. But in fact it’s not english english that they speak, it’s increasingly american english as propogated by film and TV and often with a tint of american accent.

  • Nicholas (Self-Sovereignty) Gray

    No, you must be wrong! Esperanto is the lingo of tomorrow! (what a slogan!). You can’t go wrong with a planned language!

  • Anytime somebody tries to cast education as a financial exercise or a means to financial reward, I want to punch them in the face. That’s called “training” (not education) and if the stakes are high enough, people are able to learn anything (even tax law or thoracic surgery).

    When it comes to language, there are really only two valid reasons to learn a foreign one: relocation and cultural (also for heritage — the reason I learned French, for instance). Relocation (or extensive travel) is a practical reason — one wants to be able to communicate with the locals and/or be able to read the newspapers or watch TV. To learn a foreign language so as to be able to read literature in its original incarnation and not be in thrall to the translation. That’s education, because the only person who truly benefits from the exercise is the person who learned the language — their intellect is enriched, which is about the purest definition of education I can think of.

    If people are lamenting the lack of linguistic learning, it’s simply because we as a society have confused training with education — making learning a financial exercise instead of having it be a way out of ignorance (“ex” + “ducere” means “to lead out of” — yeah, I studied Latin for seven years too). So if you treat learning a language as something which will generate some kind of financial reward, it’s a mistake.

    It’s a mistake which has been perpetuated by the so-called “education system” in which schools have, in the wonderful words of Joseph Sobran, gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to remedial English at university. How can we expect people to be able to learn a foreign language when they can barely speak or understand their own?

    The rest of the world is learning English because it’s the language of international communication and business, aided and abetted, as said above, by the Internet. They HAVE to learn English or else they can’t compete. Learning their language is not that important for English-speakers because there’s no pressing need to do so. A personal anecdote: my late father wanted to be an engineer, but as an Afrikaner who spoke no English, he had to buy his textbooks in German because he could speak German. He still had to take his examinations in English, so he had to learn English in about six months, which he did. And that was the reason he raised his kids in English, sending us to English-medium schools and so on.

    Yes, I think being multilingual is culturally enriching — I speak four, so admittedly I’m biased — but I honestly never once thought of there being any financial return on all that study. If I could, I’d learn Spanish and Italian as well, but the sands of time are ticking away, and the impetus to learn them quickly just isn’t there.

    I just don’t care what other people do with their lives anymore, so the fact that people prefer not to learn foreign languages is of no interest to me. It shouldn’t be important to anyone else, either. Because English has become the international language, it has taken away the need to learn other languages. Now it’s a question of personal choice; and when it comes to personal choices, I believe in leaving people the hell alone.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Let’s not run before we can creep. Seems to me far too many Anglophones are still struggling to master the basics of their own language, such as the difference between a preposition and a conjunction, the fact that adjectives are not nouns are not verbs, and the use of the hyphen to show which words are connected with which, so as to arrive at sentences that make grammatical sense.

    When people can actually cope with getting “See Spot run” down on paper, then we can discuss foreign languages.

    ;>)

  • Nicholas (Self-Sovereignty) Gray

    Julie, your place is all over the head! English uses nouns as verbs all the time! Wolves aren’t the only ones who can wolf their food down! Ever out-foxed an opponent? Who heads your favourite football team?
    And, in English, any noun in front of another noun is probably an adjective. Opera and House become ‘Opera House’, etc.
    Indeed, English is very flexible in this regard- maybe that’s why locals have such trouble in speaking it!

  • bloke in spain

    On presumes we’re talking spoken English as the lingua franca? I’ve managed to teach spoken English relatively easily. I despair of trying to explain our spelling

  • Julie near Chicago

    Yes yes yes I know, Nicholas. I could observe that apparently the English have always been language challenged, except that that makes no sense at all.

    Whereas, if I write “The English have always been language-challenged”….

    Then there’s this horror: I post the post on the post.

    I read an article somewhere south of 50 years ago about some tribe in Africa or Polynesia or somewhere called the Suli. They had exactly one word in their language: “suli.” And they managed to communicate quite a lot with that one word, depending on just where the vocal inflections were and so forth.

    So, I think the English language is headed that way and in due course it will be a one-word language. The word will be either “post,” “f***,” or “NO.”

    I think we should just get on with it and declare English as we know it (or don’t know it) officially dead. I think I pick “NO” as the word to use for whatever it is we think we have to say.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Cheer up, bls. Anglographs can’t spell English either. Although the Brits still seem to know at least a few of the rules. I think you can still spell words like “traveller” and “jewellery,” although the so-called spell-checkers certainly seem ignorant of such niceties.

    Make your pupils memorize the spelling of these words:

    bough, cough, dough, plough, rough, sough, tough, and, of course, enuff. After that they should be able to handle English orthography with a plum.

  • James Strong

    I think Kim du Toit has put forward what could be a Samizdata Quote of The Day, or Month.

    ‘I just don’t care what other people do with their lives (any more could be optional)’ is good.

    but

    ‘Now it’s a question of personal choice; and when it comes to personal choices, I believe in leaving people the hell alone.’

    is timeless.

  • Mr Ed

    As an anglophone self-taught in Spanish and Portuguese, and having been taught French, German and Latin in school, I think the root of the problem in language teaching is that the UK’s approach is like getting into a cold swimming pool inch-by-inch rather than jumping in and swimming, as they start with vocabulary and then add on piecemeal the tenses. As an example, in French, we started with the present tense, arguably the least useful tense of all, and gradually learned the future and the past tenses, not even touching on the subjunctive (and of course, our ‘English’ lessons were focused in the main on reading politicised crap rather than learning grammar, syntax and the mechanics of language.).

    With Spanish and Portuguese, you soon start making huge errors if you don’t learn the subjunctive along with the present tense. I decided to learn all the tenses at once, and therefore I was able to place what I might want to say in time and tense, and found a future perfect. The vocabulary can follow the tenses, but in the UK the vocabulary comes first, then the tenses, leaving people unable to talk about actions, what you have done, what you will do, where you have been, what might have happened, for years.

    And I greatly enjoy the surprise on many Iberians’ faces when I address them in their own language.

  • bloke in spain

    Half the problem, Julie, is I had to teach the person to read & write in their own language first. And explain things like “ll” makes a “y” sound. And now, in English, it’s “Well, the English reckon L’s get lonely on their own so we often give them a dumb chum to keep them company”. But I’ve left the “rr’s” I like the accent

  • Somewhat over 7 years ago, Brian Micklethwait posted on Samizdata, the question What Use is Maths?. It seems to me that there are quite a few similarities in the comment and discussion arising from Brians’s earlier question and Natalie’s current one on learning foreign languages – thought not so much in the thrusts of the original posters.

    On language learning, I am pretty much with Kim du Toit. For most people, I think the wider educational aspects are much more important than any likely individually applicable utilitarian ones. And that is just like maths and science.

    I also remember back to the days when I went to university – to study physics. In those days, IIRC, it was essential for going to university, to have an O-level in a modern foreign language (likewise O-levels in maths and English language, a total of 5 or more O-levels and 2 or more A-levels) – irrespective of the course one was to study. Having a university degree should surely indicate at least some passing belief that one has, along the way, undertaken at least some sort of wide-ranging (ie universal) learning.

    As has already been commented on above, learning a foreign language certainly helps one better understand the structure of one’s first language. It also helps somewhat on the range of differences that are possible between languages, and that actually do exist. There is also lots of wider-ranging useful stuff: on phonetics, grammar and the etymology of words – the latter at least contributing to a grasp of cultural differences and how cultures spread.

    Best regards

  • There is an exception, I think, to the usefulness of english on the Internet. Message systems with artificial byte length limits like twitter are more useful in languages which use ideograms instead of alphabets. It’s unclear whether the increased utility is enough to boost mandarin as a lingua franca.

  • PeterT

    The only possible competition to English is Chinese, but:

    As pointed out it is bl**dy difficult to learn, and

    Many Chinese speak pretty good English, the same is not true of the Japanese and the Koreans for example. I expect that the reason for this is that Chinese is complicated and also more tonal.

    And in India most of the people that have some interaction with the rest of the world are fluent English speakers.

    Arabic – well they might out-breed or overrun us but otherwise no chance in hell. Very very difficult language to learn.

    English is probably one of the few languages where you can learn a few hundred words and no grammar and still make yourself understood. The same should be true of other languages, but the native speakers may not give you the time of day unless you speak properly (cough, Paris, cough).

  • The reason Chinese will never even reach the end of the runway, let alone fly, as a world language is the writing, not the language itself. It is an absolute deal killer for 99% of the non-Chinese population of the planet methinks.

  • Mr Ed

    Also, Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal languages, which can be hard to pick up (and easy to make howlers in), whereas English can at least usually be spoken without too many issues, at least until some people go to some of the rougher parts of Tyneside.

    The joy of Chinese writing is that if we also learnt our languages in Chinese ideograms, we could go to China and make ourselves understood without speaking a word, provided we met locals who were literate (and we had a pencil and paper etc.).

    I recall seeing a Japanese and Chinese scientist discuss something in broken English, get bogged down by their lack of fluency, write down the concepts, exchange ideograms, and rejoice in clearing up a misunderstanding.

  • pete

    One good reason to learn a foreign language is so you can teach it in a secondary school.

    The middle class must be employed or they’ll become angry.

  • One of the strongest incentives to learn a foreign language is popular culture in that language that one wants to watch. Wanting to be able to watch Breaking Bad the day after it airs in the US provides an incentive to learn English, and it also provides enormous help in the actual learning of the language. One of the most seemingly effortlessly multilingual people I know is a twentysomething Croatian woman who I simply assumed was a native speaker of English when I first met her, as she entirely lacked any of the usual give-aways that non-native speakers. (She also lacked any specific dialect or accent that I could identify, so I immediately figured out that she was very interesting). When I asked her where she had learned English, she answered “The Cartoon Network”. A slightly later, similar question as to how she had learned equally fluent and non-specific Spanish was answered by “Mexican and Argentine soap operas”.

    As a general rule, the number of speakers of languages that have a large and vibrant popular culture is increasing – the number of speakers of languages that don’t is not increasing. Combine that with colonial history that gives some schooling in the language as well, and that helps as well. My favourite example this is the present rapid growth of Portuguese in Africa – electronic media and the existence of Brazil is spreading the language to far more people than many decades of colonialism did.

    On the other hand, China is so authoritarian that it can’t really cope with the subversiveness of a vibrant popular culture, so television, film, and music from China that people in other countries might want to listen to is not abundant. As factors preventing the spread of the language go, this is a big one. It’s not one that necessarily has to last forever – cultural flowerings after the end of authoritarianism are not unheard of – but it is certainly the case for the near future.

  • Sigivald

    I completely agree with the last paragraph.

    Learning another language – even just middling-well, like my German – has plenty of value to an individual.

    It just isn’t something that should be pushed as either a mandatory social virtue, or a professional requirement in general without some Very Specific Reasons For That Particular Profession*.

    (* Want to major in Roman History? Learning German will be very, very worth your while, since it’s the biggest language for Roman-era archaeology on the Continent, IIRC. I mean, obviously Latin will have immense benefit for primary sources, as well, but to read the modern scholarship, German.)

  • Fraser Orr

    @Julie near Chicago
    > So, I think the English language is headed that way and in due course it will be a one-word language. The word will be either “post,” “f***,” or “NO.”

    I think the opposite is true. English is a whore of a language. It’ll copulate with anyone to enhance its vocabulary. And so it is constantly adding new words and structures, and I think that is awesome.

    I think part of it is its origins are so utterly mongrel, so consequently it has already been happy to breed with the grammars and vocabularies of Germanic, French, Normam French, Latin and even a little Greek. Such whorish behavior makes it rather less susceptible to concern about maintaining its purity or virtue going forward.

    I think it is all a good thing. After all English grammar and vocabulary are descriptive of usage rather than defined by L’Académie française, or equivalent. It is the common usage of the people rather than the literati and Les Immortels. And there is something distinctly British, distinctly libertarian, about that, in my opinion.

    I remember a talk by a famous computer scientist who said that his favorite thing about English “is that nouns verb so easily.”

  • Regional

    The Strayan habit of breviatin words is starting to catch on. I’m off to the café for brekky.

  • Kevin B

    “Verbing weirds language.”

  • Nicholas (Self-Sovereignty) Gray

    One of the troubles with Esperanto, apart from the diphthongs, and the lack of a fixed base to help spread the language, is that words are not built up purely from a verbal base. We now know that energy and matter are interchangeable, and a good language would reflect this.
    So this noun-verb duality is in line with current physics.

  • Shlomo Maistre

    There’s a bit of confusion ’round here.

    To learn a language is to learn how to think; speaking is simply thinking made audible.

    And this sublime definition alone should show you the truth of what I was just saying, that the question of the origin of ideas is the same as that of the origin of language, for thought and language are simply two splendid synonyms, the mind not being able to think without knowing what it thinks, nor being able to know what it thinks without putting it into words, since it must say, I know. So if some follower of modern doctrines comes and says to you that you speak because someone has spoken to you, ask him (but will he understand you? ) if, in his view, understanding is the same as hearing, and if he believes that to understand language it is enough to hear the noise that strikes the ear.

    Joseph de Maistre, “The Saint Petersburg Dialogues”

    That English is rightly characterized as the first world lingua franca – I have a Maistre quote for this observation as well!

    The power, I almost said the royalty, of the French language is apparent; this cannot be seriously disputed.

    Joseph de Maistre, “Considerations on France”

  • Robbo

    “Schools could teach kids a foreign language in an entirely different way. Instead of spreading the learning out for three half hour periods a week, they could instead have two weeks at different points in the school year where all they did was learn. This consisting of speaking it and listening to it. For less than the the instruction time currently standard then could have a massively improved language acquisition.”

    Err, no. Memory doesn’t work like that. Little and often with plenty of repetition is the way to retain what you learn.

    My personal opinions based on having studied at various times eight different foreign languages from Ancient Greek to Finnish, and now working hard to master a ninth language:

    – It takes a lot of work to get a useable level of knowledge of any foreign language. Going up the scale from Tourism to Reading to Speaking to a script to Writing to Conversation to Mastery the slope gets steeper, but it’s not until Mastery that anyone will be prepared to pay for your capability, and even then you will be competing against native speakers of your foreign language who have invested in mastering English.

    – I whole-heartedly agree on the intellectual benefits of studying other languages, especially French and German, being “parents” of English, and Spanish which has two great literatures and is the second language of the US.

    – When it comes to obligatory school I suggest focus on things which are marketable skills or are necessary prerquisites to marketable skills, or at least useful skills. I think it was Humbolt who enthused about the farmer who could read Horace in the original, but I can’t help thinking said farmer would have been better off studying, well farming and related topics at school, and taking up Latin as a hobby if and when he felt like it.

    -The whole idea of compulsory school and government prescribed curriculums and beaurocracy-designed credentials seems hopelessly old-fashioned today when you or literally anyone else can go to Harvard in their pyjamas through edX.

    Thanks for reading

  • Quentin

    I learned more about English from my Latin classes than the English ones. If I were to learn languages today, I’d learn Spanish and Hindi.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Nicholas Gray, “You can’t go wrong with a planned language!”

    I don’t have anything against planned languages. So long as a language is not imposed by force, planned or unplanned, ça m’est égal. Esperanto is not going to be the world’s auxiliary language, English is, but that fact is only because of the way the cards of history fell. I’m pretty sure that Esperanto with its regular, because planned, structure and spelling would fulfil the role far better. It also lacks the consonant clusters that make English hard to pronounce for many people.

    The reason that Esperanto is extremely unlikely to take over comes down, once again, to the low payoff for individuals. Easier to learn than natural languages it may be, but like any language whatsoever it still demands considerable expenditure of time and effort. Given the number of Esperanto speakers, it falls quite far down the list of languages in terms of number of people with whom you gain the ability to converse. There is also the excellent point about access to popular culture made by Michael Jennings at 4:01. Not that I have any reason to suppose Esperanto culture – which does exist – is deadened by authoritarianism as Chinese culture is, but the numbers of Esperantists are just not big enough to have produced much. One might fairly argue that is not the point of an auxiliary language, but it often is exactly the point for someone choosing what language to learn.

  • M2P

    I have a degree in French and German, and I spend a lot of time working with French and German-speaking clients, and even then my languages are of almost no business benefit and only really useful as a social skill, and are even sometimes a hindrance – navigating the complexities of formal etiquette is actually much easier if you only speak English, as you are exempt from (for example) remembering to use surnames and academic titles.

    What’s more, we’re close now to ubiquitous accurate translation software available on any phone.

    I am glad that I learnt it anyway, but only for cultural and academic reasons – I find Kafka unreadable in English as the terse clarity of expression is lost (as indeed it is in Catullus or, I imagine, Algonquin oral tradition or Chinese poetry). But my children aren’t strong at languages and it doesn’t bother me at all. Learning a few words of politeness is important in a foreign country, but being able to recite their poems or legal contracts or sales patter flawlessly isn’t.

  • AWM

    One thing not mentioned often in these discussions is that English is a very good language to convey technical and legal concepts in.

    I spent years in China and if you stuck a Chinese engineering specification in front of half a dozen (Chinese) engineers, they would all give you (often significantly) differing explanations of what the document was supposed to be defining. As to Contracts…

    If you put it in front of a European or American engineer, they almost always couldn’t read it at all. I know many non-Chinese people quite fluent in spoken Chinese but only one I would trust to read or write it in a business setting.

    There are many good reasons to learn a foreign language but getting a job and doing business internationally aren’t valid reasons for most of us. However, and as the Natalie says, they are usually the main reasons mentioned in these ‘why oh why’ pieces.

  • Cal

    >The only possible competition to English is Chinese,

    In a lot of world Spanish is the lingua franca, not English.

  • Laird

    “The only possible competition to English is Chinese.”

    FWIW, I find it interesting that in the Joss Whedon’s Firefly universe the two languages which humans took with them to the stars (and which apparently melded together) were English and Chinese.

  • Laird

    English is tricky.

    Not sure I completely agree that English is all that good for conveying legal concepts. We do load up our legal documents with an awful lot of redundancy. For example, we “grant and convey” title to property, or “devise and bequeath” it in our wills. We pretty much say everything twice. My understanding is that this is a relic of the Norman Conquest, after which they began including both English and French terms in legal documents to be sure both the Saxons and the Normans could understand it. Being lawyers, and inherently conservative, once that concept took hold to this day we won’t give it up. It adds a lot of verbosity to our documents.

  • Alex

    Laird, is ‘grant and convey’ entirely redundant? IANAL but grant seems to imply that the granter retains the right to withdraw that which is granted while convey explicitly defines the transfer of rights.

  • Laird

    Alex, without a specific reservation “grant” is complete and irrevocable.

  • Mr Ed

    In respect of land, a ‘grant’ is the act of giving and donating, and ‘convey’ is the mechanism, as title in land is conveyed rather than given, the land not being physically handed over, as it is in essence immovable, unlike, say, a horse or a tool.

    Spanish refers to land and real property in the word ‘inmobiliaria’.

  • CaptDMO

    Now, if German schools had JUST taught Navaho…we’d all be speaking German!
    Or something.
    I went out of my way to NOT confuse “carbon”, and “cabron” in the ‘hood where I learned assorted variations of Spanish. I’ve retired to a place with a common tongue. It comes in handy when I ONLY have to learn more (inexplicably mandatory) Latin, SPECIFICALLY for “Golden years” legal/medical “issues”.
    Wish I’d picked it up as a “second language” BEFORE I went through all that silly high school/college/”real world” (especially port cities) “communications” education. Of course, that wouldn’t have helped at ALL translating between American variations, Australian variations,and British variations, of English.
    Fu Mucks up the whole aluminum controversy.

  • Cal
    June 5, 2015
    >The only possible competition to English is Chinese,

    In a lot of world Spanish is the lingua franca, not English.

    Except in Spain, from where I just returned (at least in the tourist areas). I witnessed several times people of different nationalities conversing in English: for example the Danish habourmaster conversing with a Dutch local business owner.
    On a related note – translation software is here and it works. My wife was afflicted with a rash on her feet, so I popped out my phone and popped into the chemist’s, popped “I would like to buy some antihistamine cream please ” into Google Translate and showed the pharmacist the screen (not wishing to make a fool of myself attempting to read it out). A bit of dumbshow later and relief was had. The same software also now boasts an augmented reality screen where you can wave your phone over the Spanish (or several other languages) text and it gives you your translation on the screen and on-the-fly. It is also possible to download the language pack to use where there is no signal.

  • Josh B

    “The monetary return on investment of learning another language is not that great for English speakers.”

    So glad someone has finally said this. For various reasons I, a native English speaker, speak 3 languages (other than English) with varying degrees of fluency: Cantonese Chinese, Mandarin Chinese (including reading and writing) and Hebrew. In my years of practicing international law, I never once used any of those languages and found myself working most with European clients (whose native language was French, German or Dutch) and Latin American clients (Spanish and Portuguese) exclusively in English.

    When I eventually did get around to looking for job opportunities in Asia that would put my language skills to use, one head hunter recommended that I NOT emphasize those skills because if I was interviewing with a foreigner they simply wouldn’t believe that I had the level of fluency required and would go with a native speaker with less qualifications if necessary, and if I was interviewing with a native Chinese speaker (especially true in Hong Kong) to PRETEND that my Chinese was less fluent than it was, as a large part of their worth was based on being able to speak English (if they were native Chinese speakers).

    That said, I don’t regret the time and effort as living in Hong Kong (where I am about to return after a few years absent) would be horribly boring without speaking Cantonese, as your life is really restricted to a few square miles of Central otherwise.

  • George

    English is the most practical language for Europe as it is 70% French and 30% German.

  • mojo

    Yeah, Swahili, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian, all big favorites. Spanish and French sort of languishing. English is the global tongue of the moment, but it wont be forever.

    Me, I speak FORTRAN. And Pascal, and C, C++, perl, JS, VB, a little ALGOL- believe it or not.

  • Eric

    I have noticed in France on holiday that it’s difficult to practice ones french because as soon as they realise (instantly) that you are from the UK they all want to practice and show off their English.

    A colleague from Pakistan was complaining about this. He took his kids home for a summer in hopes they’d pick up the basics of Urdu, but the locals weren’t interested in speaking their language around people with native proficiency in English.

  • […] A Can Samizdata tenen una teoria sobre el per què els angloparlants estan deixant d’aprendre altres llengües: […]

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Kim du Toit wrote,

    Anytime somebody tries to cast education as a financial exercise or a means to financial reward, I want to punch them in the face. That’s called “training”

    When I first read this I had what one might call a felicitous misunderstanding.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    I was fascinated to see my own words translated into Catalan by Arnau Fuentes in the pingback link two comments above this one. I should have added at least two more entries to my list of good reasons for learning other languages: aesthetic and intellectual pleasure.

  • Eric

    I’m pretty sure that Esperanto with its regular, because planned, structure and spelling would fulfil the role far better. It also lacks the consonant clusters that make English hard to pronounce for many people.

    If great masses of people actually started to speak Esperanto, over time it would lose the coherence that makes it attractive. Languages in use change, and not usually in ways that would make sense to a planner.

  • Thailover

    I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to language and etymology, but for the life of me I can’t grasp the Thai language, (a tonal language), and I lived there for 8 months in one stretch, 4 months in another. Arguably though, it doesn’t really matter. When a Japanese businessman on holiday tries to talk to a Thai “bar girl”, they both speak broken English to strike a bargain. I may try my hand at Spanish and visit Colombia, but I hear that it’s still pretty sketchy for “rich” foreigners to visit.