This is an interesting article, and not just for those interested in languages. What the guy writes makes sense, something rarely finds in opinion pieces.
Everyone should learn languages, but it helps if the one chosen is useful. When I was in school, the only language offered--language study was required--was French or Latin. I was smart enough to know that learning language was difficult...and worthless, so I chose the lesser of two challenges. I did not have any use for French, but I could imagine traveling to France at some point in my life. And, a version of the language was spoken just up the road in Quebec. Usefulness has been limited, although a few words do come back during vacations in France...only to be immediately forgotten upon crossing the border.
Now, I would urge anyone willing to listen to learn Chinese, because these folks will rule the world long after I am gone. The combination of English and Mandarin should be useful on the international stage. Anyone staying home, can get by with the local language, although knowledge of English will be useful for understanding entertainment products. I cannot imagine Chinese music or films conquering the world.
Even people speaking poor English can make themselves understood, which explains why the language has conquered the world. American students have it easy, because English is not a difficult language to learn and the grammar is simple. The best parts are that there is only one article, the, and no need to learn such pesky bits as case of nouns and pronouns: dative, genitive, and inquisitive (I made up the last one to test you!). I discovered the little grammar I know when trying to learn French in school. Some bits have even stuck in my deep memory, only to sneak back to the forefront if I venture across the border into France.
One of the first difficulties in learning a language is presented by the article (definite: the; indefinite: a or an). French has one more than English: the masculine le (un) and the feminine la (une). This made learning vocabulary twice as difficult. Difficulty increased geometrically when trying to learn German, because not only are there more, but each influences the spelling of any adjective. The bloody language has masculine, der (ein), feminine, die (eine), and neuter, das (ein). Each case has its rules demanding innumerable changes of both article, article, and noun, such as with dative, dem (einem), accusative den (denen), and genitive, den (denen).* Sadly, there is only one way to learn them: by rote. One misses the simplicity of the.
Learning vocabulary is difficult enough, if one must learn only nouns and verbs. With verbs, one must learn tenses and memorize conjugation. In most foreign languages, one must also learn the articles that tend to complicate every noun. Unfortunately, there is no rhyme or reason. In French, a table is feminine (la table), whereas in German the bloody thing is masculine (der Tisch). Perhaps, this explains why these two nations have been killing each other for centuries: they can’t agree on even simple things.
Today, when a 2-year old child corrected my German, I was reminded of two facts, both of which I know rather well and tend to choose to forget. The first is that children have an easier time learning a language than anyone struggling with a second language later in life. Second, I am intellectually lazy. Many years ago, I made a conscious decision not to worry about learning German articles. I learned most nouns and verbs, so I can understand almost everything and can often make myself understood. I usually get the article wrong, but have a 30% chance of being correct. People are surprised that an American speaks some German, so I get the benefit of the doubt and avoid most criticism. My children have been known to be apologetic (“My father cannot speak German very well.”), but I am not.
I sat with the child as he watched Curious George, one of his favorite television shows. Anyone familiar with the show knows that George is a monkey. The German word is Affe, which is masculine, so der Affe. There are no rules about articles, but I learned in one of my first courses that words ending in e usually are (usually) feminine. That stuck in my subconscious, so I said something about die Affe...and was immediately corrected by a damn 2-year old, who said “der Affe”. This was a knee-jerk reaction on his part, because I doubt he knows the difference between native speakers and trying-to-learn-the-language foreigners. The rest of my family have given up trying to improve my command of articles. I wonder how long he will need to join the crowd...
*NB. I do not guarantee correctness, because I did not check a grammar book. As with my daily struggles with the language, I relied on my imperfect memory.
I dislike the evolution (if only it were backwards develop!) of American English language. This became evident at the hotel in the Maldives, where American culture and English has a (negative) impact on much of the staff. Many are from the US colony of Philippines, which produces most the the domestic staff hotel staff for Asia. The country also produces a great deal of US hospital staff, because doctors can make more as a nurse or technician than they do at home.
Anyways, this became evident during a conversation with the girl taking room service orders. Because I did not understand her greeting, I wanted to confirm that I had the right number. The conversation went as follows:
“Yes, Mr. Thomas.” (Typical greeting in much of Asia).
“I would like one club sandwich.”
“Absolutely, Mr. Thomas.”
This threw me a bit, but I recovered quickly, recalling that this is the way stupid American girls butcher the language.
“Uh, and, one coke.”
“Definitely, Mr. Thomas. Let me repeat your order.”
Absolutely? Definitely? What about “Okay”...or “Yes”?
I do not blame the girl. She cannot help picking up bad English from trash US television programs. And, television writers listen to the garbage spoken on the street and at schools, where language is not a priority. Confucius said something about the importance of getting language correct. Too bad Americans never studied The Analects.
I don’t understand the term Black Friday. I know that it’s all about getting money out of people’s pockets, but why black?
The word most associated with slashed prices or bargains is red. Black is a word associated with positive financial balances or…death. People with positive balances usually get that way from saving and frugality, not shopping.
Perhaps, the name derives from the effect on retailer’s, brand owners’, and manufacturer’s balance sheets—in the black—and not the fact that consumers’ finances will resemble Santa Claus’s suit or Rudolf’s nose.
There is a line in a John Le Carre novel (Most Wanted Man), which takes place in Germany, about a German-English couple: “sometimes they spoke German, sometimes English and for fun, sometimes a mix”.
All members of my family speak German and English (being unwilling or unable to learn articles, I struggle with German), so we have developed our own language. Each constructs a sentence with words from one or the other language that works best in the given context, because we know that everyone will understand the meaning. This sounds rather like gibberish to outsiders, but we know what we’re talking about. We do not do this “for fun”, but because this is the quickest way to communicate meaning.
Here’s a peeve, not necessarily the pet variety, but a bone that needs pickin’. I dislike verbal laziness. I was reminded of this watching a program on The National Geographic Channel.
I can recall these yellow periodicals being a part of my household for as long as I live. My parents subscribed before me, and stacks of back issues rested in the basement of our home. This might have stimulated my interest in places and peoples. Whenever this magazine or organization was mentioned, we said “National Geographic”. No shortening was required or wanted.
I noted, with aversion, that the television folks call themselves Nat Gee Oh. I think of no better way to disrespect such an august body. And, it sounds stupid.
Celebrities might be happy to let themselves be labeled with stupid monikers, but I do not use them. Jennifer Lopez is Jennifer Lopez. I am not a baseball fan, so do not care what people use for Yankee hitters. I care even less about Britney Spears’ husbands. Her name seems to not lend itself to encryption.
A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, but a name shortened to fused letters stinks.
I read a strange phrase in a New Yorker article about living in England. The equivalent of a Green Card is called “leave to remain”.
Anyone with a minimal knowledge of the English language will know that “to leave” means to depart, to go away, to do anything buy remain.
After some thought, I came up with phrases, which might explain the derivation: “left to his own devices”, “left alone”, “leave alone”. “by your leave”.
The United States and England might be two countries separated by a common language, but often usage is very different.
I spent most of the day with a one year-old. Despite not speaking a single intelligible word, he can communicate his likes and dislikes, as well as point out what interests him. I know that he understands both German and English (and, supposedly, Italian), because he responds to commands. There seems to be some mechanism that inhibits speaking words, if a child is exposed to more than one language. Once he starts school, he will have a distinct advantage over peers, who heard only German and started speaking early. Others will have to learn English, which is more difficult as one becomes older. I know: I am still trying to learn...
I had the opportunity to observe a set of twins, 11 months old.
This fact is surely obvious to anyone that spends time noticing child behavior, but I was surprised. Because a spend considerable time with a growing infant, it was interesting to note that babies all seem to make same sounds as made.
This led me to have a thought: like religion, all language is learned from parents. Just as no child is born with a particular religion, which must be learned, none is born with a particular language. A child born in one country and transported at birth to another will learn the language of the new home, as well as whatever the parents cram down his or her throat.
That tells me that there is no natural language. And, this explains why children can easily learn more than one...if offered the privilege.
*From a conversation I had recently with a one-year old.
One can never be too young to acquire an appreciation for books. Reading is not required, because color and feel provide enough stimuli. And, who knows, the kid might be reading in his own language. We're too dumb to understand...
Prior to writing novels, the author enjoyed a multifaceted career: from decorated combat aviator to advertising professional to global communications director of a major consumer brand. He has traveled the world and met sports, film and television stars, political leaders, and royalty. He graduated from Middlebury College, is married, lives in Germany, and has two grown children.