How useful is a foreign language?

Via Tim Worstall, this letter in The Guardian:

It was inspirational to read John le Carré’s timely piece on “Why we should learn German” (News). Through his personal narrative about learning German, he encapsulates so eloquently all the key motivations for learning languages: access to other cultures; curiosity about the structure of language; the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue with crucial political and trading partners.

The letter is written by a professor of modern languages, and it shows. In my experience, knowledge of a foreign language is one of the most overrated skills one is encouraged to acquire – unless it is English. It is ironic that it’s the monoglot UK which pushes this line, perhaps because those doing the pushing are unaware of the limitations. For instance, how much “meaningful dialogue with crucial political and trading partners” has a professor of modern languages at the University of Belfast engaged in?

It is true that knowing a foreign language can build strong relationships and help greatly in understanding and learning about other cultures. But if this is a reason for Brits to learn Spanish, why is it not also the case for Germans, say? Why does everyone else get to learn English and stop there, uninterested in going any further? If Brits are being told they will struggle abroad, how does everyone else manage with just English and their (locally useless) native tongue?

The answer is that once you know English, you can do 90% of what you need; if that weren’t the case you’d see foreigners desperately trying to learn third and fourth languages, and generally you don’t. Once you know English, your time is better off spent learning something else.

I am far from fluent in Russian, but I can get by pretty well, especially in a social environment. When it comes to business my vocabulary lets me down, but I could learn it if I had an incentive. The trouble is, I don’t. Russian was incredibly useful when living in Russia but largely useless once I left. Sure, it is great to be able to go on the lash with a load of Russians (as I did in Baden-Baden two weeks ago) and not feel left out and learning about Russian history and culture simultaneously with the language was very rewarding in itself, but professionally it has been useless. The truth is, nobody is interested in whether I speak Russian, and this was the case even when I worked there. I have seen colleagues assigned to Russia and Azerbaijan and been utterly lost from Day 1, but never has their lack of language skills been a concern, and never has my language skill been seen as a reason to involve me in something. At best, my being able to speak Russian is seen as a mildly interesting piece of trivia, nothing more.

I believe that even if I were fluent this would be the case. From what I have seen, abilities in languages other than English are simply not rated highly by corporate managers and HR people, and come a long way down the list behind obedience, conformity, compliance, and simply having a face that fits. I know people fluent in languages working in giant multinational companies whose language skills lie idle, useful only when socialising or in the occasional restaurant. I have a friend in Paris who is fluent in English and also speaks Mandarin. She found Mandarin very useful in China, but since moving to Paris it simply isn’t required. Her employer, a huge multinational, is interested in her MBA and professional experience, not her language skills (other than English, of course).

Contrary to what the professor says, languages other than English are only mildly useful in the business world – everything gets done in English as soon as foreigners are involved. That’s not to say learning a language isn’t useful and rewarding, but the idea that doors will fly open as companies desperately seek to employ polyglot Englishmen is nonsense.

As is this, in my opinion:

These are precisely the reasons why languages matter so much to our future: they are crucial for building deep relationships across cultural differences, both globally and in communities around the UK, relationships that are game-changers for business, security and peace in an interconnected world.

Now obviously this professor is talking his own book, but learning a language is often a necessary but not sufficient step to building relationships with foreigners. In some instances, such as with Russians, the language isn’t even necessary. In my experience, Russians tend to get you blind drunk early on and “see what sort of a person you are” before trusting you with friendship. Although speaking their language certainly helps, your character is a lot more important. Turning up in Russia fluent but a slimy, untrustworthy prick isn’t going to get you far, and a monoglot foreigner they actually like will do a lot better.

I have known several expats here in France who believed the only thing preventing them being accepted into French social circles was the language barrier. A decade later they’re fluent, but still waiting for the dinner invitations. Shared culture and character are often far more important when building relations with foreigners than mere language skills.

Conclusive proof comes by looking at which nationalities do well internationally and establish business, cultural, and social relationships everywhere they go. Is it the famously multilingual Dutch, Danes, and Norwegians? Is it the serious dual-language Germans or Swedes? What about the sociable Spanish or Italians? No, it’s the hopelessly monolingual Americans and Brits. If knowledge of foreign languages is a key requirement in conquering the world commercially and culturally, nobody thought to tell the Anglo-Saxons.

My advice would be to encourage people to decide first which cultures they want to learn more about and which countries they want to live in, and start learning the languages that will help them with that. It probably won’t help their careers much, but it will make their cultural experience far deeper, more rewarding, and longer lasting. But the idea that “a step-change in the UK’s national capacity in modern languages” is required is laughable. The time and money would be better spent acquiring skills people want to pay for.


Gendered Pronouns

There’s a post over at Samizdata on the subject of gendered pronouns. It talks about the apparent problem of some men and women not wanting to be referred to as “he” or “she”, and yet another problem whereby some people object to a third person of unknown sex being automatically referred to as “he”. Hence, apparently, there is a need for a gender-neutral third person pronoun. I should point out that Natalie Solent, the author of the Samizdata piece, is merely discussing the issue and groping around for a possible solution rather than demanding something be done, but I’ll weigh in nonetheless.

The first thing that occurs to me is that, as with so many other present-day crises, this is something that appears to be limited to the English-speaking world. The supposed problem is that the use of “he” or “she” infers sexual attributes to the person in question which they might not like, but this might have more to do with the nature of English grammar than a desire on the part of an ancient system of Patriarchy to impose their characterisations on unwilling recipients.

English, being a highly simplified language, doesn’t have gendered nouns and so the only time you see “he” or “she” is in relation to a living creature which, until recently, must be of one of two sexes. A lot of other languages – French, German, Russian to name three – have gendered nouns whereby inanimate objects such as a book, a car, a window, and a door are referred to as “he” or “she”. In the case of Russian and German they even have nouns of a neutral gender.

Things get further complicated in French when the possessive third person pronoun takes the gender of the noun, not the person. In English we say “her book” and “his book” depending on who owns the book. In Russian it’s the same. Only in French they say “son livre” using the masculine form even if the person owning the book is a woman. Conversely, if a man owned a car you would say “sa voiture” because car is feminine.

My point is that people who grow up speaking such languages are probable more resistant to the notion that the pronoun says much about the sexual characteristics of the object in question. When a Russian says “you can park near her” referring to a hotel, nobody is going to think this is attributing sexual characteristics to the hotel, much less as a way of imposing ones traditional views of sexuality, etc. People who use these languages are more likely to see gendered pronouns as grammatical conventions and nothing more, and they probably don’t even see the oddity of things such as knives and forks having a gender in the first place.

I’d be interested to see if this controversy over gendered pronouns exists in the non-English speaking world. I am confident it doesn’t in Russia. Perhaps it does in France, but I doubt it. My guess would be that this is being driven by people who, not having the first clue about languages (including their own), are basing their entire objections on an implication that simply isn’t there.


Rasa the car and Lithuanian names

The BBC has an article on a prototype car powered by hydrogen cells made by Welsh outfit Riversimple.  They have named the car Rasa, as in “tabula rasa,” Latin for “blank slate.”

I’m not actually going to say anything about the car itself, but I will say something about the name.  If you ever meet somebody called Rasa, they will almost certainly be female and Lithuanian.  Rasa is a very common name over there, but with Lithuanians having a unique language (bearing only a slight resemblance to Latvian, but nothing else), their being few in number, and the country itself being largely unknown you don’t meet many Rasas unless you’ve been to the place itself.  The Lithuanians converted late to Christianity – don’t ask me when, but they were one of the last in Europe to do so – and their capital Vilnius has so many churches that a message saying “meet me in the coffee shop on Ausros Vartai street beside the church” isn’t very helpful at all.  Due to this late conversion, which took place mainly via bribery with (if my tour guide is telling the truth) shirts being dished out to anyone who was baptised, many of the names in use in Lithuania are of pagan origin.  Pagan names are often based on natural, physical phenomenon, and I happen to know that Rasa means “morning dew”.  And I bet you anything you like the Welshmen who built this car were unaware of the connection when these photos were taken:

While I’m on the subject and rambling away, there is another peculiarity of Lithuanian names.  A man and a woman who are married will have a masculine and feminine version of their shared surname respectively, which is common in several languages (particularly those which are Slavic based).  But whereas in Russian any son will take the father’s (masculine) surname and daughter the mother’s (feminine) surname, in Lithuanian a daughter will have a slightly different surname again, indicating that she is not married.  Via Language Hat, this post explains:

Surnames in Lithuanian end differently depending on whether it’s a man’s surname, a married woman’s or an unmarried woman’s. Men’s surnames typically end in -us, -as, or -ys, as in Paulauskas, Adamkus, Bimbirys. Their sons would inherit the father’s surname, unchanged. However, neither their wives nor their daughters would bear exactly the same name. Thus, the wife of Paulauskas would be named Paulauskiene, but their daughter would be Paulauskaite.

The -aite suffix to a Lithuanian woman’s surname is an indication that she is unmarried (there are other suffixes, but this one is very common).  Which is why, when I saw Lithuania’s president Dalia Grybauskaitė on TV, I was able to casually observe that she was unmarried.

Erm, that’s all.


Speaking Foreign

A few months ago, somebody in the comments at Tim Worstall’s blog made the observation that one of the strong points of the English language is that people who speak it very badly can still be understood.  I don’t know if this is inherent in the language itself, but one thing is for sure: most native English speakers, especially those who live outside their native country, are used to hearing English which, to put it charitably, is less than perfect.

This comment coincided with a period when, for the first time in a decade, I found people could not understand my Russian (I am still learning it, and am better than I have ever been).  Two of my collagues – both native Russian speakers – seemed to grimace, laugh, and otherwise not understand me when I spoke, and corrected me halfway through my first sentence each time I tried.  I found this offputting to the point that I quit trying, and spoke to them in English instead.  I also struggled to understand their Russian, as they used words with which I was not familiar.  This latter one didn’t surprise me so much because I have always struggled to understand Russian (I speak it much better than I understand, whereas for most people it is the opposite), but the former bothered me a lot.  I had no trouble being understood in Sakhalin, or during the trip I took to Shymkent in Kazakhstan last October.  Then at the start of this summer I discovered one of the interns in the office was from Tatarstan, and spoke to her exclusively in Russian (until she started sharing an office with a French girl, and it would have been rude to continue).  She didn’t seem to have much trouble understanding me, and it got me curious as to why I struggled with the others.

What I think has happened is this.  Without realising it, I have gotten very good at deciphering appalling English spoken in accents which sound like fingernails down a blackboard.  I did live in Liverpool for a year, after all.  In a regular week I will hear English spoken by French, Thais, Russians, Malaysians, Indonesians, Venezuelans, Jamaicans, Kazakhs, Indians, and Nigerians whose English ability ranges from extremely good to a dozen words.  Add in the accents and pronunciation, and the range which I can decipher is pretty wide.

It occurred to me that other nationalities might not have this skill.  Russians, for example, are not likely to be very exposed to novices mangling their language, especially if they are educated and live in Moscow.  The worst they will hear on a regular basis are the rather odd grammatical constructs of Central Asians and Caucasians, who they can nevertheless understand perfectly well.  Parisian waiters might have enough exposure to appalling foreign accents ordering food and drink in French, but a typical resident of Bordeaux won’t be bombarded with the range of accents and abilities that a Mancunion will be.  There is probably therefore a level of accuracy which is required to be understood in any language, and this will differ between languages.  With English, the accuracy is very low.  If somebody walks up to me in London and says “Where sant pow?” I’ll be able to guess he’s asking for St. Paul’s.  In French he’ll need to be a lot more accurate, especially if the person he’s asking is some random resident (as opposed to somebody exposed to foreign tourists like a tour guide).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems that the worse the natives speak their own language, the easier they find understanding foreigners.  The Russian spoken in Sakhalin is rougher than it is in St. Petersburg, but people there had no problem understanding me.  The language spoken in Shymkent (or, more accurately, a tiny Uzbek village an hour away) was a confusing mix of Russian and Uzbek with some Arabic thrown in and delivered in grunts through rows of shiny golden teeth with a cigarette hanging out the side of the mouth.  Yet these lot understood me just fine.  It could be that, not demanding linguistic perfection amongst themselves, they don’t expect it from foreigners either.

Another difference is that those who don’t speak the language of the foreigner will make a much greater effort to understand than somebody who knows they can (somewhat contemptuously) demand that they “say it in English”.  When there is only one common language, the foreigner’s garbled syntax and odd placement of accents is good enough.  One of the reasons English speakers make an effort to understand foreigners is the uncomfortable knowledge that a conversation in any other language would be a complete non-starter.  I have noticed that the French and Russians who cannot speak English work hard to understand what I am saying; those who speak English, less so.

When speaking to educated Russians or French, who know English well, one finds the desire to correct can sometimes make conversation impossible.  Corrections are fine if a word is obviously wrong, or the mistake common and repeated.  Halting somebody mid-sentence to correct a pronunciation is usually unhelpful, and it would be better to let the person continue.  Some will argue – and they do – that the correct placing of the accent is vital for people to know what the speaker means, but context plays that role and if I stopped everyone I interact with every time they mispronounced words in English I’d barely get past good morning: in France, I am known as Teem-o-tee.

For all the complaints of native English speakers not modifying their speech to suit foreign ears, at least they don’t, by and large, insist the foreigners reach 80-90% accuracy before they make any attempt to understand what’s being said.  We’re used to hearing mistakes, and let them slide.  There are fewer things more infuriating than trying to speak to somebody in a foreign language and have them tell you, in English, that they don’t understand because you’ve placed the stress on the wrong part of the word or pronounced a letter which is supposed to be silent.  Or telling you, in a conversation which is taking place for strictly practical purposes, that “this other word would be better” even if the one you used was perfectly adequate to be understood (this is particularly true of Russian, which tends to have words with far more specific usage than English or French: just look at how Russian deals with “to go”, for example).  I don’t care if a foreigner “takes” somebody from the airport instead of picking them up: I know what they mean.  I don’t care if they “go to the shower” instead of taking a shower.  I wish others would grant me the same leeway.