Learn English: anything else is a hobby

I’ve probably written about this before, but this tweet reminded me of one of my pet peeves.

My first response was, well, yes: all those non-English speakers are learning English. To which the author’s response was:

So non-native English speakers learn non-English foreign languages at approximately the rate Americans do. In short, only about 20-30% of any country bothers learning a non-English foreign language.

A lot of polyglots like to get all high and mighty about Brits and Americans not speaking foreign languages, but for non-English speakers learning English is an obvious choice with benefits which can be realised immediately. But what foreign language should a Brit or American choose to learn? The answer isn’t so obvious, and I put the question to my interlocutor:

Well, I’m a Brit and I confess it’s not immediately obvious to me I should learn Chinese I assume he means Mandarin). At least, not in the way it’s immediately obvious a Norwegian or Lithuanian should learn English. And the fact he’s listed four languages suggests the choice isn’t all that obvious, doesn’t it? I mean, you spend a few thousand hours learning Spanish and then what? You go on holiday?

And here’s the thing: people (including Mr Christensen) think being able to speak a foreign language opens doors for business and employment to a far greater degree than it does. For example, I know a Turkish lady who went to China in 1997 and learned Mandarin, and it was very useful because at that time few people spoke English. But within a decade anyone doing international business spoke English, and now it’s not really an advantage except for social occasions and practical, day-to-day living. The Turkish lady eventually left China and now works in France, where her Mandarin is utterly useless save for a few comical occasions when she meets Chinese on the street. She is now struggling to learn French, but what really matters is she speaks and writes English to full professional fluency. That is what her employers are interested in, as well as her professional skills. I know another woman, an American, who is fluent in English, French, Mandarin, and Russian. Sure, she has certain advantages when she’s actually in France, China, or Russia but she struggles for work because her professional CV isn’t very strong. Employers would rather hire an an expert who only knows English than someone with a weak CV who speaks a dozen languages. In my own case, my erstwhile multinational employer was not in the slightest bit interested that I spoke Russian: when I tried to invoke it to get assigned to Russian projects, nobody was interested.

Those who think Americans or Brits learning a foreign language will give them some sort of business or economic advantage have no idea what they’re talking about (Christensen is a professor of journalism). If you want to do business with the Chinese as a foreigner, you’re better off improving your product or service such that they want to buy it rather than wasting hours learning Mandarin. Now if you want to live in a particular country and get among the local culture, learning a language is highly recommended if not essential. But please, enough of this sneering at native English speakers for not learning foreign languages: take English out of the equation and hardly anyone else learns foreign languages either, and when they do it’s basically a hobby.

Finally, I’ve noticed a lot of the sneering comes from polyglots who were gifted languages as a child, either from a foreign parent, going to school abroad, or by growing up in a country where a second language is learned from birth by default. Those who’ve learned a foreign language as an adult tend not to pass remarks on the subject, much less sneer at those who haven’t.


64 thoughts on “Learn English: anything else is a hobby

  1. Those who’ve learned a foreign language as an adult tend not to pass remarks on the subject, much less sneer at those who haven’t.

    Quite. It’s hard work and you’ve got to *want* to learn them, even if you’re living in-country in some cases (I know people who lived for 20+ years in NL without ever learning Dutch to any basic standard, for instance, and whose kids who grew up there couldn’t either cos the parents discouraged their integration).

    In my own case, languages were essential prerequisites to getting my jobs In Foreign, but had I gone down the conventional expat route with a multinational (ugh) then as you say, they’d only have cared about English.

  2. Those are interesting figures. I wonder if the 20% in the US are hispanics leaning English,

  3. I had to visit Switzerland on business recently and it wasn’t so much the business side as practical stuff where my German fell down – dealing with my credit card being rejected by a machine, talking to waiters etc. I did some Babbel just to raise my conversational German.

  4. Anon, forget it – the numbers of times that I have had blazing rows with Swiss because they can’t speak German properly…

    Tim is right in many cases. I learnt German as an adult, because I was sent to Germany by my firm. 30 years later, i retain my German so that I can watch “Tatort” on Sunday evenings. My UK satellite dish is busted at the moment and so I watch German and Austrian TV. I don’t miss it, because I only watch repeats of Stargate and the B movies channel anyway.

    Everybody under 40 in Germany can speak some English and everybody under 80 in Norway, Sweden, Holland etc etc. I can barely construct a sentence in French anymore.

    A German friend of mine says that when she started out at roughly the same time as me, she had a distinct advantage as to what work she could get, because she could speak Eengleesh very good, she learn it from a book. Nowadays meetings in Munich where she works are all held in English.

    In Belgium the Walloon and Flemings speak to each other in English, because they won’t use each others’ languages. Which is pretty comical to witness.

    It is the type of English we need to worry about: the sort of bland, mish-mash, without meaning ( management speak) or nuance ( politically correct) or idioms that is most comfortable to the non-native speaker and to which entropic state the language is doomed.

  5. Totally with you on this one. For a while (I think it’s dying down, but who knows, I don’t have kids), the trend in Australia was “the future is in Asia, we need to learn their language”. Please. Which one? Indonesian was very popular for some unknown reason – probably looking to curry favour with our new overlords after the invasion. I’m not sure how helpful that is in China.

    Every person I’ve worked with in Australia (engineering, big construction, tunnels and the like) has had a working knowledge of English. Bad grammar, accent, whatever, but enough to get by. If I had to be able to speak their languages I’d be up to 50 by now.

    Mind you, Tagalog would have been handy – I’d have a clue what my mother in law was talking about when she drops out of English. I don’t remember it being offered at my school though.

  6. In Belgium the Walloon and Flemings speak to each other in English, because they won’t use each others’ languages. Which is pretty comical to witness.

    Having worked for a belgian-run group, can confirm. Although the Flemish will also sometimes speak French (but rarely the other way around).

    Where this becomes comedy is when they decided to centralise some services in Belgium and started sending out e-mails in English to Swiss-French clients. Who rapidly rang us up to say “err, what’s the dealio here guys? Not only is this in English, which we don’t speak, why the f*ck is this coming from Belgium and not from you?”. So we had to explain the situation (and our own frustration with it was obvious) which was rather embarrassing. They wouldn’t change it though…

  7. abacab – I’m dying to know how one says “what’s the dealio here, guys” in French?

  8. Probably the most hilarious thing I’ve ever heard was two engineers doing repetitive commissioning tasks over radio. Open door, yes, we have alarm, close door, alarm cleared, etc. The guy up in the control room was a late life emigrant from Serbia (well, he left when it was Yugoslavia) with a very heavy accent. The guy down in the tunnel was on secondment from Japan.

    And how did they communicate with each other? English. Not great English – I wouldn’t have wanted to be on either end of that radio link – but good enough to get by.

  9. The Christensen is just a SJW septic abroad, full of received opinion mimicked by expat bien pensants. He must know of all the Uni courses through the world which are taught in English, Germany to Japan, but doesn’t understand that English is the lingua franca . 🙂 Twot the twit twat.

  10. Good post Tim, even though I say that as a ‘linguist’ myself.

    Not being a STEM type I did French and German at university, as opposed to my preferred subject, history, as I thought it would be useful to have a useful skill on leaving. When I finished my degree I did realise that all I could do was speak French and German pretty well, but couldn’t do anything else, whilst the German and French friends I’d made along the way we’re all studying law, engineering and so on – and could also speak English perfectly well. It’s hard as a native English speaker to learn a second language *and* study something else alongside it. I suspect these days it may be easier, what with YouTube and Netflix carrying lots of foreign language content, but still.

    My language skills actually landed me my first two jobs when still in the UK, although I suspect these days those companies would have easily hired native speakers who’d have happily moved to London for work, if they weren’t there already. Ending up in a sales role that covers Africa, French has been incredibly useful for my career, but when deciding to study French I’d never have predicted this is what I’d end up doing – I could just as well have ended up somewhere else and my languages would have been a useful hobby, as you describe.

    A worrying trend I’m seeing in the Gulf is Arabic hiring managers starting to add spoken Arabic as a requirement for jobs for which Arabic is handy but far less important than excellent English and the ability to do the actual job. European based HR people tend to be clueless about the region, accept the local manager’s advice and we end up with Egyptians hiring their fellow Egyptians, Jordanians their fellow Jordanians, etc. It’s a clever way of protecting their own and I don’t blame them for doing it – I do blame the people ‘in corporate’ who allow this to happen and don’t listen to other voices in their regional field offices…

    In the UK I’m starting to see the dominance of English as the world’s business language actually starting to hurt native speakers. If you’ve got two good engineers, marketing people, etc, etc, both of whom speak English extremely well but one of whom has the added advantage of speaking another major European language, why not hire the latter over the boringly monoglot Brit? Of course, it’s often monoglot Brits who are making this decision as they are safely ensconced in their jobs. It’s similar to hiring managers who didn’t go to university and who haven’t done an MBA specifically asking for candidates with a degree and an MBA.

    Sales roles are safe for now though. I don’t k ow any successful sales people in our UK office who are not native speakers themselves.

  11. Totally agree with this. I’ve spent many years in countries where I didn’t speak the language, there is simply no point when you know you can get by with a few key words, broken english and gestures. Unless you are serious about staying in one place and truly integrating, the work required to get up to a reasonable amount of language is simply a poor use of time for most people.

    I learned a bit of Spanish simply because I liked Spain and spent quite a lot of time in tapas bars. It was no use at all for work, all the Spanish were far too keen to practice their English!

  12. I am currently doing a fairly complicated business deal with Russians, Germans and Aussies, all the communications are in English. I work all over the Mid East, Africa, Europe and Asia, English is the written and spoken word and quite often the law of the contracts. I have worked in other non English speaking countries in previous lives and again business was always conducted in English. I have never seen a contract that is not in English, I have seen some that have dual language, English always being one of them. I found communicating in Japan and South Korea difficult at times though.

    What I have never figured out in Japan is let’s say in the common situation where you have an interpreter present and you say something simple like “yes two of them is sufficient” and the translator talks for about 45 seconds conveying your response to the Japanese dude.

    There’s nothing at all wrong in learning a second language and it’s definitely beneficial and to be commended. I just haven’t got round to doing it.

  13. No matter what language, you can be sure that someone with a Blue Checkmark is a supercillious twat

  14. This may be true now, but will it be in the future? The consensus seems to be leaning to the view that AI will replace STEM faster than it will replace arts skills.

    And any damn fool can learn words, it’s understanding the culture that is key. Example: Magna Carta and a battle in France were coincidental almost to the day. We worship and magnify Magna Carta. It is not mentioned in French schools. The battle which opened the gates of Paris was much more important, and maybe accounts for the slavish centralisation that is France.

  15. One difficulty I have found in trying to brush up my French is in finding a French person who doesn’t insist on communicating in English.

  16. “polyglots who were gifted languages as a child, either from a foreign parent, going to school abroad, or by growing up in a country where a second language is learned from birth by default”

    If you do learn a foreign language, you’re also competing with these people. (Plus native speakers in that country who either have the option of relocating to the UK for that job e.g. if a suitable visa is available for it, or where the job is outsourceable to them if they stay in Furren.)

    It would take me, what, 5 years full time education equivalent to get my Mandarin up to scratch? And even that wouldn’t leave me fluent, capable of passing as a native speaker, or able to deal with all the subtle nuances that languages turn up. The “full time” is important – it’s not like learning it at high-school for a couple of hours a week and taking GCSE Mandarin (which is the level of learning that is being discussed in these tweets) gets you anywhere near the standard that would be of any use whatsoever professionally. So at the end of the five years, what have I got that isn’t possessed by, say, one of the many tens of thousands of Chinese students who graduate UK universities and many of whom to stay to establish a professional life in the West? Or anyone from the existing UK Chinese community? (Lots of people from Hong Kong migrated here and I’m told many can do the Mandarin and Cantonese double. Even if their Mandarin is much worse than my Cantonese, it – and their grasp of Chinese culture, society, manners etc – is still going to be well in advance of my ceiling.)

    An economist working at the UN – another “everyone spoke English, the important thing was being highly qualified professionally in economics” environment – did tell me a disadvantage for native English speakers, which goes a bit further than the one identified by Bloke in Old Araby. For report-writing, giving presentations, and holding discussions with government ministers outside the Anglosphere, it was considered preferable to use someone who was “professionally fluent” but had learned English as a second language.

    That’s because “professional fluency” is not the same as “talking and writing like a native”, and these second-language learners used a pretty homogeneous kind of standardized international English. What they produced was easily comprehensible to another “Global English” speaker, particularly in their target audience of civil servants at government ministries, international technocrats at other specialist agencies, and to a lesser extent academics and journalists. A native English speaker has no problem comprehending this stuff – it may come across rather bland, though for technical reports there aren’t going to be points for style. But if they attempt to produce it for themselves, it’s far too easy to introduce vocabulary that isn’t standard on “English as a second language” study courses (English has a particularly rich vocabulary, with the “mansion/house” issue of having inherited both French and Germanic forms, often distinguished by subtle shades of meaning), use tenses and sentence constructions that befuddle non-native readers, or throw in idioms. Even if one is conscientious about trying to strip these elements out – and it is far harder to do so from speech than from writing – we still may not have a good ear or eye for what exactly it is that a non-native speaker will find unintelligible. If you’re writing for a fellow technocrat, then some hideously polysyllabic term of art may be instantly recognisable, yet some utterly innocuous word or turn of phrase – nothing you’d bat an eyelid at if your seven-year old nephew said it – can completely throw them.

  17. @MyBurningEars

    I learned to speak and write “International” english once it was made clear to me that standard southern english isn’t in fact standard at all. So I don’t speak the same way as I did 15 years ago.

    Whenever I go to a presentation over here given by a native Brit, it often disappoints me that they speak full-speed, using tons of idiom, not making any allowance for the fact that the audience is almost exclusively non-native. But on the other hand, it was something I learned living in foreign, so I can’t hold them too culpable.

  18. Absolutely agree, Tim.

    Mind you, I’m having a late lunch in Barca right now and (before reading this post) I found myself thinking “I should have ordered in Russian, for shits and giggles.”

    That’s about the extent of my Russian, though I may brush up on it. After all, the game could be even more fun back home, given the wall to wall bollocks in the US media.

    All of which confirms your hobby assertion, of course.

  19. @Zut Alors

    Agree about the culture/history argument. I learned three non-English languages at school, if you include Latin. All helped a lot with my understanding of both language itself (not that it shows in my writing style, or lack thereof) and general comprehension of the world around me. Perhaps Latin most of all, which is why I included it in my tally.

    Was it of any use professionally? Well, certainly not directly. Even though I finished with top grades, high-school level study (the subject of these tweets) barely gets you up to “useful if you go away on holiday” level unless a huge amount of time is devoted to it, and preferably you get some immersion teaching. But indirectly I suppose it’s possible – certainly one reason I’ve got on well with foreign clients is that they’ve appreciated I have some cultural or historic knowledge/understanding that doesn’t stop at the cliffs of Dover.

    I’m dubious that language learning in schools is the only way to achieve this objective, and the Artificial Intelligence point cuts both ways – automatic translation services have improved hugely in the last 15 years and are likely to improve further, though the demand for a small cadre of professional translators is, as far as I can see, always going to be there (machine-translating legal documents without some human check is surely going to remain inadvisable). There definitely should be curriculum space for art, creativity, history, culture, and cross-cultural communication and I say that as a former STEM teacher. A key concern has got to be the opportunity cost of language teaching – what else could we teach these kids if we took those hours and did something else? Those kids who drop languages likely feel that (a) language are too hard hard for them and they were going to get bad grades, (b) they can’t foresee a situation where they were going to need it anyway. If we trust their decision-making capabilities then they’re likely replacing languages with something more useful for them. I don’t entirely trust it, because kids are biased against things they perceive as “hard” (languages suffer a lot from this perception, yet even kids with poor academic performance tend to pick up a language pretty quickly if dumped in a country, which suggests the issue may be more one of effort, teaching or lack of immersion) and have poor foresight of their tree of possible diverging futures – their view out on the adult world is very much limited by what they’ve seen from their parents and a few other grown-ups they know.

    Give kids the option and very many would drop maths too early too – after all it’s hard (essays and paintings never get marked as plain “wrong”, but a maths question can be, so it certainly feels hard, and does require discipline and practice to get right) and what adult uses maths anyway? Ditto for sciences, hence they remain compulsory. Since language-learning also suffers from the issues of obvious effort requirement, the disheartening effect of being told you are plain incorrect, and scenarios of use that may not be obvious from a teen’s limited view of adult life, I concede there is at least a prime facie case for reinstating them as compulsory subjects. But as I’m fairly sceptical about their value for most people, and I assume kids are likely to be somewhat, albeit imperfectly, self-selective as to whether they drop or take a language GCSE, I’d lean to keeping it voluntary. After all, few sheets of paper are more useless in the world than a GCSE certificate in French, grade D or E or F. Even a C hardly “qualifies” them to do anything – you’d struggle with anything so deep as basic holiday communications. If they do want to learn it in later life, and are serious about doing so (including immersion), how much of a headstart will what they did at 16 be, compared to if they dropped the language at 14?

    Since the English A-level system is highly specialised, with most students only taking three subjects, only those with serious commitments to a language will be taking one from 16-18. And note that only the more academically-inclined are even taking A-levels rather than technical or vocational routes. The merits of this system are infinitely debatable, but to get a majority or even significant minority of students taking languages through the final years of high school, which is the norm on the continent and the apparent preference of the tweeter, would require a very significant shake-up of the English – and since this is Tim’s blog, Welsh – set-up.

    Are we overemphasising STEM? Well, STEM subjects are relatively easy to measure performance and feature in lots of international comparisons for this reason, and clearly both these factors risk leading to over-investment. I think that may be more acute in performance-driven countries like China. For now though, in the UK at least, the jobs market suggests a STEM shortage is likely to persist for the next decade and then some, so I don’t think putting young people through technical courses is leading them on a conveyor belt of AI-induced jobmageddon. I’d be wary of anyone pushing for Chinese-style solutions to our education system though, and I’d note that “everyone should learn to code” – while I can see the good intentions behind it – suffers from many of the same problems as “everyone should learn a language”.

  20. What I have never figured out in Japan is let’s say in the common situation where you have an interpreter present and you say something simple like “yes two of them is sufficient” and the translator talks for about 45 seconds conveying your response to the Japanese dude.

    This is hilarious because it was a common occurrence in Russia. What the heck was taking so long?

    People laugh at the US for their lack of language skills, yet, we are a huge country bordering only two others. Most of my lifetime, Mexico has been a destitute backwater (pretty much still is). Without meaning to sound too condescending, a large number of people learned Spanish so that they could become social workers or pursue other charitable endeavors. It was rarely because Mexico was an economic powerhouse where corporate-type jobs would be in abundance. Anyone in Mexico who did want to trade with the US could never do that without English anyway.

    My agonizing effort to learn Russian only had short-term usefulness. It’s almost worthless now except for the intellectual satisfaction I gained from studying it. That is only a luxury. In Europe, with so many languages, it would seem impossible to choose the “right” one when you will never know where your opportunities will take you throughout life. We are simply lucky in this regard just like someone born speaking Latin back in the day.
    Lastly, we will not be speaking Chinese. They are learning English at a rapid clip. I even got stopped multiple times in Beijing by people asking to practice their English.

  21. Spanish is a good choice because it is easier to learn and Spanish speakers are not that good at English.

  22. Only use for my school boy Russian was using it to get an interview with a Soviet ballet group (not the Bolshoi) visiting Singapore (in 1970 I think). My Mum was a DJ for the local RAF base and when said dance group visited I was the nearest available Russian speaker (and I was useless, really) which they used to get an interview. I think the women took pity on a teenage boy, and got interview and then tickets to the opening night where I met Lee Kuan Yew.

    Apart from that I do meetings in FS with quite a few Euros. All meetings in English, including with regulators and trade bodies. Very amusing. Foreign languages definitely a luxury, not a necessity.

  23. What I have never figured out in Japan is let’s say in the common situation where you have an interpreter present and you say something simple like “yes two of them is sufficient” and the translator talks for about 45 seconds conveying your response to the Japanese dude.

    Haha, yeah, translating is hard. Its like the scene in Lost In Translation where Bill Murray is shooting the whiskey commercial and the Japanese director goes on and on for like 5 minutes, then the translator turns to Bill Murray and says “He says ‘more intensity'”.

  24. “It’s hard as a native English speaker to learn a second language *and* study something else alongside it.”
    In what way do you mean hard, here? As in, not very hard at all?

    Never really understand what it is people do at university. You’re there three years, right? With nothing much to do but learn something. Allowing for 4 weeks holiday a year & 8 hour days, weekends off, that’s headed towards 6000 hours. What do you do with them all?

  25. “Never really understand what it is people do at university. … ”
    Drink and have meaningless sex.

  26. When I finished my degree I did realise that all I could do was speak French and German pretty well, but couldn’t do anything else, whilst the German and French friends I’d made along the way we’re all studying law, engineering and so on – and could also speak English perfectly well.

    Yes, this is an important point. I knew a UN translator who could speak English, Russian, and French fluently but that’s all she did – translate. It’s a skill of sorts, but you’d be far better off applying those languages in support of a better-paid profession. For example, I know a guy who is fluent in English, Norwegian, and Portuguese – but he’s also got an engineering degree.

  27. @Pat
    “One difficulty I have found in trying to brush up my French is in finding a French person who doesn’t insist on communicating in English.”

    Ask a policeman, or at the town hall.

  28. I had an interesting experience in Madrid when the company was liquidating and settling with a local partner. I asked the lawyer of one of the Big Six, Four? Two? auditing companies who had drawn up the deal which of the two versions was the definitive: the Spanish or English. I pointed out various discrepancies between the two which in the Spanish version gave the ex partner quite a bit more than the UK head office had agreed to.
    He and his lawyer were a bit pissed off when they arrived.

  29. @JerryC
    I remember that scene! I was thinking about it all the way down to your post.

    I was sure the low %age for Belgium was Wallons learning Flemish and vice versa, neither of which counts as a foreign language.

  30. Many years ago, I tried to teach myself Esperanto, on the basis that here was something everyone could learn.

    However, I could never get my head round the fact that furniture was Mebloj. I know, you polyglots will say ‘of course it is!’ but to a Yorkshire lad, words ending in ‘j’ were unknown (less so now there are Indian restaurants are called Raj in darkest Pudsey)

    Also the language was, in the end, bloody soulless. Or should I say ‘soulessj’?

  31. Mrs Pcar is Swedish

    She studied Dentistry at Lund University

    Text-books and lectures were in English.

    She fixes teeth and speak English, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish & German

    Her brother woks for Ericsson in Stockholm – all work is in English

    Jag prata lite Svenska

  32. Another example that education and intellect is 2 different things. It is not about education, it is about using education.

    You can learn Russian but when you do not become well paid Kremlin Troll, your Russian is very much useless.

    Nationalism btw is alive and well. Of course it is possible to do business in Germany in English but when you bother to learn few words in German, in the important situations, a little personal sympathy may gave you huge advantage.

    In the army, we used call them “bio floppy”. Educated person without any knowledge where and when to use his education. Just data carrier.

  33. @ zut alors!
    I found them non conversational in any language.
    Apart from that, my daughters spent five years each “studying” French. None retains a word.
    I spent the same, but in my case that included six weeks living with French people who didn’t speak English. I can still get by. So studying a foreign language runs a gamut from going through the motions to actually learning it.

  34. Every young child is a linguistic genius – they learn to speak a language without even being taught it by anyone. Who taught you to speak English? They also pick up separate languages spoken around them and have an instinctive grasp of the grammar and rules of each one. This ability mostly disappears in their teenage years.

    So anyone bragging about the languages they learned as a child is cheating really; they got them for free with no effort.

  35. I pointed out various discrepancies between the two which in the Spanish version gave the ex partner quite a bit more than the UK head office had agreed to.

    As usual with these things, learning other languages is a good idea but not for the reasons you’ve been told. I can’t speak a lick of French or Russian, but I can understand both passably spoken or written. When working on a major international project that included several people from Montpelier and a number of ex-pat Russian./Eastern European software developers, being able to understand what they were saying when they thought the anglos around them couldn’t was invaluable. For the same reason, any time we were on a conference call with one of the Chinese factories, we always had a native Cantonese speaker on the line on mute.

  36. Some important points made:

    When I finished my degree I did realise that all I could do was speak French and German pretty well, but couldn’t do anything else

    “everyone should learn to code” suffers from many of the same problems as “everyone should learn a language”

    As with languages, coding is something you can learn in your spare time. It can be applied across domains and the feedback is instant, so it’s fairly rewarding to self-study. By contrast there’s no way you’d pick up e.g. civil engineering in your spare time.

    Bear than in mind when choosing (or recommending) a university degree.

  37. Lots of interesting annecdotes and comments here. The one thing that’s missing is the development of the idea that the criticiser of the English for not speaking another language is someone who does it because thats the sort of person they are. They are probably critical of English culture, life and history as well so it’s just one more nail in the cross of “Being English and Ashamed of it” that they bear.

    The international English point is a good one though. I’ve been complemented on my clear English by foreigners I’ve worked with In the past.

    Final point. The main reason English men learn a foreign language is to get a girl. Certainly the case for me, wanting to impress her with how interested I was in her. Speaking to her family in English wasn’t going to happen either so it came in handy. Not fluent but fluent enough for daily life. Still got the waiters replying in English to practice their language skills though ( late 90s Eastern Europe when no one really spoke English so my language skills in the local tongue were better than theirs but they still wanted to try)

  38. As I understand, the majority in Britain will be learning English as a second language any day now. So even if we were to assume monolingualism is a problem, I don’t get it why such a very temporary problem is even worth discussing.

  39. OT:

    “Unless Russia agrees within 90 days to stop all use of chemical weapons and permit inspections to confirm their elimination, the law requires selection from a broad range of additional measures, including withdrawal of U.S. support for international loans and U.S. bank loans, prohibition of landing rights for Russian airlines, and suspension of diplomatic relations.”

    All I can say is it was very strategically wise for Britain to lose that Revolutionary War.

  40. Learning German turned out to be more than a hobby for me, it’s played a supporting role in my career the last dozen years or more.

    However, you need pretty advanced language abilities, which you don’t get from completing a GCSE. I learnt German, initially, as the minor subject on my combined science+language degree course. I know several other graduates of that programme at Manchester who likewise found that combination relevant to their subsequent career.

    That, to me, is the way to learn a language*. To an advanced level, but as an adjunct to something that can support a productive career in something else. Too many people learn the language alone and find that the supply of said graduates exceeds demand for those skills.

    *: Obviously you learn most of your language by living in a country where it is spoken, but you have to start somewhere.

  41. Learning practical skills and getting yourself educated are not the same. Also, we underestimate spillover effects from seemingly impractical activities early in life. That’s why I believe that young children should be taught foreign languages and musical instruments (except the hopelessly tone-deaf). It will do them good in the long run.

  42. Christensen is another superior type who can’t see what is perfectly obvious to everyone else.

    I was visiting a specialist STEM high school recently which has just started up. It’s sponsored by Siemens. Apparently one of the very big bosses at Siemens came to discuss the curriculum with them. They were deciding which language they were going to teach. They thought German, because, they reasoned, we’re a technical school and German will be the most useful language for techies (esp. given the link to Siemens). The Siemens guy said don’t do it, it’s a waste of time to learn German, English is the international language of STEM. So they chose Spanish instead.

    The only reason I’d want my kids to bother learning a foreign language was if they were going to become classical singers, or European historians.

  43. It’s one of life’s little mysteries that those of us who have lived overseas have experience which is considered invalid. Yet SJWs know all about it.

    I lived five years in France, and agree with the above comments except for one detail.

    Children should learn a bit of a foreign language. Not because they need that skill, but so they know whether they like the process. I’ve known people put off living overseas because, never having studied a language, they didn’t know if they’d like it.

    Not learn to speak it, just a few years so they know what’s involved.

    Same reason they should do a little woodwork, cooking etc.

  44. Languages are a minor advantage – certainly good English is a must, but fluency in multiple languages is a helpful plus when applying for your first job in banking or consultancy, although a great CV is a must. Very few people achieve the level of true fluency (capable of simultaneous interpretation) and it’s not necessary for any job other than being an interpreter. I can translate foreign into English fluently, English into foreign at nearly the same level, but it’s not how I earn my crust. Helped me get my first graduate job.

  45. @ken

    I have seen multiple language proficiency listed as a pro and in some cases a necessity for various “starter” jobs in finance / consultancy / auditing etc. Though sometimes it seemed pretty clear that the pool they were fishing in essentially consisted of native speakers (someone who must be able to do Mandarin and Cantonese and will be rotated around the Singapore, Taipei and Hong Kong offices, for example) it wasn’t always obvious to me just what level of fluency they were hoping for with some of the European languages. Similarly I have seen a few senior-level positions at European-spanning multinationals that require proficiency in multiple languages (eg English, German, Italian) on top of technical skills and management experience, and my guess is not many Brits will be competing for those jobs. But as Tim N regularly point out, in some industries English alone will be fine, so I suppose it comes down to knowing what’s required in your field, and whether the languages are a must-have, a nice-to-have that broadens your options, or simply irrelevant.

    @Hector Drummond
    I can see the logic in saying English is the global language of STEM… and obviously in Siemens UK I’m sure English would do you fine. I wonder what would happen if a Brit wanted to work for Siemens in Germany though?

    @Chester Draws
    “Not learn to speak it, just a few years so they know what’s involved.” Yes, this is why I’m not so fussed if people go on to take the GCSE or not. But like Alex K. said, if you started it very young, kids can pick a lot up very naturally! Really not obvious to me why it gets taught mostly as a secondary school subject in the UK, and why it is primarily taught on an analytical basis – which puts a lot of kids off it and gives them the impression they can’t learn it, even though they’d quickly pick it up if they were studying on an immersion basis. I think part of the reason might be that we sometimes teach a language in a way that really means we are teaching language itself – perhaps in the hope that our English grammar and vocabulary grows with it – but though that’s the way I was taught Latin and I can see the logic in that one, I’d be surprised if this is optimal for the living languages.


    Hope recovery is progressing well. I did post a reply to you that got buried on an earlier thread.

  46. That’s why I believe that young children should be taught foreign languages and musical instruments

    I generally agree, but it brings me back to the original question: which language? I learned Welsh between 5 and 13, it was utterly useless even as a base from which to learn other languages later. I can pronounce words like Llanelli, Pwllheli, and ysbyty though.

  47. Thanks MBE,

    I’m feeling almost normal (for me, anyway), and will be going back to work next week. I actually felt pretty normal when I went in to hospital. This chills me to the bone, as I would almost certainly be dead if I had left it another 24 hours, or indeed if one of the A&E doctors hadn’t insisted I get admitted to HDU rather than a general ward (there is careful monitoring of vital signs, one nurse per patient 24/7, stuff that doesn’t happen on most wards). Some rather bizzare physiological stuff happened the first night I was in, that would probably have finished me off without immediate medical attention.

    In terms of subjective recovery, most of the negative feels were from what they had to do that night, the general stress and immobilisation of being in a hospital bed, and psychologically. I’ve always lived life fast, have worked hard to get to the top of my (admittedly small and relatively uncompetitive) profession, and spend as much of my spare time doing stuff. Most of it useful, not all of it particularly cool (especially the commenting on the blogs of people named Tim).

    I had literally no symptomatic warning of this – perhaps with hindsight some really mild stuff that as a male you would never bother a doctor with, and which could be attributed to almost anything. I work tangentially in healthcare, spent a decade in academic medical research, a good portion of that time teaching preclinical medical students, and still didn’t see this coming.

    It felt like running very very fast for decades, only to end up running full tilt into a brick wall that I didn’t see.

    I won’t ever be technically normal again, in that you can do some blood tests and scans and see there is irreversible organ damage, but you can’t tell to look at me. This should, fortunately, be manageable, and with good monitoring and a bit of luck, I’ll have a near-normal life for the near- to mid-term future at least.

    So, I’m pissed off this has happened at all, but glad that I am still around. And I can plan to make the most of the next 10-20 years.

    And to everyone else, please go for an annual check up. Pay for it yourself if your insurance won’t. You’re probably OK, but if you aren’t, you really, seriously want to know about it as soon as possible.

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