December 30, 2010

Study Chinese or Spanish?

Nicholas Kristof opines in the NYT:
... we’re seeing Americans engaged in a headlong and ambitious rush to learn Chinese — or, more precisely, to get their kids to learn Chinese. Everywhere I turn, people are asking me the best way for their children to learn Chinese. 

Partly that’s because Chinese classes have replaced violin classes as the latest in competitive parenting, and partly because my wife and I speak Chinese and I have tortured our three kids by trying to raise them bilingual. Chinese is still far less common in schools or universities than Spanish or French, but it is surging and has the “cool factor” behind it — so public and private schools alike are hastening to add Chinese to the curriculum.

In New York City alone, about 80 schools offer Chinese, with some programs beginning in kindergarten. And let’s be frank: If your child hasn’t started Mandarin classes by third grade, he or she will never amount to anything.

Just kidding. In fact, I think the rush to Chinese is missing something closer to home: the paramount importance for our children of learning Spanish.

Look, I’m a fervent believer in more American kids learning Chinese. But the language that will be essential for Americans and has far more day-to-day applications is Spanish. Every child in the United States should learn Spanish, beginning in elementary school; Chinese makes a terrific addition to Spanish, but not a substitute. 

No, unless you have Chinese relatives, or are based in China for your job, or your child is a prodigy at learning languages, having your kid study Chinese will almost surely turn out to be a waste of time. Chinese is hard. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any adult in America who learned Chinese just by going to school in America.

Check out the Chinese Language and Culture Advanced Placement test results. In 2010, 3,426 Asian students scored 5s out of the 4,294 Asians who took the test, for an average score of 4.70. In other words, the AP Chinese test was taken mostly Chinese kids who already spoke Chinese. In contrast, only 229 white kids took the Chinese test, and only 26 in the whole country got a 5. (No Mexican-Americans got a 5, but 4 blacks did.)
Spanish may not be as prestigious as Mandarin, but it’s an everyday presence in the United States — and will become even more so. Hispanics made up 16 percent of America’s population in 2009, but that is forecast to surge to 29 percent by 2050, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center.

As the United States increasingly integrates economically with Latin America, Spanish will become more crucial in our lives.

No, it won't become crucial. 

You can tell by looking at parents' fads in Los Angeles, which is a generation or more ahead of the rest of the country in terms of immigration. I've lived on-and-off in Los Angeles since the 1950s. My parents engaged in the same kind of discussion as this in 1972 when my mom wanted me to take French in high school and my father wanted me to take Spanish, which he argued, like Kristoff in 2010, was more practical.

I suspect the debate was basically about where my parents would like to go on vacations. My mom liked Europe because it was classy, while my father liked Latin America because it was cheap. My dad won, so I took two years of high school Spanish, and he and I took some fun trips to Mexico and South America while my mom stayed home. 

Did this dispute between my parents have major consequences for my life? Not that I notice. Over the last twelve months, the language I've most often wished I'd studied has been German, but that may be a passing phase, and I wouldn't have learned it even if I had studied it, anyway.

I would endorse Spanish as the most reasonable choice for fulfilling a mandatory foreign language requirement, but I think English is becoming so globally dominant that we should probably reconsider whether we should have mandatory foreign language requirements at all. (If we should, then we ought to start them in elementary school, not after puberty when the language learning capability starts to shut down.) 

The point is that I don't know many people in LA today who say, "Wow, I'm so glad my parents made me study Spanish in high school, and it's crucial to my children's future that they learn Spanish." Maybe if you are a politician, a slumlord, or a fast food franchisee. Where I live in LA, Russian and other Slavic languages are heard more and more on the street. (Hey, who won the Cold War anyway?

If any language is trendy with LA parents, it's Chinese. For example, one of the public elementary schools that Davis Guggenheim, director of Waiting for "Superman," drove his kid past in Venice to get to their private school has switched to Mandarin immersion and has recruited a much more fashionable set of children. I can't recall knowing any any white liberal parents in LA looking for a Spanish immersion school.

In LA, which is one of the largest Spanish-speaking cities in the world, Spanish has been out of fashion for years. 

Even Latino kids agree. As I've pointed out before, it might be easier in LA to see a movie in Persian than in Spanish. I go to the Plant 16 movie theatre in Van Nuys a lot, where about 80% of the patrons are Hispanic youths, and they almost never have movies in Spanish, whether dubbed or foreign, and maybe have one out of 16 screens showing an American movie in English with Spanish subtitles. Granted, Van Nuys is, by Latino LA standards, pretty wealthy but still ...

Ron Unz's Prop 227 largely banned bilingual education in 1998, and that rare act of Anglophone assertiveness pushed on an open door. To a typical Mexican-American teen, English is a lot cooler than Spanish.

Similarly, educated liberal white people in LA pay almost zero attention to what is going on in the Spanish-language media in LA. The LA Times and local NPR and PBS stations make minimal effort to stay informed about what Spanish monoglots are talking about. For example, the huge turnouts of illegal aliens at Mayday marches in 2006 was a complete mystery to the LAT/NPR/PBS. Who told all these people to march? It took weeks for the Anglo press in LA to find out that it was funny morning disk jockeys on Spanish-language radio stations. 

Is there any intellectual life in America that's carried out in Spanish? A decade ago, I was fascinated by a series of articles called "Los Amigos de Bush: The disturbing ties of some of George W. Bush’s Latino advisors" by Julie Reynolds in a smart bilingual Mexican-American magazine called El Andar, but nobody else was.

LA isn't Canada or Belgium, where two equally sophisticated cultures compete for cultural dominance. It's definitely not Miami, where Spanish-speaking sophisticates probably have the upper hand. 

LA is just the future.

99 comments:

ERM said...

Ahh, German...I often I wish I knew it (better, anyway, I have a rudimentary grasp) but not enough to actually study it. All those coughing noises and glottal stops and endlessly long nouns and utterly irrational declensional and conjugational rules and that weird thing where the verb at the end of the phrase goes. Blegh. But Germany and German culture are extremely interesting. What's your recent motivation, Steve?

Formerly.JP98 said...

IMO, the main benefit of studying a foreign language in grade school and high school is that it helps you understand English better. This has become especially significant since English grammar stopped being taught in the 1970s. The only way students get even a little grammar today is by studying French, German, or Spanish (or Latin, if they're lucky enough to attend a school that offers it).

Taking a foreign language because you think it will be useful in talking to foreigners some day is a waste of time, unless you plan to spend a semester abroad in the process.

Anonymous said...

Even in Canada, learning French is a waste of time unless you live in Quebec or want a job in government (and even then, it's only because being bilingual is a requirement, not because you actually need to speak French in your day-to-day work).

I like second languages, but beyond being able to navigate that country with ease while on holiday, having dinner party clout, and maybe being able to read novels in that language if you're really good, they don't do much for you.

SGOTI said...

Learn the language of your financial backer and/or boss, or learn to speak to your janitor in a native tongue.

Choices, choices. . .

StephenT said...

I think kids ought to learn Spanish so they can stay up to date on developments in rocket science, brain surgery, particle physics, etc. Since most of that originates in the mestizo Mexican and other cutting-edge cultures of Latin America, the latest and greatest research always appears first in Spanish -- the international language of science and progress.

Simon in London said...

I say learn Latin!

Dahinda said...

Every big city is like LA now. Chicago is about 1/3 Hispanic now but the Russian mob is taking over where the Italian mob left off, there are tons of Chinese, Arabs, Serbs, Koreans, Albanians, Nigerians, Hindus and every thing else in the city and every suburban area. It has been this way for a long time. I think that because it is a "fly over zone" what is happening in places like Chicago does not get much press. So it seems like what is happening in LA or New York is way different than the rest of the country even when it is not.

Shawn said...

I wish I learned German too, instead of Spanish. I also think it would have been nice to have learned some Russian. Spanish is too vowely for my tastes.

But honestly, I don't think it really pays off to learn a second language, unless one wants to teach it or actually live full-time in a foreign land. It simply is not worth the time.

Anonymous said...

Basically if Mexicans were owners rather than janitors then Spanish would have some clout.
As it happens language is always a very poor guide to genetic ancestry.The idea of 'elite dominance' in language holds sway.Basically what this means is that the language of the owners, the overlords eventually holds sway and sweeps away the language of the lumpenproletariat, even if the proles massively outnumber the elitists.
Historically, this happened in Latin America, India (the Aryans), France and in Britain (many times over apparently, the substratum of the British population is apparently pre-Celtic).
Modern techniques that can assay genetic haplotypes make a fascinating counterpoint to so-called 'liguistic brotherhood'.

Mel Torme said...

Steve, about learning Chinese (Mandarin):

Yes, the language is hard, but that depends on whether you want to give up on the reading and writing. I would recommend to most people to give up on the reading/writing. Learning to distinguish 5000 characters, basically by rote memorization of the 2 parts to each, is ridiculously hard, and it's harder to write them clearly.

I think it would take 4 years of hard study to become a Chinese reader/writer. However, as far a pronunciation goes, once you get a grasp on the four tones, and realize each syllable must be spoken with that tone, the sounds are not too bad. There are many "sh" sounds that are close together, but then German has the throat sounds, Spanish has the rolling "r"'s, and Arabic has the sounds where you have to expectorate on the listener to be understood.

The grammar of the Chinese language is much, much simpler than that of English, French, etc. So, if you can make the words (most of them one-syllable), you can put a sentence together.

NAM mom said...

Wow it's interesting that I am reading this now, as I am applying to magnet schools for my youngest. I am looking at a Spanish immersion school in my highly Hispanic city. Due to the hbd knowledge I've gained from reading these blogs I realize that my youngest will probably have an IQ of around 100-105 maybe a little higher. So I want him to have some sort of an edge in the employment market. I should mention we are African American so I also want to make sure he is in a good school but one that he can handle academically. Spanish Immersion here is located in a fairly affluent neighborhood so I shouldn't have to worry about peer group.

My oldest is pretty bright. His IQ will probably be about 130 after puberty hits since he scores 140 now, so I don't worry so much about him. I actually would love for him to learn German since he loves math and science.

coldequation said...

Learning a language is a waste of time if you're not really going to learn it. Chinese is especially hard, so it's especially unlikely that you'll learn it, so it's especially likely to be a waste of time. Unless you have a special interest in a language or culture, you're not going to really learn their language, so you should take the path of least resistance and study Spanish since it's the easiest.

I took Spanish and got a lot of use out of it communicating with Mexican immigrants. I had a year of school Spanish, which usually made me the most bilingual person in the room. But in this area there are lots of bilingual Mexicans now, mainly because the anchor babies have grown up, and they all speak English and Spanish. Bilingual people are a dime a dozen now, and therefore not very valuable. Maybe someone in the whiter parts of the country could still get the same use out of Spanish that I did in the 90s.

It might still be worthwhile to learn Spanish even in more deluged areas if you're going to be a professional who has to deal with immigrants (like a medical professional or a social worker), since not many mestizos are going to grow up to become professionals.

dearieme said...

"we ought to start them in elementary school" - like the old English "prep" schools, which taught French, Latin and Greek to 7 - 13 year olds.

Mind you, my old secondary school offered Russian - these fashions come and go.

Dave R. said...

Persuasive, Steve. But if Spanish and Chinese are off the table, I think that opens up some mental space for some students for Latin. Not the way we've been doing languages, as a formal requirement for all students, when really very few students achieve mastery, but for students who can handle it, it would be a good head start on the classical education American college promises but doesn't really deliver.

Chicago said...

Don't bother learning either one, they're all trying to learn English. Why should we talk to them in their language when they can talk in ours? Besides, it's hard to predict the shape of things 25-30 years from now so whatever a parent projects might be useful for their child could well be wrong. Chinese doesn't seem to lend itself well to the modern era of the internet. Spanish might be more pragmatic but your conversations will be at a basic level; there's no bookstores in Hispanic neighborhoods. Is the choice of picking a language going to be driven by a snobby seeking of status, ambitions of a future career, infatuation with some national group, or what?

jim said...

Casual foreign language learning will increasingly be pointless as machine translation improves. I studied Spanish for years and can read well enough to read Spanish news stories. The speed of my audio comprehension never has gotten to a useful real-time lvl - I can watch a Spanish movie if I turn on Spanish subtitles. I can read the subtitles in real-time, but I can't decode the audio in real time.

That took years of effort ... and for what? I can follow news, sports, and pop culture. So instead of reading about Tom Brady's career and love life, I can read about Cuauhtémoc Blanco's career and love life.

Already there apps for the iPhone where you aim your camera at some Spanish text (on a sign, menu, etc) and it translates it into English.

In the not too distant future we'll have real-time audio translation -- spanish Speaker will speak and your iPhone will automatically translate it into spoken English that you hear in your earpiece. It'll be like having a conversation through a translator. You speak English, then pause as your cell phone blares out the translated Spanish. The translation itself will probably be done remotely on some Google or Apple owned super-server, and delivered in real-time through the mobile data networks.

Now true fluency will still be a valuable skill, but the vast majority who study a foreign language never get close to fluent.

I think having our kids do more PE and exercise during language classes would probably be more beneficial for the next 50 years of their lives.

Anonymous said...

My kids get German because of our family heritage and biblical Greek for studying the Bible. The point is to teach your kids what you actually want them to know rather than what some blowhard like Kristof says is the new cool thing to know. Come on people, have some respect for yourselves. Be your own people. Raise your kids your way. Sheesh. Sure, lots of folks will not want to make the same choice I make. Fine, but at least don't look to some sneering fool for advice. Why take the bend over and grab the ankles approach to seeking guidances as a parent? Does Kristof give a rat's rear about your kids? Do you share his values?

adfadfadsf said...

Learn Spanish if you want to read beautiful poetry and passionate prose. Spanish has too many O's and too many tight-assed consonants--tt than t or ss than
s--, but it can be lovely and romantic.
The poems of Lorca can't be beat. And I wish knew Spanish well enough to read On Heroes and Tombs by Sabato which is utterly mindblowing even in translation.

But Chinese? I suppose it might help in doing business, but what an ugly language. Mandarin is tolerable but Cantonense is atrocious. It's noise pollution. It is to the ears what footbinding is to the feet. It should be banned.

I'm not sure about this, but I think most Americans who learned Chinese 100 yrs ago were Christian missionaries. Hersey's novel THE CALL is a fascinating on the subject(as is his long piece in the New Yorker on his missionary parents) and should be required reading for a general sense of American-Chinese cultural/personal relations in the first half of 20th century. Truly unputdownable.

Christine said...

If your kid is showing a taste for literary fiction or may pursue a career in opera or classical music, German, French or Russian would be much more gratifying and useful for him or her to learn rather than Spanish or Chinese. The few American adults I know who’ve maintained their foreign language knowledge have done so mainly out of aesthetic and cultural appreciation. They enjoy watching foreign movies or going to lieder recitals and not looking at subtitles and get a kick reading Mann, Flaubert, Proust, Tolstoy , de Montherlant , etc… in the original.

Back in the 1990s, several US publishers started Spanish language imprints and bought Spanish North American rights for some of their titles because of the number of Hispanic immigrants here. After a few years of trying to go after this market, they scaled back their Spanish language publishing program and canceled any Spanish translations in the pipeline because guess what – very few Hispanic émigrés or their offspring actually want to buy and read books in Spanish.

I know a recent college graduate who majored in Chinese at an American liberal arts college and he works at a Vitamin Shoppe.

Matra said...

When two different linguistic groups occupy the same country the advantage goes to the group that knows what the other is saying. If more Anglos could understand the Spanish media and Hispanic people in general they'd be less likely to romanticize them. Unilingual Anglo-Saxons have a tendency to assume naively, or perhaps arrogantly, that their own characteristics are universal. I say American children should learn Spanish, not Chinese.

Sylvia said...

1. Chinese is hard, I wouldn't recommend it to a non-native speaker. It has low return value, most Chinese people who arrive in the west will prefer to learn English than talk to Westerners speaking broken Mandarin.

2. From all your descriptions of Hispanics in California, and my experience of New York Hispanics (including completely Americanized Puerto Ricans), it sounds like Latinos are assimilating well. Abandoning Spanish for English, going to see the same Hollywood films the rest of America watches etc. Coupled with low crime rates: http://www.amconmag.com/article/2010/mar/01/00022/ , it seems that when California balances out its economy it will just be another Texas. A largely Hispanic, stable state. Is this so very bad a thing?

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Bush, it seems to me that the better someone learns a language, they more they go all-in with the culture too. Like Bush they become overly sympathetic, because they think they know something we don't.

For that reason I would be suspicious of someone who spoke really good Arabic or Farsi, would worry about their loyalty. Did they start wearing robes, too, or convert to Islam?

I wonder how many double agents became that way because they were so fluent, so immersed in each side, that they didn't really know themselves what they wanted, besides the money and excitement.

LOL, is that Zenophobic or what...

Anonymous said...

Given one drop identity, I have to wonder how many of the 4 black kids had a chinese mother.

Hopefully Anonymous
http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com

Anonymous said...

I think French or German would be useful. Both are classy languages that boost your social status and look good on a resume, because relatively few speak them.

From a functional standpoint, learning a foreign languages isn't that important. Not unless you plan on living overseas for a long amount of time. It's fun and a little bit useful, but not crucial.

Anonymous said...

It's useful to speak another language and be fluent in another culture, some are more useful than others. It probably depends mostly on what company you work for and who your coworkers and clients are. If there is translation work to be done, you have value equal to anyone with an ancillary useful skill (like a lawyer who has a CPA license or a doctor with a masters in statistics).

Hopefully Anonymous
http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com

Anonymous said...

Not sure if English and French ever compete in Canada except in Montreal.

Even then, its for the most part segregation, as Montreal has French and English speaking zones, but where the economic life is dominated by English-speaking Anglos and Jews.

secret person said...

Spanish is a Latin language and helps with understanding Italian, French, LATIN, and even English! Remember how Kip learned to speak like a Mexicano, when his Spanish teacher tutored him in Latin...

bruce said...

Mandarin Chines is the easiest language in the world to learn. No grammar, nothing. Just like pigeon english. Ni hao - you good. Hao jou bu jien = long time no see... Wo bu hao = i no good.

Start with pinyin, the 4 tones are just musical notes - high, lower rising, falling-rising, sudden falling.

Then you have to memorise thousands of characters, but radicals and repeated symbols make that easier.

If you just want to make conversation, a couple of hours practice is enough.

international Jew said...

Americans generally have no idea how much work it takes to really become expert at a foreign language, or what it is that makes Chinese vastly harder for us than learning Spanish or German. The effort is nonetheless well worth making, otherwise most people are easily bamboozled by the naive idealism of idiots like Nicholas Kristof (and I know all I need to know about how much Chinese he knows when he says it has "negligible grammar").

But expecting to parlay a few years of Chinese into a leg up on doing business in China is naive on two counts: on the difficulty of learning Chinese, and on the projection of American attitudes like openness and tolerance onto a culture that is unapologetically xenophobic.

Anonymous said...

The problem isn't just that too few children are multi-lingual, but that too few really speak or understand their first language. A great aid in this, and one I'd recommend to any parent of a smart elementary-age child, is Latin instruction.

A child who understands the Latin roots of the English words they use every day will be able to communicate with a level of precision and nuance that will be rewarded in any field of work or study.

Latin-language instruction may be frightfully square, but the outcomes remain good; children who study Latin do well.

Felix said...

Since I'm a white (well, eastern euro immigrant) college student studying mandarin I'll go ahead and add my two cents. I've been taking mandarin classes at my university for the last 3 semesters. The professors have always been native Chinese and the classes met 4 out of the 5 weekdays, so it was fairly intensive. As is happens, my university is heavily Asian, so most of my classmates are Chinese from Hong Kong/ Guangzhou background who already speak Cantonese but have no mandarin.

As a bit of background info, I'm native level in 2 languages and have a working knowledge of a third besides mandarin. What separates mandarin from all the other languages I've had to learn is that the hardest part, for me at least, is listening comprehension, rather than speaking or grammar. Chinese grammar-or at least the limited aspects I've seen of it- is very simple, it's almost like a caveman language. Verbs exist as immutable entities, there is no need to conjugate and this makes learning how to speak Chinese very simple, assuming you're not concerned about completely butchering the pronounciation.

Being able to udnerstand a Chinese person talk is quite another matter. For someone used to Indo-European languages, Chinese words sound utterly indistinct. It's hard to know whether the "chi" sound coming out of a Chinese person's mouth means go, eat, or is a part of a multisyllabic word. Most of the time I can't understand what someone says unless they say it painfully slowly, and even then I'm not understanding it in real time. Rather, my brain gets the sequence of sounds, each of which could be many different words, and then interprets the overall sentence heuristically by combing through the permutations of whole-sentence-meanings given what word each sound could be given all the possibe words all the other sounds could be. Or at least that's what it seems like, heh.

The characters are not that bad. It's basically what you would expect, progress is linearly related to time put in. While there are thousands of distinct characters, there are repeating patterns which makes learning how to write the characters easier as you progress. Those repeating patterns are both a blessing and a curse because once you learn a few hundred characters they start to trip you up since different characters will start looking very similar as they contain the same patterns.

Realistically, I know that my proficiency at mandarin will never progress to the merely "useful" unless I head on over to China, and that's exactly what I plan to do as soon as I graduate and save a enough money for a ticket and a year's worth of living expenses. I'm pretty sure that when I arrive on site my class based education will make progress a lot faster than if I had just come cold turkey. Until that time, the only thing my Chinese learning can amount to is a great tool for hooking up with the hundreds of Chinese girl international students here on campus. I mean GREAT tool, haha.

Felix said...

Oh yeah, ironically, one reason for my eagerness to learn Chinese is my expectation that Spanish will become ever more useful in this country. lol. The USA is going down, I once wanted to become a physician in order to insulate myself from the wonders of "free trade" and outsourcing, but recently have realized that no profession other than billionaire is likely to emerge dry from this sinking ship that is the modern vibrant, knowledge-economy USA. I hold no illusions that making my fortune in China is going to be easy or even likely, but I'd rather try to climb that mountain than cling to a rapidly Mexicanizing, de-industrialized and economically bankrupt USA where even the current elites are inimical to my very existance (I'm classified as a white male after all) let alone the elites 20 years from now.

At least by going to China I'm going to enjoy a decade + of plentiful attention from hot Asian chicks, for whom I have a special attraction. By staying in the US to study medicine I'm likely to enjoy a decade of intense schooling followed by being taxed to death as one of those "evil rich" who unlike the real rich aren't really rich. Combine that with the likelihood of the dollar losing much of its value to correspond with the fact that the USA just doesn't make much of anything people need to buy anymore, and the last thing I want to do is bet my life on a more or less fixed nominal dollar income stream like that of a doctor. Bring on China, lol.

Anonymous said...

To the first Anonymous, the problem with the idea that the masses simply adopted the language of the overlords doesn't explain the fact of why Spanish is used today in Latin America but not in the Philippines, another former colony of Spain. The difference is that far more Spaniards settled in Latin America than in the Philippines, so their descendants, even if they are of mixed race, were able to retain the Spanish language and culture. This didn't happen in the Philippines.

Anonymous said...

Given one drop identity, I have to wonder how many of the 4 black kids had a chinese mother.

Or it could have been a few black kids were actually good at learning Chinese.

I thought the point of HBD was not to talk in absolutes. There are obviously millions of high-iq blacks according to the Bell Curve.

You wouldn't know it from reading the comment section of this blog.

Anonymous said...

Learning another language improves your intelligence. Not IQ, I guess, but mental functioning. Aside from that, there is a saying, "Learning another language gives you another soul."
If you don't understand what that means, learning another language would not help you.

shawfactor said...

The only languages should be compulsory at school are programming languages

nooffensebut said...

There is a strong case for learning Spanish in the medical field, for instance, but I highly recommend Mandarin. It is fun, and it opens doors to meeting wonderful people. From my experience, Chinese people really appreciate Westerners who study their language, even when the fluency is imperfect. Plus, the fact that it is hard makes the possessors more marketable and distinguished. Chinese characters are used in Japanese and Korean, so it opens a number of doors for future study. Also, let’s face it, Chinese civilization actually plans her future, rather than submit to the tyranny of the majority, so we shall feel her influence. Besides, you don’t want your child to be the one whose tattoo reads ”lack of common sense.”

Anthony said...

Formerly.JP98 has it right - the point of learning a foreign language in school is to learn grammar (and other mechanics of language) in a way that makes you realize that English does that, too. For that reason, it's probably best to learn an Indo-European language, so the grammar isn't too weird and the mechanics are similar to that of English.

One of my cousins learned Chinese in school in the U.S. - specifically, at Defense Language Institute. But he later spent most of a year tramping about China, and that's when he became fluent. (He later used that knowledge in an import business he and some friends started - it's much easier to make contacts and get better prices from Chinese sellers if you know Chinese. The year at DLI would not have been enough, though.)

The socially ambitious American student should learn Spanish, so they can speak to the help.

steve wood said...

IMO, the main benefit of studying a foreign language in grade school and high school is that it helps you understand English better.

I agree. This, along with general exposure to the best aspects of another culture, is one of the the main reasons to learn a foreign language. It really does strengthen your English speaking and writing skills.

There's no compelling reason to choose one foreign language over another; any language is better than none. That said:

Spanish is by far the easiest language to learn, but, for the reasons discussed hereabouts, it isn't very prestigious or impressive. Furthermore, with all due respect to Cervantes and Garcia Marquez, it isn't quite the key to great literature that French and German are.

Italian is also fairly easy and is a stylish language to know, but people will think you learned it from relatives rather than by your own hard work.

French or German are the best European choices. They are more prestigious to know than Spanish or Italian, and they're the European languages you're most likely to encounter in cultural discussions. Furthermore, there is a lot of great literature in both languages, so you can practice reading and broaden your literary knowledge at the same time.

German is a good choice for nerdier types. French is the way to go if you (or your child) are arty or literary.

Learning an exotic, non-Indo-European language like Finnish or Turkish would show a lot of style, although it would be wouldn't be very useful.

Asian languages fall in the same category. I really don't see what use Chinese would be except for bragging rights. The Chinese you're likely to meet already speak at least some English. I realize there is a long, very good literary history in Chinese, but almost no one in the West knows anything about it. You're much better off - and much better educated in your OWN civilization - if you can say that you've read Flaubert or Goethe in the original.

Latin? This is a also a good choice but I would see it more as a third language or companion study with a living Romance language. It seems silly to put in the effort required to learn a language without being able to use it ANYWHERE or on ANY current literature ... well, except the Vatican.

Whiskey said...

The argument for studying Chinese is that even limited proficiency will give you an advantage in dealing with foreign partners, almost all of whom are projected to be Chinese.

While Spanish is the language of poor, resource only exporting nations that are not going to be that important in the global trade network. China, the world's workshop, is projected to remain very important.

How long that will last is a question. Exporting US (and EU) jobs to China for cheap shoes and Ipods is not likely a sustainable deal. Both the US and Europe need job growth, and protectionism is a better bet than free (sucker) trade.

David Davenport said...

Spanish is a Latin language and helps with understanding Italian, French, LATIN, and even English! Remember how Kip learned to speak like a Mexicano, when his Spanish teacher tutored him in Latin...

You've got it back-assward.

Latin is THE Latin language, so studying Latin helps with understanding Italian, French, LATIN, and even English.

Kip? is that a reference to Heinlein's *Have Spacesuit Will Travel* juvenile novel?

I remember that novel. Kip the protagonist would have been able to converse with the Roman legionnaire even better had Kip studied Latin instead of Spanish in high school.

My serious opinion is that the study or speaking of Spanish in North America ought to actively discouraged and repressed.

Anonymous said...

Spanish is by far the easiest language to learn..

Turning this discussion around, wouldn't the fact Spanish is so easy to learn also work the other way, i.e. for a Spanish speaker to learn English? I am not saying it would be a piece of cake, but wouldn't a native Spanish speaker have an easier time learning English than someone who speaks a completely unrelated language? There are probably over a million Spanish speakers who have lived in the USA for at least a decade and who cannot speak any English at all. I realize trying to learn a language in a classroom only goes so far, but if you are immersed in another country that speaks a somewhat related language for a decade, you should be able to pick it up in a year or so.

Heliogabalus said...

Chinese is just the current "vogue" language. I remember when Japanese was in vogue, in the 80s. Unless you are really interested in Japan specifically, it's a useless language to study, because 1. it's not widely spoken outside Japan (even in Asia), hence no lingua franca value; 2. it's an isolate, hence knowing it doesn't make it easier to learn other languages; 3. it takes forever to learn to read and write it.

Prediction: the vogue for Chinese will pass, too.

ERM said...

To the first Anonymous, the problem with the idea that the masses simply adopted the language of the overlords doesn't explain the fact of why Spanish is used today in Latin America but not in the Philippines, another former colony of Spain.

There are a fair number of contrary cases. The French, after all, don't speak Frankish nor do the English speak French. More remotely, the common language of the Persian Empire was Aramaic and almost no one east of Brindisi could speak a word of Latin until the founding of Constantinople.

There's been a lot of interesting studies on language contact theory in recent years. One theory that might be interesting in the U.S. case is that language influence elite -> non-elite tends to be mostly lexical. That's why outside of the Anglo-Saxon core vocabulary, most English words have Latin or French ancestry. But strong non-elite -> elite influence, which usually takes longer to manifest itself (most generally after a collapse in the written standard of the elite tongue when the vernacular forms the basis of the new standard), tends to be in grammar and syntax.

For example, it was believed for a long time that the Celtic languages of the British isles had little influence on English because there are so few non-toponymic Celtic words in English. But there have been some very interesting recent studies (many from Finland of all places) arguing that British (basically Old Welsh) grammar is reflected in modern English in a host of weird ways that were not apparent in learned Old English writing but became clear after the Norman Conquest. In the future, American English might really show some effects of sustained Spanish contact. Or not.

Anonymous said...

1. Chinese is an easy language (if you don't care about reading and writing).

2. Chinese will be useful in the future after they win the next war with the US.

stari_momak. said...

I've only taken a brief look at Chinese, but if you are not tone deaf, it seems to me that it might be one of the easier languages to learn. No declensions, no conjugations, no articles -- the functions of those things being handled by particles are not bothered with at all.

I also have to disagree on Spanish. Fact is a bilingual (Spanish) professional or managerial type in California will have farm more options than a monolingual English speaker -- especially someone starting out on a career. And the Spanish-speaking world is one that has not totally succumbed to worldwide English dominance -- and why should they. The Spanish banks (Santander e.g.) and Telecomms (Telefonico) are doing quite well in the Latin American markets, due to the language.

For all its problems, the 'Hispanic' world is fascinating and in many ways successful. Certainly it has more self confidence than the world of the Angloparlantes.

michael farris said...

From a working linguist:

A lot of the benefits of some foreign language education are indirect rather than direct.

- For complex historical reasons first language teaching in English speaking countries is terrible*, about the worst in the world. A foreign language can work as a good meta tool for teaching about grammar of the first language.

- Communication skills. This can clearly be seen in Eruope. Monolinguals from the British Isles are the worst communicators going. Not only are they dependent on others willingness to talk to them in their own language when abroad but they don't have any skills in facilitating that process either which makes them total pains in the butt, only tolerated because they spend a lot. Foreign languge education increases the learner's overall communication skills.

- Mental flexibilit and learning discipline. Unlike lots of subject foreign languages don't lend themselves to cramming. Fluency is a sign the person knows how to manage time and put in sustained effort.

The search for a 'hot' foreign language is a remnant of American lack of respect for learning that doesn't give immediate monetary rewrds. If a parent is choosing for their children they should choose the language of a culture they like and respect.

It also occurs to me that ASL would be a good choice for a lot of Americans since for most people signing is a kind of inherently fun activity. And the very different nature of ASL grammar (from English) means a lot of the indirect benefits are still there. (except for learning to read since no sign language writing system has come into general use).

*one minute version: English "trditional grammar" is dysfunctional and doesn't work but no one's been able to replace it with anything better.

michael farris said...

There's also a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that signing can have other benefits.

This guy claims to have aspergers and tourettes and he credits signing with helping him control the tourettes and in expressing and understanding emotional content.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Sh0iYynMLw

note: he's using British Sign Language which is very different from ASL.

elvisd said...

I was raised in a family that considered our cultural heritage to be Greek, Latin, French, Saxon. My father never got a foreign language down, but is the most nitpicky person in the world with English grammar. My grandfather knew some Latin and French. The point was to respect our intellectual forebearers. When he finally retired, knowing that his cancer would end him fairly soon, my g.f. realized his dream of visiting Paris, Rome, and Athens as a kind of pilgrimage.

Silver said...

Mandarin Chines is the easiest language in the world to learn. No grammar, nothing. Just like pigeon english. Ni hao - you good. Hao jou bu jien = long time no see... Wo bu hao = i no good.

Well, if you accept that a considerable proportion of people only want to learn another language to impress others then, by this reasoning, Chinese falls flat on its face. I mean, come on, there's no way you're gonna drop "hao jou bu jien" into a conversation -- "...which is Chinese for [....]." You'll just sound ridiculous. It's the linguistic equivalent of showing off with chopsticks (forks don't work on Chinese food?), only ten times worse.

Spanish phrases, on the other hand, are much easier to make a "I'm with it" impression on people.

On a more serious note, you don't require an inordinate amount of study to be able to read Spanish news articles and even books, so the pay off arrives a lot sooner than would be the case trying to wrap your head around arcane, non-intuitive Chinese pictograms.

Ahh, German...All those coughing noises and glottal stops

That's more true of Dutch -- or else you've been exposed to too much WWII propaganda. German is actually (or can be, depending on who's speaking it) a rather mellifluous tongue -- so many beautiful schlagers I wish I could understand. I studied it in high school but dropped it as soon as it ceased being compulsory <-- idiot.

Anonymous said...

I hire illegal aliens to sweep my front yard. I always ask if they speak English. They always nod "yes". They lie.

However they don't really seem to speak Spanish either. They speak various varieties of Mayan languages. I'm pretty sure Mexico doesn't teach Mayan. In fact there may not be a single Mayan language classroom on earth.

You're going to have a hard time sending your kids to school to learn Mayan. As I remember the written Mayan language requires rather large rocks, so there won't be any textbooks either.

Albertosaurus

Anonymous said...

Spanish if plan on mostly staying and working in the U.S.

Chinese if you plan on moving to or working in Asia, or perhaps some parts of the West Coast.

Chinese Americans are about 1%...
1%! of the American population.

No reason whatsoever for an ordinary American to learn to speak or write Chinese.

Jerry said...

Do not learn Chinese. It is so hard that even college-educated Chinese people are unable to write it with facility after their 20's--I have seen many examples of this. If you do not read and write Chinese on a daily basis, you will lose it quickly, and this applies even to the Chinese! The way they write Chinese now is phonetically: they type the phonetic equivalents with a Western keyboard, and then choose between four or five characters that come up. (Because Chinese is a tonal language, a syllable has four different sounds and therefore meanings.)

I have also heard from native Chinese people that they can read the English of bi-lingual road signs in China easier and faster.

Personally, I know two white people who know Chinese well, and both seem to be carrying a very heavy mental burden.

And even if you do learn Chinese, what are you going to real in it? The history of Chinese philosophy is the history of lessons in obedience; the history of Chinese literature is the history of escapism. Even in English, "The Dream of the Red Chamber" is hardly worth reading for anyone whose sensibility has been trained for appreciating reasoned and reasoning individuality by, say, Trollope.

Learn Latin. The literature is incredible. And then you can branch off easily into Italian, French...

Greetings to all as I write this while overlooking the South China Sea in Chung Hom Kok, Hong Kong.

Svigor said...

2. Chinese will be useful in the future after they win the next war with the US.

I presume you mean the economic "war," where we sell them the rope to hang us, and they bemusedly comply? Or maybe the war where we learn we don't get to keep bases encircling their territory forever?

Because an aggressive expansionist war doesn't exactly sound like China's style. Too much real estate held by suckers for that, I think.

As for languages, I think Anglophones would be best served by learning a second language NO ONE ELSE USES.

Anonymous said...

To the posters who say we should focus on English, here is a great article by a Japanese professor on the importance of English from a Japanese perspective.

As we have seen, English is a widespread and important language in the world today. It is used for everything from international academic conferences to news reports to popular music lyrics. It is used not only for communication between native speakers and nonnative speakers of English but between nonnative speakers. Even though it does not have the greatest number of speakers in the world, it is the most widely used language in the world, and it will be used by more people in the future.

Anonymous said...

"farm more options"

in errata veritas....

Anonymous said...

To EMR, with regard to Spanish influencing North American English, I tend to think any influences will be relatively minor, especially if Hispanics become assimilated and eventually learn English. Even if they don't, using the example of the country where I live (Canada), the presence of the French-speaking province of Quebec hasn't really added any more French vocabulary to Canadian English than already existed from the English we "inherited" from Britain. Well, we have a few words, like "poutine" (kind of soup), and generally even these have to do with items not found any other place but Quebec. So I don't see Spanish really infiltrating American English.

Anonymous said...

Studying Chinese is more fun and intellectually stimulating than studying an Indo-European language for the same reason that visiting a foreign city is more exciting than visiting a city in another part of the United States.

Different languages employ different sounds which adult learners find difficult to hear and pronounce. For English-speakers this is not fatal in learning
the other Indo-European languages but in most certainly is when learning Chinese.

The major flaw in our system of language education is that we impose upon adults a task which, for an infant, would be as easy as breathing.

Anonymous said...

I hope this is not a double post, but I think my previous one did not get through.

'Why we teach English' is an excellent short essay by a Japanese professor on the importance of learning English.

I imagine other Asian nations probably feel the same way about learning English. This article gives a good perspective from an informed point of view.

As for nations like Mexico, I wonder if they realize the business opportunities they are missing because they don't have a large number of English speakers? From the point of view of Mexico, they should be doing well in call center offshoring type jobs. But these jobs have gone to India and more recently the Philippines because of their English familiarity.

Additionally, Mexicans planning on heading North would also be better served in knowing English. It would make them more marketable and less susceptible to deportations and shady employers. The end result is they would have more money to send back home to Mexico.

So Mexico should probably encourage widespread adoption of the English language. It would help their GDP.

Svigor said...

That's more true of Dutch -- or else you've been exposed to too much WWII propaganda. German is actually (or can be, depending on who's speaking it) a rather mellifluous tongue -- so many beautiful schlagers I wish I could understand. I studied it in high school but dropped it as soon as it ceased being compulsory <-- idiot.

Yep, actual Germans speaking German, as opposed to the Eternal Nazi of the Jewish imagination, sound kinda Frenchified, really. Not that French doesn't have it's odd sounds to Anglophone ears...

David Davenport said...

For all its problems, the 'Hispanic' world is fascinating and in many ways successful.

Please explain some specific ways in which the 'Hispanic' world is either fascinating or successful, aside from 'Hispanic' locations which happen to have oil wells, large copper mines ... or beaucoup coca bushes.

Certainly it has more self confidence than the world of the Angloparlantes.

Is this self confidence perhaps similar to the high self-esteem historically oppressed children of color growing up the USA tend to claim?

Anonymous said...

Like so many others, I began studying a foreign language in high school. I never got very far, but I still remember basic pronucniation and whatnot.

A few months ago I took to trying to relearn that language. I use one of those book/cd courses - Living Language, which has 80 lessons in two separate courses. My local library has plenty of copies. The reading lessons are each about 8-10 pages and can be done in the morning in about 10-15 minutes. I listen to the audio lessons during my commute, and keep flash cards at my desk for lunchtime. I add a few simple children's books and some modern poetry to round out my study.

So far it's worked pretty well, and most of the time I've devoted to learning it would've been idle time, anyhow. As someone pointed out above, what matters most with learning a language is consistecy. You can't cram. Ypu have to reach the point where a word is instinctive. In adulthood that takes a lot longer, of course, but it can still be done.

As for the question of Chinese vs. Spanish, it's not even a contest: Chinese, of course, though we need to be starting children off in primary school, not high school.

Anonymous said...

"In the future, American English might really show some effects of sustained Spanish contact. Or not."

I have a hunch that literacy slows - dramatically - the evolution of a language. The ability and, in some cases, the need to communicate with the past slows changes in a language.

What things do we not now have words for that Spanish might yet give us? Scarce few, I'd guess. Most of the Spanish words I hear American's using are just nifty ways of saying things we already have words for - manana, de nada, uno mas, amigo, whatever.

"Prediction: the vogue for Chinese will pass, too."

Japan: 120 million people.
China: Japan times ten.

Learning Mandarin might never have a huge financial payoff, but it sure as hell won't hurt.

Anonymous said...

As a Chinese American married to another Chinese I can tell you that Americans learning to speak baby Chinese with bad accents is pointlessness squared. If you can't attain fluency or near fluency with very good accent, no one will take you seriously enough (even if you leave out reading) to make communication worthwhile.

ERM said...

That's more true of Dutch -- or else you've been exposed to too much WWII propaganda. German is actually (or can be, depending on who's speaking it) a rather mellifluous tongue -- so many beautiful schlagers I wish I could understand.

---

Yep, actual Germans speaking German, as opposed to the Eternal Nazi of the Jewish imagination, sound kinda Frenchified, really. Not that French doesn't have it's odd sounds to Anglophone ears...

Dudes, I don't get my information about German from Jews. I live in Europe, only 90 minutes from one of the more famous German-speaking cities. I have been there many times. I can also speak some French and if you think German sounds anything like French, I'd look into making an appointment with an otorinolaryngologist.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMu2xyfgf_c&feature=related

Anonymous said...

Chinese is so difficult that you can become a celebrity in China just by being a white person who is fluent in it (like the Canadian "Dashan".)

Chinese characters are used in Japanese and Korean, so it opens a number of doors for future study.

With the introduction of Hangul, Chinese characters are mostly phased out of the Korean written language now. They ("Hanja") are only used now to learn the meanings of Korean words, similar to the role Latin plays for us.

Japan, on the other hand, has tried several times to phase Chinese characters ("Kanji") out of its written language, without success. The loudest protests always came from the elites, who said something to the effects of, "Yeah, Chinese characters are hard, and that's the way we like it!"

Historically, writing in Chinese carried great prestige in Japanese society. It was something that a truly great and learned man would do. They did not want something so simple that even the peasant masses could do it.

Baloo said...

Maybe it's that uvular 'r' that French and most varieties of German have in common. Most of us seldom hear it elsewhere.

peter A said...

The advantage of Russian over most other modern languages is that there actually is significant and interesting intellectual discussion going on in the Russian speaking world that the rest of the world is unaware of. For example I know, as a Russian speaker, that no one understands North Korea as well as Russian academics and commentators - and most English language commentary on the DPRK is useless. My impression is that most important modern thought in German, or even French, gets translated into English fairly quickly, and that there really is very little important thought in Spanish or Arabic. Mandarin, I assume, might open doors to some interesting ideas, but it would take a lot of work.

Anonymous said...

Spanish is the language of poverty and ignorance.

Hail said...

Steve Sailer wrote:
Over the last twelve months, the language I've most often wished I'd studied has been German

Steve always hooks us in and leaves us hanging like this.

Explain, Mr. Sailer, explain!

peter A said...

German has so many different accents and dialects you can't generalize - the Rhine dialects do sound a bit Frenchified. Viennese is more melodic. North German dialects sound more like Dutch - more harsh throat sounds and more staccato. In the mouth of a sexy young woman German sounds beautiful - in the mouth of a police man or a drunk soccer hooligan not so much. Probably true of most languages - Cantonese and Vietnamese excepted - they're just ugly.

Anonymous said...

"Americans learning to speak baby Chinese with bad accents is pointlessness squared."

So sorry, but was anyone here arguing for Americans to learn "baby Chinese" - or "baby [Any Other Language]" - with "bad accents"?

Indeed, several commenters here have pointed out that if Americans are to learn Mandarin that we'd do best to start teaching them at a young age - by kindergarten or elementary, for sure.

No one seems to have disputed that point.

Anyway, I'm no linguist, for sure, but I've occasionally wondered if, instead of starting schoolchildren out with a particular language in order to get it right, it would be possible instead to create a program for youngsters teaching them most of the unique sounds spoken in most of the world's major languages so that no matter what language they eventaully chose, they could speak it well?

Is this a silly idea? How many unique sounds would they have to learn? How practical would it be?

Feel free to this idea mercilessly. Most people already do.

ben tillman said...

Dudes, I don't get my information about German from Jews. I live in Europe, only 90 minutes from one of the more famous German-speaking cities. I have been there many times. I can also speak some French and if you think German sounds anything like French, I'd look into making an appointment with an otorinolaryngologist.

You're wrong. And the guy you responded to was wrong.

Germany has lots of dialects and different accents, and some of those accents sound a lot like French. In fact they sound more like French than Spanish and Italian do. I've been there and heard them. Other accents, of course, are different.

Udolpho.com said...

Americans should focus on English, until they really learn it.

ERM said...

Germany has lots of dialects and different accents, and some of those accents sound a lot like French. In fact they sound more like French than Spanish and Italian do. I've been there and heard them. Other accents, of course, are different.

Well clearly one of the essential facts about German is its diversity. Nevertheless, I went to the bother of digging up a YouTube video of one of the least French-sounding forms of speech I can imagine, excluding obvious outliers like those bushman languages with all the clicks. It was of a street hawker in Vienna. I'd be very interested in hearing some French-sounding German. Perhaps I'm being too narrowly particular here as I also find Spanish and Italian to sound very little like French but I'm not extremely well travelled in German and open to being proved wrong. But you'll at least have to admit that this purported Frenchy German would be quite a minority thing and hardly representative of "German" as the native tongue of 100 million people or so.

Hail said...

Re: ERM,

For what it's worth, it's said that Frederick The Great, Prussia's greatest king [d.1786] (who is revered as almost a George-Washington-like figure by most Northern-Germans), spoke French more often than he spoke German. The language of his court was French, the "status" language of the time. It is said he rather disliked speaking German.

He named his luxurious palace at Potsdam "Sansoucci"! (French for "Without a Care").

Granted, this is just an interesting note and has nothing to due with the alleged "French influence" in Koelnisch, to which ben tillman and Peter A refer.

I don't know Koelnisch enough to judge. What I do know is that Rhineland is ancestral-home to nearly-all of the German-speaking-World's anthropologically-Mediterranean people of no recent non-German ancestry.

Goebbels had a strong Koelnisch accent.

ben tillman said...

ERM,

I figured you were referring to Vienna.

Paul DeReno said...

I wonder if Steve Sailer has ever hinted that the Bush family's ties to Mexican drug cartels is but an artifact of the Bush family's ties to the CIA and the CIA's status as the real global drug cartel. This meme has raged underground and is only becoming a part of the consensus of the "Substantial Silent Minority" of reasonable and informed people.

It would be nice to have Sailer beating the drum a bit more to expose Afghanistan as a mere part of a much larger Narco operation of the Millitary/Industrial/Narcotic/Finance/Media/Government/Unspeakable Complex. This is all obvious to anyone willing to look.

Truth said...

"This is all obvious to anyone willing to look."

Amen.

corvinus said...

I agree with Simon in London.

Learn Latin, even before Spanish.

Why? If you learn Latin, you have a huge advantage not only with attempting to learn Romance languages, but Slavic languages and Greek as well. German, not so much, since Germanic languages appear to diverge from Romance and Slavic.

I don't think there's really any point in learning Chinese (or Japanese or Korean) unless you're planning on living in the country it's spoken. (And, since they don't allow in immigrants...)

If you just want to learn Chinese characters, fiddling around on Google Translate or online Chinese dictionaries is much cheaper and faster than expensive courses for children, and they'd likely get as much out of it. Let's face it: for any language, learning to read it is much easier than hearing or speaking it... and likely more useful too.

Anonymous said...

As a Chinese American married to another Chinese I can tell you that Americans learning to speak baby Chinese with bad accents is pointlessness squared."

Thanks. That's pretty much what I thought. I do think it's worth studying another language for the brain exercise, but choose one in which you can obtain some degree of mastery. That isn't going to be Chinese for the vast majority of us.

PeterO said...

So the consensus seems to be: teach your kids Latin.

And yet, of all the languages discussed here, that's probably the least likely to be offered at a public high-school.

The American education system, where common sense goes to die.

beowulf said...

Once computerized instruction becomes the norm (DARPA is throwing money at a program they call "education dominance"), it will be easy enough to start teaching children one or even two foreign
languages beginning in Kindergarten.

And then 20 years hence, the Pentagon will tell Selective Service draft boards which language skills to focus on. :o)

Truth said...

Common sense, like taking 5 years to teach your children a language they can't practice anywhere outside of The Vatican and San Moritz?

corvinus said...

So the consensus seems to be: teach your kids Latin.

And yet, of all the languages discussed here, that's probably the least likely to be offered at a public high-school.

The American education system, where common sense goes to die.


We all know that to be true, but Spanish is as good a substitute for Interlingua as can be found, so it's not a total loss...

Common sense, like taking 5 years to teach your children a language they can't practice anywhere outside of The Vatican and San Moritz?

It's obviously not useful as a spoken language, but it has a large written corpus, helps with learning other languages, and even helps you speak English better (by helping you to select from Latinate vocabulary you might not be familiar with).

Silver said...

Learn Latin, even before Spanish.

Why? If you learn Latin, you have a huge advantage not only with attempting to learn Romance languages, but Slavic languages and Greek as well.


So the reason to learn Latin is the advantage it gives you in learning another tongue. That's like telling someone to learn to fly an F-16 because it will help you immensely in learning to fly a kite. But if you all originally ever wanted to do was fly a kite why not just learn to fly the kite alone and not bother with the F-16?

Modern Romance languages seem to me more closely related to each other than any are to Latin. I can basically read (news articles, wikipedia; not novels) Spanish and (to a lesser extent) Portuguese and I've taken a look at French and Italian. Based on what I know of Spanish, whether it actually helps or not, I certainly feel like it'd be straightforward to add Italian and French. I can't see any reason to think that being able to read Latin (instead of Spanish) would have provided any extra boost to that confidence/certainty.

German, not so much, since Germanic languages appear to diverge from Romance and Slavic.

What do you mean they only "appear" to? They actually do. And Latin helping for Slavic and Greek? Are you out of your mind?

Seems to me some people treat Latin so reverentially only because it's so "Western." Mind you, they don't simply tell you that understanding the events that befell "The West" 2000 years ago helps one to better understand the events befalling The West today; no, it's only when you learn about those events in Latin that you fully appreciate it. Really, what it is is a bunch of despairists who feel the world is passing them by grasping for something solid to hold onto. "Learn Latin, young man!" isn't so much intended to help the other party as it is to help them ease their own anxieties.

leslie said...

"The West today; no, it's only when you learn about those events in Latin that you fully appreciate it. Really, what it is is a bunch of despairists who feel the world is passing them by grasping for something solid to hold onto. "Learn Latin, young man!"
isn't so much intended to help the other party as it is to help them ease their own anxieties."

His suggestion is perfectly practical. Amazing how hard it is to explain concepts of grammar to people studying ANY other foreign language if the student does not first understand concepts of grammar in their own. For an English speaker, Latin does open doors of understanding and perception that makes this so much easier. That's why language teachers often recommend English grammar books to those studying almost any other language.
Studying Latin would help students a hell of a lot more than studying Chinese because most will never even become conversational with Chinese, whereas Latin at least helps the student to get their own grammar and vocabulary. I did not study Latin, but I did get enough in relgious and literary terminology to be aware of it, and it has helped enormously in understanding vocabulary in many languages, including Romanian and Russian (both of which have Latin influence, Romanian much more course.) It doesn't help with Czech, for example which has very little Latin. But the logic of grammar is one reason Latin was studied in schools through the centuries. No matter what language you study it helps to know the logic and terminology of your own grammar.

ben tillman said...

It's obviously not useful as a spoken language, but it has a large written corpus....

Chapter 1 of John Maynard Smith's The Origins of Life is titled "Life and Information". In this regard, of course, life replicates information through DNA. Humans, however, have another means of passing along information: language. The great value of learning Latin (or Greek) is to perpetuate the transmission of the information assembled by our ancestors.

Anonymous said...

I've been fluent in Spanish for 15 years and the only time in daily life when it has helped me was when I told my noisy neighbors late at night to pipe down I'd twist their tacos.

Aside from daily life, Spanish did help me get 2 jobs that involved aspects of life where Hispanics do in fact tend to excel.

They tend to excel in economic backwardness, which means that other countries have to help them. My Spanish got my foot in the door at the World Bank. I guess some of my ex-colleagues are still sitting around scratching their heads trying to figure out why the Latin American economies are just not responding to their economic policies and advice they way they are supposed to.

The other job was listening to recordings of phone conversations between Spanish-speaking drug dealers.

So unless your child wants to get into Latin American development projects - which there will always be a need for - or get into the Latin American drug business, then Steve's right, there is really no need to learn the language.

David said...

I saw a white doofus in Borders the other day who was sitting in the coffee section and loudly sounding out Spanish verbs from a book he probably didn't intend to purchase. The look on his face was comical in its expectation that everyone there should admire his broad-minded and deafening exploration of a vibrant non-white culture and his hard-nosed and admirable forethought in preparing himself imperfectly for an $8/hour Arizona call center job.

I took large pleasure in ignoring him and his inepto verbs.

Just as I sidestepped learning Lotus 1-2-3 in the early '90s, before Windows took off. A fad is a fad, and attracts the faddish.

(Not knocking Berlitz.)

Anonymous said...

Based on this thread and especially Felix's it seems the majority of Americans who can learn Chinese are either 1. Mormon or other missionaries 2. Losers who could never land a white girl.

Anonymous said...

"bruce said...

Mandarin Chines is the easiest language in the world to learn. No grammar, nothing. Just like pigeon english. Ni hao - you good. Hao jou bu jien = long time no see... Wo bu hao = i no good. "

Easy? No grammar? So you picked a couple of the most common expressions that serve your purpose, and then voila, generalize "Mandarin Chines" as "pigeon english"? If your Chinese is as good as your English, then it might not be so easy after all. What nonsense and arrogance.

Anonymous said...

"Felix said...

Chinese grammar-or at least the limited aspects I've seen of it- is very simple, it's almost like a caveman language. Verbs exist as immutable entities, there is no need to conjugate and this makes learning how to speak Chinese very simple, assuming you're not concerned about completely butchering the pronounciation. "

If Chinese is a "caveman language," then so is English. English grammar is light-years simpler than Latin, which for the life of me I can never figure out why the Latins would create a language so complicated, with a ridiculous number of ways to conjugate verbs. No wonder the Romance Languages more or less junked much of the Classical Latin verb conjugations. Having such difficult grammars is not a good thing. So if you were trying to belittle Chinese by calling it a "caveman language," then you have just belittled English, genius.

Moreover, your Chinese IS limited because "verbs" (more precisely the characters that make up the verb) can have characters added to it to create a new compound word (in other words, a new verb), that is more appropriate in that context. So the "verb" is not immutable. The characters might be immutable, but not the "verbs."

Anonymous said...

adfadfadsf said...

"But Chinese? I suppose it might help in doing business, but what an ugly language. Mandarin is tolerable but Cantonense is atrocious. It's noise pollution. It is to the ears what footbinding is to the feet. It should be banned."

Ugly language? Do you even speak the language, genius? If not, then continue to wallow in your ignorance, which you have aplenty. And if you are so superficial as to base the beauty of a language on what it sounds like, then you have picked a truly annoyingly ugly language in Spanish. Your Spanish and its "Cha Cha Cha" sounds are so annoying it tends to give me a headache. Forget Cantonese, we need to ban Spanish.

"I'm not sure about this, but I think most Americans who learned Chinese 100 yrs ago were Christian missionaries. Hersey's novel THE CALL is a fascinating on the subject(as is his long piece in the New Yorker on his missionary parents) and should be required reading for a general sense of American-Chinese cultural/personal relations in the first half of 20th century. Truly unputdownable."

"Unputdownable"? Really? Do you really have butcher the English language such such ugly and unsightly concoction of silly made-up words?

Anonymous said...

"Felix said...

Until that time, the only thing my Chinese learning can amount to is a great tool for hooking up with the hundreds of Chinese girl international students here on campus. I mean GREAT tool, haha."

So I take it you cannot attract a white girl ... And Chinese girls actually have standards ... So much for this "caveman language" learner, Lol.

Anonymous said...

"Formerly.JP98 said...

IMO, the main benefit of studying a foreign language in grade school and high school is that it helps you understand English better. This has become especially significant since English grammar stopped being taught in the 1970s. The only way students get even a little grammar today is by studying French, German, or Spanish (or Latin, if they're lucky enough to attend a school that offers it)."

Agreed. Wiser words have never been uttered.

"Taking a foreign language because you think it will be useful in talking to foreigners some day is a waste of time, unless you plan to spend a semester abroad in the process.

12/30/10 7:02 AM"

Well, even one semester is too short. And chances are you will be hanging around other Americans, so that makes your alleged motivation for language learning moot.

Anonymous said...

"StephenT said...

I think kids ought to learn Spanish so they can stay up to date on developments in rocket science, brain surgery, particle physics, etc. Since most of that originates in the mestizo Mexican and other cutting-edge cultures of Latin America, the latest and greatest research always appears first in Spanish -- the international language of science and progress."

Ooh, snarky racism. Just what I would expect from this blog, Lol, /Rolleyes.

Anonymous said...

"Felix said...

Chinese grammar-or at least the limited aspects I've seen of it- is very simple, it's almost like a caveman language."

It might sound like a "caveman language" because I am guessing you are not familiar with any non-European languages, some of which might be different from the multi-syllable word aspect of European languages.

Anonymous said...

You're an idiot. Learning Chinese isn't hard and isn't a waste of time. If you think Chinese is hard how do you even begin to speak English? English is harder to learn than Chinese. Chinese is such an organized language that it practically is like building blocks. It keeps building on eachother. It's not a waste of time. If you're serious about learning it you'll have more job opportunities than Spanish. It's rare that Americans can speak Chinese. So many Americans already speak Spanish that it's nothing special and not an accomplishment in the end.