July 13, 2008

The good thing about learning Spanish

Obama's declaration that everybody should make sure their children learn Spanish has relaunched the usual inconclusive discussions in America about what would be the most useful second language to learn. Everywhere else in the world, it's obvious that English is the best second language (except for speakers of minority languages, such as Mixtec-speakers in Mexico, for whom English is the clear best third language).

For example, even though India is growing in importance, it doesn't make sense for Americans to learn an Indian language because there are 15 national languages in India, and everybody who is anybody knows English. In China, there are a number of wildly different-sounding dialects, and, besides, be serious, you are never going to get anywhere with studying Chinese. It might make sense to learn Japanese, since so few Japanese learn English, but the Japanese are creeped out by the sight of white people speaking Japanese fluently, so why inflict that upon them? Lots of 19th Century scholars in gloomy Europe fell in love with Arabic, with its beautiful alphabet, but America has its own desert, so we've never put much emphasis on Arabic.

When I was considering what foreign language to take in 9th grade in 1972, it was widely said that Spanish was the smart choice because if you got rich you could order your servants around more precisely. Oh, and besides, there is all that vibrant Latin culture that we'll no doubt start paying attention to Real Soon Now.

All these years later, you still hear this same logic, but, I have to say, that I haven't noticed upper middle class Americans becoming notably better Spanish speakers. Could it possibly be that they aren't following their own advice? Spanish-language television and radio is now much more widely available across America than in 1972, but those stations sure aren't considered cool.

A big advantage Spanish has, though, is that it's among the simpler major languages. Spanish is kind of like the metric system of languages: it gives the impression that somebody has rationalized it. What's funny is that that seems more like what the modernizing French would do, whereas the Spaniards have tended to be very conservative.

And yet, French is full of quaint medievalisms. For example, the number ninety-nine in French is quatre-vingt-dix-neuf: four twenties ten nine. The French love to go around saying things like Je suis tres cartesian, but there's nothing very Cartesian about four twenties ten nine. In contrast, 99 in Spanish is noventa y nueve: ninety and nine.

D0es anybody know why Spanish seems more straighforward than French? Was there ever a reform movement in Spanish, like how Noah Webster simplified a few English spellings for Americans, but on a larger scale?

My impression is that English has so many irregular spellings not just because of all the different source languages for vocabulary, but because poets actively altered spellings to make words sound better. For example, "solemn" has a seemingly silent "n" at the end because "solemnity" sounds more solemn than "solemity."

Or so I've been told. But, I've noticed that when it comes to etymologies, that there are usually multiple plausible-sounding explanations, so take that with a grain of salt.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Your reason for not learning Indian languages makes sense, but your reasons for Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic are in decreasing order of seriousness. Let's say you were 20 years old, bright enough to learn a new language, and wanted to maximize your chance of becoming a millionaire. Which language should you study? One of those three? An easier european language? Forget languages and learn to play golf?

Anonymous said...

Well, Spanish might have been simplified during the long centuries that Spain had to teach the language to so many peoples of its global empire. And the infuriating idiosyncrasies of French might reflect the fact that France was the first nation in Europe to consolidate so huge a population under one monarchical government.

Unlike London, Paris was the center of the nation's political, business, cultural and academic life. Once all this power had been drawn to Paris, Paris could merely insist that the provincials drop their patois and learn proper French, as they eventually did, after World War II.

It is French pronunciation that drives me up the wall. By dropping half their consonants and most of the vowels, unless you pronounce the surviving letters with precision, it seems the entire language consists mostly of only six different words. Since it is difficult to say much with only six words, you must resort to facial expressions and gestures to make the meaning clear.

This could be another sign of a people who really have not had to make themselves clear to anyone but each other for quite a long time.

Anonymous said...

Antonio de Nebrija's "Gramática de la lengua Castellana" was the first grammar published for a romance language.

By the way, there seems to be no institution analogous to the RAE for the English language...

Grumpy Old Man said...

If you look to spoken French, rather than printed French, which is a throwback to the way things were said centuries, ago, it has relatively few endings: parle, parles, parlent, for example, are all pronounced /parl/.

Even the first person plural form, parlons, is often replaced by "on parle," which contains the same /parl/. The spoken language has become more "analytic," or "isolating," while the printed language preserves distinctions no longer made in the spoken language.

Even more archaic spelling like that is found in Tibetan and Burmese.

Anonymous said...

30 years ago I knew a restaurateur in Edinburgh who learnt Italian so that she'd understand what the waiters were saying to each other. I suppose now she'd need Polish. Only if the economy is really bad could she rely on English.

Unknown said...

As for Chinese, everyone learns Putonghua in school and it's the official dialect, so that's an easy choice. I also saw the stats that Japanese speakers make the most money for translating and such. It makes sense, it's a huge rich country that trades a lot with us. And it's a tough language to learn, but they aren't creeped out when we can speak it. I would agree to go with a European language to start with though, they're a lot easier to learn. Spanish seems like the best option, we trade a crapload with Spanish speaking countries. Not as much with French.

Stopped Clock said...

Spanish has had its reform movements, yes, but so have its neighbors French, Portuguese, and Italian. In fact I think it seems that language reform institutions are more or less a fact of life in at least Western Europe since I can't think of any major European language without a history of major scholarly reforms. Except English, for some reason.

But reforms can only do so much. I think the comparative simplicity of the Spanish language is due mostly to chance. For example, Spanish is the only major Romance language with only five vowel sounds, exactly right for an alphabet with five vowel letters. (By contrast, Italian has 7 vowel sounds, and French and Portuguese have over a dozen). But that wasn't because the RAE decreed at some point that henceforth everyone had to pronounce every E like an E; it's just due to the quirks of linguistic evolution. (Late Latin had two distinct E sounds, which are preserved in Italian, Portuguese, and French, the latter two of which have gone on develop even more sounds from the original two, while Spanish merged the two into one single sound and did not add any more.)

However, Spanish is so widespread that it has developed a large number of dialects, and from what I hear, those dialects are so divergent from the standard that in rural Latin America you can find people making spelling mistakes that would embarrass even the average viewer of Dora the Explorer.

Speaking of Dora, I notice there's a new show on Nickelodeon that seems to be more or less a Sinocentric Dora clone; Ni-Hao, Kai Lan is a television show about a 5 year old girl named Kai Lan who goes on various Dora-like adventures and never misses an opportunity to throw some Mandarin Chinese vocabulary into the narrative. It's cute, but I have to say that while I think teaching Spanish vocabulary to preschoolers is harmless, teaching them Mandarin Chinese (not even the majority dialect in America) is an outright waste of time.

Personally, I've always liked Spanish as a language in itself. I started learning it in fourth grade and although I never made it to absolute fluency I can make my way through most things written in Spanish. It comes in handy in daily life up here because Spanish knowledge here is rare. At the last job I worked, I was the guy people came to when they got a Spanish-monolingual customer on the phone. Though as I said, Im not fluent, so all I could really do was say in Spanish "Sorry, nobody who speaks Spanish is here now. Please call back after 3:30 on Monday through Friday." That's my anecdote for the day.

Anonymous said...

Sailor couldn't have gotten too far in Spanish ; otherwise, he might have started noting all manner of bizarreries in Spanish grammar and usage. For example, the indirect pronoun "to him/her" and "to them" in Spanish is "le" and "les". But this changes to "se" (to himself, herself, themselves) if there is a direct object pronoun. Thus, "mando el libro a Steve" (I send the book to Steve), and "lo mando a Steve" (I send it to Steve), but "se lo mando a él" (I send it to him, or literally, I send it to himself to him). This is done for alleged euphony, "le lo" apparently taken for an abomination in sound. I don't think there is anything in French as screwed up.

Anonymous said...

Any discussion about learning languages needs to include an explicit accounting of maintenance costs, which are highly nontrivial.

Basically, unless you plan to live in an area in which the language is spoken regularly by monolinguals, you are not going to attain any level of fluency. See article below.

You need to think clearly and give up hope that 2nd languages will be learned without immersion. Big national efforts of this kind are basically wasted. Funding dollars would be best spent on investments in machine translation technology, which are very close to prime time, as I pointed out in the previous thread. Take state-of-the-art speech recognition (a la 1-800-GOOG-411), pipe it to state-of-the-art machine translation (a la Google Translate), and return it back to your ear.

Embed this in cellphones and headsets so you automatically hear a translation of what everyone around you is saying.

Eventually, cochlear implants will provide such functionality even more transparently.


The answer: too long. In fact, the answer was worse than too long. According to Wozniak's first calculations, success was impossible. The problem wasn't learning the material; it was retaining it. He found that 40 percent of his English vocabulary vanished over time. Sixty percent of his biology answers evaporated. Using some simple calculations, he figured out that with his normal method of study, it would require two hours of practice every day to learn and retain a modest English vocabulary of 15,000 words. For 30,000 words, Wozniak would need twice that time. This was impractical.

Wozniak's discouraging numbers were roughly consistent with the results that Ebbinghaus had recorded in his own experiments and that have been confirmed by other psychologists in the decades since. If students nonetheless manage to become expert in a few of the things they study, it's not because they retain the material from their lessons but because they specialize in a relatively narrow subfield where intense practice keeps their memory fresh. When it comes to language, the received wisdom is that immersion — usually amounting to actual immigration — is necessary to achieve fluency. On one hand, this is helpful advice. On the other hand, it's an awful commentary on the value of countless classroom hours. Learning things is easy. But remembering them — this is where a certain hopelessness sets in.

Truth said...

It is not that there has been a mass movement to simplify Spanish, it has been that there is a French organization known as The Alliance Francaise which is comprised of intellectuals who work there doggest to insure that their language stays as confusing, obscure and serpentine as it was 500 years ago. Paris is still the unquestionable center of French culture, where as Madrid may have been surpassed by a few cities in Latin America.

Without artifical controls, languages evolved toward what is simple and easily comprehensible to a variety of people from different areas, similar to what has happened to Spanish. It is similar to Portuguese in which Brazil has far surpased the colonial seat as the epicenter of all things Portuguese. It is now to the point where Brazilians have difficulty understanding their European brethren, and the only reason the inverse is less of a problem is because the majority of the entertainment programing on TV in Lisboa and Oporto is produced in Sao Paulo and Rio.

Eugene said...

The distinction must be made between speaking Japanese to Japanese and reading Japanese (which you can do anywhere). Unless you are a celebrity (baseball player, musician, sumo wrestler), the latter is far more valuable than the former. As Peter Payne observes, "When a person speaks English, he seems to be elevated to a higher rung of the social ladder than if he spoke fluent Japanese -- even if he could recite the Tale of Genji from memory while performing the tea ceremony."

Anonymous said...

Let's say you were 20 years old, bright enough to learn a new language, and wanted to maximize your chance of becoming a millionaire. Which language should you study?

What's the most widely used computer programming language? That's the answer :)

But seriously, I've heard that among actual languages, German is a good one to learn because its fairly complicated grammar demands the sort of logical thinking that helps people in many other endeavors.

Anonymous said...

Actually japanese speaking foreigners get high paying jobs, or even get to go on TV and become famous just for speaking the language.

Chinese is actually not that hard, it just takes time.

English spelling is 90% ethymological. Solemn is written with final -n because it comes from french, where it is pronounced. Solemn has cognates in all Romance languages and all of them pronounce the n. It was always there.

And languages are not "simplified" by a central authority. Spoken languages evolve naturally.

Steve, if you want to learn a bit about language, I recommend you this book

It's fun, easy to read and you get the basic knowledge you seem to be interested in.

Anonymous said...

In Sweden many high school students are required to take some classes in a third language (after English, obviously). Historically kids used to take German, since both the language and the country are close to Swedish/Sweden. Those who didn’t chose French, I guess since it’s cool and since France exerted a reasonably large cultural gravitational pull on Sweden.

A few years ago 40% took German (like me) and 24% took French.
Once more and more schools started to offer Spanish it took over, exactly because of what Steve writes about, that it’s easier to learn. From 14% Spanish has now surpassed German, and is largest at 34%.

Swedish students who want a good grade and an easy time take grammatically logical Spanish, even though German is miles closer to Swedish linguistically.


Anonymous said...

Ah, my Canadianism might finally come in handy here. I live in Ottawa, metro area historically is 30% french, much of it on the other side of the river in Quebec.

One really weird thing is that when I hear an African immigrant speak French it is far more intelligible than the french I was taught and the french of my neighbours and coworkers that I've lived amongst for nearly 40 years. To me it is bizarre.

Soon you will see an elite Spanish class taking over all the jobs. They'll be deliberately tough in testing anglos on Spanish as a means of protecting their jobs. Anlgos, the sons of generations of Americans who made America what it is, will be told they are inferior (and racist, natch) for not being able to reach the impossible linguistic standards set for them.

I was a "late immersion" kid who started taking everything in french in grade 7. As a small boy, I instinctively knew this to be bad policy and deliberately tried to flunk the test. I still got in. None of the kids who were immersion are bilingual today, not even the early immersion kids. This isn't Europe.

Anonymous said...

If we were importing the lithe, sultry, hourglass-shaped Mediterranean types from Mexico instead of the squat, stocky thick-featured Indios from Mexico way more American men would be interested in learning Spanish.

Anonymous said...

I am encouraging my 13-year-old son to take Latin when he goes to high school. He is thinking of becoming a lawyer, so I also encourage him to try out for the debate team.

Latin helps improve English-language skills, makes it easier to learn Spanish, French, and Italian, and puts students in contact with Roman writers who valued clarity, specificity and logic in speaking and writing.

As a thought experiment, imagine what Cicero would say if you told him that your political platform consisted of "Hope," "Change," and "Yes, we can!"

At the high school my son plans to attend, Latin is the most popular language offered.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Spain did standardize its language under the monarchs, but I don't know the details.

Robert Flesch, in his excellent short history of the whole word method of teaching reading, Why Johnny Can't Read, provided the reason English spelling is so inconsistent. Flesch pointed out that English words could be spelled in any way they sounded until Samuel Johnson and, later, Noah Webster began standardizing the spelling of English. Their standardizations were inconsistent.

Flesch provides some humorous examples of how even the most educated men in Elizabethan times would spell. I'll quote the will of Sir Thomas Gresham, Elizabeth's financial advisor, as an example:

In the name of God, Amen. The fourth day of July in the seaventene yere of our Souvereyen lady Elyssabethe, by the grace of God quene of Ingland, France, and Ireland, deffeander of the faith, &c., and in the yere of our lorde God 1575, I Sir Thomas Gresham, knighte, calling to minde howe certteyne it is that all mankinde shall leve and departe ought of this transsitorye lieffe, and how uncerteyne the tyme and mannror thereof is, and for dispossinge of siche goodes as it haithe pleassed Almighttie God to make me posseas in this worlde in soche wysse as the same maye be to Godes glorye and to have the quyeat of soche as after my death shalbe intiteled to have the same with ought contencion, doe therefore macke and declare my teastament and last will in manner and form folloinge. First, I bequeath my sowle to Almyghttie God my Creator and Redeemer, trustinge by the meritts onely of Cristes passion and death to be saved. My boddy I doe bequeathe to the yerthe, to be burryead in St. Tellyns in the parrishe that I doo now dwele in, in soche wysse as seame good by the discreassione of my welbeloved wyffe my sole executrixe. And I geve and bequeathe to my welbeloved wiffe the lady Ann Gresham, towardes the payments of my deates and for the perfformans of this my last will, all my hoole goodes, as reddy monny, playte, jeuellis, chaynes of golde, with all my stocke in shepe and other cattayle that I have wythe in the realme of Inglonde. I geve and bequethe to my preantysee William Gilbert fourtie pounds. To my prentysse Phillipe Celye fourtie poundes. To my preantysse John Smythe fortie poundes. To my preantisse Phillipe Gilmore fortye poundes...

You'll notice that there are multiple spellings of many of the exact same words in the will: prentysse/preantysse/preantisse; wiffe/wyffe; fourtie/fortye, mannor/manner, doe/doo. He spells certteyne and uncerteyne in the same sentence.

This was perfectly goode spelling in Elizabethan England. Very gould, I tell you.

Anonymous said...

I think learning Chinese (Cantonese or Mandarin) would be the best idea (right now). That way you could go to China and do business (or pleasure) and know what the people were really saying since they would assume that a gweilo (or bakgwei) can't understand Chinese.

Unknown said...

As a language lover who has studied French, Italian and Mandarin, I must say I deplore the abysmal depths of foreign language study in this country. Granted, English is the language of the global economy, so it's not so necessary for our students to learn a foreign tongue. If English somehow ceased to be the lingua franca tomorrow, then, no doubt, our population might start taking foreign languages more seriously. Still, I think French or German are good languages to learn, since many valuable books and articles are written in them. Obama is only urging Spanish to woo Hispanic votes, although there are practical reasons for learning it, such as commerce with Latin America. I really don't think Obama would do anything to genuinely promote Spanish study once in office; the idea of our students actually learning it is too unreal.

J said...

Spanish is easy because it is so like Latin. But for practical purposes as well as to provide an excuse to consider oneself very special, the best is to learn some exotic language, say Farsi. A young WASP speaking Farsi can be sure of excellent occupational perspectives in the foreseeable future.

Anonymous said...

I took French in HS, because there were prettier girls there and sometimes food and Spanish just seemed less refined. That said, Spanish would have been smarter. Not only is there the benefit of simplicity and wide-spreadedness, but also it is closer to Latin, Italian and Puertugeese than French (so it is more of a central language).

German is rather easy to learn if you look for cognates of simple English words (milch, milk) and the like. Grammar is rather a bear though. Since reunification, it's importance has increased some. Still French or Spanish are much better.

Would not bother with a non-European language unless had specific need.

Skallagrimson said...

You mentioned that the French count in scores (twenties), as a native Norwegian speaker, I am also aware that this strange custom is shared by the Danish.

Anonymous said...

I was always under the impression that the main reasons for learning Spanish were the United States proximity to hundreds of millions of Spanish-speakers (Latin America) and the fact that as far as languages go, Spanish is relatively easy to learn.
Anybody remember Steve Martin's stand-up bit where he contrasts Spanish and French?
Spanish rolls right off the tongue whereas French has some sounds similiar to clearing the throat. An American attempts to speak French and their tongue gets so knotted up in their throat they asphyxiate.
"What happened? What happened?"
"He spoke French, he's dead!"

-Vanilla Thunder

Anonymous said...

Steve, with all due respect, I believe that it is not economically rational to have young people spend the time and mental energy to learn a second language. there are other things that young people can spend their time and energy on.

of course success in life is heavily determined by the iq a young person is born with, but within any given iq range, the young people that spend time and energy learning about a business, perhaps by working inside a family business or starting a business themselves, tend to make a lot more money in life than those that pursue purely academic things. I think young people are generally well served to learn about business, not learn foreign languages.

Now, if a young person gets utility from being connected to another culture - let's say the young person would like to maintain a cultural connection to relatives living in another country, then there is an argument for learning another language -
(let's put aside the question of whether it is good for america if these young folks want to stay so connected to another country) so for example, if you are of armenian ancestry and want to maintain your connection to armenia for cultural reasons,i can see learning the armenian language - but i don't think there is an economic argument to be made

Anonymous said...

Steve, let me make a point -

if a young person really wants to help America, there is perhaps an argument that they learn Urdu or Pashtun or Arabic

For better or worse, there will be a need for the US to intercept e mail messages and cell phone calls conducted in those languages for many years to come, and americans that know those languages who join the cia and nsa are doing their country a heck of a lot of good.

Anonymous said...

I read somewhere that Spanish is the closest commonly spoken language to latin. French, on the other hand, has 20% of its words coming from German. The numbering system is a relic from the old Celtic language of the Gauls. It was once used in English. Abraham Lincoln thought that four score and seven sounded a lot classier than 87.

Anonymous said...

If you want to learn to speak, read and write a language really well - which is not only an achievement in itself but also improves your understanding and use of English - then Spanish is the best choice for most people. That's because it's hard to become fluent in a language without using it regularly in non-classroom settings, and Spanish is so ubiquitous that opportunities for practice abound.

Steve makes fun of Spanish-language TV, but I can say from personal experience that a great way to learn idiomatic Spanish is to watch a telenovela. (I mean actually watch the show and follow the storyline.) Supplement that with the daily news in Spanish, and you'll learn more in the 12 weeks or so that the show is on than you will in a year of standard classroom training.

OK, so what if you don't care about being fluent but just want to be able to say you "speak" - however badly - another language? In that case, Italian is, like Spanish, fairly easy. You won't get much chance to practice outside the classroom,* but just learning the proper pronunciation will be helpful in restaurants**.

*Typically, Americans whose ancestors came from Italy and who think they learned "Italian" from Nonna actually speak Neapolitan or Sicilian and are useless for practicing the standard Florentine Italian you'll be taught at school.

**For example - can somebody please teach waiters in Italian restaurants that "bruschetta" is pronounced "broo - SKET - a," not "broo-SHET -a"?

On the other hand, French remains the gold standard European language for those who want to appear tres intellectuel or have retro taste in cultural matters.

If you want to be different and also dazzle people with your intelligence, pick a non-Indo-European language. That will be much harder (learning even Hindi or Persian is easier than learning Finnish, or so I've been told), but you will win points for effort while also seeming nerdy-cool and mysterious - the latter because everyone will be wondering why you speak Turkish when you are obviously not a Turk.

OK, enough from me on this interesting topic except to say that, if your main goal is to be a WhiterPerson, you'll be wasting time and effort if you do anything other than learn a basic version of French or Italian. Other languages don't carry much weight in the WhiterPersonWorld, unless, of course, you learned it while studying abroad or doing good works. "Oh, I picked up Quechua when I worked in Peru with Doctors Without Borders."

Anonymous said...

You mentioned that the French count in scores (twenties), as a native Norwegian speaker, I am also aware that this strange custom is shared by the Danish.

This may be a pre-Indo-European vestige. The world's natural base systems seem to include fives (count five fingers on one hand), tens (count ten fingers on both hands), twelves (count the sections on four of your fingers, excluding the thumb), and twenties (count ten fingers and ten toes).

The base-60 Sumerian system is commonly thought to be a compromise between two tribes: one of whom counted in twelves and the other of whom counted in fives (5 x 12 = 60). Previously, some had surmised it was a compromise between those who counted in base-6 and others who counted in base-10. However, there are no known people in the world who have ever used a base-6 numeral system.

rkillings said...

<< French is full of quaint medievalisms. For example, the number ninety-nine in French is quatre-vingt-dix-neuf: four twenties ten nine. The French love >>

Steve, you need to distinguish between the French people and the French language. Across the border in Switzerland and Belgium, Francophones still use the number cognates familiar from other Romance languages: septante, octante, nonante. The words exist in the language; they just aren't part of the usual vocabulary in France.

Anonymous said...

Well I have a long list. Hebrew, Sanskrit, Classic Greek, Persian, Tibetan, Russian, Japanese, primarily for spiritual/cultural reasons. Spanish primarily for communication. But here is an apparently novel one. Ghetto. If I spent some time in a tanning salon I guess I could pass. My motivations are not only all of the above but also commercial. When you consider the ease of learning it, this is a no brainer first choice for a second language.

I mean, imagine the possibilities of having a very sophisticated third world nation right in your backyard.

Anonymous said...

But seriously, I've heard that among actual languages, German is a good one to learn because its fairly complicated grammar demands the sort of logical thinking that helps people in many other endeavors.

I took 4 years of Latin. It was reasonably interesting at the time (Caesar coming, seeing and conquering was sort of cool to me as a 14 year old). But I thought it was not very practical.

Fast forward 20 or so years, and it's very obvious to me that the a) precise and complex nature of the language, and b) the focus on reading and writing, instead of speaking and listening produce tremendous verbal analytical benefits for the devoted student.

Anonymous said...

For example, Spanish is the only major Romance language with only five vowel sounds, exactly right for an alphabet with five vowel letters. (By contrast, Italian has 7 vowel sounds

OK, I'll bite. What are the extra two that Spanish doesn't have? Are they "eh" for e and "aw" for o?

Basically, unless you plan to live in an area in which the language is spoken regularly by monolinguals, you are not going to attain any level of fluency

Many Scandinavians are near-fluent in English and yet have never lived anywhere outside Scandinavia. The Dutch seem to be pretty good with English, too.

One really weird thing is that when I hear an African immigrant speak French it is far more intelligible than the french I was taught and the french of my neighbours and coworkers that I've lived amongst for nearly 40 years.

It's not that weird. Those immigrants are speaking standard French, aka France French, which they learned as either a second language or as a companion language to their native tongue (much the way educated Indians learn English along with Gujarati or whatever). As such, they're probably enunciating more clearly and using less slang than your Quebecois neighbors.

[Spanish] is closer to Latin, Italian and Puertugeese than French

Indeed. If you can read Spanish, you can more-or-less read Portuguese - so much so that it's almost startling to when you encounter the occasional word that doesn't have an obvious cognate in Spanish. The same doesn't apply to understanding and speaking, since Portuguese sounds very different from Spanish. (In Brazil, I found that if I spoke Spanish but pronounced it, as best as I could, like Portuguese, the natives understood. Forget understanding them, though ... it was an incomprehensible slur of "aw's" and "sh's" and nasalized vowels.)

the young people that spend time and energy learning about a business, perhaps by working inside a family business or starting a business themselves, tend to make a lot more money in life than those that pursue purely academic things. I think young people are generally well served to learn about business, not learn foreign languages.

There is more to life than business and making money. Based on your philosophy, we might as well not teach science or literature. Besides, learning a foreign language tends improve one's English skills as well as providing a smattering of culture. Even in a purely utilitarian sense, this is advantageous. Babbitts and Philistines with mediocre grammar may get far in the world, but they would probably get further if people didn't find them so dull and poorly educated.

Anonymous said...

I was a Latin major in college and I second sisyphus' comment.

Solemn, by the way, originally comes from the Latin "sollemnis," meaning "ceremonial" or "performed in accordance with religion."

Anonymous said...

A few years ago 40% took German (like me) and 24% took French.
Once more and more schools started to offer Spanish it took over, exactly because of what Steve writes about, that it’s easier to learn. From 14% Spanish has now surpassed German, and is largest at 34%.

Lesson: If you want a populace with people fluent in a variety of different languages, don't offer Spanish! - or restrict the proportion of students who can take it. Spanish was already the most popular high school language 20 years ago, and in many high schools more difficult languages like German are being eliminated completely.

I really don't think Obama would do anything to genuinely promote Spanish study once in office

You mean besides granting amnesty to 12 - no, 30 - million illegals and allowing miles of fence to go to rot?

but I can say from personal experience that a great way to learn idiomatic Spanish is to watch a telenovela...Supplement that with the daily news in Spanish, and you'll learn more in the 12 weeks or so that the show is on than you will in a year of standard classroom training.

In the internet era such media immersion is possible in any major language.

americans that know those languages who join the cia and nsa are doing their country a heck of a lot of good.

Don't bother to learn on your own time - the shortage of speakers is so severe that the NSA will actually pay while you learn (assuming you get security clearance, of course.)

Steve, with all due respect, I believe that it is not economically rational to have young people spend the time and mental energy to learn a second language. there are other things that young people can spend their time and energy on.

Yes, yes, of course - because there are other more valuable things they're doing with their time, like playing Grand Theft Auto XVI.

Anonymous said...

"but the Japanese are creeped out by the sight of white people speaking Japanese fluently"

What is your source on this Steve? John McWhorter, the linguist and conservative commentator, says exactly the opposite is true, he has found the Japanese are among the most enthusiastic and helpful people when it comes to conversing with foreigners attempting their language.

I assume you're theory of poets as the source of English's irregular spelling was just tongue-in-cheek (if not, you definitely ought to have a chat about this topic with your buddy and authority on this topic, Steve Pinker), but even apart from the whimisical notion of poets having this much influence on the language, the underlying idea that "solemnity" sounds more solemn doesn't hold water with me. I think sound symbolism, a fascinating

, is cleary at play in the word "solemn", the initial stressed low vowel conveys a sense of size and gravity commensurate with the meaning of the word. However, when you appeand "ity" with or without the "n," the resulting stress shifts make the word sounds dainty and airy, at complete odds with the sensibility the word should evoke. But sound symbolism is competing with other dynamics of language, such as consistency of morphological derivation (e.g. -ity),so it's unreasonable to expect all or even most pronunciation to bend to it's considerations. Interestingly, there is evidence that sound-symbolism might be a vestige of a more rudimentary sound-meaning system stage in the evolution of language, see the wiki link and the mention of Ramachandran's work.

Anonymous said...

Mandarin Chinese is the official language of China and it is easy to learn conversation in that language.

There is almost no grammar. The logic of word construction is easy to grasp, embarrassingly so.

Ni hao? ('You good?')
Wo cong Mei-guo lai le. ('I from America come (just now)')

Wo chi fan.
Ni jin-tian chi fan ma?
('You this-day eat lunch?')

'Day' - 'Tian' also means 'heaven' as in 'blue sky above', hence Tian-an-men: Gate of Heaven's Peace.

Hao jiu bu jian.
('Long time no see')

And it never varies. You can pick it up in a week. Try it. Much easier than Japanese, and most Chinese people understand it.

Having tried to teach them, I say that most Chinese are *not* going to learn English in the foreseeable future.

Matt Parrott said...


You mentioned how the French count in scores. A lot of Western European languages retain the base-20 counting system which was pervasive before the Indo-European invasions. It's why "eighty" in French is "quatre vingt" (four twenty) and why English retains "eleven" and "twelve" instead of, say, oneteen and twoteen.

Anonymous said...

Learning one or more language is certainly no waste of time. I've learned a score of foreign languages over the years (English, French, German, Spanish, Indonesian, as well as a smattering of Italian, Javanese, Sundanese, Portuguese, and Arabic) and I've never regretted it. It opens doors and broadens your horizon.

It is certainly possible to learn a foreign language, and even to attain fluency, without immersion in a monolingual environment. I'm Dutch and I'm fluent in English (which is not exactly the same as mastering every little grammatical or stylistic subtlety, or having a vocabulary size equal to a native speaker's). I have spent a total of about 4 weeks in Britain and 2 weeks in the United States over the past 25 years or so, which hardly qualifies as 'immersion'.

Of course one does need suffient opportunity to practice, and a degree of exposure to the language. We have plenty of English-language TV programs here (with Dutch subtitles). Almost everybody over the age of 12 can communicate in English to a certain degree, and many are fluent or near-fluent.

I have also noticed that Scandinavians tend to be quite fluent in English. What they have in common with the Dutch is that English-language tv programs and movies are subtitled there as well rather than dubbed in the local languages as is the case in Germany, France, Spain, Italy etc.

I agree with the comments above about the value of learning a classical language like Latin (or Classical Sanskrit, Arabic, or Chinese, for instance).

Finally, yes Spanish is indeed closer to Portuguese, then French, but French is closer to Italian than Spanish - at least in terms of vocabulary.
For example:

to eat =
manger (F)
mangare (I)
comer (S)

pregnant =
enceinte (F)
incinta (I)
embarazada (S)

more =
plus (F)
piu (I)
mas (S)

In each case, it is the Spanish which is different, not French. Of course these are only three examples, but the pattern holds with larger samples too.

Anonymous said...

A decade ago I suffered through a few years of Mandarin before I came to a depressing revelation - the world is full of people who speak both English and Mandarin fluently. It's absolutely no advantage, whatsoever, in business. Or any other endeavor, for that matter.

All those people who learn their native language and English? They know, through American TV, American culture much better than you will ever know their culture. Even if you know their language you'll be speaking English when you go to their country.

On the other hand, Mandarin classes are full of young Japanese women looking for an easy grade (the written language is almost identical), so it wasn't all bad.

Anonymous said...

Now is a good time to quote Simon Munnery as The League against Tedium:

"I am fluent in 99 languages, 98 of them of my own devising!"

Look him up, comic genius.

Anonymous said...

steve wood and the anonymous who followed:
I once held your bias, but not so much anymore, especially if we're talking about the bottom 80%. I do think it is good to learn latin as a jumping off point for learning other Romance languages in the future if one is so inclined. Time is finite and language must be used, as was pointed out earlier in this thread, or it is forgotten. I took four years of Spanish and competed for three of those years in statewide competitions where I consistently earned top honors, yet, over 10 years later and in an area with one of the highest concentrations of Hispanics, my grasp deteriorates. Heck, my Korean friend in high school had only some grasp of Korean... and that was the only language her parents spoke! She could understand it pretty well, but had trouble speaking it. As such, her parents spoke Korean and would otherwise try to communicate with the few English words they knew as their daughters were hopeless.

The most prudent course to me is to learn Latin; many of us as kids don't appreciate how much we can change. If I knew then, in high school, what I know now about myself, I'd learn French. Back then I was a backwoods country girl who could never have imagined that I would become the biggest Francophile. Heaven for me would be having a second home in Paris and endless antiques buying trips.

Anonymous said...

Steve -- reading Boswell's life of Johnson, it's interesting that Johnson made an early, scrambling living by translating foreign literature (mostly French) into English, along with Latin and Greek. By all accounts, Johnson could *speak* none of them, but could read them.

There are quite a lot of documents that need translating, particularly Arabic and Farsi and Pushtun and the like, as relates to either government work (much of probably not spying or intelligence) or commercial contracts. Given all the money flowing in, to places like Dubai, this would perhaps not be a bad skill to have. As noted, the Internet makes "reading" foreign languages easier to practice.

For someone looking to duplicate Johnson's ability to leverage his reading/comprehension skills in foreign languages and translate written documents into English, I suppose it depends. Each language has advantages.

Japan, China, Latin America, all have interesting cultural movements that might excite interest by Americans or other Anglophones. Ugly Betty being perhaps the best known example, but I'm sure there are others. It's always interesting to read translations of what various terrorists or other types are saying/threatening, so there's value in Arabic and other ME area languages.

As for German, Italian, French, there seems little interest in creative endeavors there. A pity.

Anonymous said...

Far into the future, if I were to start my own IT business, I'd want to be able to speak a language which allowed me to access a pool of cheap, smart, offshore knowledge workers underutilised by other international employers because speak English poorly. I suppose Russian or Vietnamese. And yes, I'm aware this betrayal of U.S. workers makes me persona non-grata around here ...

But for now, as an unintellectual frat boy, I have only one short-term reason to learn a language: picking up international student chicks. The constraints on THAT choice of language:
a. Not so specific to one small country that it limits your pool and evokes suspicion in girls that you only learned it to pick up her coethnics (e.g. Finnish, Mongolian).
b. Not so widely-spoken among foreigners that it fails to impress girls and opens you to a wide pool of competition (e.g. French, Spanish. Probably Russian.)
c. Not one whose speakers have restrictive views towards informal intimate relations (e.g. Arabic, Urdu, or other "national security" languages).
Suggestions: Portuguese, Polish, Czech, Japanese, Vietnamese. It really depends on your type.

Anonymous said...

I'm a doctor in residency.

These days if you're applying for residency programs in cities that have large Hispanic populations, you're not going to land the job if you don't speak fluent Spanish. This may not apply as much to specialties where they don't talk to patients (Radiology, Pathology) or don't talk to patients much (any type of Surgery), but it's true for the vast majority of medical specialties and primary care positions.

For example, if a city is only 25% HIspanic, I guarantee that the teaching hospital there is probably seeing upwards 60% Hispanic patients, just because they tend to attract more of the poor, indigent population to begin with.

So you can't really blame the programs for discriminating against folks that don't speak Spanish. Speaking through an interpreter is a giant hassle, and makes every encounter take 3 times as long.

Anonymous said...

Seconding that spoken Japanese and Chinese are not that hard. In fact, I failed miserably in both Spanish and French but have picked up usable Mandarin and Japanese pretty quickly. Japanese writing is miserable, and Chinese is basically pointless to learn. You will never get a native Chinese to admit it, but it really seems like most don't even know how to write many common words in their own language. It's infinitely easier for a Chinese to learn English, making it pretty pointless to learn.

We'll see how Farsi works out.

Anonymous said...

Allow an anecdote: I studied Urdu and Persian at University for four years, then two more years as a graduate student (under a government grant) and spent 20 months in a complete immersion environment in Pakistan. I thus have a fairly solid grasp on both languages, but can tell you that even within the intelligence and national security community, even this sort of second language acquisition is regarded as a minor asset. It is "native fluency" that is in high demand: someone for whom absolutely nothing may be lost in translation or through unfamiliarity with dialectical differences (with which most ME and Asian languages abound.) So, to all students out there: devoting yourself to the study of these "critical needs" languages is frankly a fool's errand. Technological literacy is a far better use of time. The level of mastery at which foreign language skills are a marketable asset is generally not attainable by those who begin study later than adolescence.
I also have always been a great lover of Latin and Classical Greek, and think that those are probably the ones to study for their truly educative value for the mind. One of the more important lessons to learn from a study of Latin: The Romans managed to conquer the entire Western world, managed dozens of subject cultures and ethnicities for centuries. I doubt any Roman ever bothered to learn a foreign language (other than Greek, of course.) Their general indifference to the babel of mongrel tongues confronting them on all sides afforded them no great difficulty. I think multilingualism is generally the virtue of a subject people.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed and learned a lot from John McWhorter's Teaching Company series The History of Language. It's currently on sale.

FWIW, and I'm going back 35 years here to when I spent a year in France ... I'll second the point someone else has made, which is the huge difference between written French and spoken French. Spoken French is often quite blunt and basic (though not if you're among fancy people or intellectuals), while written French is an exhaustingly complex and fancy thing. They have a whole past tense (the "passe simple") which is used *only* in writing. Bizarre.

Anyway, take a look sometime at a chunk of English and then its translation into French. The French version is often a quarter or a third again as long. One example is the warning screen at the beginning of DVDs, where they talk about Interpol and such.

All that said, in my own case I got to be a lot better at writing and reading French than I did at speaking it. Read Proust and Stendhal, wrote essays ... Speaking, though, I never managed to sound like anything other than an American who could get by OK. Couldn't make the R sound well, and couldn't dis-inhibit myself enough to do the sing-songy thing that French requires -- I have a real American monotone when I speak, and can't get over that. 35 years later I can still understand spoken French pretty well, though. Main thing that gets in my way is new slang. Dammit, the world keeps moving on.

J said...

multilingualism is the virtue of a subject people

With due respect, Sir, I think your comment is dumb. Multilingualism is a sign of intelligence and curiosity.

My model is Father Ricci, a Jesuit missionary, who learnt Chinese so much better than the Chinese that he opened a school in Beijing to teach Chinese scholars to write the essays required in Imperial exams.

michael farris said...

The proble with French: It's not one language system but two.

Spoken and written French have completely different grammars. Written French expresses a large variety of of grammatical categories that are largely or entirely absent from the spoken language.
This is mainly due to some pretty radical changes in the spoken language while the written language has barely changed at all (except to import features from other languages that have never been a part of spoken French).

I'd be interested in learning either spoken or written French but I just don't want the hassle of trying to use the two simultaneously.

Spanish simply hasn't changed that much syntactically or morphologically since it was first set out in writing and Spanish speakers have been more sensible about allowing changes to the written form. There was some traditionalist opposition to the expansion of the letter j over x but the traditionalists lost and most words that once had x (pronounced as sh) are now written with j (pronounced like h but more forcefully). The traditionalists have never lost in French.

Also, Spanish is pluricentric like English. There are distinctions in writing that may be lost in speech in any given area but chances are a given distinction is maintained somewhere (in Spain the preterite and present perfect are merging semantically with the present perfect "I've said" (he dicho) replacing the preterite "I said" (dije) in speech. But in most of Latin America the two forms remain semantically distinct.

Stopped Clock said...

Steve Wood: Yes. And Portuguese and French have added nasal vowels to the mix.

Anonymous said...

Lot of good linguistic knowledge in the comments here. Certainly better than Steve.

As a thought experiment, imagine what Cicero would say if you told him that your political platform consisted of "Hope," "Change," and "Yes, we can!"

Actually, this doesn't sound so different from Caesar's platform back in the big election of '60 BC. (Ask Broder.) True, Obama doesn't have the country's largest street gang rustling votes and roughing up McCain supporters but it's still only early afternoon here in America.

So yes, I think Cicero would have been agin' it.

Anonymous said...

To those who dismiss the study of language for utilitarian reasons, look back to the colonial era. Language-- "dead" language-- wasn't something added to the "educational mix", it was the very core. Those men were able to write a constitution; we can't even read one!

No one has mentioned the elephant, or rather camel, in the Spanish language-history room: seven centuries under the Arabs. Don't tell me that had no influence. Why are Hispanophones the only ones in Christendom who blasphemously name their sons "Jesus"? ("Joshua", a cognate of "Jesus", doesn't count.) It must've been those Mohammedans.

Spanish is not so weird in vowels, where it is close to Latin and Italian, as it is in consonants. Especially when you look at all the western Romance tongues, not just the major ones. Why the absence of the SH-, ZH- and occasionally J- sounds found in Italian, French, Provençal, Catalan, Galician, and even the odd Spanish dialect? (Drink any Xeres, i.e., sherry, lately?)

Danish indeed has the worst counting system in Europe. "Ninety-nine" is ni-og-halvfems, short for ni-og-halvfemsindstyve or "nine-and-half-the-fifth-score". And you're forced to use the long form in the ordinal-- ni-og-halvfemsindstyvinde-- "nine-and-half-the-fifth-score-th". Of course, 99 in Latin is "hundred-minus-one", so maybe they had the Danes beat there...

Anonymous said...

Can tone deaf people learn to understand spoken Mandarin?

Anonymous said...

Steve Wood: Turkish may be a good bet. To create the "weirdo" impact, that is. Try it. The Finno-Ugrian grammar will screw up your mental map for good :D

Here's a sample sentence:

Bence Türkçe öğrenmeyi denememelisiniz!

Let me parse that for you word by word:

- Ben-ce [Me-to: i.e. "according to me" which, I was taught, is not to be used in the first person, so we should use "in my opinion." Or was that advice for the second person?]
- Türkçe [predictable: "Turkish"]
- öğrenmeyi [learn-to: "to learn;" infinitive form: "öğrenmek"; accusative form: "öğrenme-y-i". Accusative is done with "i" but you need to add a "y" in between since we don't have multiple vowels appended together. A Turkish syllable has to be in one of these forms -- at least in theory: v-c-v, c-v-c, v-c, c-v.]
- denememelisiniz ["deneme": trial; "deneme-me": the last "me" is the negative inflection: "try not"; "deneme-me-li" "try not must"; "deneme-me-li-sin": "sin" is the second person informal: "try not must you"; "deneme-me-li-sin-iz": "iz" makes the second person formal.]

So, you're supposed to construct the English sentence...

In my opinion, you must not try to learn Turkish.


Me-according-to Turkish learn-to(accusative) try-not-must-you(formal).

How does that grab ya? Reads like some kinda John Cage "accidental music"-influenced avant-garde poetry, doesn't it? Or, as if someone decided to pull a prank on the future Turkic generations and rearranged whatever grammar was available in Central Asian steppes by coin-flipping.


P.S. Hungarian, if I'm not totally misinformed, is very close to this.

Anonymous said...

anon. said:

I think multilingualism is generally the virtue of a subject people.


The proper viewpoint is - not "How do we get our kids to learn Spanish/Mandarian/Farsi?" - but "Foreigners must speak English." (This has been the default and we're still coasting on its momentum in that foreigners themselves accept it, except for many Mexicans. But our recent "how do we change our children and people to accommodate others?" is a sign of cultural rot.) That said, a chunk of my hot youth was spent memorizing French poetry. Fun; plus it made certain girls look at me with new eyes.

Truth said...

"True, Obama doesn't have the country's largest street gang rustling votes and roughing up McCain supporters..."

(lol) no, that was Jeb Bush's department.


Anonymous said...

So you say learn Spanish because it is easy, and don't waste your time with Chinese because it is difficult? Actually, the opposite was true for me.

I have always found Chinese fascinating because so many things are done in different ways from English. For example, in English, we look up words in the dictionary according to alphabetical order. In Chinese there is a completely systematic way to look up words in the dictionary. In fact, there is one way if you know the writing but not the pronounciation, and another way if you know the pronunciation but not the writing. And there is one system for looking up words in a dictionary and another for an encyclopedia.

In English, we order things in outlines as 1. a. b. c. 2. a. b. c., etc. In Chinese, since there are no letters, how do they do it? It turns out the Chinese have special characters for a. b. c., etc. for use in outlines.

Have you ever seen a Chinese typwriter? It is quite a fascinating device. And the mechanical Chinese typewriter works on quite a different principle from the electronic one.

I found Chinese so fascinating that it motivated me to learn it. Eventually I could speak it somewhat fluently, although living in Taiwan for over two years helped. People even told me that my Chinese handwriting was indistinguishable from that of a native Chinese. (The trick is to write sloppy. If you write neatly, people will say that you write Chinese like a foreigner.)

I don't thing that we will ever encounter extraterrestrials in my lifetime, so, for me, learning Chinese was the next best thing.

I have also studied Japanese. Although my Japanese was never as good as my Chinese was, I could purchase a train ticket in Japan in Japanese with no problem, and the railway clerk was never "creeped out" hearing me speak Japanese. On a journey in Japan, I was sitting next to a man on a bus that I thought was Janapese, so I struck up a conversation with him in Japanese. When I asked him where he was from, and he said "Shanghai," we continued the conversation in Chinese.

On the other hand, I have never been able to make any progress in learning Spanish, because it is so simple, and therefore boring. Dispite being married to a Spanish-speaking woman, and dispite the advantage that speaking Spanish would give me at work, I still cannot even hold a simple conversation in Spanish. When my wife and I watch Spanish-language television, I have to have the English captioning on to understand what is being said.

Anonymous said...

And it's a tough language to learn, but they (Japeanese) aren't creeped out when we can speak it.

Yes, they are if you become fluent enough and emeshed into the culture.

henna gaijin

But the henna gaijin do not fit the mold -- they creep out the Japanese by acting too Japanese, even though they blatantly look like foreigners. Henna gaijin can speak Japanese, use chopsticks, eat natto with relish, know more about Buddhism and garden landscaping than most Japanese people, and even use the elevators correctly. They blur the distinction between gaijin and nihonjin, raising all sorts of the disquieting questions about what it really means to be Japanese. Surely it cannot be merely a question of physical appearance, now can it?

And the sad part is that someone who looks like a foreigner can never, ever become more than a henna gaijin...

Anonymous said...


Too bad for Obama that felons can't vote.

He'll have more than enough goofy white folks voting for him, though.

Maximilian said...

I've learned a handful of different languages, but I'm not really fluent in any of them (other than English) for the reason pointed out here: without the constant repetition of an environment of immersion, one quickly begins to forget the information.

Several commentors have suggested Latin, and I would like to point out that not only are all of their stated reasons valid, but that one can easily immerse oneself in Latin in the midst of your daily life by being a traditional Catholic.

I am much more fluent in Latin now than I was when I studied it 30 years ago, because now I read my Missal every day. Generally I can sight-read both the Old and the New Testament readings. The Gallican prayers that date from the Middle Ages, however, are much more difficult and usually require glancing over at the facing page of English translation.