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Linguistic Imperialism
April 10, 2012 4:18 AM   Subscribe

Is the English language becoming another factor of inequality? How English shaped the academic world? (pdf). Is this linguistic imperialism?
posted by - (63 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Word.
posted by Renoroc at 4:29 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just now?
posted by melt away at 4:31 AM on April 10, 2012


It wouldn't surprise me if there weren't a lot of people in the sciences who don't even know how to write complex technical jargon in their first languages languages. I mean, what's the German word for 'Eigenvector'? (Ist ein joke, ok?)
posted by delmoi at 4:33 AM on April 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


Esperanto la tempo venis.
posted by arcticseal at 4:42 AM on April 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


English is rapidly becoming a language of second-language speakers

This is very true. I was at a dinner party in London, and there were many nationalities around the table: Italian, Spanish, Brasilian, American, German, Dutch, English, Chinese, Russian, and Indian.

It struck that whilst English is the 'common-carrier' language so to speak, it's also spoken as a second-language by the majority of people as a functional language. What struck was the limited vocabularly utilised. Probably a Pareto thing… 80% of the words spoken were from a base 20% of the expansive vocabulary.

I think when people go for self-expression, they do so in their own language. They journal in their own language. They read literature in their own language.

A linguistic English mate said that is part of the brilliance and liability of the English language. It's open, and expandable. There's a base grammar, and then a dynamic vocabulary. As if it evolved to be a base language to enable global commerce.

The Chinese lady mentioned at a different time, she finds the result of simplified Mandarin to be double-edged. On one hand, it's much easier to learn. On the other hand, she said it has disconnected people now from their older, historic texts. She thinks that may have even been part of the intention.

Thus, as the link mentions 'simplified English', there would be the effect of less 'inequality' however that also disconnects the language from it's past.

These basic observations are at the limit of my cabilities, thus maybe someone else can offer greater insight as to what this all means. As a practiced American speaker and a fan of literature and writing, it's fascinating.

And it behoves to mention that not only is the vocabulary interesting, but also the capability to speak multiple languages and what that means for intelligence. A Spanish friend mentions that he finds his intelligence massively increasing as he becomes near-natively fluent in English. "The words, they become symbols. I can play with them. My mind is more… what's the word? Supple?" Indeed. And he takes great pride in reminding that Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the world.

As a monolingual chap, it's fascinating.
posted by nickrussell at 4:54 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Historical Lingua Francas: Latin, French, Spanish, German, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, and English.

When it happens by force, as in colonial schools that use the threat of violence to require indigenous populations to forgo their own language, I see the complaint. But the history of the world is the history of this push and pull between local dialect and lingua franca. It's particularly galling when the speakers of old imperial languages like Spanish or Arabic complain about the new imperial language.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:02 AM on April 10, 2012 [10 favorites]


A generation ago, fledgling mathematicians in Beijing or Tokyo would have had to learn German, French, English, and possibly Russian in order to participate in contemporary research. Now they only have to learn English. There are advantages to the current system.
posted by escabeche at 5:08 AM on April 10, 2012 [8 favorites]


Phillipson (2003, p. 81) documents the dangers of such domain loss in the Scandinavian countries: language atrophy can lead to communication failure ‘because any information for the general public in a democratic society has to be made available in a local language.'

This is laughable considering that English is a "local language" in Scandinavia. Very few educated people in Europe need to be spoon-fed in the "local language" anymore.
posted by three blind mice at 5:09 AM on April 10, 2012


> There are advantages to the current system.

Especially for those who speak English from the go.
posted by - at 5:10 AM on April 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


This article seems terribly foolish. I do not dispute that people are more felicitous in their native languages, and that by having English be the common tongue of international science, people whose native tongue isn't English may be disadvantaged in some respects. But it seems to me that the importance of the unfairness inherent in that pales in comparison to the importance of having a common language for international science. English-speaking scientists may be siloed off from discoveries in other discourse through their mono-lingualism, but to suggest as a remedy that scientists ought to be conversant in several other tongues --- something which requires years of study, time not doing science --- is insane. You can make a fair case that having a single tongue for intellectual discourse --- Latin, at the time --- when combined with the invention of the printing press, was one of the biggest factors in allowing medieval Europe to spark the scientific revolution and become modern Europe, in the process catching up and then surpassing the technological advancements of imperial China, which before then had been a considerably more advanced society, tech-wise.

This is the silliest thing I've read before breakfast in some time.
posted by Diablevert at 5:11 AM on April 10, 2012 [11 favorites]


I think a more accurate example of linguistic imperialism can be found during the regime of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, who solved the problems with multiple versions of written Chinese by just destroying all the texts written in anything except the Qin script.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:14 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


> English-speaking scientists may be siloed off from discoveries in other discourse through their mono-lingualism, but to suggest as a remedy that scientists ought to be conversant in several other tongues --- something which requires years of study, time not doing science --- is insane.

Non-English-speaking scientists have to do that.
posted by - at 5:17 AM on April 10, 2012 [7 favorites]


Until we all get Babelfishes in our brains, there's always going to be lingua francas, no? I suppose it would be more fair if it was Esperanto or Interlog or something, but even then there's major cultural biases at play. (Esperanto is completely European based, for example.)

I think a more accurate example of linguistic imperialism can be found during the regime of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, who solved the problems with multiple versions of written Chinese by just destroying all the texts written in anything except the Qin script.

Burying pesky scholars alive was also a favored pastime of ol' Qin.
posted by kmz at 5:18 AM on April 10, 2012


Delmoi, you are more or less right. Most of my European colleagues in neuroscience or machine vision prefer to write their research in English Rather than their native language. I will even look at their scrap paper where they jot down ideas just for themselves, and it's often in English if the subject is technical.

The issue is an interesting one, although I would prefer some actual social science over this, which amounts to the auther speculating at his desk. In particular, there is this attempt to implicitly accuse American and British research universities of being ranked overly highly compared to universities in non-English native countries. This is nonsense. The reasons are surely more complex than I know, but most of it comes down to funding and organization (as well as use of grad students). The same thing is also why Germany has more top tier science than Spain. The effects of a scientific lingua franca should be considered, but this is a pretty half assed attempt to do the topic justice.
posted by Schismatic at 5:19 AM on April 10, 2012


Non-English-speaking scientists have to do that.

So what's your solution then? Separate scientific spheres for every language? Google Translate?
posted by kmz at 5:21 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is an interesting topic, but I wasn't super crazy about the paper itself.

The three main suggestions from this paper seem to be 1) the use of simple English for scientific communication, 2) the use of a "neutral" language, e.g. Esperanto, and 3) having native English-speakers subsidize the education of non-English speakers.

The first suggestion might seem the most plausible at first, but unfortunately Basic English didn't really work in practice. The well-intentioned attempt to pare English down to something "simpler" often relied on irregular and idiomatic expressions which only English-speakers would recognize. It's pretty strange that this paper brings up Basic English, without also bringing up the reasons why Basic English never took off; I have found it's difficult to research Basic English at all without also finding out about its serious weaknesses.

Perhaps a more workable compromise would be to place a greater emphasis in the editing phase on making language as simple and clear as possible. While this is obviously already a goal in editing, there is always more work to be done.

The second suggestion is charitably described by the paper's author as "politically and socially unlikely[.]" The idea of a neutral language is well and good, but the dirty secret is that no one has actually come up with a language that is both workable and neutral. That the authors only went for the low-hanging fruit of Esperanto is indirect proof of how difficult the "neutral language" question is. Esperanto is highly Eurocentric in form and history, being no more easy to learn for non-native speakers of Indo-European languages than, say, Spanish. If anything, the choice of Esperanto as a "neutral" alternative to English would be even more Eurocentric than the primacy of English. At least with English, few have any romantic or ideological ideas about its place as a lingua franca; we know that it's developed as such for a variety of historical and market reasons. With Esperanto, on the other hand, we'd be saying that this Eurocentric mulligan stew would actually be a global and just solution to the problem at hand. It's the linguistic equivalent of "why can't the Jews and Palestinians solve their problems like good Christians."

The third suggestion may have ideological appeal for some, but the paper goes into no detail about how to work this subsidization. Without further argument, I cannot agree that it is the duty of the Anglophone sphere to subsidize English education in, say, China and Japan.

Perhaps a more workable compromise would be for institutions to place a much greater emphasis on translation. Language dominance may be less of a problem if the barriers are more porous.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:23 AM on April 10, 2012 [8 favorites]


There isn't much difficulty learning multiple languages provided, Diablevert, well provided you were born into an affluent family living in part of the world with many different languages spoken nearby.

I expect the stem cell work on alzheimer's disease to eventually let you rewind your brain's language center back to childhood and learn languages like a 10 year old.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:24 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think a more accurate example of linguistic imperialism can be found during the regime of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, who solved the problems with multiple versions of written Chinese by just destroying all the texts written in anything except the Qin script.
Just to make sure no one re-wrote the books also burried all the scholars. However, I don't really think this had anything to do with what character sets were used, he was removing various other ideologies.
posted by delmoi at 5:27 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is an effective method for simplifying English that avoid all the problems being discussed here : Add vowel accents that capture an "average" pronunciation, thus eliminating the worst spelling difficulties. If necessary, a couple consonants could receive accents as well. English would still posses a vastly larger vocabulary, but that's desirable.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:30 AM on April 10, 2012


My experience in math is that we haven't quite hit the point where English is the only necessary language. For one, what if you want to read Grothendieck's stuff? (Admittedly, math in French requires little to no knowledge of French.) That's sort of the cheater example, though. But I've read papers in French. I had a conversation recently where someone bemoaned not knowing German. That person has given talks in French and we all had to dust off rusty French skills to submit to a conference that wanted abstracts in English and French. You can likely get away with only English, but an extra language or two is desirable/useful. (Unfortunately for me, the second language of choice in my bit of math is French, not German, but c'est la vie.)
posted by hoyland at 5:30 AM on April 10, 2012


> 3) having native English-speakers subsidize the education of non-English speakers.

Where the author say so?!?

Here his suggestions:
.. I would suggest, editors of journals, organizers of conferences, and
other facilitators of scientific discourse might reconsider their own micro-version of
language policy, providing technical assistance to non-native English speakers using English,
urging tolerance on their audiences, encouraging language learning among the monolingual,
and making a systematic effort to include non-English-language material in their
bibliographies and citations.

posted by - at 5:32 AM on April 10, 2012


Where the author say so?!?

Right in the paper:

A third way is to set up a system of compensation (Van Parijs, 2003), whereby the native speakers of English actually subsidize the non-native speakers by assisting them in learning English (rather than profiting from them) and by covering the cost of rendering their texts into acceptable written English.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:37 AM on April 10, 2012


I think when people go for self-expression, they do so in their own language. They journal in their own language. They read literature in their own language.

Wrong.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:48 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


English is a very good language to use as a lingua franca and I'll tell you why.

Basic English grammar is very easy and basic words and simple to write and usually short. "My name is John." Romance languages have things like subject–adjective agreement (there may be another term, but I'm talking about—for instance in Spanish—gato negro vs. casa negra, respectively masculine and feminine nouns which take different conjugations of... lots of things, really, but in this case adjectives); many Asian languages have dizzying politeness levels and intensely intimidating writing scripts (English doesn't even have diacritical marks unless you work at The New Yorker). There are many grammatical concepts that you can leaf through or even skip completely if all you want to stick to is simple English.

But it gets even better. If you mess up the English grammar, you can almost always be understood. "I name is John." "Her dogs is white." "I want go dinner." Further, native English speakers are, thanks to the fact that English has been pervasive for a really long time now, used to listening to non-native speakers mangle pronunciation in countless ways. Here in Japan, if I mispronounce a single sound, people genuinely have no idea what I'm saying—even my teachers who are there to help me learn the language and are used to dealing with students like me. English has such a wide range of sounds that mispronounced words (normally!) only sound wrong instead of sounding like a different word.

What really amazes me about the language is that it goes way, way past all of this simplicity. English has what is arguably the largest vocabulary of any language on the planet, and even advanced words are used on at least a semi-regular basis in books, newspapers, and online. Casual speech is filled to the brim with idioms; words that shouldn't rhyme do and words that should rhyme don't; spelling is a challenge for native speakers; and verb tenses practically need to be learned on a case-by-case basis.

English is unique in that it is a world language with no regulating body, and this is of great benefit to the language, allowing it to rapidly change and shift according to the needs of its speakers. This causes strife within certain circles—you get professors and scholars arguing about Oxford commas, "they" as a singular third-person pronoun, the proper distinction between and definition of words, and countless other qualms they find.

I'm unabashedly and proudly in love with English and am constantly thankful that I speak it natively. I can travel nearly anywhere in the world and find English there, and I can naturally expect that if someone is studying a second language, it's mine. Friends of mine who are studying the language have asked me endless questions which I would never have even thought of, from "What does 'son of a bitch' mean?" to "What's the difference between 'because' and 'since'?" I have to temper my vocabulary around them, but that's easy enough, and afterwards I can pick up a novel or scholarly article and find a word that I've never seen before.

If English shouldn't be the "world language," I have no idea what could be better. I'm deeply opposed to the idea of replacing other languages with English, but I see no problem with having English be the common ground between everything else. It's unfair to everyone who doesn't learn it growing up, I'm well aware, but at this point it's already so entrenched everywhere that I feel like arguing against English is sort of like arguing against using paper and coins to represent currency—it's already done.
posted by reductiondesign at 5:49 AM on April 10, 2012 [17 favorites]


Basic English grammar is very easy and basic words and simple to write and usually short.

Bah.

Spanish is so easy even babies can learn it and you think it's difficult?
posted by MartinWisse at 5:56 AM on April 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'll just give my subjective view on this as a Canadian scientist in Germany.

Few people I know really complain about the dominance of English in science, because the emergence of a modern lingua franca is inevitable. Now of course, it's not inevitable that it was English, but at lot of Europeans I think would say that perhaps we were somewhat lucky that it was English. Of course, had German stayed in German, that would have left it easier for Germans, but English is a very flexible and adaptable language, which due to being the product of a clash of European languages, has a lot of the more esoteric (some might say beautiful) features of European languages rubbed away - noun genders, noun cases, verb agreement... all of these things require a bit more structure in every noun, which means developing new words is a bit more of an effort. In English, many words can readily be made into a verb, adjective, or noun just based on word order.

The important thing here is to put this in the context of academic literature, because what's missing from this discussion is that most English speakers can't read academic journals. Most complex English grammar isn't applied in academic writing, so the deep temporal structure of English grammar tends to be abandoned for dry, short statements - the sort of statements that English has purified to a very high degree and makes very easy to assemble. The complexity of journal articles comes actually from the dizzying array of technical words, words which are easily incorporated into English, but which are in fact no easier for a native English speaker to learn than any other European. I can certainly read English literature much more quickly than my fluent but non native friends, but when it comes to reading academic literature, the advantage is rubbed away to almost nothing.

Finally, the huge range of english language media means that your average European has been constantly exposed to english for a long time... and this is only increasing in intensity. Scandinavia is the most extreme example, I think. Non english speakers are the exception rather than the rule, and many point out that in Scandinavian countries English TV is subtitled rather than dubbed. And I don't hear people however sincerely complaining that they're worried that Swedish or Danish or Norwegian are going to disappear. If you're exposed to another language regularly and starting from a young age, it's really not a lot to ask people to learn it. I think it's primarily mono lingual English speakers who feel that learning another language is a big accomplishment. I've even seen Europeans, when counting the languages they speak, not counting English as, well, that's just obvious. Expecting that most people will learn a home language and an international language only seems like a big deal to the native speakers of the international language.
posted by Alex404 at 6:18 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


An awful lot of agreement and gender rules can be ignored in Spanish and French while still making yourself understood, reductiondesign. You'll certainly be understood if you write "Yo tengo 20 anos", even if giggles occur.

I'd argue that English handles more complex stuff like conditionals and subjunctive more robustly, but the basics are basics in anything.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:22 AM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just to make sure no one re-wrote the books also burried all the scholars. However, I don't really think this had anything to do with what character sets were used, he was removing various other ideologies.

He actually did both -- Qin Shi Huangdi was crazy for standards (as are many scientists) and he was willing to take extreme measures to see his standards in place. I imagine many academics would not be above burying a few colleagues if it meant getting acceptable standards, linguistic or otherwise, in place.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:42 AM on April 10, 2012


That'd definitely get us through this HTML/CSS/JS standardization mess faster.
posted by kmz at 6:45 AM on April 10, 2012


When I was in grad school (a long time ago) I had to pass written exams in scientific French and German (but we were allowed to use a dictionary!).

Also, there was a time (a long time ago) when French computer journals translated the key words into French. E.g. Si-ansi statements.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:46 AM on April 10, 2012


too bad english is a dyslexic language
posted by elpapacito at 6:48 AM on April 10, 2012


On a humanities related data point, my art school requires anyone going for an MA or PhD to attain fluency in German, Italian, or French, because a lot of the significant historical discussions were in those languages. I even asked if they'd accept other, more difficult languages like Japanese, they said absolutely not. I thought this was stupid since it excludes Asian languages and I spent a lot of effort learning Japanese, and was considering grad school to study Japanese art. It should be no surprise that there is is not very much scholarly work on Japanese art, written in English.

Oh well, no time to consider that. I have an appointment in 45 minutes with a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant recipient to see if I should do an MFA in his department.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:16 AM on April 10, 2012


Basic English grammar is very easy and basic words and simple to write and usually short. "My name is John." Romance languages have things like subject–adjective agreement

In some ways, things like noun gender and more obvious cases redundancies that should make it easier for a new speaker to communicate effectively. If you use cases to indicate objects, for example, you can communicate "Bob met Sally at the park" even if you get the word order wrong.

But it gets even better. If you mess up the English grammar, you can almost always be understood. "I name is John." "Her dogs is white." "I want go dinner."

The same is true in other languages. I expect that "Yo llama John," "Su perros blanco," and "Quero voy comida" could get the message across to a patient hispanohablante.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:25 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've always thought the advent of the type writer and later the keyboard predisposed all modern discourse to shift to languages with alphabets rather than kanji due to ease of input.

Also I've always thought the ease with which we do things like make google a verb has given english a helping hand as well.
posted by sourbrew at 7:31 AM on April 10, 2012


Further, native English speakers are, thanks to the fact that English has been pervasive for a really long time now, used to listening to non-native speakers mangle pronunciation in countless ways. Here in Japan, if I mispronounce a single sound, people genuinely have no idea what I'm saying.

Mmmm, have to disagree. Speaking as an American who just went to New Zealand for a few weeks, it's quite fresh in my mind that two native English speakers can have a very difficult time understanding each other.
posted by psoas at 8:12 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


English is great for many reasons, but ease of use is not one of them - at least, in written form.

My descriptivist, engineer-for-utility fantasy is that English will remain popular long enough for all the shitty, half-grammared foreign internet riters to homojenize spelling. At that point, it wil be eesy tue uze, however weerd the spelling ends up (versus current usage).

Other possibilities are the rise of Mandarin as a global language (1,000-character keyboards, yay), or Russian (what are there, 272 different declensions? I keed!). By 2100, what will the lingua franca be? I can't imagine the current computer-literate age moving towards accented or huge-alphabet languages...
posted by IAmBroom at 8:41 AM on April 10, 2012


English grammar=easy
English pronunciation=hard

For example in Spanish if you see the word spelled you should know how to pronounce it. Not so much with English.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 9:02 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are some myths in this thread about how English is somehow uniquely suited to being a lingua franca because of this characteristic or that characteristic. The truth is that it's not, and these are just reasons made up after the fact. There's nothing inherently good about the English language itself which makes it better for inter-language communication. The truth, should we want to admit it, is that English speaking people have had more money and more guns for longer than anybody else. Were it another language which had achieved dominance in this way, we would probably make up the same myths about that language.

A linguistic English mate said that is part of the brilliance and liability of the English language. It's open, and expandable. There's a base grammar, and then a dynamic vocabulary.

If your friend really is a linguist, they really need to go back to university. That's a terribly simplistic, and very wrong, thing to say about English. There's not one thing about the language itself which makes it "better" then another, not one. I doubt any other linguist would agree with his statement.

English has such a wide range of sounds that mispronounced words (normally!) only sound wrong instead of sounding like a different word.

That makes no sense, honestly. "English has a lot of sounds so is more forgiving to mispronunciation." What? So I guess languages with even more sounds are even more forgiving? Insert most vowels into the consonants "b*d" and you get a word: bad, bud, bid, bode, bored, baud, etc, etc. Indeed, most languages have homophones to some degree, making the argument about mispronunciations just weirdly beside the point. How do you think we know the difference between "horse" and "hoarse"?

What really amazes me about the language is that it goes way, way past all of this simplicity. English has what is arguably the largest vocabulary of any language on the planet, and even advanced words are used on at least a semi-regular basis in books, newspapers, and online.

Yet most speakers only use a fraction of those words, maybe 30,000 for a smart educated person? Besides, what is a word?

Any argument about the success of the English language that doesn't mention guns, money, and worldwide imperialism, isn't worth even considering.
posted by Jehan at 9:02 AM on April 10, 2012 [11 favorites]


I can't imagine the current computer-literate age moving towards accented or huge-alphabet languages...

Actually, the rise of computers has made character-based languages a lot more feasible. People type Chinese on ordinary QWERTY keyboards nowadays: they either use a phonetic system with predictive text, or complicated but very fast systems based on typing the character piece-by-piece. (Or they write into a tablet.) Before computers, typing and printing in Chinese or Japanese was ludicrously inconvenient, and if things had kept going it is very possible that character-based languages would have switched completely to phonetic systems. Now, it is so easy to type that some Chinese and Japanese people are actually forgetting how to write certain characters: they can read them, and type them, but not reproduce them on paper.

So, if China becomes the dominant world power like everyone is saying it will, it's easy to imagine Mandarin as an international language much like English. The script is hard to learn, but computers mitigate that (both phonetic typing and dictionary lookup). The grammar is relatively approachable (no verb conjugations, agreement, and many conjunctions, etc. are just dropped). Looking past the script, there are advantages as a scientific language: for example, technical words tend to be very simple and clear compared to English.

It would be interesting to hear from people who know more than me if this is possible. Is English now so entrenched that even if the US were to decline in power it would remain the lingua franca?
posted by vogon_poet at 9:15 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


For example in Spanish if you see the word spelled you should know how to pronounce it. Not so much with English.

This is definitely an issue, but it's a fixable one. English has an advantage in that it lacks a restrctive, protectionist governing body (as French and some other languages do), meaning that it's easy to add new words, borrow from other languages, and generally stretch it based on whatever your communicative need is.

However, English is really crummy when it comes to spelling. Not only are the rules arbitrary to the point of being stupid -- in some cases based on historically inaccurate etymologies (the fake-latinization of many Germanic words) -- but they often don't match the pronunciation, and particularly in academic contexts, people are picky about it. It's hard to be taken seriously in an English-language professional context if you can't spell "correctly," and unfortunately that requires a lot of brute-force memorization (or a really good spell checker, but that leaves you open to faux pas that expose the fact that you're relying on a spell checker). Or you have the reverse problem, where you get your vocabulary from texts and then mispronounce the words when you speak them.

This seems like an area where native English speakers, and people who have substantial English education as a result of privilege, could cut the rest of the world a break at very little personal cost. And over time, maybe we could break the prescriptivist strangehold over spelling, and get written and spoken English back into sync.

The stopgap solution, mentioned upthread, of adding vowel and a few consonant accents would go a long way. However, only if they're flexible and don't just add to the overhead of things-thou-must-memorize.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:16 AM on April 10, 2012


Or you have the reverse problem, where you get your vocabulary from texts and then mispronounce the words when you speak them.

When somebody makes a mistake like this, it's a sign that they read a lot and don't talk that much, and I take it as a mark of good character.
posted by vogon_poet at 9:20 AM on April 10, 2012 [11 favorites]


It's the stigma of the autodidact. Being self-taught has its disadvantages, but at least it shows interest in learning.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 9:27 AM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


On the other hand, it is possible to look up pronunciations in dictionaries.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 9:30 AM on April 10, 2012


This is definitely an issue, but it's a fixable one. English has an advantage in that it lacks a restrctive, protectionist governing body (as French and some other languages do), meaning that it's easy to add new words, borrow from other languages, and generally stretch it based on whatever your communicative need is.

The presence of such a body doesn't stop this happening. French has many loanwords despite the Académie française. And besides, that body still proposes new words for things, just not ones borrowed from English.
posted by Jehan at 9:38 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was at a spider conference recently in Colombia, and at a meeting, the organisers of the conference proposed that the Spanish/Portuguese speaking countries should have their own journal in order to submit articles written in Spanish or Portuguese, because the need to publish in English is a major constraint in these parts. There was a flurry of enthusiasm, but then the consensus was that if you want to publish such that the whole world gets to read what you have written, then it makes no sense to publish in a journal that deliberately blocks access. So despite the huge annoyance of having to write in a foreign language, it still is better for your career. The other problem is that people tend to cite only what they can read, and so unless the researcher can read or is willing to wade through a paper written in a different language, papers published in non-english journals will simply not get cited.
posted by dhruva at 10:09 AM on April 10, 2012


yes, English monolingualism is part of the problem.
posted by - at 10:12 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I go to school in the sciences and work around a bunch of international grad students. I was asking a guy from India how many languages he could speak, and he said four. Hindi, Bengali, a specific dialect, and then English--so basically, India's official language, his lingua franca, and then English. I was like shit, well, when did you start learning English? And it's basically from birth. Learning English isn't like learning Spanish or Russian or Japanese in the US, where you pick a language that sounds kind of cool and you might start it in high school but most likely in college. English is considered mandatory for your future success in life and thus you start learning it as soon as you're humanly able. And this is not limited to India either. If that ain't cultural imperialism, I dunno what is.

As for how universal it is, I've heard enough non-native speakers complain about English that I am hesitant to trust native speakers who claim it's totally awesome.
posted by schroedinger at 10:34 AM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Yo llama John"

You don't use the pronouns in Spanish right? I think that makes it harder since there isn't a subject and verb to disagree, just a verb.
posted by smackfu at 10:53 AM on April 10, 2012


You don't use the pronouns in Spanish right?

One can use pronouns. Of course I've never taken a spanish class, but just learned by living in a latino country so anyone correct me if I am wrong. Pronouns can in some cases be omitted because one already knows the who or what the pronoun is because of the verb conjugation. There is no rule against using pronouns as far as I am aware but oftentimes they are omitted for brevity.

por examplo:

Yo tengo dos perros. = Tengo dos perros.

Tu tienes dos perros. = Tienes dos perros.

and so on...how you conjugate the verb depends on who or what your subject is.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 11:28 AM on April 10, 2012


Any argument about the success of the English language that doesn't mention guns, money, and worldwide imperialism, isn't worth even considering.

Sure, but there's a difference between the success of English, and its success. Obviously the rise of English had nothing to do any special qualities it may or may not have, and everything to do with the reasons you listed.

On the other hand, it can be fun to speculate about its effectiveness in this new role post hoc, and it's not necessarily disingenuous to do so.

Were it another language which had achieved dominance in this way, we would probably make up the same myths about that language.

This is another good point, and certainly mostly true. And having spoken to many people of many different language backgrounds it's true that most people people believe that they're language is especially cool and complex. When people start seriously trying to talk about one language being better than another, I usually get pretty bored pretty quickly.

That doesn't mean however that languages can't be evaluated at all. I learned recently from a book seller than in comparing German/English editions of a book, the German is on average about 20% longer. That's pretty significant, and interesting to think about. Does that mean that Germans communicate more slowly than English speakers, or that English is somehow simply less clear?

And again, being speculative, from what I can tell, French pronuncation can be understood as dropping off many of the last syllables of words, at least compared to the latin roots. So French seems like it should allow people to speak more quickly than in Spanish. Do French people communicate more quickly than Spanish people, or do Spanish people make it up by speaking so insanely quickly?

It's very important to be careful around these debates as they invite many kinds of ignorance. On the other hand it doesn't mean they're necessarily misguided and not worth having. And to be honest, I find it pretty fascinating to discuss how the differences between languages (even ones as similar as European ones) influence how people use them. Maybe it will be the burden of those native speakers of the international language to accept that although they can communicate directly and effectively with anyone, they lack a richness and a depth that other languages have due to having served practicality so long. This last statement is pure fluff, but again, kind of fun to think about.
posted by Alex404 at 11:42 AM on April 10, 2012


On a side note, is my PDF reader broken, or was that the worst typeset paper ever?
posted by benito.strauss at 11:49 AM on April 10, 2012


I think monolingual English-speaking scientists are actually at a disadvantage compared to their bilingual colleagues, depending on when those colleagues learned their second language-- whatever it may be.

I believe we're on the verge of finding out that the brain, in the normal (monolingual) course of development, prunes away some neurons associated with learning language, as opposed to speaking it, for reasons of metabolic economy, among others, during a critical period, but that the pruning largely goes by the wayside if it's necessary to learn a second language immediately after the first (or even simultaneously with the first, because that seems to take longer), and that the pruning is greatly reduced in that circumstance because the critical period for it has passed, though there may be echoes of it later (e. g., JS Mill's nervous breakdown, perhaps).

In other words, a bilingual twin would tend to be smarter as an adult than an identical monolingual sib.
posted by jamjam at 1:15 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Does that mean that Germans communicate more slowly than English speakers, or that English is somehow simply less clear?

No. The length of text is not really a good metric for anything other than the length of text. There are just so many factors that contribute to it. Also, "less clear" is nearly impossible to define in a meaningful way.

So French seems like it should allow people to speak more quickly than in Spanish.

Jumping to that conclusion because French has undergone a lot of word-final elisions is too hasty.

There have been some studies on the rate of information transmission in different languages - using very crude metrics for information. There isn't as much variation as you might expect. Significant variation is as far as I know still elusive.

Seriously, it's "kind of fun to think about" linguistics in the same way "it's kind of fun to think about" psychology. Both are fields were lay speculation is rampant due to everyone feeling like they have an intuitive grasp of what's going on, but when you try to apply rigor, those intuitions often just fall apart. In particular, discussing how the differences in language affect how people use them is a dangerous path to go down if you aren't well-versed in the subject, because the varying flavors of linguistic determinism all have a really appealing truthiness but are not all equally well-supported. I'm even wary of talking about it myself, as someone who's heading into a linguistics PhD program soon, because I'm aware of how controversial and tricksy the area is.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:19 PM on April 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


"English-speaking scientists may be siloed off from discoveries in other discourse through their mono-lingualism, but to suggest as a remedy that scientists ought to be conversant in several other tongues --- something which requires years of study, time not doing science --- is insane."

Non-English-speaking scientists have to do that.


The earlier comment meant that the alternative to a lingua franca is for everyone to learn everyone else's language. Right now a lot of people don't have to learn a foreign language at all and the non-native English speakers only have to learn English. That's way more efficient than everyone learning English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, Japanese, etc, or whatever subset is useful in their field, which is probably at least two or three of those.

There's always going to be a lingua franca, and at this point the only way English will be displaced is either naturally (likely a very long process) or by more linguistic imperialism.
posted by jedicus at 4:29 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Both are fields were lay speculation is rampant due to everyone feeling like they have an intuitive grasp of what's going on, but when you try to apply rigor, those intuitions often just fall apart.

Well fair enough. It's good to have my musings picked apart by people who understand this stuff better than I. And I certainly wasn't trying to actually say anything rigorous with my claims - I truly don't believe of any language x that it is more effecient than language y, in the very least due to problems of definition. It's cool to hear though that people have tried to model this problem.

Still, I'm not actually convinced that a lack of rigour should dispel discussion about a topic, which was essentially my point. Despite, for example, the advances of psychology over the 20th century, it can still be the case that a laymen can have a deeper understanding of human psychology in a more general sense than what the scientific method is able to provide at this point. And I would think as well, that someone, perhaps a skilled translator of literature let's say - someone who's deeply in tune with two languages in a way that few people know - I would think that such a person would be capable of insight and intuition about language in a way that wouldn't produce any articles in whatever journal of linguistics, but would still be deeply interesting and informative.

And man would I enjoy the discussions between that person and a whip smart linguist.
posted by Alex404 at 5:15 PM on April 10, 2012


The best part of that video is when the terminally British fellow does his best James William Bottomtooth III impersonation. Hmmm…hmmm…hmmm… yeeeeesssss.
posted by readyfreddy at 1:17 AM on April 11, 2012


There are some myths in this thread about how English is somehow uniquely suited to being a lingua franca because of this characteristic or that characteristic.

These aren't myths. English is uniquely suited to being the lingua franca- it's just that it got most of those characteristics from being so dominant. If some other language become dominant, it would take on new charactericts that would make it better suited to it's new role as de facto English language.

So, yes, any language could eventually evolve in ways to make useful in the way English is now. That doesn't mean English isn't, right now, best suited for it.
posted by spaltavian at 7:13 AM on April 11, 2012


Still, I'm not actually convinced that a lack of rigour should dispel discussion about a topic, which was essentially my point.

The problem that I was attempting to point out is that a lot of intuitions about language are, in fact, wrong. Use your own speculations as an example: German text is longer, so German specifies more information than English. (I know you were just asking, rather than claiming it to be true, but most laymen are not so cautious.)

It's not just "we can't prove that's true"; it's "to the best of our knowledge, that's false."

Every single one of us has a lot of experience with language. Whether we speak one language or five, we are masters of a linguistic system. And everyone of us has a brain also - at least I hope so. However, we use these systems unconsciously; it's part of their design that we are just not aware of how they work most of the time.

Yes, someone who makes their living off language, like a translator, who has been trained to be aware of specific kinds of issues, may have useful insights or intuitions about those issues. But, without linguistic training, the track record for making statements about linguistics is pretty poor. Being extremely literate, even in more than one language, is a different direction of expertise and it only sometimes intersects with linguistics.

Similarly, a woman who has three daughters might have "insight and intuition" about the psychology of women, but the track record for lay speculation about the psychological basis of gender differences is pretty poor, and leans heavily towards ideas that have a "truthiness" to them rather than an actual truth.

By all means, continue to discuss language, to learn about it - just be aware that if you feel, intuitively, that something is true, it's likely not to be true at all. These are extremely complicated systems that are opaque to their users, and attempts to describe them by their users are often wrong. Just look at the legion of expert writers who deride the "passive voice" without actually knowing what the passive voice is. Conscious knowledge is not required to use the language well.

As a side note, a lot of the popular ideas in lay speculation about language (and psychology!) are things that linguistics (and psychologists!) have investigated. Early linguistics, for example, is full of poorly supported speculation about the link between language and what we do with it (or should do with it). It's not that we have just decided it's not worth talking about because lay people came up with it; it's because that's where we started, and we discovered that a lot of these ideas just didn't hold up.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:05 AM on April 11, 2012


These aren't myths. English is uniquely suited to being the lingua franca- it's just that it got most of those characteristics from being so dominant. If some other language become dominant, it would take on new charactericts that would make it better suited to it's new role as de facto English language.

spaltavian, you're going to have to back that opinion up with concrete facts...

Keep in mind that some of the arguments that could be about English would be true of any language which became a lingua franca.

German words in Late Classical Latin? Check.

Ability to adopt foreign words for their own usage? Mandarin has near-homophones for most US cities in their language: Washington becomes /wa-shi-dun/, for instance.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:22 PM on April 11, 2012


Oh, FFS. Another formatting messup that could have been fixed with an editing window...
posted by IAmBroom at 1:27 PM on April 11, 2012


IAmBroom,

Keep in mind that some of the arguments that could be about English would be true of any language which became a lingua franca.

That was basically my point. I'm not saying English is inherently a better at being the de facto world language, I'm saying it acquired those traits from being dominant for so long.

Any language can adopt foreign words, but it will happen a lot faster if the people who speak that language control around a third of the globe. More importantly, other languages will adopt your words in such a scenario.

English is a better lingua franca because it's used as such- it evolves in ways with that use in mind. There's no reason, say, Basque couldn't do this in theory, but it doesn't because it isn't used that way.
posted by spaltavian at 1:49 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


By all means, continue to discuss language, to learn about it - just be aware that if you feel, intuitively, that something is true, it's likely not to be true at all. These are extremely complicated systems that are opaque to their users, and attempts to describe them by their users are often wrong.

I'd love to argue with you about some of your other points, but I'll simply say instead that I find the above statement to be very correct.
posted by Alex404 at 2:01 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


spaltavian, in that case: we agree completely.

English has been honed by its position as lingua franca into a better lingua franca. L'Academie Francaise may not like what pidjin was doing to French in the colonies, but that process was similar; English had the advantage (from this POV) of unregulated growth.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:02 AM on April 12, 2012


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