Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 3, 2006
By: Debra Dickerson

What nerds dream about....The Washington Post tells of a groovy new national push to systematically promote and support learning foreign languages. Useful ones like Mandarin and Russian, vice French (neuf useless years pour moi. Sigh.) and German (Spanish, with its three million students, is the most taught language in America so we got that covered). In response to incentives from the College Board, the DOD and Congress, schools have rushed to teach Mandarin Chinese, the most widely spoken language on Earth, in immersion style programs that take kids from kindergarten through college and on into the new world economy in which China is certain to be a global super power. It might behoove us not to have to rely on translators when multimillion dollar deals are going down.

I spoze the usual suspects will, ahem, take umbrage at having any government, especially DOD, role in civilian, liberal artsy affairs but as long as participation in the program remains voluntary, works for me. The X Files notwithstanding, one can only hope that many of the graduates of these programs will indeed go on to contribute to DOD, as well as economic and diplomatic, efforts. (Full disclosure: I was a DOD-trained Korean linguist for about half of the twelve years I spent on active duty, so, ok, I'm biased.)

I would argue, however, that given the holistic nature of the program on offer, it's anybody's guess as to how these programs' graduates will use their training:

"In the Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee is considering a proposal to allocate $1.3 billion to boost classes on Chinese language and culture in public schools, and China, too, is doing its part, said Michael Levine, education director at the Asia Society in New York City. China's education ministry has formed partnerships with states including Kentucky and Kansas, as well as Brazil, Australia and Britain, to boost teacher exchanges and training."

That'll make the world smaller, won't it? I was taught by civilian native speakers on an Army post (I was USAF tho) and plied my tradecraft on military installations in ways purely antagonistic to the country I studied. Fortunately, I got to spend two years in Korea and become truly fluent (if largely illiterate) but most military linguists never get to set foot in the country of the language they studied: you'd lose your clearance, and end up in the brig, for using your Serbo-Croatian, Chinese or Rumanian in its country of origin. Many of these grads will probably opt to live and work in China, do export/import stuff or simply become Chinese teachers. Er, teachers of Chinese. In any event, only good can come of such a program. I'm reading The Black West right now, which chronicles the role of blacks on the frontier. I'm blown away by how often blacks, free and slave, excelled as cowboys, scouts, diplomats and very, very frequently as interpreters. It's nothing to run across blacks on expeditions who spoke several European languages (having traveled with their owners or employers for years at a time) and several Indian ones as well. Apparently, learning languages, especially 'savage' ones, was considered lowly. Weird how oppressed and yet how much a part of things they were. More, they were often running things whites routinely deferred to them in negotiations with Indians, for instance due to the disciplines, like language learning, that they mastered.

So, a good thing for everyone but my poor kids. It will take an act of Congress to keep me from forcing them into this program. What geek worth her salt could resist this nerdery:

In September, most of Yen's 24 students could not speak a word of Mandarin, one of the most difficult languages to learn. But three months later, the students were singing songs in Mandarin, laboriously printing Chinese characters and following Yen's instructions, delivered in Mandarin, with no need for any English translation. They jumped up to imitate trees, mountains and frogs at her command.

So what if they're too geeky to have friends once I'm done with them. They'll have Chinese.

Debra Dickerson 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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Comments

Foreign language training is not just a way to get around the world with a different language. It is also an exercise in thinking differently. Language immersion is useful in learning the forreign language, but it is also useful in learning one's own language better, in thinking logically, grammatically, and in learning new ways to look at old issues. The US is woefully behind the rest of the developed world in learning that lesson.

Posted by: Chris on January 3, 2006 at 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

My understanding is that English is the most widely spoken language, while Mandarin (far and away) is the most common native language. My info may be stale though.

Posted by: MarkR on January 3, 2006 at 10:32 AM | PERMALINK

My kids went (one still goes there, other graduated) to a public high school in Orange County, CA, where Mandarin is one of the World Languages options. One of the feeder middle schools to that high school also teaches it.

Interestingly, though the school has a large Chinese population, very few Chinese kids take the Mandarin class. Those who are learning Chinese usually are taking Saturday classes elsewhere.

Posted by: G. Jones on January 3, 2006 at 10:32 AM | PERMALINK

A "DOD-trained Korean linguist"???

Gee, like from DLI in Monterey?

Funny how many of us on the left of things actually have a real military background that always seems to be absent from the cheering crowd on the right...

I spent 13 of my 14 years in the Air Force as a DOD-trained Russian linguist!

FYI - I left the service in 1986. Currently a bunch of my ex-service buddies from an airborne assignment in England are planning a reunion, and it was interesting to discover how many were forced to cross-train in the '90s to other languages. Even more interesting to hear how those still in are being retrained yet again to MidEast tongues. Finally and most interesting - at least two of them now have grown kids going through DLI, learning Arabic, Farsi, Pashtun, etc., but who are having serious problems with Army NCOs in the classes who have come back from Iraq and are having serious, shall we say, adjustment problems. One of the ex-service buddies who is actually working at DLI now indicated they Army is aware that they have a growing problem with returning troops, with PTSD, which in many cases is being expressed as harassment of junior enlisted troops...

And they complained Clinton was hurting the military! HA!

Posted by: Zoomie on January 3, 2006 at 10:35 AM | PERMALINK

They're recruiting spies. If the goal here isn't to facilitate screwing China in a hundred ways I'd be very surprised. Somebody has to translate all those NSA intercepts. Oh, and once you're fluent and decide not to join in the effort you're a traitor and ungrateful for all Pere Nation has given you. It will be so noted on your Permanent Record..............

Posted by: steve duncan on January 3, 2006 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

I spoze learning Chinese would allow someone to corrupt two languages, not just one's native tongue. I spoze anyone typing on the internet is just too darned busy to add the few extra letters to a word that would make one sound literate enough to post anything worth reading on a topic. I spoze a woman posting needs to add cute little corruptions to prevent anyone from thinking she might be too serious to be a sexy little bubblehead. Why do you self-present this way? Why not go whole hog and eliminate capitalization too?

Posted by: Nancy on January 3, 2006 at 10:40 AM | PERMALINK

Ya know it's going to take a while before the planet can speak english so in the mean time I can definitely see and support the usefulness of such an effort.

Posted by: Lurker42 on January 3, 2006 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK

The way things are going,I think everyone will be speaking New-Speak!

Posted by: R.L. on January 3, 2006 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

Gee, it would sure seem like arabic should be pretty high on the priority list for teaching and learning...

Posted by: Todd on January 3, 2006 at 10:56 AM | PERMALINK

"I spoze learning Chinese would allow someone to corrupt two languages, not just one's native tongue. I spoze anyone typing on the internet is just too darned busy to add the few extra letters to a word that would make one sound literate enough to post anything worth reading on a topic. I spoze a woman posting needs to add cute little corruptions to prevent anyone from thinking she might be too serious to be a sexy little bubblehead. Why do you self-present this way? Why not go whole hog and eliminate capitalization too?"
Posted by: Nancy on January 3, 2006 at 10:40 AM

Or I spoze we could sit around worrying about meaningless bullcrap. I understood the topic perfectly. So did you. The point was communicated and received. That is all that matters.
I get a kick out of those who support creativity but only if it is on their terms. Creativity using the english language IS NOT ALLOWED!!!!!!!

Debra, Ya done good. Don't listen to the nit pickers.

Posted by: Lurker42 on January 3, 2006 at 11:00 AM | PERMALINK

Well, last figure I heard had something like 300 million Chinese studying English so I think they're off to a bit of a headstart here. But more Americans speaking other languages? Nothing but good can come of this. Course they won't be listened to by their fellow Americans...

Posted by: snicker-snack on January 3, 2006 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

Mandarin?

Hindi.

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on January 3, 2006 at 11:04 AM | PERMALINK

Posted by: Nancy on January 3, 2006 at 10:40 AM


let us know how that operation goes--y'know, the one to remove the broomstick from your ass.

that's right, I didn't capitalize. fuck you.

Posted by: haha on January 3, 2006 at 11:04 AM | PERMALINK

I take umbrage at the implication that learning foreign languages, especially difficult Asian languages, is geeky.

Calling in depth knowledge geeky is a perverse reverence for stupidity.

Posted by: nate on January 3, 2006 at 11:16 AM | PERMALINK

In defense of nit-picking: took me at least a heart-beat to figure out "spoze". Not sure how many readers there are here, but collectively this usage might have consumed over a day of their time, or in any event way way more than it would have taken the author to spell normally or even just use an apostrophe (s'pose). That's a valid piece of constructive feedback for a new blogger -- consider that what you write might be read 100,000 times. How many people here have been annoyed at Mark Kleiman's careless spelling?

Of course, perhaps this time spent (by the readers parsing spoze) was enriching and worthwhile. And I certainly don't countenance the tone of the original critical comment.

Posted by: anon on January 3, 2006 at 11:17 AM | PERMALINK

"In the Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee is considering a proposal to allocate $1.3 billion to boost classes on Chinese language and culture in public schools..."

Do you think they could spare any of that for developing and sponsoring free online courses?

Posted by: Emma Zahn on January 3, 2006 at 11:18 AM | PERMALINK

The real need is to start foreign language in Elementary school. This was proposed in the district my mother taught in until last spring (in Tennessee) where the average per pupil spending is less than $6K. It was decided there wasn't enough money to recruit language teachers and so the idea was scrapped. I would hope more federal money would go toward immersion programs or other language options in the elementary grades for poorer states and regions. Districts in Northern Virginia and Maryland have started language programs earlier. If there isn't something done to shore up these regional inequities, the divide between the states will only increase.

Posted by: DC1974 on January 3, 2006 at 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

I can't help but think wistfully of the promise of Esperanto, the simplest approach to international communication and one that doesn't require an (expensive) army of translators and interpreters. So it goes.

Posted by: LeisureGuy on January 3, 2006 at 11:21 AM | PERMALINK

Debra, even if they don't have any friends, they'll be able to make about a billion.

Posted by: TJ on January 3, 2006 at 11:29 AM | PERMALINK

"Calling in depth knowledge geeky is a perverse reverence for stupidity.
Posted by: nate on January 3, 2006 at 11:16 AM"

When I think of "geeky" I think of a type of person or their actions.
I've never considered that the knowledge its' self obtained by geeks was geeky.

Posted by: Lurker42 on January 3, 2006 at 11:31 AM | PERMALINK

Learning one (or more) foreigh languages is definitely worth doing, but trying to project out 10-20 years to what's going to be the truly useful languages of the future is not always going to be accurate.

I recall back in the 80s, it was the Japanese who were going to be the next superpower and that Japanese was touted as "the" language to learn. My high school offered Russian as one of our choices, which was considered the geeky language of the day.

In shot, learn Mandarin in school if you like, but don't assume that it's a sure ticket to success. World events may prove that learning Hindu would have been a better choice.

Posted by: fiat lux on January 3, 2006 at 11:34 AM | PERMALINK

re: Nancy

Are you familiar with the work of James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon, or perchance even Mark Twain or Eugene O'Neill? You know, those illiterate dunderheads who corrupted the English language by injecting dialect into literature? No?

It's funny how the people most eager to pick grammatical nits are often the ones with the least understanding of content and style.

Debra's shtick can be a bit distracting, at times, but it's hardly a sign of carelessness or lack of intellect.

Anyway, as for the actual subject, I think the low priority placed upon developing and retaining fluent and fully-immersed translators in Middle Eastern languages prior to 9/11 is one of the great, glaring underreported stories of our time. After over a decade of misplaced focus on big-ticket weaponry designed to profit the defense industry and fight a superpower enemy that no longer existed, don't-ask-don't-tell purges, and a cold war with academic scholars of Middle Eastern languages and cultures, our intel community was completely out to lunch.

You've got to hand it to the Bush Administration, though. Trying to make up for years of intelligence failures by launching a massive illegal domestic spying operation that will have difficulty netting any terrorists who don't politely speak English and avoid the use of codes or couriers... that is truly a stroke of genius.

Posted by: Violet on January 3, 2006 at 11:39 AM | PERMALINK

I lived in Germany in the 70s and the German kids had to take English. I think that is a damn good idea to learn another language, it helps get all kinds of employement.
And why can't a language specialist go to the same country as the language he speaks?

Posted by: merlallen on January 3, 2006 at 11:40 AM | PERMALINK

World events may prove that learning Hindu would have been a better choice.

May well be so but not if you're doing business in Bangalore or Tamil Nadu :)

(Given the rivalries between India's many languages the language of the Hindustani Times is perhaps the safest)

Posted by: snicker-snack on January 3, 2006 at 11:53 AM | PERMALINK

Our local elementary school has a Chinese immersion program. We are going to try and get our twins into it, but there only a minority of kids that apply are accepted. It is hugely popular.

Not sure what we are going to do if only one of the twins is accepted.

Posted by: Simp on January 3, 2006 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK
I spoze a woman posting needs to add cute little corruptions… Posted by: Nancy
You are absolutely correct. Illiterate and sloppy grammar is a sign of sloppy thinking. Such colloquialisms belong in quoted dialogue. They are off-putting in what is supposed to be a serious topic of discussion.
Are you familiar with the work of James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon... You know, those illiterate dunderheads who corrupted the English language...Posted by: Violet
Do you discuss those works using their own unique grammar in conversation or in the classroom, or does you use Standard English? From Finnegans Wake: You phonio saxo? Nunn. Clear all so! 'Tis a Jute. Posted by: Mike on January 3, 2006 at 12:05 PM | PERMALINK

Three appointments canceled at work today so I'm looking at all kinds of stuff on the web. I just read your article "Who Shot Johnny" and want to tell you I've not been so moved by a piece of literature in many years. Then I come back to this posting and see that you intend to have kids as a single woman?? What happens to your son when he's 16, hanging with the other 60 to 80 percent of black kids that don't have a full time father ii their life, and picks up his own gun. Please don't be part of the problem, or if you've already had the kids, why don't you write a piece about what this is doing to the black community.

Posted by: wks on January 3, 2006 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

obviously learning something other than english is good.. why not pick something unique (in the US) if you want your kids to care, though, gotta figure out a way to make them want to know mandarin. maybe take them there? "important job skill" just doesn't register until the prime language learning years are up. Also, i wonder. I can get by with french...i took years of it. Isn't chinese difficult. Could your average US student's level of effort ever result in anything useable?
theunderpantsgnome

Posted by: radicalbright on January 3, 2006 at 12:09 PM | PERMALINK

One reason why Americans are so unlikely to learn and retain other languages is that we have fewer opportunities to use them and retain skill. Spanish is, of course, the exception but our kids learn Spanish from the beginning and most lose it by college.

My eldest daughter was in business school in the late 80s and I suggested she learn Mandarin as China was going to be important and is much less sexist than Japan. She ignored me (not unusual).

Now she's an FBI agent and they are encouraging them to learn Arabic. She is thinking about it but learning Arabic will lock her into anti-terrorism for the rest of her career. The FBI is a bureaucracy and, like many such, tends to lock "specialists" into a low career track. It isn't highly rewarded.

The academic middle east studies programs have been unwilling to cooperate in training linguists and military officers in the culture studies they need. The military should have many more graduate degrees in that area but the universities have been hostile to DoD for years.

Posted by: Mike K on January 3, 2006 at 12:15 PM | PERMALINK

Fans of the "Firefly" series and the movie "Serenity" know that in this hypothetical future, the characters slip easily between English and Chinese. The future is soon.

Posted by: Mark P. on January 3, 2006 at 12:18 PM | PERMALINK

I studied Chinese on a National Defence Language Fellow for a couple of years in the early 1970s (after my Army tour in Stabilty Operations) and never heard from them again. Does this mean they're going to call me now?

Posted by: TheMandarin on January 3, 2006 at 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

There's a bilingual Mandarin-English school in my town, Oakland, but it's downtown in Chinatown, and only Chinese kids go to it. Part of me wants to send my white 4 year old there so he can become fluent - but I don't want to drive him to school that far every day, and I don't know if the system is set up to let non-Chinese kids in who want to learn. I'll have to consider this more.

Posted by: Leila on January 3, 2006 at 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

This is coincidental because I was just thinking about how important the Chinese language is bound to become. Has anyone had any success learning chinese in a non-professional setting? Possibly a piece of software/CD's/class they thought was useful?

I have never picked up languages particularly well but would like to think there is still hope for me at the ripe old age of 27.

Posted by: lakema on January 3, 2006 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

Just waiting for the Chinese spammer to hit this thread. For once it will be somewhat fitting.

Posted by: snicker-snack on January 3, 2006 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

"This is coincidental because I was just thinking about how important the Chinese language is bound to become. Has anyone had any success learning chinese in a non-professional setting? Possibly a piece of software/CD's/class they thought was useful?"

I took a Mandarin class at a local junior college with another of my daughters. The teacher had written the textbook on the written language and had made tapes that were required for practice.

We didn't finish the class as my daughter was also attending UCLA and the commute was too tough. I still have the materials and plan to try again. Most class members were business people who traveled to China frequently.

Since I didn't finish, I can't comment on success but she used immersion from the first night and seemed pretty competent.

Posted by: Mike K on January 3, 2006 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

Is "vice French" something you use to speak to Parisian hookers?

Posted by: tom on January 3, 2006 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

you'd lose your clearance, and end up in the brig, for using your Serbo-Croatian, Chinese or Rumanian in its country of origin.

Is this for real? Are these people insane? The mere fact of visiting a non-allied country and daring to speak to locals loses you your security clearance?

No wonder US intel has been so spectacularly ineffective at predicting any of the major foreign events of the last 25 years. The idea that DoD has been pulling policymaking authority away from State over the past 5 years, when the DoD folks aren't even allowed to talk to foreigners...

America is willfully shoving its head farther and farther up its ass and wondering why it keeps getting darker in here.

Posted by: brooksfoe on January 3, 2006 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

And, for those who are wondering, as a speaker of Russian, Vietnamese, Dutch, French, and Hebrew, I can testify that it is not possible to learn Mandarin on your lunch break. Dutch, yes; Mandarin, no. Sorry 'bout that.

Posted by: brooksfoe on January 3, 2006 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

Mandarin is fine, but Spanish is obvious.

It is incredible - dowright weird - that bilingualism has meant segregatng Spanish speaking students off into some ghetto rather than teaching English-speaking students Spanish.

Posted by: Thinker on January 3, 2006 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

But see, if we learned Spanish, that might imply that we actually inhabited the same continent as Mexico. Which would have all kinds of negative implications.

Posted by: brooksfoe on January 3, 2006 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK

Excellent. Thank you for this, and let's hope this program really takes hold!

Posted by: chuck on January 3, 2006 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

Chris (first commenter) made an excellent point, about getting one to thinking differently. I'll also mention that once you're fluent in a second (non-native) language, learning additional languages becomes pretty easy.

I took French and Russian in high school, but never got to any fluency on either of them (traditional classes). As soon as I no longer needed them for the course, everything I learned disappeared into some dusty and inaccessible archival storage in my mind.

In the mid-80's, I started working with French companies, and had to spend a couple of weeks at a time in France working with the developers. Initially, they translated for me, but after a few days of listening to them discuss a technical subject that I knew very well (and tech-speak when you're working on a specific project tends to be a much smaller and simpler subset of the language), I no longer needed a translator. By the end of my first two-week trip, I was "walking around fluent," which means I could listen and respond in the technical discussions and general day-to-day functions without having to "buffer and translate" in my mind.

I'd lose my French every time I came home and lost my ear-tuning, but then I realized that was due to the grammatical underpinning that I didn't have - knowing the grammatical context so that I could anticipate the next word. I hired a tutor to come give me French grammar lessons one a week for several months, and today, it only takes a few days in France to get back to a a good level of conversational fluency.

Then, in the late 1980's, I started working with the Japanese. Basic functional Japanese, enough to be polite and get around by myself, wasn't very hard and there were lots of book/tape courses at that level. There are only 46 phonemes in Japanese, so tuning your ear is far easier than French. The problem with learning Japanese beyond the basics is the writing -- unlike French, you can't just go farther by picking up translations of English stories and books that you know to teach yourself the rest -- and also the grammar that is completely different from Western languages.

But I was determined to go further, so I taught myself hiragana and katakana (the phonoetic syllable-based writing systems), started learning how to write kanji, and offered my garage apartment to a Japanese graduate student in return for daily tutoring. There came a point that the very strange grammar I'd struggled with just dropped in and suddenly started working for me without having to think about it. That was when I really got the zen of grammar for languages in general (all those cases in German and Russian make sense now), and I got up to a good level of conversational fluency, and can read on about a 7th-grade level -- enough for the daily newspaper.

It doesn't take much effort to learn a new alphabet -- I can read Russian and Greek aloud so that someone who knows the language can understand, even if I don't. But for a character-based system, it's like starting all over. Learning to read as an educated, non-brain-damaged adult was something that most people don't get to experience, but it was one of the most mind-opening things that has ever happened to me. Also, discovering the "meta-grammar" of the mind that the languages we know attach to made it extremely easy for me to pick up new languages. I became "walking around fluent" in about 10 days in Korea -- the grammar is identical to Japanese, even though the phonemes and vocabulary is different, and you can learn to read Hangul in a couple of hours because it's phonetic (and because, unlike the Japanese, the Koreans put spaces between their written words so you know wher eone ends and the next begins).

The languages that still intimidate me are those with pitch-based phonemes, like Chinese and Thai, because my ear hasn't been trained to distinguish the differences. But I am sure that I could learn it because of the confidence that the other languages have given me.

When we only know one language, we believe that we think in that language (we actually don't). Achieving fluency in a second language gives us access to our "thinking language" that then gets output as one of the languages we know, and if the grammars are really different, it also gives us access to our "meta-grammar" that's the Rosetta stone to all grammars and language structures.

For kids in school, learning Mandarin to a reasonable fluency, including reading and writing, would given them these tools from the very beginning -- and make them comfortable with pitch-based phonemes, and character-based writing systems as well as alphabets. What a powerful advantage!

Someone commented that 100 million Chinese are learning English, as if this were some reason not to learn Chinese. Let me just comment on Japanese:

I can read technical documentation, manuals, and software menus, without being limited to those that have been translated. I can strike up a relationship with people I'm working with whose English isn't strong. When I travel, I'm not only fully competent to go anywhere I want and get everything I need, but I've made a lot of friends (including some very long-term and close ones) from a conversation on a train or coffee shop. I use a translator for business negotiations, and I can understand the discussions that the other side is having with its team members (somehow, the fact that I have a translator with me and I have blue eyes convinces them that I can't really understand what they're saying).

And I can also see what they are reading in their magazines and newspapers, quite often different from what we are reading. I remember in 1992, Newsweek did a cover story in Ross Perot with the headline, "President Perot?" The Japanese-language version of Newsweek was beside it on the news kiosks, with the same cover photo and the headline "Oni ga Kuru?" ("Is the demon coming?")

Posted by: Ducktape on January 3, 2006 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

"Standard English?"

Now there is the Queens English
Generaly accepted American English
Dialects of English, the numbers of which boggle the mind. Which of these are the "Standard English" you speak of.

I told G. Gordon Liddy on his radio show so I'll tell you here.

A people define a language. Not a book. Not a college professor. Not some person who fancies themselves as an intellectual. The people who must communicate together are those who define their language. Liddy used to like to say that "no matter how many people call a dog a cow, it doesn't make a dog a cow. Well perhaps not physically but my point to him is that if everyone begins to call a dog a cow then from that point on a dog will be refered to as a cow no matter what book you use. Like it or not language changes and the only wrong use of a language is one where the speaker is not understood.
Then there are those who are so wrapped up in their education that simplicity escapes them. I call those people over educated and they are generally ignored.

Posted by: Lurker42 on January 3, 2006 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

A wee nitpick from a Linguistics girl: Mandarin is (in some respects) one of the hardest languages FOR NATIVE ENGLISH SPEAKERS to learn. (Mostly because of its phonetics--its grammar is less challenging for the English-reared than most European languages.) It also has a nearly unique writing system that has no real phonetic component, requiring the reader/writer to memorize an enormous number of characters. This means Chinese children take more years of formal education to reach functional literacy than learners of most written languages (if memory serves, Bahasa Indonesian has the earliest average basic literacy, at around 4 years of age--it's a very easy writing system--I could look it up but I'm too lazy).

All that said, no language is inherently "harder" than another language--children learn to talk at the same ages in all languages, and second languages are easy/difficult to learn depending primarily on their level of difference from one's native language.

Otherwise, excellent points! I could heartily wish language teaching in the US was more common and more rigorous. The assumption that it's really hard and therefore you have to go really slow hamstrings students before they start.

Posted by: Charisse on January 3, 2006 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

Illiterate and sloppy grammar is a sign of sloppy thinking. Such colloquialisms belong in quoted dialogue. They are off-putting in what is supposed to be a serious topic of discussion.

what's "sloppy" about the thinking in this post? You don't even make sense, I guess because you're too busy acting like an elitist jackass.

If you don't think she's being "serious" enough for you, then fuck off and start your own blog.

Posted by: haha on January 3, 2006 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

A people define a language. Not a book. Not a college professor. Not some person who fancies themselves as an intellectual.

and not unemployed high school English teachers like Nancy and Mike.

Posted by: haha on January 3, 2006 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

They're recruiting spies. If the goal here isn't to facilitate screwing China in a hundred ways I'd be very surprised. Posted by: steve duncan

Like, a, duh. Most "spy" work is not cloak and dagger shit, but research on the significance of intercepts and the like. Know your enemy, and the Chinese government (as opposed to the Chinese people) is most assuredly an enemy of the U.S.

The Chinese have lived by Lord Palmerston's foreign policy maxim before he ever uttered it - China has no permanent friends (actually, it has no friends at all and is never likely to have any) only permanent interests.

Posted by: Jeff II on January 3, 2006 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

It would be easier to take such posts seriously if they had some semblance of coherent thought and far less cutsey "creativity" and marginal illiteracy.

Posted by: collounsbury on January 3, 2006 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

I would note, by the way, as a business professional, that in general the American job market does not (or did not when I was there) really place much value on foreign languages, contra the naive suppositions supra.

That is neither good nor bad, not a sign of American evil or whatever the knee-jerk left would have it, it's merely an issue of incentives and what weight is put on certain skills.

If one actually wants to promote foreign language leanring one has to invest in changing incentive structures. Mere wishful thinking, naive assertions and magical suppositions will not produce real change.

First, for "lesser taught" languages investing in improved teaching materials (one need only cmpare materials available for French and Spanish with say Arabic, the primativeness of the Arabic materials being obvious even if one does not speak the language), and investing in creation of opportunities for both teachers and students - investing in opportunities I note with a real eye to actual incentives.

Otherwise, you will get more pious patriotic nonsense from the Right and more pious idiotic sensless cretinous and self-contradictory hand-wringing from the Left.

Of course, it would help if the graduates of language programs (and I have always found American Dep of Defence language graduates to have laughably poor language skills) showed some modicum of literacy.

Posted by: collounsbury on January 3, 2006 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

That is neither good nor bad, not a sign of American evil or whatever the knee-jerk left would have it, it's merely an issue of incentives and what weight is put on certain skills. Posted by: collounsbury

Actually, the inability to speak the language of your competitor and/or customer is both very bad and very stupid. Attempting to do business English only assures, as someone posted above, only the most superficial understanding of your target market.

Posted by: Jeff II on January 3, 2006 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

So what if they're recruting spies. As long as China keeps a steady hand on its nukes I am quite willing to screw them over 1.3 billion times, once for every person.

Besides, learning another language is difficult but it makes you smarter, like learning another instrument. Also if you learn multiple language you have less of an accent.

Posted by: MNPundit on January 3, 2006 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

Where and when will these students make use of Mandarin? In business?

American firms overwhelmingly do not hire mandarin-speaking whites, preferring to hire Chinese who may (or may not) have spent time in the U.S. Lower cost, less chance of repatriation to the U.S., easier to manage, etc.

Japanese companies do it more intelligently, hiring regional specialists and fitting them into the business model. It has allowed a group of virtually barren islands become a (still) world economic power with tentacles the world over.

Frankly, American business does not really care about foreign language acquisition. So where will these Mandarin-song singing children find work, anyway?

Posted by: Fred Binkle on January 3, 2006 at 4:06 PM | PERMALINK

Actually, the inability to speak the language of your competitor and/or customer is both very bad and very stupid. Attempting to do business English only assures, as someone posted above, only the most superficial understanding of your target market.

Amusing one presumes to tell me this, but nevertheless:

No, it may be entirely rationale if one can hire alternate talent. An American executive may very rationally never actually need to know another langauge, and can usually hire a bilingual local or some specialist staff (such as myself, for example).

Above all when English is the reference language in business and there are dozens of languages one may deal with. (Never mind that few adult learners ever achieve a level where they can in fact dispense with a translator and interpreter for business meetings. Indeed, unless one is near native fluency, it is most unwise. I would, being near native fluent in Arabic, fluent in French, passingly decent in Spanish and moderately literate in the English language, avail myself of an interpreter for certain key business negotiations in Arabic, for example, simply to avoid misunderstandings as well as not necessarily disclose to the other side I follow their own conversation.)

Now, of course this utterly misses the point, that most Americans have little substantive and sustained contact with foreign langauges that would actually create incentives to learn the same.

That is simply a structural reality for most of the United States. A structural reality that will not be changed by pious and naive assertions of the value of foreign languages (which will not exist in the job market except for a very small percentage of persons).

Posted by: collounsbury on January 3, 2006 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

Frankly, American business does not really care about foreign language acquisition. So where will these Mandarin-song singing children find work, anyway?

Precisely. And for most American businesses, this is perfectly rational. There is a case that US firms might be more successful in overseas penetration if they followed a specialist model for such efforts (e.g. Wal Mart's Euro failures), but largely this is irrelevant for most Americans.

Magically expecting that these Mandarin speakers will have use of the language is naive idiocy and mgaical thinking (never mind Mandarin is probably the wrong language for private sector interest).

Posted by: collounsbury on January 3, 2006 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

It has allowed a group of virtually barren islands become a (still) world economic power with tentacles the world over.

"Virtually barren island"? What the hell country are you talking about. Japan produces most of its own food, and has some of the highest per capita industrial production in the world. In fact, the world's largest capacity steel mill just came on line in Kawasaki.

I guess I'll have to tell all my bi-lingual friends an acquaintances working for foreign and Japanese companies in Tokyo and elsewhere that Fred Binkle says "You're fired" or that you are merely a zen exitance - your life and work there is all in your mind.

Frankly, American business does not really care about foreign language acquisition.

That's true, and they continue to pay the price for this time and again, usually because they are beaten to market by other joint ventures from the EU and Japan and the like who understand the value of multi-lingual staff.

So where will these Mandarin-song singing children find work, anyway? Posted by: Fred Binkle

Well, if they were Chinese, probably in some Japanese designed and financed factory making crappy toys for Wal-Mart. However, if they are adults with a modicum of business sense and a boatload of knowledge about those inscrutible Chinese (a semi-politically correct recasting of WOG), American corporations would do well to hire them. Otherwise, they'll continue to lose market share and clout in China to the EU and Asian competitors.

Posted by: Jeff II on January 3, 2006 at 4:29 PM | PERMALINK

(Never mind that few adult learners ever achieve a level where they can in fact dispense with a translator and interpreter for business meetings. Indeed, unless one is near native fluency, it is most unwise. I would, being near native fluent in Arabic, fluent in French, passingly decent in Spanish and moderately literate in the English language, avail myself of an interpreter for certain key business negotiations in Arabic, for example, simply to avoid misunderstandings as well as not necessarily disclose to the other side I follow their own conversation.)Posted by: collounsbury

What sort of weird parallel universe do you exist in? Are you just making this shit up so you've got something to post?

I worked in Japan for three years, and business was always conducted in Japanese. In fact, I didn't have a single colleague that I could converse with in English. If I wasn't conversant and knowledgeable in Japanese for our business, we wouldn't have gotten anything done.

Anyone who relies on a translator is guaranteed to regret it.

Posted by: Jeff II on January 3, 2006 at 4:42 PM | PERMALINK

What sort of weird parallel universe do you exist in? Are you just making this shit up so you've got something to post? I live in the Europe Middle East region, where in fact most international business is indeed conducted in English.

Local level deals, of course, are not. Don't mix up domestic and international business, kid.

It's called reality, Jeff.

Anyone who relies on a translator is guaranteed to regret it.
No, anyone who relies only on a translator (or rather interpreter) is guaranteed to regret it. One needs local savvy staff. Might be persons of my profile, might be locals. However, in the context of most Americans interaction with international business, a translator is de rigeur as few executives will ever be able to master Xn langauges with fluency.

There is, dimwit, a difference between a regional specialisation (which expensive expat posts are becoming fewer for very rational reasons - Japan being a slight exception my self centered fool), and what the general job market requires.

Some people will get lucky, as you perhaps, but on a mass scale the North American job market simply is English geared and the incentives are - in gross - entirely away from foreign language being valuable.

Posted by: collounsbury on January 3, 2006 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

Violet:

So nice to see Thomas Pynchon mentioned in a post. He's still my favorite novelist, and I've always sprinked my post with Pynchonisms (sez, foax, natch -- though many of these were doubtless WW2 slang he researched), mostly from Gravity's Rainbow.

Nobody did better at jumpcutting from extraordinarily eruditate and poetically elevated prose directly into obscene dialect, or mixing all sorts of idiomatic modes to go with his international crew of oddball outcast characters ...

I don't, however, consider Debra's post here an exemplar of the Pynchonian technique.

Bob

Posted by: rmck1 on January 3, 2006 at 4:58 PM | PERMALINK

There are as many reasons to study a foreign language as there are people. Study Chinese? Dutch? Gourmantch? Navaho? Great! There is no need for Ms. Dickerson or anyone else to disparage the study of any language due to perceived utility or lack thereof. "vice French?" Useless? Weird. French is spoken in more than 40 countries on 5 continents. There is little to admire in a post that implies Americans should avoid demanding subjects due to what the author perceives as their "uselfulness." But I guess when one proudly states what she did with her learning as having "plied [her] tradecraft on military installations in ways purely antagonistic to the country I studied," perhaps PA readers should take the post for what it is: faux geek machismo.

Posted by: kenny on January 3, 2006 at 5:21 PM | PERMALINK

eruditate = erudite

Sheesh, how boneheaded to misspell *that* of all words ...

Bob

Posted by: rmck1 on January 3, 2006 at 5:40 PM | PERMALINK

That there is disagreement over the practical value of learning any language other than English for business purposes makes me very sad indeed. Of course, it is eminently practical, as I have found in my business career. English is spoken, but it is not enough. People assume that English speakers understand meaning as native speakers do -- that is simply untrue. You must go as far towards them as they come towards you.

Posted by: Fred Binkle on January 3, 2006 at 5:45 PM | PERMALINK

Some people will get lucky, as you perhaps, but on a mass scale the North American job market simply is English geared and the incentives are - in gross - entirely away from foreign language being valuable. Posted by: collounsbury

No one was talking about the whole of the American job market. We're talking about the fact that probably more American's speak Romansh than they do Chinese of any dialect or even Spanish (Mexican, really). And given that the Chinese are now the engine that drives the U.S. economy, financing our personal and public profligacy, it behoves us to produce thousands of people able to speak, read and write Mandarin and, to a lesser degree, Cantonese.

After this, since we are unable to find a solution to our oil addiction, we need to produce thousands who can speak a host of languages spoken in the ME, as this region and China will be the focus of our economic and political dealings for the foreseeable future.

In both cases, our government and business have done a piss poor job in promoting, as they always have, foreign language acquisition.

Posted by: Jeff II on January 3, 2006 at 5:54 PM | PERMALINK

No one was talking about the whole of the American job market.

Well, again, if one is talking about real incentives to language learning, one should be, if one is thinking rationally, looking at the aggregate market.


We're talking about the fact that probably more American's speak Romansh than they do Chinese of any dialect or even Spanish (Mexican, really).

Aside from the absurd exageration (Romansh indeed), that is beside the point.

The question is there are enough for whatever defined needs. Maybe yes, maybe no.

If not, then one has to look at real incentives and real opportunities. Magical thinking does not get one there.


And given that the Chinese are now the engine that drives the U.S. economy, financing our personal and public profligacy, it behoves us to produce thousands of people able to speak, read and write Mandarin and, to a lesser degree, Cantonese.

Again, gross exageration (although financing is true enough), but producing thousands of Chinese speakers, whether Cantonese or Mandarin, may or may not be useful (importing native speakers or retaining second generation speakers may be more efficient and rational, for example).

Assuming it is useful for the United States, one needs to have a realistic idea of where the incentives for such are in terms of employment. Mere hand waving about "need" does not cut it, insofar as in private sector one does not need, ceteris paribus, American citizen speakers, per se, in large numbers.

After this, since we are unable to find a solution to our oil addiction, we need to produce thousands who can speak a host of languages spoken in the ME, as this region and China will be the focus of our economic and political dealings for the foreseeable future.

Yes, and everyone should have ponies as well.

Unless there is investment in real incentives for the end products (the students so trained, and I bloody well doubt you will get many), nothing will happen.

In both cases, our government and business have done a piss poor job in promoting, as they always have, foreign language acquisition.

American business have very rational reasons for not investing in foreign langauge skills. There are not substantial incentives, for structural reasons. Whinging on about that does nothing to change the real incentives. Change the real economic incentives and you change the results. Else you just have naive empty whinging on.

Now, government, well the failures there are far, far less excusable.

Posted by: collounsbury on January 3, 2006 at 6:20 PM | PERMALINK

Learn Indian too. Then you can make bindi jokes in two languages!

"importing native speakers or retaining second generation speakers may be more efficient and rational, for example)."- I agree! Green Card please. Lord knows you have enough Spanish speakers.


Posted by: McAristotle on January 3, 2006 at 9:03 PM | PERMALINK

**American business have very rational reasons for not investing in foreign langauge skills. There are not substantial incentives, for structural reasons.**

Well, what are they?

Posted by: Fred Binkle on January 4, 2006 at 7:21 AM | PERMALINK

Well, dimwit, the fact of a large (relatively, must add that for the dimwitted nitpicking fools) continuous and homogenous market of anglophones, some 400 odd million in total in North America, to start.

The fact most US businesses are not multinationals.

The fact of English language as a widespread business medium making one off and limited international commercial contacts easy to do in English (relatively speaking once more, so the dimiwitted do not get confused).

Need I go on?

Posted by: collounsbury on January 4, 2006 at 12:04 PM | PERMALINK

Your attempt to insult made me chuckle.

Here are your reasons that American business does not consider foreign language skills important:

1) there are plenty of customers who speak English in North American.

THERE ARE SEVERAL BILLION CUSTOMERS WHO DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH.

2) "most" -- whatever that means -- US businesses are not multinationals.

MANY SMALL AND MID-SIZED COMPANIES -- NOT MULTINATIONALS -- ARE TRYING TO BUY AND SELL IN COUNTRIES WHERE BUSINESS ENGLISH IS SIMPLY NOT SUFFICIENT. MANY FOREIGN SPEAKERS HAVE LEARNED ENGLISH IN THE CLASSROOM AND DO NOT UNDERSTAND VERY WELL WHAT IS BEING SAID TO THEM.

3) English is good enough for business, because everyone in business speaks it.

THIS IS A FALLACY, AND IF YOU HAVE EVER TRIED TO SELL YOUR PRODUCT IN ENGLISH IN A COUNTRY WHERE ENGLISH IS NOT THE CUSTOMER'S LANGUAGE, YOU WOULD KNOW IT.

Collounsbury, you speak of things you know very little about.

Posted by: Fred Binkle on January 4, 2006 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK
传真机,激光传真机,普通纸传真机,网络传真机 传真机 传真机 传真机 松下传真机 三星传真机 兄弟传真机 夏普传真机 佳能传真机 飞利浦传真机 收款机 点钞机 考勤机 支票打印机 收款机 收款机 考勤机 收款机 pos机 收银机 电子收款机 税控收款机 点钞机 科密考勤机 支票打印机 碎纸机 碎纸机 Posted by: fs454 on January 4, 2006 at 3:19 PM | PERMALINK

Your attempt to insult made me chuckle.

Good, you're obviously so dim that you need such.

Here are your reasons that American business does not consider foreign language skills important:

1) there are plenty of customers who speak English in North American.

THERE ARE SEVERAL BILLION CUSTOMERS WHO DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH.

Big fucking deal. Potential customers that are low margin.

Regardless, one does not need, for 99 percent of US business, to speak other langauges. One can effectively locate and outsource to bilingual locals or specialist firms in the target region(s).

Merely waving a big number of non-English speakers around does not change the real economic incentives for American firms.

Ah yes, since you seem quite dim and reading impaired, I note that these structural issues are not something that I think "good" - they are merely facts.

2) "most" -- whatever that means -- US businesses are not multinationals.

MANY SMALL AND MID-SIZED COMPANIES -- NOT MULTINATIONALS -- ARE TRYING TO BUY AND SELL IN COUNTRIES WHERE BUSINESS ENGLISH IS SIMPLY NOT SUFFICIENT. MANY FOREIGN SPEAKERS HAVE LEARNED ENGLISH IN THE CLASSROOM AND DO NOT UNDERSTAND VERY WELL WHAT IS BEING SAID TO THEM.

Well, typing assertions in all-caps does not make them more useful.

But again, for a small US firm, outsourcing its marketing etc to a local JV or combined specialist firm with bilinguals etc. is more economically rationale than hiring foreign language speakers (unless the said firm plans to specialise in commerce in a single language region, e.g. Latin America, which of course changes the equation).

However, in the macro view, that's unusual for most small and medium sized firms and in the aggregate will not change real incentives.

Perhaps if you read more slowly some dim comprehension of the difference between aggregate demand and specific cases may seep in.

3) English is good enough for business, because everyone in business speaks it.

THIS IS A FALLACY, AND IF YOU HAVE EVER TRIED TO SELL YOUR PRODUCT IN ENGLISH IN A COUNTRY WHERE ENGLISH IS NOT THE CUSTOMER'S LANGUAGE, YOU WOULD KNOW IT.

Actually, as I do business in the Middle East and North Africa, and speak all the relevant languages fluently, I have no need for your stupid posturing for such lessons.

As a general matter, again, for the multinational operating in many regions, or for a SME looking to go global, English for business to business (it would be nice if you stopped idioticaly confusing consumer and business to business uses, I might start taking you seriously if you did, dimwit) use is usually adequate. Certainly given the marginal cost of attempting to master multiple languages otherwise required. Contracting in English is entirely possible and one can locate, if one is skilled, service firms that can act as your pass through.

Ideal, certainly not, but more affordable for the small business than hiring Mandarin, Arabic, French, etc. etc. speakers for each sub market. For the multi-national, obviously established JV partners and local contacts will be used. Again, for the American firm, its own internal demand for American born multi-lingual staff need not be high at all. Especially as local bilingual staff is often more cost effective.

Now, I can personally make the argument that having in-house regional specialist staff of non-region origin for firms with highly regionalised business is probably very smart to help control for corporate governance issues.

None of this, however, is going to drive a huge demand for US citizen multi-lingual speakers.

Finally, on the consumer front, one is a fool if one depends on US staff, even multilingual, for consumer marketing in a specific region. At best multilingual staff should help check regionally retained marketing staff and/or service companies.

Collounsbury, you speak of things you know very little about.

Uhuh, whatever you say, dimwit. Rather strikes me you are blundering about making arm waving assertions.

Posted by: collounsbury on January 4, 2006 at 5:17 PM | PERMALINK

Re remarks by Collounsbury.

"An American executive may very rationally never actually need to know another langauge, and can usually hire a bilingual local or some specialist staff (such as myself, for example)."

No doubt you refer here to your illustrious mentor, Big Fat Idiot more commonly referred to by you as Bee Eff Eff Eye, your much admired superior who sits on or near the bridge of the NY based Titanic of your penny ante financier/consultancy conglomerate.

I wish you well with the chemo. Im sure your old friend Sam S. would also wish you well.

Posted by: Alan Owes Bess on January 5, 2006 at 5:40 AM | PERMALINK

Collounsbury,

I read your first line -- and nothing else.

You need to first learn to control your tongue before you join a discussion.

That you haven't yet done so makes what you say much less persuasive.

Fred

Posted by: Fred Binkle on January 5, 2006 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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