Absolute English.

Michael D Gordin writes in Aeon:

If you can read this sentence, you can talk with a scientist. Well, maybe not about the details of her research, but at least you would share a common language. The overwhelming majority of communication in the natural sciences today – physics, chemistry, biology, geology – takes place in English; in print and at conferences, in emails and in Skype-mediated collaborations, confirmable by wandering through the halls of any scientific research facility in Kuala Lumpur or Montevideo or Haifa. Contemporary science is Anglophone.

More significantly, contemporary science is monoglot: everyone uses English almost to the exclusion of other languages. A century ago, the majority of researchers in Western science knew at least some English, but they also read, wrote and spoke in French and German, and sometimes in other ‘minor’ languages, such as the newly emergent Russian or the rapidly fading Italian. […]

To paint with a very broad brush, we can observe two basic linguistic regimes in Western science: the polyglot and the monoglot. The latter is quite new, emerging just in the 1920s and vanquishing the centuries-old multilingual regime only in the 1970s. Science speaks English, but the first generation who grew up within that monoglot system are still alive. To understand how this important change happened, we need to start way back.

I knew the basic story, but hadn’t seen it presented in full from this angle. Thanks, Paul!

Comments

  1. Many leading science magazines wouldn’t publish a paper if a substantial portion of its results has been published before, no matter in what language. Which deters people from publishing in both home country and English laungages

  2. Anyway, what about the monoglot Latin regime?

  3. Two or so months ago I have looked up Mathematische Annalen. It was mostly German journal, but judging by papers’ titles, with some submissions in French and English. I am not sure why or how that came about (some authors didn’t want to translate into German themselves, but were such of such a high profile that Annalen didn’t want to lose them?)

  4. @ D. O.: In my experience, it’s quite normal for Geman scientific journals to have articles in English. It’s not question of foreign “High Profile” authors demanding “take it in my native English or leave it”. Even German authors publish in English in German journals, because publishing in English increases their chances to be read and, you know, to be quoted.

  5. Ginger Yellow says:

    The description of Renaissance Latin scholarship as a polyglot system seems odd, as it seems basically identical to modern English language scholarship. Most international scientists don’t speak English as a first language. either. The only difference I can discern is that Latin wasn’t being spoken much in the Renaissance. But given that most scientific exchanges were written at that time, it doesn’t seem much to hang a dichotomy on.

  6. When I was a chemistry major half a century ago, one still had to learn German to do research in the sciences. I had a whole course in scientific German, where I learned my favorite German word, “Futternutzung.”

  7. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Thanks for that link. There are lots of interesting points in that articles, but I’ll only touch on some of them.

    What happened to the polyglot system of science? It broke. More accurately, it was broken. In the early 1990s the organizer of a course for French graduate students asked me to give some lectures and he asked me to do it in English. This may have been because he thought the students wouldn’t understand my French, but the reason he gave was that the students would have to become proficient in English whether they liked it or not, and the more lectures in English they had the better. I wasn’t sure that the students would buy that argument (this was about in 1992: today they wouldn’t turn a hair), so I prepared some data on the trend from French and German to English in the only important biochemistry journal (Biochimica et Biophysica Acta) that still allowed submission in any of the three languages. When the journal started, in about 1948, about 80% of papers were in English, 10% in German and 10% in French. Within ten years the papers in German disappeared virtually completely and it had become difficult to find one. French declined much more slowly, but by 1992 it had also pretty much disappeared. (I don’t remember when the journal started requiring English, but I think at that time French and German were still allowed.)

    Just as interesting was the trend in the French journal Biochimie, which in the space of about 15 years went from insisting on French, then allowing English but preferring French, then preferring English, and finally (I expect it’s final!) allowing only English. Today the only thing in French in it is its name. In our research group (which I’m not in charge of) our group meetings are now mostly in English, as we have an increasing number of students from Italy, Spain or Latin America who don’t speak French. We have plenty of North Africans as well, but for them the French is no problem.

    Before I came to France our departmental library in Birmingham subscribed for some reason to the Egyptian Journal of Chemistry. Once in an idle moment I looked at the Instructions to Authors, and came across the most liberal language requirements I have ever seen: “Papers can be written in any language that uses the Roman or Arabic script.”

    If you can read this sentence, you can talk with a scientist. Well, maybe not about the details of her research(, but the first thing that struck me about the photo of the 1927 Solvay Conference was that there are not a lot of women to be seen. That would be different today, though not as different as one might wish: our university newsletter for November 2014 has a photo of a Press Conference at the beginning of the academic year, with 11 men, and no women. “Où sont les femmes?”, someone has written on it. However, in the exact context of the Solvay Conferences, I read along time ago a criticism that the participants only listened to the presentations in their own languages and wandered off when they were not. That was written in the 1950s by someone who had attended Solvay Conferences before the War, so perhaps things were less polyglot in practice than one might like to think.

    By 1923, more than half of the states in the Union had restricted the use of German in public spaces, over the telegraph and telephone lines, and in children’s education. Yes, but it’s not just the law that restricts people. During the First Gulf War we had a Moroccan student, who was once talking in Arabic on a public telephone (remember public telephones?) when someone passed by and said to her loudly “Ici on parle français.”

    French mathematicians often proudly publish in French, where the formalism aids the Anglophones in following the proofs. Yes, but it’s also true that mathematics is a discipline where France remains the Mecca for mathematicians elsewhere. In Chile the biochemists of my acquaintance mostly do their post-doctoral work in the USA if possible; the mathematicians mostly come to France, and most Chilean mathematicians are fluent in French. I was talking with a French mathematician who had worked in Chile and tried to improve her Spanish by talking with the local mathematicians, but she said it was impossible: they only wanted to talk to her in French.

  8. The description of Renaissance Latin scholarship as a polyglot system seems odd, as it seems basically identical to modern English language scholarship.

    Yes, I felt the same way; I wish he’d explained his thoughts about that more fully.

    When I was a chemistry major half a century ago, one still had to learn German to do research in the sciences.

    When I was a linguistics grad student forty years ago, we had to be able to read German and French.

  9. I once teased a friend of mine for including untranslated foreign-language quotations (French and German) in his paper, while carefully translating all the (Old) English.

  10. It’s always a bit surprising to read books from, say, the ’50s and earlier and see huge swaths of untranslated foreign languages; it seems to have been assumed that French, in particular, was understandable to anyone who could read above the comic-book level.

  11. The TLS still does this, print chunks of French untranslated. I think I have seen untranslated Latin too.

  12. I had an acquaintance some time ago who was a scholar of Biblical Hebrew. All of her articles and books, about Biblical Hebrew grammar, were written in English. She said that were she to have written them in Hebrew, no one would read them (and maybe more importantly, cite them). As I recall, although the text was in English, she did have Hebrew examples in the articles (with English gloss).

  13. Rodger C, the requirement for German in chemistry still existed 25 years ago when I was in a PhD program. I had to translate an article (using a German-English dictionary) as part of the requirements.

    Hat, The Name of the Rose was a bestseller in the United States not that long ago, and it contains plenty of untranslated passages in Latin and other languages. I wonder what percentage of buyers actually read very far into it.

  14. ‘Hat, The Name of the Rose was a bestseller in the United States not that long ago, and it contains plenty of untranslated passages in Latin and other languages. I wonder what percentage of buyers actually read very far into it.”

    Probably about as far as readers read the untranslated passages in Quenya in LOTR. They aren’t emrely ornamental, but close enough.

    “The description of Renaissance Latin scholarship as a polyglot system seems odd, as it seems basically identical to modern English language scholarship. ”

    Yeah, as in false. But that description certainly fits the 19th century. I wonder how much of a barrier that posed to the easy spread of information. It reminds me of the barrier the Cold War threw up, where now we see all kinds of work that had been going on in Russia for decades

  15. [I]t seems to have been assumed that French, in particular, was understandable to anyone who could read above the comic-book level.

    This annoyed me as a boy reading Poe.

  16. Jim, true enough, but I was also thinking the main text in The Name of the Rose would be daunting for a lot of readers — much more so than in The Lord of the Rings.

  17. Ginger Yellow says:

    Eco writes about those untranslated foreign language passages (there are others in Foucault’s Pendulum and I’m pretty sure Baudolino) in Mouse or Rat?

  18. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    It’s always a bit surprising to read books from, say, the ’50s and earlier and see huge swaths of untranslated foreign languages; it seems to have been assumed that French, in particular, was understandable to anyone who could read above the comic-book level.

    Clouds of Witness (Dorothy L. Sayers) has a long letter in French that is left untranslated, even though it contains the essential information that allows the mystery to be solved.

    There is a very famous book in biology (that everyone has heard of, but which few have read, though they may have looked at some of the pictures) called On Growth and Form, by one of the most erudite men that science has ever known, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. He assumed that his readers were as erudite as he was, and included a great many quotations from Latin, Greek, French, German and Italian, leaving most of them untranslated — once even a short bit of Provençal, also untranslated. One of the longest occupies about a whole page of French, discussing why the honeycombs made by bees have hexagonal cells, quite important for the point he was making.

  19. Actually, when the letter appears in full in Chapter 27 (“The Eloquent Dead”) of Clouds of Witness, it is immediately followed by an English translation. In particular, the key sentence “Oh! J’enrage—je suis fou de douleur!” is rendered as “I’m mad—mad with misery!”

  20. What a terrible translation, introducing a completely irrelevant pun on “mad”! It should be (e.g.) “I’m furious, crazed with grief.” Just goes to show that self-translators can also be traitors.

  21. When I was a linguistics grad student forty years ago, we had to be able to read German and French.

    When I was in high school (Toronto) two score and ten years ago, French was compulsory for two or three years, Latin for one, and German was available in the two (or maybe three) higher grades if your grades in English, Latin and French were high enough. There was no way to drop English, and some kids studied French and Latin all the way through. I’m not sure if even English is compulsory all the way through today.

    It seems that Latin and German are no longer offered, though several Native languages are (most likely in only certain school districts). Those languages are Cayuga, Cree, Delaware, Mohawk, Ojibwe, Oji-Cree, and Oneida.

  22. Well, being required to study a language in high school is a very different beast from being required to have reading knowledge of a language in grad school (and often does not lead to it, given the pathetic quality of language instruction — at least in the US, I don’t know how things are in Canada).

  23. What a terrible translation

    Well, things are more complicated than they appear. First of all, Sayers is an anglophone writing in French. Second, her character Denis Cathcart is also an anglophone writing in French. Third, the translation was, in the context of the novel, done in court and on the fly by an unnamed sworn interpreter. Who knows at what level any translation infelicities are feigned to be introduced?

    An actual francophone should look at the full text of the letter, which is only 688 words and (hint, hint) in the public domain in Canada.

  24. I simply refuse to believe that any “sworn interpreter” would have produced such a version, so I can only think it’s Sayers’ little joke, which falls flat for me but perhaps would have amused anglophones with a vague knowledge of French among her readers. And now that I think about it, “I’m mad” is a very odd way for a Brit to render “j’enrage,” since they don’t (as far as I’m aware) use “mad” for “angry” the way we Yanks do.

  25. J. W. Brewer says:

    Ph.D. candidates (depending on subject and university) are still sometimes required to pass pro forma reading-proficiency exams in languages not actually relevant to their research, which they thus are incentivized to do with the minimum amount of effort possible. I know some people who spent a summer learning just enough Latin to pass such an exam (for doctoral programs in the humanities) and then immediately forgot whatever they’d learned such that my retained Latin (two years in high school, several decades earlier than their studies) is almost certainly better.

    Trouble is if you take German in high school or even in college there’s a considerable percentage of time spent working (effectively or not) on aural/oral skills, which is a total waste if you just want to develop the skills to understand scholarly journal articles in the language. At least by the time I took Ancient Greek, we weren’t practicing our pronunciation of imaginary dialogues asking Attic teenagers if they would like to go get ice cream after the movie was over.

  26. Henk Metselaar says:

    Being proficient in French and German is well and good if you’re European or American but it’s much less obvious for Asians (see the reference to Kuala Lumpur in the original post). You might say that the increasing internationalisation of science leads to increasing dominance of English as lingua franca (which presents many otherwise bright scientists from around here — I’m in Kuala Lumpur — with enough problems as it is).

  27. J. W. Brewer says:

    The all-English-all-the-time regime is clearly disadvantageous for scientists whose L1 happens to be French or German or Russian. But how is it for everyone else in the world? Under the prior polyglot regime, if your L1 was Dutch or Portuguese or Turkish or Malay did you have to just learn *one* out of the three or four international-scholarship languages well enough to read and write in it, with you having a free choice among the available options according to your taste? Or did you have to develop fluency in multiple languages, none of which were your L1, in order to be able to participate in scholarly discourse?

  28. Scientific writing is quite formulaic and uses a lot of Latinisms and Grecisms. So it wasn’t really necessary to know 3 languages really well. Basics of grammar, general vocabulary, and your field’s vocabulary plus a dictionary would get you a long way. It was necessary to know one of them well to write your own stuff, but outside the Slavic area, it is hard to find a place in Europe where learning French, English or German is a big obstacle.

  29. I still had to “demonstrate” reading knowledge of a relevant foreign language to get a Ph.D. in mathematics in 2003. However, this did not mean I actually had to take a test. A certain number of courses (from high school, in my case) on my record were sufficient.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    There are still papers in historical linguistics being published in German and French and Russian. But the natural sciences are all English all the time, going so far that I’m sometimes not sure how to render something in German that I can effortlessly talk about in English.

    There was a huge surge in publishing in Chinese some 20 years ago as far as I can tell, but that’s now on the decrease again. There’s a Russian paleontology journal where authors submit manuscripts in Russian, the journal translates them (quite well) into English, and a Russian and an English version are published simultaneously.

    There is a very famous book in biology (that everyone has heard of, but which few have read, though they may have looked at some of the pictures)

    Well, if we stop here, there are several like that. 🙂 On the Origin of Species for instance, except it only contains a single picture (a phylogenetic tree).

    On Growth and Form is from 1917; it is only of historical interest. I haven’t read it, and I haven’t read the Origin either (except for a few famous passages quoted elsewhere).

  31. David Marjanović says:

    Scientific writing is quite formulaic and uses a lot of Latinisms and Grecisms. So it wasn’t really necessary to know 3 languages really well.

    Scientific German from… up to WWII at the least usually had a literary, not to say impenetrable style that made full use of all ways to convolute the word order. Colleagues have complained that sometimes they can’t tell if a sentence means one thing or its opposite.

    Written French, scientific or not, still strongly tends to use a style that is more literary and therefore more difficult than would be necessary to just get the point across. It’s enjoyable if you can enjoy it.

    Scientific Russian does things to word order I’ve otherwise only seen in Latin poetry (and scary examples from various Australian languages). But that is actually a case where German helps, as with the verb prefixes, so you have a point here. 🙂

  32. In my experience, Asian scholars speak a wide variety of European (and other Asian) languages which is entirely explained by availability of scholarships from countries where these languages are spoken.

    The most exotic case I’ve seen was a Romanian speaking chemistry professor in Mongolia…

  33. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, there are still scientists in southern China who don’t speak English at all.

    There are also some in Moscow, not so much in St. Petersburg.

  34. I still had to “demonstrate” reading knowledge of a relevant foreign language to get a Ph.D. in mathematics in 2003. However, this did not mean I actually had to take a test.

    My dissertation director, bless his heart, simply pulled books off his shelf, opened them apparently at random, handed them to me, and said “Translate from there” (pointing). When he was satisfied I more or less knew what was going on, he took it back and handed me the next language. If I had become a tenured professor with graduate students of my own, that’s exactly what I would have done; it’s terrifying but effective and is over quickly. Rip the bandage off!

  35. The description of Renaissance Latin scholarship as a polyglot system seems odd, as it seems basically identical to modern English language scholarship.

    Yes, I felt the same way; I wish he’d explained his thoughts about that more fully.

    I understood his implied point to be: in the Renaissance, Latin wasn’t anyone’s native language, so everyone was equally disadvantaged. Learning Latin was like learning to write, or reason logically: a skill that everyone had to work to acquire. By contrast, in the modern scientific world, there are a lot of people who don’t have to work to learn English because it is their native language. They have an advantage over the rest of the world, who do still have to laboriously acquire a foreign language to do science in, and the playing field is uneven in a way it was not when everyone had to learn Latin.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    In the Middle Ages, not everyone had to learn Latin. It was indispensable for higher learning, but the average man did not need it, and the average woman even less.

  37. I see now that “a skill that everyone had to work to acquire” was ambiguous. What I meant of course was “a skill that no-one could acquire without work,” i.e. no-one learned it as a native language, unlike English today.

  38. For examples of untranslated French, go no further than Lolita. The translations into Asian languages that I’ve seen generally footnote the French.

    Décadence Mandchoue by Edmund Backhouse is full of expressions from French, German, Chinese, and languages further afield. It was heavily footnoted on publication a few years ago, sometimes with errors. It is useful to have the footnotes, but my French and German are good enough to largely figure out the meaning in most cases. Obviously that is not the expectation of most readers nowadays.

  39. Scientific German from… up to WWII at the least usually had a literary, not to say impenetrable style that made full use of all ways to convolute the word order. Colleagues have complained that sometimes they can’t tell if a sentence means one thing or its opposite.

    Not unlike many politicians today.

  40. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Actually, when the letter appears in full in Chapter 27 (“The Eloquent Dead”) of Clouds of Witness, it is immediately followed by an English translation. In particular, the key sentence “Oh! J’enrage—je suis fou de douleur!” is rendered as “I’m mad—mad with misery!”

    Yes, you’re right. I must be confusing it with another book. However, I wonder if the translation was in the original as written, or in the first UK edition. (The copy that I have is a cheap American paperback. I hadn’t looked at it when I wrote yesterday.)

    The sentence at the end is very weird anyway, and makes little sense, whether in French or in English. No English person in my youth would have used “mad” to mean “angry”, as in American English; it could only mean “crazy”, and I would guess that that was also the case in 1927. On the other hand it makes little sense to me that Cathcart would have written “J’enrage” in the first place.

  41. given the pathetic quality of language instruction — at least in the US

    I think we discussed this in a previous thread, but I find this sentiment unfair. If you want to dismiss my very good, dedicated German teachers in my American public high school as just anecdotal evidence, that’s fair. But I see the quality of the English language instruction in my children’s Austrian public schools. It is in no way higher quality than what I received in New Hampshire, or my kids could have received in Spanish, French or Mandarin in Newton or Brookline, MA (schools I know well). In fact, it is certainly inferior. The reason children in Austria (or Russia, Poland or Slovakia) now often learn English to a very high level of competency seems to me entirely due to social prestige and constant exposure to English language media. Americans failure to learn foreign languages is due to the fact that American society at large places very little value on learning foreign languages (indeed, in some circles it is considered a liability to know a foreign language to well), not to poor teaching.

  42. “Americans failure to learn foreign languages is due to the fact that American society at large places very little value on learning foreign languages (indeed, in some circles it is considered a liability to know a foreign language to well), not to poor teaching.”

    Good point. Also, many Americans have little exposure to foreign languages or opportunity to use a language, due, at least in part, to our physical isolation. An exception may be Spanish, which, for many Americans, would be low prestige (associated with manual labor). On the other hand, I think French, has high prestige because of its association with higher education.

    Also, because of the dominance of English as a world language, there is less need to learn a foreign language, even for travel. Almost anywhere, it is easy to find English-language speakers. In most of Europe, I seldom even ask someone if they speak English before engaging. I just automatically begin speaking English to them.

  43. I was told by knowledgeable US political observer that John Kerry lost presidential election of 2004, because he spoke French.

    American voters are said to profess extreme dislike for politicians who can speak foreign languages.

  44. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I opened a science book (Thomas H. Jukes Molecules and Evolution, Columbia university Press, 1966) at random today that I had forgotten I had (from the library of our institute: I’ll return it today). I was surprised to find a quotation from Goethe in German, with no translation provided: Dich im Unendlichen zu finden musst unterscheiden und dann verbinden. Apparently as late as 1966 some authors expected their readers to understand German. Like others who mentioned it, I had to take a course of scientific German for studying chemistry, but it didn’t extend to reading Goethe. The same book also contains several quotations from Ovid, but there he gives the English as well as the Latin.

  45. Ginger Yellow says:

    What I meant of course was “a skill that no-one could acquire without work,” i.e. no-one learned it as a native language, unlike English today.

    But that seems to be more in contrast with, than aligned with, the 18th/19th century polyglot world described where lots of people were writing in their first lanugage.

  46. “I was told by knowledgeable US political observer that John Kerry lost presidential election of 2004, because he spoke French.”

    Hmm, lost? Well, it probably wasn’t an advantage. This was a period in which there was particular antipathy toward the French (remember ‘freedom fries’) because of their position on the Iraq War. However, this feeling was largely among conservatives who would have been unlikely to vote for Kerry in any event.

  47. Latinworld: All science conducted in a language that is nobody’s L1
    Polyglot modernity: Science conducted in a range of languages such that most scientists can use their L1 sometimes but need L2s as well
    End of History: All science conducted in a language that is an L1 to the world’s sole remaining superpower (plus a handful of close relations) and an L2 to everyone else

    It goes from “everyone uses L2 all the time” to “everyone uses L1s and L2s and it roughly evens out” to “some people use L1 all the time, some people use L2 all the time.” The first two spread the burden around, albeit in different ways, while the last places it entirely on the shoulders of the non-Anglophone world.

  48. My undergraduate sociology textbook, ca. 1966, had a number of quotations translated from French, German, etc., with originals in footnotes, and the authors said in their preface that their editors had dissuaded them from doing it the other way around.

  49. Americans failure to learn foreign languages is due to the fact that American society at large places very little value on learning foreign languages (indeed, in some circles it is considered a liability to know a foreign language to well), not to poor teaching.

    Good point, and I’ll try to keep it in mind. But I still think that the people I’ve met who took six years of French and couldn’t utter a useful sentence can’t have had very good teachers. (Of course, that’s because American society at large places very little value on learning foreign languages and thus doesn’t insist its foreign language teachers be competent.)

  50. Henk Metselaar says:

    It goes from “everyone uses L2 all the time” to “everyone uses L1s and L2s and it roughly evens out” to “some people use L1 all the time, some people use L2 all the time.” The first two spread the burden around, albeit in different ways, while the last places it entirely on the shoulders of the non-Anglophone world.

    I think the second system stops evening out when the number of languages becomes too large. If there are publications in German, French and Russian, many readers would deal with four L2s. Add Chinese and Japanese and it becomes six. If you want to be read and cited (otherwise, why publish?) Dutch, Malay, …, are not good choices, so many still end up writing in L2.

    Besides, though I can’t substantiate that learning English, German (French, …) is more difficult when your native language and culture are far remote, the struggles I see around me make me suspect so.

    I still say that monoglot publication is a logical result of the widening of the audience and that it is beneficial for science. If I want to read Goethe, I will do so in my spare time.

  51. “Translate from there”

    It’s said that something similar happened to Oscar Wilde when he was being tested on his knowledge of New Testament Greek. They set him a passage from the Passion, which he translated fluently.

    “Thank you, Mr. Wilde”, said the examiner. Wilde went on translating. “That will do, Mr. Wilde”, said the examiner. Wilde went on for a moment and then broke off, saying, “Oh, do let me go on! I want to know how the story comes out!”

    In later life Wilde said he would rather decline two drinks than one Greek noun.

  52. In later life Wilde said he would rather decline two drinks than one Greek noun.

    I’ve heard that attributed to Dorothy Parker and German, though I don’t see it in the first few quotation sites that pop up on Google.

    But since this is a language blog, perhaps the following Parkerism will amuse: “That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say ‘No’ in any of them.”

  53. Latinworld: All science conducted in a language that is nobody’s L1
    Polyglot modernity: Science conducted in a range of languages such that most scientists can use their L1 sometimes but need L2s as well

    In Latinworld, all intellectual endeavors are conducted in Latin, but no science is conducted at all. Modern science begins with Galileo and, as the author points out, Galileo wrote many works in Italian. I think that’s how you argue for the proposition that the today’s scientific monoglottism is unprecedented. If you don’t accept that science starts with Galileo, then you wouldn’t accept this argument of course.

  54. J. W. Brewer says:

    Presumably one also needs to tweak the definition of Latinworld so that it is not destroyed by a single counterexample. WIth respect to the emergence of modern astronomy, for example, Copernicus, Brahe, and Kepler all published in Latin before or roughly contemporaneously with Galileo.

  55. I still think that the people I’ve met who took six years of French and couldn’t utter a useful sentence can’t have had very good teachers.

    I think this is a little unfair to the teachers. Since classes in foreign languages are required for admission to many colleges, and often for undergraduate general education requirements, there would probably be negative reactions if these courses were made more rigorous. (I find such requirements a bit unfortunate, although doubtless well-meant, partly for this reason.) A lot of the students taking these classes probably don’t have any particular interest in the language, and as mentioned foreign languages are not very prestigious academically or socially. In these circumstances, even a good teacher might find it hard to motivate students to learn effectively.

  56. David Marjanović says:

    laboriously acquire a foreign language to do science in

    The trick is that, unlike in this timeline, everything else that’s international is also in English, so an incentive to learn it is already there.

  57. In these circumstances, even a good teacher might find it hard to motivate students to learn effectively.

    That is my experience. I thought my teachers were excellent and supportive, but most of my classmates never became very proficiient in German, because they had other priorities. Another problem with measuring the “effectiveness” of language teaching is the inability of most people to retain a language they don’t use often. My wife spoke fluent Spanish when she left high school, she can’t speak it thirty years later, but that is not her high school teacher’s fault. Europeans, say Germans learning French or Italian, often get opportunities to use the languages at decent intervals in the native environment. A typical American who learns French or German in high school may never be exposed again to a situation where he needs that language.

  58. Another problem with measuring the “effectiveness” of language teaching is the inability of most people to retain a language they don’t use often. . . . A typical American who learns French or German in high school may never be exposed again to a situation where he needs that language.

    This Canadian studied French for seven years in junior high and high school with virtually no need to ever use it. What remains decades later is reasonably good reading comprehension, because so many government materials, consumer marketing efforts and so forth are produced in both of Canada’s official languages. Beyond that, I can stumble my way through France but that’s about it.

  59. I think this is a little unfair to the teachers.

    You’re absolutely right, and since I strongly believe that teachers (like other people who d the really hard and important work in society, unlike politicians and captains of industry) get far too little pay, respect, and support, I will try to retrain my brain on the subject. I forget to allow for the fact that most people don’t share my innate interest in languages.

  60. J. W. Brewer says:

    Do we think lack of interest in foreign languages is a US thing or an Anglophone thing? Are a significant percentage of high school students in Australia or New Zealand or Scotland learning Spanish or Russian or what have you to a higher level of actual fluency than is the case in the US?

    FWIW I think the woman who taught me German in junior high school and high school was not awful but also certainly not great. But German probably had the lowest enrollment of the languages offered (the district subsequently dropped it altogether) which probably meant that the students who took it were self-selected for at least a moderately higher degree of motivation than those who took French or Spanish (in those days you couldn’t start Latin until a later grade than Fr/Span/Ger — the district has subsequently dumped Latin as well but added Italian, and you can start Spanish, at least, at a younger age than my cohort could).

  61. Well, the UK is reputed to have the poorest foreign language skills in Europe. I don’t know if there’s an intrinsic hostility toward foreign languages in Anglophone culture, but it does appear that the global dominance of English, together with the isolated geographic position of the main English-speaking countries, has at least contributed to a general language-learning deficiency. Based on my own experience, I think one of the biggest mistakes made in the US is to start instruction too late: aside from a fluff course in sixth grade (in which we learned to say hello and count to ten in four different languages), it wasn’t until eighth grade – after I had transferred to a Catholic school – that I was able to take an actual foreign language course. When the courses begin that late, it seems very unlikely that any but the most dedicated students will make much lasting progress. I wish I had been able to start learning languages much, much earlier.

  62. marie-lucie says:

    On a recent visit with my family in France two of my nieces (late 20’s) were talking about languages. Both of them declared that after six years of instruction in English they were unable to hold a conversation in it.

  63. There’s also the linguistic isolation of English, which may be a factor. As I’ve noted before, there’s nowhere anglophones can go where they can sort-of understand the local language, or even sort-of read it: everything is either English or unintelligible.

  64. Do we think lack of interest in foreign languages is a US thing or an Anglophone thing?

    It’s definitely an Anglophone thing. And it doesn’t reveal anything unsavoury or arrogant about “Anglo culture”, as is so often said (usually by Anglos themselves, in my experience). Well, except for the animosity towards foreign languages in some conservative circles in the US. There’s definitely a lot that is unsavoury and arrogant about that. Hilarious, too.

    It’s only natural that most people aren’t going to put a considerable amount of effort into mastering a skill that’s useless to them. The only people people who will still do it are those who like languages and those few dedicated enough to learn the language of a specific culture which fascinates them.

    Are a significant percentage of high school students in Australia or New Zealand or Scotland learning Spanish or Russian or what have you to a higher level of actual fluency than is the case in the US?

    Definitely not. The only place where many Anglos learn a 2nd language seems to be South Africa. Many Anglos there seem to have a working knowledge of Afrikaans, even young ones born post-apartheid. But the foreign language classes there don’t work bacause of the sudents’ burning desire to learn a foreign language, just a combination of the language being such a close relative of English and living among so many who speak it. It’s not really a situation comparable to anywhere else Anglos live.

  65. “It’s definitely an Anglophone thing . . . Well, except for the animosity towards foreign languages in some conservative circles in the US.”

    What are the attitudes about language by right-wing, nationalists groups in continental Europe? I have a feeling that right-wing groups are generally xenophobic and I would think that this would effect their attitude about foreign languages.

  66. It depends on the language. Knowing a Western or Northern European language is seen as positive. There is a certain amount of animosity towards Eastern Europeans, non-Europeans, and speakers of minority languages speaking their languages. Mostly the source seems to be opposition to immigration regarding the former two, and “they all speak English/French/etc. anyway” regarding the latter. But a political candidate knowing a foreign language, any language, is unlikely to be controversial in the least, even in right-wing circles. So I’d say the attitudes are often ugly, and often based on prejudice, but cartoonish situations where knowing a foreign language is a liabilty or a controversy seem to be non-existent. There could well be very fringe groups who do make a big deal out of it, but so far I’ve never heard of any such controversies in Europe.

  67. It’s only natural that most people aren’t going to put a considerable amount of effort into mastering a skill that’s useless to them.

    At my US high school, the prestige language taken by nearly everyone was one that people would rarely have occasion to use (French) and while pretty much only native speakers took a language that was spoken around us (Spanish).

    I wonder how the internet has impacted language use though. I never saw a French film while I was learning French, but the internet came along, and youtube had me watching Bob L’eponge (not that hard) and Cagney et Lacey (hard).

  68. David Marjanović says:

    Both of them declared that after six years of instruction in English they were unable to hold a conversation in it.

    Language teaching in France is generally too little, too late.

  69. -I wonder how the internet has impacted language use though.

    I am amazed at numbers of people all of the world who can now understand spoken Japanese (and some even can read it!)

    This is apparently entirely due to popularity of Japanese anime series which are often only available in Japanese, so the hardcore fans are forced to learn Japanese in order to watch new episodes on youtube.

  70. And there are sixty-year old Russian housewives who are learning Spanish to watch and share new episodes of their favourite Latin American soap operas.

    I stumbled on such forum once and was very impressed with ability of ordinary people to learn new language if they really need it for whatever reason.

  71. marie-lucie says:

    David: Language teaching in France is generally too little, too late.

    I can’t speak for current programs, but I learned a lot of English starting at the age of 10 (most of my classmates were 11 or 12), with a very good teacher who actually spoke fluent English. In my 4th year our principal organized a trip to England and I was able to have limited conversations with my host family (at least with the parents – I could not understand a word of what their school-age children said). On the other hand, starting German two years later with an Alsatian teacher (native speaker of the Germanic dialect) was almost a waste of time since he had no idea of the difficulties encountered by native French children, and the whole class did poorly. I think that things have improved: in my old high school, students can now study Chinese, and some of them have been able to go and study in China thanks to the current efforts of the Chinese government to have Westerners learn Chinese.

    SFR: impressed with ability of ordinary people to learn new language if they really need it for whatever reason

    That’s what happens with immigrants, unless they join a large enough group of fellow speakers that they can get away with only minimal facility in the new language (in Canada this is the case for many older women in immigrant Chinese communities). And language learning ability is not incompatible with limited education.

    xenophobia and language learning

    I agree with gwenllian. In that respect the Western European situation is different from that in the US because there is not one large country and language dominating the others. Even the largest countries there are of similar size (eg France, Germany, Spain, Italy) and none of their national languages is threatened internally by any of the others. People travel easily between countries and in the larger cities and tourist areas even locals who have never travelled much are used to hearing a variety of other languages. Students choosing a second or third language to learn do so with the expectation of it being concretely useful once they set foot outside of their own country.

  72. I have a feeling that right-wing groups are generally xenophobic and I would think that this would effect their attitude about foreign languages.

    As Gwenlian says, there is more animosity towards non-Western languages . In Vienna there is some animosity towards people speaking Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian, Romanian or Turkish in public. There were stories in the newspaper last year about one of the popular bakery chains ordering its workers to speak only German to each other and customers, but everyone quickly noticed that management was perfectly fine with the staff using English with customers. The real motivation allegedly of the “German only” rule was to stop people speaking Bosnian or Turkish but management didn’t want to be too open about that.

    Even the far-right has no issue with English as far as I can tell. Other than perhaps in France, people don’t associate “English” with any political or historical animosity they may have towards England or the US. And everyone loves Ireland, Canada and Australia.

  73. “As Gwenlian says, there is more animosity towards non-Western languages.”

    I understand that Arabic is highly stigmatized in France.

  74. There are some nationalist movements in Mongolia which are very much against visible presence of Chinese or Korean language in signs on shops and restaurants, but for some reason they have no trouble with English (or Russian, for that matter).

    They usually tend to make their views heard by resorting to violence, so Chinese and Korean owners duly write their signs using exclusively Cyrillic or Latin.

  75. I understand that Arabic is highly stigmatized in France.

    I recently noticed an oddity in the Druze village of Daliyat al-Karmel just outside Haifa in Israel. Arabic is the community’s L1.

    Members of this millennium-old offshoot of Islam in Israel serve in the army. The current commander of an elite army brigade is a Druze, as is traditionally the aide-de-camp of the country’s president; for many years the news chief of the Israel Broadcasting Corporation was a Druze. Tension between Israeli Druze and Israeli Arabs (Muslims and Christians) has long existed, and scuffles (euphemism watch!) sometimes break out in mixed towns and villages.

    Though Arabic is historically the Druze community’s language, when interviewed on TV many Israeli Druze speak Hebrew with no discernible accent. This is unlike Israel’s Arab citizens who almost always speak Hebrew with an accent.

    The phenomenon I refer to: In Daliyat al-Karmel at least half of the handwritten retail point-of-sale signage describing goods and their prices were all in Hebrew.

    I wonder if there’s a real shift in the wind, where Israeli Druze will adopt Hebrew as their first language, reserving Arabic for liturgy and other rituals.

    (This part of the world is complicated: Though Golan Heights Druze also speak Hebrew well, and storefront signs are occasionally in Hebrew to increase traffic, I do not recall ever seeing little handwritten signs in their villages in Hebrew.)

  76. Wow, that’s fascinating. I read up on the Druze a couple of decades back, but the linguistic stuff is new to me.

  77. Paul Ogden: Interesting.

    Since most Druze, I think, live in Lebanon and Syria, whose L1 would be Arabic, there may be an incentive to maintain Arabic in Israel as well in order to maintain whatever relations may exist with Druze elsewhere.

  78. Such an incentive definitely exists among the Golan Heights Druze. Though Israel and Syria remain de jure at war, by special arrangement Golan Heights Druze often obtain post-secondary education in Syria and some of their farm produce (principally tree fruit) is sold in Syria. At a guess, there’s no such connection, or the connection has been lost, on the part of the other Druze in Israel.

    Clarification to my earlier post: because of the nature of the goods — I recall children’s clothing and cheap shoes in particular — the handwritten signs were aimed at local inhabitants. One simply doesn’t travel for half an hour or more for the kind of savings involved.

  79. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Do we think lack of interest in foreign languages is a US thing or an Anglophone thing?

    It’s definitely an Anglophone thing.

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding this. If you mean that all anglophone countries are bad at languages, not just the US, then yes. But if you mean that anglophone countries in general are worse than other large countries, like France, Spain, Italy or Russia then my experience doesn’t agree with this. I think the only large important country in which most educated people can converse in a foreign language is Germany.

    25 years ago France, Spain and Italy were no better than England or the US. In the 25 years I’ve lived in France it has improved a lot, and it has in Spain also (probably Italy as well, but I have less knowledge of Italy). In France or Spain it’s now usually safe to hope that any educated person younger than about 40 will be able to communicate intelligibly in English; older than that, probably not. In smaller countries (Scandinavia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal) it has always (since 1955 at least) been possible to find someone who could speak English. It’s not just English that I mean by “foreign”: all educated Portuguese people can communicate in Spanish (and many of them can speak French), but the reverse is not true. (Educated Portuguese can speak Spanish, more or less; less educated people can be understood if they speak Portuñol, and can understand Spanish.)

    Germany has been different for at least 30 years, and probably for a lot longer. I went to a meeting in Heidelberg about 30 years ago and found that the woman who cleaned my room could speak English, as could the taxi driver who took me to the airport.

  80. Many Arabs (and Druze) also speak fluent, unaccented Hebrew, especially younger ones. The situation is very interesting, since there’s a great practical pressure on Israeli Arabs to assimilate linguistically, but a great cultural pressure not to do so. Since the first intifada at least, many Arabic speakers who know Hebrew have refused to speak it or to acknowledge it. Interestingly, Hebrew loanwords have occasionally crept in into the Arabic of the most hard-core anti-Israeli speakers.

    Paul, are you sure the signs were aimed at the locals? Even if the discounts aren’t all that great, the reputation of Arab and Druze towns as places for bargains might draw people on extended shopping trips, and clearly shops with Hebrew signs will have the advantage among Jewish shoppers.

  81. You’re right that Arab and Druze towns are seen as good for bargains by the Jewish population. So though I can’t be 100 percent sure that the signs in Daliyat al-Karmel were aimed at the locals, that was my impression. It was during the early evening hours that I saw the signs, a time of day less likely to draw shoppers from a (relative) distance. By contrast, I don’t recall seeing such signs in Nazareth, which is populated almost entirely by Arabs and to which many Jewish shoppers are also drawn.

    Ruvik Rosenthal has written a number of non-scholarly articles in Hebrew on that language penetrating Israeli Arabic.

  82. Some years ago, I went to a lecture by an Israeli-Arab author whose latest book was written in Hebrew. During the Q&A, I asked him why he had decided on Hebrew as he also spoke Arabic and English fluently. He gave what I took to be a flippant response (“So his mother couldn’t read it”). As a result, I never found out why he made that decision.

  83. “There are some nationalist movements in Mongolia which are very much against visible presence of Chinese or Korean language in signs on shops and restaurants, but for some reason they have no trouble with English (or Russian, for that matter).”

    In Iranian Azerbaijan, there is some political tolerance for writing Azeri using Perso-Arabic script, but no-one has any interest doing so, given that no-one learns it at school and that everyone reads and writes Istanbul Turkish through a combination of exposure to Latin script at school and to Turkish media. There is no political tolerance for Latin-script Azeri. So you have the odd phenomenon of the merchandise for Traktor Tabriz, the FC Barcelona of Iran (in political terms, if not in terms of footballing skill) using fingilish rather than the far more natural alphabet of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

  84. Stefan Holm says:

    Why do Anglophones not learn foreign languages? An obvoius reason is of course that they don’t need to. But I would like to add a (maybe too) personal experience: In my school days we were taught grammar already from fifth grade. Word classes, clauses, tenses, cases, modes etc. was a part of studying Swedish. That was of little significance when I started learning English (in 4th grade) but I found it very useful in learning German (7th grade), French (9th grade) and Russian (10th grade).

    Could it be that in English speaking countries grammar is not a big deal, because the language ‘has no (inflectional) grammar’ (don’t read that literally)? Although basically sympathizing with Chomsky I don’t think that transformational grammar charts are of any help in learning foreign languages. But wouldn’t you be helped if you from the beginning had a grasp of what a dative, a subjunctive, a passive etc. (in classical grammar) is?

    Since we have no grammatically marked aspect in Swedish (I worked vs I was working) I remember having problems with the French passé simple vs imparfait – not to talk about the (for me) extremely complicated Russian aspectual system. On the other hand the German grammar and the Russian (concerning nouns, pronouns and adjectives) were a piece of cake to comprehend (theoretically).

    In other words it might (due to lack of knowledge in ‘classical’ grammar) be more difficult for English students to learn foreign languages than for many others. The real problem with English we modern barbarians face is spelling (‘enough’ instead of ‘inaff’), word order and pronunciation. (Yes, I know that idiomatic expressions, slang, use of correct preposition etc. is worse – but that goes for any language).

  85. Stefan Holm: When I was in high school (mid last century), Latin was very common. It is my impression that it is much less so now. But, a number of generations of Americans grew up with some exposure to “classical grammar.”

  86. “In other words it might (due to lack of knowledge in ‘classical’ grammar) be more difficult for English students to learn foreign languages than for many others. ”

    Stefan, it certainly isn’t going to hinder anyone learning Chinese, and the most usual problems people cite in learning Japanese or Korean are the SOV word order (it feels “inside out” to people), the honorific/speech level systems and the pro-drop nature of the grammars.

    “But wouldn’t you be helped if you from the beginning had a grasp of what a dative,”

    Well, only for languages that have this feature of case, which is far from universal or even a representative sampling.

    ” a subjunctive,”

    Yes, but that should include the whole epistemic system, most of which is lexicalized in English, as in most SAE languages I would bet.

    “a passive etc. (in classical grammar) is?”

    God yes! Please! If only to stop the misuse of the term. The other advantage would be to hip students to the rhetorical tricks a writer or speaker can pull with the passive – hiding the agent, making the participle look adjectival, thus characteristic of the patient rather than reflective of the agent’s action.

    There is a whole case grammar in English that involves that I doubt is taught to either L1 or L2 speakers.

  87. But wouldn’t you be helped if you from the beginning had a grasp of what a dative, a subjunctive, a passive etc. (in classical grammar) is?

    Maybe. But I don’t think it worked for me. Or maybe it’s because the languages I learned early have greatly different structures. My parents initially spoke Yiddish to me, and I was told that until I was about four I knew no English (my abilities with Yiddish today are mostly passive). Elementary school was half-day Province of Ontario curriculum conducted in English and half-day Jewish curriculum conducted in Hebrew.

    I have no memory of learning to read and write Hebrew and only the barest memory of learning to read and write English. My class began studying English grammar in Grade Six (age 11), though I sense we studied at least some Hebrew grammar earlier. My formal Hebrew studies ceased at age 13 yet I have a reasonably good academic grasp of Hebrew grammar — good enough that I could probably write a short essay on it — and I’ve always been fluent in the language.

    But French and Latin grammar in junior-high and high-school? Perish the thought. Once upon a time I had the Latin declensions more or less under control, but French verb conjugations have always been impenetrable to me. Many years later I took a course in Russian but gave up after a month. It reminded me too much of those tortured years in French class.

  88. Paul, thanks for the links. I knew of Rosenthal, but didn’t know about his articles on Hebrew words in Arabic.

    George W, do you remember who the Arab-Israeli author was?

    In 2002, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz had a special supplement on Hebrew language issues (it’s a cherished treasure.) One article, by filmmaker Nazar Hassan, is chock-full of anecdotes regarding Hebrew among Arabs. I translate here one of them, a real favorite:

    ” One dirt contractor, flush with money, decided in the early 1990s to upgrade his heavy equipment. An Israeli agent of one company offered to take him for a visit at their factory in England. The contractor liked it—his first trip abroad, and for free. After both were done with their respective business, the contractor was left staying by himself at the hotel in London, until his return flight the following evening.

    In the morning he left his hotel on a shopping trip, took the Underground, caught a cab—one more bag, one more shirt—a Man of the World! Several hours later, he decided to go back to his hotel. He turned left, turned right, didn’t recognize anything. He’s lost. Ask for directions? He doesn’t speak English. All he remembers from elementary and high school is OK, How are you, and the sentence My name is Helen. Nearing panic, he recognizes from a distance the familiar sign of the Underground. But how would he know in which direction to go? He finally gets up his nerve and addresses a woman coming out of the station, using the only cosmopolitan language he knows: Slikha, shalom, eikh magi’im le… [Hebrew, ‘Excuse me, hello, how do you get to…’] He stops mid-question, because the woman turns away, saying quietly, as if to herself, in a Lebanese accent, Yilʿan abuk, ya kalb ibn kalb [Arabic, ‘Damn your father, dog son of a dog,’ something like ‘You goddamn son of a bitch.’]

    On the one hand, what shame, what embarrassment; on the other hand—here’s a woman who speaks his language, and he need to get back to his hotel before he misses his flight. He rushes after the woman and cries, ‘Ana ʿarabi, ‘ana ʿarabi [‘I’m an Arab, I’m an Arab.’] She stops, turns, and slaps his face. Swallowing his pride, he pleads, “I speak only Arabic and I must get back to my hotel, but I got lost, I’m an Arab, from…” He almost said Israel, but stopped in time, and lowered his eyes. She softened and asked, ‘Inta min filasṭin? [‘You’re from Palestine?’] and he nodded, Naʿam. Min a-Naṣra [‘Yes. From Nazareth.’]

    When he got back to his hotel, thanks to the Arabic language, the contractor felt for the first time that he was indeed a Man of the World. Since then, he’d rather take a million slaps on the face from Israelis, rather than even one from the Arab world. “

  89. Stefan Holm says:

    I wasn’t thinking of Latin or any other specific grammar. I had in mind the universal grammar, which is there in English just as much as in any other tongue. That is, could teaching English students why they speak like they do and the terminology to describe it maybe make other languages easier to learn?

    ‘The color of the car’ and ‘the car’s color’ are both genitive expressions. ‘I gave the book to him’ and ‘the man, to whom I gave the book’ both contain a dative. ‘I’m rich’ is indicative, ‘if I were rich’ is subjunctive and ‘may I be rich’ is optative. ‘She read a book’ is indicative perfect preterite while ‘she was reading a book’ is indicative imperfect preterite and ‘she would be reading a book’ is subjunctive imperfect present. ‘Hard’ is an adjective modifying a noun but ‘hardly’ is an adverb modifying a verb (or an adjective).

    If students were familiar with these concepts in their native language, don’t you think it would be of significant help in learning foreign ones? After all they are universals, in one way or the other found everywhere around the tower of Babel.

  90. “George W, do you remember who the Arab-Israeli author was?”

    Regrettably I don’t.

  91. American students (and, I assume, students in many other English-speaking countries) learn about adjectives and adverbs, subjects and objects, and other grammatical features that English has. They may hear about indirect objects (I did, in seventh grade), but since modern English has only two cases, and only pronouns are inflected for case, it makes no sense to teach them about English’s nonexistent “dative,” etc.

  92. marie-lucie says:

    There is a book series with titles like “English grammar for students of French” (and similarly of Spanish, German, etc, languages commonly taught in North America). In my experience in English Canada, many English-speaking students either have never been formally taught about English grammar or have been very poorly taught (by teachers who have themselves been very poorly taught). To them, grammar mostly means a series of prohibitions such as “Never end a sentence with a preposition” or “Never split an infinitive”.

  93. I had in mind the universal grammar, which is there in English just as much as in any other tongue […] ‘she would be reading a book’ is subjunctive imperfect present. […] After all they are universals, in one way or the other found everywhere around the tower of Babel.

    In that sense there is no universal grammar. Calling “will read” a future tense and “would read” a subjunctive mood just obscures their essential grammatical parallelism. English has two tenses, past and non-past, and two moods, indicative and imperative, plus a survival of the old subjunctive in mandative subordinate clauses and in the use of were as an alternative to was in conditionals.

    What would be the English (or Swedish) equivalent of such grammatical concepts as the dual number, or a switch-reference particle, or an X-not-X question, or a serial verb construction? (English has the last marginally in sentences like “Go tell your aunt her goose is dead.”) What English sentences show the inverse voice, or morphological ergativity? What is the equivalent in other languages to the English use of unmarked instrument-subject sentences like “The hammer demolished the doghouse”?

  94. Stefan Holm says:

    John: There are no inflectional marks of future or subjunctive in English but ’will read’ and ’would read’ certainly are conceptual marks. So when you say, that ‘English has two tenses … and two modes’ I object. English has all the tenses, all the modes and all the aspects that are thinkable to mankind. The way you express them – by inflections or by particle-like words – is secondary. It indeed also seems as if languages focusing on (grammatical) aspect tend to pay less attention to tense and mode and the other (three) ways around. With the help of one you could find ways to express the others.

    Whar about ‘be it so’ (instead of ‘I wish that it will/would be so)?’Isn’t that an obvious optative? The dual number? ‘Both’ is definitely dual. Ergative by definition excludes ‘accusative’ and vice versa but that’s only two roads to the same goal and the passive voice is anyway a transition stage.

    A Russian, who for some reason isn’t in the mood for work, could say mne ne khotyetsa rabotat’ – (lit.) ‘for me (it) (does) not want itself (to) work’. Mne = dative of ‘I’, ne = ‘not’, khotyetsa = ‘want/wish’ in passive voice or – if you like – reflexive and rabotat’ = ‘(to) work’. An English student aware of the concepts dative, passive and reflexive would face no problems in interpretating this lament.

    But maybe I’m fighting windmills. Since decades ‘grammar’ is an ugly word even in the Swedish educational system. Learning foreign languages is just for social interaction and amusement. Reading scientific or classical works is for Geeks and not for commoners who really are not expected to be citizens but just consumers.

  95. English has all the tenses, all the modes and all the aspects that are thinkable to mankind. The way you express them – by inflections or by particle-like words – is secondary.

    By all means, but now you are no longer talking about syntax but about semantics. When we say English has no dual number in nouns, we mean there is no syntactic difference between two eggs and three eggs, not that there is no way to represent the distinction between two eggs and three.

    What is more, it is not the case that all languages have a method of disambiguating every type of construction that is unambiguous in another language, other than by the entire conversational context. Thanks! in reply to an offer means ‘yes’ in English, but in French Merci! can mean either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ depending on the total context, as Marie-Lucie pointed out here.

  96. marie-lucie says:

    Stefan, JC: Having many occasions to read grammars and other works focusing on various languages, I often run into instances where two different (though similar) sentences in language X are translated identically in English, because the language in question (which could be French, German, etc just as much as something much more “exotic”) makes a distinction which is not possible in English (the opposite can also be true).

  97. Some years ago, I went to a lecture by an Israeli-Arab author whose latest book was written in Hebrew. During the Q&A, I asked him why he had decided on Hebrew as he also spoke Arabic and English fluently. He gave what I took to be a flippant response (“So his mother couldn’t read it”). As a result, I never found out why he made that decision.

    There are a number of reasons that could have influenced the author’s decision.

    Springing to mind immediately is the paucity of Arab-language bookstores in Israel. The Arab world in general reads very little.*

    As well, any book published in Israel, whatever the language, is essentially banned in the Arab world. Though the shift to online sales to some degree renders that fact moot, I doubt that mainstream media would review such a book, thus hampering its promotion.

    Publishing in English is fine, but no Israeli publisher would do that unless it’s a book aimed at tourists or religiously observant Jews in the anglosphere, or a niche product. (There are only about 150,000 native English speakers in Israel.)

    An established author might find interest among anglosphere publishers in London or New York, but the key word is established. Or maybe having a really good agent.

    That leaves publishing in Hebrew for an Israeli audience, and a hope that the publisher succeeds in selling other-language rights at the Frankfurt Book Fair (or possibly the Jerusalem Book Fair) to a foreign publisher who will publish the book in English (largest audience internationally) or German, French and so forth.

    * “The translation movement in the Arab world . . . remains static and chaotic. On average, only 4.4 translated books per million people were published in the first five years of the 1980s (less than one book per million people per year), while the corresponding rate in Hungary was 519 books per one million people and in Spain 920 books.” — 2003 U.N. Arab Human Development Report

  98. “The Arab world in general reads very little.”

    Maybe. I don’t have any good evidence supporting or refuting this. But. In Cairo there are many bookstores. Books are sold very cheaply (I think subsidized by the state). And, There is a huge and highly publicized book fair every year. And, of course, they have a nobel laureate in literature.

    I have purchased a book or two at a Christian bookstore there (on the history of Christianity in Egypt and one arguing, with good evidence, that the Bible was written in Arabic before the Qur’an).

    George

  99. Stefan Holm says:

    You are absolutely right, John, that I’m talking about semantics. But isn’t that the essential thing when discussing these matters? Isn’t it the opponents to the idea of a universal grammar, that usually cling to syntactics? Russian ‘kniga’, French ‘livre’ and Finnish ‘kirja’ can’t be used as an argument that those languages don’t include the word ‘book’. Thus I maintain the idea, that ‘both’, ‘we (you) two’ or ‘the two of us (you)’ could be labeled as English duals (albeit not inflected).

    As for thanks and merci both (i.e. they are exactly two 🙂 ) words can depending on the situation and pronunciation mean anything from ‘God bless you’ to ‘go to hell’.

  100. Universal grammar, in the Chomskyan sense, is precisely the claim that there is a universal framework for syntax, though in any given language some of its options are not taken. It is controversial, and has nothing to do with the claim that every meaning expressible in can be expressed in every language, provided the language has a sufficient number of technical terms. The latter is generally accepted, except among the linguistically ignorant.

  101. “The Arab world in general reads very little.” Maybe. I don’t have any good evidence supporting or refuting this.

    Over the last decade or so the UN has published several studies about “human development” in the Arab world. Lots of data there about literacy levels, reading habits, publishing, translations from other languages and so forth.

  102. Aaron Davies says:

    One thing I think is often underestimated in attempts to explain why Americans don’t learn foreign languages is how *big* America is–compare the number of languages encountered in daily life on a trip from, say, Dublin to Moscow with those encountered between Seattle and Miami, a trip over half again as long.

  103. I wonder how much is translated from Arabic.

    I don’t recall ever seeing any books translated from Arabic on bookshelves (with exception of 1001 nights, Quran and religious literature)

  104. David Marjanović says:

    And there are sixty-year old Russian housewives who are learning Spanish to watch and share new episodes of their favourite Latin American soap operas.

    I’m impressed.

    Even the far-right has no issue with English as far as I can tell.

    Well, of course not. After all, stormfront.org is in English.

    *dives under table*

    ‘I gave the book to him’ and ‘the man, to whom I gave the book’ both contain a dative.

    Or an accusative – Latin ad goes with the accusative.

    ‘Hard’ is an adjective modifying a noun but ‘hardly’ is an adverb modifying a verb (or an adjective).

    Well, yes, but if either your native language or the language you’re trying to learn is German, you’re screwed.

    Chinese, on the other hand, doesn’t distinguish any such categories at all.

  105. How to go from zero level Spanish to competent translator in a year?

    Just watch several thousand hours worth of subtitled Latin American soap operas in a year and you will be able to translate and make subtitles yourself!

  106. I wonder how much is translated from Arabic.

    Very little.

    The PNAS paper on which the interactive graph is based is titled “Links that speak: The global language network and its association with global fame.” It was the subject of an LH post on 17 December 2014 titled “Languages of Influence” of which you were the only commenter.

  107. “I wonder how much is translated from Arabic.”

    All of Nagueb Mahfouz’s books (Nobel laureate in literature). Alaa Al Aswany’s books . . .

  108. “I wonder how much is translated from Arabic.”

    That would be a good question to also ask about any non-Western country. China? Japan? Nigeria? Turkey? Brazil? . . .

  109. marie-lucie says:

    ‘Hard’ is an adjective modifying a noun but ‘hardly’ is an adverb modifying a verb (or an adjective).

    Semantically, hard work goes with working hard, not with hardly working. I can’t think of any example where hardly would be an adjective.

  110. squadron leader squiffy von bladet says:

    I roam the local streets of Nederland speaking English to my many bilingual children. No one rebukes me, and shop assistants often English me instead. (The latest admitted to wondering, after I invited a switch to Dutch, why I would be wearing a Local Foopball Team woolly hat if I was so militantly ex-patriated.)

  111. I don’t recall ever seeing any books translated from Arabic on bookshelves (with exception of 1001 nights, Quran and religious literature)

    Denys Johnson-Davies’s prolific translations from Arabic were a significant part of the reading of my youth, some of them in the Heinemann African Writers Series. DJD’s memoirs of life as a translater were published recently.

  112. Also, the British literary magazine Banipal publishes translations, reviews of translated books etc from Arabic.

  113. “I wonder how much is translated from Arabic.” That would be a good question to also ask about any non-Western country. China? Japan? Nigeria? Turkey? Brazil? . . .

    The link I supplied above leads to an interactive infographic that will answer your questions.

  114. Stefan Holm says:

    That, Paul, is an annual headache for the Swedish Academy in chosing a Nobel Prize Winner. But they are aware (and each year reminded by the media) that good literature is’nt only written in Germanic, Romance and Slavic.

  115. Stefan Holm says:

    m-l: My intention was not to say that ’hardly’ could be an adjective but that it could modify one. Maybe the pair hard-hardly was a bad choice since they have drifted apart semantically. I suppose though that the expressions ‘hard convincing evidence’ and ‘hardly convincing evidence’ both are plausible in English and where ‘hard’ is modifying the noun while ‘hardly’ is modifying the adjective.

  116. marie-lucie says:

    SH: Sorry about the misunderstanding. I thought you meant that hardly could be an adjective. My mistake.

  117. A huge reason behind the Arab world reading so little is probably its diglossia. Lebanese people, for example, read quite a bit, but they apparently find it easier to read in English and French than to struggle through MSA. I understand the desire of Arab countries to keep MSA in order to maintain close ties to each other, but the way they go about it just seems wildly impractical to me.

  118. “A huge reason behind the Arab world reading so little is probably its diglossia.”

    Can you point to specific evidence that the Arab world reads “so little.” And, compared with whom?

    I perused one of the links provided, but could not find anything that supports (or refutes) this claim. Maybe I didn’t look deep enough. It would be appreciated if you could point to the specific evidence.

    George

  119. -That would be a good question to also ask about any non-Western country. China? Japan? Nigeria? Turkey? Brazil? . . .

    Japan produces enormous amounts of popular literature which is translated by tons both by official publishers and millions of fans worldwide.

    It’s mostly youth thing, so not many adults in the West are aware of this phenomenon.

    Amount of Japanese audiovisual production are staggering and most of it is exported, undergoing translation in the process.

    China is not that important yet, but I see signs that they probably will catch up at some point. Most of Chinese cultural exports is consumed by Asian markets at present, but eventually they will expand into the West as well.

    As I know, Turkey, Brazil and Nigeria are big producers of TV soap operas which are successfully exported abroad, though very little of it goes to Western countries.

    I was very surprised to find Nigerian soap operas on Youtube, but they appear to be quite popular in African countries. By the way, the language spoken in these shows is Nigerian English, so they probably don’t need translation (but subtitles would be nice, it’s kind of hard to understand it at times)

  120. As I said, there are many translations from Arabic of religious literature. Mostly of Jihadist variety, I presume.

    Or maybe not, it’s hard to be sure.

    There is some demand for this kind of translations from Arabic in Western countries with significant Muslim populations.

  121. “As I know, Turkey, Brazil and Nigeria are big producers of TV soap operas which are successfully exported abroad, though very little of it goes to Western countries.”

    As is Egypt in the Arab World. They are big exporters of TV programs and movies. But, I don’t think any can compete with Bollywood in India.

    George

  122. On translations of Chinese popular literature into other Asian languages.

    I think one example would suffice.

    This book is a Vietnamese translation of big Chinese novel.

    Really big.

    It runs 52 thousand pages.

  123. I had in mind the universal grammar, which is there in English just as much as in any other tongue

    I am continually amazed that people still believe the myth of a universal grammar.

    “I wonder how much is translated from Arabic.”

    All of Nagueb Mahfouz’s books (Nobel laureate in literature). Alaa Al Aswany’s books . . .

    But not all of Abdelrahman Munif!

  124. “But not all of Abdelrahman Munif!”

    There is always another language قبعه to put on. 😉

  125. I am continually amazed that people still believe the myth of a universal grammar.

    But Stefan’s turned out not to be UG but universal semantics: that is, as opposed to the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Which is fine; even Lojbanists don’t believe in that.

  126. Ah, right you are. As you were!

  127. David Marjanović says:

    China is not that important yet, but I see signs that they probably will catch up at some point. Most of Chinese cultural exports is consumed by Asian markets at present, but eventually they will expand into the West as well.

    There is some awareness: some big-budget movies with Gong Li were dubbed into German some 10 years ago or more.

    It runs 52 thousand pages.

    Mind blown.

  128. As I said, there are many translations from Arabic of religious literature.

    I don’t know if this is in response to me but Denys Johnson-Davies was a translator of Arabic liberature into English, both from Africa as well as West Asia.

    I think there is a lot of translation of literature by women as well, from the feminist novels published by Women’s Press to works like Sahar Khalifeh’s Wild Thorns (which I thought was great, much better and more subtle than the Kirkus Review would suggest).

  129. J. W. Brewer says:

    http://language.media.mit.edu/rankings/books has the specific book-translation data referenced above (although as also implied above, it’s potentially problematic to think of old-economy hard-copy books as opposed to e.g. movies/tv shows as the primary metric of a language’s health). For languages translated from, Arabic is 18th, with Japanese and Chinese as the only non-Western languages ahead of it (it’s significantly ahead of Chinese on a per capita basis for that metric, fwiw); for languages translated into, it’s 27th, with Japanese, Chinese, and Korean as the only non-Western languages ahead of it. Arabic does significantly better on both metrics than Hindi, which probably has more speakers. Indeed, it does better than the five largest South Asian languages all added together.

  130. I found another source – “LITERARY TRANSLATION FROM ARABIC INTO ENGLISH IN THE UNITED KINGDOM AND IRELAND, 1990-2010” which says that

    “according to S.J. Altouma, between 1947 and 1967 there were probably only sixteen Arabic books translated into English. ”

    “around sixty novels and forty anthologies were published between 1968 and 1988” and

    “close to 300 titles in the category of literature (fiction, short stories, essays, memoirs, poetry) were published in the last two decades, including 108 titles published by AUCP in Cairo which are distributed in the UK. Translations from Arabic show a clear upward trend, reaching over twenty titles per year in the second half of the current decade. ”

    Not as bad as I thought after all.

  131. Japan produces enormous amounts of popular literature which is translated by tons both by official publishers and millions of fans worldwide. It’s mostly youth thing, so not many adults in the West are aware of this phenomenon.

    Thanks for making me feel young. I suspect most Westeners under 50 are at least aware of the mass phenomenon of Manga and Anime. In my part of the US, dubbed versions of Japanese shows like Speed Racer and Ultraman were massively popular among kids back in the early 1970s. There has been a strong subculture of people reading Manga in English translation since at least the late 1980s. Granted, a lot of people might forget to include Manga in the category of “literature” when thinking of what languages get translated a lot.

  132. J. W. Brewer: Interesting stats.

    I would point out that Arabic has the lowest per capita GDP (followed closely by China) among the top 25. I would think the that level of affluence would be a significant factor in book publishing. This might be a major factor with Hindi and Urdu. Poor people would have less money, and maybe time, to spend on books.

    “. . . it’s 27th, with Japanese, Chinese, and Korean as the only non-Western languages ahead of it.”

    And Hebrew.

  133. It’s not just manga and anime.

    There is also this thing called ranobe (from Japanese coined English expression “light novel”), which is a very popular genre among young people.

    It’s basically a series of short novels (about 40,000-50,000 words) with pictures.

    Series can get very long – 17 volumes for “Spice and Wolf”, for example.

    Yes, more text than “War and Peace” and it’s definitely a kind of literature.

    As I discovered, there are forums on the Internet for fans of this genre where they order new volumes from Japan, scan them. run OCR programme and then translate the text and make pirated English editions.

    And since Google Translate doesn’t produce readable text from Japanese, these guys have to learn Japanese first to the level of competent translator.

    An endeavour which can easily take years of effort as Bathrobe knows.

    But love for popular literature overcomes all challenges…

  134. over twenty titles per year

    Well, from 5 to 20 books is a fourfold improvement, I grant. But when you see that there are about 200M arabophones and only 300M U.S. anglophones, and that the latter publish about 64K adult (i.e. non-juvenile) novels a year (not counting on-demand public domain reprints), the contrast is still pretty stark.

  135. J. W. Brewer says:

    I’m not sure if I noticed Hebrew, but I wouldn’t have treated it as non-Western (in the relevant sense, which has to do with culture rather than historical linguistics or current geographical location) if I had. What would be interesting would be to compare Arabic to say Russian which I suppose one could say is both Western and non-Western given the complicated political history etc. of its speakers, not just in raw numbers but in terms of what actually does and doesn’t get translated. Come up with lists of a) titles originally written in say English or French and translated into both Russian and Arabic over the last 20 years; and b) titles ditto translated into Russian but not Arabic, and see if any pattern emerges in what’s on one list but not the other. You could also try the same thing with e.g. Japanese.

    For Hindi/Bengali/etc/etc you probably have the issue that the segment of the population disproportionately inclined to book-buying (i.e. well above median in income and/or level of formal education) is disproportionately likely to be completely literate in English, perhaps even more so than the extent to which the comparable segment of the population in, say, Lebanon and Algeria is likely to be completely literate in French.

  136. J. W. Brewer says:

    For Arabic translations into and translations out of are not that far from a 1:1 ratio, but it’s interesting to see where the ratio is really skewed. It’s unsurprising that dead languages (e.g. Ancient Greek) have many more translations out than in, but it might give you a chip on the shoulder if you were translating a lot more foreign texts into your language than foreigners wanted to translate out of your language. For e.g. Slovenian it’s understandable that the ratio is so skewed just because there are so few of you, but e.g. Portuguese and Malay (probably has Bahasa Indonesia lumped in, given the 300-million-speaker claim) don’t have that comforting explanation available.

  137. perhaps even more so than the extent to which the comparable segment of the population in, say, Lebanon and Algeria is likely to be completely literate in French.

    I think these days people in Lebanon are more likely to be completely literate in English, at least young people. There is a fair bit of trilingualism, with especially the Maronite population still clinging to French, but I can’t see French having much of a future in the country in the long term. It seems likely that knowledge and use of English will further expand at the expense of French, while Arabic will continue to be relatively rarely used for serious reading and writing in Lebanon, barring the unlikely event of an Arabic language reform which could shake things up.

  138. Speaking of French in Lebanon, I recently watched Incendies, a Canadian film about the country’s civil war. In one scene, two twenty-something Maronite cousins have a brief conversation in French. In all the other family scenes, with the entire family present, everybody speaks Arabic. I might have missed something about the context, but I found that confusing, .

  139. “I think these days people in Lebanon are more likely to be completely literate in English, at least young people.”

    That is my impression as well. When I visited there in the early nineties, it seemed that French was the predominate 2nd language. When I was there a few years ago, I had the same impression about English.

  140. That is my impression (I lived in Lebnon from 2004 – 2008) as well. French still hangs on as a prestige language among, mostly, Christian elites (and those who want to belong to those), but people below the age of 40 who know French, but no English, are becoming rare.

  141. Hans, what would you say about the Incendies scene I mentioned? Is it realistic that two young Lebanese in the 70s or early 80s would speak to each other in French? Why would they do it? I know that’s decades before you lived there, but you still have more insight into the situation than most of us here.

  142. marie-lucie says:

    Is it realistic that two young Lebanese in the 70s or early 80s would speak to each other in French?

    Around 1970 while in graduate school in British Columbia I knew a student from Lebanon who was bilingual in French and Arabic. I understood that his family (Lebanese Christians) spoke mostly French between themselves at home, and used Arabic with the servants, shopkeepers, etc and also for jokes and other low-level conversations. He himself recalled speaking French as well as Arabic with Christian friends, and Arabic with Muslim ones, who were less likely to know French. Schooling in French was provided mostly by foreign Catholic orders to Christian students, in English by Protestant or non-denominational Christians to mostly Muslim students.

  143. At about the same time (I was 14 or so) I met a Lebanese student of my father’s. He was trilingual in Arabic, French, and English. I asked him if he felt more French or more Lebanese (he had been out of Lebanon for ten years or more). He replied “French in the head, Lebanese in the stomach.”

  144. Hans, what would you say about the Incendies scene I mentioned? Is it realistic that two young Lebanese in the 70s or early 80s would speak to each other in French?
    Yes, absolutely. Even today, you’ll find lots of young Lebanese who are fluent in French, but nowadays you’d expect most of them to be fluent in English as well.
    Why would they do it?
    As I said, among the Christian elites French is a sign of social standing, so these Lebanese perhaps belonged to that group or wanted to belong. At the private school my daughter visited during the elementary school years, in the mostly Christian Jounieh, children mostly spoke French during the breaks and there were families where French was the home language.
    There’s also many Lebanese who alternate between living in France or other Francophone countries, so these Young People may have belonged to such a group and simply may have felt more comfortable in French.
    At about the same time (I was 14 or so) I met a Lebanese student of my father’s. He was trilingual in Arabic, French, and English.
    In my experience, Lebanese are very good language learners and many of them speak several languages. The combination you mention – (Lebanese) Arabic, English, French – is very frequent, but it’s not rare to meet Lebanese who speak five or six languages.

  145. Il vergognoso says:

    “French in the head, Lebanese in the stomach.”

    Not exactly false for the French or other foreigners in France, either.

  146. If anyone out there likes wine, I highly recommend Chateau Musar, which is delicious and not like anything else and which was doggedly made throughout the civil war (I think they only missed one year). Needless to say, it goes very well with Lebanese food; I used to bring it to the late lamented Al Dewan restaurant in Astoria, Queens.

  147. Which reminds me of this decade-old thread.

  148. Thanks, everyone! I guess the language situation in Lebanon is even more complex than I thought.

  149. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @Athel Cornish-Bowden:

    In France or Spain it’s now usually safe to hope that any educated person younger than about 40 will be able to communicate intelligibly in English

    You must be speaking of a different Spain from the one in which I lived for most of the past decade. Most people my age (I’m in my mid-thirties) are unable to conduct even a simple transaction in English, regardless of their level of education.

  150. Following on my previous comment, this 2012 Eurobarometer report claims that only 22% of Spaniards describe themselves as able to hold a conversation in English.

  151. I’m mad — mad with misery!

    It’s clear from the circumstances of the story that the writer is saying he is crazy, not angry; his douleur has made him out of his mind. DLS had a mind too fine to be violated by an Americanism, and when she did try to write ordinary middle-class Americans of the 1920s talking, they generally began their sentences with “Say!”

    But why the French version says enrage, which means only ‘angry’ (it used to mean ‘rabid’ as well) I cannot say. The addressee, by the way, is a person of indeterminate nationality from Vienna, definitely not a native francophone, and didn’t read the letter anyhow.

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