Michael Hofmann on Learning Languages.

Translator Michael Hofmann didn’t like the removal of modern languages from the “core curriculum” in the UK, and he wrote about it at the Guardian back in 2010:

On the individual level, think of the loss of possibility, the preordained narrowness of a life encased in one language, as if you were only ever allowed one, as if it were your skin in which you were born. Or your cage. That’s your lot. When the great Australian poet Les Murray said: “We are a language species”, he didn’t mean English. We think and are and have our being in, and in and out of languages – and where’s the joy and the richness, if you don’t even have two to rub together? If you don’t have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases, all your life. It’s harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself, in just one language. It’s harder to play.

Although he says “harder to play,” most of his extended gripe sounds a lot like “eat your spinach.” Nobody’s going to learn another language because it’s said to be good for them, or because international relations require it. I like the attitude of the first commenter, HoshinoSakura: “I think the best reason for learning languages is that you have fun!”

Comments

  1. From 2010! Well fry mah hide! Slow noos day, Mr. Hat? Ennyway, th’ statement he makes below jest soun’s goofy.
    “Browne, Milton, Gibbon, Ruskin, perhaps soon the much-invoked Orwell, are unreachably foreign”

  2. Slow noos day, Mr. Hat?

    Yup, or more accurately fast work day — I unexpectedly had to do some extra material for a book I thought was finished and turned in, and I had to reach into my grab bag of emergency post material. Sorry for the stale supper!

  3. It’s harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself, in just one language. It’s harder to play.

    Mr. Hofmann is quite wrong here. You have to reach high level of fluency in new language to be able to understand jokes, never mind tell your own. You have to be at least half-way competent to understand that people can be wrong in foreign language. Don’t take it from me, take it from Brodsky and Dovlatov.

  4. This is a linguistics site, and in linguistics, 1890 is still current and 2010 is yesterday.

  5. Also play stuff like crossword puzzles. Took me 5-6 years before I could complete the five minute one at the back of the free paper. I then did it almost every work day for almost two years, did wonders for my vocabulary.

  6. You have to reach high level of fluency in new language to be able to understand jokes, never mind tell your own

    Depends on the sophistication of the joke. I suspect if I picked up a Swedish or Croatian version of “Reader’s Digest” I would understand 90% of the tired jokes about lazy husbands or oversexed housewives even with my minimal reading knowledge of those languages. Actually, reading dumb jokes in low brow periodicals is also a useful way to pick up basic vocabulary in a new language pretty quickly.

  7. Actually, reading dumb jokes in low brow periodicals is also a useful way to pick up basic vocabulary in a new language pretty quickly.
    There’s even a Russian series of language learning textbooks called “(Name of Language) шутя” where the learning material consists entirely of jokes.

  8. Essentially all contemporary adult Dutchpersons are at least functional in English. It has not especially been my impression that their inner lives are invariably of a richness and subtlety unfathomable to the monoglot. (I am pretty functional in Dutch, and the same very much goes for me, but that’s a smaller sample.)

  9. Yeah, I get the feeling that Hofmann just spewed out whatever came to his mind while he was upset and didn’t bother doing even a minimal reality check.

  10. Jim (another one) says:

    “Essentially all contemporary adult Dutchpersons are at least functional in English. It has not especially been my impression that their inner lives are invariably of a richness and subtlety unfathomable to the monoglot.”

    I think you need to go a leetle bit farther afield than another geographically contiguous SAE language to get the cognitive benefits of learning a second language. I recall a study someone did years ago where they interviewed a sample of Nisei women in Hawaii, pretty much fully bilingual. They did two interviews with each woman, both with the same questions. They gave different answers depending on which language they were speaking.

  11. > Nobody’s going to learn another language because it’s said to be good for them

    I’d go even further (farther?) and claim that no one can learn languages in the traditional boarding-school way. I’m all for making use of kids’ ease in learning languages, but doing it in an inefficient way is counterproductive.

    Helen DeWitt once suggested that we should have something like language gyms; a kind of language learners’ library, specialized in interesting books and movies and songs in foreign languages, graded by difficulty, surrounded by learning aids, where you could just barge in when you have a some free time and play with your French or Cantonese or whatever, perhaps with a coach nearby for a helping hand.

  12. Yeah, that’s a great idea.

  13. I think you need to go a leetle bit farther afield than another geographically contiguous SAE language to get the cognitive benefits of learning a second language.

    Depends on the cognitive benefits in question. The literature on bilingualism to stave off Alzheimer’s does not, so far as I know, mention this.

    It is perhaps worth remarking that the modern language programmes of English schools tended to offer both languages; French and German – linguistically-induced phenomenological bifurcation was neither an intended nor a routinely-achieved outcome. For that matter, basic competence in the allegedly taught languages was not something you could reasonably take for granted. (Based on my lived experience among Englishpersons of the era.)

  14. I’d go even further (farther?) and claim that no one can learn languages in the traditional boarding-school way.

    Depends on the tradition. And the student. Dr. Johnson on being asked how he came to be so well versed in Latin replied:

    “My master whipt me very well, without that, sir, I should have done nothing.”

    Not that I’m advocating a return to the ferule, mind. Much as I enjoy Dr. J., I could not wish that regimen on anyone.

  15. Hofmann wants schools to force foreign languages on all pupils, regardless of their aptitude for them. His argument depends on the glib generalisations that all pupils have the aptitude and can thus become fluent and reap the benefits. One size does not fit all.

  16. Mark Shoulson says:

    “I think you need to go a leetle bit farther afield than another geographically contiguous SAE language to get the cognitive benefits of learning a second language.”

    Not so sure. I think even a tiny step outside of your comfortable monolingual shell can be an eye-opening experience. Every little bit helps. Then again, this means that Squiffy-Marie von Bladet’s experience provides a counterexample to my understanding.

  17. I think the problem is that dropping a language requirement lowers the bar overall. It sends the message to everyone that “studying foreign languages is neither important nor necessary”. It implies that knowing a foreign language is not important for a person’s education.

    It reminds me of something I heard from a retired mathematics professor recently. A particular university department (my poor memory fails me here, it may have been statistics or even economics) dropped mathematics as an entry requirement on the grounds that not all students needed it. The result was that all kinds of students who would never have applied previously started applying to enter the department. Naturally, many such students started needing remedial classes in mathematics after they entered.

    Dropping a requirement is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. It doesn’t just affect a small number of people for whom it makes things slightly easier; it affects the behaviour of large numbers of people who modify their actions according to what is required by the system. (Sorry for not remembering the details; it’s the principle that’s important.)

  18. That is a useful thing to bear in mind.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    Hofmann wants schools to force foreign languages on all pupils, regardless of their aptitude for them.

    So? English, at the very least, is forced on all pupils in a long and growing list of countries. 😐

  20. You probably deserve it.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    🙂

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