THE NATIONAL LANGUAGE.

The always entertaining xkcd has a perfect encapsulation of the asininity of the usual simplistic “if you come here, you should speak English” attitude. (Via Eric Bakovic at Language Log.)

Comments

  1. Now see…I thought you were saying that this is the usual attitude at xkcd. But you meant the encapsulation is there…right?

  2. Whoa, you’re right—I did a terrible job with that sentence! Off to rewrite…

  3. Always makes me laugh, even when I don’t get the computer language jokes.

  4. Wow, brilliant critique.

  5. In this context, the UK government has just said that less money should be spent on translating offical signs and documents into various languages and more help given to immigrants to learn English – a complete switch in policy aimed at promoting better integration.
    For example, there has been a large influx of Polish workers (although not obviously permanent immigrants, actually) that has caused local authorities to put up road signs in Polish as well as English – local authorities typically offer information sheets in up to 12 different languages.
    There has been rumbling for years here, as, I believe, in the US, about immigrants who never learn English even in more or less a lifetime here – TV found an example Pakistanti woman here for 22 years with no English – it does seem more prevalent in the sub-continent origin population.

  6. What would you prefer, “if you come here, you should speak Cherokee?” Maybe we should change the road signs? Or mandate that all air traffic controllers learn the “native” language? I tried replying in Cherokee to the traffic cop when last pulled over. To my amazement, he didn’t seem to understand a word I was saying. Most likely sees plenty of us simplistic asinine types in his line of work.

  7. What would you prefer, “if you come here, you should speak Cherokee?”
    No, I would prefer that people be reasonable and recognize that it’s natural for people to speak their own languages, that providing services for them in their own languages makes sense for many reasons, and that the inevitable pressures of fitting into an English-speaking society will guarantee that succeeding generations will learn English, so people should stop pretending that the End of America As We Know It is at hand.

  8. I love it Mr. Language Hat! And I love your blog too. I’m not as profound when it comes to writing and expression, but I know what I like when I read it..:P
    Thanks for the language/linguistics information.

  9. I just don’t get these national language nuts. Whatever happened to plain old courtesy? Like, “Hi, welcome to our country. Wow, that’s an interesting language you speak. Maybe I could learn something about it.”

  10. Well, it doesn’t seem that the imperative “if you come here, you should [learn to] speak English” is all that asinine. What’s asinine is ignoring that (1) almost all immigrants do learn to speak English, and (2) linguistic assimilation today is at least arguably more robust today than it was in the 18th and 19th centuries.

  11. There’s the story about that immigrant from Germany with any number of academic degrees who lived in Israel for 30 years and couldn’t speak any Hebrew. His friend asked him if he isn’t ashamed, and the answer was that it’s easier to be ashamed than to learn Hebrew.

  12. Philip Chart says:

    The always entertaining xkcd has a perfect encapsulation of the asininity of the usual simplistic “if you come here, you should speak English” attitude…
    The cartoon looks more asinine than the attitude: a wrong in the past justifies a wrong now? I wouldn’t dream of having the discourtesy of living in another country and not learning its national language and using it when I have contact with its natives and officials.
    No, I would prefer that people be reasonable and recognize that it’s natural for people to speak their own languages,
    It’s “natural” for people to do a lot of things, such as exploit a gullible host-nation. Encouraging those natural tendencies is not always wise. It’s not always reciprocated, either. Mexico, for example, wants its citizens given rights in the US that it does not grant in reverse.
    that providing services for them in their own languages makes sense for many reasons,
    It makes sense to diversicrats and people who want to atomize and weaken a nation they dislike, for one reason or another. It doesn’t make sense in other ways, such as the welfare of the incomers themselves. English is a passport to a wider world, which is why many “communities” find it helpful to keep certain of their members ignorant of it. Women, for example.
    and that the inevitable pressures of fitting into an English-speaking society will guarantee that succeeding generations will learn English, so people should stop pretending that the End of America As We Know It is at hand…
    Things like satellite TV and the Internet mean that those pressures are getting easier and easier to avoid and the End of America As We Know It is indeed at hand. Just watch.

  13. David Marjanović says:

    Why do you equate “not learning” with there not being a national language? Where’s the connection?

  14. David Marjanović says:

    people who want to atomize and weaken a nation they dislike, for one reason or another.

    You are a paranoiac who has somehow inflated his own chronically inflamed ego to the size of his entire country. This “weaken a nation” talk is embarrassing. It reminds me of what the 1930s were like over here.

  15. Does Philip Chart really think immigrants will never learn English because they live in an artificial-reality satellite TV bubble? That’s some crazy sci-fi. Immigrants today consistently learn English faster than they did 150 years ago, and a bigger problem is second-generation kids who lose opportunities because they’re monolingual in English.
    And Paul, the UK cut spending on translation of signs and documents, while at the same time reducing access to English classes. How is that “aimed at promoting better integration”? It’s just mean anti-migrant spite. I know bilingual signs have sure helped me with language learning.

  16. Philip Chart says:

    Why do you equate “not learning” with there not being a national language? Where’s the connection?
    I can’t follow your logic there. I equate “not learning” with discourtesy and an inability to enter a larger world, among other things. In fact, citizenship should be dependent on competence in the national language. It is in Japan.
    You are a paranoiac who has somehow inflated his own chronically inflamed ego to the size of his entire country.
    Yes, very true, but you haven’t diagnosed the half of it. I think the same is true of many other countries, so when you next go for a walk, please remember: Tread softly, for you tread upon my ego.
    This “weaken a nation” talk is embarrassing. It reminds me of what the 1930s were like over here.
    I can’t see an argument there. Your being embarrassed and reminded of the 1930s is no doubt conclusive to you, but not to me. “Diversity” in general weakens the US and multi-lingualism is part of that. Have you ever heard of Robert Putman?
    With great trepidation, he has just published his first, much awaited, paper on his five-year study of social capital in the US – the biggest survey of its kind – which concludes that ethnic diversity does reduce social capital. He found that the higher the diversity in a neighbourhood, the lower the levels of trust, political participation and happiness between and within the ethnic groups, and he called it “hunkering”. But what has prompted criticism is not his analysis of hunkering, which the right has seized upon with delight, but his optimistic assertion that this is a short-term problem that, with “intelligence and creativity”, can be overcome.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2007/jul/18/communities.guardiansocietysupplement
    So he’s shown it’s going badly now, but he thinks it can be fixed. As in Iraq, perhaps.
    Does Philip Chart really think immigrants will never learn English because they live in an artificial-reality satellite TV bubble? That’s some crazy sci-fi.
    No, he neither thinks that nor said that, but modern technology does not encourage integration.
    Immigrants today consistently learn English faster than they did 150 years ago,
    Why 150 years, precisely? And can you give a reference for that claim?
    and a bigger problem is second-generation kids who lose opportunities because they’re monolingual in English.
    Okay, I know that*, to the pure in heart and mind, Diversity is Strength, Peace is War and Freedom is Slavery, but some kind of reference would be good.
    *It would be useful to have an orthographic distinction between that and that.

  17. Christophe Strobbe says:

    The attitude that is ridiculed in the cartoon is also funny when you consider that the USA have a de facto national language, but (if Wikipedia is right), no official language at the federal level.
    Speaking more generally, the unwillingness to learn another language that you see in some places reminds of a recent article in The Economist: False Eastern Promise. (The article is heavily criticized by Ken Carroll.)

  18. Philip Chart, it would be helpful to get your facts straight.
    Although Japan is a jus sanguinis state, there is no legal requirement to speak Japanese either to be a citizen by birth or to become one by naturalization. It is probably overwhelmingly difficult to become a naturalized citizen without speaking Japanese, but it is not one of the five legal criteria.
    In the supposedly so welcoming United States, matters are quite otherwise. Though it is quite possible to be a citizen of the U.S. by birth and speak no English, thanks to the jus soli dictated by the 14th Amendment, it is not legally possible to become a naturalized citizen without establishing your proficiency in English (unless you have a physical or mental disability).

  19. David Marjanović says:

    I can’t follow your logic there.

    My point is that, for reasons of sheer necessity, immigrants to the USA learn English anyway, with very few exceptions in the first generation and virtually none in the second. Making it a requirement for citizenship isn’t necessary.

    “Diversity” in general weakens the US

    And where do you get this assertion from? Where is the weakness of Switzerland?

    Have you ever heard of Robert Putman?

    Heard, yes, but I forgot all but the name…

    He found that the higher the diversity in a neighbourhood, the lower the levels of trust, political participation and happiness between and within the ethnic groups

    That’s easy to explain: in the USA there’s a pretty strong correlation between “ethnicity” and income.

    As in Iraq, perhaps.

    Where the biggest divider is religion. The most bloodshed happens between Sunnite Arabs and Shiite Arabs that have always considered themselves ethnically the same and speak the same dialect of the same language.

    modern technology does not encourage integration.

    Other things and circumstances still do. Also remember that modern technology makes learning materials more easily available.

    It would be useful to have an orthographic distinction between that and that.

    Now we can return to the topic of this blog: random digressions about language. 🙂 We have such a distinction in German (article: das, conjunction: dass), but, funnily enough, the two words are still pronounced the same in the standardized language, even though they are pronounced differently in most dialects (where das has another vowel).

  20. marie-lucie says:

    I seem to remember a similar discussion a few months ago, although I don’t remember the title of the thread.
    There are usually two main topics in this kind of discussion: a) THEY should learn English (or whatever the language of the host country is) and b) THEY should not be accommodated in their own language(s), else they won’t be motivated to learn English.
    As to a), the vast majority of immigrants want to learn English and most of them do – if the adults don’t, their children, who all go to school until at least age 16 (something that was not the case 150 years or so ago), certainly do, and often become interpreters for the parents (who are not necessarily happy with such a situation, which places them in a dependent position).
    As to b), materials in immigrant languages are necessary in order to make life manageable for the immigrants AND for the host society, until the immigrants have acquired at least a working knowledge of the majority language. How else to acquaint newcomers from, let’s say, Eritrea or Laos, with the basic laws of the country, the school system, the hospitals, which uniforms mean the police, etc, and even how to go about shopping, let alone finding a place to stay and a job?
    As to the comment that some communities try to keep women from learning English, the problem here does not seem to be the language per se but the social structure of the community in question. Again, providing materials in English only rather than in immigrant languages is unlikely to make life easier for the women in question, who would have no idea of what the English materials are about. This would be more likely to reinforce the social isolation of the women and their clinging to their own community.
    Finally, the people who keep on about how THEY should behave usually have no idea of what it would represent for themselves to be in a similar situation, both physically and psychologically. “I would learn the language if I went to live in a different country” is often said by people who have not made much of an effort to learn other languages themselves, especially those with a writing system other than the Roman alphabet. Imagine that you are sent to Outer Mongolia as a refugee. How long would it take before you, as an adult, felt truly comfortable in the language? (and few who learn a language as adults eventually are). And would you be happy to be completely cut off from your own language during the period of adjustment, while the locals looked down on you (or worse) for not speaking their language properly and being practically unable to read it?
    I could go on and on …

  21. Hmmm, probably would have been good for the Cherokee if they could have prevented the influx of English speakers into their territory, so I’m not sure this cartoon makes your point very effectively…
    Anyhow, I think the real problem is not that people born in the US don’t learn English, but that the insane level of immigration, both legal and illegal, means that there are always large numbers of relatively recent immigrants who have very little English ability, at least in major urban centers. I mean, I’m on vacation in the Philippines at the moment and the average level of English spoken in Manila is certainly better than what you’d find in most of Los Angeles.
    The situation with Spanish, though, could eventually result in a huge second-generation monolingual Spanish-speaking bloc in the American Southwest, resulting in a situation similar to the divide between French and English speakers in Canada. I don’t think people who haven’t been out there recently really realize what it’s like. And we’re increasingly moving in the direction of recognizing Spanish as a language on par with English in the US, with bilingual “Welcome to the United States” signs at airports and presidential debates in Spanish and everything else, so it’s not hard to envision this outcome. *To me* this is undesirable, but then again I think some people really are out to “weaken a nation” as a previous poster describes it (or maybe they just think that everyone should be obligated to share the peculiar hobby of those of us who read this blog of learning lots of languages – strange attitude).

  22. Ordinarily, I’m disinclined to play the gimp card, but I think it’s relevant here, so here goes:
    I am a foreign-born American citizen. And I happen to agree with Philip Chart’s points (which he makes much more eloquently than I could — the remnants of the language barrier persist, despite my best efforts). Dare I suggest that being an immigrant may be giving me a different perspective on things than that of (all too) many native-born, and Americans who do not seem to sufficiently appreciate what a great thing our country is and can’t be bothered to stand up to its ongoing pissing-away, or even recognize it as such.
    With all due tremedous respect, LH, I think your apoliticism (which is a decent person’s natural inclination) does you a disservice, in that you brush away what is a very real threat to, yes, the survival of the American nation as we know it.
    It’s a perfect shitstorm: lack of the pressure to assimilate due to the noxious PC/multiculti frippery, massive unprecedented immigration from every alien culture under the sun, with the lion’s share coming from the neighboring nation with a historical claim to the American territory (we may have forgotten Alamo, but they didn’t), and the national betrayal on the part of the cognitive and political elites who are hell-bent on facilitating this invasion.

  23. Well, I’m sitting in Paris today on a business trip. It’s hard to get worked up about dangers to the English language when even the French are now insisting on speaking Anglais at every opportunity, and speaking it well. We seem to be headed for a world where, possibly in the very near future, the world’s elite will communicate almost exclusively in English and other languages will be spoken only by the poor and the marginalized.

  24. michael farris says:

    You’re hearing French people speak to each other in English? And if they’re doing that particularly well, how would you know they’re French at all?
    But even should your gloomy scenario come to pass, then it will mostly be the poor and marginalized who’ll want to emigrate so the English Onlyites will still have plenty to grumble about.
    Basically, languages aren’t limited to their historical geographic domains anymore. Go to most any country and you’ll find locals that can and do speak ‘foreign’ languages. Why should the US be any different?

  25. Philip Chart says:

    Philip Chart, it would be helpful to get your facts straight. Although Japan is a jus sanguinis state, there is no legal requirement to speak Japanese either to be a citizen by birth or to become one by naturalization. It is probably overwhelmingly difficult to become a naturalized citizen without speaking Japanese, but it is not one of the five legal criteria.
    Okay, it’s not law, but becoming a citizen certainly seems to be “dependent on competence in the national language”.
    In the supposedly so welcoming United States, matters are quite otherwise. Though it is quite possible to be a citizen of the U.S. by birth and speak no English, thanks to the jus soli dictated by the 14th Amendment, it is not legally possible to become a naturalized citizen without establishing your proficiency in English (unless you have a physical or mental disability).
    I doubt very much that that (again!) is strictly enforced and, not being from the US, I was making a general statement anyway: “…citizenship should be dependent on competence in the national language.”
    “Diversity” in general weakens the US
    And where do you get this assertion from? Where is the weakness of Switzerland?
    If Switzerland, a federation of closely related groups, is okay, how does it follow that the US will be? The US is much more racially and religiously diverse than Switzerland, which doesn’t seem entirely anxious to take the same route, if recent political ads there are any guide.
    He found that the higher the diversity in a neighbourhood, the lower the levels of trust, political participation and happiness between and within the ethnic groups
    That’s easy to explain: in the USA there’s a pretty strong correlation between “ethnicity” and income.
    No, ethnicity is fine: it’s “race” you have to use sneer quotes around. Equal incomes for different ethnic groups have never been achieved anywhere, so if it’s that what a country has to do to make diversity work well, we might have to wait a while. And multi-lingualism is one of the barriers to equal incomes.
    As in Iraq, perhaps.
    Where the biggest divider is religion. The most bloodshed happens between Sunnite Arabs and Shiite Arabs that have always considered themselves ethnically the same and speak the same dialect of the same language.
    It’s rarely a matter simply of language, but it plays its part in Iraq: see Kurdistan. Yugoslavia is another example of how diversity works itself out: it causes conflict leads to separation.
    Now we can return to the topic of this blog: random digressions about language. 🙂 We have such a distinction in German (article: das, conjunction: dass), but, funnily enough, the two words are still pronounced the same in the standardized language, even though they are pronounced differently in most dialects (where das has another vowel).
    Yes, I think that and thatt would be good in English. Or even that and thaet.
    Well, I’m sitting in Paris today on a business trip. It’s hard to get worked up about dangers to the English language when even the French are now insisting on speaking Anglais at every opportunity, and speaking it well.
    I’m not worried that the English language is in danger of extinction. Quite the reverse: it threatens other languages, like a kind of bindweed. But multi-lingualism will be with us for a long time yet and we shouldn’t exacerbate the problems it causes.

  26. You’re hearing French people speak to each other in English?
    Yes, actually. If there are 4 French speakers and one non French speaker in a meeting the default language immediately becomes English. In business situations I imagine it is often actually easier even for native French speakers to use English because they are used to discussing certain business topics in English (especially MBA students).
    And if they’re doing that particularly well, how would you know they’re French at all?
    I trust you are familiar with the concept of “accents”. (And the pointy shoes would be a dead giveaway in any case).
    Granted, I probably exaggerated above, and it is highly unlikely that French, German, Russian, etc. will actually disappear in the next few centuries as spoken languages even among elites. But they will become increasingly marginalized, (even Russian and Chinese)and most meaningful cultural production – literature, plays, scientific texts, academic treatises, business transactions – will probably be produced only in English. To a shocking degree that’s already true today. The study of foreign languages for the average American, Canadian or Brit will become, even more than today, an eccentric past-time for a very small minority, and very hard to justify on pragmatic grounds. Foreign languages will certainly not be something that limited school resources will be devoted to. Even in Europe it probably won’t be very long before most people consider studying German, French or Italian as a foreign language a complete waste of time.
    The Spanish minority in the US may take longer to dissolve than the English only crowd wants, but it’s only a matter of time. People point to Quebec as if that’s supposed to be a scary example, but the reality is that French in Quebec is also under increasing pressure and even the Francophone elite in Quebec make damn sure their kids speak excellent English.

  27. This is a fascinating discussion, and I thank everyone for keeping it civil. While I disagree with your conclusions, Philip, you express them with clarity and force, and I like your “bindweed” simile.

  28. michael farris says:

    English is certainly not a threat to any European language (outside the British Isles).
    Knowledge is very wide but also very shallow. That is, afaict the great majority of second language users (probably not reflected in readers here) don’t really care much for (or about) English as a language. It’s a colorless, emotionless tool. If anything second language users are openly hostile to its expressive possibilities (which gets in the way of what they learned at school) and they don’t have time for it. Until that changes it’s not going to drive out any national language.
    Of course, long term residents in another country (whether or not they can usefully be described as ‘immigrants’) need to learn the local language but that doesn’t mean that providing some services in other languages in the meantime is a bad idea. And if they can create a market for media in their language (as hispanic immigrants have in the US) that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all.

  29. David Marjanović says:

    “I would learn the language if I went to live in a different country” is often said by people who have not made much of an effort to learn other languages themselves, especially those with a writing system other than the Roman alphabet. Imagine that you are sent to Outer Mongolia as a refugee.

    (While you’re of course right in implying that the language is much different from English, the writing — Cyrillic — is nowadays very easy and fairly similar to the Latin alphabet.)

    Hmmm, probably would have been good for the Cherokee if they could have prevented the influx of English speakers into their territory, so I’m not sure this cartoon makes your point very effectively…

    Of course I’m playing a pointless what-if game here, but I think if they had been allowed to declare their own state and join the USA that way, it would have helped. That Andrew Jackson was elected instead clearly did not help…

    with the lion’s share coming from the neighboring nation with a historical claim to the American territory (we may have forgotten Alamo, but they didn’t)

    Now, I know that there are Mexicans who really do have this attitude, but either 1) show me that a majority of the immigrants to the USA shares it and 2) show me that they have any chance in hell of accomplishing it, or acknowledge that you are paranoid.

    If Switzerland, a federation of closely related groups, is okay, how does it follow that the US will be?

    What, if anything, do you mean by “closely related”, and how does it follow that the US wouldn’t be? Also, in general, Switzerland is a bad analogy in that the languages are for the most part geographically separated, but there are bilingual cantons nevertheless.

    The US is much more […] religiously diverse than Switzerland

    There are still Catholics and Calvinists. This kind of difference was enough for the 30-Years War throughout central Europe (1618 — 1648), which was like Rwanda.

    No, ethnicity is fine: it’s “race” you have to use sneer quotes around.

    No, peoples are just as unreal as races (for me — I’m a biologist, not a sociologist). And even if they were real, their US definitions would be laughable — the same person can be “black” in the USA, “colored” in South Africa, and “white” in Brazil…

    Equal incomes for different ethnic groups have never been achieved anywhere

    Belgium? Switzerland? Germany and Austria even, where the Sorbian, Slovenian and Hungarian minorities are not known for being financially remarkable either way?

    And multi-lingualism is one of the barriers to equal incomes.

    To the contrary. Monolingualism is. When you can’t understand your business partners, they aren’t your business partners.

    It’s rarely a matter simply of language, but it plays its part in Iraq: see Kurdistan. Yugoslavia is another example of how diversity works itself out: it causes conflict leads to separation.

    These are interesting cases. For a long time, the Iraqi Kurds spent most of the time by fighting each other (Barzani vs Talabani). They’ve stopped, but look at (especially northern) Ireland or (much of) Scotland: when people lose their language, that doesn’t necessarily mean they stop believing they are a people. — Serbs and Croats that live in the same place speak exactly the same dialect. The only way to tell one from the other is 1) by asking them and 2) religion. (By definition, Croats are Catholic and Serbs are Orthodox — this used to be treated as so self-evident that, when a Serb became Catholic in the Austro-Hungarian empire in order to rise in the bureaucracy, he became a Croat. I kid you not. One such guy was the father of the poet who wrote what is now the text of Austria’s federal anthem; almost wherever you look, you’ll find both described as Croats.)

    To a shocking degree that’s already true today.

    Yep. Science is done in English — not to the extent to which it was done in Latin 300 years ago, but it’s moving in that direction and has gone pretty far. That’s why I’m able to participate in this discussion.

    English is certainly not a threat to any European language (outside the British Isles).
    Knowledge is very wide but also very shallow. That is, afaict the great majority of second language users (probably not reflected in readers here) don’t really care much for (or about) English as a language.

    Agreed.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    On the Serbs vs Croats issue — this is why the Muslims of Bosnia are considered, and consider themselves, a separate people: they don’t fit the defining criterion for either of the other possibilities. This has an interesting parallel in China, with the Huí nationality, but I digress.
    I should also probably add that, while laughable, the US definitions of races are no more laughable than any other political ones, and hardly more laughable than any of the gazillion schemes that were advocated by various anthropologists over, at least, the first half of the 20th century (between three and 66 races…).

  31. David Marjanović says:

    No, actually, I didn’t digress. The first Huí were a Turkic Muslim tribe in China. By intermarriage and whatnot, they soon lost their language, but — because of religion — kept their idea of being different. Meanwhile, a few million Chinese all over the country converted to Islam. They, too, are now called Huí, and have been so since at least 1949; and apparently they all accept that designation.
    Or take Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda. These were originally different peoples, but, having lived on the same spot for centuries, the boundary had become fuzzy. So the Belgian colonists simplified the situation by introducing a definition: those who possessed 10 or more cattle were Tutsi, the others Hutu. This is the line along which the massacres happened in 1994. Ethnicity is whatever people believe to be.
    Now, the reason why I’m pedantic about the tone mark is a digression: Huī is another nationality.

  32. Knowledge is very wide but also very shallow. That is, afaict the great majority of second language users (probably not reflected in readers here) don’t really care much for (or about) English as a language.
    I don’t really see how that’s relevant to the increasing marginalization of languages such as French, German, or Russian. My point really, convoluted as it was, is that in the future there will be very little motivation for the average person to study a foreign language other than English. Only a few poets, anthropologists and people in intelligence services will care, everyone else will find foreign languages quaint but increasingly not something worth spending time on in a world already drowning in knowledge.

  33. Sorry, meant to say “data” not “knowledge.”

  34. Some Yanqui says:

    we may have forgotten Alamo, but they didn’t
    Uhm, what do you think “Remember the Alamo!” refers to? We lost.
    Only a few poets, anthropologists and people in intelligence services will care, everyone else will find foreign languages quaint but increasingly not something worth spending time on in a world already drowning in data
    Welcome to America!

  35. michael farris says:

    I have to say that despite the bad rep Americans have about learning languages, it does not jibe with my experience at all.
    In Poland IME Americans are _much_ better about learning Polish (even with no previous experience) than many Europeans. The (mis)use of endings can make your hair stand on end but more often than not they try and quite often get good enough to establish social networks and navigate the bureaucracy unaided.
    Mostly, IME the British don’t make nearly as much effort. I knew one who was proud to go over 10 years without learning anything of note. Quite possibly he felt his utter helplessness in getting anything done on his own and the constant culture clashes he got drawn into at every place he worked (he … changed employers often) were an asset in his avowed mission to replace as many Polish values as possible with British ones. The French IME are, if anything, even worse.

  36. Suppose this extreme diglossia does come to pass. Everyone knows International English, which isn’t the same as simplified American / British, because it has innovations from outside those centers, like prepone and version up. All business and secondary education are conducted in it.
    Since everyone is a caricature of Middle America, no one reads formally except for business. Nor writes. There are still local entertainments on whatever TV / YouTube becomes. And whatever blogs and texting become. These still use the language of the cradle, in some form.
    And more importantly ads. My question is, would this alter the economics of orthography enough that some of the less efficient (to learn and use) scripts would be displaced? To be concrete, would Japanese ads and blogs be in kana? It’s only a small point, but you already see produce signs in the expat markets here in Boston without kanji. Would Chinese change?
    I know there’s no right answer, since as someone said above, it’s all sci-fi.
    Is there a legitimate parallel in Coptic? Egyptian scripts were closely associated with the economy of the death cult of the old religion. But it was still one religious elite replacing another. And there isn’t any secular Coptic. And the time scale’s different. Or Modern Turkish, even though the aim was preemptive modernization rather than a reaction?
    Michael Farris, is it possible that Americans in Poland are somehow selected to do better? That is, that the only reason they go there is ancestral ties or some such thing? And Brits are just doing business. (I don’t mean to sound like I’m making a joke.) And mileage would vary in other countries which selected more pure tourists?

  37. Starting to wonder off topic I guess, but my observations in Slavic countries tend to jibe with Michael Farris’. Americans do seem to be better at picking up Polish and Russian than do Brits (or Germans or French for that matter). I would guess it’s probably self-selection – in Japan I always thought that Australians tended to speak better Japanese than Americans did.

  38. we may have forgotten Alamo, but they didn’t
    Uhm, what do you think “Remember the Alamo!” refers to? We lost.
    I know. That was my sisyphean attempt at a bon mot.

  39. No, peoples are just as unreal as races (for me — I’m a biologist, not a sociologist).
    I think you’re confusing “having fuzzy boundaries” with “unreal”. Race, in particular, is a real (all too real) category, comprising both biological and sociological components. And as far as the former goes, it’s simply common ancestry — mostly common ancestry, to be precise. Nothing mystical, nothing deterministic, but real nonetheless.

  40. David Marjanović says:

    I said “as a biologist”, so I deliberately did not care about the very real sociological components.
    Biologically, the boundaries aren’t just fuzzy, they are in different places for every single gene. The longer the population geneticists look at the situation, the more confusing it turns out to be. It’s like a dialect chain all over the world.

  41. David Marjanović says:

    …and, again, a different dialect chain for each and every gene, with very little correlation between them.

  42. Philip Chart says:

    If Switzerland, a federation of closely related groups, is okay, how does it follow that the US will be?
    What, if anything, do you mean by “closely related”,
    I mean the obvious: that the Swiss, historically, have been racially, religiously and culturally similar.
    and how does it follow that the US wouldn’t be?
    Because Switzerland’s politics and demographics are different from the US’s.
    Also, in general, Switzerland is a bad analogy in that the languages are for the most part geographically separated, but there are bilingual cantons nevertheless.
    Yes: it’s a federation and it evolved over centuries.
    The US is much more […] religiously diverse than Switzerland
    There are still Catholics and Calvinists. This kind of difference was enough for the 30-Years War throughout central Europe (1618 — 1648), which was like Rwanda.
    Yes, diversity causes conflict. But Catholicism and Calvinism were reconciled in the end in Switzerland, in part because they have a lot in common. Introducing more and stronger diversity will create more conflict, in which language will play its part.
    No, ethnicity is fine: it’s “race” you have to use sneer quotes around.
    No, peoples are just as unreal as races (for me — I’m a biologist, not a sociologist).
    I can’t see how peoples are unreal. Even communists recognized the need to do a great deal of killing and forced migration before the nuisance the concept caused was swept away. And look: the nuisance is back again. As for race (easily disturbed people should look away now… you’ve been warned…): it both exists and is important. Linguistically too: language genes are not identical in different populations and language is affected by genetic differences in intelligence and other aspects of psychology.
    And even if they were real, their US definitions would be laughable — the same person can be “black” in the USA, “colored” in South Africa, and “white” in Brazil…
    Okay, usage varies between nations and language can never capture the full complexity of the various racial continua (or of anything else). But that doesn’t mean race doesn’t exist.
    Equal incomes for different ethnic groups have never been achieved anywhere
    Belgium? Switzerland? Germany and Austria even, where the Sorbian, Slovenian and Hungarian minorities are not known for being financially remarkable either way?
    Moroccans in Belgium earn as much as everyone else? Africans in Switzerland? Turks in Germany? And the groups you mention may not differ in remarkable ways, but I’m sure they still differ.
    And multi-lingualism is one of the barriers to equal incomes.
    To the contrary. Monolingualism is.
    No, by multi-lingualism I mean the policies that encourage different groups not to learn the national language.
    When you can’t understand your business partners, they aren’t your business partners.
    That only happens when both sides are monolingual and you’re talking about international trade. Your argument fails there too: the US did not depend on its linguistic skills to become the world’s strongest economy.
    Biologically, the boundaries aren’t just fuzzy, they are in different places for every single gene. The longer the population geneticists look at the situation, the more confusing it turns out to be. It’s like a dialect chain all over the world.
    And that isn’t the case in other species in which biology accepts that distinct races and sub-species exist? You could, in theory, set up a dialect chain between any two languages you like. It would not mean the two languages are really the same.
    …and, again, a different dialect chain for each and every gene, with very little correlation between them.
    You’ll have to expand on that.

  43. Easily Disturbed Person says:

    it both exists and is important
    No one is denying that race exists, in the minds of racists. When we say that race is a cultural phenomenon, and so an area of sociological study, we mean the culture of those doing the classifying, not those classified. Otherwise, the statement, “Lots of white kids are into black music and culture.” would not make any sense. Racists know what black and white are before culture enters into it.
    American racists have the “benefit” of discriminating based on externally visible, inherited characteristics. But that does not mean that race is a valid genetic construct. Other racists have to use other means. In Iraq, they ask you your first name to see if you’re Sunni. In Brazil, if you’re not too dark-skinned and it’s summer so everyone is dressed informally, they see how good your shoes are to know whether to harrass you. In China, self-identified Han are externally diverse enough that minorities are defined otherwise. And so on.
    Race is not scientific because it is not reproducible (same person different races to different racists), nor quantifiable (even when inherited, it’s a small number of factors: why not blood type or lactose-tolerance).
    Linguistically too: language genes are not identical in different populations and language is affected by genetic differences in intelligence and other aspects of psychology.
    Which ones are the “language genes” of which you speak? How is “language … affected” by them?
    All the available evidence is that every child born everywhere in the world has the built-in machinery to acquire native fluency in every language spoken everywhere in the world. There are millions of examples of this, from Pushkin’s great(?)-grandfather to all the Chinese-born girls in the suburbs. Is there even a single counterexample, without severe brain-damage?

  44. marie-lucie says:

    “language genes”
    If you mean that individuals differ in their ability to handle their own language at higher cultural levels (eg in terms of literary achievement), then of course that is true, just as individuals differ in their scientific, musical etc. talents. But if you mean that peoples or ethnic groups also differ with respect to this higher language ability, then there is no basis for such an assertion any more than for innate IQ differences between large groups.
    I remember hearing that Russians were supposed to be particularly gifted for learning languages, e.g. they were often beautifully fluent in French. This reputation dated from a time when the only Russians who visited Western Europe, or sought refuge there after the October revolution, were aristocrats who had been raised from infancy by foreign nurses and governesses, especially from France. Once Russian society changed, Russians were found to be neither more nor less gifted for languages than any other peoples. On the other hand, persons raised in a monolingual society, such as most Americans before the advent of massive Spanish immigration, often have great trouble with learning other languages, and many of those who might have been so gifted were not in a position to develop this talent.

  45. I have to say that despite the bad rep Americans have about learning languages, it does not jibe with my experience at all.
    In Poland IME Americans are _much_ better about learning Polish (even with no previous experience) than many Europeans.

    Remember that you’re not seeing a representative sample of Americans, but only of those *who choose to travel abroad*. Most of our idiots never leave the country, but Britain’s tend to go wandering all over the place.

  46. marie-lucie says:

    Apart from the question of motivation, it helps the British that they are next door to a continent where many languages are official in their own countries, so that even with limited means and time available they can travel throughout Europe. Crossing the Atlantic or Pacific requires a larger outlay of funds as well as more planning, so apart from traditional tourist destinations such as France or Italy the Americans in less visited countries are more likely to be ones who will be there for some time and make an effort to learn the local languages.

  47. michael farris says:

    To be clear, I’m only talking of people who arrive in Poland expecting there to be a year or more at the least.
    Even controlling for those who come at least partly for for non-ESL related reasons (mostly Americans IME) vs those coming just to work as English teachers I have to say that on the whole, the Americans significantly outperform the British in terms of language learning/use (with of course some notable exceptions both ways).
    I always assumed that it was at least partly due to the different kinds of social lives Americans vs British people are used to. That is, British people are IME more or less content with smaller, more intense (deeper, if you will) social circles while Americans tend to prefer broader, shallower ones and to get a broad social circle in Poland you need to know Polish.

  48. marie-lucie says:

    Could it be due also to the type of language training those people have received in their respective countries?

  49. You could, in theory, set up a dialect chain between any two languages you like.
    No, you could not. Francophone and germanophone regions of the world are adjacent, but it is not possible to create a chain of mutually intelligible varieties that leads from standard French at one end to standard German at the other. I once saw a claim that by routing through pidgins and creoles it was possible to create such a chain linking standard English and standard Portuguese, but unfortunately I have forgotten the details, and I suspect some of the links were a little shaky.
    When David speaks of “a different dialect chain for each and every gene, with very little correlation between them”, he means that the high (or low) frequency of one particular gene variant in a single ethnic group is extremely unlikely to correlate with correspondingly high (or low) frequencies of particular variants of other genes in that group.
    To give an example (due to Stephen Jay Gould): If you exterminate the entire human species except a single ethnicity, say the Xhosa of South Africa, how much of human genetic diversity have you destroyed forever? 20% at most. The other 80% or more of genetic diversity continues to survive in that one group, a little more than one-thousandth of the original pre-holocaust population. What’s more, if you rerun the experiment choosing a different ethnic group to retain, the numerical results will be about the same, but the particular gene variants you have lost will be entirely different in unpredictable ways.

  50. Philip Chart says:

    This is a fascinating discussion, and I thank everyone for keeping it civil. While I disagree with your conclusions, Philip, you express them with clarity and force, and I like your “bindweed” simile.
    Sorry, I forgot to respond to this. Thanks, but I’m not dismissing bindweed entirely. It’s got beautiful flowers, for one thing:
    http://www.data2action.com/wildflowers/images/bindweed2.jpg
    it [race] both exists and is important
    No one is denying that race exists, in the minds of racists.
    It’s rather touching to find someone plugging that line so confidently in 2007. The “Race Doesn’t Exist” cult’s near collapse, I’m afraid. Marxists like Gould & Co did a good job fighting a rearguard action, but there’s no way their disciples will keep the lid on, not now the cat’s clawing its way out of the bag in laboratories all over the world.
    Humans Evolving More Rapidly Than Ever, Say Scientists
    Look out, future, because here we come: scientists say the speed of human evolution increased rapidly during the last 40,000 years — and it’s only going to get faster… In the study, researchers analzyed genomes from 270 people belonging to four disparate ethnic groups: Han Chinese, Africa’s Yoruba tribe, Japanese and Utah Mormons. By comparing areas of difference and similarity, they determined that about seven percent of the genome has undergone significant change since the end of the last Ice Age.
    http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2007/12/humans-evolving.html
    IOW, race exists. Compare the minute diffs separating dog breeds from each other, or dogs from wolves.
    Race is not scientific because it is not reproducible (same person different races to different racists), nor quantifiable (even when inherited, it’s a small number of factors: why not blood type or lactose-tolerance).
    Of course race is reproducible: two whites don’t produce a Chinese baby, or vice versa. You’re talking about labels, but you might as well say spiders aren’t different from insects because some people think spiders are insects. There’s no one thing separating the races: there are stable aggregates. Otherwise couples of any particular race might produce children of any other race.
    Linguistically too: language genes are not identical in different populations and language is affected by genetic differences in intelligence and other aspects of psychology.
    Which ones are the “language genes” of which you speak?
    The genes underlying the innate human ability to use language.
    How is “language … affected” by them?
    Both grossly and subtly. Without them, we wouldn’t have language at all, and their variants will account for some variation in the way language manifests itself: preferences for certain sounds, forms of grammar, etc.
    “language genes”
    If you mean that individuals differ in their ability to handle their own language at higher cultural levels (eg in terms of literary achievement), then of course that is true, just as individuals differ in their scientific, musical etc. talents. But if you mean that peoples or ethnic groups also differ with respect to this higher language ability, then there is no basis for such an assertion any more than for innate IQ differences between large groups.
    Considering there’s great deal of basis for asserting innate IQ differences between large groups (races or sexes), that’s not a happy comparison. The human brain has never stopped evolving and language genes, or (more generally) genes influencing language, will not be identical across races.
    You could, in theory, set up a dialect chain between any two languages you like.
    No, you could not. Francophone and germanophone regions of the world are adjacent, but it is not possible to create a chain of mutually intelligible varieties that leads from standard French at one end to standard German at the other.
    I’m not saying such links exist in reality, I am saying they are theoretically possible, and in an infinite number of ways. One merely starts with one language and alters it by degrees from dialect to dialect until one arrives at the other language. With French and German it would be far easier than with French or German and Mandarin, but there are no theoretic obstacles to a dialect chain between any two (natural) languages on earth, whether or not they have a common ancestor.
    When David speaks of “a different dialect chain for each and every gene, with very little correlation between them”, he means that the high (or low) frequency of one particular gene variant in a single ethnic group is extremely unlikely to correlate with correspondingly high (or low) frequencies of particular variants of other genes in that group.
    Yes, but so what? Genes vary systematically between races, which is why there are races and racial differences in physiology and psychology. Compare dog breeds again.
    To give an example (due to Stephen Jay Gould): If you exterminate the entire human species except a single ethnicity, say the Xhosa of South Africa, how much of human genetic diversity have you destroyed forever? 20% at most. The other 80% or more of genetic diversity continues to survive in that one group, a little more than one-thousandth of the original pre-holocaust population.
    Also true or truer of dogs. But that doesn’t mean there are big innate differences in the psychology of different breeds (= races).
    What’s more, if you rerun the experiment choosing a different ethnic group to retain, the numerical results will be about the same, but the particular gene variants you have lost will be entirely different in unpredictable ways.
    Good old Gould: so little divides us, so much unites us. Very little divides us from chimpanzees too, but if only chimps were left on earth, some very significant things would disappear with the small amount of genetic diversity that was lost with humans.

  51. Philip Chart says:

    But that doesn’t mean there are big innate differences in the psychology of different breeds (= races).
    Sorry: for “are” read “aren’t”.
    And sorry again: forgot to respond here:
    All the available evidence is that every child born everywhere in the world has the built-in machinery to acquire native fluency in every language spoken everywhere in the world. There are millions of examples of this, from Pushkin’s great(?)-grandfather to all the Chinese-born girls in the suburbs. Is there even a single counterexample, without severe brain-damage?
    Yes, any normal child can learn any natural language, but that doesn’t mean children won’t learn some languages more or less easily for genetic reasons or that there won’t be genetic influences on their usage of a particular language. Someone who’s good at golf might also be good at tennis, but nevertheless be better suited to one or the other, for genetic reasons.

  52. michael farris says:

    “Yes, any normal child can learn any natural language, but that doesn’t mean children won’t learn some languages more or less easily for genetic reasons”
    Examples?
    “or that there won’t be genetic influences on their usage of a particular language.”
    Examples?
    Really, if there’s any evidence to be found for ‘race’ being anything apart from a folk category then it isn’t in linguistics. This is probably why the new race-obsessives stay as far away from linguistic issues as they can.

  53. marie-lucie says:

    we’re increasingly moving in the direction of recognizing Spanish as a language on par with English in the US, with bilingual “Welcome to the United States” signs at airports …
    I have been through a number of US international airports. Some of them have signs in English, Spanish and German. Does it mean that somehow German is on its way to become an official language in the US? (Actually German was seriously considered as such in the 19th century, until WW1 caused US citizens of German origin to stop speaking their language). In the Paris subway near some of the most popular tourist sites there are signs in French, English and Italian. You do hear a lot of Italian as well as English in those areas, spoken by tourists but the heyday of Italian immigration into France (between the two world wars) is long past. Tourists and business travellers everywhere are glad to see signs that they can recognize. If you go to Japan or Korea without knowing the local languages, you will be glad to see signs in English. Does it mean that those countries are moving towards making English an official language (i.e. one used in government business and all that depends on it)?
    Yes, any normal child can learn any natural language, but that doesn’t mean children won’t learn some languages more or less easily for genetic reasons or that there won’t be genetic influences on their usage of a particular language.
    Name serious studies that have dealt with this. There is a vast literature by specialists in child language acquisition. All evidence points to the opposite.

  54. with the lion’s share coming from the neighboring nation with a historical claim to the American territory (we may have forgotten Alamo, but they didn’t)
    Now, I know that there are Mexicans who really do have this attitude, but either 1) show me that a majority of the immigrants to the USA shares it and 2) show me that they have any chance in hell of accomplishing it, or acknowledge that you are paranoid.
    I see that the thread is still very much alive, so I can respond to this little jibe I missed earlier.
    Some Mexicans do have that attitutde, some do not. What one can be reasonably sure about, is: if the present trends continue, the percentage of the former will swell, and that of the latter will shrink. You could try to wish away ethnic solidarity until you’re multicultural in the face, but that doesn’t make it any less real, more real among some groups than among others.
    And they will have a pretty good chance of accomplishing this, once they constitute 50% of the population or more, in enough places. Numbers are, as always, of the essence.
    As an aside, name-calling will get you nowhere. I’m fully aware that I hold hateful and mean-spirited views, but I have very little, if any, ego invested in this debate.

  55. Philip Chart says:

    Yes, any normal child can learn any natural language, but that doesn’t mean children won’t learn some languages more or less easily for genetic reasons or that there won’t be genetic influences on their usage of a particular language.
    Name serious studies that have dealt with this. There is a vast literature by specialists in child language acquisition. All evidence points to the opposite.
    The educational underachievement of some races and overachievement of others are partly a function of their linguistic skills, which are partly a function of genetically influenced differences in intelligence. I predict more subtle genetic effects on language will become apparent.
    And your reaction to the heretical idea of racial influence on intelligence will be further evidence for the power the “Race Doesn’t Exist” cult presently has in linguistics, as elsewhere. Do you seriously think linguists are openminded on the topic or that people have been free to investigate it?
    “Yes, any normal child can learn any natural language, but that doesn’t mean children won’t learn some languages more or less easily for genetic reasons”
    Examples?
    See above on educational achievement.
    “or that there won’t be genetic influences on their usage of a particular language.”
    Examples?
    Why would I use “won’t” if I have examples? a) Genolinguistics as a whole has barely started; b) there’s been a determined effort to prevent the scientific study of race; therefore c) racial differences in language genes are yet to be discovered. What is presently clear is that language is genetic in origin: humans have it and chimps don’t because a relatively small part of our genome differs from theirs. Given that a small genetic difference accounts for language in the first place, it’s entirely reasonable that smaller genetic differences influence language in subtler ways.
    Really, if there’s any evidence to be found for ‘race’ being anything apart from a folk category then it isn’t in linguistics.
    You don’t seem to realize the place of linguistics in the scientific hierarchy (low) or that there is enormous and growing evidence for race. See above for the Utah paper and brace yourself for much more along the same lines.
    This is probably why the new race-obsessives stay as far away from linguistic issues as they can.
    No, it’s because you don’t start tackling complicated questions while less complicated ones remain to be solved. How genes code for language in general isn’t understood yet, so give the race-obsessives time.

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