Joe Iles at The New Statesman has an idea about learning languages: stop focusing on learning how to talk with people, and concentrate on culture.

Whether through literature, film or art, language teaching should focus also on the culture that surrounds a language, on the way that foreign languages differ to English and how this allows for subtle and nuanced distinctions in meaning. To learn a language should be to immerse yourself in a different world and way of life, to view a situation through a completely new lens. Not only will this make learning languages more appealing, it also means that language learners gain a much better understanding of what’s around them, encouraging them to focus on more than the English-speaking world.

Kobi, who sent me the link, is dubious; I can get behind the general idea, but unfortunately Iles’s examples tend to the deeply silly:

The Germans, for example, use the excellent “Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher” – an instrument designed to help you eat your boiled egg and which literally translates as “Egg-shell-breaking-point-causer” as it causes the egg shell to split in two at its breaking point. Not only is this a great word, but it also highlights the highly logical structure of German, a logic that extends beyond German as a language to other areas of German life and culture. It gives an insight into the German way of thinking.

As the logical Germans say: Quatsch!


  1. Hard to imagine people who can’t be motivated to learn “Wo ist die Toilette, bitte?” jumping directly to inferences of complex nuances of culture.

  2. I know a young Mongolian who did learn English listening to gangsta rap…

  3. The Germans, for example, use the excellent “Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher”
    Do I need to point out that this word was created as a marketing gag for one man’s specific product, and is not in daily use anywhere in the German world?

  4. As Mark Twain claimed, Germans actually used the word
    which literally means
    Personal Income Tax Estimation Committee Member’s Travel Cost Accounting Supplementary Revisions Fund
    I think existence of such a word really “highlights the highly logical structure of German”

  5. It gives an insight into the German way of thinking.
    Right. What with this and the Mehdi Hasan embarrassment it’s too bad the New Statesman has sunk so low. There was a time in the 1970s when they had James Fenton, Martin Amis (I think) & Christopher Hitchens (and maybe others whom I’ve temporarily forgotten) writing every issue. It was wonderful.

  6. …I mean it’s not like there’s nobody currently in Britain who knows anything about German culture. Peter Watson wrote a great book, The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century.

  7. Christopher says

    Skepticism should be default mode of thinking when coming across articles of this genre (i.e. kids these days ain’t learning those languages, so we need some awesome new approach that will fix it alright). The chief problem with second language learning is that, if not acquired within a nature setting, it is really difficult. People will only do it if it compelled to so socially or economically. Otherwise, they’ll do the minimum to pass and then forget thereafter.
    For better or worse, within the big English-speaking countries, there is little need to learn other languages, so people don’t learn them. It’s as simple as that. No amount of curriculum tinkering or whining in the opinion columns is going to change that. As with geometry, there’s no royal road to language learning.

  8. I’m puzzled as to what novelty Iles is advocating. If he’s suggesting that when you study French you should learn something about French culture too … well, that’s how we did it in my schooldays. Even in ruddy Latin you learnt something about Roman culture – warfare and bee-keeping.

  9. It would have been better to give the elementary advice that German compound nouns need to be attacked from the back, in reverse order — just like English noun phrases.
    There’s something about the lack of intermediate spaces that deranges non-natives, and results in articles like this.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    The many actual Francophone and German-speakers among the LH-niks will know much better than I, but I believe the German = Logical thing, like French = Romantic, is basically just a British notion/illusion.
    The French (I’m told) regard Germans as philosophical dreamers and the English as pragmatists allergic to theory (to say nothing of being addicted to nameless vices and being proverbially perfidious.)
    Any self-respecting Frenchman would say straight off that it’s the French, proud fellow-countrymen of Decartes, Pascal and Voltaire, who are the logical people of Europe, aided by the extraordinarily logical properties of the French language.
    French, as Saussure himself points out, is pretty much the opposite of German when it comes to transparent word formation. My favourite example is “borgne”, which has no connection whatever with any words for “one”, “eye” or “man.”

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Having weighed in with the obligatory kick at the silliness, perhaps I should say that I think there is a nugget of truth buried under the nonsense.
    I always felt (for example) that the well intentioned folk who defended the teaching of Latin in school on spurious grounds such as it helping you to spell English (possibly the least sensible way of learning to spell English) or (of course) to “think logically” were dooming the subject.
    The real value of Latin was that it was the most exotic language one used to be exposed to in most schools, much more different from English in the way it naturally put things than even Russian, a discovery one tended to make only on getting poor marks in the now lost art of Latin prose composition. And this went with the fact that it was the language of a civilisation which, OK, was in some ways ancestral to ours, but much more excitingly, was bizarrely different, where perfectly decent people could see nothing objectionable about owning other people who looked just like themselves as property, where women didn’t actually have individual personal
    names …
    I think Joe Iles is trying to strike a righteous blow at the sort of people who, alas, dominate our education ministries, who think that the only reason for learning a foreigner’s language is to be better able to sell him things.
    Good luck to him.

  12. Motivating people to learn languages is a difficult exercise. Either you make mastery of the language a prerequisite to any kind of worldly success (the situation of people in many non-English speaking countries) or you make the culture so compelling that people are falling over themselves to learn the language (Hollywood and manga seem to have played a role in stimulating people to learn English and Japanese respectively).
    Last week I was in a Yao village near Guilin. As usual I tried to learn a few words of the local language, and was rewarded by being invited to have a drink of the local liquor with the master of the guesthouse late in the evening. A couple of young Han Chinese men who seemed to be working in the village (which is now heavily centred on tourism) dropped round. One of them was married to an attractive young Yao girl. Neither could speak a single word of Yao. Their reason for not bothering: “It’s of no use”.

  13. The French (I’m told) regard Germans as philosophical dreamers and the English as pragmatists allergic to theory (to say nothing of being addicted to nameless vices and being proverbially perfidious.)
    And they are quite right. But they should add that they themselves are addicted to incomprehensible gibberish so bizarre that an honest Germanic can’t even tell if it’s a joke or not.

  14. @David Eddyshaw: It would be funnier if “borgne” did have a connection to a word for “man”, given the proverbial borgne horse.
    (And it’s not like any other language is any more logical. In English, for example, the word “thumb” has no relationship to any word for “big” or “finger”, even though its homologue on the foot is called the “big toe”.)

  15. Aini Malik says

    Learning second language enables us to communicate with people of different culture. Language learning is much important for globalization. I had learned 12 languages and now i am busy in Urdu learning. I feel very comfortable while learning new languages and trust me its a great source of entertainment also.

  16. Quatsch?
    Help me out here.

  17. Shelley: Quatsch ‘nonsense, rubbish, horseshit’. It’s not vulgar (at least to the present generation) but may be offensive if said loudly and rudely.

  18. @Shelley: Quatsch means “nonsense, BS.” It appears to be of onomatopoeic origin (from the sound of walking through mud or rubbish) or is maybe related to the Low German dialectal word quat, “bad, wicked” (Duden Herkünfstwörterbuch).

  19. Does anyone know what the story of Latin hallux ‘big toe’ and pollex ‘thumb’ (also ‘big toe’, possibly) might be? All I’ve been able to determine is that the Classical form of hallux was (h)allex, with the u from (h)allus, another word for ‘thumb’. But the similarity of (h)allex and pollex can’t be coincidence, though it might be analogy. Clearly pollex is related to polleo ‘be strong’, but that’s all I can get out of it.

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