Send the tax money to me! Me! MEEEE!

It was inspirational to read John le Carré’s timely piece on “Why we should learn German” (News). Through his personal narrative about learning German, he encapsulates so eloquently all the key motivations for learning languages: access to other cultures; curiosity about the structure of language; the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue with crucial political and trading partners.

These are precisely the reasons why languages matter so much to our future: they are crucial for building deep relationships across cultural differences, both globally and in communities around the UK, relationships that are game-changers for business, security and peace in an interconnected world.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council has made modern languages a strategic focus through a major research programme, the Open World Research Initiative. All the Open World projects embed collaboration with schools (where the number of students studying languages is falling) and encourage a public conversation about languages across the UK. As the all-party parliamentary group for modern languages has highlighted, “a step-change in the UK’s national capacity in modern languages” is urgently required, all the more so in a post-Brexit world.
Professor Janice Carruthers
AHRC leadership fellow, modern languages, Queen’s University Belfast

Sigh.

37 comments on “Send the tax money to me! Me! MEEEE!

  1. Never mind foreign languages, Prof. Carruthers needs to learn to express herself in clear English.

  2. curiosity about the structure of language; the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue with crucial political and trading partners.

    That last one is bullshit. My Russian has been good for absolutely nothing outside of Russia except for socialising: even in Russia, it was only good for dealing with th blue collar crowd, the white collar lot do their business with foreigners in English. Friend of mine is Turkish, fluent in Mandarin. She worked in China using mainly English and now works in France. Have a guess how much she uses Mandarin outside a restaurant?

  3. Sack the foreign language teachers and put the money into machine translation. Already we have the equivalent of Babelfish (but requiring a good internet connection). In 10 years automatic simultaneous translation will be a reality and then we will really know what those foreigners think of us…

  4. What TimN says.

    English is the world’s second language which not only makes us lazy it also makes it difficult to get proficient in a foreign language as they quickly switch to English.

    I always made a point of learning a few words, please, thank you, hello, goodbye etc but beyond that I was too busy and unlikely to be in a country long enough to make it worthwhile learning a language.

    My HK colleagues quite pointedly told us not to bother learning any Cantonese as it was too hard and easy to generate swear words.

  5. i have never used my school Latin but its acquisition improved my English grammar. The inarticulate outpourings of recent crops of school leavers is perhaps a result of unawareness that language has structure and that it is a good idea to get it right.

  6. [T]he Open World projects … encourage a public conversation about languages across the UK.

    Y a w n

    …the number of students [in secondary education] studying languages is falling

    Of course it is. Why would a child take a hard subject like German when what they need are grades in any old thing to get to “Uni”.

    Chem Eng: Sack the foreign language teachers and put the money into machine translation.

    This might work for the limited needs of a monolingual chem eng.

  7. Janice, you’re an academic are you? Any studies you know of that address whether the time to master a language is worth the opportunity cost?

  8. My German has entirely gone, my French is reduced to little more than reading knowledge, and my Latin is good only for reading medieval inscriptions in churches.

    Nevertheless, anyone who doesn’t study at least one foreign language at school has made an idiot choice. Anyone who wastes his time with Latin has made another.

  9. Don’t I remember, probably from a ‘Just WIlliam’ story read over 60 years ago, that ‘speaking German’ was a euphemism for farting?

    Meissen Bison: perhaps monolingualism isn’t solely a province of us poor old Brits. After all, was it the Chinks who came up with the acronym CuNT for copper nanotube? (Google search helps find the scientific paper). Or BiNT for Bismuth nanotube. Interestingly, when the two are combined, one gets BiNT CuNT, which if one is amused by things like that is perhaps doubly amusing. Cannot machine translation do better than a dictionary? One wonders.

  10. Automatic translation IS on the way –at least for all routine matters. Translating Shakespeare into Mandarin is something else.

    No sense busting a gut to learn a language esp in the hope of making money.

    Good for the memory tho’ and they say it can stave off Alzheimers.

  11. Translation has proven remarkably resistant to automation (beyond a few glorified bilingual word processors). There was some guy wandering around 20 years ago telling us all we’d be out of a job by next year. Wasn’t a crank either but spending serious money on it, and still was when I stopped doing it.

    You need around 1000 to 2000 hours of intense study to develop functional competence in a European language. Some diplomats, military and so on will do it intensively over 6 months to a year (I knew a guy who claimed to speak fluent Korean after an intense foreign office course), most people will need a lot longer. You can calculate your opportunity cost from that.

    It’s certainly true that, for foreigners, developing rudimentary competence in English is much more rewarding than for Brits to develop rudimentary competence in Finnish. Equally, I wouldn’t earn as much as I do for what I do (or enjoy it as much) without close to native German.

    So there is a case for languages being available at universities. My view is that it’s a lot like the arts and humanities – there’s a place for it but far too many people do it who would be better served learning something useful.

  12. @BiG

    A useful time comparison for opportunity cost purposes is average annual TV consumption. In which case a couple of thousand hours isn’t so bad… But I’m not sure most people could monetise the results it as well as you have. Had you chosen instead to become a biology teacher, for example, near-native German would have been utterly financially useless in that career path. I’d agree that people who go to uni just to study a language might be best to do something with a more obvious skills dividend and learn the language on top… perhaps even take a joint degree.

  13. Excavator

    it is true that, every time one leaves a service station on the autobahn, some flatulence is generally encouraged.

    And of course, French & swearing.

  14. The inarticulate outpourings of recent crops of school leavers is perhaps a result of unawareness that language has structure and that it is a good idea to get it right.

    According to Oliver Kamm in The Times, none of that matters. He seems to have carved out a niche for himself positioning himself opposite grammar snobs by being a non-grammar snob.

  15. @MBE,

    I did take it “on top” as a joint degree. And I’d add, a degree in a language doesn’t teach you the language to a useable level, it’s just a few (important) steps along the path.

    Sadly much much harder to find such courses these days. I wouldn’t advocate study of a language on its own, though I know a couple of people who did well out of it (i.e. are earning stacks in financial services, rather than teaching languages at school).

  16. “it is true that, every time one leaves a service station on the autobahn, some flatulence is generally encouraged.”

    btw, I meant the road sign, as one rejoins the highway, rather than the sausage and dumplings…..

  17. If we do get automatic translation, I’d have thought we’d see a rebirth of languages and a halt to the advance of English as the world language, as a result.

  18. I’m all in favour of people learning a foreign language – as others have said it opens up a new culture, develops your understanding of your native language, etc – just as I’m in favour of people learning about history of art, if that’s what they want to do. But the idea that it will significantly improve your earning prospects is unlikely to be true for the great majority of people – as is the idea that if only every Brit spoke a second language fluently our economy would improve.

    Every multinational I’ve ever dealt with mandates English as their ‘official’ language. And that isn’t surprising – if you-re holding a meeting with Spaniards, Germans and Japanese in attendance, what language are they most likely to have in common? (Hint: it ain’t French or Latin.)

  19. ‘As the all-party parliamentary group for modern languages has highlighted, “a step-change in the UK’s national capacity in modern languages” is urgently required, all the more so in a post-Brexit world.’

    Standard Leftist hatred of their own culture. And hatred of Brexit (if there really is such a thing).

  20. I learned Japanese at university for the nookie. Surely there’s no other reason to learn a foreign language.

  21. Tim Newman – Kamm’s rubbish on grammar is even more arrogant and stupid than the stuff he writes on almost everything else (though at least he hates Corbyn).

    The highlight was when he told us that using ‘he’ and ‘I’ after a preposition was ok because it formed a word-block (or some shit). Utter drivel, but he delivered it as if he were telling a child that the earth wasn’t flat.

    He is the platonic form of PPEist, now that Chris Huhn is out of public life.

  22. @anon

    But did it work? Some statistical analysis may be required…

    My old Latin teacher used to be employed by the army to teach Spanish to British soldiers. He said the only things they paid attention to were whatever might prove useful for chatting-up …

  23. Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct) is a millionaire.
    Mind you, there are a lot of footballers who earn less than Wayne Rooney.

  24. At risk of boring you all again.
    Teach creole.
    When my lot were little they were quite particular about the difference between French and English. Loads of advice from the frogs, rules about speaking proper English at the dinner table, etc.
    Hasn’t made a jot of difference, they speak a creole mix of E/F among themselves and even their friends drop in a lot of English words.
    I now think I was wrong to try to make rules. Humans have been trying to speed up communication for 200,000 years so the word that pops readiest to mind is the quickest.

    In another 30 years even the examiners for the bacc will have got this.

  25. anon – you hung around arts departments expecting to find women who want to have sex with men?

    I suppose it’s no worse than hanging around engineering departments expecting to find women men want to have sex with.

  26. “the white collar lot do their business with foreigners in English”

    The only people who ever talk about the value in commerce are people who’ve never worked in commerce.

    I’ve worked on a few multilinguage websites and we do nothing to do with the text. We have placeholders with English text and send off the English text to the translators. The good ones then talk about context. A label on a form that says something could mean one of 2 or 3 words in the language. So, we explain what it means and they give answers. We then paste it in. And translators aren’t cheap per day, but you don’t need many days. It’s not like I’ve heard anyone complaining about the price. It’s also a thing that most of them seem to be raised in multilingual houses. Both languages are natural to them.

    I recently learnt some German, but only because I came back from Switzerland feeling a bit embarrassed about how well I managed outside the office. All that general travel stuff about finding platforms for trains or asking where the shopping area is. Just did some Babbel. Don’t need a degree, though.

  27. Seemed to work. Japanese girlfriend who was studying English while I was doing my combined CompSci/JapLang degree. Together for eight months until she went back to Japan, nookie several times a week.

  28. As an undergrad I managed a little Korean, without learning any Korean, if you see what I mean.

  29. @dearieme, July 9, 2017 at 10:09 am

    Nevertheless, [1] anyone who doesn’t study at least one foreign language at school has made an idiot choice. [2] Anyone who wastes his time with Latin has made another.

    1. Disagree – see @Tim Newman, July 9, 2017 at 9:06 am

    2. Disagree – Latin is more beneficial than modern languages

  30. … I must admit my disappointment – just by the title, I expected this to be in the “ragging on Ritchie” category.

  31. German? A good antidote for that is Mark Twain’s “The Awful German Language”.

  32. English schoolchildren have a distinct competitive advantage over, say, Germans, who will have to dedicate no small part of their time to learning the international lingo. Shame to throw that advantage away.

    French-speaking children have even more of a disadvantage, because they have to spend inordinate amounts of time learning the (stupid) rules of (stupid) written French.

    (That said, English-speakers are also at a disadvantage learning how to write their own language, compared to Germans and Italians).

  33. Pingback: How useful is a foreign language? | White Sun of the Desert

  34. Tim Newman – Kamm’s rubbish on grammar is even more arrogant and stupid than the stuff he writes on almost everything else (though at least he hates Corbyn).

    Indeed, most of it is risible nonsense. He has no formal training in linguistics but considers himself an authority on grammar by virtue of having read and (he thinks) understood experts in linguistics, and bases his condemnation of others by pointing to their lack of credentials. How the Times readers put up with it is anyone’s guess.

  35. I’ve had run-ins with the pompous, preening Kamm and his ‘academic’ acolytes on ToL. Their (po-mo, nothing is ever ‘wrong’) approach is that the only thing that determines ‘correct’ grammar’ is what the majority of people do. I pointed out that a (close to, if not an actual) majority of people use the construction “I could of been” for “I could have been”.

    No foreign speaker of English could ever write such nonsense, because when you learn a foreign language you also learn its grammar. But I was informed that “it’s just a spelling mistake”.

    I gave up.

  36. At work, I speak English when I’m at my desk and Spanish when I’m having lunch. It’s a requirement to be able to speak English even though the majority of my colleagues are native Spanish speakers. It is not a requirement that I speak Spanish. Learning Spanish was something I did to enhance my quality of life. It has never had the slightest bearing on my employment prospects.

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