English

Ilkka nails it:

Do You Speak ItI have mentioned a few times that since I already speak English, I really don’t see any value in learning other languages, since the time and effort needed would be much better spent on other things. There is so much opinion, information and knowledge available in English that I can only ever read an infinitesimal portion of it. Besides, in this petabyte word that we live in, the problematic part is not acquiring the information but filtering the signal from noise. If somebody has something important to tell me, he can do that in English, and if he doesn’t want to do this, then that something probably wasn’t that important in the first place, simple as that. The English language is perhaps the most underrated bozo filter currently in existence, silently blocking out tons of idiocy. Of course you could argue that I must learn some language so that I could understand and relate to the people who speak it. Very well, tell me then which language A I ought to learn, instead of any one of the other languages B, C, D, … Also, please tell, why is this duty unidirectional the same way that all multiculturalism always seems to be? Couldn’t the speakers of other languages just as well learn to speak English? Why do I have a moral duty to learn their language, when they clearly don’t have the reciprocal duty to learn mine?

I’ve been hearing a very long time now that the simple act of learning any non-native tongue has a “broadening” effect upon the mind. Back when I was in high school this made perfect sense to me, although looking back on it I should have paid better attention to the evidence I was seeing. I’m referring here, mostly, to those fellow students in high school who were members of the “Esperanto Club.” Indeed, their communication skills in English did seem to go up as they learned second-languages, and of course they were on the fast-track for other accolades, positions held, class President, et al. One problem: When I talked with them one-on-one about deeper matters, computer programming, trigonometry, etc., they didn’t know a whole lot. But never mind, because all the teachers acted as if they were little geniuses.

I just don’t find any evidence to support that this truly broadens the mind. Quite to the contrary: People who learn multiple languages tend to become pretentious. Not all of them. There are those who use it as a tool — I need to know this other language, so I learn it, I don’t brag about it. Like that. The folks who learn multiple languages as a social signal, as in ooh look at me, I’m so smart, I know more than one language…they’re a bunch of freakin’ pinheads. Always have been.

And no, that’s not jealousy talking. If I wanted to learn another language, I’d have done it by now. But it comes down to — Ilkka’s right. You invest the time, you get a benefit. If you already know the English language you’re not going to get much of a benefit unless you’re about to spend more than a few days in some country that speaks a different language.

And there are all the problems with logic, for which the polyglots fall, again and again. Like this one: English-only is racist. No, it’s NOT. English is not a color.

Sen. Obama made an issue out of this. He says our children need to learn more than one language — specifically, Spanish — but Obama hasn’t done this himself. Millions of people are falling for it. Some of them know more than one language…in which they help prove my point, multiple-language people falling for crap…and some of them don’t, in which case they’re no better than he is.

And here’s something else peculiar I’ve been noticing. Languages I’m supposed to learn in order to become a “better” individual, it seems, are languages from Europe. People don’t say you’re better if you learn Swahili. They say you should learn one of those high school fad-and-fashion languages…French…Italian…Spanish. And Europe is historically mostly white. Listen to the rhetoric sometime — how does the politically-correct crowd protest a school exam that has not been sufficiently “diversified”? They call it euro-centric. How does that help keep me from being a racist if I learn languages from a continent whose name is virtually synonymous with whiteness?

What is it about Europe, anyway? I don’t see anyone saying people from Chad are ticked at Americans for not having passports. I don’t see anyone saying people from Ghana are opining away about our isolationism…or people from Tibet…or people from Madagascar. It’s always Europe. Europe, which from what I’m told, has been made into a tourist trap. Hmmm…guilt for dollars.

Here’s some irony. English is the official aviation language as of January 1, 2008. Internationally. There ya go. You want to identify with other countries, the first step is to speak English.

I like the point about the bozo filter. Gathering information for yourself is always useful, but I think it’s high time the point was made that an ability to filter things out is far more useful. Once you’ve given it a fair hearing, I mean. Someone says “A big problem we have with kids today is they’re traumatized when their parents are overly competitive” and you say “Oh really? Like who?” and the other person says “Well, I saw it in a whole bunch of movies…” (Thing I Doubt #18). One eyeball-roll later, that should be the end of the discussion. And we have a great many more people walking around lacking an ability to filter out stupid things, than lacking the ability to gather the raw material. They see things in movies, and they think those things are true. Does learning multiple languages help stop people from doing this, indulging in this confusion between reality and fantasy? The opposite seems to be the case.

There is also a point to be made about differentiating between learning something, and learning something well. From listening to people, and observing things for myself, I have come to gradually notice that people in foreign lands who are addressed by tourists in their native tongues, don’t seem to appreciate the gesture unless some high degree of proficiency has been attained. Maybe not even then. I still think, if you’re going there, you should learn the language of where you’re going to some utilitarian level. I’m just saying, don’t count on people showing an appreciation for it. Why should they? Isn’t it rather conceited to assume some guy over in France, minding his own business, will appreciate the opportunity to tell you where the damn bathroom is just because you know how to say S’il Vous Plaît? How insulting.

One other thing I keep getting told is that people in foreign countries — again, Europe — don’t like Americans because Americans are rude. Maybe our multi-culturalists are the problem. Shouldn’t someone be asking them about it? I mean, if you’re the kind of person who’s going to get a passport and travel to Europe just so you can say you’re so much better than another American who will stay home, it just makes sense that you’re probably the kind of person who’s going to bug people over there for directions and then act like you’re the one doing them a favor. And if I happen to be that foreign guy, you’re probably going to piss me off pretty well. Next guy who asks me about Americans, I’m going to say they’re rude and full o’ themselves. Anyway, that’s my theory. Makes pretty good sense from where I’m standing. And as Ilkka points out in a more recent post, don’t forget all the carbon you’re blowing out your rear end by flying there in the first place.

But above all, that parting-shot question has to stand. And it seems to me unanswerable. How come I have to learn your language, but you don’t have to learn mine?

Cross-posted at House of Eratosthenes.

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