Tuesday, January 31, 2012

English: Everybody's Second Language, Even Ours

Lawrence Summers, who memorably suggested women less well endowed than men in the sciences and mathematics, has questioned the utility of learning foreign languages in a world where English is the de facto second language. The Times's 'Room for Debate' features debaters all of whom disagree, more politely than yr. obdt. svt., who's astonished that Summers is reveling in ignorance while being entirely full of shit:


The writers focus on the actuality of language as used in world wide commerce, a broader venue than that of top-level macroeconomics. One also suggested the study of literature in its original language, rather than in translation, adds insights not otherwise available. I'd add to their views two reasons:

1. It's simply polite to acknowledge another's language as fully as worthy as one's own. I've been to countries speaking Spanish, French, Greek and Russian, and found invariably that the slightest, clumsiest attempt to speak the language generates huge amounts of goodwill. When not true, I think, it's because the next reaction is American disgust with the foreign national's inability to speak English, rather than to apologise for one's ignorance, ideally in the foreigner's native tongue. True, too, of multilingual immigrants here, of course. Why such an observation appalls those fearing English's position even in this country, rather than is seen as simple courtesy, is obvious only if considered in the context not of language choice but of bigotry and arrogance, traits all too often correctly ascribed to Americans.

2. There's no better way to truly understand one's own language than to study another, where structure, grammar, vocabulary and history are explicitly examined. An average Americans' competence in grammatically correct, correctly spelled written and spoken English is, well, less than complete. During the unlamented Busherregnum, some suggested that English was GW Bush's second language, requiring continuous translation for English speakers at the UN. Meanwhile, English has more foreign words in it than any other language, and, as it's increasingly used globally, will doubtless absorb more. Is our children learning? ROFLMAO...

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