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  • Simon Kuper

Learning a language: is it still worth it?

My 13-year-old daughter has just discovered noun cases in German. What had previously seemed a friendly language (“the man” is der Mann) suddenly pulls off the mask to reveal an insanely involved grammar: den Mann, dem Mann, des Mannes. And because schools are perverse, she is starting this journey exactly at the age when a child’s inborn language-learning ability nosedives. Years of pain lie ahead.

I have spent my life wrestling with languages. I’m British but went to school in the Netherlands, studied German and history at university and, in 2002, moved myself and my bad school French to Paris. I’m not gifted at languages — at university, I saw fellow students who could dissolve the most convoluted German sentence into its grammatical parts at a glance.

Still, I have enough experience to help my children formulate their strategies. In this era of instant translation apps and global English, how much time should they devote to learning languages? After all, every minute spent puzzling over German grammar is a minute you could be learning something else. And which languages should they target?

My children are native English speakers. What follows is premised on that, because (like it or not) when it comes to languages, native English-speakers face a different cost-benefit analysis from everyone else.

The first thing I have told the kids: it’s no longer worth spending years to learn a language badly. At university aeons ago, I did a year of intensive Russian. (On day one, our teacher told us it would take two years to reach conversational level.) Last summer, in Russia for the football World Cup, I could read some signs, greet people and order food in Russian. But smartphone apps (which other visitors used shamelessly) and the rise of English in Russia rendered my pathetic but hard-won skills almost redundant.

It was like the Woody Allen joke about his father being fired: “They replaced him with a tiny gadget, this big, that does everything my father does, only it does it much better. The depressing thing is, my mother ran out and bought one.” By all means, learn a little Russian as a brain exercise, to help delay Alzheimer’s, to enrich your life or in the spirit of international fraternity; just don’t expect to use it much.

For other languages, such as Dutch or German, even the benefits of speaking them rather well are shrinking. Most native speakers will force you into English, which they have acquired since infancy, thanks to ubiquity and necessity. And judged by sheer cynical advantage — in business situations, for instance — if everyone is speaking English, then native English speakers are on to a winner. That’s the standard dynamic at international conferences.

Admittedly, if you learn decent Arabic or Chinese, natives will give you many opportunities to speak their language. But climbing that mountain has its downsides. In Beijing, I once met the small community of westerners who had cracked Mandarin. Their reward: they had to spend their working lives exiled in unlovely Beijing.

Clearly there’s still great benefit in achieving total fluency in a language. Even if you have an accent and make errors, you can understand everything and say precisely what you mean, rather than what you happen to know how to say. In short, you can be yourself in the language and have intimate friendships in it.

Along the way, you will acquire new perspectives on the world. At university in Berlin, for instance, when the subject was any German born between 1880 and 1940, I learnt the significance of the word Biografie: it broadly captured the person’s travails during the depression, Nazism, the wars, and (if bad luck persisted) in East Germany. “Biography” in English doesn’t have the same weight.

Few language learners ever reach total fluency. Even Alice Kaplan, professor of French studies at Yale, laments in her memoir French Lessons “not really being able to express myself” in French. Two routes to total fluency require a massive life investment: immersion in the language during childhood or years of living in the target country from early adulthood, ideally with a native partner (l’école horizontale, the French call it).

There’s only one short cut to total fluency: learn a language that’s almost identical to yours. But Anglophones don’t have that option. Because English has both Germanic and French origins, Anglos will recognise many words in both languages (Bett is German for bed, message is French for message) but they will stumble over many others (lit is French for bed, Nachricht is German for message).

My children’s head start is that they are bilingual in French. That makes learning other Romance languages relatively easy. The concept of “lexical similarity” measures the overlap between word-sets of different languages. Lexical similarity between French and Italian is 0.89 (where 1 means identical), says the reference work Ethnologue; for comparison, it’s only 0.60 between English and arguably its closest big cousin, German (not to mention those noun cases).

If my children are willing to sweat over Italian or Spanish grammar, they’ll have a fast track to total fluency. And that changes your life.

Courtesy : Financial Times


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