The nonsense of English children learning foreign languages

Keith Hudson

Unlike any other language in the world, Chinese is non-phonetic.  Most words, whatever their pronunciation, are denoted by only one Han character, or ideograph — those delightful, often beautiful, . . . graphics traditionally written with a brush held at its end and swung almost like a pendulum (but these days written much less beautifully by pushing a ball-point pen in jagged strokes).  The result of this is that although you may be able to speak the ‘official’ language of Mandarin (the one that’s mainly spoken in Beijing) you may not have the faintest idea of how it can be written down.  Ideographs that look very similar are pronounced quite differently.

Even if you knew a few written words, you would still not be able to work out how to write other words, even if they had identical, or almost identical pronunciations. You have got to learn the ideograph of every single word separately.  Also one ideograph may be spoken at one of five or six different tonal pitches and thus have one of five or six different meanings (just as we can alter the meaning of a phrase or a sentence by changing the pitch of our voice).  To make this apparent complexity worse, some identical ideographs uttered at the same pitch may also have different meanings (just as we have with some words that are spelled the same).

The result of this is that learning an adequate — or even a basic — written repertoire is an arduous task for Chinese schoolchildren — quite beyond the difficulty of English children learning to read and write English.  A highly educated Chinese with a spoken vocabulary of perhaps 40,000 words may only know how to read and write 4,000 of them.  Indeed, this is about the full working repertoire of even a quality newspaper in China.  Although the full vocabulary of Chinese may be as many as 60,000 or 80,000 words — somewhat approaching the English vocabulary — only lifelong scholars of Chinese literature would know most of these.

The only other country which had a full-blown non-phonetic script was Korea.  This is understable because Korea is a pensinsula of continental China and in times past would have been conquered by the Chinese, thus acquired its language and ideographs.  However, Korea remained a separate country for most of its history and its Chinese ideographs gradually changed into Korean forms.  In the 15th century, a highly educated King, Sejong the Great, decided to phoneticise it to make it easier for his people to write the language. But the scholars resisted this and once Sejong died, the phonetic form disappeared.

However, after the Second World War when Russian-backed communist forces in North Korea met American-backed southern Korean troops at the 38th parallel, the country divided.  North Korea went back to Sejong’s phonetic system retaining only about 30 highly-simplified ideographs, one for each phoneme, so that North Korean words became more like the words in the languages of the rest of the world, each word containing as many characters as the spoken word had phonemes or syllables.  South Korea, however, retained its Chinese-like system for many years longer and only comparatively recently changed to the phonetic form.

Which leaves only Chinese again — though not quite.  In the fifth century, Japan assumed the Chinese ideographioc form of writing.  In later centuries, a few simplified characters were devised that denoted phonemes and these started muscling into the written form of Japanese displacing many ideographs. Then, in later centuries, another quite different phonetic system was devised and this, too, started to extinguish many Chinese-type ideogaphs.  So written Japanese has become a hybrid mixture of Chinese-type ideographs and two different phonetic systems.  And, in recent decades, in order to assimilate new Western terms quicker into the language, Japanese newspapers will also incorporate English words (with normal Latin spelling) directly!

It would be out of order for me to describe the Japanese written language as a hodgepodge but this is what some modern Japanese writers, such as Minae Mizumura are now saying.  She is the author of a recent book, The Fall of Language in the Age of English. The arrival of English, they say, has now catalysed the need to completely overhaul the Japanese written language.  Whether this will actually happen and how fiercely the present written language is protected remains to be seen, the fact seems to be that the problem is already being short-circuited by increasing numbers of educated Japanese who are adopting English not only as a more nuanced spoken language than Japanese but also, as a conseqeunce, as their preferred written language.

But this is already happening in China, too.  Ever since the Communist Revolution in China in 1949, Chinese have needed to learn English, mainly to read scientific journals and technical magazines.  Mao Zedong, wanting to modernise as quickly as possible but in Chinese fashion tried to obviate English by putting forward a pin-yin, phonetic form of spoken Chinese. If China could use pin-yin widely as its written form instead of ideographs then not only could Chinese learn to read and write pin-yin Chinese much fasterer at school but also new English terms, particularly abstract ideas, could be directly trasncribed phonetically in pin-yin form.  Publishers’  translators would be quickly able to both translate and transcribe English scientific and engineering texts into Chinese pin-yin which could thus be re-republished into readable form for scientists and engineers who would have no need to learn English.

However, although Mao Zedong was as powerful a dictator as the world has ever seen in modern times, he couldn’t persuade the communist party as a whole to push their written ideographic language to one side in favour of pin-yin.  The result of this is that Chinese scientists, engineers and businesspeople had to start learning English even more urgently, and this accelerated from the late 1970s when Deng Xiaoping let loose the free market and China began trading with the rest of the world. This has now become so important that reading and writing English is now obligatory for all school students wishing to enter top tier colleges and all universities in China where faculties are becoming increasingly Englilsh-speaking..

To this must be added the fact that China has anything up to 20 or 30 spoken languages (with a greater number of substantial dialects within them!).  Empires of old didn’t ruthlessly suppress native langauges as all nation-states in Europe did in the last few hundred years.  All the languages of China have the same non-phonetic ideographic written language, however — as originally laid down by the enormously powerful Emperer Qin (pronounced Chin) in 200BC.  In practical terms this means that the eight leading politicians of the Politburo government in Beijing can communicate in written form with all the provincial governments in its empire (for that is what China still is) but they cannot speak to all the people in China directly as politicians can in most other countries (that is, followers of European-type nation-states). Beijing politicians can’t speak directly to the people of Hong Kong, for example, because the latter speak Cantonese, not Mandarin.

When Xi Jinping, the President of China, tours the country — as Chinese politicians are now increasingly having to do in order to appear to be ‘closer’ to the people and consolidate their power — he can only speak directly to those politically ambitious individuals among his audiences who have learned to speak and understand Mandarin in addition to their own language.  If he speaks on television anywhere in the country his voice has to be translated for the viewers, except those living around Beijing, just as if he had visited this country and appeared on our television.

The overall result of all this language variety is that, just as in Japan, but overwhelmingly more so, all educated Chinese now speak and, importantly, think, in English, not just the scientist and business classes in order to be fluent with their contacts in the rest of the world, but all politicians with different original languages find it useful to do in order to communicate by phone or video between themselves.  Of course, all educated Chinese will never forsake the language they learned in their childhood in the 23 provinces and 5 autonomous regions (e.g. Tibet and Inner Mongolia) of China, but they are now increasingly likely to learn to speak and think in English rather than the ‘official’ language of Mandarin.

As in Japan, much though the traditional written ideographic language is still loved and will be fiercely defended by some, its practice will recede in the coming years and, probably within another two generations, will have disappeared as completely as, say, the reading and writing of Latin has disappeared in this country and in Western Europe.

Also, just as it means that English and American people can expect to talk and be understood in English when speaking to Chinese and Japanese people, even quite young children, in the same way that they expect to when they meet any Europeans or, increasingly, anybody from elsewhere in the world, means that it is a nonsense for the government to inists on foreign languages beiing taught in schools.  Besides, what language should they be taught?  It is no more sense that English and American children should be taught any foeign language than they shouldd be taught, say Egyptian hieroglyphics.

By all means existing foreign languages could be taught in schools to those who are keen to learn them just as for those wanting to learn classic languages such as Latin or Greek or Sanskrit or Egyptian or Mayan hieroglyphics .  There’ll always be a need for expert translators of other languages, past or present, because the subtleties of cultures and other modes of thinking cannot otherwise be adequately conveyed.  But even expert translators can’t always exactly convey them. There are many different translations each of Dante’s Inferno or Goethe’s Faust, for example, and many of them will be first class but none of them will agree when anything ideomatic or philosophical has to be conveyed.  If someone wants to fully appreciate the beauty of Pushkin’s or Turgenev’s poems, he or she can can only do so by learning Russian.

The English, being an insular, island people not hearing other languages (until recent years of high immigration) have always been poor in learning foreign languages because they don’t hear them when young (when necessary specialised phonemic neurons can only develop in young brains). This often leads to accusations of being arrogant by Europeans and others who may easily know how to speak in two, three or four languages.  It is diplomatic, and sometimes important, for English government spokesmen or representives of large English or American businesses to speak in other languages but it is decreasingly useful, because so many foreigners speak English as well as we do and, in the case of many well-educated Indians, often speak and write it better than we normally do.

As nation-states fall prey to modern circumstances (as I will be writing about later today) and smaller cultural regions naturally arise (because we are a small-group species), we might find that many new languages arise.  Just as cities in modern nation-states each develop more intensive dialects, so could new cultures develop new languages.  In modern times with more globalisation — and particularly the spread of English — there has been the death of many thousands of original languages which, in one way, is a pity (and, hopefully, many of them will be at least recorded for future study if necessary).  But, on the other hand, we also have an enormous facility in developing new ones and in the world of the further future we may find ourselves in a society with many thousands of smaller governmental entities each mainly speaking its own language instead of the mere 200 nation-states and their languages that we have today.

One thought on “The nonsense of English children learning foreign languages

  1. Which is more important to have nothing to say but be fluent is 4 languages or to have something to say but be fluent in only one.:-)
    The idea that children must be taught foreign languages in order for them to understand the world never made sense to me. Actually I would tend to argue that learning many languages is inefficient use of time and energy. Why learn many when one will do . English has become and will stay for a long time the language of science( sorry French . German… will not do) commerce and innovation.

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