Multilingualism in Europe

Feb 23rd, 2006, 09:41 AM
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The number of German words is indefinite. Simply because new words are created by putting together (rearranging) existing words from german and other languages to form a new word. On this word, German grammar is applied, thus "germanized".... The concept of the language makes it impossible for another language to "take over".
logos999 is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 09:45 AM
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I think it is very difficult to keep a foreign language at a level that one can actually "converse" in it. I think you have to have a job that requires it, or something like that. I personally think the reason why Dutch, Danes, Swedes, etc. learn English so well is because they kind of have to because their own language isn't of much use in the world and no one else is going to learn it that well.

I have a sister-in-law from Latin American and she has trouble conversing fluently in Spanish now because she hasn't lived there in about 25 years and doesn't use it that frequently. I also have a German friend who does use it much more frequently, as she keeps in touch with relatives at home in regular phone calls, and spends at least 1-2 months there in the summer, but even she says that it is a struggle at first to be completely "fluent" in German when she first goes over there, as she's lived in the US about 25 years.

I know someone above who is European claimed that their children learn English fluently (or some other language) because they had to take three years of it in high school -- lots of American students take 3 years or more of a language in high school (and many start before that), and that doesn't make you able to converse in it at a fluent level. Three years at a high school level isn't that much. You really have to use it a lot, also, as my German friend who is absolutely fluent in English also had to take 4 years of French in high school (or maybe even 6), but she doesn't know French hardly at all now and can't even make a sentence.

I don't think English is the most difficult language in the world by far, and it doesn't have nearly as many difficulties as others, especially in tenses and verbs. I've heard foreigners say that, also, that English wasn't as difficult to learn as some other languages.
Christina is online now  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 09:51 AM
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English gained its leadership in the early 20th century after two world wars, and American cultural and economic influences reinforced that position in following decades. Today, English is self-propelled, independently of the U.S., and people learn it because other people learn it (for the same reasons that English keyboards are still QWERTY).

Chinese is unlikely to take the lead because (1) there are several different and mutually unintelligible forms of the spoken language; and (2) people in the Orient tend to think of their languages as their own property, and they aren't necessarily keen upon others learning them. Also, the use of ideograms in Chinese is a massive handicap despite the tremendous efforts expended to work around it.

Hindi will not prevail, either, because it is only one of thousands of languages spoken in India, and nobody else speaks it in the world. English, on the other hand, is both widely spoken in India and widely spoken worldwide.

Spanish is not in the running; it has many speakers, but they are not widely distributed geographically, and most Spanish-speaking countries are not major world players.

French, which was very much a lingua franca of sorts throughout much of the world before English took hold, is on the decline and will eventually be restricted to Francophone countries.

No other languages are really in the running at all, at present. If current trends continue, English will eventually replace everything, although historically the same appeared to be the case for languages like Latin and French, and yet circumstances changed and these languages fell away.

Language is driven by the need to communicate, and the need to communicate is driven by commerce and culture. Economic necessities and cultural influence drive the languages of the countries that play the biggest part in the world. And once a given language becomes sufficiently widespread (as English has), it gains a momentum of its own and doesn't necessarily need any specific cultural backing to sustain it.

Attempts to resist shifts in dominance in languages are a waste of time. The old folks might want to keep their languages, but young people don't care, as they will simply learn whatever is most useful to them.

It is not true that a given native language is systematically precious to its speakers. Some people think of their native language as part of their identity, but others recognize language as merely a tool of communication. In language teaching, those who think that their language is part of their identity almost invariably make little or no progress in learning new languages, whereas those who see language as just a tool can often learn multiple languages without much trouble.

The Dutch speak other languages well because nobody speaks their language, and nobody wants to learn it. Americans speak other languages poorly because everyone speaks their language, and many are eager to learn it (not necessarily for the purpose of talking to Americans, but just as a practical tool of communication). It's all just supply and demand.
AnthonyGA is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 09:51 AM
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English lacks basic grammar, which makes it easier to understand and learn than other languages.
"der, die, das, dem, den, des" these six German words simply mean "the" in English.
So much for complexity....
logos999 is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 10:13 AM
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I am a native English speaker who has (many years ago) learned (and mostly forgotten) Spanish, and who is currently struggling, late in life, to learn French, for several reasons.

First, while it certainly is the case that English is the lingua franca of the business world, I have found that it is also the case that business people who speak only one language are at a disadvantage when compared to those who are bilingual or multilingual. For example, if I only speak English, and I am negotiating a bid for a contract with people who speak English and French, they can communicate with each other in a way that I cannot follow. I am at a disadvantage not only with respect to my negotiations with them, but also with respect to other bidders who can speak English and French, and can thus follow their sidebar discussions (perhaps without them even realizing it).

Second, there seems to be a growing body of evidence that learning multiple languages changes the way that the brain is structured and/or functions (although the big structural changes seem to only occur when the additional languages occur at an early age). Simply keeping the brain/mind active in the ways that learning/thinking/using multiple languages can do seems to make the mind sharper, make learning other things easier, and delay the onset of things like Alzheimer's. This seems to be borne out by my observations (by no means scientific) of my French class. About half of the class are already bilingual in the sense that they are fluent, but non-native English speakers. They seem to have a much easier time picking up the pronunciation, conjugation, etc. than do the native English speakers in the class. Since I want to keep about me what few wits I have left for as long as possible, this alone seems reason enough to make the attempt.

Finally, it's my own personal opinion that the rise of English as the de facto common tongue is the result of a combination of historical accident and American and British political hegemony, rather than any structural superiority, as Rillifane has suggested. Latin was once the same, and was vastly superior (in my view) to English in terms of its logical structure, but has fallen by the wayside as a distinct, spoken language. That English is so widespread for these reasons generates some level of discomfort, I think, in some countries where it is not natively spoken, because the native language there is, as elina says, tightly woven into the culture and identity. Conversely, I think people in these countries view attempts to learn at least the fundamentals of their language as a sign of respect for them. Plus, it's nice to be able to pronounce what is on the menu.
chuut_riit is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 10:19 AM
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"'der, die, das, dem, den, des' these six German words simply mean 'the' in English"

Grammatic complexity is, however, not the only type of complexity that a language may have.

Tonality makes Chinese quite complicated for most Westerners although the essential grammar is quite simple and lacks either verb conjugations or noun declensions.

The more relaxed rules of grammar, the greater number of words, and a hugely inconsistent spelling makes English quite difficult for many. (My mother, a native Chinese speaker has never really managed to master conversational English).
Rillifane is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 10:26 AM
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Mark Twain--humorous essay about "The Awful German Language." Don't get upset. It is humor, not a scientific treatise.
RufusTFirefly is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 10:35 AM
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This is what happens when all school kids are required to learn at least one other language. And travel to other places - or meet people ffrom other places - so get a chance to use them.

Americans seem to think this is hard - it's actually very easy - and the earlier you start the better. We usually wait til high school when it;s much more difficult - should be started in kindergarten - when the little brains absorb easiest - and they're not contaminated by the idea that it's difficult. (My high school French teacher had a 3 year old equally fluent in 3 languages - not Einstein, just a little effort by the parents.)
nytraveler is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 11:00 AM
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You might be interested in a book titled "English As A Global Language" by David Crystal. I believe that he is a linguist at Cambridge.

His research has concluded that English is already the most spoken language in the world. As you point out, Chinese is really a collection of languages, although they are unified in the written form. But even if Chinese is regarded as a single language, English usage is still greater because of its unprecedented popularity as a second language.

I don't have the book with me as I write this, but I believe that Crystal has identified over 70 nations that use English as an official language in some capacity. Ambitious people in these countries have a powerful incentive to learn English.

One of the more interesting facts that I recall from English As A Global Language is that English is the official language of Nigeria, which is the most populous nation in Africa and one of the most populous in the world.

On another note, I believe that the smaller European nations tend to have more multilingual populations. Belgians have many practical reasons to learn English, French and German.
smueller is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 12:54 PM
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"I believe that the smaller European nations tend to have more multilingual populations"

And in many European nations the population may well speak different languages. So there's little choice for someone in anything other than purely local commerce but to learn them all.

Miniscule Belgium, about the size of Maryland, is divided amongst Flemish, Wallonian and German speakers.

Switzerland, about 3/4 the size of West Virgina, has four languages spoken, German, Italian, French and Romansch.

Rillifane is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 01:56 PM
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When I went abroad in highschool I was placed in Alicante, Spain. I was the only AFSer there, and the first American to attend my school. My first day people asked me how long I had been studying Spanish and I said "4 years." They flipped out! I could carry on a conversation (though basic and full of mistakes), and most of them had been "studying English" for 8 years and could hardly form sentences. Some even went to special academies after school and were still horrible.

Well, the next day I met the teacher, Rosa, who spoke horrible English. She wrote blatant mistakes on the board and after meeting me said "You don't speak English, but a dialect." It was downhill from there.

Learning language is a survival tactic, as has been said. When I was in Norway I worked hard to learn Norwegian (Nynorsk, as I was on the West Coast) and when I got home I tried to keep it up. If I have to pull it out I can, but it is much more difficult than it was a few years ago. Same with Chinese, which I studied in school.

Americans in general don't need it. I now live my life so that I do, which gives me more and more excuses to learn language through travel.


PS- sansman- I don't know if Franco outlawed the study of foreign languages, but he did supress languages other than Spanish within Spain, changing the names of streets in Catalunya into Spanish (most are in Catalan) and trying to get Valenciano, Gallego, Euskera, and all the others out of formal education. It really was the beginning of the end.

laclaire is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 02:21 PM
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As nytraveler points out, one of the reasons we Americans don't master languages is that we start teaching kids too late. By the time kids reach high school, the language-learning gate has almost slammed shut, and a language that can be mastered by a five-year-old in six months isn't learned well in three or four years of high school courses.

As one ages, it becomes even more difficult.

When I went back to community college to study Spanish, I saw a great difference between people who had studied another language and those who hadn't. It seems obvious that studying one language facilitates learning of another language.
Pegontheroad is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 06:38 PM
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To put a lot of time and effort into teaching languages that most of the students will never use in any meaningful way seems quite likely to be wasteful of precious classroom time and dollars.

The states of Texas and Colorado and the Army Dependent Schools spent a lot of money to teach me German and Spanish, and I spent more in college on the German--just so 35 years later I could read a few roadsigns, menus, and museum explanatory notes on a 2 week Bavarian vacation.

And what if we do start teaching children other languages from the womb through college and they do become fluent in German, or Spanish, or Urdu, or Navajo or Walloon--the vast majority still will never get any meaningful use out of it. Would the benefit-cost ratio make it worthwhile to spend all of that money and time teaching everyone to end up with a few who would make some sort of good use of all that training? I would guess not, but it would be an interesting project.
RufusTFirefly is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 06:57 PM
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Sansman, no, Franco didn't supress foreign language learning but it was not compulsory at schools. And at other levels or individually, the fashionable thing to do was learning French, I suppose it's because they are our neighbours and our first tourists then
Stardust is absolutely right. The fact of seeing everything on TV or cinema dubbed makes us worst speakers and listeners of foreign languages. I am a perfect example of that point. I can write in English (well..more or less , can read it perfectly, I study English Language at University ..but I'm not fluent speaking and have a hard time understanding speech.
Younger people (I'm 38) has more chances to speak than I've had. They began to learn earlier and the most important thing, they have more skilled teachers (spaniards or english-speaking people). My teacher when I began to learn at school didn't speak a word and made great mistakes on writing that even us , the pupils, were able to correct !!
But I love I've tried to do my best!!
By the way, what makes English a difficult language for the speakers of Romance languages is that the spelling has nothing to do with the pronunciation. Most Romance languages words are spelt the same as they are pronounced (oh, well..french speakers are "letter eaters" , hehehe).
kenderina is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 09:21 PM
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I wasn't suggesting that most Europeans speak more than one language out of any greater sophistication than the rest of us. In most cases it's a matter of necessity or pragmatism.

When I was in my Australian high school, in the Dark Ages, those of us considered potential university fodder usually studied (I almost said "learnt") French and Latin. This was a hangover from the English school tradition, as there were precious few French people, and fewer ancient Romans, to practice on.

Eventually it dawned on the system that our biggest trading partner was no longer the UK but Japan, and our nearest neighbour was not France but Indonesia. Well-meaning efforts to switch the emphasis to these languages failed, though, because only a small minority of students have ever had a real need to converse in them, and good old Anglo-Saxon arrogance meant that we expected the other side to speak English anyway.

Now we're officially a multicultural society comprising hundreds of ethnic groups, and official documents are published in a bewildering variety of tongues. And the study of languages in schools has declined even further. For most people there's just no perceived need.

When I joined my first Italian class I found there several grumpy teenagers, the children of Italian immigrants, who were there on sufferance only - they'd been told to learn the language or else forget about the big trip to meet their Italian relatives.

But I still cling to the idea that knowing another language, even imperfectly, is a good thing. Like my old Latin lessons it's good mental discipline if nothing else, and it helps open your mind to the idea that other cultures do some things differently.

I have two daughters teaching English in China. Although being able to speak Mandarin isn't a prerequisite by any means they've now learned quite a bit -enough to chat to their new best friends, the hairdressers and manicurists, anyway. However, they've met other western teachers who in two or three years who've made not the smallest effort. How anyone can be so incurious and insular baffles me.
Neil_Oz is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 10:07 PM
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English does not lack "basic grammar"; it has just as much as any other language.

In fact, English is pretty much a language like any other. It has been successful as a worldwide second language for reasons that have nothing to do with its linguistic characteristics. The modern lingua franca could have easily been any other language, and English is no more or less difficult to learn than any other average language, despite very persistent misconceptions to the contrary.
AnthonyGA is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 11:18 PM
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No it is not a language like any other. It has VASTLY more words than any other language which is a product of the unique manner in which it developed and which attests to the ease with which new words are developed.

True, German is one of several languages that can string infinite numbers of words together to make new words but practical limits quickly are reached.

There's an old joke about the supposed German word for ICBM...

Dasfirespittenloudenboomermitteingroßholeindergrou ndundalleskaput.
Rillifane is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 11:28 PM
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I agree with that last post. I lived in the USA and the UK for many years, and much prefer reading in English than in Dutch. Now that my children are reading English, they often ask me for translations of words they do not know. And very often, though I know perfectly well what the word means, I cannot come up with a single Dutch word that accurately translates it. Even looking it up in a dictionary, you end up explaining the one English word with several Dutch ones.
Does anyone know how large the English vocabulary is, compared to other languages?
Tulips is offline  
Feb 23rd, 2006, 11:53 PM
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There are something like 986,000 words in the English language of which some 500,000 are non-technical words. The comparable count for French is 100,000 and 60,000.
Rillifane is offline  
Feb 24th, 2006, 12:15 AM
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Europeans travel among their neighboring countries. Each country has its own language and often more than one. Travellers learn those languages. Business travel also requires an ability to converse in those languages. The USA with 300 million residents uses only English. There is no need for an American to acquire another such skill. You might better perfect/improve your own English rather than try to master a second one.
GSteed is offline  

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