Readers' Submissions

More About Language Part 2



This was written in response to Dana's Thai Thoughts and Anecdotes Part 81

First of all, I welcome Great Dana's (no pun intended) vitriolic outbursts hurled against the idea that a Farang can and, indeed, even should learn Thai although the incomparable thinker often loses me in unfathomable hyperbole such as my being on a scale of one out of a total of three in a triangle of mathematics-languages-music. I wish I could comprehend such abstraction but my mind's determination to stick to concrete, tangible, and easily comprehensible matters prevents me from doing so.

Basically, Dana's contentions are:

1. I am trying to sell something (what, I don't know, perhaps Dana might elucidate in a further submission)

2. I am a criminal trying to mislead innocent English-speaking monoglots to a false polyglot inferno. I say English-speaking monoglots because many of Stick's readers are from non-English-speaking countries and so they are already free of the "language prison" containing English-only monoglots of Dana's ilk. Those poor wretched single-track Anglophones are condemned to serve live without parole in such a (self-)imposed prison and the word part about it is that they don't even realize the limitations of their closed little provincial, "English-only" world.

Dana then goes about by building up his rather dubious thesis that there are Four Big Lies about learning languages:

1. Osmotic Learning

a. Merely being around native speakers guarantees learning
b. Content limits one's learning
c. Time is lacking to learn language

2. Learning language has value (Dana contends that it does not)

3. Learning a language improves a person's character (Dana contends that it does not though I never stated that a person is a better person morally for knowing any language per se)

4. Learning a language does not require that a learner should know his or her own language in order to learn another one (something which I have never, ever contended though Dana claims that I did or at least implies that I did).

In a rebuttal to Dana's rebuttal, may I start by saying that Dana's often incoherent musings were obviously uttered by someone who is from a powerful country with a powerful language (powerful because of its demographic, economic, and military clout as well as some of its cultural achievements, i.e. English). People from powerful (or formerly powerful) countries with a vocation for imperialism usually hold Dana's opinions about language or languages. Is it no coincidence that people from smaller countries or cultures are able to learn other people's languages when people from imperialist cultures are quite often unwilling and/or unable to learn someone else's? I recall one submission to Stick's site, written by a Thai, in which a Farang woman was highly miffed that the Thai, then a child, was unable to reply in acceptable English even though that old battleaxe was in Thailand where English is not even an official language. Such closed-minded people quite simply expect — and demand — that people speak their language. The tragedy is that more often than not they can get away with it.

Big Lie # 1 : Osmotic Learning

Dana has a point. It is not enough for an adult to be in a foreign country and be around people who speak a given language in order to learn it. Although children are readily able to learn two, three, or four languages in their early youth (I have personally seen it time after time in my life so I know it does happen though not where Dana lives), things slow down for an adult. Indeed, an adult needs to have a base knowledge of a language before he or she can take full advantage of being around speakers of the target language.

However, there are many cases in which adults have learnt a language in circumstances in which they were simply thrust into a situation in which they suddenly had to deal with people who did not speak their language and they were forced to come to terms with such a situation. For example, German prisoners of war who were thrown into Soviet Gulags and forced to languish in them long after World War II was over. Many of those who survived the camps learnt fluent Russian. I have met a Basque who only knew Basque (and no Spanish or French) when he went to New York City when he was around 20. He eventually became quite fluent in English without ever attending a single language class.

Of course, there are a few cases in which a person can live in a country for fifty years without learning the local language. That would include many Farangs living in Thailand, uneducated Mexican peasants living in the USA, Russians living in the Baltic States, and some Spaniards/Frenchmen who live in overwhelmingly Basque-speaking or Catalan-speaking towns, etc. Those who fail to learn the local language are those who usually from countries with an imperialist tradition or who have very little formal education, or who went to the country when they were at a rather advanced age. Added to these factors would be the fact that they do not have to learn the local language because they can be approached in their own language. If you don't have to use a language, you don't believe you need it and, all things being equal, most people don't want to go through the trouble of doing something they feel they don't have to. Alas, mediocrity is the rule among people the world over as the hoi polloi prefer to go down the path of least resistance.

Dana remarks that content can limit the language a person is learning. That is, if a person is only around people who know only one thing, say sports or TV, the learner is therefore limited to that. That of course, is not true. A learner can talk learn fluency in a language by talking to people about only one topic but later on, with a minimum of study, the learner can go on and learn other topics and vocabulary. I know many Mormon missionaries who only learnt to talk about religion during their two-year missions in various countries, but went on to acquire a more thorough knowledge of the language they learnt upon their return.

Finally, Dana contends that it takes an inordinate amount of time to learn a language, presumably Thai, which ultimately makes it impractical. That harkens back to Mark Twain's hilarious diatribe entitled "The Awful German Language". Twain determined that a person would learn English in thirty days, French in thirty months. He contended German would be a dead language because only the dead would have the time to learn it.

Nevertheless, my answer to Dana's "time" question is that a basic knowledge of Thai can be obtained in a reasonably short time. A thorough knowledge of Thai, indeed of any language, requires a great deal of time and study. It is a question of education. How many Thais know Thai perfectly well beyond the P6 level? Indeed, does Dana actually know the ins and outs of English grammar reasonably well, even though he has had his entire life to learn English? Only he can tell us.

Essentially, it is all a question of degrees. Basic Thai is quickly obtainable, Advanced Thai is much more difficult and would take a lot longer just like Advanced English, Advanced French or Advanced Anything.

Big Lie # 2 : Learning a language has value

Dana contends that learning a language has no value. For Dana, knowing English is more than enough, thank you very much. English is becoming everyone's lingua franca so why waste your time by deigning to learn any other language? Obviously, such monoglots are surprised, and indeed even hurt, when they learn that not everybody in the world secretly knows English but often hold back such a knowledge to Anglophones out of pure spite or bloody-mindedness.

British business leaders are concerned about Britain losing its competitiveness because young people's foreign language skills are declining. Europeans might sell in English but they usually prefer to buy in their own language. Can any Farang who wants to have a go at living in Thailand deny that a knowledge of Thai has any value? Indeed, can a Farang who lives outside of Bangkok or touristy areas honestly get by without a knowledge of least some basic Thai without feeling isolated or without being condemned to a self-imposed linguistic cocoon? Perhaps some readers could point out that a basic knowledge of Thai could even help in happy hunting in Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza, even though the more seasoned BGs reportedly know basic or fluent English. I have read that in some cases, some BGs don't even like it that a punter can speak Thai but I suppose that would be because the Farang might be better equipped to see through many of their schemes that they might have up their sleeve or because the savvy Farang could understand snide remarks about them that BGs might mumble to their colleagues. Surely that is of some value in its own right.

There are many cases of monoglot victims who subscribe to Dana's Weltanschauung and are now regretting it. There are Russian-speakers who thought it was a waste of time learning Estonian or Latvian because Russian was enough … until Estonia and Latvia got independence. Now they cannot even get local citizenship until they learn the local language. Many of them are now effectively stateless as they hold neither Russian nor Latvian/Lithuanian/Estonian citizenship. There are 157 teachers in the Basque Country who were given three years to learn basic, basic Basque. They were able to study full-time at full salary (with vacation pay) for three years, had plenty of extensions, but in the end, because of their negative attitude (why should they learn Basque if they live in Spain?), they failed to even learn basic notions. Now they are in the process of losing their jobs despite various warnings and in spite of the fact that thousands of other teachers in the very situation did learn Basque. For those 157 teachers, language had no value until their ignorance and negative attitudes steamrolled over them.

There are Farangs who live in Thailand who find themselves suddenly not needed because there are Thais who have attained their skills, who are contented with a lower salary and who are able to approach the Thai market … in Thai (duh!). English can only go so far in Thailand, even for Farangs who have an excellent command of English but who can only manage "mai pen rai" or "sawaat dii".

In short, knowledge has value, ignorance has none. Learning anything, whatever it is — be it the ability to distinguish between mushrooms, playing the kazoo, memorizing the Bosnian tax code, knowing the ends and outs of Buddhist Philosophy, chemical engineering, polymers, or even learning languages — all knowledge has value whereas learning or knowing nothing always adds up to … nothing. Obviously, Dana's contention on this point is wholly illogical and absolutely inane.

Big Lie # 3 : Learning a language and character

Dana seems to be obsessed about this. Perhaps it is insecurity or a justification for an insurmountable inability to learn a single language that is not English. Dana discussed this at length on another site but I still fail to see his point when he claims that there are people who contend that learning language makes you have a better character. I would contend that learning a foreign language well can contribute to knowledge of one's own language and could allow the learner to write better, clearer sentences in his or her own language. That is what was why the English public schools insisted that their students should know Latin and even Classical Greek well. I wonder out loud whether today's students in English-speaking countries might know English grammar well if they knew Latin grammar like their peers of over a hundred years ago. Today, most English-speaking graduates (or school-leavers as they are known in Britain) find it hard to find a verb in an English sentence, let alone a participle or an example of the pluperfect. Even fewer even know what a phrasal verb is. They are victims of "miseducation", of dumbing down.

From what I have seen in Thais, I am afraid their knowledge of Thai grammar is akin to that of English-speakers … well nigh next to nothing and limited to knowing what sounds right and what does not but never knowing exactly why. I bet hardly any of them know what a secondary verb is or what a modal particle is. Contrast that with what ordinary Germans, Spaniards, young Basques, and/or Russians know about the grammar of their own language.

In conclusion, merely knowing a language does not a saint make, but it does round out somebody's knowledge. I do believe knowing only one language makes someone that much less educated, more parochial, more limited knowledge-wise than he or she might need be.

Big Lie # 4 : Learning a language does not require knowing one's own

Dana claims that I champion such a preposterous contention. Nowhere have I ever stated that. Indeed, I contend that one can get to know one's own language by learning another language. I discussed the point somewhat above in Big Lie #3.

I wonder if Dana isn't one of the millions of victims of the failure of American education to teach English properly. Does he know what a phrasal verb is? Could he explain succinctly what the first conditional is? Could he explain why "I don't can do it" is wrong without resorting to the non-answer "because it sounds bad"? Does he know what reported speech is or what precisely what the passive voice is all about? Could he fathom the problem of cleft sentences or tandem plurals? Could he possibly explain why we say "phenomena" instead of "phenomenons" or "alumni" or "alumnae" instead of "alumnuses" or "alumnas"? If he cannot, he is at a distinct disadvantage in his own language and an English-speaking writer who does not know much about the above is certainly intellectually handicapped and should take steps to fill in this gap of ignorance. I know of no modern Spanish or Basque writer, for example, who does not have a fairly good grasp of the grammar of his or her language. Why should English-speaking writers be different?

Granted, there are many such writers who can write brilliantly without knowing any of the above but arguably they could write even better if they really knew how their language worked and precisely one of the best ways to know how their language works is learning another language.

Dana seems to be obsessively bamboozled by tonal languages or languages with a click (e.g. the Khoisian and Nguni languages of Southern Africa) . I am far more daunted by polysynthetic languages like Greenlandic Eskimo in which a whole sentence can be expressed by a single, long word, complete with a battery of various kinds of prefixes, infixes, suffixes, and a verbal root located somewhere in the grammatical concoction. Caucasian languages and most American Indian languages have extremely complex grammatical systems but, yet, most of them are not tonal nor do any of them have click sounds (though ejectives are common). Is Thai harder than Greenlandic Eskimo? I don't think so. Is Georgian a cinch compared to Thai? In my humble opinion, it is not. Is Thai more daunting than Tamil, a language that takes "caste" in addition to gender into account? I wouldn't say so and I don't think I am a criminal for thinking that learning Thai is far easier than learning Japanese (a language with a very complex grammar and written simultaneously in four writing systems: Kana, Hiragana, Katagana, and Latin characters).

Dana and other English-speaking monoglots are free to go to Thailand and not speak or learn any Thai, but I do suspect that they lose out in more ways than they might suspect. They can spout out whatever nonsensical excuse they want, but in the very end, when all is said and done, if they can't handle uttering a coherent sentence in Thai, that is just too bad for them. However, they have no right to be proud of not knowing any Thai. Ignorance of anything is nothing to be proud of, quite the opposite I should expect.

Stickman's thoughts:

I LOVE your final sentence.