Being deaf vs. speaking an unpopular language

Katja Grace makes an interesting argument comparing:
  • intentionally making your kid deaf - like some deaf people want to do, arguing it will help the child experience deaf culture;
  • raising a child in an unpopular language - like most parents speaking unpopular languages do, arguing it will help the child experience that language's culture.
There is a difference between the two, primarily that a child raised in an unpopular culture can still learn a foreign language, whereas a deaf child cannot learn to hear. However, most won't learn a foreign language, and those who do, will be severely handicapped. Katja's arguments are illuminating and compelling.

I've expressed this sentiment in the past: languages with small numbers of speakers, like Slovenian, are poison for the people brought up speaking them. It should be a basic human right that one should be not just taught, but raised in a major world language, one that's e.g. in at least top 10 by total number of speakers. Of those, it should possibly not be a language spoken by a monoculture, but an international language that enables conversation with people from a wide number of countries.

If you raise your kid in a small language, and only make a token effort of teaching an international one, it's as if you are intellectually disabling your kid, preventing or impeding him or her from accessing the vast majority of knowledge and ideas that would otherwise be easily accessible.

The only acceptable way to speak a small language should be to be fully bilingual, maintaining equal fluency in an international language. When a child cannot be raised fluently in two languages, an international language should take precedence over a small one.

Comments

Jožek said…
In my opinion, it is actually an advantage to be born and brought up as a speaker of a localized but difficult language (such as Slovenian) than as a speaker of a wide-spread but simple language (such as English or Spanish). The following points corroborate this claim:

(1) If a child starts learning a popular foreign language at school rather than in his/her cradle, he/she consciously has to develop and train the `part' of the brain devoted to languages, so to speak. This has two beneficial consequences. First, using one's brain has never done any harm to anyone, and nobody in this world can be afraid of overusing his/her own. Second, it is the fact that most pupils (at least in Slovenia) prefer English over math or physics. Although the latter two are probably even better brain-shapers than the former, teaching math or physics achieves little if a child actively rejects it. Much fewer children reject English, since they tend to consider it more useful than math or physics.

(2) A Slovenian (or a Russian, Pole, Finn, Hungarian, ...) has a considerable advantage over an Englishman or American when it comes to -- learning a foreign language! Imagine an American trying to memorize the Slovenian 54 gender-case-number declension combinations with countless exceptions! The guy will probably face immense difficulties grasping the case system itself, let alone remembering those combinations. This doesn't hold just for the `tiny' Slovenian language. Russian isn't much easier, and even rather simple German has 16 gender-case-number combinations. While Germans tend to be good at English, this is far from being the case with Russians.

(3) This point is probably based more on rumors than on science, but it's still worth noting. Hungarians have been well known to be brilliant mathematicians. Just take Paul Erdős and John von Neumann, for instance. This has been partly attributed to the difficult and intricate, but nevertheless logical structure of the Hungarian language. To substantiate this point further, consider that in a not-so-distant past, the difficult but logical Latin used to be taught in many European schools. This had probably more to do with enhancing children's cerebral capabilities than with the (limited) usefulness of the language itself.
boris_kolar said…
I agree with Denis. My soon to be born son will be raised primarily in Spanish (which is an easy and fairly simple language), English (which he should learn very early in life). I guess he will be occasionally exposed to Slovenian as well, so he will probably learn a bit of Slovenian as well.

Because my son will learn Spanish as his primary language, he will still have to develop brain capacity for foreign languages by learning English.

Since none of the natural languages is very logical, it is better to use formal languages, such as mathematical notation and programming languages to develop logical thinking.

While my comment might seem like I don't respect Slovenian language, this is certainly not the case. If I believe that obscure languages like Slovenian should die, I believe the same should happen to other languages like German, Russian,...
verbatim said…
I guess he will be occasionally exposed to Slovenian as well, so he will probably learn a bit of Slovenian as well.

I would put this in the same category as Denis did - intentionally handicapping your children. When one parent is fluent in one language, even unimportant, it will help kid's brain development and develop sense for other branches of languages. Kids are like sponges! - they naturally learn as many languages as you exposed them to.

I have some German friends - they are not linked to Slovenia in any way. They all have children - and they all had learned Slovenian language by the age of 5 by playing with local children and they were exposed to it only max. 14 days per year while on visit in Slovenia. They still speak Slovenian language fluently. So in my opinion it is just stupid not to learn children being multi-lingual when parents are fluent in more languages. Effort required is minimal (so also being irrational not to learn) but you never know when they will need a basis from other language group.
denis bider said…
Jožek: First, using one's brain [to learn a foreign language] has never done any harm to anyone,

False assumption. If students weren't using their brain to learn a foreign language, the brain would not necessarily be idle, but would be learning something else that's worthwhile.

Jožek: most pupils (at least in Slovenia) prefer English over math or physics

It doesn't matter that they prefer learning English if most of them are never going to develop English skills to a level where they can feel comfortable reading articles and books, or watching video without subtitles, in English.

It may actually be a waste to spend so much time learning English only to never learn it well enough to use it comfortably. Most people never learn it well enough to read it comfortably, let alone to express themselves, so the language barrier remains.

Jožek: A Slovenian (or a Russian, Pole, Finn, Hungarian, ...) has a considerable advantage over an Englishman or American when it comes to -- learning a foreign language!

An American has a considerable advantage over a Slovenian because he already speaks the language he needs to speak, and speaks it natively. Even the best foreign speakers will never attain the mastery of pronunciation and vocabulary that native speakers find easily within their grasp. Native speakers thus gain the benefit of being able to understand and express themselves excellently everywhere where it matters. Others gain the dubious benefit of speaking a largely useless language in addition to the useful one.

Jožek: the difficult but logical Latin used to be taught in many European schools. This had probably more to do with enhancing children's cerebral capabilities than with the (limited) usefulness of the language itself.

I don't believe that natural language improves logical abilities very efficiently.

Boris: Since none of the natural languages is very logical, it is better to use formal languages, such as mathematical notation and programming languages to develop logical thinking.

Agreed. If we want to teach children logical abilities, teach them programming.
Max said…
Interesting debate . As a native Russian speaker I find myself quite handicapped as I never mastered English to the same extent. Sadly even my russian language skills suffred because I rarely use it now days.

So here I am speaking both languages with the vocabulary of mentally challenged person and with thick accent to boot (in case of English). Therefore I think its crucial for your children to be bilingual

Because for children being bi(tri,multi)lingual is quite beneficial. As it primes their brain for easier learning of other languages. Its a fact that bilingual people have much easier time to learn other languages as adults than those raised in
monoculture

You might think that English today is the end of all. But its quite possible mandarin may replace English as lingua franca in 21st century


p.s. Besides there is certain poetic beauty in russian language (with varied words morphology, non strict sentence structure ,etc) .I will never regret being able to speak it. Only thing I regret is not speaking another language since early childhood - something monoculture should be blamed for.
denis bider said…
Hello Max,

yes, this exactly:

"As a native Russian speaker I find myself quite handicapped as I never mastered English to the same extent. Sadly even my russian language skills suffred because I rarely use it now days."

You feel this way, even though your written English is good, and your native language is spoken by some 280 million people.

Imagine now that your native language is Slovenian, spoken by 2 million people. Or one of the many even smaller languages, spoken by some 100,000 people.


"You might think that English today is the end of all. But its quite possible mandarin may replace English as lingua franca in 21st century"

I don't believe that Mandarin will become a lingua franca outside of Asia. The written form is much too different and demanding for people used to Roman-derived alphabets to learn. It seems more likely that nations that are close to China and find it easy to learn Mandarin will settle on that as their lingua franca, while the rest of the world remains dominated by English and Spanish.

In my personal opinion, the Asian alphabets are an enormous waste of time. It takes children decades to learn most of the alphabet. It takes away from time that could be spent on other useful endeavors, and makes it harder for people to be literate. They should settle on a romanized alphabet that focuses on encoding sounds rather than symbols, and favor that as the preferred form. This would make their language easier to learn, speeding up their education, as well as facilitating communication with foreigners.

There's fat chance of that occurring, though. :)
VS said…
I only ask myself why would I want to destroy such precious jewels as languages spoken in minorities? This is a truly horrific idea that is stated here.

As a Slovenian myself I would never trade any spoken language for my native one. An idea such as this fills me with disgust. Have you never heard of beauty of versatility? It's like saying let the Pandas die out. No-one really needs them, they only chew on bamboo leaves and sit around all day.

Really shallow, narrow-minded thinking. A thing someone would not expect in 21st century.
denis bider said…
VS: I only ask myself why would I want to destroy such precious jewels as languages spoken in minorities?

Because they harm the very well-being of the people who speak them.


VS: This is a truly horrific idea that is stated here. [...] An idea such as this fills me with disgust.

So your argument is primarily based in emotion, not reason.


VS: Have you never heard of beauty of versatility?

I think you mean variety.

Yes, I appreciate the beauty in variety. I like tigers, and pandas, and buffalo, and whales, and I think there's value in them continuing to exist.

But the only reason I think that is because I personally enjoy the existence of these creatures, as it is conveyed to me through photos and video. The reason I appreciate their existence is because I, and other people, find these creatures entertaining.

What you are advocating, however, is variety in an area (language) where the very people who supposedly benefit from it are the ones most harmed by it. You would deny these people access to information (via language barrier), so that they can "enjoy" the beauty of a language few others speak.

Let me phrase this another way. The very ability for people to access and appreciate the world's variety requires this variety to be conveyed - through language. By speaking a language few people speak, your ability to witness and appreciate variety in all other aspects is severely restricted. You are getting a major disadvantage in all areas of life, including the ability to appreciate the world's variety, just so you can enjoy the "beauty" of speaking a rare language. Which most people take for granted, and don't really enjoy a lot.

That's a fool's bargain if there ever was one.


VS: Really shallow, narrow-minded thinking. A thing someone would not expect in 21st century.

I would phrase it differently. Pathetic romantic naivete, and straight out stupidity, has existed with man throughout history, and your comment is an example of that.
There is a degree of romanticism about endangered languages, and their speakers, who a lot of Western liberals seem to look on as noble savages. However, what does Katja define as ‘rare’ or ‘unpopular’? I’d be more worried about someone bringing his children up to speak Klingon (yes, they do exist!) than one bringing them up to speak Slovenian.

The idea that if you speak a ‘rare’ language you are cut off from the world and are some kind of reactionary inbred is something that the Jacobins in France believed – why are people still peddling 1790s solutions to 21st century problems?

I don’t know Slovenia, but suspect that people are intelligent and pragmatic enough to be able to speak other languages, like people in other small countries. I was in touch with a guy from Ljubljana and his written English was as good as yours.

The fact is that many people speak and use these ‘unpopular’ languages because they want to, and no, they don’t expect other people to subsidise them. Google has actually helped speakers of these languages with Blogspot and YouTube without spending a penny of taxpayers’ money. And there are people who write to each other in these languages on Facebook. Just as poorer countries have leapfrogged in technology, so too are speakers of minority languages. No more need for subsidies for broadcasting TV and radio stations or printing newspapers.

Of course people should learn major languages, and the best way to do that is to subtitle films in those languages instead of dubbing them.

As regards the Chinese writing system being a waste of time, the trade-off is that it can be used for vernacular languages (or ‘dialects’) which are as mutually unintelligible as Italian and Greek. 香港 is pronounced as Xiānggǎng in Mandarin and Heung Gong in Cantonese. If they were written in Roman script, they'd have to write things out two or three times. Indonesian and Malay switched from Arabic to Roman script, which is a big help, although so too is the lack of tones, like Vietnamese, which switched from Chinese to Roman script.

Personally, as a native English speaker, I would love to see English fragment into different languages, like Latin did and ‘Serbo-Croat’ is trying to do. Maybe there’ll be an English-based lingua franca but it will no more be English than Old English is Modern English.

An American only ‘needs’ one language if he stays within his county in Alabama and marries his sister. Don’t tar all Americans with the same brush - I’m not one, so have been guilty of that too! :D
denis bider said…
Ken Westmoreland: I don’t know Slovenia,

You don't have the experience of overcoming an intellectually impoverished environment, that's scarce with ideas, because it would require many more people than are available to think and speak those ideas, and many more translators than are available to import those ideas.

If you want to understand the impact of such a barrier:

- Consider the state of the Arab world. Consider what we see about it in the media. Reflect on your personal experiences, if you ever visited.

- Consider that the total number of books translated into Arabic during the past 1,000 years is less than those translated in Spain in one year.

Consider whether these two things have anything to do with each other.


Ken Westmoreland: I was in touch with a guy from Ljubljana and his written English was as good as yours.

Well, what kind of person from Ljubljana would you be in touch with? Someone who has learned English, and seeks out English speaking people? Or someone who can't say a word beyond "hello"?

There are people who can break the language barrier, but they are a very small percentage.

The remainder of the population is at the mercy of translators, such that are available; and local thinkers, such that are available, and don't escape.

The best ideas you get from a population of 2 million are vastly inferior, vastly less intellectually stimulating, than the best ideas you get from a billion people who speak English (375 million of them natively).


Ken Westmoreland: The fact is that many people speak and use these ‘unpopular’ languages because they want to

What's many? If you're talking about people who learn small languages on purpose and later in life, that must be a very small proportion of any population.

If you're talking about native speakers, how do you distinguish their desire to speak that particular native language, with a desire to speak whatever language they're already skilled with?

Most people have a tough time learning even a second language, and will never be very proficient in it. Of course they stick with the language they can use.


Ken Westmoreland: Of course people should learn major languages, and the best way to do that is to subtitle films in those languages instead of dubbing them.

You overestimate the intellectual capacity of the average person. The average person will never learn a second language as good as the language they speak natively. They will never be comfortable watching news in a second language, or reading articles in a second language.

This is unless, perhaps, they were raised bilingual starting from age 1.


Ken Westmoreland: Personally, as a native English speaker, I would love to see English fragment into different languages,

Jesus f-in Christ, get out. Get out now. You are a walking evil.

I'm only half-kidding. Seriously, that's an incredibly bad thing to wish.

I observe you have an interest, perhaps professional, in languages. That thought you expressed is like a doctor wanting more patients, or a mortuary wanting more business.
You don't have the experience of overcoming an intellectually impoverished environment, that's scarce with ideas,.

I may not know Slovenia, but I know countries which are far poorer. Just because people speak the same language doesn't mean they share the same ideas. Have you ever been to Britain? The indigenous population, which is by definition, native English-speaking, is being left for dead by immigrants who speak English as a second (or third) language.

Consider the state of the Arab world.

I have; Amman in Jordan is a Westernised place, certainly compared to Riyadh or Jeddah. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and Christian Arabs in Lebanon are polyglots with greater exposure to Western culture and ideas, usually through English. The existence of reactionary ideas has more to do with Islam than with Arabic.

They speak English in Singapore, but they speak it in Jamaica. Does that mean that Jamaica is as clean, safe, prosperous or dynamic as Singapore?

Consider that the total number of books translated into Arabic during the past 1,000 years is less than those translated in Spain in one year.

Ah, yes, the 2002 Arab Human Development Report. Speaking fluent English with West Yorkshire accents didn't stop the 7/7 bombers in London. Did you know that one of them was actually a native English speaker (born in Jamaica) who converted to Islam?

The best ideas you get from a population of 2 million are vastly inferior, vastly less intellectually stimulating, than the best ideas you get from a billion people who speak English (375 million of them natively).

Aw shucks, I'm really touched - so as a native English speaker, I'm automatically a towering intellectual, nuclear physicist, Nobel Prize-winning economist, am I? Try visiting Toxteth in Liverpool and Barking in East London, and see how intellectually stimulating they are. Oxford and Cambridge, they ain't. It's all about quality, not quantity. Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu, and Jaan Tallinn are no more native English speakers than you are, but that didn't stop their IT careers any more than it stopped yours.

Personally, I wish that Slavoj Žižek were a monoglot Sloven speaker, because then people in other countries would stop thinking he's some kind of hero.

You overestimate the intellectual capacity of the average person.

You, on the other hand, underestimate it. What's 'average'? Are the people of Luxembourg super-human because they leave school being able to speak both French and German as well as English? It's about environment; if you have no incentive to do something, you don't.

Seriously, that's an incredibly bad thing to wish.

Not really. If you lost ownership of your native language, you'd feel that way too. You can still have your global language based on English, it can be called Globish, Worldspeak, Panglish, but not English.

I observe you have an interest, perhaps professional, in languages. That thought you expressed is like a doctor wanting more patients, or a mortuary wanting more business.

Yeah, well, turkeys don't vote for Christmas. Maybe in 100 years' time, we'll speak the same language, but I'll be dead by then, and so will you. Thanks for your points, though - I don't find it sad that you wish you'd been a native English speaker, just hilarious!
denis bider said…
Ken: I may not know Slovenia, but I know countries which are far poorer. Just because people speak the same language doesn't mean they share the same ideas. Have you ever been to Britain? The indigenous population, which is by definition, native English-speaking, is being left for dead by immigrants who speak English as a second (or third) language.

You begin by alluding to countries that are much poorer. Then you mention Britain, the world's 7th largest economy by GDP, and 8th by Purchasing Power Parity.

I'm not even sure what point you're trying to make. What are you pointing out? That people speaking other languages migrate to Britain, because they think it sucks less than their home countries?

Why do you think they migrate to Britain? Does the universality of English have anything to do with it?

What effect do you think this has on their home countries? The best and the brightest learn English, because that's where the advantage is, and move abroad.


Ken:
I have; Amman in Jordan is a Westernised place, certainly compared to Riyadh or Jeddah. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and Christian Arabs in Lebanon are polyglots with greater exposure to Western culture and ideas, usually through English.


And you're using that as an argument against a common language?

Do you imagine that all Christian Arabs in Lebanon are polyglots with exposure to English, not just the ones you meet because they are like that?


Ken: The existence of reactionary ideas has more to do with Islam than with Arabic.

You are confusing cause with effect. Islam is a set of ideas native to the Arab world. The language barrier prevents entry of other ideas. Radical Islam is a greater problem than it otherwise might be because the language barrier throttles entry of other ideas.


Ken: They speak English in Singapore, but they speak it in Jamaica. Does that mean that Jamaica is as clean, safe, prosperous or dynamic as Singapore?

Last I checked, Jamaica is a fulfillment of your dream. They do not actually speak English, but Patois, a broken version that is near indecipherable even to native English speakers, let alone people who learned English as a second language.

I'm not saying this is the reason they are poor. At least, it's not the only reason. But it definitely doesn't help.


Ken: Aw shucks, I'm really touched - so as a native English speaker, I'm automatically a towering intellectual, nuclear physicist, Nobel Prize-winning economist, am I?

No, I would not say that you are.

However, you have the privilege of being exposed to a large variety of ideas, of being able to seek out opinions on a variety of topics, of being able to get more information about things, and examine them more in depth than people behind a language barrier.


Ken: Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu, and Jaan Tallinn are no more native English speakers than you are, but that didn't stop their IT careers any more than it stopped yours.

You are comparing the exceptional few with the masses. Of course English speakers are on average the same mass of ignorance and stupidity as most communities on Earth.

However, the relative lack of a language barrier makes it easier for ideas to get to those who seek them. The number of people who write in English is hundreds of times greater than the number of people who write in e.g. Slovenian. This produces a rich and navigable ecosystem which is easily accessible to English speakers, but not at all as easily accessible, nor as easily intelligible, to people who learn English as a second language.

Again, please don't try to use me as a counter-example ("see, you speak English, so no problem"). I know zero Slovenians who still live in Slovenia and speak English as well as I do.
denis bider said…
Ken: Personally, I wish that Slavoj Žižek were a monoglot Sloven speaker, because then people in other countries would stop thinking he's some kind of hero.

We can agree on that.


Ken: You, on the other hand, underestimate it.

You, my friend, have no idea how wrong you are.


Ken: If you lost ownership of your native language, you'd feel that way too.

You feel bad because you lost "ownership" of your native language?

What person ever has "ownership" over a language?

Do you think people in Slovenia feel like they "own" the language? With government linguists constantly making up "more authentic" Slovenian words for foreign concepts, and then forcing the media and schools to use them?

You think that gives people an idea that they "own" the language?


Ken: Thanks for your points, though - I don't find it sad that you wish you'd been a native English speaker, just hilarious!

Yeah, thanks for your "input", too. It's "good" to see stupidity is ubiquitous.
denis bider said…
Ken,

your ignorant arrogance makes me so pissed off, I just have to comment on it further.

Let's take a look at this statement:

Ken: Yeah, well, turkeys don't vote for Christmas.

You wrote this as an implied claim that you think yourself an expert on languages, so therefore your opinions have authority.

But you know so fucking little.

You probably know a lot about the detail of languages. About their structure, vocabularies, niche uses, relationships between words.

But you know so fucking little about the economic impact of language; or as it looks like, the economy, at all.

You are like a rich person who collects cars, and has all these elegant, impractical cars in his collection, which are beautiful to look at, but not useful for practically anything, as they don't have room for luggage, have no safety features, and leak oil.

Then you look at the Toyota that your neighbor uses to drive his kids to school, and you scoff at that neighbor for his unsophisticated vehicle.

That's your relationship to languages. You appreciate them for the diversity, but the diversity is only of interest to "collectors", like you. The vast majority of people who speak a language by affected by its economic ramifications, but you couldn't give a piss about that. In fact, you pretend that there aren't any.

You are clueless about efficiency. Clueless about what effect the availability of other language speakers has on thoughts you are able to think.

You're like the doctors who come to Nairobi to study the prostitutes with resistance to HIV. The scientists who study blood samples from the same prostitute over the course of 20 years, yet do nothing to help her elevate her living standards, so she wouldn't have to sell herself for 50 cents a trick.

You're that kind of person. You're in love with language, so you want more of it. More complex languages, more diverse languages. You have ample time in the world to learn these languages, after all, this is your area of interest. Most people you know are also interested in languages, so how hard is it to learn them? Right? In your world, everyone can be a poliglot!

And simultaneously, you are completely blind to the negative effects of small languages on communities of people.

I say, fuck you, and fuck your ignorance. It's hard for me to express the amount of disrespect I have for you.

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