Posts Tagged ‘language’

The Language Instinct

Friday, March 23rd, 2018 | Books

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language is a book by Steven Pinker.

I have raved about Steven Pinker before. How the Mind Works is a fascinating read and The Blank Slate has changed my worldview more than almost any other book. Along with two or three others, it is probably the more important book I have ever read.

Sadly, I could not get on with the The Language Instinct in the same was as Pinker’s other books. It was too technical for me, even as someone currently studying childhood language development (the book is about language more broadly, but can’t help but stray into development).

I found Pinker’s other books highly accessible, but, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get into this one. Ultimately, I had to give up.

I have no doubt that the many positive reviews about this book are accurate. If you understand the material, or just stick with it, perhaps you get a lot out of it. It just wasn’t the case for me.

NFL coverage will resume

Monday, October 2nd, 2017 | Distractions

The title card says:

Coverage will resume momentarily

Which, of course, means that coverage will return but only for a moment. Which sounds about right with the number of adverts they have in the US.

I’ve found a new monger!

Friday, April 28th, 2017 | Life

As everyone knows, there are four primary types of monger. A fishmonger, a rumour monger, an ironmonger and a warmonger.

I turned out to be a popular phone-in on Alan Partridge’s radio show.

We’re asking, what is the worst monger? Iron, fish… rumour… or war?

But, last week, my world was turned on its head. There is a fifth kind of monger! A “costermonger”. Here is the description from Wikipedia:

Costermonger, coster, or costard is a street seller of fruit and vegetables, in London and other British towns. Costermongers were ubiquitous in mid-Victorian England, and some are still found in markets. As usual with street-sellers, they would use a loud sing-song cry or chant to attract attention. The costermonger’s cart might be stationary at a market stall, or mobile (horse-drawn or wheelbarrow).

What an age to be alive.

Is learning a foreign language really worth it?

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016 | Science, Thoughts

language-school

In an episode of Freakonomics Radio I recently listened to, the show discussed whether learning a foreign language was really worth it.

I wrote a post back in May about whether we should teach foreign language in schools. My main point was that it was essentially a failed system: children simply do not learn to speak a foreign language, despite spending hours of school time per week on it. That is a big opportunity cost when they could be doing other subjects.

The show agrees with me. Not only are most people unsuccessful, but it really does not provide that much benefit. If you look at the economic benefit for example, which if it was giving you additional skills or even just increasing your IQ, we would expect to see big gains here. However, a study in America showed that learning Spanish gave you an economic benefit of around 2%. French was a little better at 2.7%, but there are certainly other things you could do and other skills you could learn that would give you a much greater benefit with the same time input.

This is not true of countries where English is not the primary language. If you live in a country where a relatively obscure language is spoken, and then learn English, you’re economic outlook significantly increases: perhaps 20%. Therefore it makes sense for other countries to continue to teach English as an additional language. However, for English-speaking countries to continue to teach other languages makes far less sense.

There was one benefit the show discussed that did pick up my interest though. Thinking in another language seems to make you more rational. For example, if you are offered a coin toss: heads you get £15, tails you lose £10. The rational thing to do is to take this bet. However, many people don’t. It is called loss aversion and Daniel Kahneman talks about it in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

However, if you get people to think about it in a different language, they are more likely to take the bet. Similarly, if you give them a moral dilemma, “do you switch the train tracks to save five people but kill one”, they are more likely to take the utilitarian view in a second language. Dubner suggests this is because we attach a lot of emotion to the worlds in our mother tongue, but do not have this baggage when thinking in a different language.

Should we teach more foreign language?

Monday, May 23rd, 2016 | Thoughts

books

Learning foreign languages is a big thing these days. As we grow into a globalised society, children are being taught other languages from an earlier and earlier age. When I was at school I did French and German at high school. Now, you would typically start learning another language in primary school. This is in the UK, where we are far behind our European neighbours, who often speak several languages.

In Finland for example, you cannot earn a degree without speaking Swedish. So even when you go to university, you continue to take classes in Finnish, Swedish, and often English as well. In Luxembourg, you learn French, German and Luxembourgish (yes, they have their own language and it is taught in their schools).

However, all of this this focus on languages misses one quite important point: teaching children languages simply doesn’t work.

The failure of bilingualism

I remember very little of my French. In fact, the things I do know I probably re-learned last time I was there, rather than remembering. My German is poor too. Even my mum, who enjoys languages, speaks enough French to get by when they go there on holiday every year, would struggle to hold a conversation about anything meaningful.

It is not just us Brits however.

Have you ever spoken to a Canadian from the English-speaking regions? My money is on them having no French skills. They learn it in school: it’s an official language. In reality though, they forget it all as soon as they walk out the door.

Even Finland, greatest education system in the world, and with a dire need to learn another language because only 95% of their own population speak native Finnish (let alone other countries) has not been successful. English is strong in urban areas where they get to practice it, but my in-laws don’t speak English. Elina constantly bangs on about how poor her Swedish is. In Finnish Saturday school. I sit next to a Finland-Swedish woman, who’s Finnish is about as good as mine.

Of course many people are bilingual. However, this is primarly a result of them getting the opportunity to use and develop their skills in society: by living in a country and speaking the language. People who learn a language in an educational system do not develop those skills.

But what about the other benefits?

Learning a language does not provide the direct benefit of being able to speak that language, as discussed about. But what about the other benefits? Are there any? The answer is yes. Though what they are and how much benefit they provide is not always clear.

For example, being able to think in another language is highly beneficial because a language provides a construct for thinking. Therefore, by thinking in another language you are taking a different approach and that will improve your problem solving skills. However, this only works if you can think in that other language. As Elina found, you need to live in that language for years before you start thinking in it, rather than translating thoughts back to your native language.

Learning a language may also improve your cognitive skills, help keep your brain active through learning, help you understand your own language better and develop your multitasking abilities.

These are all genuine benefits and very worthwhile having.

However, if we accept that people don’t actually get the language skills out of the learning, they just get these benefits as a bi-product, we are essentially just using language classes as a proxy for these benefits.

Which is fine, they’re good benefits, but why not just teach a class in that? It might be that learning a language is the most effective way to do that. I doubt it though. Teaching a class specifically to develop these skills would intuitively seem the best way to develop these skills, rather than proxying it through another subject.

Summary

Teaching foreign languages develops important skills and those skills are certainly worthwhile having. However, given the lack of success in developing language skills, it may be that there is a more effective way to do this. Therefore, teaching languages may not be as important as is often claimed.

Learn Finnish online

Saturday, February 6th, 2016 | News

learn-finnish

There are some excellent tools out there if you want to learn French or German. There are plenty of tools out there if you want to learn Spanish, or Italian, or Polish. Finnish, not so much. There are a few resources out there, but nothing that really rocks.

So we are developing our own. Learn Finnish will be launching this summer. It will be a premium subscription service. Sign up for beta testing opportunities and advanced offers.

Strictly English

Sunday, January 3rd, 2016 | Books

Strictly English is a book by Simon Heffer. It is a forerunner to Simply English, which I have already read.

While Simply is an A to Z of words and how they are often miused, Strictly is a work of following prose. It goes from subject to subject describing the English language in detail.

In the introduction to Simply, he describes it as complementing Strictly. This is for the most part true. However, there is a significant amount of cross over. I regularly found myself skipping through sections because I had already read the point in Simply. On balance, I think this might be the more valuable of the two.

Strictly-English

Oxford English Dictionary online

Sunday, December 20th, 2015 | Success & Productivity

oed

The OED is considered the closest thing to the definitive record of the English language that there is. They claim to be the definitive record. However, without a British equivalent of the Académie française (whose judgements are not even binding), it is difficult to argue a definitive document.

Nevertheless, it is the best thing we have. I had never taken a look at it before, but the depth of information is astonishing. For each word, sometimes over multiple entries, it contains the spellings, forms, frequency in current usage, etymology and a long list of definitions with extensive citations for each. The definitions are followed by a list of phrases, compounds, and derivatives. There is a thesaurus entry for each definition.

In short, it is difficult to image a more complete reference on the English language.

Why do I mention this? Because it turns out that it is totally free!

I have used Dictionary.com for many years because it is easy and for a free product, it is very good. It too contains pronunciation, synonyms, and a limited amount of auxiliary information. It was perfectly adequate for what I wanted. The idea of paying the £215.00 a year subscription to get access to the OED was clearly laughable.

However, it turns out that we all have the ability to access it for free. The OED website allows you to log in using your public library membership number. They say almost every library subscribes, but given my Leeds Library card worked, it is hard to imagine any council cheaper than Leeds.

I registered my library card about eight years ago and it was still valid. It is well worth digging out of the wardrobe. Or, if you do not have one, pop down to your local library and register for one. Once you do, you can access the service online at home, or from anywhere else.

Let’s Learn Finnish

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015 | Public Speaking, Video

For my third Toastmasters speech for the Speaking to Inform manual (The Demonstration Speech) I did an introduction to Finnish.

The video quality sucks as I did not get time to manually set the exposure. Audio is fine though and I’ve also included the slides below.

The importance of commas

Friday, March 14th, 2014 | Video

As many of you know, I always insist on the highest stanards of spelling and punctuation.

It is not without good reason though. For example, this can happen:

Please, for the love of god, do not post a comment pointing out that I spelt the word “standards” incorrectly. You will look like an idiot, even on my blog.