Bloody shovel

Don't call it a spade

Language is Culture

Damn, New York Times link show up automatically like Tweets now. Talk about privilege.

Anyway; you know what Gell-Mann amnesia is. You read the news, and assume what you’re reading is, well, worth reading. It’s generally accurate. Then you read something on a topic you have some expertise about, and you find that it’s worse than false. It’s completely inaccurate and misleading. It just shows how the writer has absolutely no clue of what he’s talking about. Then you realize: well, it’s some journalist who has no expertise at all except in writing jargon, of course he has no clue.

Then you go on reading more news. As my mother says, you gotta talk about something.

So the New York Times ran a story on how dialects are back in Singapore. Because they’re, you know, “vibrant”. That’s not how I would describe Hokkien, but then I did study some Hokkien, instead of taking journalism classes. The story itself is not very remarkable, besides how inept and ignorant it is. I’m tempted to just become a Chinese chauvinist and blame the anti-Chinese animus of the American establishment, now shaming Mandarin Chinese as something to be avoided. Then it would make some sort of sense. But as they say, never blame malice what is likely just stupidity.

I guess it’s just me, but I feel there’s few things more harmful than bad linguistics. Take a look at the crap the NYT is trying to pull here:

At the time of the founding of the Republic of Singapore in 1965, it was led by a charismatic and authoritarian prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who was a self-taught linguist. A product of the English-speaking elite who rarely spoke Chinese dialects, including Mandarin, Mr. Lee held the popular idea, discredited by linguists, that language was a zero-sum game: speaking more of one meant less mastery of another.

In short, he considered dialects a waste of the brain’s finite storage capacity when it should be filled with, above all else, English.

“He felt that since he couldn’t do it, the rest couldn’t do it,” said Prof. Lee Cher Leng, a language historian in the China studies department at the National University of Singapore, referring to Mr. Lee’s inability to fluently speak multiple languages. “He felt it would be too confusing for kids to learn the dialects.”

First of all, LKY, peace be with him, was not a “self-taught linguist”. He’s a guy who learned some languages as an adult. That doesn’t make him a linguist. This makes him a language learner. There’s billions of those across the world. Lee Kuan Yew certainly wasn’t very good at it; the ability to learn foreign languages doesn’t correlate very strongly with IQ.

Mr. Lee held the popular idea that language was a zero-sum game? No, Mr. Lee understood the commonsensical idea that your brain has limited storage capacity. Like anything else. Your brain is made of atoms. It is not made of magic. It is not made of godly dust. It is a material thing. It is, in a sense, a container of information, and information takes space. It obviously does in computers; pray tell, NYT, why the brain should have infinite capacity? It doesn’t make sense.

Now I don’t know if LKY thought of it in these terms. I think that, as a language learner, he went by experience. I guess the more time he spent practicing Mandarin, or Hokkien, or Malay, the worse his English prose got. And that’s exactly how it works. Happens to me all the time, and happens to anyone who uses 2 or more languages regularly. The more different the languages, the less commons structures they share, the more acute the problem. Again, there is no reason why it should not be so. Information takes space. It isn’t hard.

Alas, it is true that academic linguists will not tell you this, even though they probably did in the 1950s. That is not because common sense has been “refuted”. It is because since the 1960s academia has morphed into a worldwide racket of fraud and deceit. If you read this blog you already know that; economics is bogus, climate science is bogus, psychology is bogus; even more than half of medical papers are bogus. Well, surprise surprise, linguistics is also bogus. The language learning industry is huge. There’s a lot of money in telling people that the brain is made of magic dust, that they can learn whatever they want whenever they want, as long as they give you money. 3 languages at the same time? Go for it! Kids are like sponges, they can learn anything. No, they can’t.

Now of course, all human traits are distributed in a Gaussian curve. Some kids are pretty good, can learn 3 or 4 languages given some exposure. Some can’t even speak 1 language properly by the time they enter primary school. Lee Kuan Yew, who was in charge of spending Singapore’s money, realized he didn’t have money to waste, and he took what was the most rational decision: let’s focus on having everyone learn English, then let’s make some half-assed effort at teaching a “mother tongue”; mostly for political reasons, so tribalists didn’t complain. Some kids will learn the mother tongue well; most won’t. Not the government’s problem. Lee Kuan Yew was CEO and what he wanted was an efficient workforce, so English it was. And English he got. Well, kind of.

Japanese researchers, fortunately isolated from their American comrades because of their ineptitude at learning English, have long found that Brazilian immigrants in Japan often end up not bilingual, but “halflingual”. They end up speaking shitty Portuguese and even shittier Japanese. Because Japanese is hard, they don’t speak it at home, and whatever they speak at home tends to have very low vocabulary levels. So they end up sounding retarded even if they really aren’t.

You know who else sounds retarded? Singaporeans. OK, sorry, that’s overly harsh. I apologize to my Singaporean readers, I love you all. But I had to say it. With all due respect, Singaporeans in general don’t speak proper English. They speak Singlish, which is a pidgin English with a fair amount of Chinese grammar and vocabulary baked in, and a pretty weird (and what sounds to me a pretty big Indian influence) pronunciation. As you may remember, even Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, by every account a 150 IQ genius, speaks what can only be described as pretty goofy English. Again, it’s not their fault, it’s just the unintended consequence of public language policy.

How did this happen? By forcing diglossia (widespread bilingualism) on Singapore. After independence most people spoke some either Chinese dialect at home, Malay or Tamil. The schools taught English, what is a foreign language to everyone. So yes, they learned, the minimum required to pass the exams, and went on with their daily lives. Given that kids spent almost more time at school than at home, eventually the exposure of English was greater than their respective languages. Let’s say a random Singaporean teen was exposed to 65% English and 35% Hokkien during their formative years. So, surprise surprise, he ended up speaking a language which is 65% English and 35% Hokkien, and so did most everyone else, with all languages and dialects getting some of their stuff in this hodgepodge lingua franca that evolved into Singlish. And once that got widespread it became almost impossible to change.

If Singaporeans speak bad English, their Mandarin is even worse. I’ve seen business owners who couldn’t even write it. Again, I don’t blame them. Chinese is hard, especially the writing system. I’m pretty sure Lee Kuan Yew was never very good at writing it. And most likely he never thought most Singaporeans would be able too. But he had two good reasons to teach Mandarin to every Chinese in Singapore. First; some talented people would learn it, and Singapore needed those people to go make business in China. And second, dialects had to be stamped out. Chinese people were extremely clannish back in the day. They still are in some parts of China. Liberals think dialects are like race, this colorful thing that adds vibrancy points to a culture. But no. Race is in your genes, you are born with that. You can’t change it. But dialect is a choice. Even if your parents teach it to you, children will forget it very soon, just as they forget everything their parents try to teach them.

Dialects survive because of a political choice. Language is a badge of loyalty; speaking Hokkien or Cantonese instead of Mandarin means that, as a child, you’ve reached the conclusion that Hokkien is more useful than Mandarin. Singapore, as all societies of Southeastern Chinese ancestry. used to be run by small dialect and family based societies, who did their thing unbeknownst to the state. Imperial China was laissez-faire about this kind of clan-based society, but Lee Kuan Yew was a legalist, and he had to crush them to impose his authority. So crush them they did. Once the clans were crushed, speaking dialect stopped working as a signal; and so the signal died. Whatever the NYT says, dialects aren’t coming back. There’s no money there, and Asia doesn’t trade in those vibrancy points which make New York housewives happy.

Why did Irish die soon after Irish independence? The signal wasn’t needed anymore. They had their own country, and God knows speaking Irish is a costly signal. Hokkien or Cantonese aren’t that costly for a competent Mandarin speaker, but they aren’t cheap either, so most likely this “dialect revival” is just 10 bored housewives who happen to eat in the same noodle joint as the NYT correspondent there. Fake news, as usual.

What the article gets right is the cultural desert that Singapore became after LKY enforced the power of the state and broke every intermediate society. There’s a lesson there: high cultural output depends on the identity of a people. It’s a political statement. It thrives on conflict. But Lee Kuan Yew would have none of that. He had a multiracial to run in a very delicate balance, and he couldn’t risk people developing a cultural identity without things spiraling out of control. He couldn’t tolerate cultural diversity; but he, cursed by the knowledge of HBD, wouldn’t allow race mixing. So he was left with a multicultural society where conflict wasn’t allowed. So the culture died. Romans stop producing good literature after the Empire. Nobody remembers the great books written by the Ottomans. And I wonder if in the future anybody will remember the Singaporeans at all.

Advertisements

63 responses to “Language is Culture

  1. Pingback: Language is Culture | @the_arv

  2. Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff August 30, 2017 at 18:58

    ” I guess the more time he spent practicing Mandarin, or Hokkien, or Malay, the worse his English prose got. And that’s exactly how it works. Happens to me all the time, and happens to anyone who uses 2 or more languages regularly. ”

    Two Words: Joseph. Conrad.

    You know, the Polack who had to write in English.

  3. Pingback: Language is Culture | Reaction Times

  4. Trent Jones August 30, 2017 at 20:34

    Off topic but this is how white men can do better:

    Use their privilege to help underserved groups

  5. Wency August 30, 2017 at 21:07

    Interesting discussion, though I don’t know how many lessons you can draw from Singapore’s lack of cultural output. Its population is about the same size as Wisconsin’s. A place that size can’t be an exporter of culture unless it attracts a larger population of creative migrants, which Singapore and Wisconsin don’t.

    Do Americans have an especially strong identity? It doesn’t seem that way to me. The U.S. is such a large exporter of culture because it has a large, rich population from which to attract talent and to which it can market. Thus it has the most competitive domestic market, which leads to success overseas.

    Being a big country benefits you in cultural exports, just as being a small country benefits you in certain other kinds of business — especially of the tax-avoiding financial sort. This seems to be Singapore’s forte.

    Now why did Roman literature die during the Empire? That’s a very interesting question. Based on what I said above, one would think that as the population of Latin and Greek speakers increased, more interesting output would result, but this isn’t the case. So maybe Spandrel is onto something there — loss of identity.

    • Duke of Qin August 30, 2017 at 21:20

      The closest parallel to Singapore would be Hong Kong. Another city state populated primarily by Chinese of Guangdong and Fujian descent along with a smaller number of miscellaneous mainland exiles from other random provinces. Hong Kong’s cultural output by any measure is probably an order of magnitude greater than Singapore’s. Even worse was that Singapore did have a firm sense of identity back when the British still ruled, but Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP put an end to that, gradually turning Singapore into rotting corpse it is today.

      • Cavalier August 30, 2017 at 22:29

        A very efficient rotting corpse, though. Soulless, but very efficient.

        • chokingonredpills August 31, 2017 at 02:06

          1. The efficiency has suffered after the “great” old man stepped down. Things still work but they do only because of the strong foundations built by the pioneering generation from Singapore’s independence. If anything, the “great” old man and his Cabinet excelled at planning (for the next few decades) and the people complied. They sold a dream and a vision to Singaporeans and most worked hard at it (albeit for some, begrudgingly). The cost of this is the soul of the people and its culture.

          2. One of the best indications of how things have become less efficient here is the public transport. Trains, which form the backbone of the transport network, are now susceptible to breakdowns every other day (extending the time taken to travel for many commuters by 20-40%). In their bid to focus on earnings over efficiency, the main train operators invested in retail and property over engineering and maintenance. The great privatisation of many state-owned companies in the 1990s and 2000s meant that shareholders’ interests trumps over public interest. This has trickled down to many aspects of public services and amenities.

          3. Because “earnings”, the ruling party (unlike LKY’s time) has focused incessantly on GDP. To maintain the country’s modest GDP growth, immigrants from China, India, the Philippines and other countries in Southeast Asia have and are pouring in. While they have achieved their aim, efficiency (and productivity) suffered. The local culture (which has been painfully diluted by draconian policies which spandrell described in this post) is being diluted again, thanks to these immigrants (who now form close to half of the total resident population). The country is becoming more soulless.

      • Wency August 31, 2017 at 13:51

        My initial thought was that Hong Kong’s film industry probably attracted a lot of migrants, but seems I was wrong there. During its formative years, it appears to have been created by the local population.

        I don’t know enough though to know if the population of Greater China was of any help in getting the industry started. It feels inevitable that some place in Greater China would have a successful film industry. Some place was needed where you could produce films that appeal to the idiosyncrasies of Chinese culture. Ideally the films would also be in Mandarin, but that doesn’t seem to be essential.

        For obvious reasons, the PRC in the Mao years would not be that place. And Singapore, with its links to English and weaker links to greater Chinese culture and language, was also poorly positioned to be that place.

        Hong Kong’s export of films to the West also seems to be at least 10x greater than Korea’s. Why is that? Meanwhile, Japan is a huge success story, more relevant in the U.S. than the output of any European country except the UK.

        All that to say, starting a successful domestic film industry seems to have a lot of chance involved. Perhaps a cluster of talented and determined people manage to make it happen, against the odds. And I don’t know that you can call a place a wasteland for failing to pull it off.

  6. Duke of Qin August 30, 2017 at 21:12

    Yet another reason why I despise the Lee clan and the caste of deracinated compradors that are presently overseeing Singapore’s gradual self-destruction. English as the lingua franca for Singapore was almost as a great of a mistake as not ethnically cleansing Singapore to begin with because it undermined Chinese asabiyah by severing them from the root of their culture. Singaporeans needed their clannishness if only as a defense mechanism against predation and parasitism by their even more ingroup focused ethnic neighbors. Young middle class Singaporeans today are just status whoring swpl trash even worse off than whites.

    • chokingonredpills August 31, 2017 at 02:16

      Inclusiveness is the flavour of the decade. In a month’s time, Singapore will have her first female President and the first Malay President in five decades. One important aspect of her campaign would be … inclusiveness. The entire process which brought her to her Presidency was extremely convoluted and contrived. The ruling party (led by the “great” old man’s son) took great pains to explain why this Presidential Election was “reserved” for a minority race.

      In short, they try to avoid being accused of playing the ethnicity card by explaining how and why ethnicity is important for this.

      There is only one pervading “culture” in Singapore; it’s one that the ruling party has cultivated albeit artifiicially. That’s multiculturalism and being multiracial. It’s a Frankenstein that the “great” old man created and this has resulted in the lack of a sense of their ethnic culture among the races in Singapore. Even this “multiculturism” has been slowly eroded by the huge influx of immigrants.

  7. chokingonredpills August 31, 2017 at 02:22

    Technically speaking, dialects are … back… on national TV but for a very different purpose — to promote Government policies (read: propaganda). Rules can be reversed only if it serves the purposes of the ruling elite (even if it meant that it was the “great” old man who set this rule in the first place).

    The consequence of the “great” old man’s rule? Laments from the older generation about how the first and third generations of Singaporeans have problems communicating with each other (grandparents and their grandchildren). And learning a new language (just to be able to speak with their swpl-esque grandkids) is hard for the older generation when many of them are illiterate to begin with…

  8. quaslacrimas August 31, 2017 at 02:42

    Is there any actual evidence in terms of zero-sum game in language acquisition and retention? To be brief: my sense was that when you are fluent and can arbitrarily choose which books to read, which movies to watch, etc., it’s quite easy to get enough input to maintain fluency in multiple languages, but it’s very hard to maintain *partial proficiency* in multiple languages simultaneously (because reading a book or going to a party or whatever is exhausting if you aren’t fluent). If in the 1950s they had good data on this (and I know Defense and State would love to have good data on this) I would really like to see it.

    • dirk diggler August 31, 2017 at 06:04

      most of these conclusions are probably based on studies of school children, which generally suggest bilingual education starting from year one and assuming the child is already speaking both languages, causes vocabulary and language acquisition to lag greatly until puberty, at which point there is still a gap, but it is no longer “large.”

      the big confounding factor with these studies is their refusal to parse by race. most of th subjects would naturally have been mexican, with a large west indies input. many of them are classified as esl even if they are only speaking english at home so that the district can recieve disbursement money simply from having low scoring kids. both instances indicate that the innate capabilities of the pool might be causing the gap, rather than bilingual education.

      fwiw, i think it is undeniable that a high performer with less time to focus on primary language acquisition will end up worse due to bilingual education. I have never once seen a youbg bilingual kid score in the elite pools, because it simply takes nonstop absorbtion of material. it probably doesnt harm middling students much because those middling students arent learning either language at all anyway. a larger mandatory curriculum spread usually only ends up hurting high performers because of the innate damage caused by overly controlling someone that is eager to learn.

      • quaslacrimas September 6, 2017 at 20:03

        That’s a useful observation about the difference between the top of the bell curve and the extreme. But to be clear – you’re talking about *curriculum* here, not raising the kids in two languages, right? The latter is more interesting to me for personal reasons

    • spandrell August 31, 2017 at 13:12

      It’s relatively easy to maintain fluency in two languages, especially if they’re from the same family. From 3 up it starts to get tricky. There’s not that much time on a day. Vocabulary suffers compared to monolinguals.

      I know of no studies, but the academic profession makes money from teaching languages, so it’s not easy to get published when you’re saying learning a language is bad for you.

  9. James James August 31, 2017 at 14:26

    By “linguist”, I think the journo means “polyglot”.

  10. Garr August 31, 2017 at 15:43

    What about spending a lot of time as a kid learning to read ancient Greek and Latin, as was expected of clerical-class 18th and 19th century Europeans? Those guys still had big vocabularies in their native languages. Is just learning how to read another language a different matter?

    • spandrell August 31, 2017 at 15:49

      To a point, yes. 90% of students in the old days never developed any real fluency in Latin, let alone Greek. To the extent they were forced to read it they mainly got whatever vocabulary was useful in their native language and that was it.

      • Karl August 31, 2017 at 17:07

        Arguably they also got a better understanding of grammar.

        • spandrell August 31, 2017 at 18:42

          I don’t want to sound communist, Latin having a more complicated grammar than English doesn’t mean it was better. Continental prose in Romance languages or German can be extremely pedantic, knowing your Latin doesn’t make it easier to parse.

      • j October 2, 2017 at 16:57

        You may surprised to learn that up to 1800, Latin was the lingua franca of European intelligentsia, and most correspondence was in written in Latin. Not long ago, Latin was the official language of the Catholic Church and to become a priest, you had to be able to read and discuss the Bible in Latin. Students sang in Latin, books were written in Latin. All that literary wealth is inaccessible to the current generation. Caesar’s The War in France (Gallium) is amazing in the original.

    • dirkdiggler August 31, 2017 at 15:56

      Kids these days have most of their time wasted on nonsense. Splitting their little remaining time and mental energy is not equivalent to a bilingual renaissance man’s education.

      Second, this class pf people was in most ways well above the median. Comparing them to middle class whites today is ridiculous.

      Third, what do you suppose a bilingual education would mean for a modern white? They are learning an ebonic form of spanish as used by jungle people. How enriching do you expect that to be? Someone might correct me on this but i expect gun shooting is an fdequently enough used verb hat it should become irregular in 30 years.

  11. grey enlightenment August 31, 2017 at 17:47

    When I was in school, typically it was the smartest students picked up foreign langues the fastest in terms of learning the rules and vocab

    • Garr August 31, 2017 at 18:35

      I was never able to remember the endings and alterations and genders, so I was never able to learn other languages. I’m not super-smart, but I’m sort of smart.

    • spandrell August 31, 2017 at 18:44

      The real test is to throw them in a bar and see who speaks better. In my experience IQ helps but not a lot.

  12. j September 1, 2017 at 06:01

    Singapore did what all nations do at their foundation: They choose or invent a language and impose it on the population. When Spain was united in the 15 th Century, the first thing the King did was to create a commission to simplify and unify and write down Spanish grammar, and the result is a logical structured language that allows South Americans, Equatorial Guineans and peninsular Spaniards to understand each other. Italians when united adopted the Tuscan dialect. Israel choose to resuscitate ancient Hebrew. China adopted the Mandarin dialect.

    I agree with Spandrell that the glorification of dialect return in Singapore is liberal and progressive in intent but destructive in its objective effect. Unfortunately the academia (sociolinguistics) is pushing it, even in our tortured Israel, where the professors are proposing to teach Ethiopian immigrant children in Amharic, because it is their mother tongue and we dont want to impose our culture on theirs, since we are all equals. Or they are more authentic and better. A generation is growing up without speaking the national language. I know nothing about Singapore but here Spandrell has touched an important subject.

    • spandrell September 1, 2017 at 10:22

      Anyone else is being taught in their mother tongue? If it’s only Ethiopians I have a theory on why the government would choose to single them out.

      • j September 1, 2017 at 11:03

        Your theory is wrong, I bet. Ethiopians have a problem to learn Hebrew, just as African Americans have difficulties to learn correct English and speak “Ebonics”. Our politically correct education and social service systems cannot mention reality and are pressured to offer reasons and solutions why Ethiopians do not assimilate as did millions of other immigrants before, so they found the theory that they should be educated in their own culture. How happy is the Chinese nation that knows no such problems! It is true, we Israelis alone brought this on ourselves. It has been observed that all Chinese have common sense, that Chinese madmen are never really mad as White crazies.

        • spandrell September 1, 2017 at 13:06

          China used to have mother tongue education for all certified minorities, but they’re phasing it out.
          Funnily they developed an Uyghur latin alphabet, which was really useful; but then scrapped it in favor of an Arabic based one. My hunch is that they chose a difficult alphabet on purpose to discourage Uyghur literacy.

          • j September 1, 2017 at 17:48

            Spandrell, aren’t you a bit paranoid? Or do you think governments are always malicious? Let me inform you that Arabic is no more difficult than Latin or Cyrillic alphabet. I wonder how a person used to the complex Chinese alphabet may think Arabic is worse. My daughter learns it in school (obligatory third language, Hebrew+English+Arabic) and it is a cake walk.

            • spandrell September 1, 2017 at 19:06

              The Arabic language is probably fairly easy to learn for a Hebrew speaker, and abjads (alphabets who don’t write vowels) are very well suited to Semitic languages. Let me add that Chinese characters suit Chinese pretty well too.

              But abjads are a very very bad fit for non-Semitic languages. Uyghur is Turkic, and writing a Turkic language with an Arabic alphabet is a mess. There’s a reason why Ataturk abolished it, besides he disliking Islam. There’s plenty of data on how long it takes children to learn to read in a Latin based alphabet vs. an Arabic-based one, and Arabic is considerably harder.

              • j September 2, 2017 at 04:51

                Semitic languages, yes, Chinese I don’t know. Anyway, you are confirming that the Chinese government did not made life harder for the Uyghur, but easier. You may be risking being sent to a patriotic re-education camp while being wrong and unfair.

  13. Vladimir September 1, 2017 at 06:49

    There are however two theories consistent with your observations:

    1. Learning multiple languages is a zero-sum contest for limited mental resources, so being better in one language means being worse in others, and a compromise means being bad at all of them. There is no way to overcome this fundamental trade-off.

    2. Learning any language skills at all requires effort, and people optimize rationally (at some level) between the cost of this effort and the benefit from the acquired skills. If the benefit is high enough, there’s nothing stopping people from learning multiple languages with perfect fluency. However, it usually isn’t, so we see the trade-offs you mention.

    Based on my experience, I’m inclined to believe that (2) is a more accurate theory. In general, people who have the incentives to speak multiple languages properly do manage to achieve it.

    The “halflingual” people you mention — I’ve met Croatians in North America that are exactly analogous — are those who have a comfortable routine in some diaspora community, where all of their friends and family are in the same situation, and their local jobs don’t require them to learn the local language perfectly. However, those who have a career or other incentive to learn both languages perfectly generally accomplish it, and it doesn’t impose any kind of severe mental cost that would hamper their knowledge and abilities in other domains.

    Of course, there is the well-known limitation that accent and some finer points of grammar are impossible to learn after the age of twelve or so. Because of this, anyone who doesn’t pick up a language perfectly during childhood will always have a thick accent and make occasional jarring grammatical errors. But that’s because of a time window for language learning that closes after childhood, not competition for limited resources between languages.

    • spandrell September 1, 2017 at 11:23

      Croatian and English are related languages, bilingualism in Europe is quite widespread because of it. What Singapore ostensibly tried to pull off is an order of magnitude harder.

      If your argument is about adults learning a second language, surely the halflinguals you mention at least speak proper Croatian? The situation I was referring to was children not learning any language properly, not even one, hence “halflingual”. You can’t explain that by career incentives that children do not yet understand.

      • Karl September 1, 2017 at 18:40

        Anecdotal experience is not worth much, but I once met a couple who were raising their son to be trilingual, the father spoke only French to the boy, the mother only German to him, and everybody else spoke English (kindergarden, neighbors etc.). When I met them, the boy was almost 4 years old, but his English and German were what you’d expect to hear from a 2 year old child.

        The parents were highly intelligent (physicists and chemists), so I assume that the boy was rather smart.

        • spandrell September 1, 2017 at 19:02

          Yes, that’s what happens. If the brain is a muscle, it’s obviously harder to train 3 movements than a single one. Hopefully the kid eventually will master the commonalities of those three languages and he’ll catch up, but most likely he will never be as good a writer as a smart monolingual.

          And if the kid doesn’t go to France with any frequency he’ll never learn proper French. How much times does the father spend talking to him? Can’t be that much.

      • Vladimir September 1, 2017 at 18:40

        It seems I misunderstood the nature of the Japanese “halflinguals.” You’re saying they are actually Japanese kids born in Brazil who never learned proper Portuguese? I thought they were adult immigrants whose native language deteriorated while they never learned the local one properly.

        (All Croatian halflinguals I know are of this latter sort. Croatian immigrants assimilate very well and their kids end up speaking perfect English, and Croatian to the extent that they’re forced to. It’s the first-generation ones that end up in the halflingual limbo.)

        But anyway, it requires a very insular immigrant community for such things to happen. Which basically means that kids don’t have a strong incentive to learn either language properly. But it doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be able to do so if they had the incentive.

        Children’s incentives come primarily in the form of peer pressure. Basically they’ll learn as much as they need to avoid other kids making fun of them. Kids in North America that grow up in Croatian-speaking households always learn perfect unaccented English soon after they start school, where they’re exposed to Anglophone peer pressure. They also learn perfect Croatian if they spend a significant time every year in Croatia and play with the local kids there; otherwise they end up speaking only the barest minimum they need to talk to their parents. (Where they don’t have any status concerns that would motivate more than that.)

        For adults, the incentives are both career and social, but things work quite similarly. Although of course after adolescence it’s too late to learn to speak with perfect accent and grammar.

        I don’t think the ancient common Indo-European origins matter for languages that have diverged so much as e.g. English and Croatian. Both grammar and pronunciation are wildly different. (Of course, for other languages the writing system may present an additional barrier.)

        • spandrell September 1, 2017 at 18:59

          Brazilian kids born in Japan, second-generation immigrants. They learn Japanese at school, but their social environment is almost exclusively in Portuguese. They end up not being able to follow the Japanese they learn at school, and the Portuguese they speak is quite limited to the slang their family and immigrant peers use, who live in this isolated limbo with little contact with neither mainstream Japan or their Brazilian homeland.

          You underestimate how similar English and Croatian are structurally, even in pronunciation, and how similar the cultures are, compared to the differences between English and Chinese or Portuguese and Japanese. Mastering languages who have verbal tenses with those who don’t, languages with adjectives and languages without them is much harder. Let alone cultural differences about what things are to be verbalized and which not.

          And I assume Croatian shares vast amounts of vocabulary with English, at least the learned advanced vocabulary of Latin origin. All this adds up to the effort needed to learn properly, as you mentioned.

  14. Xiahou Dun September 12, 2017 at 15:44

    Hokkien (quanzhou dialect) is the true language of the Han master race, it was the original language that migrants brought to the south east after the invasion of the 5 barbarians. Mandarin on the other hand is a language used in Beijing by the manchus and is heavily influenced by non han elements. Han nationalists should be calling for the restoration of Hokkien.

    • spandrell September 12, 2017 at 18:38

      Oh not this bullshit again. Hokkien is 60% Baiyue barbarisms. All Han topolects are mixed, Mandarin not more than others, and Manchu input is non-existent. There’s some in Beijing dialect but that was all filtered-out from Putonghua.

      • Xiahou Dun September 12, 2017 at 18:54

        What language family would contribute to the formation of Hokkien ? Some say Tai Kadai, some say austronesian. Not much trace left of these people in the genetic analysis though, Fujian people and east coast people tend to cluster quite close to the central plains people much less then south west China.

        • spandrell September 12, 2017 at 19:11

          I’ve even read of Tai traces in Wu dialects, so go figure. I do remember Guangdong clustering close to Vietnamese, and they sure look the part. Fujianese are fairer though.

          Surely something is amiss when Fujian itself has a dozen unintelligible dialects. Why is Quanzhou speech superior to Fuzhou’s?

          • Xiahou Dun September 12, 2017 at 19:30

            Cantonese have quite obvious dai /zhuang admixture. they are known for being rather dark. They are quite far from the central plains people. Though i think that some admixture may be from Tang dynasty times from indian, chams and arabs, Read somewhere that they had quite a big foreign population. Historians estimate that China was 15 percent foreign during that dynasty.

            Quanzhou’s speech is closer to the oldest speech, thats what they say. Thats the hokkien we mostly speak in Singapore, the lingua franca before mandarin then english took over.

            • spandrell September 12, 2017 at 21:08

              That’s a common misconception, based on phonology. Fujian speech missed some very old phonetic changes in Chinese, that is true. But that doesn’t make it the oldest. Fujian speech developed its own phonetic changes, tons of them, and its vocabulary isn’t older or purer at all.

              A good heuristic is that southern dialects keep more rhymes, northern dialects keep more initials. None are pure, although Hakka rhymes are really close to Tang era speech.

              It’s like saying Sardinian is the closest to Latin. It isn’t, it just has some odd phonetic features which are more conservative than Italian.

              15% foreigners during the Tang seems exaggerated. It might have been 15% of the urban population, but China and everywhere else was 90% rural back then.

              • Xiahou Dun September 13, 2017 at 03:16

                My observation is based on vocabulary, i noticed that some Korean words are similar to Hokkien. And some reading of History, like Xiong Nu which originally was Hiong Nu, Hiong is still used to mean fierce in Hokkien. I’m no linguistic expert though.

                What we do know is that the foreigners triggered quite a big back lash that resulted in some pogroms and resurgence of native ideologies.

                • spandrell September 13, 2017 at 10:20

                  凶 means fierce in Mandarin too. Not the same character as 匈.
                  Korean words which are similar are surely phonemically similar. And Sino Korean is based on Tang speech.

  15. ChanChan September 26, 2017 at 07:16

    I wouldn’t say that dialects are experiencing a revival just yet, but it is definitely not something only some bored housewives participate in. There is definitely a lot more awareness and resentment among the younger generations as they felt they have been lied to when they were taught that Mandarin is their mother tongue. The rate of decline in dialect-speaking households has been showing a decrease as of 2015.

  16. Oscar C. September 28, 2017 at 23:57

    Interesting article, I just found out about this blog.

    A cultural motivation to learn, such as in my case, plays an important role in your success at language learning. Unlike most people, I don’t just value the employment utility of a language but its cultural footprint as well: I like to read books and watch films in the original version.

    I would say that after a while it is more convenient to start learning a new foreign language rather than persevere in just one, since progress in it becomes very slow. The real depth of English is to be found in the gigantic vocabulary it has, but outside of literature it is rarely used. For instance, take the word the Nord Koreans used to insult Trump, “dotard”. I did not know it. Does it matter? Better not to know rare words such as those (I am Spanish and I would even have the same problem in my mother tongue if I read the Quixote) and be perfectly able to talk to a German or Frenchman and read a history book or watch a movie in those languages.

    Of course, they are close tongues after all; I have to do a daily/weekly effort to balance and maintain them.

    And there are certainly limits for somebody like me, intellectually curious but probably of average intelligence (never tested but was not good at math). Russian has always tempted me since I would very much like to read things such as Lenin’s original works, but I am afraid that such ship might have already sailed. Currently late 20s, my mind would certainly not pick it up so well, the alphabet is kinda confusing, they handwrite it differently, hard to pronounce, etc.

    Just a final question: averaging around half an hour of daily study, could I be fluent in Chinese in 20 years (able to read a paper, talk to somebody about history, politics, etc)?

  17. Dividualist October 5, 2017 at 08:27

    “I guess the more time he spent practicing Mandarin, or Hokkien, or Malay, the worse his English prose got. And that’s exactly how it works. Happens to me all the time, and happens to anyone who uses 2 or more languages regularly. The more different the languages, the less commons structures they share, the more acute the problem. Again, there is no reason why it should not be so. Information takes space. It isn’t hard.”

    It isn’t really that obvious to me, because storage is one possible model of language ability, but another possible model is skill. And lifting weights or running a marathon does not make you a worse tennis player, it should actually help in serving harder or not getting tired. Clearly if you were practicing tennis 8 hour a day and now it is only 4 because you lift another 2 and run another 2 then maybe your tennis skill deteriorates. Well I am not even sure about this. It should require less effort to maintain a skill level than to acquire it. And if you were just practicing it 2 hours a day and added these your tennis skill should be better.

    I am always surprised infuriated that I worked hard on my English and then I focus on German for a while and then my English is full of awkward German mirror translations. Precisely because I do not take that time away from English but rather from a third language. But even if I did? Reading history as a hobby did not somehow make me forget high school geography!

    I am pretty sure it is not storage. I think it is more like conflicting habits. I think it is more like sitting on a bicycle where you must pedal backwards, you have it in muscle memory to pedal forwards and every time you don’t concentrate hard you slip up. When we speak or write we focus on the what and the how is mostly automatic. We form unconscious habits, much like muscle memory, and that is where using multiple languages contaminates each other.

    Of course the capacity of the brain is finite, but we don’t really know how much it has, how full it usually is, with what it is filled, and exactly what gets deleted when it gets full. Old people are famous for remembering their childhood in detail, far better than when they were 30, but not what happened yesterday. They did not as much as deleted those at 30 but archived in a hard to access place and then somehow at 75 those memories got loaded back into more accessible memory. See also the stuff people remember under hypnosis. The brain’s strategy for saving storage is apparently not as much as deletion as archiving everything in hard to access places.

    • spandrell October 5, 2017 at 09:41

      You’re playing with words. It is indeed likely to be “conflicting habits”, but if you can’t have infinite habits, then there is a finite “storage” of habits. If you have conflict between English and German which share 90% of grammar, with 1 Asian and 1 European language it’s an order of magnitude harder to keep fluency.

      • Dividualist October 9, 2017 at 08:17

        The skill model would predict that language-switching is in itself a learnable skill, the storage model not. Do you know bilingual people who went to work as interpreters, and they found switching in the beginning hard, then got better at it?

        My experience is that this “contamination” happens only on the high level, when I try to write in a nice, idiomatic way, that is when I have these problems of mirror translations seeping in, but generally speaking going from zero to intermediate level was easier at the third language than the second, apparently there is such a thing as learning to learn.

        The problem with “Let’s say a random Singaporean teen was exposed to 65% English and 35% Hokkien during their formative years. So, surprise surprise, he ended up speaking a language which is 65% English and 35% Hokkien” is that AFAIK the same is not true for Hong Kongers? The ones I met had very decent English skills and they worked daily with mainland Chinese so probably that was good, too. You probably know these types in HK: people with elegant Normann first names like Raymond or Claire (they are apparently have high enough status that a simple Bill will not do) and Chinese last names.

        • spandrell October 9, 2017 at 12:22

          You do get better at language switching if you must, but Singaporean’s have no need. Language switching works if you have to monolingual communities who don’t understand each other, and (self-selected) interpreters between them.

          If you have a single community who is forced by their rulers to learn two or more languages, they’re going to find a shortcut so that they can use their brain the less possible; i.e. have a single language and avoid switching.

          Hong Kong English is way worse than Singapore’s, and it’s gotten much worse since the 90s. Bilinguals are rare, but you wouldn’t meet a monolingual, would you? HK Mandarin is also generally atrocious, but its getting better.

          • Dividualist October 10, 2017 at 10:45

            Ah, okay, it makes better sense this way, pretty much all of my life experience is moving between monolingual communities, indeed pidginization is nearly unavoidable in the situation you describe. I thought your argument is that when you must hold two languages in your brain it makes it harder to learn to play bridge or whatever else you want to spend brain storage on. But if your actual argument is that if there is no pressing need people will say fuck that, create a pidgin, and spend their brain storage on other things they actually want to learn, then it makes perfect sense.

Please comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s