May 20, 2012, 1:23 p.m.
2000 years ago people would have said pretty much the same things about Ancient Greek and Latin that have been said in more recent times about English. But where are Latin and Greek in the modern business world today? hehe :-D
In fact, I think that English could be at high-tide now; in the future America is going to slip slightly down the table, and China (and possibly Brazil) are going to become ever stronger. This shift of power may very well bring about a different linguistic power balance even within the next 30 years or so...
(And is America still going to be a largely monolingual English-speaking country in 50 or 100 years time? Or are there going to be as many or more Spanish speakers?)
One thing that I find so annoying about working in a global setting and about the pervasiveness of English in general is that one is constantly surrounded by poor English, both written and oral. I doubt, that this is a good natural learning environment.
So, polyglottery is really something we should do out of personal interest and not because we expect any payback in our professional careers, except for some niche applications like interpreters etc.
May 21, 2012, 10:29 a.m.
As a native speaker of English it can be a little odd to hear it spoken by so many non-natives. The quality is, as you say, often somewhat mixed...
(I guess I know how those Roman dudes must have felt!)
Even in countries which are permeated with English, like Sweden, the local language survives quite well, and I have no trouble using Swedish there. It will be a while before the Japanese, Italians and Chinese reach the Swedish level in English, so the knowledge of those languages will remain useful.
People learn languages to communicate, with people and with cultures, not just for their employers.
BTW I find the term "polyglottery" a bit jarring.
May 21, 2012, 5:52 p.m.
As regards the Italian university switching to English for most of its courses, I can't help coming back to my earlier point: there was a period in history when all education was done in Koine Greek, and in those days it would have seemed entirely strange to use local languages for anything serious or 'intellectual'.
More recently in history, all university education (in the West at least) was done in Latin - and here again, it would have seemed quite unthinkable then to use local languages.
But where is Latin now? Where is Koine Greek?
Historically it has never been the case that one single language has dominated for ever - and there is no very good reason to think that English will do so.
Or, because of the digital age, since we have an absolute wealth of media in the English language, and the fact that the world's literacy rate is the highest it has ever been, English will hold on for a wee bit longer than any of its predecessors.
Also, we have hypoglossia, a condition where people have short underdeveloped tongues. We could use polyglossia for the practice of speaking many languages, if we want to stay with Greek origin term? But it all starts to sound like a medical problem after a while.
May 21, 2012, 6:43 p.m.
That's true. However Latin remained the language of higher education and intellectual discourse throughout Europe right up to a time long after the modern spoken dialects - the Romance languages - had arrived on the scene.
In the 1500s, for example, you had Martin Luther giving his lectures at a German University in Latin (we know this because some of them were written down and recorded for posterity.) His writings were partly in German and partly in Latin - so things were perhaps starting to change by then. But even so, for at least another 100 years after this time, there was a large amount of European academic discourse taking place in Latin!
But...where is Latin now? :-0
However, it is not necessarily useful to compare a language with no native speakers, and which was spoken only by a small elite, to the presence that English has today.
Still, I believe that regional languages will grow in importance, and that learning languages will become easier (LingQ). There is no question, in my view, that the benefits of learning several languages are enormous, in terms of business, culture, friendship etc.
If you consider that obsession could be a medical (psychiatric) problem, then yes, it could be classified this way.
Michael Erard was interviewed by (or had a chat with) a man who admitted that he had trouble learning Spanish (I believe). Yet this host laughed about hyperpolyglots and referred to them as "freaks".
Is speaking 15 languages excessive? No.
Is spending 16 hours a day studying them excessive? Possibly.
May 21, 2012, 9:02 p.m.
That's a fair point. However, the further back in time you go, the more native speakers of Latin there were. And in the case of Koine Greek, I believe that this was a widely spoken lingua franca for much of Southern Europe, the entire Middle East and some parts of North Africa, from the time of Alexander the Great up to about 300 AD (at least.)
@Steve: "...There is no question, in my view, that the benefits of learning several languages are enormous, in terms of business, culture, friendship etc."
Yes, I would certainly agree with this. Although many people might consider it an utter waste of time to learn Swedish, for example, in order to do business in Sweden, I am certain that (all other things being equal) a person having a good functional command of Swedish would have a distinct advantage over a business rival who didn't.
If nothing else, a Swedish speaker would be much more "plugged in" to the situation on the ground - i.e. would have a greater understanding of the context in which he/she were operating, and would not be continually reliant on others for help, etc.
(Of course, the actual business is always going to be done in English, I suppose...)