The Language of Reasons

The book on language learning
Click to see on Amazon

Today’s post is by international hip hop activist Umar Alim Al-Junaid, author of “The Book on Language Learning: 10 Reasons Why African Americans NEED to Learn a Second Language”

In comparison to the rest of the world, some would say that being born in America has its divine-like advantages, some would argue the opposite. Yet, when it comes to language we can all agree that for the past 300 plus years English has been the most important language of capitalism.

The reasons I wrote “The Book on Language Learning: 10 Reasons Why African Americans NEED To Learn A Second Language” are many, but for now I’m going to give you the top 10, in no particular order.

Cultural Literacy. Cultural literacy means having exchange with other cultures with reflection and through an inclusive knowledge of the world around us. So, I wanted to write a book that celebrates art, history, and experience. Personally, I have found that the best way to do that is by learning the language of a particular culture/s that we find interesting which, in turn, I feel is a an overall celebration of the human family.

Business/Economy. I wanted to write a book that places acquiring a second language of utmost importance for American citizens as it pertains to our current economic situation as a country, but especially for those of us in the African American community who suffer the worst. According to an article by Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry, and Paul Taylor for the Pew Research Center “the typical Black household has just $5,677, Hispanic households $6,325 in wealth and the typical White household $113,149”. Keep in mind that this is total assets after debt during the great recession. And considering that careers in language are predicted to grow over the next 10 to 20 years it would be in the US interest to become serious about becoming a bi-lingual society. English is the lingua franca of global business, but for how long?

History. I wanted to write a book that connected African Americans to their history – from the glory of Africa before 1492 and their descendents living in the western hemisphere today. There has been a cultural disconnect between Africans born in the United States and those Africans across the rest of the diaspora and I believe that language is an important step towards reconnecting, à la Marcus Garvey. I explain this disconnection more in depth in the book but for now it is safe to say that for those African Americans inclined to know who they are, their place in history, and their future, language is your bridge back to the other side of the Atlantic.

Monocultural Americana. I wanted to write a book that took a serious look at the effects of growing up in a country that uses its language as a weapon of cultural imperialism extending far beyond its borders.

Travel. For many reasons most African-Americans will probably never make it outside of their own ‘hoods. I wanted to write a book that will inspire African Americans to visit their world, it’s really that simple. Not to mention that when you do decide to travel the world you will quickly learn that despite what you may believe…everyone in the world does NOT speak English. Besides, the best way to experience that trip to China, and grasp the full flavor of its beautiful people and culture is to at least have a working knowledge of Mandarin.

Freedom. I wanted to write a book that connects language to freedom. How do the two relate to each other, well, pick up the book and you’ll find out! Shameless, I know.

Youth. I wanted to write a book that shows African American children that it is actually cool to learn a foreign language, that they can learn a second language and that they NEED to be bi-lingual in the world they are living today in where most children their age are already speaking English as a second or third language. And to also let Black children know that, no, learning a language is not only for white people!

Perspective. I wanted to write a book on learning a second language that was written from the perspective of an African American male. There’s not much representation of Blacks in the multilingual community (more for lack of their not being many) so it follows that there aren’t many African Americans writing about second language acquisition. I hope to express myself in the same language, face and tone that most African Americans can understand and relate to.

Story. I wanted to write a book that, not only, gives reasons why African Americans need to become bi-lingual . I also wanted to write a book that brings the reader into my personal story on how I came to fall in love with learning languages, and how it feels living in the United States being one of a handful of African Americans who share that love. Often times Americans think that one has to be some sort of genius to be “good” at learning languages and I wanted to dispel that myth. Trust me folks, I am in no way, shape, form, or fashion a genius.

Audience. I just wanted to write a book that I hope people will read.

Yes, I will admit, “The Book on Language Learning: 10 Reasons Why African Americans NEED To Learn A Second Language” is written with the African American reader in mind. It is also written for the English speaking world as whole which includes the UK and Australia.

Our world is experiencing great change, and although English is the tongue of capitalism, English will not maintain that luxury much longer as we enter this new epoch of globalism.

 Useful links

In addition to the links above, you can contact Umar on Twitter, Facebook and Soundcloud

Beyond Babel: Linguistic and intercultural skills for tomorrow

Insights podcast on multilingualism with Bruno della Chiesa

Bruno della Chiesa was the soul of Languages in a Global World. Hear him discussing the relation between multilingualism and ageism, sexism, imperialism and much more in French, with Anne-Lise Prigent, or in English with Patrick Love.

Learn languages and… expand your own being (among a few other things) is an Insights blog article on Languages in a Global World

Beyond Babel: Linguistic and intercultural skills for tomorrow

I don't know what you mean
I don’t know what you mean

Today’s post is written by Anne-Lise Prigent, the editor in charge of education publications at OECD Publishing. Tonight, the OECD is hosting a conference on how multilingualism can improve communication by enriching thought.

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”, Wittgenstein said. This limit holds for English, the world’s lingua franca. In 2006, the British Council warned that “monoglot English graduates face a bleak economic future as qualified multilingual youngsters from other countries are proving to have a competitive advantage (…) in global companies”.

The world’s economic centre of gravity is shifting, and so is its linguistic landscape, as the OECD’s Trends Shaping Education points out: “English was long the dominant language of the Internet, but that is changing. There are now over 250 languages represented on the Internet, with English, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish making up the top five.”.

Mandarin now is the most widely spoken language in the world, followed by English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German and French. The relative number of English native speakers will decrease whereas Spanish, Hindi and Arabic will soar. The number of non-native English speakers will overtake that of native speakers over the next century.

Androulla Vassiliou, EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth thinks that languages can help us out of the crisis. She stresses that Europeans need better language skills to answer labour markets’ needs. In 2011, only 42% of European 15-year-olds were competent in their first foreign language, with huge variations between, say, Sweden (82%) and Britain (9%).

In a context of increasing global competition, language skills are becoming crucial. A survey of SMEs found that a significant amount of business is being lost because of inadequate language skills. Across the sample of nearly 2000 businesses, 11% of respondents had lost a contract as a result of lack of language skills. Contracts worth in total between €8 million and €13.5 million were lost by 37 businesses, while a further 54 businesses missed potential contracts worth between €16.5 million and €25.3 million. SMEs which have a language strategy achieve 44% more export sales than those which don’t.

Languages do not only matter for SMEs. In March 2006, Amazon announced it would move its European customer service centre from the UK to Ireland to take advantage of better language skills. More generally, managing cultural diversity and linguistic complexity can be a critical asset for large companies. Large firms which have no language strategy tend to fail to deal with day-to-day communication problems according to the ELAN report. The cost of language barriers was quantified as between 15%-22% in terms of tariff equivalents. Other estimates are more modest and obviously vary across sectors.

 In 2007, Languages in crisis: A rescue plan for Australia identified the lack of language skills as a risk to the Australian economy. “For our nation to continue to prosper we must enhance our links with the world – we do that by improving our cultural understanding, our language skills.” While the Asian region represented 70% of Australia’s largest export markets, fewer than 3% of Australian university students studied an Asian language. Language studies in Australia had simply collapsed since the 60s.  And Australia is hardly the only country where language programmes were hit by budget cuts.

Do our education systems “provide students with the necessary outlook and skills, including language skills, for successful international cooperation” as Trends Shaping Education asks? Isn’t higher education also supposed to help us understand what is strange and foreign? David Lammy argued that a university without modern languages is “a university that has lost much of its ability to look outwards – a university without universality, if you like”. This is also about remaining alert as a society. To paraphrase Chomsky, “if a culture retreats into a circle of comfortable and reinforcing language (…), then it will cut itself off from the creative energies that are its life source” – and from the world.

Chomsky also reminds us that linguistic ability does not consist of learning specific responses to specific situations. It is not mere performance, it is competence. In dialogue, Chomsky argues, one should not seek victory, but rather creative openness. In Language and creativity, he revisits the 1961 Cuban missile crisis as a good example of creative interchange. Openness instead of polarization. Kennedy said at the time: “if anybody is around to write after this, (…) they are going to understand that we made every effort (…) to give our adversary room to move”.

Gusdorf’s approach is similar to Chomsky’s: in language, we seek ourselves and others. Winning and refutation can be put aside and reciprocity, mutual enhancement, the enrichment of ideas and persons become the goal. As Finnish author Samuli Paronen puts it: “real winners do not compete”. It is interesting to note that despite doing so well in the PISA tests, the Finns never aimed to have (one of) the world’s best education system(s). Something they certainly did was to learn from others and enhance cooperative learning. 

The Finns have also proved particularly creative and innovative. Over the past few years, research on (potential) links between language learning and 21st century skills (such as creativity, critical thinking, collaboration or communication) has flourished. In Multilingualism and creativity, Kharkhurin argues that multilingualism is a facilitator of one’s creative potential.

A year ago, the OECD published a wonderful book called Languages in a Global World: Learning for Better Cultural Understanding. Looking at how the world is going, this book seems more relevant than ever. Its praise of diversity is reminiscent of Segalen’s  Advice to the Good Traveller:

“A town at the end of the road & a road extending
a town: do not choose one or the other, but
one & the other by turns. (…)
Beware of choosing a refuge. (…)
Thus, without stopping or stumbling, without
halter & without stable,
you will attain, friend, not
the marsh of immortal joys,
But the intoxicating eddies of the great river


Insights podcast on multilingualism with Bruno della Chiesa

Bruno della Chiesa was the soul of Languages in a Global World. Hear him discussing the relation between multilingualism and ageism, sexism, imperialism and much more in French, with Anne-Lise Prigent, or in English with Patrick Love.

Learn languages and… expand your own being (among a few other things) is an Insights blog article on Languages in a Global World

Learn languages and… expand your own being (among a few other things)

Today’s post is written by Anne-Lise Prigent, the editor in charge of education publications at OECD Publishing.

Click to see the book on OECD iLibrary

Brittany, 1689. Voltaire describes how a trilingual Huron arrives on board a ship and is invited to supper by the town worthies. When asked which of his three languages he prefers, the man picks Huron. “Is it possible?” cried Miss Kerkabon. “I always thought French was the first of all languages, after Lower Breton.” “The company speculated a little on the multiplicity of languages; and all agreed that had it not been for the unfortunate affair of the Tower of Babel, all the world would have spoken French.”

Following in Voltaire’s footsteps, Dave Barry stated in 1991 that: “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages”.

Beyond the satires about universal ethnocentrism lies an essential issue. What is at stake when we learn non-native languages and why should we bother to learn languages at all? Languages in a Global World: Learning for Better Cultural Understanding (which cites the above) explores these issues. This bulky (470-page) OECD publication is the fruit of close co‑operation with Harvard University Graduate School of Education where the man behind the project, our OECD colleague Bruno della Chiesa, also works.

The scope of the book is breathtaking: it explores language learning all across the globe, in countries ranging from Canada to Tanzania and from France to Kazakhstan. It goes well beyond (applied) linguistics to deal with history, sociology, ethnology, psychology, neuroscience, music, philosophy and ethics. For those who think that OECD publications are dull, think again. This book is witty, irreverent – and thought provoking.

Why do we learn other languages? In our globalised world, learning languages is more crucial than ever. In fact it’s vital. For a job-seeker, mastering only one language could be a drawback. Writing in The Guardian, Will Hutton points out that “In the UK, the unemployment rate for language graduates is extremely low. The labour market values them. The economy needs more people who can speak foreign languages. This is a valuable skill, whether you’re part of the global scientific community or the world trade system.”

At the country level, mastering languages can also become a competitive advantage. Look at Canada for example. Its multicultural and bilingual policies seem to give the country a competitive edge.

The world’s seven billion people speak about six thousand languages – there are over 30 times as many languages as there are states – and speaking more than one language is quite normal, with around two-thirds of the world’s children raised as bilingual speakers. Yet, some countries tend to be more monolingual than others. Why is that? Could this possibly turn into a competitive disadvantage, even when the country’s language is today’s lingua franca, English? Could it be that power (both in its present and past – colonial – form) lures nations into believing that they (still) don’t need to speak foreign languages?

English is spoken as a first language by only 7% of the world’s inhabitants. It replaced Latin as the international tongue with the rise of the British Empire and US economic expansion. Could it be overtaken in turn by the language of today’s emerging economic powerhouse, China?

By examining what is at stake in language learning, Languages in a Global World goes to the heart of what is often the subject of intense ideological debate. Language is inseparable from cultural identity. Our motivation to learn languages is driven by values and beliefs.

Is one’s national identity soluble in foreign languages and cultures? The good (or bad?) thing about language learning is that it brings awareness – of oneself, of the other, local and global awareness. You may study the world in your native language (only). Or you may live it, think it and feel it as people who speak other languages do. The real thing. The music of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rimbaud, Musil etc. As Goethe said, “those who do not know other languages know nothing of their own”.

We can only understand the importance, richness and specificity of language and culture if we are familiar with other languages and cultures. Lorca’s amazing “duende” sounds more miraculous in Spanish than in any other language. And some (culturally resonant) words lose something when they are translated: “accountability”, “gobbledygook”,  “tartle” (Scottish), “saudade” (Portuguese), “laïcité” (French), “Torschlusspanik” (German), “hyggelig” (Danish), “mamihlapinatapei” (Yagan – Tierra del Fuego), “Iktsuarpok” (Inuit) etc.

Learning languages unveils new worlds. We not only learn how to speak but also how to relate to people in brand new cultural contexts – at subtle levels of perception, cognition and emotion. This gives a new perception of one’s self, of one’s identity and culture.  “If you don’t have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases all your life. It’s harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself in just one language. It’s harder to play” as Michael Hofmann argues.

Learning languages helps us expand our own being and be in tune with the world, or to put it another way, to truly address the other. In that respect, Languages in a Global World is reminiscent of Levinas’ philosophy of responsibility and ethics: our response to another’s face is language. It is the beginning of intelligibility and understanding. Language as an ethical commitment.

Could peace only be a few languages away? Language learning and global understanding go hand in hand. By not speaking other languages, we isolate and impoverish ourselves – economically and humanly. We lose a precious opportunity of becoming open and curious, receptive and creative. We don’t fulfil our potential and just shut up. “Drawing on my fine command of the (…) language, I said nothing.” As Robert Benchley said.

Useful links

OECD work on education

Understanding the brain: the birth of a learning science

Rat meat and pig parts

Pity the poor economics undergraduate. Seduced by descriptions of a discipline that “examines how a society provides for its needs”, he or she hands over their student loan and enters the tent with the others. When they wake up the next day, it’s all utility functions, general equilibrium models, externalities, stochastic variations, and trying remember what the difference between monetary and fiscal policy is.

When the jargon does pass into everyday speech, it’s usually a bad sign. Three years ago, few of us had ever heard of “subprimes” for instance. Sometimes though, a term may be technical but its meaning is clear, as in Paul Krugman’s response to our post about the OECD Economic Outlook. Krugman takes issue with Pier-Carlo’s Padoan’s definition of “contractionary”, and the fundamental disagreement is about aspects anybody reading the New York Times will understand, such as inflation and unemployment.  

Too often however, debates about economics are conducted in a language that clouds the issues even for experts. So when they want to make themselves understood, they abandon the concepts and vocabulary of the profession and resort to analogy and metaphor.

The debate on the latest Outlook is no exception. Writing in the Financial Times, Martin Wolf launched a stinging attack (as the papers say to distinguish them from soothing attacks) on the Outlook’s recommendations, notably on the need for fiscal consolidation. To get his point across, he writes “Let us translate this proposal into ordinary language: ‘If you are unwilling to starve yourself when desperately ill, nobody will believe you would adopt a sensible diet when well.’ But might it not make sense to get better first?”

Nouriel Roubini uses an even more striking image to describe the mixture of bad loans and other dodgy ingredients that went into creating derivatives: “If you put rat meat and trichinosis-laced pig parts into your sausage, then combine it with lots of other kinds of sausage (each filled with equally nasty stuff), you haven’t solved the problem; you still have some pretty sickening sausage.” And once the financial system starts digesting that…

There’s nothing new about this. In an article about the need for clarity in discussing economic policy, Robert Skidelsky quotes Jonathan Swift, writing in the 18th century: “Through the contrivance and cunning of stock jobbers there hath been brought in such a complication of knavery and cozenage, such a mystery of iniquity, and such an unintelligible jargon of terms to involve it in, as were never known in any other age or country.”

Unfortunately, clarity doesn’t necessarily mean accuracy. Take a look at RBS’s accounts of itself in 2007 when the bank was going to hell in a hand basket. Below a bunch of photos of young people grinning inanely at percentage signs, we read that: “RBS is a responsible company. We carry out rigorous research so that we can be confident we know the issues that are most important to our stakeholders.” Presumably making money wasn’t one of them. To be fair to RBS, they do “recognise that some people’s financial needs may be better fulfilled by organisations outside the banking sector”. The British taxpayers who bailed them out for instance.

Taxpayers everywhere have a right to be informed in intelligible language about the trillions of dollars they’ve been asked for over the past couple of years, and to be told what happened to all the promises of profound change. For the time being though, words written by Rudyard Kipling almost a hundred years ago seem to sum up the situation: “Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew”. Was that the end of the bad old ways? Kipling goes on to bemoan the fact that “the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire”.     

Useful links

OECD Economic Outlook

Future of capitalism debate with Robert Skidelsky at OECD Forum (Thursday 27 May 2010)