Learning Languages in the UK

Bonjour!  Je m’appelle Mathieu.  J’apprends le francais, mais c’est difficule parce que j’habite dans Grande-Bretagne.

…And that’s about as much as I can eek out from my limited knowledge of French.  Some of that was even possibly wrong.  What I tried to say was: “Hello!  I am called Mathew.  I am learning French, but this is difficult because I live in Britain.”  That’s poorly expressed, but my point was that our education system in this country leaves us at a disadvantage for learning languages because we start so late.  I first began learning French in school at the age of 10, years later than children learn a second language in other countries, and continued until achieving a standard grade at the age of 15.  It stopped being compulsory when I was 13, giving me a mere four years of compulsory tuition.  Two of these years, in primary school, consisted of just one hour a week.

Is it any wonder that our country is so monolingual?  This was particularly driven home during various pen-pal projects set up – across Norway, Sweden, France and Italy, if memory serves – when they would boast of fluency in their native language, English, and also a third language.  We always conversed in English, of course, but how I envied them.

If I’m so desperate to learn another language why did I drop French at school, you might ask?  I could have continued it to Higher level and even Advanced Higher level, with the opportunity for a school trip to Nice.  In retrospect I regret not continuing with it but at the time it had become so much of a chore.  Because we’d started so late and so slowly, by the time we really began gaining momentum our natural ability to pick up languages had been compromised.  I read once that this ability declines rapidly after the age of 11 or so.

Also, I really didn’t enjoy the pressures placed upon us by the constant preparation for exams.  Learning languages should be a fun, fulfilling process, and while our exceptionally motivational teacher did make the class more bearable than it might otherwise have been, the system really made me tire of the subject.  Assignments consisted of learning pages of speeches or questions/answers I didn’t understand – something which would be dull even in English; of straining to catch words on old tapes then being marked 25% again and again; of racing the clock to get enough words translated to make sense of a document.  It’s a wonder I ever managed to scrape a ‘1’ (Standard Grade equivalent to an ‘A’).

Since dropping the subject I have discovered the website Duolingo, which has rekindled my desire to learn French.  In the last 6 months I’ve been hacking my way through it, kept interested by its fun, game-like nature while immersing myself in the language through repetition which never becomes dull.  Things are making sense now, connections forging, which I never realised while studying the language at school.  I can now conjugate verbs and ask questions with ease, for instance, and I’m sure once I progress onto complicated tenses I’ll have similar epiphanies.  It really is a wonderful website.  To compliment this new régimen, I’ve been reading articles on Le Monde‘s website – a remarkably good source of news in general, and available in print within the UK – and watching live streaming of France 24.  Every now and then I’ll absorb the meaning of a phrase without needing to translate it, which is a wonderful feeling.

In summary, I do think that learning languages earlier, perhaps from the age of 7 or 8 – and far more frequently than one lesson a week – should be included in the curriculum for primary schools.  As it is now, my own experiences have convinced me that unless you’re given this early advantage, school really isn’t the most conducive environment to learning languages.

Related articles:

Advertisements

Demographics: The Future in Graphs!

About a week ago I came across this fascinating article on the Washington Post website which shows the United Nations’ predictions of how demographic changes shall develop in the future.  I’d best roughly explain a basic theory of demographics first – current models identify five stages in a country’s development:

  1. Before development there are high, fluctuating birth and death rates (influenced by factors like war, disease and famine) with the population remaining stable.
  2. Advanced to medical procedures, number of hospitals, more food, better diets, more access to vaccinations and many other factors cause a country to enter the second stage.  There are too many existing theories to discuss here as to why this happens – a liberalised economy, intellectual freedom and industrialisation being some of them – but this causes a distinct fall in the death rate.  Consequently, the population experiences a sudden, unprecedented rise (as Europe did in the 19th century, as much of the developing world is now).
  3. The birth rate falls about a generation later, perhaps due to a shift in culture (couples marrying later, there being less necessity to have lots of children) and a wider availability of family planning.  This causes the population growth to decrease, though it still occurs – this is where India is now, for instance.
  4. The birth and death rates largely level out, where few people die young, infant mortality is down and less babies are born.
  5. The country experiences an ageing population which causes an increase to the death rate and decrease to birth rate (older people tend to die more and have less children).
  6. Who knows?

Each of these stages have various implications for the countries experiencing them, as the article explains.  I find the graphs it includes to be incredible.  Never does a day pass without some article getting published about the West’s decline, the rise of China and Asia, etc.  This is true, to an extent – we are experiencing ageing populations which will decrease our economic output (though this is being counteracted to an extent by immigration), while the likes of China are continuing to shoot upwards and achieve their full potential.  But what we’re never told is that Asia’s rise on the world stage might be equally as temporary.  If the 18th, 19th centuries belonged to Europe, the 20th belonged to America and the 21st moving to Asia, could the 22nd century be the dawn of an African golden era?  None of us will be around to see it, of course, but it’s a fascinating theory.

What could the implications of these changes be?  Asian languages are expected to become ever more significant this century, but how would that be affected by the rise of Africa?  Many African countries still have English and French as their national languages; when Africa contains almost half the world’s population, will these languages see a resurgence?  Or by this point will Africa have cast off its colonial legacy and promote traditional languages around the world?  That would be rather nice.  And I enjoy very much this irony of colonialism: Europe colonised Africa to subjugate it and steal its resources, but we inadvertently introduced systems which promoted population growth and could result in Africa becoming a leader in world affairs.

One major flaw in my idea is that the size of population is not necessarily equal to power and influence, particularly if a country lacks the resources to support such a population.  But it certainly helps.  And regardless of economics, in this globalised, connected age, the size of a population really has an impact upon its status around the world.

To conclude, these graphs are terrifying.  Not because of what they tell us – there’s no reason to fear the growth of either Asia or Africa, or even the decline of our own Western countries – but because of what do not.  Right now we know nothing except that the world will change dramatically in the next 100 years.  There’s a strong argument for saying that major events in human history, including the world wars, the rise of democracy, most revolutions and our entire economic system, is a result of demographic changes in Europe and the Americas.  What sort of world will similarly dramatic changes in Asia and Africa usher in?  I haven’t even mentioned the obvious issue of producing food for all these people, nor the massive strain it will put upon water management and energy production.  The ‘Western model’ gives us a vague insight but, really, the future is impossible to predict.  That said, I’m sure excited to find out!

Thoughts on Heart of Darkness

Contains spoilers.

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, is a short novel which seems to have permeated into the British consciousness.  I’d never actually heard of the book until a friend suggested studying it last year for a literature dissertation on imperialism, but the more I found out about it the more it began to crop up.  That image of a steamer trawling down a river surrounded by dense rainforest certainly resonates with other images I’d seem in the past.  I decided to read it after my favourite nerdy game released an expansion of the same name, and also because of my interest in Africa’s colonial past from my studies of South Africa in my Advanced Higher History course.  I wasn’t sure of Conrad’s viewpoint on imperialism before reading, so it was interesting trying to discern that as the story wove on.

Clearly, the novel’s central and generally sole theme is of imperialism.  It follows a frame narrative, featuring a sailor called Marlow recounting his experiences to his associates on a ship along the Thames.  The story then follows his experiences as a captain of an ivory-carrying steamer along an unknown river – probably the Congo – and his experiences with the indigenous African populations and his dealings with the enigmatic Mr Kurtz.

Firstly, it is really difficult to say what Conrad’s opinions are on imperialism.  It’s important to remember that the novel was published in 1902, so even slight deviancies from the Western perspective of ‘bringing civilisation and God to the savages’ could probably count as mild opposition to it.  It would be easy to mistake many of the references to ‘savages’, who Marlow repeatedly refers to as subhumans, as racism – indeed many African postcolonial writers, including Chinua Achebe, have understandably done so.  Yet, the book does at times seem harsh in its attitude towards colonialism.  Consider these two quotes, near the beginning:

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking away from those who have a different complexion or slightly fatter nose than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only”

“Your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.”

Neither of these paint a particularly pleasant picture of European involvement on the African continent, and both challenge the idea that Europeans were enlightened and superior, enforcing their rule upon Africa for the African population’s benefit.  Then at the end, when Marlow must submit Mr Kurtz’s report, he omits the crazed ending: “Exterminate all the brutes!”  I believe Marlow began to feel a sympathy for the Africans and, if he didn’t actively oppose the system of imperialism, he certainly didn’t advocate it.  It’s easy to criticise imperialism in retrospect but at the time just challenging this widely accepted view must have been quite revolutionary of Conrad.

I found the character of Kurtz a bit difficult to follow.  He’s built up as this enigmatic, wonderful man – in typical Victorian fashion – only to be revealed as a physically wizened figure who has been accepted into the African community.  He has kept his wit and intelligence but has abandoned European ‘civilisation’ – or that’s how I understood it anyway.  It’s an interesting idea: imperialism makes a slave of the oppressor, either literally or psychologically.  A similar idea was explored in George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant.  Though I don’t think that’s quite what Conrad was getting at.  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what he was saying with the character of Kurtz.  Nevertheless, he certainly succumbs to Africa; it is explicitly stated as the cause of his death, in the famous line:

‘He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—”The horror! The horror!” ‘

Kurtz has been physically destroyed by this strange new continent, one beyond the European man’s capability to comprehend.  No description – a first for the novel – only, quite simply, ‘the horror’.

It wouldn’t be fair to call this a criticism of the book, but after a while I began to find Conrad’s writing style very difficult to read.  This isn’t necessarily a flaw of his – the work is incredible when you consider English was his third language, after his native Polish and French – but it did limit my enjoyment and understanding.  Perhaps the fact my reading was interspersed by hectic exam revision didn’t help.  I just found it rambled a lot and was unecessarily drawn out, particularly towards the end.  This is something I’ve struggled with a lot for Victorian literature – perhaps I’m just too used to the modern snappy style – but it’s particularly prominent in Heart of Darkness.  That said, Conrad does set up the scene of this colony well.  In that respect, I feel the novel is more successful.  It presents an idea, an image.  The book is short, and perhaps the plot is only of secondary importance.  I also enjoyed the way he used the frame narrative, flipping back to Marlow on the Thames which gave the reader some ‘breathing space’.

In conclusion, I am very glad to have read Heart of Darkness and I would certainly recommend it, despite it not being the easiest read.  I’m not sure how much I enjoyed it whilst reading, but in retrospect my opinion is surprisingly positive.  It’s a fascinating period account of imperialism, a topic still of great embarrassment for Europe.

Final rating (if forced): 7/10

Also included in the copy of Heart of Darkness I borrowed from the local library was extracts from Conrad’s diary and his ‘Up-river book’.  I was surprised by how basic his diary was, often a rambled and incoherent series of notes – though I don’t think his grasp of English was deep at that point.  The diary is useful in seeing how Conrad’s experiences as worker on a steamship himself influenced the story.  The ‘Up-river Book’ was a bit less interesting, presumably intended to be a series of directions for navigating up the Congo River only to stop mid-way in.  But still fascinating to skim over as a historical document.

Related article:
http://pbrigitte.wordpress.com/2013/05/20/an-image-of-africa-racism-in-conrads-heart-of-darkness-by-chinua-achebe/ (a detailed insight into Achebe’s perspective of the novel).

World Languages

So I’ve decided to start learning French again.  From the ages of 10 – 15 I was taught the basics of the language in school, and actually somehow managed to get a Grade 1 in Standard Grade French (roughly the equivalent of an ‘A’ GCSE – I think).  I decided to drop the subject when choosing my Highers, because I always found it an uphill struggle and, frankly, wanted as good grades as possible to place me in better stead for university.  I think I regret that decision, now.

0

Click for a larger picture.

My main reasons are, again, pragmatic.  If I desire to be a journalist, and if I desire to actually find stories about interesting things around the world (rather than: “Local Cake Festival attracts 200 People! 13% increase!!”), then at least being able to speak the basics of a second language will be absolutely essential.  I figured that, with English, French is the language I’d be most likely to encounter around the world.  For fun, I rushed together the map to the left of languages you’d be guaranteed to find around the world.  There’s a European bias, because, for me, these are more realistic to be learned.  I think the combination of English, French and Spanish would be the best choices, as they would open up virtually all of the Americas (I believe Portuguese and Spanish have some mutually intelligibility), Western Europe, Africa, India and Oceania.  Although, of course, armed with these languages you would be very likely to find a speaker of at least one wherever you go.

Because I have a basic understanding of French already, learning it now is easier than it would be from scratch.  My main methods for learning is the highly useful http://www.duolingo.com as well as the news websites, http://www.lemonde.fr and http://www.bbc.co.uk/afrique .  I’m aware that these methods won’t do much to help my speaking of French, which is something I could probably only improve my being in a French-speaking country.

Hopefully this will go well, and not end up abandoned after a few weeks!