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Category Archive • Languages
January 18, 2005
Spanish Americans should not be deprived of English

Incoming email from Mark Alexander:

Thought you might be interested in this brief essay pointing out that withholding English from immigrants is racist.

I am. It's a good piece, too. The gist of it is that if English is not your first language, it is still your icket to full and free membership of the big wide world out there, and that ethnic leaders, in this case Hispanic leaders in the USA, don't want their flock to learn English, because that way they would cease to be their flock.

I love the cat picture, but do not understand it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:36 PM
Category: Languages
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December 10, 2004
"Leave us alone you corduroy-clad arsehole …"

Nuanced observations from Harry Hutton about what he will be doing next (and why), in the education line:

Just called the British Council to see if they’ll give me a job. The thought of teaching English again fills me with acute suicidal instincts, but I'm running out of money and it's either that or sell one of my kidneys. The British Council is better than most language schools. It's run by the UK Foreign Office: all the other language schools I worked at were run by drunks. They could use this in pamphlets as their "unique selling point." It would be an improvement on "Creating Opportunity for People Worldwide," which is the current slogan.

At least it's not run by a drunk.

And when people ask me what I do I will no longer have to stare at the floor and mutter that I am a teacher "but I do other things as well". I can look them squarely in the eye and say, "I work for the cultural arm of the British Embassy, and if I don't get some respect around here I shall have you all shot."

The other advantage of working for the British Council is that there are no British Council inspections to put up with: they don't inspect themselves. Other schools have to be "accredited" by the BC, which means that every so often some bearded fuck with a clipboard will appear in your classroom, poking his long nose in. Usually, he wants to see your lesson plan, which I never have, lesson plans being strictly for poofs in my opinion. "Oh," he says, "You don't have a lesson plan," and writes something on his clipboard, deeply shocked by such depravity. When the class is over you get feedback, and he will express disappointment that you aren't using the phonetic alphabet. And do you want to know why I don't use the phonetic alphabet? Because my students couldn't tell the difference between a plosive, a fricative and a poke in the eye with a burnt stick. And if I tried to force them to learn it they would rise up and pelt me with fruit.

… and about the same amount as that more. Ever since I called this man "terse" he has been mouthing off like one of those mad people in the street.

However, the point about having a job that supplies you with a good answer to the question "And What Do You Do?" is a very good one. As are the points that follow about how "Teacher Talking Time" mustn't be too high. Don't you dare teach the buggers, in other words.

By the way, the comments at Harry's blog are often worth reading. They are even sometimes quite funny, which is rare with comments at funny blogs, in my experience. (See Barry, Dave.) This bit of comment, for example, from "dsquared", is good, and relevant to proceedings here:

Of course, some economists question whether there are not productivity implications if you have a system where only the second-raters are left to carry on actual production, while people more able than themselves try to prevent them, but that's a problem for the future. It's rather like Atlas Shrugged but with more box-ticking.

Ah box ticking ...

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:45 PM
Category: LanguagesSovietisationThe reality of teaching
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November 16, 2004
The onward march of English

English language triumphalism from Paul Johnson in the latest Spectator.

The new world is going to be a world of three Great Powers, China, India, and The Anglosphere, with Continental Europe (France in particular) going nowhere, and with the English language carrying all before it.

An EU report says that French children are falling behind in their English lessons:

What seems to have impressed the commissioners is that French youth is slipping behind other EU countries in its ability to understand English, actually regressing in the years 1996–2002. By contrast, the Spanish, traditionally monoglot, are moving ahead. Under a 1990 law all Spanish children are now taught English from the age of eight, and in some regions from six. In the Madrid region there are 26 bilingual schools and colleges in which courses – with the exception of Spanish literature and mathematics – are taught in English. By 2007 there will be 110 such establishments.

Mr Raffarin, the French Prime Minister, accepts the logic of the Thélot report and will implement it. Mr Chirac, of course, being 'anti-Anglo-Saxon' to the bone, countered with a high-minded plea for cultural diversity. 'Nothing could be worse for humanity than to move to a position where everyone speaks the same language.' Really? Come off it, Jacques! While France hesitates about what to do, the Indians are in no doubt. The wisdom of Macaulay in pushing the spread of English during his spell as a legal adviser in India is now being endorsed by events. As India emerges as a major economic power, several million Indians are now finding English speech essential – indeed, among the vast numbers employed in outsourcing, it is their livelihood.

This is the kind of grandiose world-view prophesy that has a way of being overtaken by events. What if India and China both break apart (China in particular well could) and the relative political stability of Europe suddenly looks a better bet than its senescence and resulting plummeting birthrate (of which Johnson makes much) does now? What if the high hopes now being placed in the Anglosphere come to little? I like the idea of having thoughts like this nailed down in a posting, so that I can look back on them in a few years time and see how true they really were.

On the other hand, I think that this continental news site – which I commented on last night at Samizdata, at which, at some point not so long ago, they decided to do an English offshoot as well, thereby multiplying many times over their potential readership – may be yet another sign of the times we now live in.

For decades, English speakers haven't had access to Europe's leading newsmagazine. DER SPIEGEL and the award-winning Web site SPIEGEL ONLINE, with their second-to-none news coverage, rich story mix and clear, sharp European view, were obscured by an unbreachable language barrier.

Until now.


Tangenting somewhat, but on general topic of this blog, the page of Spiegel Online that I linked to from Samizdata also has, if you scroll down, references to headscarf bans in Germany and a Neo-Nazi teacher in Bavaria who has been resigned.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:38 AM
Category: Languages
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September 18, 2004
The invention of a new language

Further evidence of what children are capable of learning for themselves.

Literacy has to be taught, but the ability to use, and if necessary to invent, language is inborn. But, you have to do it young, or it doesn't work. Old people do not invent new languages.

Scientists have witnessed the birth of a new language, one invented by deaf children.

A study published today shows that a sign language that emerged over two decades ago now counts as a true language.

It began in a school for the deaf in Managua, Nicaragua, founded in 1977. With instruction only in lip-reading and speaking Spanish, neither very successful, and no exposure to adult signing, the children were left to their own devices.

Their first pantomime-like gestures evolved into a grammar of increasing complexity as new children learned the signs and elaborated. Now it has a formal name: Nicaraguan Sign Language, (NSL), and is so distinct that it would not be understood by American and British signers.

David Carr comments at Samizdata.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:27 AM
Category: LanguagesLearning by doing
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September 02, 2004
Different languages going wrong in different parts of the brain

New light on dyslexia, from Yahoo!:

Westerners shudder at the idea of reading even the most basic street signs and instructions in Chinese, a language with 6,000 characters to memorize to be considered fluent.

A new set of brain images shows why: Reading English-style alphabets and Chinese characters use very different parts of the brain.

The results also suggest that Chinese schoolchildren with reading problems misfire in a different brain region than the one used in reading alphabet-based languages like English. This demonstrates that the learning disorder dyslexia is not the same in every culture and does not have a universal biological cause, researchers said.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:48 PM
Category: How the human mind worksLanguages
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June 16, 2004
Toby Micklethwait on how television teaches foreign languages: "The difference is not in the schooling …"

On Monday I visited my Mum, as mentioned here, and while there I talked also with my brother Toby, who is a UKIPer.

The report I wrote yesterday about our conversation has become the trigger for a very satisfactory Samizdata comment storm about matters European and EUropean, as I write this still blowing.

After writing that, I then googled "Toby Micklethwait", which I haven't done lately, and I found my way to this:

This is my contribution to the BBC charter review.

That's all the explanation you get, in the page I googled my way to. Presumably, what Toby is referring to is this. I am not encouraged that "Micklethwait" is spelt so very wrongly in the web address. This suggests to me that no very great attention was paid to what he said.

Which, if true, would be a pity, because after Toby's what-you-would-expect-from-a-UKIPer denunciation of BBC bias (concerning the idea of Britain getting out of the EU – surprise surprise), he then veers off into this:

Finally, perhaps off topic, it seems to me uneconomic to spend billions of pounds on language education in schools, and then to fail to spend the few millions needed to ensure that there are free to air television channels in French, Spanish etc. Such channels should be purchased from abroad. The best programs for learning languages are quiz programs (preferably with text on screen), followed by nature programmes, and then news. Fast moving comedy is very difficult to understand in another language.

If proof is required that TV affects language learning, then I point out that dwellers in Copenhagen understand Swedish well, whereas in Esbjerg they do not. The difference is not in the schooling, it is in the TV.

What an interesting observation. He is quite right that our government, or at any rate a fragment of it, has for some time been in initiative mode about language teaching in schools. We now have a strategy to make more people learn foreign languages.

Toby's idea is the best I've heard for achieving greater foreign language knowledge in Britain, and, as he says, at a trifling cost. Just sling a few cheap and cheerful foreign language channels up on regular don't-pay-as-you-watch TV, and let nature take its course. Excellent.

So good is this idea that I reward brother Toby with two gratuitous pictures of him, looking studious and educational, and looking happy, taken a year or two ago at a Christmas family gathering at his home in the leafy suburbs of Surrey.

Toby2.jpg   Toby1.jpg

A few learned comments on this TV helps language learning idea would be very welcome. Does it really do this? Is Toby (and am I) getting too excited about this idea? If he is right, are there some other examples to throw into the pot from elsewhere in the world? I do recall reading in all kinds of places that lots of people have learned English by going to the movies and listening out for the English words to go along with the subtitled words at the bottom. But how about TV? Do Spanish speaking Americans learn their English (assuming they want to learn it) by watching Anglo-TV? Do Europeans learn English by watching British and American TV?

If the idea survives scrutiny in the comparative privacy of here, I can then give this notion another push on Samizdata. If I get no comments here, I'll stick it up on Samizdata anyway.

Apart from the idea itself, is there any way to access the place where this piece got posted, and most especially any replies to it? I tried ringing Toby to ask this, but he seems to be extremely busy just now. He is, presumably, among other things, UKIPing, helping to reinforcing their success. If so, it makes sense.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:34 PM
Category: LanguagesTelevision
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June 15, 2004
Some stale non-news about the teaching of French in Britain

This is stale news, because it comes from the "in fact" bit in the May 2004 issues of Prospect (paper only). But I have only just now noticed it, and it interested me a lot:

Britain is now the only major country in the world where French is the main foreign language taught in schools.

This was apparently in The Times, on April 8th 2004.

So, we are, linguistically, the least Francophobic major nation?

But think about it some more. Everyone else either has English as their first language, or else teaches English as a foreign language. So all that is really being said here is that English as a foreign language is universally more popular than French as a foreign language in all "major" nations (which excludes French ex-colonies), which we all surely knew, plus that Britain takes French more seriously than Australia, the USA, etc., ditto. So, no real proof of British pro-Frenchness. Just a trick of the facts, you might say. It was obvious all along.

That may be it for today. I had grief with my internet connection earlier today, only recently rectified, and am soon out for the evening.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:14 PM
Category: Languages
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June 13, 2004
Indian English – and finishing in the West

More reportage on the state of the English language and of English language teaching in India.

M Thambidurai, Former Education Minister, Tamil Nadu, said: "Promoting one particular language is not necessary. When one says that English is not our language then even Hindi is not our language. Our mother tongue is better for us."

But learning English has been seen as a necessity largely due to the high demand for English-speakers, thanks to the boom in call centres.

So it is no wonder why the underprivileged see English as a stepping stone to a better future.

But then the article morphs into being about "finishing", for Indian girls who want to be Western Wives.

Many Indian girls dream of foreign-based husbands, so that they can live a better life abroad.

But for that to happen, they must improve their English skills.

Only then would they strike the right balance between playing traditional daughters-in-law and conducting themselves adequately in Western societies.

This has given rise to several finishing schools.

They are preparing for entry exams, personality development programmes, language and hobby courses – anything to make them better wives when they begin their married lives in the US, Canada or Europe.

I wish all concerned well.

People should be writing Dickens-type novels about this stuff , and producing elaborate TV soap operas set in five different countries. No doubt they are.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:31 PM
Category: IndiaLanguages
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June 09, 2004
A relaxing French lesson from Michel Thomas

MichelThomasFrench.jpgI've made a start with these CDs.


I am not completely convinced by his accent, and it is vital, when learning something, to believe in the veracity of the material being presented. Next time I meet a real Frenchman, I will listen to particular things very carefully, and ask for clarification on certain points. I suspect Michel Thomas of having spent his time in France in the south of France. Maybe that's the difference.

I didn't know that it is necessary to emphasise the last syllable of a French word, or risk incomprehensibility. I assume he's right about that. But again, it sounded vaguely south of France rather than France as a whole. But I presume him to be right about that.

But, those few quibbles aside, I am very impressed. So far I have listened to about half of the first CD, there being eight CDs in all. So, early days, and maybe later I'll want to revise some of what follows. Nevertheless, for the time being …

The most interesting thing about the Michel Thomas teaching method is that everything he does is done the way it is done in order to keep the victim relaxed, i.e. for the victim not to be a victim. Whenever a pupil (a much better word) hesitates or gets it wrong, he corrects them, without implying any blame. Indeed, he starts not by pitching right into teaching, but by saying that his method of teaching places the responsibility for the pupil learning on the teacher, rather than on the pupil, and that the pupil has to be relaxed, and not worrying, either about these French lessons or about anything else. The only thing that the pupil has to do is relax, listen and keep on listening, and to join in with the answers as required. He mustn't do homework, or take notes, or make any effort to remember things.

The presentational method of the CDs is to have a couple of pupils responding to Thomas' instructions, exactly as he wants you to respond. Every so often there is a bleep noise, at which point you must hold the pause button down and say the answer, and then resume, and see if you got it right. Usually, you did. Because he just told you the answer a moment ago.

There is no bullshit here about how there is no such thing as teaching, only learning. Michel Thomas is a teacher, and he is very clear about that.

Because of the presence of pupils, these CDs serve not only as lessons in the subject being taught, but also as lessons in how to teach (by which I simply mean the technique for transferring knowledge from mind A to mind B), which for me made them doubly valuable.

The most interesting feature of all of this "keep them relaxed" method is that not only does Thomas almost never criticise (he did a tiny bit when he told a pupil not to guess); he also goes very easy on the praise. What matters to him is the continuity of the learning process, learning being its own reward. You are pleased not because Michel Thomas says how wonderful you are, but because you have learned a lot of stuff and are getting answers right.

Thomas is teaching not just French as such, but French to people who already know English, and he makes use of the enormous overlap between the two languages, so pronounced (as it were – actually pronounced a bit differently) that one ancient French guy whose name I have forgotten said that English is just French badly pronounced. Any English words ending in –ation or -ary, for example, are actually French words, and you already know them. Interesting, and enlightening, but of course that kind of method wouldn't work for English people learning Chinese or somethiong.

It also occurs to me that the Michel Thomas method is actually quite "mechanical", in that Michel Thomas himself could do it to a new pupil pretty much automatically. This says two things to me. First, it explains Michel Thomas' enormous, all-embracing confidence in his ability to teach, say, French, to anyone. Teaching French to someone new whom he has only just met is, for him, no harder than doing up his own shoe laces, and, simply, he knows how to do it. I thought I knew that stuff about "teacher expectations", but believe me, until you've sampled Thomas, you have never experienced unconditional and total teacher confidence to compare. Thomas made his judgement of you and decided on his expectations of you right at the start. You are a human, and you have one of those human brain things between your ears. Ergo, given that he knows how to teach it, you will learn it. It is that simple.

And second, the mechanical nature of the method means that it ought to be extremely easy to put it all onto a computer, and make it part of the repertoire of a teaching machine. But that's a different line of thought.

One caveat though. In addition to knowing my regular quota of English French words, I already know quite a lot of French French, having done French at school for quite a while, and having then visited France a number of times. In order to really judge Michel Thomas' excellence as a teacher, I really ought to try some other language of which I now know nothing or next to nothing. When I'm done with the French CDs, I might just do that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:40 AM
Category: How to teachLanguages
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May 01, 2004
How plague can change the language of an elite

Last night I hosted a talk by Sean Gabb, and ripped off a report of it for Samizdata. I fear I exaggerated the speed and extent of the collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire, following the plagues of the mid sixth century. But the impact of plague on events was most interesting.

Basically, when a political system is presided over by a tiny elite of literate conquerors who speak one language, but who rule people who speak other languages, plague spells deep trouble for that elite.

This elite doesn't perpetuate itself biologically. It perpetuates itself by teaching its alien language to a regular few of the upwardly mobile locals. So teachers are a key part of this process.

When plague strikes, half the elite die, including half the teachers. But the other half of the teachers then have to turn their hands to more important matters, filling in for their former dead superiors. Thus, the process of replenishment and perpetuation ceases. In large parts of the old Eastern Roman Empire, ruled by a Greek speaking elite, this elite melted away, throughout what we now call the Middle East.

And to me, even more of a revelation, the Black Death (mid fourteenth century) killed off French as the governing language of England. I never knew this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:52 PM
Category: HistoryLanguages
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April 09, 2004
The success and failure of Michel Thomas - teaching English and Spanish in South Central Los Angeles

This is the last excerpt I will be posting here, for the time being anyway, from The Test of Courage, which is about the life and achievements of the extraordinary language teacher Michel Thomas.

Once again, we are told how well it all worked, but not, in the end, what "it" actually consists of. What is this "method" that is so wonderful? And to what extent does it depend on having teachers as talented as Thomas himself to make it work? I get the feeling that this man has not been as forthcoming in answering such questions as he would have needed to be to have as much influence on the regular school system as he clearly wanted to and wants to.

But rather than italicise here at length, I will let this further excerpt speak for itself, and then, when I have done some further digging into the Michel Thomas phenomenon, I may then do some further non-italicised writing about him in later postings. But no promises.

In the early 1970s Michel was approached by Andrea Kasza, principal of Norwood Elementary School in the heart of South Central Los Angeles. The principal had a serious and fundamental problem with her five hundred pupils. The school had originally been split between sixty per cent black and forty per cent Hispanic students, but was moving rapidly towards a Spanish-speaking majority. None of the new arrivals spoke English, and there was not a single Hispanic teacher on the staff. 'There were only two who knew any Spanish at all - one of whom was Jewish, and the other Japanese.' There were no government programmes at the time to help, and while Kasza attempted to hire Spanish-speaking teachers, she sought desperately for something to fill the gap. 'I wanted the staff to learn enough Spanish quickly to be able to communicate with the students. I had heard about Michel's Foundation and contacted him. We set up a class for twenty teachers who had no Spanish at all, and they took one of his crash courses.' It was an unqualified success. 'The teachers were very happy with the programme and many of them went on to become fluent in the language.'

During the course, Michel decided he also wanted to work with the young children, which he had not done before, to help them speak English. 'I didn't have the money to hire him for a year, and he did it pro bono,' Kasza said. 'It would never have happened otherwise.' Michel was given carte blanche for a year to teach not just languages but every subject. 'I had thirty kids in the class and divided them into two groups. One used a teacher and one used tapes, and I rotated them. It worked like a charm.' A six-week block was set aside when the primary school children who spoke only sub-standard barrio Spanish were taught nothing but English as a foreign language. 'A child in America must speak English or become a permanent second-class citizen. So they learned English and also had their level of Spanish raised. They learned how to speak and write in both languages in these six weeks.' The second six-week block course was in mathematics, again using a rotating combination of teachers and tapes.

Kasza watched Michel at work and devised a curriculum over time to enable ordinary schools to adopt the method without disruption. The programme started with kindergarten and spread to involve all grades and the entire staff. The Spanish community approved because the programme maintained the use of both languages. The school became recognised as having the best transition programme in the country, and people came from all over the world to study it. 'We developed an outstanding programme,' Kasza said.

'The teachers loved it, the children loved it, the parents loved it and we had great press.'

The courses were given the official endorsement of the California Teachers' Association and the National Education Association. Michel was greatly excited and waited for the various state and federal educational bodies to express interest. 'I waited for the phone to ring. I expected the Education Department to hammer on my door. Instead, there was silence. Nothing.'

'I don't know why people don't support things,' Kasza said. 'It's so difficult to create change. Certainly don't look for it in the language departments of the universities. They're the most resistant to change of any educational group I know. They ignore the practitioners. A new approach means asking a whole department to change its attitude, and that's the problem. In the academic world people get comfortable with what they're doing. What would happen to all those Spanish professors with tenure? They'd have to change their ways. If the man who invented the paperclip needed the approval of a university department we would never have had the paperclip. They would say people had never used paperclips before, so who needs them?'

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:06 PM
Category: Languages
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March 18, 2004
The memories of Michel Thomas

I have been reading this book about the great language teacher Michel Thomas.

I have not got very far yet, and not very far is as far as I may be getting any times soon, because I am afraid I left my copy of this book at the house where this sparkling dinner party was held. (I am under less time pressure, because it is now after midnight, and I am doing Thursday's post now, so as to be able to do all the stuff I have to do today without worrying about my daily duty here.)

Anyway, I have already learned something of great interest about Michel Thomas, which is that his prowess as a teacher is rooted in his remarkable ability to remember the important events of his life, from the earliest times. He accordingly remembers exactly how he learned things, when he learned them, and accordingly he remembers how to teach. When he teaches others, he is, as it were, teaching his extremely young self in the exactly the way that he either was well taught, or wishes that he had been well taught.

Michel Thomas remembers his early life because, essentially, he decided, extremely early on in his life, that he would like to remember everything. So he did. And he did this by constantly replaying these important early scenes in his mind.

Great teachers are those with a way above average ability to remember their own learning experiences. Discuss.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:05 AM
Category: Languages
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March 03, 2004
The non-profit spreading of English

This sounds quite well organised. Quote:

Topics will include state-of the-art CALL (computer-assisted language learning) technology, Communicative Language Teaching, vocabulary acquisition, grammar testing and oral skills assessment. In addition, there will be a session focusing on the highly anticipated new generation TOEFL that is expected to come out next year. "The workshop's dynamic approach is to present innovative and practical teaching methods and techniques, as well as assessment strategies, that Taiwan's teachers can readily adapt to their own classrooms," notes Smith. "At the same time, an active exchange of ideas between the presenters and the audience will be encouraged."

On the other hand – for as we all know "dynamic approach" could just mean doing bad things with other people's money, a lot - if the Taiwanese state sector is the sole customer and Mr Smith is an apparatchik working for the sole supplier, then may all of them be drowned by an enormous tidal wave.

The American International Education Foundation describes itself as a "non-profit foundation". Non-profit is obviously not good, but foundation at least suggests that there may be other foundations prowling around touting for the same business. I dare say plenty of people are actually profiting from all this.

Anyone know more about this? Is this a basically Chinese-American operation? Or is it bigger than that?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:42 PM
Category: Languages
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November 12, 2003
In the land of the well behaved Little Emperors

I've always thought that that One Child policy in China was a bomb waiting to explode. All this only child objects of parental worship, and at the end of it, a fight to the death to get a girl friend. (Their potential girl friends tended to die in infancy.) How's that going to play out?

John Clare has an article in today's Telegraph about education in China which fills in some of the details. He's been there and seen a little of it, and is achingly envious of the eerily good behaviour of the Chinese children.

Deep calls to deep. The ancient Chinese authoritarian foundations upon which communism was first built, and back to which it is crumbling, reach out across teh continents to the Telegraph educational agony uncle.

Two things struck me. One was that state education, though compulsory from six to 15, is only partially subsidised: parents and sponsors commonly meet about 35 per cent of the cost. In the case of WenHui Middle School, the government provided the land and the buildings, but the school pays for everything else.

Second, I was in Beijing when Tony Blair's monthly press conference was broadcast live on CNN. His first words were: "The main issues for our society are disrespect and anti-social behaviour. The community has to be re-built around deeply rooted values."

Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from the People's Republic of China?

One thing the Chinese are apparently all learning about us, though, is: our language. That also will surely have interesting consequences.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:01 PM
Category: LanguagesThis and that
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July 01, 2003
A different way to learn French

Over at Samizdata, Gabriel Syme links to cet monsieur (?), and it occurs to me that this could be a fun way to learn French. That's if you like the Dissident Frogman's opinions of course.

D-Day, in French, is "Jour-J". Je ne … I never knew that.

Are there any other Anglo-whatever bilingual blogs out there, done along similar lines?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:12 PM
Category: Languages
[1] [0]
April 24, 2003
Party titbits

I've just done a quite long posting on Samizdata about the influence of children's toys on later artistic tastes, so I haven't time for much profundity here. But I did attend a social event last night at which I picked up a couple of titbits of interest here.

First, I learned that however interesting a figure Maria Montessori might be in herself, not everyone admires her influence, in the form of your average Montessori school. On the contrary, I encountered the opinion that Montessori schools are employment opportunities for dimwitted women who would otherwise have no place whatever in the teaching profession, and that in general they tend to be extremely disappointing and unsatisfactory places, full of kids being bored to death with pointless objects and just meandering around doing very little. Well, I'm just passing on what I heard.

The other little titbit I gathered up has a bearing on the bilingual raising of children. One of my friends told me last night that she knows of an Anglo-Dutch couple, with a kid. Dad talks to the kid entirely in Dutch, and Mum talks to the kid entirely in English.

The kid is not yet at the stage of talking. He's only at the repetitive nonsense words stage. Nor does he read books yet, for real I mean. But he is at the stage where he turns over the pages of books he already knows from them being read to him. Now, get this. When he "reads" books that his Dad has read to him (in Dutch) the repetitive nonsense noises are Dutch noises, with lots of "ch"-ing from the back of the throat, but when he "reads" Mum books, English books, the noises he makes are different, more of the "Grrrrh!" variety. I love that. I've no idea what it proves, or if it proves anything at all, but I love it.

At the party I also met up with occasional contributor here Julius Blumfeld, who had some very interesting things to say about the role of bias in education (he's for it!) which I urged him to write down and send in. If he doesn't do this reasonably soon, I hereby serve notice that I myself will attempt here to summarise what he said.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:23 PM
Category: LanguagesParents and children
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February 26, 2003
English accent lessons for sale!

Freedom and Whisky had a link to this advert at the top when I visited today.

As I keep on doing this, I'm learning that one of the big impulses behind free market education is the desire of people in all kinds of places and situations to learn English, often in defiance of their local politicians, who often come over all indigenous. This is certainly the case in India, where the state forbids the use of English as the linguistic learning medium (?) in its schools. (What I mean is, they have English lessons, but you can't do the regular lessons in English.)

This advert, in case it vanishes, is for lessons to Hispanic-Americans who already speak English, but who do it with an accent they'd like to make more native sounding.

Our Accent Reduction programs help you modify your speech so that your English is more understandable by native, American-English speakers. This program is best suited for people who already have an intermediate to advanced English capability.

My problem with other languages is the opposite. Accents I can do very well. It's all those, you know, words, that I can't do. When in France I actually have to modify my excellent French accent, to stop the French linguistically erupting all over me in a way I can't make head nor tail of. Try to imagine someone saying, in perfect English: "I'm sorry, I don't speak English", with all the diphthongs done in the elaborately elongated diphthongy English way just as they should be done. That's me in French. (Not that I care. Soon all will speak English, or human as we now say. All, I say, all!!)

And this one, for advanced English speakers, looks interesting too. I wonder if there's any significance to the fact that these products are being advertised on a Scottish blog. They do odd things to English up there, to the point where regular people often can't make them out.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:31 PM
Category: Languages
[1] [0]
February 20, 2003
Words from Mark

I got an email from Mark Holland. BEdBlog hasn't had that many of these as yet, so I emailed back to Mark.


Do you have any problem with me posting this on BEdBlog?

You make some interesting points, which others might enjoy. Glad you seem to be liking it.

Either way, best regards, BM

Heartfeld sentiments, I might add. My obvious sincerity clearly got through to Mark, because this as his reply:

Well no, not really Brian,

If you think you can shoehorn it in then go for it.


Shoehorn it in? It's not hard to do. Anyway, this was the original email.

Hi Brian,

I really enjoyed your Only Hitler will do entry the other day. I did intend to comment but could really juggle the words together to respond adequately to what you'd said. I can only say I found you conclusions most plausible.

That's great Mark. You're doing fine. Don't knock yourself. Be confident.

I did want to tell you however, about a programme I'd seen on Sunday night on BBC4 called What the Germans did for us. It sounds like Adam Hart-Davis should be biking (rad-ing?) from Bremerhaven to Bayern and telling us about the great tutonic inventions like ocean currents and hypodermic needles. But no. It's really about the influence 20th Century (mostly West) Germany has had on British society. Autobahns, electronik musik and so on. They do touch on the idea that British hark back to the war because, as you say, it was this country's final hurrah as a world power. They show this in various forms from voting …

… That's British TV viewers voting …

… (half American) Winston Churchill as the "greatest ever Briton" for instance to the disgusting Achtung of the Daily Mirror during Euro 96.

All in all it is an interesting programme which ties in nicely with what both you and the German ambassador to Britain said recently about how post war Germany is all but ignored by most of Britain, especially in school history.

The programme is on again tonight on BBC4 at 11pm.

And I watched some of it. It was just as Mark says.

By the way after reading about your experience with the American-Austrian boys on the tube I've started listen to my Michel Thomas learn German cds again. I'd stopped after my holiday last August (to Berlin!) and needed a kick up the arse to get in motion again. So thanks. Although I'm still confused because to stay is bleiben and to live is leben, but maybe there's an Austrian colloquialism that as a mere beginner in the language can't grasp.

All the best.


There. That wasn't so hard. You just juggled words! That was great. (And can anyone explain that bleiben leben thing?)

About this Michel Thomas. I've heard of this guy. The thing I remember most vividly was that he just sits down and tells you the new language he's teaching you, and that's it. You just listen to what he says, and presumably (although this I don't remember this so vividly) say it back at him, and that's it. You just do it. No stressing and straining. No homework. You just have sessions with him.

He was teaching French for English speakers when I caught him, again on a TV show. He started, as I recall it, with lots of words which are pretty much the same in French as in English, and he took it from there.

Have I remembered Monsieur Thomas correctly? How good is he? And how good are his CDs? Mark, how did you decide to use him, rather than … I don't know … "Linguaphone"? How are you getting on? Juggle some more words and tell us about it. You can do it, I know you can.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:22 AM
Category: Languages
[2] [0]
December 11, 2002
Japanese questions

A comment was posted in connection with learning Japanese which is unlikely to be read by anyone other than me, unless I accord it the privilege of a new posting, so here it is:

Hello Brian,


I am currently studying Japanese and have learned some of the language so far and all of the hiragana. I wanted to start learning Katakana so I began searching for what I could find on the internet and I ran across your page. I really like it, you've done well.

This reminds me of a truly wondrous recent moment on British TV when the late great Spike Milligan, then still (just about) alive, was being subjected to one of those lifetime achievement showbiz-fests. They got the tottering Spike up onto the platform, and read out an enthusiastically supportive and grateful letter from one of his long-time celebrity fans, the Prince of Wales. Growled Spike without missing a beat: "Grovelling bastard."

Not fair. Thank you for your kind words Aaron. Ah, I see that you want me to do something for you.

I was wondering if you could send me a list of as many katakana as you could, or know of where I might find them. If you don't have the time or just don't feel like it please write back and just write no in the subject.

Thank you so much for all your help


Think nothing of it my dear chap.

I'm afraid I had to email Aaron to the effect that I didn't understand the question, but that if I flagged up his comment in this new posting maybe someone else would, and might be able and willing to help. Any offers? I've told him to keep his eye on the comments to this.

Quite a lot of education seems to proceed like this nowadays, with complicated email questions (in this case a comment on a blog) to busy and important personages such as myself, on the off chance of the odd useful answer. My Libertarian Alliance colleague Chris Tame always sends back a very bad-tempered email to these sorts of requests, to the effect that he has no intention of writing other people's undergraduate essays for them, or some such. But I see no very great harm in this sort of thing. I mean, if you want to know the answer to something, what's wrong with asking? I do it myself all the time.

For instance, what is a hiragana, and in what way does it differ from a Katakana? And does the small h and the Big K signify anything except the lamentable decline in educational standards among students these days? Answers in the comments box please.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:52 PM
Category: Languages
[2] [0]
November 06, 2002
On learning Japanese on the Internet

To add my tuppence ha'penny to the debate on internet education I started learning Japanese some months ago. Being a great believer in the potential of the internet to deliver education I signed up with YesJapan which is an internet Japanese course for English speakers run out Las Vegas (of all places).

It is in many ways like a textbook. The skeleton of the course is indeed based on the live lessons (in real classroooms with real students) that take place in Las Vegas. There are, however, some interesting additions. For instance, there are sound files of real native Japanese speakers speaking the words and phrases used on the course. Then there is an online dictionary which can also accept Kanji (the Chinese characters) as input. There is also a Kanji trainer. This is effectively a computerised flash card with the character on one side and its meanings on the other. Another feature is the ability to ask questions and to get them answered. A considerable knowledge base is beginning to accumulate.

The strongest part and YesJapan's great advantage over textbooks is undoubtedly the sound files. You are left in no doubt how the words are pronounced which is especially useful with the letter R (the Japanese pronounce this at different times as "r", "l" and even "d"). It is also useful for listening comprehension which is always the great shock when you go to a foreign country.

The weakness, sadly, is that it is computer-based. I don't know why this is but I prefer paper. It is probably because paper is easier on the eyes and it may be because of the position you adopt when reading. The upshot is that I have recently bought a couple of textbooks and am probably going to cancel my subscription soon.

At the end of this I would like to conclude something either about internet education or about language learning. Alas, I cannot. I just offer this for the record.

Posted by Patrick Crozier at 08:21 PM
Category: LanguagesTechnology
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