Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man Slaves to the Network

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man Slaves to the Network

Article excerpt

It is a common lament that the British are bad at languages. At first glance, this is inarguably true.

Few educated Brits can chat unselfconsciously in French. Yet ordinary Swedes or Dutchmen can tell jokes and explain complicated ideas in perfectly idiomatic English.

It's our fault, isn't it?

Well, not quite. Let's leave the matter of individual competence behind and zoom outwards to look at the wider 'network effects' of learning a foreign language. Let's assume you are Dutch. It is immediately obvious which foreign language to learn first - English. But for a native English speaker there's a quandary. Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese or Malay could all make a competing case. You could spend years learning Russian only to end up living in Shanghai, where it would be little use. French is useful in many countries. But a Dutch expat or tourist will find English useful everywhere. Foreigners don't learn English to talk to us - they learn it to talk to each other.

It is also easier for a Dutchman to learn English than vice versa. By the age of 25, flemophones have been exposed to 10,000 hours of subtitled English-language television. I have never seen a Dutch film. There are 100 times more websites in the language of Shakespeare than in the language of, um, you know, a famous Dutch writer. As for scientific papers, no contest. The secrets to cold fusion will not be first published in Tagalog or Welsh.

But here's the clincher. Suppose I do try to learn Dutch, because my life's dream is to retire to Hindeloopen. For this to be worthwhile, it is not enough for me to speak tolerable Dutch. I would only really start to benefit once I reached a level of fluency where I can speak Dutch better than the average Dutchman speaks English. This would take years. A friend of mine, a linguist, learnt almost no Dutch living in Amsterdam since everyone switched to English in his presence. …

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