Why should we learn languages?

the-treachery-of-images-this-is-not-a-pipe-1948(2)By we, I mean the British, or the Americans, or the Australians. Isn’t English the new Latin, the lingua franca for a globalised planet?

That is certainly the belief, seemingly, of ‘A’ level and university level students in this country, among whom what we know as Modern Languages have never been so unpopular.

But as David Bellos, Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton, suggests in a recent article in the Guardian (which you can read here), in failing to learn a language you are failing to train your brain in a valuable and otherwise inaccessible skill. He suggests, in fact, that school-age children should be taught nothing except mathematics, music and languages, as these are base skills or competencies to which anything can be added later without too much trouble.

And perhaps it goes deeper still. Patricia Ryan, in a talk on TED, speculates that the global language loss which seems to correlate with the spread of globalised English is not only a cultural tragedy, but a decimation of ideas.

A language is an ecosystem for culturally specific ideas. There may be much that links us (thought patterns, in spite of what certain schools of philosophy and linguistics would have us believe, are not wholly determined by our language capacity) but there are also many incompatible fringes between languages, and it is here that things get interesting.

One of the skills which Patricia Ryan notes is sadly waning as a consequence of the Global English industry is translation. There was a time when scholars knew of each other’s work, not by learning some lingua franca, but by reading and engaging in translations. Good translation is not only an art, it is also a powerful cognitive challenge and an inter-pollination of ideas.



When I was at school, each year or grade was given a name designed to indicated the growing development of the child along humanistic lines, thus Elements (11 year olds), Rudiments (12 year olds), Grammar, Syntax, Poetry, Rhetoric I and Rhetoric II. It is, I think I am right in saying, a Jesuitical system (I know from Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man that James Joyce attended a school with a similar system).


The Jesuits were fond of rigorously building their little charges from nothing into something, and the elements of anything, it goes without saying, are the basics irreducible nuts and bolts of that thing, the beginnings of it. Thus the elements in chemistry, as we all know, are the irreducible atoms at large in the universe.

I find it puzzling therefore to consider that some elements – fundamental building blocks, as I was taught at school – can be generated only in the laboratory, and only for fractions of a second. You would be hard-pressed to build anything with these.

However, building block is probably a false metaphor, and new, unstable elements are frequently generated (or discovered) – in the last few days evidence has been released for the ‘existence’ of a new, as yet nameless, element, situated at position 115 on the table. We are to suppose that such supermassive elements are created frequently within stars, but decay as rapidly as they are made, no time to spill out across the cosmos.

Tom Lehrer would by now need a new verse to his famous song, in which he lists all of the elements to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Modern Major General. And in fact in this version, recorded in Copenhagen in 1967, he acknowledges as much.

Golden Waving Frogs

Each week brings new students to OISE Cambridge, all no doubt nervous to some degree. But there is no reason to be. Language schools are for the most part benign places where anything goes, and communication in a foreign language is not as dependent on fine grammar as is sometimes thought. There are many ways to skin a rabbit.

So for the new students this week, and for the rest of us, here is a short film about golden frogs of Panama, and how, despite the fact that the rushing waters of the stream drown out their puny voices, they announce themselves and defend their territory against rival males by a dignified sort of waving.

There is no great genius without a mixture of madness

I have taken the opportunity to re-post this from our sister blog OISE Bristol because I found myself talking about psychopaths and psychopathic patterns of behaviour in the business world with my Business English group this week, and they all nodded in recognition. However, it’s worth adding as a mild corrective that one of the concerns of Ronson’s book is with the pathologisation of ordinary behaviours – the psychiatric profession, in tandem it seems with Big Pharma (the large pharmaceutical companies), has swelled the handbook of pathological conditions (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders) to an enormous volume (886 pages). It is now hardly possible not to be caught on some spectrum of disorder or other. We are all a little bit mad, by definition.

You can read more about Ronson’s book in Will Self’s review of it, here.

Ideal Jobs in Space

The group project this week is to role play an interview for an ideal job

I don’t know that participating in the first manned mission to Mars is most people’s ideal job, but that is the scenario my students have chosen this week for their project presentation.

PIA15279_3rovers-stand_D2011_1215_D521Kanjiro is being subjected to a brief assessment of his suitability as a pioneering astronaut, and naturally he has one or two questions of his own which he would like to ask, mostly about the pay, and the risk.

The risk is substantial (I have written about it elsewhere), and has been thrown into perspective by the experience of an Italian astronaut the other day who, while completing a spacewalk outside the International Space Station, found that his helmet was inexplicably filling with water and he was starting to drown. He managed to activate his recall cable, and made it back to the repressurisation chamber, by which time he had nearly lost consciousness. You can read a fuller and more vivid account here.

A more positive story comes from a team who have developed the first 3-D printer to be taken into space. The machine has been developed to operate in zero gravity, throwing up some odd engineering challenges, which you can read about here.

Such a device (not unlike the replicators in Star Trek) would have been of great use on the Apollo 13 mission, on which astronauts had to assemble a carbon dioxide filter from bits and pieces lying around the spacecraft after an explosion on board left them struggling to get home.

Skunk Works

Here’s a story that will appeal to your inner-anarchist: the development of the Apple Graphing Calculator.


In 1993, two young programmers called Ron Avitzur and Greg Robbins were working on projects inside Apple to do with the new and powerful Power PC, projects which, typically enough for software development, were cancelled after much labour had gone into them. Ron Avitsur’s contract was terminated, and that, it seemed was that.

However, through some administrative oversight or other his badge was not cancelled, and because he was young and had no mortgage or family and could afford to live off his savings for a while, he continued to go into the office and work surreptitiously on the graphing calculator. He was joined by Greg Robbins, who was in a similar situation, and they cracked on with the work, gaining unofficial support from numerous well-meaning individuals, and finally seeing their software shipped on a million plus computers, without ever having had official recognition.


It is perhaps in the nature of large corporations to create conditions under which this sort of black-ops work – usually known as skunkworks – can be carried out. In essence it represents a different sort of project management, one where the usual approvals and hierarchical oversight do not exist. Ron Avitsur puts it like this:

“I asked my friend Greg Robbins to help me. His contract in another division at Apple had just ended, so he told his manager that he would start reporting to me. She didn’t ask who I was and let him keep his office and badge. In turn, I told people that I was reporting to him. Since that left no managers in the loop, we had no meetings and could be extremely productive.”

Skunkworks got its name from a secret and accelerated aircraft development unit within the Lockheed Martin Corporation in the 1940s – evidently the first home of this covert work group was a canvas tent near a plastics factory which put out noxious smells, hence the skunk. The unit was commissioned to produce a jet fighter to combat the threat of a similar German plane, and quickly developed the XP-80 (eventually the F-80), the first production jet fighter in the USAF.

The unit was famous for its informality and responsiveness – it made a habit of beginning work on projects before any formal contract had been drawn up. In time it produced the U2 spyplane and the F-22 Raptor.


The Apple Graphing Calculator is a more benign outcome, perhaps, but the principle of skunkworks throws up some interesting sidelights on the willingness of large corporations to overlook or even encourage the growth of autonomous groups within the organisation. I was told a couple of years ago by someone who worked in IBM in the 1980s and 90s that the survival of the company at that time was down in large part to their tolerance for alternative work groups – when the crisis they faced over the losing battle with PCs came to a head, there were sufficient alternative routes already available to them within the corporation.

Watch Ron Avitzur tell his own story here: