“Fluent in three months” is unrealistic for most

Irish polyglot Benny Lewis is among several enthusiastic linguists who have cleverly used social media platforms to promote the notion that you can learn a language in three months (as well as to promote themselves of course – no harm in that, if you are doing something of service that you are passionate about).

Essentially, their proposition is quite straightforward. By immersing yourself in the target language and not making any excuses, you can essentially become fluent in three months.

Well, not quite…

It is of course entirely feasible that if you move to, say, Spain, and you live with a Spanish family, and you are determined to learn Spanish, you will end up conversationally proficient. Indeed, I did so myself in 1998. And it is worth noting that it takes very little skill – motivation combined with exposure will generally suffice.

Easy. Well, no…

It is probably that my own example – which consisted of five months living with a family while doing two modules of a university course in Andalusia – is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For many, such an opportunity will never arise. Anyone going on the relatively regular academic and professional career path while building a family will likely never have the opportunity to take three months or so in a given location and immerse themselves in the local language. There is almost zero chance of anyone having the opportunity several times in a lifetime – unless of course they choose to make an entire business out of it perhaps by running a blog, doing a few sponsored videos, and writing a few books!

To say the least, therefore, I would urge caution. I am the first to argue that anyone can learn a language (that it is like driving a car – some will learn more quickly than others, but anyone can learn). However, I also caution that it cannot be done without effort (hence the absolute need for motivation, even in the unlikely event that you do live in the country of your target language for a period).

I would go further an even state some concern that language learning is being presented by some as somewhat easier than it is. Many people, believing that fluency is possible in three months, will give up when it becomes apparent that there is a little more to it than is sometimes presented. Also, it is somewhat unhelpful to present “immersion” or “no excuses” as the main drivers of success, when in fact there are techniques and priorities that language learners should follow if they wish to maximise the impact of whatever effort they do have time to make.

Fluent in three months? Probably not unless you have nothing else to do. Proficient in three months? Maybe, but stay motivated for longer and success will be even greater!

Do people really want equality?

I promised I would write a quick post in response to the contention that politicians should stop talking about “creating wealth” because most people just want “equality and fair play”.

This appears an obvious point. Yet it is one with which I profoundly disagree. I do not, in fact, think people want “equality and fair play” at all. Sure, they will talk about them, but they are only interested in them really if they stand to gain something out of pursuing them.

When the Berlin Wall fell, people actually left the more equal society to move to the one which was better at creating wealth. People still flock to the United States – a fundamentally unequal and unfair society – in the hope of creating wealth. Even the Nordic Model, long held as the outstanding example of fairness and equality combined with high standard of living, is under severe strain from those who want to create wealth – of all places Denmark recently overtook the UK as the European country with the biggest gap between doctors’ and nurses’ pay, for example.

There have been several examples right here on this blog, for example. It remains the case that in Northern Ireland public sector workers earn 25% more (down from 43% in 2013) than private sector workers, yet they will flock to the comments column below to give us all sorts of reasons we should do nothing about that (or, at least, that they shouldn’t be paid any less). Fair pay? Not if it means lose out! The most fundamental wealth gap on the planet is between property/land owners and non-property owners, but suggest property owners in Northern Ireland should pay water charges with the money allocated to inner-city health promotion projects for people in social housing, and expect a torrent of abuse about how property owners earn their money. Equality? Not if it means have to pay!

This is to leave aside the fact that if public sector workers want their pay and pensions and then to go home to their properties and not have to pay water charges (all while maintaining a hugely privileged standard of living even by European standards, never mind global), somebody has to “create wealth” but taking risks, innovating, and trading world-leading goods and services that people in other countries wish to buy in order to add money to the overall pot (partly to be then to be taken in revenue and re-allocated in taxes to pay for welfare and public services). If nobody created wealth, the money to pay for welfare and public services simply would not exist. (It is entirely fair to point out that if no one delivered public services, no one could create wealth either; but both have to happen, so we do actually need to talk about – and do – both.)

As it happens, although we do need to do it, I do not think people’s main driver is “creating wealth” either. I think it is a combination, with the emphasis varying from person to person, of defending what we have (there are even protests about suggesting free transport for over-60s should only be outside peak hours!!) and freedom (actually the people heading West upon the fall of the wall were attracted by many things, but probably most of all by a sense of liberty). Where there are people defending what they have in an unequal society, and where there is liberty (where people are free to succeed and fail), there will inevitably be inequality – and intergenerational inequality at that.

So, for me, we like to talk about equality. But we don’t actually want it…

Nationalists lacking Leadership

On Saturday morning I followed with interest a debate in which the SDLP (represented as ever by Claire Hanna) and Sinn Féin joined other parties to call for an “all-island forum” on “Brexit”.

I have wondered before on these pages why they keep “calling” for one. Why not just set one up?

Well, probably because it would be a pointless talking shop, as the actual actors will be the UK Government and the European Council. And therein lies Nationalism’s problem (perhaps explaining its dramatic decline at the polls) – it is all talk.

Sinn Féin as ever took the opportunity to call (there’s that word again) for a “debate” on Irish unity. Why not then put forward some proposals to debate, then?

In an attempt to suggest Sinn Féin was failing to progress us towards Irish unity, the SDLP then proposed there should be “Northern TDs”, using “France” as a model. Except they would be “non-voting” another activist added, leaving one to wonder what the precise practical benefit would be given there are already Northern Senators in the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament). France of course allows overseas voters of French nationality – this would equate to Irish-American Dáil members, for example. Italy does this too. Most republics don’t, however, focusing instead on allowing citizens abroad to vote for President. Nationalists in Ireland like to “call” for that too – but yet again we are waiting for a practical plan to deliver it.

What is most interesting about all of this is that the whole discussion is focuses solely within the political bubble. What is the precise practical benefit of this North-Southery, beyond a few salaries for politicians?

I am not a Nationalist and I think it is time people recognised that Northern Ireland is a fundamentally different country – a century apart has seen experiences of the Great Depression, World War, rationing, the Troubles, the Celtic Tiger and the bust; and many other things fundamentally differ in each jurisdiction. However, I can think of a vast range of areas where North-South co-operation could be improved for practical benefit:

– Health, for relatively rare conditions (this is beginning to happen, but a cross-border body to coordinate it, ensure adequate matching qualifications, and oversee relevant capital projects would do no harm);

– Aviation (a few months ago I proposed here the devolution of aviation policy to Northern Ireland to be placed with a cross-border body, securing zero Air Passenger Duty and some say over Dublin Airport from a Northern perspective for mutual benefit);

– Customs (we should perhaps look, particularly post-Brexit, at whether an arrangement can be secured to ensure customs controls are at entry to the island and not within it, either through the British-Irish intergovernmental conference or a cross-border body); and

– Broadcasting (essentially, could the whole of Ireland be brought within the same regulatory framework as the UK/Isle of Man/Channel Islands to ensure no broadcast blackouts across the border and cross-border access to relevant online/casting services?)

There, a raft of ideas of practical benefit with some notion of how they would be delivered in practice. Any chance of Nationalists actually doing anything to help deliver on them?!

Hillary campaign making all the same mistakes as #Remain

Last night’s debate was a clear win for Hillary Clinton – well prepared, knowledgeable and thoughtful. However, I think we still have to take seriously the prospect of a Donald Trump Presidency.


Because it appears to me, admittedly as an absolute outsider, that the Hillary campaign is making all the same mistake the “Remain” campaign made in the UK.

Put basically, “He lied” is not news.

Indeed, constantly moaning about the other side “lying” constitutes the very type of apparent elite snobbery that the likes of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage feed off. Politicians lie. So what? Are they not all the same?

Therefore every time Donald Trump is accused of lying, he can turn it to his advantage – “Look at these sneering intellectuals who have gained from globalisation trying to trick you with their fuzzy math! But you and I know what’s really going on…”

People who voted “Leave” knew the £350m line was probably nonsense. The point is, “Leave” offered at least the prospect of more money for Health (even if it was improbably), whereas “Remain” eliminated such a prospect entirely. The logic was that even if more money for Health was only an a million-to-one shot if we left the EU, that is still a better chance than staying in it.

Likewise, even if Trump is lying, and even if in fact he can do hardly any of the things he’s promising, that is still more than Hillary will do (and she lies too, you know, because they all do…)

The “Remain” campaign was doomed from the very moment it started every debate with “The EU isn’t perfect but…”

Would you sell a washing powder that way? “I know it isn’t perfect, but on balance, particularly with colours, it is probably just a bit better than some of the others”? No.

Likewise, those who really do not want Trump in the White House are going to have to stop the “I know Hillary isn’t ideal, but…” line.

Actually, as she showed in the debate, Hillary Clinton is a women of immense ability, astonishing attention to detail, and significant international renown who would serve the United States with distinction. It seems to me that it is about time her campaign started focusing on that incredibly simple, but absolutely vital, point.


Why did peaceful Esperanto fail? / Kial malsukcesis paca Esperanto?

[English version below]

Hierau estis la ,internacia tago de paco’, sed estas unu de la tordajxoj kruelaj de la pasinta, ke la inventisto de la plej sukcesa ,helplingvo’ (dezajnita por esti la dua lingvo en cxiuj landoj tutmonde, por tiel helpi komunikado internacia, kaj eble finigas malkomprenojn por tiel antauenigi la pacon) mortis dum la unua milito tutmonda.

Kutime kun Esperanto, oni emas auskulti nur tiujn, kiuj gxin vehemente antauenigas kiel la rimedon perfektan por aliri al la paco tutmonda, au tiujn, kiuj gxin atakas kiel lingvon neuzeblan kaj tute malgxustan.

Kial gxi malsukcesis?

Ja, gxi nur ,malsukcesis’ gxian pracelon (por igxi cxies dua lingvo). La ideo estis ke, se cxiuj parolus Esperanton kune kun la lingvo denaska, la komunikado internacia igxus facila. Oni ecx povus sendi leteron kun sxlotilo simpla por kompreni Esperanton (tiuj sxlotiloj mem haveblis 19 grandajn lingvojn, sed ampleksis nur unu au du pagxojn), kaj la ricevanto povis kompreni gxin (kaj eble respondi, cxar Esperanto sxajne estis tiel facile lernigxi). Principe tio ne estas ridinda ideo. Do kio malgxustas kun la lingvo, ke tio ne okazis? 

Unue, debateblas cxu iu lingvo konstruita povas plenigi tian rolon. Lingvistiko ne estas matematiko; do lingvoj devas esti naturaj (evoluigata tra tempo) por gajni akcepto largxa. Iu lingvo konstruita donos al oni la senton, ke gxi estas nur ia kodo (ne gravas, kiel gxi estas farata). Fakte, ju pli perfekte iu konstruita lingvo estos farata, des pli kiel nura kodo gxi sxajnos. 

Due, Esperanto ne estas perfekta, kion ecx Zamenhof konfesis. Li relative estis juna viro kun la eliro de liaj regoloj kaj vortaro je 1887, kaj li tiam faras bona laboro, kiam aliro al la scio lingva (ecx ankau socia) havis multajn pli da limoj ol gxi hodiau havus. Iuj liaj decidoj estis tamen ridindaj pro lia celo deklarita.

Do, kion oni dirus pri la aliaj eblaj celoj? Esperanto nun estas uzita en iuj lernejoj elementaj en Anglujo, kiel unua ,ekstera lingvo’. Miaopinie gxi estas perfekta por tio, gxuste cxar gxi ne estas perfekta (kun tiel komplikajxoj kiel akuzativo kaj subjunktivo, kiu Angle apenau ekzistas). 

Esperanto ankau povas uzigxi studojn pri evidento de la sxangxo lingva. Krom ciuj lingvoj naturaj, la reformo Esperanta cxiam havas kontauulojn inter gxiaj parolantoj, kaj tio cxi ankau interese montras, ke Esperanto vere ne estas nur artefarita lingvo!

Do la pracelo vere ne okazos, parte pro la neperfektoj en la lingvo. Sed tiuj neperfektoj cxi signifas, ke estonteca rolo Esperanta eksistas en studo lingva. Almenau lau mi, gxi ja estas nenia malsukceso!

Yesterday was the “International Day of Peace”, but it is one of history’s cruel twists that the founder of the most successful “auxiliary language” (designed to be everyone’s second language and thus aid international communication, potentially ending misunderstandings and thus promoting peace) died during World War One.

As usual, with Esperanto, exposure generally goes to those who either promote it vehemently as the perfect driver of world peace, or who decry it as completely flawed and useless. Of course, as ever, the truth is somewhere between those two, but you rarely get prizes for pointing that out!

Why did it fail?

Well, it only “failed” in terms of its pracelo (“original goal”) of becoming everyone’s second language. The idea was that if everyone spoke Esperanto alongside their own native language, international communication would become easy – you could even send a letter with a simple key to understanding Esperanto (such keys were themselves made available in 19 major languages, but took up only a page or so), and the recipient could understand (and perhaps even reply, such was the supposed ease with which Esperanto could be learned). This is in principle not a ludicrous idea. So what was wrong with the language that it did not happen?

Firstly, it is debatable whether any invented language could fulfil such a role. Language just is not mathematics; thus languages need to be natural (i.e. developed through time) to gain widespread acceptance. Any invented language will create the feeling that it is really just a code, no matter how well it is done. Indeed, the more perfectly such a language is designed (without irregularities and such like), the more code-like it will seem.

Secondly, Esperanto is not perfect, something Zamenhof himself admitted. He was still a relatively young man upon publication of its rules and vocabulary in 1887, and he had done a very good job in an age where access to linguistic (and even social) knowledge was much more restricted than it is now. Nevertheless some decisions he made were simply ludicrous, given his stated goal. The phonology is particularly flawed, for a number of reasons, including:

  • there are simply too many consonant sounds, particularly affricates (typically represented in English by <ch> or <sh>);
  • a significant number of sounds are extremely rare (for example, French and Italian lack either <h> or <hx>);
  • there are lots of difficult consonantal clusters (sometimes even for simple words – scii “to know” is almost impossible to pronounce clearly and in a natural language would inevitably over time become simply ci);
  • the presence of diphthongs (vowels sounded together such as English”boy“) is an unnecessary complication, unknown in major languages such as Spanish and Arabic;
  • the principle of “one sound, one letter” is broken right from the outset (in Esperanto, /ts/ can be written <ts> or <c>); and
  • there are accented letters (represented by necessity here by a following <x> because there is no means of marking the required circumflexes correctly even on a modern tablet), and to make matters worse they often bear no relation to the unaccounted one (so <j> has nothing to do with <jx>).

This is a huge frustration, because such complications are just unnecessary and they so obviously spoil an otherwise good effort!

So what about other celoj (goals)?

Esperanto has now been used in some primary schools in England as a first “foreign language”.  Arguably, it is perfect for that precisely because it is imperfect. As noted above, it requires some sounds which are rare or even absent in English (as do other languages), and it even has some quirky complications, such as:

  • an accusative – objects of the sentence or (usually) words towards which there is motion are marked with an additional -n; and
  • a subjunctive – the verb in subordinate clauses expressing desire or command is placed in the subjunctive, marked -u.

Thus, “I am at home” is mi estas hejme; but “I go home” is mi iras hejmen; and “I wish that you would go home” is mi volas ke vi iras hejmen but “I want you to go home” is mi volas ke vi iru hejmen. That is all a bit tricky – even a bit real!

Esperanto can also be used in academic studies for evidence of how languages change. For example, for “I am tired” is fundamentally mi estas laca, but now simply mi lacas is allowable. As noted above, inevitably some words would change too due to awkward pronunciations (even esti “to be” is generally now pronounced sti). There is also lively debate about vocabulary, notably around gender reform (as with many languages, but particularly relevant in a supposedly global language of peace) and the overuse of the mal– prefix to make opposites (so dekstra “right” becomes maldekstra “left”, but many writers now prefer liva for “left”, at least informally). As with any language, deliberate reform draws resistance from language users, and this is in itself an interesting issue – and a marker of how Esperanto is not so artificial after all!

So the pracelo will never realistically be met, partly because of the language’s imperfections. But it is these very imperfections which mean there is still a role for Esperanto in language study. Maybe it is not such a malsukceso after all!

Community Relations is no “soft option”

It is Community Relations Week, and that is important.

Community Relations in Northern Ireland are (I write this cautiously as I have nothing better than instinct to go on) marginally better than they were and better than they are in England. Yet they are still far from “good”.

It remains the case that too often in Northern Ireland (and elsewhere) an “entitlement culture” predominates in preference to a more charitable and frankly more reasonable outlook. We are determined to pursue our “entitlements” – be it to build a mammoth bonfire, stick a load of flags up or even simply block a road construction project of clear overall community benefit through a spurious legal challenge. Much of this is done just to make ourselves feel powerful in our own little group, without the slightest consideration for anyone else, nor indeed for what is simply reasonable behaviour in a diverse society.

In England, the evidence is that matters are far worse. Particularly in post-industrial urban areas of the North and Midlands, people are often completely segregated by racial and national origin, leading separate lives. “Multiculturalism has failed” say many, but the truth is, outside London, few places have actually tried it. Separate schools, sports, residential areas, shops, even TV channels lead to a dangerous segregation and a total lack of cohesion.

Community Relations as a topic is, therefore, more important than ever right across the UK. It is far from a “soft option”. Actually, it is ever more essential.

If there is money for Press Officers, there is money for cancer drugs

A certain MLA, who may or may not be close to me, put a Petition to the Assembly this week with over 10,000 signatures. Its demand was simple – the same access to vital cancer drugs for residents of Northern Ireland as applies in England.

“Ah but the money”, Health Ministers used to say.

Yet Stormont can, according to Jim Allister’s figure, afford 161 Press Officers (actually, 161 people working in the Information Service, but a figure highlighted by the recent appointment of a political Communications Chief). Stormont can also, it turns out, find millions of pounds to give to an American airline without a business case. On top of this, it is now contemplating finding a few more millions to bail out a regional airport which handles no cargo at all, instead of simply improving infrastructure to the city it serves. This is not to mention the millions wasted on training teachers we do not need or other kinds of segregated services, nor indeed money allocated to Investment Funds which fail to function.

“Ah but the money” nothing. The money exists, if the Executive chooses to spend it on things other than making itself look good. The Opposition should never hesitate to point it out.

Juncker part of the problem, not solution

Jean-Claude Juncker is exactly the kind of Eurocrat who made a lot of people vote “Leave” in the summer.

Perhaps the EU administration’s most powerful individual, it is astonishing that he is still in post. If he really cared about the EU, having just lost a referendum which will likely see the Union lose its second largest member, he would have resigned months ago. Instead he continues to lecture others without taking a second to reflect that maybe, just maybe, the type of European integration he proposes in fact has little democratic support across Europe.

The UK Government has degenerated into embarrassing chaos as it comes to terms with the sheer scale (and, frankly, utter pointlessness) of the “Brexit” task before it. Yet it is not alone. The EU has to reform not just its institutions, but its whole purpose and vision. That will not happen with the likes of Mr Juncker still in post.

Cyclists, helmets, and the chaos of social media

If ever anything showed the madness of social media, it was the hysterical reaction just over a week ago to a perfectly sensible tweet recommending that, in rush hour traffic, it really is unwise to cycle without a helmet (as I had seen two cyclists doing in the vicinity of the Westlink, in each case along side four lanes of traffic).

The frankly crazed response summed up fundamentally why democracy is failing – it covered all the basis.

Firstly, you get the “in group” argument – my “in group” (in this case cyclists) are all perfect; anything that goes wrong is everyone else’s fault. So, apparently, cyclists shouldn’t wear helmets because there wouldn’t ever be a problem if the evil “out group” (in this case, car drivers) didn’t drive into them.

(One of the cyclists not wearing a helmet had ridden through a red light near Yorkgate, by the way…)

Secondly, you get the misrepresentation. “How dare you suggest helmet wearing should be compulsory?”, I was asked, never having suggested it should be.

(It seems we have given up entirely on individual responsibility in the 21st century!)

Thirdly, you get the ludicrous exaggeration. “A helmet wouldn’t help you if a lorry landed on you”, I was helpfully informed. Indeed it wouldn’t. A seat belt in a car wouldn’t help you either, but that’s not a reason not to wear one.

(I noted that line repeated several times and subsequently found it on a lobby group’s web site, out of interest – so no points for original thinking.)

Fourthly, you get the ludicrous parallel. “Car drivers should wear helmets too; they would help in a crash”. That is up to car drivers of course, but the chances of it helping are tiny except, of course, if they are rallying (when they do wear helmets).

(That people cannot see the difference in vulnerability on a four-lane road between a driver who is surrounded by metal and is wearing seat belt and a cyclist who is neither, and that the cyclist thus needs extra protection versus the car driver, is just a bizarre sign of our irresponsible times.)

Fifthly, there is the faux offence. “You don’t know it all, you know!” – I certainly do not, but I have the World Health Organisation, the National Health Service, the Highway Code and all genuine academic reports (showing helmets reduce head/brain trauma by at least 63%) on my side. You have a right-wing daily newspaper…

(And yes, anyone advocating a plainly dangerous course of action, like not protecting yourself in four lanes of traffic by obeying health advice and the Highway Code, is a dangerous idiot.)

Finally, there’s the nutty prioritising. “Well, if we had better cycleways, we wouldn’t need helmets, so that’s where the focus should go”. That has nothing to do with whether you should wear a helmet in four lanes of traffic pending the construction of such cycleways!

(And we have completed the circle at this stage – if only “they” did stuff, “we” wouldn’t have to do stuff, so we’re not going to do it anyway.)

Essentially what we have is the automatic defence of the “in group” and total blame foist upon the “out group”, even in the face of all evidence. This is then backed by misrepresentation, silly exaggeration, daft parallels, faux outrage and irrelevant prioritisation because the “in group” must be defended against the “out group” at all times.

(There is of course evidence that people with helmets actually get hit more often on rural roads; so there is always a basis for the argument. But that is irrelevant to rush hour traffic and the sheer irresponsibility of advocating not wearing helmets during it.)

And we wonder why the Leave campaign won…

[What’s the social media equivalent of a helmet? I’d gladly wear one…]

A6 and rejectionists

Since I am on a roll after yesterday’s post, there is an issue which I suspect is more common to Northern Ireland than most places – rejectionism.

The Northern Irish are masters at avoiding progress. This is not a right or left thing; it is more a bizarre determination constantly to put the absolutely perfect (from a purely personal point of view, usually) in the way of the good. This is not a political thing, it is a social one – politicians merely react to it.

A classic example currently is the new 14km expressway to be built in Co Londonderry on the Belfast-Derry road. I have a significant problem with the plans for the road, but I nevertheless recognise that, on balance, it is a good thing. With the Republic of Ireland having already linked Dublin to every major city at least by expressway over the past two decades, Northern Ireland is now lagging behind with its second city nearly 50 miles from the nearest expressway. This road is a step (only that, but one step is better than none) towards parity, and in particular towards giving Mid Ulster and the North West reasonable connections to make the case for investment and job creation. There are also significant safety issues with the existing single carriageway, which is the oldest existing section on the Belfast-Derry route (having not even been upgraded when rest of the route was in the 1960s).

To be clear, the road has been through every step of the process towards construction; there have been two public inquiries and, on the basis of that plus inspector’s reports, the detail of the road was indeed changed. This month the vesting order will proceed and next month construction will commence. This process has taken years. A full expressway from Derry to the M22 towards Belfast was first announced in 2004 and we are talking about only a small section of it to commence in 2016 for completion in 2020!

Yet unbelievably there are still rejectionists! “Oh there is an environmental issue” (there will be an environmental issue regardless because the Area of Special Scientific Interest covers the entire corridor over which any direct road from Belfast to Derry has to proceed); “Oh it goes near Seamus Heaney’s home” (name a junction after him by all means); “Oh it won’t make any difference anyway” (it will save lives for a start, as the existing single carriageway is the most dangerous stretch of the route); “Oh the gains aren’t worth it” (try driving Belfast to Dungannon without the M1).

Someone is behind this rejectionism whipping it up, even though they know it is far too late – the inquiry took place at which there was a clear opportunity to raise all these issues. I raised the issue of the roundabouts still on the stretch, which would severely limit the benefits of the road. But I am not going to oppose construction because I did not get everything 100% my way!

I am currently involved on a project to do with a new 20km motorway tunnel between Germany and Denmark (not dissimilar to the Oresund Bridge, built nearly 20 years ago). To think we can’t build a 14km expressway without a whole lot of rejectionists still trying to hold it up over a decade after it was first proposed is just embarrassing.