Which language should I learn?

Linked to recent posts on here, and also an article in The Economist two weeks ago, is the question of which language a willing learner should choose.

Experts in The Economist made the case for French (on the grounds it is still widely spoken as an administrative language in various parts of the world), Spanish (on the grounds of rising numbers of native speakers and access from it to Italian and Portuguese), Brazilian Portuguese (this one lost me a bit so we will leave it there!), Mandarin (on the grounds of the rise of China) and Latin (as a conduit to lots of other languages).

Of these, I find only the case for Spanish convincing. On top of that, one obvious candidate was missed – German.

The article was extremely good but one really obvious issue – touched in last week on this blog – was missed altogether. You have to assess how motivated you will be to learn the language.

Are you really going to learn Mandarin? I mean, really? This cannot reasonably be done taking half an hour in the evening to do an Internet course from a flat in Bristol. It will require spending a considerable length of time in (a relevant region of) China – like, living and working there – and even at that being committed to immerse yourself rather than just seek out Westerners while teaching English to get by. Even in hugely favourable circumstances with real dedication, you will still probably come away with at best conversational proficiency (and very limited literacy), which you will then have to dedicate yourself to maintaining (by regular trips back to China, in all likelihood). How likely is that?

The same applies, in a way, to Latin. It appears more familiar of course, but in its case you really have no way of using the language (unless for some reason you have engaged in learning a language to reading fluency just to read ancient literature). I am not against a grounding in Latin by any means, but the best language you can learn? Dubious…

French is, of course, a fascinating language, but is at an immediate disadvantage because historically it differs markedly from other Latinate languages (with one consequence that it is difficult, objectively, to pronounce), so is limited in being a conduit towards them. Furthermore, the case for its geographical extent is limited, covering only North Africa and, at a push, Indochina. Compare that with the social and economic might of the whole Spanish-speaking world (or even the Portuguese in the longer run), and it comes out unquestionably worse. It has its uses no doubt (not least its retention as a formal administrative language by the likes of the UN and IOC), but its practical 21st century extent is restricted.

There is undoubtedly a case for Spanish. First of all, there is the motivation almost no matter where you are in the world – both Europeans and North Americans can find it instantly useful at a range of common holiday destinations for a start. Secondly, it has remained fairly close to Latin, as have Portuguese and Italian, and is thus a useful conduit to them. Thirdly, it is also relatively simple to use after just a little learning. Best of all is our exposure to it – it is quite common for Spanish-language hits to make it into the US or UK charts, and Spanish is increasingly used in US drama series (the main language of “Narcos”, a significant language in “Power”, and a peripheral but important one in many more). Nothing succeeds like exposure! Tie this to a large and growing number of native speakers with increasing economic influence, and the case for Spanish being the language to learn is close to unanswerable.

However, there remains a case for German. Approached the right way (as per the link), it is not as inaccessible as the scary word order and complex case system initially suggest. It is also, by far, the language I have found most useful – I have found it necessary to fix electronic items (shipped with menus set in German), to set up TVs (I received one with instructions only in German), help out tourists (both in Northern Ireland and elsewhere), operate on holiday (this year in Italy German was a lingua franca at our site and locations around it), and manage business (there may be something of a bias here, but I am asked for German translations or courses more often than any other, by far). This is scarcely a surprise. German is the most commonly spoken mother tongue in the world’s largest trading bloc, and the language of the world’s second biggest exporter – and is thus of vastly more significance than French and potentially ahead of Spanish (particularly from a European perspective). It is also a conduit to Dutch, and to some extent to Scandinavian, thus covering all Europe’s most prosperous economies. It is important to maintain motivation (so that visits to Germany or Austria result in you practising German on the natives and not natives practising English on you), but there are a lot of reasons for doing so.

Faced with the choice between Spanish or German, a lot of other considerations come into play. However, on the basis of geographical proximity, social use, economic value and linkage to other languages in the longer run (and thus basic motivation, the most important thing of all), the “language to learn” is definitely one or the other of those two.



Judge Trudeau on delivery

In the midst of the craziness – as Farage visits Trump while Putin licks his lips – Canadian PM Justin Trudeau seems to outsiders like a breath of fresh air. His 50% female cabinet, apologies to native groups, and attendance at LGBTQ events have been a welcome relief for social liberals; his knowledge of quantum physics, commitment to healthy living and even pro-activity on the national anthem (removing a specific male reference) have provided a real role model for those looking for a response to the global retreat to isolationist conservative nationalism.

No wonder he has, therefore, attained hero status among the social liberal “elite”, stung by political reverses almost everywhere else. It may be (and indeed I hope it is, as I would have voted and campaigned for his party without reservation) that he lives up to his billing.

It is worth noting that history does suggest otherwise, however. Remember, he hasn’t actually done anything of practical significance yet. (And even though it is not his fault, social liberals themselves should always be uneasy about someone who has attained artificial prominence because of his surname.)

Mr Trudeau’s current global popularity reminds me very much of a certain Mr Blair’s at a similar stage in his premiership. That same Mr Blair did deliver some quick wins – from the Belfast Agreement to a successful (often now forgotten given what came after) military intervention in Sierra Leone. Youthful, good-looking and charming, initially it appeared Mr Blair could do no wrong. Remember that?

I recently spoke to a close friend in western Canada to whom I had not spoken in some time, not least because child care is so hopeless that almost all her time (and money) as a working mother is taken up with that. There had also been health issues in the family for which there had been no option but a long waiting list to use an inflexible service. Traffic is also a significant problem. One example only, but immediate evidence that all is not exactly perfect. My friend backed Mr Trudeau – but is still waiting for some action to address such issues. It is inconceivable she is alone in that; and even more inconceivable that she will forgive him if she has to wait much longer.

Quick wins – like changing the words to the national anthem – are good for setting the scene (and are welcome), but actually they make no practical difference to people’s lives in the long run. Let us see some of the practical delivery before we engage in too much hero worship. Let us learn from history, in other words…

Could Northern Ireland remain within the EU Customs Union?

As every week goes by, the case for “Brexit” weakens despite the referendum result. Sterling has declined markedly; the cost of administering Brexit alone is ridiculous; “Leave” Ministers are at war with each other. The only thing they agree upon is that UK passports should be blue – something which could happen anyway while remaining an EU member state (the EU has no law on passport colours).

Another issue they are divided on is the EU Customs Union, and this is crucial for the island of Ireland. If the UK were to  remain within the EU Customs Union (something which is quite possible outside the EU and would be very wise, given that it maintains the UK’s current international Trade Deals and no other Trade Deals would be available at time of withdrawal from the EU), then there would be no “hard border”. The only necessity would be the occasional spot check (easily done between Northern Ireland and Great Britain); very little else would need to change and the border could remain more or less as is.

Should the UK leave the EU Customs Union, it would not be impossible for Northern Ireland to remain effectively within it. It could be agreed that customs checkpoints would be applied only to goods travelling between Great Britain and the EU and vice-versa – but any arriving in Northern Ireland or going from Northern Ireland to either would not be subject to customs. Northern Ireland may have to offer something for this special status – for example, it could offer to maintain (as it is perfectly entitled to do at devolved level) all EU trading and employment standards.

There would be certain quirks to this. For example, this somewhat nerdy post from two years ago would suddenly become relevant – it would probably be necessary to distinguish clearly Northern Irish vehicles from those elsewhere in the UK, best done by adopting the system I proposed then (with the initial letter “I” in all cases) in order to avoid confusion around personalised plates – all vehicles moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain or vice-versa would now be re-registered obligatorily, not just optionally.

These are the types of things we have to consider to maximise our opportunities over the coming years and months.

Is the sporting media responsible for social breakdown?

I saw an article today entitled “Who could Arsenal get in the Champions’ League draw?”

There are TV sports channels which advertise “All the Build-up to the Champions’ League draw”.


I mean seriously, what?!

How about we just wait to see who Arsenal do get in the draw, and then talk about it? What is the precise point of such irrelevant conjecture?

And how can there be “build-up” to  a draw? “Build-up” to a match is bad enough, full of irrelevant nonsense from “pundits” who have the tactical nous of a tortoise.

And we haven’t even reached “Transfer Deadline Day”, until we find out which Paraguayan defender no one had ever heard of (even people in Paraguay) is going to turn Everton into world beaters (with absolutely no concept that football is a team game and, in any case, we have no idea of the personal circumstances of this random player who may or may not settle in Merseyside, may or may not speak English, and may or may not be any good).

Yet all of this stuff seems to attract enough commercial interest to make it worth producing. In other words, some people must be watching it. No harm, but is that not quite alarming? Frankly, should people not have something more socially useful to do with their day than watch the “build up” to someone drawing bits of paper out of a plastic ball?

There must be something better they could be doing. They could even write a blog…

Ireland needs to think again re Olympics

“Team GB” had a staggering Rio Summer Olympics. For many, including me, it was a marked comparative improvement on the last one, given that it came away from home and was so far in excess of what past comparable hosts (cf. Australia 2004 after 2000) have managed.

It was, however, “Team GB”. Northern Ireland contributed not a single medal to the haul.

Most Northern Irish competitors were, of course, competing for “Team Ireland”. However even that entire team, with a population higher than New Zealand and comparable to Denmark, mustered just two silvers. Let us even leave aside the disgrace around its Chief, who ended up arrested.

To be clear, to reach the semi-final of the 1500m at the Olympics or reaching the latter stages of the archery is a fantastic achievement; and if you do it, it should be cause for much local and family pride. One boxer was, of course, outright robbed in the quarter-final. Individuals have no cause for disappointment – many performed admirably given the resources and facilities available.

There, perhaps, is the issue, however. “Team Ireland” (and “Team Northern Ireland” in Commonwealth Games) has consistently now won only a handful of medals, and even those have usually been confined to one or two disciplines. Sure, therefore, when it comes to Olympic sport the island of Ireland needs to think again – just as the UK did in 1996 having won just one gold medal (imagine!!)

Ireland, even as an island, cannot of course hope to match Great Britain in terms of the availability of resources and facilities. It can, however, copy much of what has proven so successful there, or in other comparably sized countries such as Denmark and New Zealand. It can identify talent more efficiently; it can invest in world-class facilities (which have potential community as well as “elite” benefit); most of all, perhaps, it can focus on funding coaching.

“Team Ireland” at the Olympics (as Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games) has some reason for pride, but fundamentally it is second rate. If it wishes to close the gap with the real first-class performers, it will need to reform fundamentally how it operates. It will also need to aim considerably higher.

[Just one slight niggle – we can’t have it both ways re GB’s result. Either positions are determined on total medals (in which case GB’s performance in 2016 was better than 2012 but it came third, not second, in the table) or on golds (in which case GB came second in 2016 but its result was narrowly worse than 2012, when it won 29 golds). According to the IOC, it is the latter.]

#Olympics – who is coming second?

With the United States (39 gold, 106 medals) well out in front, and Germany (16, 39) and Russia (13, 48) well back, the question over the next 24 hours or so becomes which country will come second – Great Britain & NI (26, 63) or China (23, 67)?

The likelihood is that it will be GB on golds and China on overall medals – but perfection on one side and disaster on the other could yet change that. It will almost all be decided by 3am (UK time).

Gracenote Sports tried to project it but already a number of predictions have not gone to plan.

The certain medalists for either team are:

2300 (Sat) CN gold or silver – women’s team (volleyball)

1900 (Sun) GB gold or silver – Joe Joyce (boxing)

Thus, the worst GB can finish is with 64 medals, and China 68.

The likely medalists in addition are (all on Sat eve/Sun morning UK time):

2200 CN – Chen Aisen (diving)

2200 CN – Qiu Bo (diving)

0200 GB – Mo Farah (athletics)

0215 GB – women’s relay team (athletics)

Of these, you would say the first three are almost guaranteed. Notably, however, China‘s cannot both be gold as they are in the same competition; but conversely GB‘s are less likely to be golds and silvers anyway.

Of course, there can always be surprises elsewhere – to move ahead on medals, GB will probably need one; to move ahead on golds, China will definitely need one!

Ultimately, we could see it all decided by taekwondo. On the men’s side, there is only one possible (not necessarily likely) medal for either in the last event as of the quarter-final stage:

2030 GB – Mahama Cho [quarter-final match]

Indeed, there could be a mouthwatering (and conceivably even decisive in terms of second place in the official medals table) final in the women’s last event:

0215 – Shuyin Zheng (China) v Bianca Walkden (GB)

The bet is both teams will have their fair share of wins and losses, leaving GB ahead on golds and China on medals. It will then be pointed out that the IOC officially places teams by golds…

£9m on an air route is dubious at best

I have long been an advocate of direct air routes from Belfast to enhance economic connections and thus give us the means of promoting export routes and inward investment. Thus, I reckoned the reduction in Air Passenger Duty for Northern Ireland, despite the often unmentioned cost of £2.4m annually from other devolved public services, was on balance a worthwhile risk to maintain one such direct link to Newark. If it was true that the route is inevitably loss-making, however, that risk would fail.

However it now appears that United Airlines, the operator of the route, has returned to the Executive for another £9m bail-out. This demonstrates that indeed the route is inevitably loss-making. This is no longer a “risk” – it is a constant direct subsidy from the Northern Ireland rate-payer to an American airline.

I for one am unconvinced that we pay our taxes and rates to subsidise an American airline to fly here, when very few people use the route (I last used it in 2005; my next flight to North America is ex-Dublin because it offers more routes at more times). A still bigger issue, perhaps, is it demonstrates the Executive’s inevitable short-termism, and its inability to be pro-active.

The Executive is, not for the first time, answering the question in the wrong order. The question is not “How can we maintain an air route to Belfast to boost our economy?”, but rather “How can we boost our economy to maintain an air route to Belfast?”

In other words, the real issue is why is it that an air route from New York to Belfast is not profit-making? I would suggest it is a combination of how little business is actually done in Belfast, and how easy it is to fly to Dublin (barely an hour away from the southern outskirts of Greater Belfast now anyway).

This goes beyond the obvious transport issues – Dublin’s growth as a European hub airport; the nonsense of a city the size of Belfast having two airports; the lack of proper road and rail connections to either of those airports; etc.

It is in fact a more fundamental issue that Belfast (and Northern Ireland in general) is not worth coming to economically. And remember, this is the same Executive taking money out of skills…


No excuse not to upgrade NI A1 immediately

Yet another life, horribly, was lost on Northern Ireland’s A1 dual carriageway this month. While I do not wish to impose upon the specifics of that incident, it is a fact that almost every fatality on that road occurs near and because of a “gap junction” – i.e. an area where there is no central barrier and vehicles are allowed to turn right across the traffic.

I am not the only one to have noticed.

The reason such “gap junctions” are lethal is obvious and requires no investigation. A road designed for speeds of 120kmh (and allowing 115kmh) then sees vehicles moving across each other, and thus into potential collision. The point is obvious; indeed, I appeared on an interview on UTV fully eleven years ago to point it out.

Thus, the task is simple – the entirety of the A1 from the Hillsborough Roundabout to the border should have an unbroken central barrier. That way, vehicles can proceed safely at 70mph, with no prospect of a crossing collision. A road built to such a standard would, on average, see less than a fatality a year – compared to five last year and two already this. Over the eleven years since that interview, that means the vast bulk of fatalities have been simply unnecessary – a horrific toll.

The issue is, of course, slightly complicated by the fact that simply putting a central barrier in place would mean there would be very few locations from which to exit the road. The task then is to build some more “grade-separated” junctions enabling traffic to leave and enter the road to the left (not crossing traffic), and then cross over the road if necessary via elevated bridges. Some such junctions, notably close to Hillsborough itself, have already been constructed.

This, however, only makes the failure to fix the road more scurrilous. Plans already exist for four (effectively five) new grade-separated junctions [illustrated as ever by Wesley Johnston] between Hillsborough and Banbridge:

  • Listullycurran (the current western exit marked “Maze, Moira”);
  • Gowdystown (just north of the Halfway House, marked “Dromore” to southeast);
  • Skelton’s (marked “Blackskull, Donaghcloney” to west);
  • Waringsford Rd (close to a quarry site just north of Banbridge); and
  • upgrade to Castlewellan Rd from Banbridge.

Collectively, these would cost around £50 million.

Additionally, to complete the project, two more junctions would need to be planned and constructed between Loughbrickland and Dromantine (the latter a site for four relatively recent fatalities), something which on average would cost just another £25 million.

By the standards of road construction, £75 million is peanuts – just half the proposed York Street Interchange, for a road which would thus be made massively safer.

It is nothing short of criminal that this work has not already been completed. The five junctions should be constructed and the two remaining ones planned absolutely without delay. Such unnecessary loss of life is simply inexcusable.

Ludicrous “Greenland” fantasy doesn’t help the “experts”

The now gloriously forgotten Michael Gove became famed during the referendum campaign for the line that “People are fed up with experts”.

It was nonsense populism from someone who should have known better, and who was thus buying into the ludicrous notion that one person’s ignorance is equal to another’s knowledge. It isn’t. This notion is destroying democracy.

Sometimes the experts do not do themselves any favours, however. Since the referendum, one fanciful idea has been doing the rounds, backed by some academics who should know a lot better, that somehow Scotland and Northern Ireland could remain in the EU while the rest of the UK leaves.

This notion is so idiotic, politically and practically, it is hard to know where to begin with it.

Firstly, the idea is based on Greenland leaving the EU while Denmark remained in during the 1980s. However, they tend to miss the point that Greenland is not part of Denmark! Although it does send representation to the Copenhagen Parliament, legally and practically Greenland’s relationship to Denmark is almost identical to that of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man to the UK. There is simply no parallel to Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are actually part of the UK.

Secondly, the UK voted to leave the EU. The ridiculous “reverse Greenland” idea means that in fact the UK would remain a member state, with England and Wales leaving the way Greenland did. This is ridiculous in theory because European and foreign affairs are not devolved; and in practice because it is just ridiculous. Nicola Sturgeon and Martin McGuinness going to European Council meetings to represent the UK?

Thirdly, it is practically nonsense anyway. Outside the EU, England and Wales could choose to leave the customs union and single market, meaning border checks and separate immigration policy within the UK. If you have to show your passport and open your boot every time you pass through Gretna Green, what exactly would be the point of the UK existing?!

The fact that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain is relevant. The task for Leavers is to come up with a realistic proposal to withdraw from the EU without breaking up the UK. There is a case to be made for the UK remaining within the EU on the basis that the proposal to leave was not carried in a majority of constituent countries of the UK. However, ultimately, either (all of) the UK withdraws from the EU, or it doesn’t.

And if the UK withdraws from the EU, the only route for Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain in the EU is to leave the UK.

Let us just be clear about the basic practical political and legal facts. (And beware of people posing as “experts” who lack even basic expertise!)

Why is German more complex than Spanish?

I have written many times before on how German (as a Germanic language) is more closely related to English than any Latinate language (like French, Italian or Spanish), and is indeed fundamentally the same. In some ways, this makes it easier to learn.

However, much though professional linguists will dispute my claiming this so definitively, the fact is German is a harder language to learn than Spanish for the average English speaker. How and why?

Consider the Spanish phrase:

con el perro

Here, my core vocabulary as even a novice would tell me that “con” is a preposition meaning something like “with”, and “el” is an article, “the”, marking masculine singular in this case (as, like most Latinate languages, Spanish distinguishes between two genders, masculine and feminine). We may also know, or be able to work out from the context, that “perro” in most instances means “dog”.

The advantage with Spanish is we now know not only what the word “perro” means but also how to use it. Nearly all words ending in –o are masculine and the plural in Spanish is formed by -(e)s, so we not only know that “dog” is “perro” but also that “dogs” is “perros“. This is the same regardless of the use of the word (whether it is a subject, and object, comes after a preposition, or whatever).

If we turn to German, life suddenly becomes a lot more complex.

mit dem Hund

For similar reasons to the above, we can work out that this means “with the dog”. We know from this what it means, and in particular what the word “Hund” (cognate with English “hound”, to make things even easier) means. However, we have a problem – we still have no idea how to use the word!

Firstly, even the article “dem” tells us only that “Hund” is masculine or neuter (German nouns have three genders, unlike in any other major Western European language). Secondly, worse still, we have no idea what the plural form is – it could be “Hund“, “Hünd“, “Hunde” (which is fact it is), “Hünde“, “Hunder“, “Hünder“, “Hunden“, conceivably “Hünden” or maybe even “Hunds“. This may be before we have come to learn that the dative plural (German also has four cases, two of which in the modern spoken language may be used after prepositions) generally adds –n – so, notwithstanding the above, the plural form would actually be “Hunden” in this case (literally!)

The immediate difficulty with German, therefore, is that it is not as easy to “absorb” in a way which means you can then use it accurately. Spanish has a much clearer and simpler set of markers than German has, making it more instantly accessible to learners.

This is not to say that Spanish is straightforward. The average verb in Spanish has over 50 distinct forms (invariably approaching 40 in common use), compared to just four in English and six in German. The point is, however, that once the patterns and irregularities are learned, they are clear; whereas in German, particularly with nouns, there are simply fewer reliable patterns and things like gender or plural form just have to be learned individually (even if some can be reasonably guessed).

That is the “how”. What about the “why”?

The reason that German has been more conservative with nouns and less so with verbs than Latinate languages such as Spanish (and indeed more conservative than other Germanic languages generally) is not easy to determine.

Broadly, German is a more noun-based language, which may explain why it has retained its complexities predominantly around them (effectively retaining only partially predictable “noun classes”), while simplifying verbs.

Nevertheless, there is no clear reason why German is quite so conservative, even versus similar languages such as Dutch. It was not a deliberate ploy around the time of standardisation (as it was for Italian), nor has German been particularly isolated (like Icelandic).

That German is tougher to reproduce accurately than Spanish for English speakers despite its closer family links may simply by luck of the linguistic draw.



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