STEM subjects must not take away from language learning

BBC Northern Ireland has picked up on a report once again demonstrating Northern Ireland’s linguistic deficiencies.

For all the understandable buzz about STEM subjects, we are becoming too inclined to forget about our crisis in language learning. The issue is that we qualify too many lawyers, teachers and bureaucrats – but we qualify too few linguists just as we qualify too few scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs.

One of the reasons, of course, is our obsession with silos. There is still the 20th century notion that we should be qualified as one particular thing. Who on earth wants to be a linguist, whatever that is?!

But the 21st century is the century of the multi-skilled. It is not enough merely to be an accountant, or even an engineer. We need accountants with management skills, engineers with entrepreneurial mindsets, people in general able to cover numerous areas. And, if we are to export and create wealth, we need them all to be linguists!

Let us re-emphasise this: the majority of the world’s population is at least bilingual. Almost two-thirds of the European Union’s population is conversationally proficient in at least two languages. Most people in several different EU countries (notably Scandinavia and Benelux) speak three languages or more. You will have to excuse me, but the last time I visited the Netherlands or Sweden, I didn’t notice that this time taken up learning foreign languages had exactly restricted local engineering skills, scientific knowledge or innovation levels!

There isn’t a lot of point in creating all the most wonderful services and products in the world if we can’t sell them to the countries on our doorstep (the EU) or the rising economies (China, India, Brazil). They all speak English – but only when they’re selling to usIf we want to sell to them

So no, we don’t need career linguists. We need a population of linguists – just like Scandinavia and Benelux. Learning languages should be fundamental to the education right from the start; they should be taught in a way which enables maximum flexibility to learn new ones; and they should also be managed so as to enhance our skills in our own language (something which, in itself, certainly would not restrict innovation or creativity). And we must forget about the tired old learning techniques involving separating languages unnaturally and then teaching people to memorise bits of a language rather than gain an intuitive feel for all of it.

Forget about an Irish Language Act. We need a Comprehensive Languages  [plural] Act, which fundamentally changes our attitude to languages and our modes of teaching and learning them.


6 thoughts on “STEM subjects must not take away from language learning

  1. Madhava says:

    As long as English speaking people’s around the world are not educated to the profinacy of understand correct grammer , rules of pronounciation, and the basic rules of structure of their own native toungue . How the hell is it possible to even begin imagining our schools educating our children to learn a foreign langauge . Before promoting a foreign langauge , they must become aquainted with English structure which is barely evident in most of the population . And Incidently , whatever langauge is taught in our schools is primarily geared to passing an exam , and NOT to become a proficient speaker . Look towards Europe to realise this difference .

  2. I don’t see the dichotomy and I don’t see the conflict, but I will agree that there is a problem disciplining people in either or both. Linguistics doesn’t have a high profile in comparison to Science, you ask people to name a famous Northern Irish Scientist they could probably call Kelvin or even Bell, you do the same with a language and you’d be lucky to even get a serious Gaelgoir mentioned. In terms of Ireland’s most famous linguist, Douglas Hyde I think would unquestionably be first, not only skilled in Irish but a true language of classical and modern language a like.

    There is clearly no rule where you have either or, indeed most of the German I know comes from physics, Latin and Greek from biology, and surprising lot of Arabic from Chemistry and Maths (alcohol, algebra) a lot but the priority of STEM over language is a very functional one. Added to the additional English vocabulary you learn from jargon and terminology, rather than leading to silo-ism, I would argue it actually encourages it, and produces our earliest exposure to a new language.

    One clear reason is that the “M” in STEM is already a universal language, more so than Manderin, Mathematics using Arabic numbers and Greco-Latin characters for the purpose of algebra is common among the Oriental and Sub continental languages to ethic African ones, and indeed Mathematics has been shown to improve linguistic ability as well. It’s one thing to be able to communicate outside the English language to a foreign customer, but if you don’t have quantitative values of the product, the costs or other figures, you’re dead in the water. Maths is the key to the Physical and Life Sciences, but also Economics, Finance, Business, Psychology, Marketing and a necessary key skill. If you study a language one of the first things they teach you are the numbers and in interesting ways too.

    For example, in Irish and in Japanese you have different numbers for counting people than you do for counting objects, but in other Indo-European languages English, French, Greek, Spanish, Russian you have one person, one object, two people, two objects, the word for one is the same in both contexts, like any adjective you may have male or female versions for one or two, or between singular and plural, it may be different before a vowel but it doesn’t change simply because you are counting people instead of objects. Even a Celtic sister language like Welsh isn’t like the Gaelic languages (Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic) in this context, Breton and Cornish may not be either.

    Having studied “Airurandogo” alongside “Seapáinis” I found this connection between two completely isolated cultures, maybe due in part to their isolation, quite fascinating, a clear mathematically improbability that there was a cultural connection involved, like dragons which appeared in Oriental and European folklore long before any trade routes had been connected between them, perhaps drawn from finding dinosaur bones. So learning ANY foreign language also helps us to learn about English. It shows that Mathematics is developed primarily, and small shifts can develop all new cultures.

    Engineering, obviously vital to industry, trade, resource management and essentially ensuring any sustainable economic growth occurs generally gets accused of silo-ism, An engineer with a language is simply an expert tool man who got another tool, where maths is a lot more vital to their industry than a foreign language. That is true to an extent, the first engineers were military and civil engineers who did everything to protect a region from being invaded by a foreign enemy and protect their culture, the reason English and to a lesser extent Irish have survived and continues to survive is because of engineers. Engineers however work in the knowledge or Quaternary sector i.e. (communications and new media) which links it in with technology.

    Technology is associated with modern communication, and has been a massive force for the spread of English from the days of Empire to the internet age, taking the theories from maths and science and the practices of engineering to maximize our ability to network, whether with English speakers or outside. Most Europeans are learning English simply due to the strong Anglosphere foothold on the network. So the obvious question, with engineering protecting the borders and the cultural invasion ability of the internet, will technology kill off the need for most foreign languages. No.

    One problem I have heard from non-native foreign language speakers is that a lot of computer languages are Anglicized, C#. C++, Visual Basic, Java … (with a few foreign versions of them) though two thirds of programming languages are not-English (which is a serious problem if you’ve bought in foreign software and don’t have a language) the issue isn’t really raised here. No one thinks of Japanese Dolittle or the Arab ARLOGO and Chinese Mama, what they do and where they are made. So foreign language may not just be a matter of diplomacy, they could be a critical matter of logistics, when it comes to computer languages

    Modern Science, is obviously a multinational culture, drawing strengths from around the world, and bringing cultures together as well as keeping them apart. It has not only relied on foreign languages for diplomacy and the knowledge trade in cases such as the Solvay Conference, but has had and continues to have a major impact on the evolution of languages today. Science has radical and conservative elements, the first two laws of thermodynamics tell us that. It has the elements of language, mathematics and formulation are its fundamental grammar, measurement and evidence its vocabulary, theoretical science the ability translate it all.

    Which does of course show that STEM isn’t a substitute for language skills, it has been responsible for the evolution of language development, it sustains and protects the languages, it deciphers languages (Rosetta Stone) and for these reason it may be responsible for the creation and engineering of completely new languages and means of communications (e.g. Braille) rather than producing a linga-franca in English, so it is of course vital to learn Japanese, Russian, Manderin, Catonese, Hindi, Portuguese and French as well as having the skills to teach English, and STEM skills help us do that
    We shouldn’t fall into the insular ideas as the Nazi’s had done with “Deutsche Physik” due to the prominence of English, in either communication or science, because there is still so much we can learn about both from around the world … well at least until STEM subjects invent universal translators of course.

    I think I succeeded in putting a post longer than the blog.

  3. With regard to the Irish Language Act, I don’t see it impacting the uptake of STEM or other languages … I certainly wouldn’t want to forget the Irish Language as a bit of an enthusiast.

    For two reasons I mentioned already, the Gaelic culture can only assist positively in multicultural awareness, helping people not only understand English better, but others, such as Japanese.

    The Second reasons are these …

    Dara Ó Briain – qualified in Theoretical Physics, fluent in Irish, still better in French than most.

    Éamon de Valera – taught Theoretical Physics in Maynooth and brought Erwin Schrodinger to Dublin of course, fluent in Irish and Spanish, clearly diplomatic in others. Éamon Ó Cuiv – de Valera’s grandson, is not only fluent but I believe has also followed somewhat in his grandfather’s scientific footsteps.

    Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin – qualified in Theoretical Physics, fluent in Irish, taught English as a foreign language to non-natives.

    That’s just three off the top of my head, fluent in Irish, highly qualified in science, occupational communicators with the confidence in other languages. There are scientific papers published ‘as Gaelige’.

    Learning another language including Irish, is a positive way of getting out of the silo attitude of the Anglosphere and encouraged them to branch out in other educational disciplines, and indeed you’d get similar insights from the Ulster Scots society on this, which does have some economic value.

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