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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.

Why an ill-considered “Brexit” could de-stabilise NI

I happen to believe, all other things being equal, that Northern Ireland could do perfectly well out of the forthcoming UK/EU negotiations. On top of its ability to seek a bespoke deal of its own given its land border with an EU member state and shared citizenship entitlement, it is well used to instability already.

However, it could also do disastrously if “Brexit” is not properly thought through.

The essential problem is an unspoken one. The 1998 Agreement entitles people in Northern Ireland to be British, or Irish, or both; but also it is predicated on making it irrelevant which one anyone chooses. Since both British and Irish citizenship is currently EU citizenship (including an entitlement to use each other’s diplomatic corps abroad, for example), and both British and Irish citizens are effectively treated as “home” citizens in each other’s country (with some exceptions), it really is a free choice.

If the UK leaves the EU, and particularly if it leaves the European Economic Area (the Single Market) and/or the Customs Union, it will then matter which citizenship is chosen. There is a very real risk that the choice of British citizenship will put people at a disadvantage when seeking out opportunities in the EU, including in Ireland; conversely, there is a very real risk that the choice of Irish citizenship will put people at a disadvantage when seeking out opportunities in the rest of the UK. This whole thing will make it matter than Northern Ireland is constitutionally part of the UK in ways in which that status is currently irrelevant. At best, that will make people think again about whether the arrangement agreed to in 1998 (power-sharing in the UK with cross-border bodies) really works for them; at worst, it will lead to an outright schism of Northern Ireland’s population along British-Irish lines, undoing much if not all of what has been achieved over the past 20 years.

The crux of Northern Ireland’s conflict was (and is) identity, and EU membership was central to making it not matter. Doing anything which makes it matter at best risks a precarious balance. Frankly, this is a very good reason for the UK Government reconsidering the whole idea of leaving the EU. The fact is that most people who voted to leave the EU are not going to get out of “Brexit” what they really wanted to get out of it – regardless of what that is. Is it really a good idea, on the basis of a very narrow referendum result, to risk decades of careful work creating a balance which works in Northern Ireland, and thus keeps the whole UK as safe as it reasonably can be from Irish terrorism? It is, at the very least, worth considering whether the desires of those who voted to “leave” can be met in other ways.

If the UK Government decides, as it probably will do for a host of political reasons, that it really must proceed to leave the EU, then the next option is a “soft Brexit”. There would be no harm is emphasising that the constitutional balance of the UK, not least with regards to Northern Ireland, is best served by maintaining as far as possible commonality and mutuality of opportunity between the UK and the EU – and this means retention of the Single Market and the Customs Union. The difficulty here is that, frankly, such a “soft Brexit” would put the UK in a worse position than if it simply remained in the EU. It is unlikely to fly in practice.

The next option is a “Special Status” arrangement for Northern Ireland, and rationally that looks tempting. Northern Ireland alone could remain within the Customs Union; it could even in theory retain up to a point its own immigration policy (uniquely in the UK, it is already the case that employment policy is devolved to Northern Ireland). Alongside mutual recognition specific to Northern Ireland of Health care arrangements, driving licences and perhaps even things such as trading standards and environmental regulations, this would have the effect of maintaining almost all the social benefits of EU membership (albeit, from a Leavers’ point of view, maintaining also almost all the disadvantages). However, it would still be seriously destabilising, because it would mean that British citizens in Northern Ireland would be disadvantaged in certain ways – quite possibly, for example, by being asked for their passport and checked for goods every time they travelled to the rest of the UK. That the DUP would have shosen a course of action which brought this about would not be lost on many of us, but that would be little practical consolation. Did we not just spend decades overcoming that sort of thing?

As with so many aspects of “Brexit”, there is no evidence the UK Government has grasped the scale of the problem here. It will take more than a quick day trip for it to be fully understood, and some time for it to be effectively tackled. It we absolutely must leave the EU, it is vastly more important to do it carefully than to do it quickly.

“Burkini” ban shows limitations of democracy

The social liberal elite celebrated on Friday as the Court struck down an attempt by politicians in France to ban so-called “burkinis”, deeming it “seriously and clearly illegal” under the constitution.

There was no real cause for celebration, however.

To be clear, the ban on burkinis was outrageous, sexist and pretty much racist. The obvious point – that nuns or even motorcyclists could walk around on a beach fully clothes but Muslim women could not – was widely made. The notion that women should be instructed on what to wear was rightly compared with a century ago, or Nazi occupation. That anyone would even think of such a thing is cause for alarm.

And yet the ban was popular. It was, after all, implemented by those elected by the people. Polls showed it had significant support, and not just in France but also in Germany (if there is any country which should know better about such things, surely Germany is it). Former (and perhaps future) President Sarkozy has come out broadly in favour of it, moving it into the mainstream.

It took educated members of the elite to point out the obvious – that in a land of liberte, egalite and fraternite, such a bad was clearly unconstitutional. Yet that educated elite is increasingly a minority, and a disparaged one at that. Ask people who have spent time gathering education and knowledge what they think, and they will say one thing; ask people who are ignorant what they thing, and they will say another. Increasingly, it is the latter which is coming to represent “popular opinion”.

Right here, we are facing a crisis of democracy. Democracy is not just about reflecting the popular will. It is about the Rule of Law, fair play for all (including protection of minorities), and indeed the prevalence of basic common sense. It is therefore not just about one person one vote, but also that recognising the one person’s ignorance is not equal to another person’s knowledge, and that one person’s prejudice is not equal to another person’s merit-based decision-making.

But the burkini thing was a defeat for democracy, overturned only by the derided elite. We are in serious trouble.

What is “learning” a language?

A sensible question raised after last week’s post was: what does “learning” a language mean?

This is, of course, quite similar to the question: what does “speaking” a language mean?

As with so many things on matters linguistic, there is no concrete answer to it. It depends from circumstance to circumstance.

Nevertheless, there is a question that anyone should ask before embarking on learning one: what is the purpose of learning this language?

Language learning is a surprisingly under-researched subject. Nevertheless, one thing which is clear (and intuitive even without research) is that a prime indicator of success is motivation. So, as with anything, if you do not know why you are doing something, you are less likely to succeed in doing it.

Then there is the need, having established the purpose, to be realistic about the goal. As established in my “speaking a language” post, native proficiency is not a realistic objective for an adult, even if resident in the country where the target language is spoken. This in itself may put many people off; but that would be a little like saying you should not take up a sport aged 39 because you will never be an Olympian. That is not, surely, the purpose.

Clarity about the purpose is important for anything, of course. So, are you trying to “learn” Italian so you can get by when ordering a meal or reserving a hotel room while there? Are you trying to “learn” French because you have seen a university course there you want to take up? Are you trying to “learn” Dutch because you want to try your luck seeking employment in the Netherlands or Belgium?

Then it is necessary to assess what exactly that means, given not just the level to which you wish to “learn” the language, but also the socio-linguistic situation.

For example, with a fairly widely spoken language such as Italian, it will be relatively easy to find a course and a phrase book to “learn” it to be proficient enough to go there on holiday and have a clearer idea about what is going on around you. (A course or a phrase book may not be the best way to achieve this, however!)

With French designed for use on a university course, you will want the basics but not necessarily much more than that as you will be able to “learn” once there through immersion (for many people, this is the best way). Many evening courses will deliver such an outcome; online courses or tapes are also possible, although they may in fact focus too much on vocabulary.

If you were to approach a language like Dutch, however, the socio-linguistic situation becomes very pertinent. A comfortable majority of people in the Netherlands and Flanders, particularly in the services industry where you may be seeking employment (as per the above scenario), speak good to excellent English. This is a serious problem, not just because it denies you the chance to practise (and “learn” through immersion), but also because it takes away motivation. If it becomes apparent that you may be able to get by without Dutch, then that becomes a tempting option over making the effort to “learn” it. That this denies you the chance to immerse yourself fully in the local culture may not be such a big issue, given in any case there is no sense of loss because “you don’t know what you don’t know”.

For all that, no matter what is meant by “learn”, there are a few universals which apply to “learning” at any level for any purpose. For example:

  • you will make mistakes, and indeed they are necessary to “learn” (just as you would if you took up a sport or any other sort of hobby);
  • it is good to know the socio-linguistic situation of the language compared to your purpose (a little like the New Year gym subscription, ask yourself honestly: are you really going to make the effort?);
  • it is good to establish if (and how) the target language is related to any other language you know (this may make it easier, and of course familiarity breeds motivation – I would happily have a go at Portuguese given my knowledge of Spanish, but Polish is rather more distant and Chinese is hopelessly unfamiliar);
  • it is good from the outset to establish the character of a language – whether it has a preference for noun phrases over verb phrases (as with German v Spanish); whether it places adjectives before or after nouns; whether it likes to end words in vowels or (certain) consonants; what sort of differentiation between tenses it makes; what intonation it uses (this is hard to explain in writing, but listen to a French person, a Swede or a German speak English and you will hear the different intonation from their native tongue); etc etc;
  • music (with lyrics in the target language) is always good;
  • focusing on areas of your own interest for reading articles or listening to reports will always maintain motivation and interest; and
  • remember, generally native speakers are keen to help you “learn”, although they too may make mistakes (and they may be hopeless for explaining why certain things are the way they are).

If you are realistic and clear about your objectives, learning a language is like learning anything else – with motivation and effort will come success. However, it does pay to be clear about the purpose, and thus what “learning” the language with your particular goal actually means.

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…