Cultural Attitudes Toward Language (and Learning Spanish)

James Fallows, on the French/Japanese vs. American/Chinese attitude toward purity of language and foreigners' trying to speak their local tongue:

in France and Japan, the deep-down assumption is that the language is pure and difficult, that foreigners can't really learn it, and that one's attitude toward their attempts is either French hauteur or the elaborately over-polite and therefore inevitably patronizing Japanese response to even a word or two in their language. "Nihongo jouzu! Your Japanese is so good!"  … Japanese people (to generalize) often seem self-conscious about potential errors in English. Of course, French speakers of English are marvelously non-self-conscious, even jauntily willful, about retaining their French accents, especially the trademark "z" sound for "th." " Zees ees what I mean…" (Yes, I am aware that the fricative th phoneme is the most difficult sound in English for non-native speakers, our counterpart to r's in French.)

The American attitude towards English is: everyone should get with the program, there are a million variants and accents of the language, all that really matters is that you can somehow get your meaning across. Because there are so many versions of Chinese in use within China, my impression is that the everyday attitude of Chinese people toward language is similar: You're expected to try to learn it, no one will spend that much time mocking your mistakes, mainly they are trying to figure out what you are trying to say. Probably both the U.S. and Chinese attitudes reflect the outlook of big, continental nations that encompass lots of internal diversity — and in America's case, absorb huge numbers of immigrants.

Excellent point. Spanish is closer to English and Chinese in this respect, I think. Getting the meaning across matters most to the Latin American folk I've spent time with. Spanglish has nothing to do with purity and everything to do with utility.

I am trying, by the way, to elevate my Spanish speaking and writing skills from "intermediate" to "advanced." Here are some thoughts on how I'm going to do this:

1. Vocabulary first. If you don't know words, you can't communicate. If you can't communicate even basic ideas, you get frustrated. I'm emphasizing vocabulary. Grammar will come.

2. Spaced repetition. Per Piotr Wozniak's theories on memory — the optimal time to review a word is the moment before you're about to forget it — I'm using his free service to learn vocab.

3. Frequency of vocabulary over themes. I spent $30 on a frequency dictionary. It lists the 5,000 most frequently used Spanish words, in order, drawn from a 20 million word corpus of non-fiction and fiction writing and oral transcripts. The 5,000 most frequent words account for 95% of the written/oral material I am likely to encounter. I think it's a shame that virtually all Spanish vocabulary in U.S. schools is taught thematically (food, travel, etc) instead of by frequency.

4. Make mistakes, have no fear. Fear of embarrassment stops a lot of people from practicing a foreign language with natives, I think. I'm going to try to make as many mistakes as I can.

5. Immersion / live in a country. Chile is my target country. More on this, soon!

Here's a post on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism.

For those worried about the United States becoming a bilingual country, it's too late. The train has left the station. You cannot deny the demographic trends. Note that we will be bilingual in effect not in law. We are not destined to be Canada, in other words.

Given the competitive advantage they could bestow upon their child, I am surprised when I encounter wealthy American parents who are not paying their (probably El Salvadorean) cleaning lady to talk in Spanish in a structured way with their young children.

Finally, I have read research that shows very young children can pick up a language faster than an adult. But, I have seen no evidence showing an 11 year-old can learn a language faster than a 60 year-old. This seems to be one of the most dangerous myths circulating about language learning. We are damn good at coming up with excuses or rationalizations!

Book Review: Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers

I think a lot about the intersection of globalization and identity. I have lived my whole life in big cities in America where the name of the game is fusion: a bit of this, a bit of that, across the entire cultural spectrum. From art to cuisine to people, big city life in the U.S. is the non-stop sampling of different cultures. A life diet of hybridity is fundamentally American.

I have also traveled to big, cosmopolitan cities around the world, where a similar fusion game takes place. The people of Zurich, Hong Kong, or Buenos Aires practice similar types of cultural consumption (which includes their media/information diet) and therefore maintain mongrelized identities as well.

It’s safe to say that I feel a stronger connection to place and people when I’m in a cosmopolitan metropolis overseas than when I am in a small town in America.

Yet, my passport says “USA,” and I resist the label, increasingly claimed by fellow big-city dwellers and international travelers, of “citizen of the world.” They are usually oblivious to the many ways their country of origin has shaped their worldview.

Plus, to be a “citizen of the world” comes with its own set of obligations to “the world,” right? Kwame Anthony Appiah is a philosopher who thinks about the ethical questions that accompany a cosmopolitan identity. His book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers is a relatively academic treatment on this topic.

Here’s a sketch of the book:

Our ancestors lived in small tribes where they interacted with a small set of people who they knew. Others were of rival tribes and to be viewed with suspicion. Information about other ways of life didn’t really flow into the village. That’s changing:

The challenge is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.

Appiah’s chosen word to describe this task is “cosmopolitanism.” He finds it superior to “globalization” (an overused word that can mean everything from a marketing strategy to an economic thesis) or “multiculturalism” (which he says is “another shape shifter, which so often designates the disease it purports to cure”). He admits that cosmopolitanism can have elitist connotations. But it’s actually a term rooted more in the idea of cosmos — the universe: “Talk of cosmopolitanism originally signaled a rejection of the conventional view that every civilized person belonged to a community among communities.”

He describes two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism:

One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. People are different, the cosmopolitan knows, and there is much to learn from our differences.

This raises some tricky philosophical questions about whether we are supposed to, then, be as loyal to the vast abstraction “humanity” as to our neighbor who looks and talks like us. Appiah claims middle ground:

We need take sides neither with the nationalist who abandons all foreigners nor with the hard-core cosmopolitan who regards her friends and fellow citizens with icy impartiality. The position worth defending might be called (in both senses) a partial cosmopolitanism.

But rather than clarify this middle ground by putting forth a prescriptive framework — i.e, what exactly is our philosophical obligation toward strangers? — Appiah instead just offers questions:

How real are values? What do we talk about when we talk about difference? Is any form of relativism right? When do morals and manners clash? Can culture be “owned”? What do we owe strangers by virtue of our shared humanity?

He does work through these questions. He rejects cultural relativism; not everything is local custom. He rejects arguments that tie globalization to cultural imperialism or increased homogeneity. (Tyler Cowen wrote a whole book on this; my notes.) He exposes the failings of the “Golden Rule” as a principle to live by. And to his colleague Peter Singer — who I say is the most overrated living philosopher — he delivers a very satisfying take-down of Singer’s shallow pond theory of saving children.

So he stakes out his middle ground of partial cosmopolitanism more by talking about what it’s not. On the positive side, we get a lot of generalities: it’s important to talk with people from other cultures, to maintain mutual respect, to learn about other ways of life, and most of all — his favorite phrase, which captures the modesty of his proposals — we need the curiosity inherent in a partial cosmopolitan outlook so that we can “get used to one another” and live peacefully together. We do not, he stresses, need to share underlying values or agree on everything.

It feels unsatisfying — a bit too flexible. But this doesn’t mean the book is not worthwhile on the whole. There are many interesting discussions of philosophy throughout, and Appiah’s personal story as a Ghanaian immigrant endows his discussion with a passion rarely found in these types of books.


Here are all my posts on globalization. Here are my posts on Americanism. G. Pascal Zachary makes a related case in The Global Me: New Cosmopolitans and the Competitive Edge. Here’s my old post titled “Conflicted Identity as Commonality in America.” Here’s an excerpt from Yi-Fu Tuan on this topic.

Continue reading “Book Review: Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers”

Rising Tide Lifts All (Nation-State) Boats

Americans, in their (our) obsession with “national competitiveness,” too often frame the discussion in a zero-sum manner: if China rises, we fall; if India wins, we lose.

The United States over the next 50 years will experience a relative decline in material living. But in absolute terms, we will not suffer at all. To the contrary, the rise of other countries improves our material well-being.

Alex Tabarrok, in his must-watch econo-optimist TED talk, makes this point well by describing the market for cancer drugs. Suppose you were diagnosed with cancer. Would you rather have a common form of the cancer or a rare one? Common, because common cancers have a larger potential customer market, which means there's greater incentive for companies to invest in research to find a cure. This is what is happening in all sorts of markets when hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians become middle-class consumers. If China and India were as rich as the U.S., Tabarrok says, the market for cancer drugs would be eight times larger!

More rich countries means more innovation, because of increased demand (larger target market for products like cancer drugs) and increased supply (rich countries have more educated people who can create the new ideas and innovation in the first place). More innovation in country X means more innovation for the world — everyone in the world benefits from new ideas and products, no matter where they originate. 

Why, then, do Americans fear the rise of other nations? Isn't it obviously in our self-interest to cheer on poor countries becoming rich?

In the case of China, critics may denounce its anti-democratic values and human rights violations and say to support the economic growth of China is to endorse these values and make their spread more likely. For example, China, in pursuit of oil, has used its economic might to support corrupt African dictatorships while America and Europe have withheld aid in pursuit of regime change. This is a fair critique.

Unfortunately, most reasons have nothing to do with enlightened values (yes – some values are more enlightened than others) and everything to do with a mis-understanding of economics, misguided notions of nationalism, and good ole’ xenophobia. Watch Bill O'Reilly or Lou Dobbs for more on how these concepts hang together in the minds of the stupid.

By the way, it's not just Americans who ought to remember "a rising tide lifts all boats."

When the financial crisis hit, Europeans seemed almost gleeful at American economic woes: Finally the U.S. pays the price for its gluttonous ways and rampant free market culture! Finally their arrogance comes back to hurt the! Yet they soon discovered that in an interconnected world, when one (big) country hurts, all countries hurt. Same thing went down in China: Finally U.S. consumers pay the price for not saving and reckless spending! Followed quickly by, Shit! U.S. consumers – can you binge anew on our exports?

Bottom Line: Other countries are growing richer. Rejoice! Other countries are growing more powerful. Big deal. Americans should support the economic growth of other countries, even if that growth means our political sway and material standard of living are lower in relative terms.

What I Learned at St. Gallen


I've been in Switzerland the past two weeks in part to participate in the 39th St. Gallen Symposium entitled "Revival of Political and Economic Boundaries." The Symposium brings together 200 people under 30 from 50 countries alongside 400 businesspeople from Europe and Asia. I attended last year (my notes) and loved the international diversity of it all — the opportunity to sit at a dinner table with seven smart people from all seven continents to talk about global issues. I was honored to be invited back this year.

The conference spirit (and the bias of the attendees) was pro-free market, pro-globalization. Even in the face of tremendous stress and market failure, most speakers and participants insisted we musn't undo the interconnected system that has lifted millions out of poverty and generated prosperity around the world.

But even as pronouncements were made to this effect, there was considerable self-doubt. Mark Medish of the Carnegie Endowment made this point explicitly: "This year's conference feels less technical, more fundamental. Less unabashedly optimistic, more concerned and skeptical." He noted that the half-life of conventional wisdom has never been shorter, as we re-visit and challenge many of the most prestigious theories about how the world works: the flat world theory of technology driven globalization, the valuation model for credit default swaps, mark to market accounting, monetary policy based on inflation targeting, the U.S. currency as world reserve currency, the decoupling thesis, and others.

As usual with conferences, I was underwhelmed by the speakers (a topic I will blog about soon) and for me most of the value came from individual chit-chat during the breaks or special sessions. Below are assorted notes.

1. Yes, It's a Mix of Government and Markets. It's pretty shallow to argue that you are neither market fundamentalist nor tax-and-spend socialist but rather a supporter of both, depending. (And offer no further specifics.) Sophisticated businessmen like the CEO of Pricewaterhouse Coopers and the CEO of ABB made this uncontroversial point. They said in essence, We need free and open markets, except when we don't. How bold! The real question is when and where governments ought to regulate markets and how they should do so specifically.

2. Non-Americans More Giddy about Obama than Americans. Every European, Asian, or Latin American I met was positively giddy about Barack Obama. Perhaps their Obama-love is in overdrive because their America-love has been repressed the last eight years. The Americans I met were more neutral and had a wait-and-see approach.

3. The Export Model. Exports are 40% of China's GDP. It will take at least a decade for China to go from an export economy to a consumption economy. Meanwhile it is dependent on American consumption. Yet, finally, Americans are starting to save a bit more, which is slowing China's economy. Until the crisis, people liked to make fun of the American consumer's inability to save and penchant for running up huge credit card debt. But now they discover that American (over?) consumption is key to the whole system working. A dilemma.

4. Pro-Trade, Pro-Globalization. A) When goods don't cross boundaries, tanks will. B) The White House web site does not list trade among the top 24 key issues. C) The millions of people who work for multinational companies ought to be singing the praises of globalization. They're not. That's business's fault. D) There's a split in the Democratic party over the virtues of globalization: Summers vs. Krugman camps.

5. Energy. Obama has said energy is higher priority than health care. Energy security and climate change are interconnected. "We'll see peak oil demand before we see peak oil supply."

6. Assorted Geopolitics Thoughts.

Geopolitics is to climatology as general international relations analysis and news is to meteorology: climatologists think about the long term, meteorologists predict the weather next week. Geopolitics involves thinking deeply about the long-term relationship between geography and politics and power.

* Geopolitics scholars have been predicting China's rise since the 1960s, since they look at stuff like long-term demographic trends and fact that China borders more countries than any other country.

* Historically there's been social unrest in China when economy slows to 6% growth. And the economy has slowed to about 6% growth.

* Axiom of geopolitics: if you have the money, you set the rules. You cannot have a strong foreign policy posture if you don't have a solid economic base / money. This is why India is not very influential: it represents only 2% of the world economy.

* Eastern enlargement of EU cannot be sole European foreign policy. Internal power paradigm doesn't translate into external foreign policy.

* There is "enlargement fatigue" within EU member countries when it comes to expansion east and south. But if Europe does not move into the Balkans, the Balkans will move into Europe. Enlargement helps member countries.

* The next three geo-political giants will be China, Europe, and the U.S.

* China pours money indiscriminately into Africa, regardless of human rights situation or corruption. China is reducing EU and US influence.

* Regime type doesn't usually affect geopolitical status so long as there is internal stability and external relations are okay. This would mean China's non-democratic status is not critical to long-term power prospects.

7. The 'There Are No Hard Choices' Cliche: "We must set aside old ways and develop new ideas…. We must reject false debates… We must be bold and visionary, yet pragmatic." Obama has been the master at uttering vapid catch phrases like this. It seems businesspeople the world over have taken to repeating it themselves.

Particularly impressive people who spoke:

David Smick, author of The World is Curved. He gave a whirlwind tour of the current economic situation. He told us to ignore the optimism, or at least don't buy it yet. The worse may not yet be over.

Misha Glenny, journalist. He gave an engaging presentation about the world of organized crime, and the president of Serbia later acknowledged him as one of the smartest observers on the Balkans.

Parag Khanna, New America Foundation. A tiny bit of arrogance is more than made up by his very strong grasp of international affairs, especially as it relates to the rise of China on the global stage.

Joseph Stanislaw, prominent energy consultant. He made a persuasive case for all things "green" and put substance behind a buzzword.

Is It Worth It To Preserve Dying Languages?

This is an under-explored question.

Preserving near extinct languages has broad support for the main reason that if a language dies, presumably some part of the associated culture dies too.

I don’t doubt that some unique culture exists in language, but what, exactly? And is it worth preserving even when considering the costs?

First, there are the opportunity costs of people encouraged or force to learn a language that’s just not that practically relevant. For all the time students in Ireland spend studying Gaelic it’s time not spent studying English, the language of the world. For all the time people in Mumbai spend having to learn that city’s new official language — Marathi — it’s not not spent studying Hindi or English. In America, the 22 children in on this Wyoming Indian reservation are being taught exclusively in Arapaho so as to preserve the language of their elders. The cultural interests of the adults come at the cost of competitiveness of their children.

Then there are the real costs of preserving a minority language in a society. The EU spends millions translating official documents and sessions all to pay due respect to cultural diversity. Canada spends an astromnomical amount translating everything into French all in the name of preserving Quebec culture.

Bottom Line: I question the assumption that preserving a near-extinct language is worth it. At the least, we need more discussion of what exactly is being saved and weigh those benefits against the costs.