English and Math

These thoughts by David Henderson over at EconLog have stuck with me since the day I read them (in 2012):

At the end, one of two hosts [of a radio program he was being interviewed at] asked me, “If you were giving a 12-year-old American kid advice on what languages to learn, what advice would you give?” I think he was expecting me to say “English and Chinese.” I answered, “Two languages: English and math.”

I think of this insight often when I read, mostly because they confirm my own anecdotal experiences travelling abroad. Everybody in Ghana spoke English, and only rural Iberians and Slovenians had trouble with English in Europe. Non-Native French speakers seem only to be in parts of France’s old empire, where old customs – learning the language of the conqueror to get ahead in the rat race – still prevail. English is learned because it’s necessary to communicate these days.

Check out this excerpt from a piece on Swiss language borders in the BBC:

There are four official Swiss languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh, an indigenous language with limited status that’s similar to Latin and spoken today by only a handful of Swiss. A fifth language, English, is increasingly used to bridge the linguistic divide. In a recent survey by Pro Linguis, three quarters of those queried said they use English at least three times per week.

Read the rest. That’s a lot of English used in a country that’s sandwiched between Germany, France, and Italy. I think the power of English, at least in Europe, has to do with the fact that it’s a mish-mash of Germanic and Latin; it’s a “bastard tongue,” in the words of John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia. Let’s hear it for the bastards of the world!

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