Á-lô, is it me you’re looking for?

A friend linked me to “Foreign tongues don’t always come easy” on CNN’s website with the note “Is this you at all Paul?”

(As a quick summary of the article, the author laments his English-language monolingualism, and makes the following points: Anglophones have it easy because everywhere else, English is the fallback language of dealing with foreigners; and that the best approach is to get over your what you lack when speaking a second language, and work with what you have. But he puts it much more amusingly. Read that article. Maybe in a new window or tab so you don’t forget to come back here.)

I identified quite strongly with the author’s experiences of performance anxiety in high-school language class onwards, and the feeling of frustration when one knows precisely what one wants to say in one’s native language, but lacks the words, the grammar or simply the finesse to express it in another language.

So the quick answer is “yes, this is totally me”.

— If you’re bored already, or you came here looking for more “ugly cake”, then this is a safe point for you to stop, without leaving loose story threads. It’s going to turn into a mess of story threads shortly, of course.

On a side-note, “ugly cake” was one of the two Google search terms that led someone to this blog yesterday. If I’m reading the WordPress.com control panel correctly, it was an image search. Sure enough, there on the first page of Google Image Search for “ugly cake” (without quotes), is my ugly cake. And it’s the only ugly cake on the first page, I think. The rest are merely confronting or bizarre. There’s one that appears to be a “Happy Hysterectomy” cake, for example. They do get ugly further on though.

I wonder if this means Google now ranks my opinion highly on matters of ugliness, cake, or merely on the specific topic of ugly cake…

On Sunday (Christmas) I had dinner with my landlords and a daughter thereof who happened to be home. I think they felt sorry for me because I was here in a strange country by myself, and all my local friends had returned to their home-towns for the weekend. I base this thought entirely on the fact that my invitation for dinner had arrived the evening after I mentioned this as being the case to said daughter.

After dinner, chatting with my landlady in very broken Vietnamese — mine, that is. I assume hers is native-level — we touched upon the topic of learning languages. Any conversation I have with a Vietnamese person that proceeds long enough will eventually include the question “Why study Vietnamese.” That seems natural enough a question, of course. Sometimes it’s “why come to Vietnam” but the focus is “Why Vietnam, as opposed to somewhere else”, rather than “Why study a foreign language” or “Why live in a foreign country”. I’ve tested this a couple of times by trying to explain that I wanted to live somewhere else than Australia, where I’d been all my life. The response is usually “Yes, but why Vietnam?”

I don’t really have a good reason for choosing Vietnam specifically. What I have is several bad reasons, bundled together and resold repeatedly until it looks like a single good reason. My own personal reason bubble, if you like. As mentioned, I wanted to go somewhere. Melbourne would have been somewhere enough, but entirely lacking in challenge. And I am certainly one to force myself down the hard path from time to time.

Japan was the obvious choice, given my years of Japanese study and of Japanophilia. However, I’d been warned off the Japanese games industry by a previous boss due to apparently low regard for programmers in their industry, and generally poor working conditions. Adding “foreigner” to either issue was only going to make things worse.

People who’ve read my older posts (the “Vietnam adventures: backgrounder” post specifically) will have seen the process by which I arrived at Vietnam, but the short summary is that I have a friend in Hanoi, and support from a few Vietnam-and-related friends back home, and Vietnam’s games industry is small but growing so I should be able to find work if I need to.

None of these are good reasons, of course. One friend does not a social life make, friends at home aren’t really a good basis for picking a foreign country to live in, and a small but growing games industry in a country economically disparate as Vietnam is from Australia is still not going to be well-structured to support an experienced Australian games programmer in the style to which he wishes to become accustomed. Particularly when the disparity between local and foreigner living costs means that I’d cost the same as any two or three locals simply to maintain equivalent living conditions.

That’s a very rough estimate of living costs, mind you. It’s been cheaper living here than I expected, but I’m still in the honeymoon stage where I’m living in a single room in a house, and haven’t yet seen my electricity bill. Once February rolls around and I’m (hopefully) renting a lovely 3-bedroom house and paying full bills and whatnot, we’ll see just how much cheaper it is to be here than Canberra.

Anyway, there’s no way I can explain the above five paragraphs in Vietnamese, and they wouldn’t be a particularly good way to respond to a small-talk question anyway. Particularly with an explanatory hyperlink in the middle. So usually I just say “I don’t have any reason” which gets me a knowing look and questions about my girlfriend or wife. This surprised me a little the first time, but only a little because I’d already realised that in Vietnamese culture, people are near-universally getting married (to me) at quite a young age. And the usual conversation partner is one of the early-to-mid twenties Vietnamese teachers at my school. Most of whom are (I assume) happily married and have been for some time, and naturally assume that a 30-something apparently successful man like myself has of course got a wife and presumably a couple of kids in primary school.

I’m assuming I appear successful on the grounds that I was able to wander into Vietnam without a particular plan or apparent concerns about paying for my next meal. That suggests that I’m either sufficiently successful to be able to take myself on the road as I see fit, or sufficiently young that I’m happy to wander off to parts unknown and expect the world to take care of me. And no one’s mistaking me for early 20’s at the language school, since they usually ask my age right after “nationality” and “name”. As opposed to my landlord’s family, who apparently had mistaken me for much younger than I am.

My landlady, didn’t launch straight into discussion of my reasons for choosing Vietnam. Being a 60-year old woman and presumably wise to the world, I suspect she’d leaped to her own conclusions about why I was here, having already met my friend in Hanoi who turned out to be an accomplished and attractive 20-something young woman. Instead, we talked about the importance of learning a foreign language. Her daughter had learnt Mandarin, as well as enough English to not understand much of what I say, but to be able to guess what I mean when I don’t know the Vietnamese word for something.

And I made the point that I thought it was very important that children learn a second language at a young age. Or at least, I tried. I may have been passing commentary on recent attempts by Dolphins to develop a low-energy-cost system for leaving the Earth’s gravity well. Whatever I said, I think my landlady agreed with me.

And it’s a point that I was reminded of when I read this CNN article tonight. But at the same time, apart from the Anglosphere (and I guess the Francosphere) second languages are being learnt by young children. Many nations in SE Asia are making concerted efforts and spending serious money to get English into practice as a second language of fluency in their populations.

Then again, it’s a bit easier to do that sort of thing in nations that speak a language distinct to that nation. In that case, the choice of language to put your national impetus is pretty narrow: English, French, or the language of one of your major trading partners.

Oddly enough, while Australia seems to feel that Chinese is the important trading language to learn (supplanting Japanese’s 90’s position), the feeling in SE Asia appears to be that English needs to be the language of international communication, perhaps to act as a counterbalance to China’s ever-growing strength. This might reflect a differing set of priorities, mind you.

On one hand, the Anglosphere isn’t worried about learning an international language, they already speak English. So they default to “large trading partners”. However, you don’t see the same level of national focus behind Chinese fluency in Australia as you do in countries like Vietnam, Korea or Malaysia in getting English fluency into their populace. You certainly don’t seem to see it in primary schools. My younger sister studied Indonesia in primary school, but I don’t know how long, and it was certainly not a subject of emphasis. 15 years earlier, I did French after school for a little while. And when I went to high school, language was compulsory for years 7 and 8, although you only ended up doing 18 months of one and 6 of the other choice, and then in years 9 and 10 it was optional (which meant the classes were smaller with less people who didn’t want to be there, so it was an improvement). But the important thing was there was really no particularly higher power telling us “it’s going to be really important to know a second language”. I was just interested in Japanese because I wanted to grey-import Japanese video games. Then I discovered anime and Japanese girls, and my decision tree became much clearer, although not really any better supported.

Compare this to Vietnam’s (ambitious) English 2020 program, which aims to have High-school graduates speaking English at a B1 level on the CEFR. That’s 350-400 hours. For reference, my Vietnamese course at the ANU is 75 hours a semester, so after a three year major (six units) I’d be hoping to fall between B1 and B2.

On the other hand, Australia has a wide selection of languages to choose from, so nationally focussing on one would be difficult anyway. Assume they don’t want to focus on another “international” language, that leaves major trading partners. In Australia’s top 10 trading partners I count six national languages — in order: Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Thai, German and Malaysian — where China and Japan make up about an eight each of total trade value, and English-speaking countries in that list (including Singapore) in total make up about a quarter.

On the gripping hand, Australia also has a large population who don’t speak English at home. It might be a good idea to consider the languages of that significant (10% or so) population group. As of 2006, the languages that show up in the top 10 LOTE spoken in the home in each state are (alphabetically): Arabic, Australian Indigenous, Cantonese, Croatian, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay (assuming Malaysian and/or Singaporean here), Macedonian, Mandarin, Polish. Samoan, Serbian, Spanish, Tagalog, Tamil, Turkish and Vietnamese. National totals from the 2001 census suggest that the significant languages are: Italian, Vietnamese, Greek, Cantonese, Arabic and Mandarin.

The intersection of these analyses appears to be Mandarin again.

But taking a step back, would a single “national second language of importance” really be a good thing for Australia? If, as the experts I’ve been listening to appear to believe, English is to be the language of international communication in some form or other, then a national effort to develop competency in a second language isn’t particularly useful for Australia. If it was, the same reasoning would probably have put Vietnam on a “Chinese 2020” program instead.

Perhaps the best approach is to try and develop a “national importance of second language” program, and emphasise that a second language (of any kind) is as important a life-skill as mathematics, and should be treated accordingly, curriculum-wise. I personally feel that to be the best approach. Not everyone is going to need to use probability theory in day-to-day life, but having had frustrating discussions with people who’ve apparently never understood it, I feel it’s important that everyone have the _opportunity_ to understand it.

Similarly with language, there’s definite advantages to being bilingual from a younger age. (Wikipedia is not so clear-cut on the advantages of bilingualism, if you want some alternative opinions on the matter.)

As a programmer, I can see clear value in knowing multiple different programming languages, even if I never work in them. It lets you see with a slightly more structural view, and lets you look at the program, not just the code. And when you do need to work in a new language, picking up another one’s quite easy. I’m hoping that natural language will work the same way, once I can get my head around a second language.

I don’t actually pay any attention to the news, so it’s entirely possible Australia already has such a policy in place. That’d be nice, but it’s 30 year too late for me. And policy or not, where ever I end up, I intend that any children I have grow up bilingual or better. Parental languages, any thing else that catches their fancy, and C++. No one ever suffered from knowing too much C++.

tldr; The short version ended much earlier.

4 thoughts on “Á-lô, is it me you’re looking for?

  1. As someone who has studied a foreign language in depth (French) and has picked up at various times a strong and a weaker further language, and also as someone who has good competence in 3 programming languages and reasonable knowledge of a further three or four I can honestly say that I have no interest in C++ 🙂

    What I meant to say was: it’s certainly my experience that knowledge of a different language, be it human or computer, provides a different viewpoint on situations. I think in my case it’s important that I formally studied one foreign language and one computer language; that theoretical grounding gives you a great leg up when coming to other languages.

    On an unrelated note, I think many young vietnamese find speaking in English puts them in a different context by removing them from the Confucian pecking order that’s bound up in the language. Now I think that’s quite a different viewpoint to have. On the other side while many vietnamese-speaking europeans do enter into the confucian game to some extent there seems to be a lot of leeway given to be apart from the system.

    • Oh wow, I hadn’t thought about Cocos2D in ages… I was really active in the community for a little while, and then got busy at work with other things and didn’t have enough free time any more. -_-

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