Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Don’t bother with foreign language teaching, yet

Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-02-10

Mother is swearing at the horse because it ate the hemp.  (See below fold why this sentence is significant).

While I applaud the desire to increase teaching of foreign languages to Australian students, any such efforts are futile when our students and young adults cannot even grasp English grammar.

How can we teach foreign languages where word endings change as nouns and verbs are declined and conjugated with tense and mood, when most Australians under 30 wouldn’t know the difference between a dative and an adjective, between a future perfect and a subjunctive?

Even in alphabetic languages like Greek and German, you spell "the" and "a" differently depending on the gender of the associated noun.

Never mind the difficulties with tonal languages (and there seem to be genetic differences associated with language tonality) like Chinese dialects when we can’t stop the "rising inflexion" so rife in adolescent girls? (See below for the meaning of "ma chi ma ai ma ma")

English is remarkably forgiving of syntax errors in everyday speech.  As long as the word order is correct, the meaning is reasonably clear.  Contrariwise, most languages (including Old English) couldn’t give a toss about word order but use different spelling to denote who is doing what to whom.

  • Servus puellam amat – the slave loves the girl.
  • Puellam servus amat – the slave loves the girl
  • Puella servum amat – the girl loves the slave
  • Puella amat servum – the girl loves the (shock! horror!) slave

Intransitive verbs are also tricky.  Declarative sentences can be a single word, and if you cannot recognize the endings, you cannot understand the meaning, as any Latin student learns in their first week and can never forget: Amo. Amas. Amat. Amamus. Amatis. Amant.

Without a decent understanding of syntactic elements in English, trying to teach more complex languages will be nearly impossible.


  • The difficulties of teaching Chinese to tonal-insensitive types is indicated by a wonderful story of Nobel-prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynmann.  To flummox him, a Chinese visitor was told to greet Feynmann in Chinese, a language everybody thought he didn’t know.  He responded by trying to repeat what she said, leading her to exclaim "I speak Mandarin, but he speaks Cantonese!".
  • Pronunciation (including rising or falling pitch) can be different in Mandarin versus Cantonese, even though the written language is the same.  "Dim sum" (from the Cantonese for little hearts; the same characters are pronounced "dian xin" in Mandarin).
  • Chinese is a very tonal language. Mandarin Chinese consists of 4 tones (flat, falling, rising and rising/falling), but some dialects have 9 tonal variations.  Consider the different meanings of what we would spell "ma" phonetically:
    • "Ma" (flat) = Mother
    • "mâ" (rising/falling) = horse
    • "má" (rising) = hemp
    • "mà" (falling) = swearing/scolding
    • ma chi ma ai ma ma
      Mother is swearing at the horse because it ate the hemp
      Mother is swearing at the horse because it ate the hemp
  • Sometimes nearby words can completely alter the meaning even further!
  • There is even a language (I’ve forgotten the name of the South American tribe) where a statement that "It is raining" cannot avoid extra bits depending on how the knowledge was acquired, i.e. if you saw it yourself, or if you were told by someone else.  I have no idea what you’d call such a construct (as opposed to "mood", "tense", "voice", etc)

4 Responses to “Don’t bother with foreign language teaching, yet”

  1. Amanda said

    One of the benefits of more consistent LOTE in schools would be to make kiddies aware of grammar, in their own language and others.

    So a lack of active knowledge of English grammar is a reason TO teach foreign languages, not a reason not to.

    Even for people out of school its not necessary to have a deep linguistic knowledge to gain benefit from learning another language, at first you just need to grasp the difference between subject and object you’ll be fine. Other cases are trickier but still not rocket surgery, and there’s no shame in understanding more than you can produce.

    I have a bit of a hobby horse about, sorry. ;-)

  2. Dave Bath said

    You have a point about foreign languages helping with English grammar. However, there is a difference between conversational/tourist usage and vocabulary (“Coffee, please”), best started very young, and more formal structure, which would be essential for business usage, requiring a prior grasp of the construct in English.

    Formal English structures were once started fairly early in primary school, while my daughter’s primary-school tourist Japanese gave not one jot of English grammatical constructs. Though she still enjoys “quality” literature, her understanding of the parts of speech when finishing secondary school was very poor.

    You are perfectly correct that learning a foreign language can push the understanding of English grammar. Studying Latin certainly forced a better understanding of English (e.g. a more rigorous discrimination between perfect and imperfect forms, the vocative case).

    On “understanding more than you can produce”, I must agree. I was relatively poor at generating Latin, but not to bad at reading it – although these days it takes me about a hundred pages of a Loeb, cheating by using the right hand side, before I warm up and can stick to the left, and another hundred to grok without translating. (Mind you, that’s with philosophical books such as Cicero or Lucretius, I’m hopeless with “airport novelists” like Petronius).

  3. Dave Bath said

    On a tangent…. This has a lot of bits and pieces of problems between Chinese and English, with lots of examples of “f***” found in Chinese supermarkets and restaurants, although some make sense.

    What should be “dry foods price counter” is rendered in large letters as “F*** THE CERTAIN PRICE OF GOODS”


    The shrimp f***s the cabbage

  4. […] "Don’t bother with foreign language teaching yet" (2008-02-10) which discusses the "Mother is swearing at the horse because it ate the hemp" problem. Posted in Australia, Education, Language Use, Politics, Uncategorized. […]

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