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Sapir-Whorf and Michael Gove

October 6, 2011

Michael GoveThe BBC is reporting that British Education Secretary Michael Gove is calling for early training of students in foreign languages:

“Learning a foreign language, and the culture that goes with it, is one of the most useful things we can do to broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children.”  He said learning languages improved people’s brain power. “Just as some people have taken a perverse pride in not understanding mathematics, so we have taken a perverse pride in the fact that we do not speak foreign languages, and we just need to speak louder in English,” he said. “It is literally the case that learning languages makes you smarter. The neural networks in the brain strengthen as a result of language learning.”

Huh? I’m all for learning foreign languages, but isn’t Gove’s reasoning simply a recitation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

Perhaps linguists were holding their tongues because they did not want to jinx the possibility of more resources being put into primary education.  But certainly, Newcastle University went too far when it put out a press release claiming that “Education Secretary Michael Gove’s statement that learning languages makes people smarter has a sound scientific basis” and, in fact, explicitly crediting Sapir-Whorf:

Early last century linguist Benjamin Whorf was the first to say that western languages make us see reality in a set way, and therefore learning other languages could be beneficial because it would free our minds from such linguistic constraints.

Now I know that Whorf has a few modern defenders, but I thought that conventional linguistic thought was far more critical of Sapir-Whorf than supportive; and certainly it seems disingenuous to claim unqualified support for Whorf – as if there were no controversy at all.

In any case, if anyone out there knows the actual basis of Gove’s claim that “it is literally the case that learning languages makes you smarter” (whatever “smarter” means), I would certainly welcome hearing it.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2011 4:33 am

    I thought it had been proved that learning languages increases the brain’s power to … learn languages! That is, it is easier to learn a foreign language later in life if one has already learned one or more foreign languages in school.

    But I think Gove would have done better to stick to what seems to be his main point, that learning languages can “broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children”. If you can talk to the foreigners you meet, in your own country and when visiting theirs, and understand something of their writings, you are far less likely to fall into excessive nationalism and xenophobia. But then Gove probably knows not to criticise that tendency as much of his party’s support comes from people like that, and he wouldn’t want to get the right-wing press against him!

  2. October 7, 2011 9:34 am

    Early last century linguist Benjamin Whorf was the first to say that western languages make us see reality in a set way

    Isn’t it a tad ironic that whoever wrote the above sentence — so set in its assumptions — did so with a straight face — in a western language? And isn’t it funny that they went on, even more ironically, to bolster their conclusions by comparing and contrasting the presumed firm realities of western words for lunch?

    “If I ask you to think of ‘lunch’, you’ll probably think about a sandwich with crisps,” explained Dr Bassetti. “If I ask an Italian to think of pranzo – Italian for ‘lunch’ – he’ll think of a dish of pasta followed by meat and vegetables.”

    So what would you think if you were an English speaker and you learnt Italian? Probably something in-between, such as a dish of pasta with some crisps.

    Huh? Yes, this is exactly why I need to enjoy being bilingual: I get to become a Hegelian foodie!

    How do you like this personal “example” from Gove for all the language learners of Great Britain? He refuses to read War and Peace because he doesn’t understand translation. Which languages has he studied to the degree where his appreciation for their subtleties and precision of thought so worry him when rendered into his native English? I’ve read elsewhere that he reads the Bible (at least he quotes from it). Does he cheat at reading it (in English translation)?

    How to cheat at reading War and Peace

    1st September 2008

    Useful advice for those nervous of Tolstoy; an exclusive broadcast from al-Jazeera 2,000 years ago

    I am hugely grateful to all those readers who wrote in to upbraid me for my reluctance to read foreign fiction. My worry that subtlety of language and precision of thought would inevitably be lost in translation, making B-list Brit novelists a better bet than front-rank foreigners, is, I now understand, total Balzac.

    The point was made forcibly by many of you that the best translations are works of art in themselves (Pope’s Iliad and Odyssey) and some are actually better than the original (the Scot-Moncrieff Proust, the English versions of Asterix). I received one, formidably learned, thoughtful and considerate e-mail, from a government special adviser, with several recommendations for wider reading that made me hugely respect the Cabinet minister (and I won’t reveal who) responsible for hiring someone with such a well-cultivated hinterland.

    But the best of the many replies I received came from Professor Tony Briggs, the translator of the Penguin War and Peace. He pointed out that how much was lost in translation depended on the scale of the work, “a tiny lyric poem will lose a lot, a prose masterpiece in four volumes very little”.

    And on that basis he confessed: “I wince for your shrunken life if you have not yet read War and Peace” (I haven’t). In an effort to seduce me, in the midst of my busy life, to dive into Tolstoy’s arms, the prof also gave me some top insider advice that he explained he’d never given anyone before: “Dive in media res. Go straight to volume 2, part 4, and read it all, only 13 chapters, pages 533-587. (See overall plot summary, p1385.) There’s nothing very sensational here, just the domestic life of a landed Russian family in the autumn and over Christmas. But wow, the wolf-hunt and the evening after, the young people falling in love, troika rides under the stars, family celebrations, dancing, vodka, singing, happy youth and contented middle age…it makes life seem so good. Virtually nothing will have been lost by your not knowing Russian because this work depends hugely on events, (mis)adventures, character and ideas. All of these can be transferred from mind to mind even in translation. They are more numerous, challenging and inspiring in Russian literature than anywhere else.”

  3. October 7, 2011 9:49 am

    Have you seen Stephen Fry’s latest offering for the BBC? It also gives the impression that the whole Linguistic community accepts without question the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis as gospel truth.

  4. October 7, 2011 11:22 am

    Kurk, I might suggest that reading the Bible in a bad translation might have put Gove off translations for life. But as an Englishman married to an Italian, I know that whether she calls me to “lunch” or to “pranzo” doesn’t correlate with any difference in the food I find on the table.

  5. October 7, 2011 2:46 pm

    Peter, Kurk — funny. I suppose Gove pines for the good ol’ days when Reader’s Digest Condensed Books were published.

    Quirkycase — was this Stephen Fry’s English Delight or QI or …?

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