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To fail to learn English or to successfully learn Esperanto? [Copy link] 中文

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Post time 2015-6-28 09:10:58 |Display all floors



Which is preferable: to fail to learn English or to successfully learn Esperanto?

There seems to be a consensus on this forum that the success rate in English-language learning in China (as in Quebec, Nunavut, and many other jurisdictions worldwide) is dismal, with disagreement on the reason. Some say the main reason is insufficient teacher education. Others say it has to do with a cultural aversion to putting so much effort in a second language, preferring instead to invest that time and money in maths, engineering, and precise sciences (or even Chinese as a second language itself among China's ethnic minorities). Yet others say it comes down to English itself: its chaotic orthography, the multiple exceptions to its rules of grammar, too many homonyms and homophones, its excessive dialect variations, and its lack of grammatical precision compared to many other languages.

I imagine that most would agree that, whatever the reason, there is no quick fix. If the problem really is teacher competence, it would take decades and much financial investment in a country with China's population to raise teacher competence adequately country-wide (especially given the difficulties inherent in the English language), and continued investment to maintain it, money rich families might have but China as a country does not. If the problem is a cultural aversion, this too would likely require decades of public education campaigns to get students to value English as much as maths, science, and engineering (or Chinese as a second language itself among China's ethnic minorities), with no guarantee of success.

If the problem is with the English language itself, given its ethnic roots, it won't be possible to reform the language without the collaboration of its native-speaking countries, which is not likely. Native English intellectuals have been trying to reform English spelling with little to no success since at least Milton's time, Milton himself being in its favour.

It would seem to me therefore that we are left with at least three options:

1. Maintain the status quo of incompetent teachers in public schools and a dismal overall rate of success leaving most graduates feeling like it was all a waste of time and money, and teachers with low morale.

2. Increase and then maintain funding for teacher training and for dyslexic and other learners with special needs, possibly through a tax increase, government borrowing, or through shifting government spending priorities, whether from environmental management or other critical funding priorities (any such decision being outside the control of the ordinary parent, teacher, or learner).

3. Given that studies have consistently shown Esperanto be be grammatically at least as precise as French and from five to ten times easier to learn than English (due to a strictly phonetic spelling, no exceptions to the rules, no redundant rules, a comparative lack of homonyms and homophones, and minimal dialectal variation of neologisms between regions which itself tends to disappear over time), grant each school the freedom to teach, and each student the freedom to be tested in, Esperanto (and possibly other comparatively easy languages) as (an) alternative(s) to English to fulfil compulsory education requirements, while still allowing university faculties to require English where appropriate, bearing in mind that not everyone can attend university now anyway, many opting for trades or professional schools instead. This would save time and money not only in teaching students, but teachers too, which would be particularly applicable to poorer families. Many teachers and students would be able to learn it to fluency from a self-instruction book and a dictionary (both of which could quickly be mass-produced), and a study circle with friends (which could also be quickly established as needed), which is seldom possible with English except among the most gifted or devoted. It would also ensure that those who do not have the opportunity to go on to university could still reach fluency in a second language before the end of their compulsory education, which they could all use to develop international friendships (especially in this internet age, and especially with Hungary and other jurisdictions that already officially recognize Esperanto as fulfilling compulsory second-language education requirements), and some in business. Another advantage with Esperanto is the lack of an idea of an ethnic native accent, which would significantly reduce the perceived need for a native English teacher (which equates to a white teacher in many  parents' minds).

This last option could serve either as a temporary measure lasting a few decades until success rates in English are finally raised to decent levels, or as a permanent policy, based on the idea that however useful English may be to those who can learn it, it is useless to those who can't. Other languages that are reputed for their comparative ease of learning are Turkish and Indonesian (for similar reasons as Esperanro).

Five legitimate rationales in favour of English over Esperanto, at least for those who possess the necessary aptitude and resources to learn it, are that:

a. quantitatively, multiple more volumes of literature have been published in English than in Esperanto,

b. qualitatively, while an Esperanto publication has won one nomination for a Nobel Prize for literature, a number of English authors have won the prize itself, not to mention the great works published in English prior to its existence (for those who can read and understand archaic and classical English of course),

c. few ministries of education officially recognize Esperanto as fulfilling the second-language requirement for graduation from compulsory education and none make it compulsory, while English is recognized in all jurisdictions and is compulsory in some,

d. though Esperanto is provenly quite capable of poetic expression, English possesses a much richer vocabulary of homonyms and homophones than Esperanto does, giving it an advantage as a poetic language,

e. English is the dominant language in international aeronautical and maritime radio communication with some exceptions, with Esperanto being excluded from the exceptions,

f. though some employers require a knowledge of Esperanto (e.g. China Radio International and public schools in some jurisdictions, especially in Eastern European ones), and some businesses function in it (e.g. some publishers, exporters, importers, and tourism companies), they are multiple times outnumbered by English ones, and

g. many UN institutions, former colonies (usually at the expense of the local indigenous languages, sometimes through deliberate policies of cultural genocide such as through Canada's former residential school system that ended only in the 1990's), and NGO's recognize English as official, whereas only a few NGO's recognize Esperanto as such.

For this reason, the ministry of education ought to continue to officially recognize English as fulfilling the second-language requirement for compulsory education for schools that choose to teach it and students that choose to be tested in it.

Though both UNESCO and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences have confirmed that Esperanto is a language and cultural heritage like any other, and the Polish government has already officially recognized Esperanto as a part of Poland's intangible cultural heritage, one problem with the third option is linguistic prejudice: Some perceive ease of learning as making a language inferior while others tend to hold prejudices against planned languages (which might also explain opposition among the uneducated English masses to English spelling reform in spite of support from Milton, Tennyson, and other English intellectuals to today).

Of course there may be other options that I have overlooked, but at least among the three options that I can see, the first is a waste of time and money for probably around 96% of students, and the second would require a significant increase in government expenditure (which rests outside the control of either students, parents, or teachers), whereas the third (though it too would likely need decades to be fully accomplished), could be achieved with little to no increase in government expenditure and achieve close to a 100% success rate before the end of a student's compulsory education rather than only after the successful completion of one's university education for those who are so privileged.

A fourth option would be to make learning English optional in compulsory education (while not recognizing any other language), raise teacher qualifications, and give first priority to students with a proven aptitude for learning the mother tongue wherever student demand might outstrip the supply of competent teachers. While this policy would undoubtedly improve efficiency and raise the rate of success among those who do learn a second language, it would do nothing to raise overall rates of bilingualism and would maintain access to foreign friendships and knowledge as the purview of the privileged few as is now the case.







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Post time 2015-6-28 11:00:09 |Display all floors
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Post time 2015-6-28 12:53:22 |Display all floors

Okay, I was wrong when I said five to ten times easier: it might be only three times easier, bearing in mind that then we are reading the available research most conservatively. I don't know how well you can read French, but François Grin, a professor of economics with a specialization in language economics (a relatively recent multidisciplinary branch of economics that unites economics with linguistics) confirms in a book published in 2005 and freely available online in PDF format titled "L'enseignement des langues étrangères come politique publique" that Esperanto is from three to ten times easier to learn than English.

He states (referring to various educational scenarios in his book): "Les scénarios 1 et 2 ont donc le même coût, c'est-à-dire que CLE1 = CLE2. Le scénario 3, par contre, présente un coût moindre, puisque l’atteinte d’un certain niveau de compétence en espéranto est nettement plus rapide que pour toute autre langue, et la littérature est à cet égard unanime. Ainsi, Flochon (2000 : 109) note que « l’Institut de pédagogie cybernétique de Paderborn (Allemagne) a comparé les durées d’apprentissage de plusieurs groupes d’élèves francophones, de niveau baccalauréat, pour atteindre un niveau dit ‘standard’ et comparable dans quatre langues différentes : l’espéranto, l’anglais, l’allemand et l’italien. Les résultats sont les suivants : pour atteindre ce niveau, 2000 heures d’études de l’allemand produisaient un niveau linguistique équivalent à 1500 heures d’étude l’anglais, 1000 heures d’étude de l’italien et… 150 heures d’étude de l’espéranto. Sans commentaire ». D’autres estimations éparses dans la littérature confirment l’atteinte plus rapide de compétences en langue-cible en espéranto que dans toutes les autres langues avec lesquelles la comparaison était faite (Ministère de l’instruction publique [Italie], 1995) ainsi que les avantages propédeutiques de la langue (Corsetti et La Torre, 1995). Dans ce qui suit, j’ai opté pour la plus grande prudence en admettant un ratio de un à trois. Ainsi, l’investissement nécessaire pour assurer aux élèves français un niveau donné de compétence en espéranto représente un tiers de celui qui est nécessaire pour les doter d’un niveau similaire dans toute autre langue."

While you could attribute some of the dicrepancy to similarities between languages or what some might refer to as relative ease of learning (which could explain why Spanish and Italian would be easier than English or German for a French speaker), this can't apply to Esperanto. Italian and Spanish are romance languages like French, whereas Esperanto has a mostly pan-European and some Hebrew influence! We must therefore conclude that Esperanto is easier than Italian and Spanish for a French speaker not because of linguistic similarities (since Italian and Spanish would undoubtedly be more similar to French than Esperanto would be) but rather because of the internal structure of Esperanto independently of French, or what some might refer to as absolute ease of learning.

Furhermore, A Report of the
OECD-CERI LEARNING SCIENCES AND BRAIN RESEARCH, Shallow vs Non-shallow Orthographies and Learning to Read Workshop, 28-29 September 2005,
St. John’s College Cambridge University UK, Co-hosted by The Centre for Neuroscience in Education, Cambridge University, Report prepared by Cassandra Davis, OECD, Learning Sciences and Brain Research Project (freely available online in PDF format), states: "A comparative study by Seymour et al., undertaken in 2003 [...], shows that after one year of instruction, English children show the lowest percentage of correct word reading on a scale in comparison to other European countries, with only 30-40% correct words compared to German, Greek and Finnish, with close to 100%. However, by around 12 years of age English children do catch up to their European peers, and these differences disappear. It has been recognised that English children apparently learn to read more slowly due to the nature of the inconsistent orthography. Educational attempts to address this slow acquisition include implementing early literacy programmes (such as the National Literacy Strategy in the United Kingdom) and starting reading instruction earlier, at 5/6 years of age, compared to 7/8 years in other countries."

Note that this refers to native speakers, meaning that native English speakers, starting to learn to read a language they can already speak by the age of five, catch up to their other European peers by around 12 years of age, so around seven years later, and that is in a completely English-immersed environment in which all lessons (including those that are not related to language, such as maths courses) are taught in English, in which extra-curricular activities such as scouts as well as participation in family activities in the home are likely all in the target language, and in which the learner is exposed to English signs in the local community all around him. You now expect a teacher in China to reproduce this in maybe fifty hours a year starting at the age of ten in some rural schools, with children who can't even speak the language yet, by the age of seventeen when he will have completed his compulsory education?

Now you might say that English children are genetically stupider or Chinese children genetically smarter.  You could say that, but then the onus would be on you to provide the proof.

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Post time 2015-6-28 13:15:24 |Display all floors

Another argument you might present is that students learn their second language more efficiently than their first. Though that is true, given the massive discrepancy between the number of hours a Chinese learns English in the English classroom and the number of hours an English child learns English in school, scouts, the family, and the local community in any given day, the increased efficiency with which the Chinese child would learn English compared to the English child would need to be significant to allow him to catch up to the English child who himself spends his first seven years of school catching up to his European counterparts because English orthography is such a mess that you can't make heads or tails of it. I doubt very much that the increased efficiency with which the Chinese child learns his second language compared to the English child learning is first comes even close to compensating for the lack of time he can invest in his second language.

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Post time 2015-6-28 13:37:25 |Display all floors

One thing surprises me though, Seneca. You mentioned that you are a linguist. To be fair, it would not be reasonable to expect you to know everything about every language, but I would have assumed that you would have learnt enough to know to not assume anything about a language you do not know.

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Post time 2015-6-28 13:51:56 |Display all floors

What happened here? I'd typed a detailed post prior to the one above including a quote confirming Esperanto was multiple times easier than English. Did it not stick because there was a French quote in it? Oh well, I'll retype it later tomorrow when I have the time.

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Post time 2015-6-28 14:10:39 |Display all floors

I'll retype it now, albeit more in brief:

According to Prof. François Grin (an economist with a specialization in language economics) in his book "L'enseignement des langues étrangères comme politique publique", published in 2005 and freely available online in PDF format:

" Les scénarios 1 et 2 ont donc le même coût, c'est-à-dire que CLE1 = CLE2. Le scénario 3, par contre, présente un coût moindre, puisque l’atteinte d’un certain niveau de compétence en espéranto est nettement plus rapide que pour toute autre langue, et la littérature est à cet égard unanime. Ainsi, Flochon (2000 : 109) note que « l’Institut de pédagogie cybernétique de Paderborn (Allemagne) a comparé les durées d’apprentissage de plusieurs groupes d’élèves francophones, de niveau baccalauréat, pour atteindre un niveau dit ‘standard’ et comparable dans quatre langues différentes : l’espéranto, l’anglais, l’allemand et l’italien. Les résultats sont les suivants : pour atteindre ce niveau, 2000 heures d’études de l’allemand produisaient un niveau linguistique équivalent à 1500 heures d’étude l’anglais, 1000 heures d’étude de l’italien et… 150 heures d’étude de l’espéranto. Sans commentaire ». D’autres estimations éparses dans la littérature confirment l’atteinte plus rapide de compétences en langue-cible en espéranto que dans toutes les autres langues avec lesquelles la comparaison était faite (Ministère de l’instruction publique [Italie], 1995) ainsi que les avantages propédeutiques de la langue (Corsetti et La Torre, 1995). Dans ce qui suit, j’ai opté pour la plus grande prudence en admettant un ratio de un à trois. Ainsi, l’investissement nécessaire pour assurer aux élèves français un niveau donné de compétence en espéranto représente un tiers de celui qui est nécessaire pour les doter d’un niveau similaire dans toute autre langue."

Furthermore, A Report of the
OECD-CERI LEARNING SCIENCES AND BRAIN RESEARCH, Shallow vs Non-shallow Orthographies and Learning to Read Workshop, 28-29 September 2005,
St. John’s College Cambridge University UK, Co-hosted by The Centre for Neuroscience in Education, Cambridge University, Report prepared by Cassandra Davis, OECD, Learning Sciences and Brain Research Project (also freely available online in PDF format:

"A comparative study by Seymour et al., undertaken in 2003 [..], shows that after one year of instruction, English children show the lowest percentage of correct word reading on a scale in comparison to other European countries, with only 30-40% correct words compared to German, Greek and Finnish, with close to 100%. However, by around 12 years of age English children do catch up to their European peers, and these differences disappear. It has been recognised that English children apparently learn to read more slowly due to the nature of the inconsistent orthography. Educational attempts to address this slow acquisition include implementing early literacy programmes (such as the National Literacy Strategy in the United Kingdom) and starting reading instruction earlier, at 5/6 years of age, compared to 7/8 years in other countries."

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