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2d10 – if you move to a foreign country, you should be required to learn its language!

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It is a popular demand: “Learn the language of the country you move to!” But is it fair or even practical to make such a statement?

 

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Episode Transcript

Dirk – Welcome to our latest edition of 2debate.net, our podcast of debates. I’m Dirk, your host and I’m watching a pretty pumped-up co-host, Sebastian. How are you doing?

Sebastian – I’m doing fantastically well, thank you.

Dirk – Our motion for today’s debate is: “if you move to a foreign country, you should be required to learn its language”. And by the flip of a coin we decided that I’m going first, yay, and I’m going to be for the motion. Shall we start?

I don’t feel too much pressure because indeed you will lose so, you know, just dish out your argument. It’s okay, relax, just share your arguments, it’s already a done deal, we already know that!

Dirk – Okay, if you feel like that – no, no, I’m not feeling too much pressure, I’m relaxed, thank you for worrying about me. Alright so I’m going to start the clock for my first two minute segment now.

Voice – Okay let’s do this. Dirk goes first and argues for the motion.

Dirk – Moving to a foreign country is a huge step and generally very demanding. There are a ton of things to be sorted, from workplace to taxes, from school to daily shopping, and you know what? They all require you to have some level of mastery of the local tongue, because the information that is presented to you in your surroundings, guess what, is in that local language. And if you have no knowledge about it, you have a problem. There are three ways of handling this: number one, you learn as much of the language to be able to navigate everyday situations – and potential emergencies that may happen. Number two, you expect everyone else to speak your language. Number three, you stay with others who speak both languages, yours and the local tongue, and expect from them to sort everything for you. I know you live in a foreign country, you’ve been around for a while, so you get your fair share of experience to share what the local customs on that that three points are made. If we dissected one by one, I would say, you stay with others puts you pretty much in a dependent situation so that’s not an ideal solution. Expecting everyone else to speak your language, you can do that in some cases, but in general it’s a pretty arrogant demand to make in a foreign country that everyone needs to adjust to you, instead of you adjusting to the majority. And that leaves you with one choice and one choice only: you should learn as much of the language to be able to navigate everyday situations. That’s a fair demand to make by the community you’re actually joining; the community that you expect to help you with getting along in that new environment. And that’s my initial argument.

Voice – Now it’s Sebastian’s turn. Let’s hear his arguments against the motion.

Sebastian – For better or for worse, Dirk, there’s English. English has become the passport language, whether we like it or not. It reduces the need for people to speak a foreign language. Again as I said: for better or for worse. It just happened that way for practical reasons. We can use English in those countries, maybe not all countries, but it has kind of become a passport language. In fact I would even argue that it is not only useful for immigrants who come to a new country to have access to documentation, administration, at least in English but also for tourists who, in their cases, are not expected, if we come back to the motion, to learn that foreign language. So if you tell me that English should not be made the default language as an additional language for immigrants then you’re also not serving tourists, so you’re not helping that country for tourism. So actually you’re killing two birds with one stone by using English. The second aspect is: look at the diversity of the population within each country – and I’ll take France which I know best, being a French citizen. Twenty-five percent of French citizens nowadays have at least one grandparent who was born abroad, that’s my case. And that means there’s already language diversity because of that immigration so there’s not only one language – there may be one official language, but there are multiple minority languages in a given country. There’s already that mix in a country that you’re going to as an immigrant and there’s already a mix of languages, official, unofficial, so there’s no real point in learning a specific language. Thirdly and I mentioned this in a previous debate, people don’t stay that long. In the UK nowadays, fifty percent of the people are going to say less than two years. In this case of the UK, it is English-speaking but let’s assume another country where you’d have the same kind of percentages: people are not staying that very long so for less than two years there, learning another language, it takes time and it’s not really worth it. Finally, an argument I have: it’s discrimination to actually enforce this. Imagine you’re an immigrant, you learn a foreign language – and you cannot bring family members because they struggle learning the language. So what do you do in that case? You have learned a language but your family members who are eligible [to immigrate] except for that condition that you’re forcing on them to speak the language and they don’t and they cannot join you. For this, it is unfair.

Voice – And now onto Dirk. Let’s hear his rebuttal.

Dirk – So let’s just put the fact aside that you declared English to be another national language for the whole world. I can tell you: it’s not just parts of the world where you’re not getting along with English. If you move to Russia, if you move to Korea, I want to see you practising your English there and see how far you get, that’s number one. Number two: even if we accept English, there are countries that are maybe surprising to you treating English as a minority language. For instance, if you go to Canada, there are regions in Canada where English is a minority language and Canada spends money on bridging the gap between the English-speaking population and the French-speaking population for instance. In fact, there has been a study citing that in Canada, minority language services by the public hand has been as expensive as 2.4 billion US dollars per year. 2.4 billion that could go into schools, could go into hospitals, could go into social services, whatever you have it. And I would argue it all comes out of the unwillingness of people that move to that country to learn the local language and to adapt to the local habits. Now I give you that English is the lingua franca in the Western world, of course it is. And you get quite far with it but let’s have something like in the country where you live in, Switzerland, let’s say you are in the French part of Switzerland and you have an emergency and you try to speak English with them or France for that matter, where you come from, I had occasions where I wasn’t able to communicate in English in Paris, in the capital city of France, maybe that was my mistake in Paris, you should speak French of course, which I’m not capable of unfortunately. So the whole argument kind of breaks down and then it breaks down for practical reasons: you cannot really have meaningful social interactions and personal relationships if you’re not speaking the language of the people who are already living there. So at least make an attempt to learn is a fair demand because if someone migrates to a country, that country has an interest to integrate you, to help you out. You probably have also an expectation that the country helps yous so it’s an investment in you and in return, the new community you’re joining can expect fairly and squarely from you to adopt and help lowering that cost. That cost can be lowered very efficiently by learning local languages as studies have proven over and over, and as have been proven in language integration projects and so on.

Voice – Sebastian, let’s hear it.

Sebastian – I think you’ve just admitted that English can get you quite far so I think we’re done with the debate, that it’s not necessary to learn the local language of a country you’re moving into. Mais sinon on peut parler français, moi je suis tout à fait d’accord que le français soit la langue par défaut. I am totally in favour of French being the language universal language, totally fine with that, so that I don’t even have to worry about this. Seriously: you’re talking about English and you talk about Canada which is only 35 million people so who cares about Canada, sorry for Canadians listening to us. But it’s not meaningful in terms of a sample size. I made a point that English would also be useful to tourists who compose a fairly large segment of demographics coming into a country. So what do you do by the tourists who are not going to stay very long, not more than a few days or weeks. And it would be very useful indeed in Korea and Russia to have English signs. So it is in interest of those countries to promote tourism with English. Now here’s the interesting bit. Locals, even local French citizens say, as an example, struggle with our own language. The latest results from the OECD test results for children and students demonstrate that there is a loss in the quality of understanding their own language. So we’re going to set a threshold, which is very hard to define by the way – what is considered minimum, what is considered – you said in your first part that they should be able to “navigate” but that’s not really speaking, right, I think there’s ambiguity on whether we talk about fluency or is it just about emergencies which honestly when you move to a country, most people pick up the language. If you stay long enough, you pick up the language, even if you stay in your community, which is indeed going to help you with the basic stuff. You may rely on the under local community of fellow immigrants but that’s okay, that’s also part of life, this is the social integration that also exists which weaves into a country. So my point is: even locals struggle with their local language, you can see this with spelling and grammar which is not understood very well. Now I have additional points here – and these ones are: it is difficult to learn a new language. So what are you going to do if you’re an immigrant and you’re 60 years old. We know that the brain has a difficulty in learning a new language and imagine you, Dirk, you move in for whatever reason, because sometimes you don’t have the choice to move, we’re talking about all forms of migration including political asylum or people have to leave a country, flee country because of war. Imagine you have to go to China, imagine you’re 60 and you’re German: do you think it is going to be easy to learn Chinese when you’re 60? Of course not. So if you make it mandatory, it is going to be extremely difficult. Again I mentioned discrimination. There’s not only discrimination of you bringing your family members who will find may be equal difficulty or maybe even more, so you will not be able to bring them to your host country that you’ve gone to. But it’s creating discrimination for your family. And in fact, my final point here, it will be impossible to enforce regardless. You move to a country. How will you enforce it? You’re going to kick out the person because they don’t speak enough of that language? How are you going to define the threshold level?

Voice – Now final statements. Dirk’s turn.

Dirk – To reiterate one main point: the motion was “if you move to a foreign country you should be required to learn its language”. So it’s a demand that your new community is formulating towards you and I think it’s a fair demand to make. Because people want to have a relationship with you, people want to share culture, people want to be in contact with you, if you insist on being around them. It’s what transports culture, it’s what transports relationship, it’s proven psychologically that people share relationships and more meaningful relationships with those they can communicate with. So asking immigrants to show a will to learn the local tongue along with the local culture and the local customs is a fair demand to make. Therefore I reiterate I’m for the motion, I think it’s a fair demand, I think it’s something useful to have.

Voice – Sebastian.

Sebastian – I’d like to say 5 things. You mentioned economic cost. We already had a debate on this, Dirk, and that’s migration has a positive net benefit on the economy of the country. And in fact, in these places, languages are not enforced, they’re not mandatory because we’re not talking about citizenship but we’re talking about migration. People do not require citizenship in this case. In fact, you talk about also meaningful social relationships but, come on, is this for the State to decide whether people should have meaningful social relationships? Of coursen not, it’s up to you. So English, yes, is kind of a default language, it is happening already. It is not practical to enforce a specific language to be learned by immigrants who are not going to stay long in your country – and even if they do, you’re going to create a phenomenon of discrimination as I said because some people either do not have the choice when they’re submitted in a country because of asylum and other actors, or they will not be able to bring in their family members who, on their side, will not be able to speak that language for whatever reason – because they’re old, grandparents, because they have less technical ability to learn that language, or because the language is also very complex, as I said, Chinese or Korean for us Westerners.

Dirk – So that’s it, that was today’s debate. Let us know what you think. Go to our webpage, leave a comment, tweet us, send us a message on Facebook, we are everywhere and love to hear what other arguments we could have used. Bye! I have a dream that everyone speaks English and French on the whole planet and that we all get along and we have peace and prosperity for everyone. Just French? Really, seriously? Have you heard Germans trying to speak French?

Sebastian – That’s fine, I’ll tolerate it!

Sebastian – I didn’t do as well as I thought I would.

Dirk – You’re doing an excellent job. And maybe we should stop that routine because I always feel like I suck and you seem to feel the same way, so let’s say we equally suck in these things and we’re getting better together! You could start mumbling something in your beard, like “oh I have to remove that and sh*t out of that”…

I’m shocked by the weakness of your argument so I’m trying to choose which one I’m going to already debunk but I’m think I’m going to leave that for my three minutes and leave you hanging.

Dirk – Yeah, of course, you picked the episode that that I have to start with. It’s your weak spot.

Sebastian – It’s coincidence. It’s just a topic I struggle a little bit. For every single debate, you’re going to try and sell me the fact that the side that is randomly decided is not the side you would have wanted. You got to give yourself an excuse me before the debate!


Dirk wrote: March 20, 2017 at 11:22 am

I think that Sebastian’s point on tourists was misleading in the context of our motion and so is yours. Neither a tourist nor a business professional is expected to engage with local authorities and it is very likely that they engage with people who are used to interact with them.

To your three arguments:
* “countries where large part of the population don’t speak the main local language” – well, you could argue that this brings a lot of problems as well, e.g. parallel societies or additional costs to bridge gaps.
* “it was never needed” – why do you think local languages have developed in the first place then? 😉 Language and customs are important transporters for relationships and culture. I think it is a massive overstatement to say “it was never needed and automatic translation will render it all the same anyway”. You will never auto-translate Goethe to Shakespeare and both will mean different things to native speakers of German than to native speakers of English…
* “you can’t get non-permanent visitors to learn the local language” – granted. This is why the motion talks about “moving to a foreign country” and not about “visiting a foreign country”

    Dr. Azrael Tod wrote: March 20, 2017 at 12:40 pm

    e.g. parallel societies or additional costs to bridge gaps.

    yes, indeed. So… do you wan’t to tell the sorbs that they now have to learn german or do I have to do that?

    You will never auto-translate Goethe to Shakespeare and both will mean different things to native speakers of German than to native speakers of English…

    What? totally misleading!

    That isn’t a problem at all… because there are good translations of Goethe or Shakespear to pretty much any language anyways. Your problem was that, missing the local language, understanding menues, signs or people talking to you when you ask for directions might be hard – and that’s exactly the kind of problem that automated translation tries to solve.

    At “it was never needed”:

    It – meaning an enforcement to learn the local language. Indeed there are good arguments why you should do so – i.e. it might be hard to find a job if you can’t talk to your coworkers.

    This is why the motion talks about “moving to a foreign country” and not about “visiting a foreign country”

    And you talked about reducing effort when we just assume everybody talks the local language – because everybody has to by law. But that will never be sufficient, because there will always people who don’t.

      Dirk wrote: March 20, 2017 at 1:30 pm

      >> “e.g. parallel societies or additional costs to bridge gaps.
      > yes, indeed. So… do you wan’t to tell the sorbs that they now have to learn german or do I have to do that?”

      You go. I look forward to hear how well you faired language-wise…

      >> “You will never auto-translate Goethe to Shakespeare […]”
      > “What? totally misleading!
      > That isn’t a problem at all… because there are good translations of Goethe or Shakespear to pretty much any
      > language anyways. Your problem was that, missing the local language, understanding menues, signs or people
      > talking to you when you ask for directions might be hard – and that’s exactly the kind of problem that
      > automated translation tries to solve.”

      You made my point for me. In essence I actually try to convey that there is more to language than menus, signs or basic conversations. Language influences your thinking, culture is transported in your local language and there are plenty of nuances and meanings that actually are not possible to translate, no matter how good the translations are. My point: If you don’t speak the local language at all, than you miss on a massive scale cultural context and probably will have problems building relationships outside your own community.

      >> “At “it was never needed”:
      > It – meaning an enforcement to learn the local language. Indeed there are good arguments why you should do
      > so – i.e. it might be hard to find a job if you can’t talk to your coworkers.”

      Agreed.

      >> “This is why the motion talks about “moving to a foreign country” and not about “visiting a foreign country”

      > And you talked about reducing effort when we just assume everybody talks the local language –
      > because everybody has to by law. But that will never be sufficient, because there will always people
      > who don’t.

      In the end this is actually a trade. A country grants different rights to residents (and more rights to citizens) than to tourists. E.g. as a resident and a citizen you got certain active and passive voting rights or the right to receive public support etc. In exchange for these rights you comply with certain standards and regulations. As a tourist the level is easy: You don’t break the law. But as a resident it also means things like declaring you taxes, certain mandatory insurances and maybe also a language requirement…

      Now, I’m with you that it may be not necessary to enforce and maybe even not practical. But I also think that it is not impossible or outlandish to make that demand…

      //D

Dr. Azrael Tod wrote: March 20, 2017 at 10:28 am

Well, you didn’t address the points in my last comment but there were new arguments supporting the notion that such a requirement is useless.

You mostly talked about english being the current “lingua franca” – and if knowledge of that language should be good enough, thus making this requirement useless.

I don’t really care if english (or french, spanish, mandarin or whatever) is currently the language “everybody” speaks – there has always been some language like that and it has never been enogh to talk to everybody everywhere. This might change due to globalisation (and we’re currently seeing how it starts to change) but I don’t think this will be complete in the next 10-20 years. (me listening to this podcast kinda makes mock of this statement – you two speak english, that isn’t your native language and I listen to it, although it’s not mine either)

tourists, traders and other visitors will never learn all the local languages, so the argument “if you don’t know the local language you expect all others to learn yours” is already moot.
The others are expected to learn other languages anyway and increasing global travel and communication just makes this more obvious.

Even better than the spread of currently not-that-globally-accepted languages like english or spanish: automatic translation is on the rise. It might not work perfectly to translate everything to any language now – but it probably will be sufficient in less than 10 years.

So to recount my problems:

* there are many countries where large parts of the population don’t speak the “main local language”
* this was never needed and tends to become less usefull due to globalisation/lingua franca, dying regional dialects and the rise of automatic translation
* you can’t get non-permanent visitors to learn the local language – so you’ll need most basic translations and knowledge for the population anyway


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