An Official Language from a Foreign Land

by Juliet Sorensen on April 9, 2015

What are the merits of an official language that is no one’s mother tongue?

I asked myself that question on a recent trip to Mali, where French is the one and only official language of the country. French is the language of instruction from elementary through graduate school, the language of court proceedings and official documents. But according to linguists, Mali has no less than 66 languages spoken across its vast plain.

The result is that in addition to one’s native language, whether that be Bambara, Fulani or otherwise, French is spoken by any Malian with any significant level of education. Unfortunately, that is not an overwhelming percentage of the population: as projected by UNESCO, 62 percent of Malians are illiterate, and only 39.5 percent have enrolled in school beyond primary education. The official language of the homeland is thus incomprehensible and inaccessible to these many people.

Many Malians have assured me that there is an upside to their official language: it is predictable and uniform, without favoring one native language or local group over another. To be sure, French is the language of Mali’s colonial past: France governed Mali as a colony from 1892 to 1960, when Mali and France agreed peacefully to Mali’s independence. While one might assume that this translates into present-day resentment, in Mali, yesterday’s colonizer is today’s ally: in January 2013, the French led a military campaign called Operation Serval to stop Islamist rebels aiming to take over the country. According to a poll conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in February 2013, 97 percent of Malians approved of the French intervention.

So perhaps an official non-native language is a useful thing. Nonetheless, the problem of illiteracy and inaccessibility remains. For these reasons, the role of local news organizations broadcasting in local languages is vital. In Douentza, where we work, the local public radio station broadcasts the day’s news in Fulani- the most widely spoken language in the area- daily at 6 p.m. Founded in 1993, Rural Radio Daande Douentza was originally founded to provide local residents with information about politics, democracy, and rights. In addition, the station offers programming on health, agricultural work, the environment, social issues, local and international news, local announcements and plenty of local and national music.

One official language and lots of Radio Daandes? Seems like a workable arrangement.RuralRadioDouentza



Beryl 04.09.15 at 7:12 pm

Reminds me of my first trip to India where my host, rather than attempting to converse in the language of the particular state/region we were visiting, simply used English. “It’s the least controversial”, was his explanation.


Eszter Hargittai 04.09.15 at 7:53 pm

I find the politics (or whatever we want to call it) of language fascinating. It is hard to get many Americans engaged with the issues as it is so foreign to most (although I suspect there are plenty of exceptions among CT readers).

Living in Switzerland for a year during college was intriguing from this perspective. My impression is that Swiss from the German-speaking regions and Swiss from the French-speaking regions often just resort to English as it seems most fair to all involved. (That is, while they have to learn the other’s language, the francophones learn high German, which is not what most Swiss Germans use anyway and the Swiss Germans, while they certainly work on French, likely speak English better just like the francophone Swiss.) As for the Italian Swiss, I suspect it gets even more complicated.


Scott P. 04.09.15 at 7:56 pm



Metatone 04.09.15 at 8:11 pm

Crucial to the universities is that the work in a language where there are journals to publish in… from there you basically cascade back towards having an official schooling language that belongs to a “great power” (at least educationally.)

And tribal tensions should not be underestimated. Alas, they are real and promoting one of those languages to be the “first language” could be inflammatory.

Could they have more than one official language? They could, but it gets expensive…


MPAVictoria 04.09.15 at 8:33 pm

“Could they have more than one official language? They could, but it gets expensive…”

Yep just ask a Canadian how much it costs to provide everything in both official languages.


Omega Centauri 04.09.15 at 8:34 pm

Sounds a lot like India. Supposedly (I’ve never been there) there are scores of local languages, and English is used to comminucate with others.


js. 04.09.15 at 8:50 pm

Sounds a lot like India. Supposedly (I’ve never been there) there are scores of local languages, and English is used to comminucate with others.

This is true in the South (i.e. the state that is now Telangana and everywhere south of there—people in these states were _really unhappy_ with the imposition of Hindi as the national language), and possibly in West Bengal and further east (tho I’m not sure). Everywhere else in the country, Hindi’s as good of a bet as English, if not better.

(This is all obviously very broad stroke, and there are lots of local variations.)


Eszter Hargittai 04.09.15 at 8:51 pm

Different units here, but still on-topic. The EU seems to spend an enormous amount of money on translations alone. There are no easy answers when it comes to languages. But then again, who ever thought that countries would agree go get rid of their currencies and join in on the Euro? (Lots of varying issues with both cases, I don’t mean to simplify things, I just thought it was another related complex topic.)


MPAVictoria 04.09.15 at 8:53 pm

“Different units here, but still on-topic. The EU seems to spend an enormous amount of money on translations alone. There are no easy answers when it comes to languages. But then again, who ever thought that countries would agree go get rid of their currencies and join in on the Euro? (Lots of varying issues with both cases, I don’t mean to simplify things, I just thought it was another related complex topic.)”

We should all just use Esperanto ;-)


Collin Street 04.09.15 at 9:12 pm

> We should all just use Esperanto ;-)

But seriously, esperanto has some pretty nasty gender-marking issues[1] that render it unfit for its intended use in its current form. They were spotted pretty early and fixes proposed, but the user community at the time rejected the fixes and the people who cared about fixing the problem moved on to find different projects. Which means there’s basically no support remaining in the esperanto user community for people who want to actually make the language capable of fulfilling its intended purpose. Everyone today who uses esperanto is a person who sees no reason to fix baked-in sexism.

I have thoughts about exactly the motivations and understandings in play here, but basically esperanto’s a doomed project and has been since the fifties at least. Lojban would be more likely to succeed at this point.

[esperanto also has shortfalls in ill-defined and ill-selected phonotactics and phonology, a plain-old-stupid orthography and a vocabulary that could do with some work, but none of these are critical. Although man the orthography — circumflex-h? — is stupid, but they’ve made some progress on that]

[1] All words masculine unless explicitly marked for feminine, mixed-gender groups use masculine words. Some other stuff around the language’s being ill-defined, but the gender stuff is killer. It’d be acceptable in a real-world language, but esperanto has no natural user group and has to overcome higher barriers to come into use, barriers that really do not at this point appear likely to be overcome.


rea 04.09.15 at 9:25 pm

“It is hard to get many Americans engaged with the issues as it is so foreign to most”

Language can be hugely controversial in the US, actually, particularly with the number of Spanish-speakers increasing so much. I remember as a boy in New Mexico, staring in a majority-Hispanic school, and being shocked at the posted signs in the office forbidding use of Spanish in telephone conversations.


EWI 04.09.15 at 9:28 pm


But think of the benefits to thought and imagination in being able to have the mirrors of two cultures.


Walt 04.09.15 at 9:52 pm

Eszter, your impression of Switzerland is basically correct. The Italian Swiss are more likely to speak German just because they are more likely to move to the German-speaking region for work. One additional bit of trivia: school in the German-speaking region is conducted entirely in high German, so it’s not surprising that that’s what they teach in the French region.


CJColucci 04.09.15 at 9:53 pm

An acquaintance of mine was trying out his rudimentary Arabic unsuccessfully on a local shopkeeper who was, in fact, Iranian. I pointed out to him that Iranians aren’t Arabs and was about to say that they speak Persian, not Arabic, when it occurred to me that I simply didn’t know whether Iranians — at least those above a certain educational level — commonly did have competence in Arabic or not, and I’ve had no luck finding that out. Does anyone know?


MPAVictoria 04.09.15 at 10:09 pm

“But think of the benefits to thought and imagination in being able to have the mirrors of two cultures.”

Totally agree it is money well spent in many cases. :-)


MPAVictoria 04.09.15 at 10:11 pm

Thanks for the info Collin. I didn’t know any of that about Esperanto. I only knew the language exists because in Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat series that is what Everyone in the future speaks.


TM 04.09.15 at 10:13 pm

Never forget that the idealized nation state identified with a single ethnicity and language is a rare and untypical occurrence. Most people (certainly in Africa and Asia) live in multilingual polities, and to the extent that they don’t, it’s usually because of a history of suppression and assimilation of minorities.

Is it really true that most Malians don’t understand French?


novakant 04.09.15 at 10:30 pm

CJColucci: except for knowing the odd word that made it into Farsi due to the Islamic subjugation, the average Persian (whether educated or not) won’t speak Arabic at all – the two languages are very different. You’re better off trying your luck with English.


js. 04.10.15 at 12:00 am

except for knowing the odd word that made it into Farsi due to the Islamic subjugation, the average Persian (whether educated or not) won’t speak Arabic at all – the two languages are very different. You’re better off trying your luck with English.

This is a rather strange comment in multiple ways.

1. I don’t think most Iranians think of themselves, or of Iran, as being under “Islamic subjugation”.

2. While it’s true that Arabic and Farsi are different languages with quite different roots, I have good reason to think that it’s significantly more than “the odd word” that made it into Farsi from Arabic. (I speak some Urdu, e.g., and there are plenty of words in Urdu with Arabic roots, and Urdu is almost certainly getting almost all of them from Farsi.)

3. Assuming that educated Iranians learn a second language—which seems a reasonable assumption since people in most countries do—what language would an Iranian choose? I’m coming up with Arabic, English, and maybe French as plausible answers, and it wouldn’t seem at all surprising to me if Arabic were the most popular of the three (esp. post ’79, before that I’d guess English).

My point is, it actually seems a totally reasonable assumption that at least a plurality of educated Iranians has Arabic competence, and maybe well over a majority.


js. 04.10.15 at 12:35 am

A bit of googling, and this seems to suggest that Arabic is taught in all Iranian schools, tho it’s less than utterly clear (and it mentions that Arabic is the “second national language” as per the post-79 constitution—see p. 74, tho I’m not finding corroborating evidence for this).


Warren Terra 04.10.15 at 12:38 am

I know next to nothing about Iran, and little enough about Islam, but it was my understanding that the Quran is not supposed to be translated (or at least that translations may be sometimes useful but are not considered still to be the holy text, or in any way adequate for a true Muslim) – and so I’d have thought Iranians would often be taught some Arabic, much as Jews in the West often learn some Hebrew in Sunday School, only I’d have thought there’d be a greater impetus behind the instruction in Arabic because the Iranian state is so serious about Islam.


maidhc 04.10.15 at 1:07 am

In parts of North America where groups lived in proximity who spoke unrelated languages, we find:
Plains Indian sign language
Chinook jargon

Chinook jargon was based mostly on the Chinook language with, as I understand it, most of the grammar discarded, and some words from other Northwest languages, and later French and English.

Maybe Europe should consider going with Europanto. I know it was invented as a joke but with a little standardization it could evolve into something.


bianca steele 04.10.15 at 1:34 am

On the question of Iranians and Arabic, in the Iranian movie A Separation, is the father quizzing his daughter on Arabic vocabulary?


js. 04.10.15 at 2:03 am

I only vaguely remember the scene, but that would make a lot of sense wouldn’t it?


david 04.10.15 at 2:31 am

Maintain the policy long enough, and eventually it becomes the mother tongue.


Belle Waring 04.10.15 at 2:51 am

IME when you learn Arabic in order to study the Quran you learn a Classical form which no one speaks anymore. People learn it in Indonesia, for example, especially in Aceh. I had an Achenese friend who had a kind of bat mitzvah-type/confirmation in the church analogue at her mosque for which she claimed she had to memorize THE ENTIRE QURAN and get quizzed on it in a public ceremony. They learn it by singing it, like a cantor does, and actually how modern Indian kids whose parents force them to memorize the Rig-Veda do (sorry kids. Well, I guess you know the Rig-Veda now?) I could not bring myself to believe that my friend actually knew the whole Quran, but there you are. She left town to study Balinese traditional dance which she was insanely good at, and she wasn’t a lying person, so I don’t know. I guess actually I have seem those kids in India recite swathes of the Rig-Veda, so why not, but they weren’t doing ANYTHING ELSE their entire childhoods, while she was just doing this part of the time to become a full member of her religious community. In any case, she could not use any of that knowledge to speak Arabic or to watch the funny Cairene movie on the in-flight channel, because it was Classical Arabic that she knew. And I think if you as a random non-Arabic speaker are set down now to learn it you will imaginarily be from Cairo, just as, as a n00b French-learner, you are from Paris. But as Arabic varies widely, then you may have trouble getting by in Baghdad, even though you just spent a year studying Arabic. So people say. I don’t personally know it.


nick s 04.10.15 at 2:55 am

Irish is an interesting case here: unlike French in Mali or English in India, it’s the language of the colonised and not the colonisers, the primary official language of the nation, but the first language of a tiny percentage of the population. The number of people who claim proficiency and active usage in surveys is almost certainly a huge exaggeration (and usually means ‘I read Peig‘) which complicates the process of promoting the language, though TG4 and the gaelscoileanna seem to have made inroads.


Warren Terra 04.10.15 at 4:15 am

This thread probably wouldn’t be complete without a nod towards efforts to wipe out indigenous languages. I can’t do much more than a nod – I’m not terribly well informed – but even after the genocides and displacements stopped in North America there were concerted attempts to wipe out native languages and culture, especially in Canada, which was wont to confiscate children and place them in under-resourced boarding schools where use of native languages was severely punished. See also efforts in the British Isles, and I believe also in Australia.


js. 04.10.15 at 4:45 am

Re reading the Quran, Belle is right. I know plenty of Muslims in South Asia who can “read” the Quran without understanding a word of it—it is really more like an incantation. And yeah, I remember kids “learning”, i.e. memorizing large chunks of it, so it wouldn’t surprise me if some just commit the whole fucking thing to memory. It’s weird.

One thing though. It’s my understanding that if you’re a native Arabic speaker, you don’t really need to “learn” classical Arabic, you more or less understand it anyway. (As a side note, isn’t the same true of ancient vs. modern Greek—that’s at least what Greek friends have told me.) So I’d think something similar is true of fluent Arabic speakers as well.


Belle Waring 04.10.15 at 5:20 am

I thought it was different to the analagous point that I, as a good reader of Ancient Greek, can tell what an article in a modern Greek newspaper is about (unless it’s about monetary policy! which it probably is), but not any of the specifics, though randomly some words will jump out nigh-identical (verbs, weirdly). Maybe it’s only as bad as a modern English speaker reading the Canterbury Tales? However, an educated Arabic speaker will (probably) have read endless quotes and references by the time she is a literate adult, increasing Quran facility. The higher priests of the Curia all speak Latin; it was Pope Benedict’s only good quality, perhaps, that he could speak and write in Latin ex tempore quite perfectly. Only unpleasant things, but said beautifully.

One thing that is interesting is the usefulness of alphabets to the language they originally serve. A Jesuit modified the Latin alphabet to serve Vietnamese and it is beautifully rationalized now. I don’t really know what they had before. Cham people had a script like in Cambodia, I guess, in south Vietnam. Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia are very well served by the Latin alphabet as read with no ambiguous sounds. I should have learned one of them by now, it’s very lazy of me, they’re famously easy (to become moderately proficient in, vs., I don’t know, Russian), and I have business to transact in Indonesia. But I can’t start just now as it’s impossible to learn two different new languages at the same time (I’ve tried. Russian and Ancient Greek, actually. I had to drop Russian.) It would probably work if you were in Mali and wanted to learn French-sub-Mali and Fulani at once, because you’d get so much practice, but still one at a time is best.) Prior to that there was a local script based on Arabic but gone so curly and discrete that I’m not sure it wasn’t based on the South Indian scripts. It worked TERRIBLY. Educated Balinese people can read it fine, though, and if you look at street signs in Bali they have the old script on them also. Quite a view Finno-Ugric languages are ill served by unmodified Cyrillic compared to Hungarian or Finnish. I have to say I find characters that can represent a zillion different sounds and an array of meanings a poor lexicographical choice (and I’m the sort of person who taught herself Ancient Egyptian Heiroglyphics for fun!) I remember what each Japanese character means no problem but not all the sounds of the words it represents. My children remind me every day they have been doing this since they were three and I am a big baby and need to pick myself up and start learning characters. (My children aren’t dicks; they are just amusing themselves, and it is a fair comeuppance.) I do remember Violet coming home from kindergarten saying mournfully, “mommy, Mandarin is so easy to talk but it’s too hard to write.” I cheerfully told her that little Chinese girls have been saying that for thousands of years so she’d have to just buck up. I don’t know that they taught little girls to read so long ago, but…


Belle Waring 04.10.15 at 5:29 am

Warren Terra this is a good point. It’s different in a multi-ethnic country where the colonizers are gone, like India. I don’t think the government suppresses the tribal languages spoken in Assam except insofar as they oppress the people living in Assam state generally, but…OK, I just went and researched that and it does have some dying and near-extinct languages. There is always the problem of learning materials when you get to such a rare language and no natural base of support from outside. This seems like death by benign neglect, though, not Turkish schools forcing Kurdish children to speak Turkish, providing only Turkish textbooks, and punishing them for speaking Kurdish in an effort to, I don’t know, close your eyes and make the Kurds go away.


Working Class Nero 04.10.15 at 5:43 am

“Is it really true that most Malians don’t understand French?”

No it is not true, most Malians get by quite well with spoken French. Perhaps inadvertently, the article implies this by stating that 62% of the population are illiterate, which means they cannot read or write but does not mean they do not have a good spoken level of French.

Literacy is complicated in Sub-Saharan Africa. Written forms of the indigenous languages were rare before contact with Arab slavers and European colonizers. Many languages adopted either the Arabic or Latin script, it’s also not unusual that some languages adopted both forms. With the rise of African Nationalism in the 20th century, many languages also received a newly invented written form; specifically created by locals in order to avoid use of the colonizers alphabet. So some of the native languages have three written forms to choose from.

The other major problem are that the remnant post-colonial nation states in Africa typically have nothing to do with ethnic or tribal groupings. So with such a smörgåsbord of languages, written forms, and religious / ethnic groupings, using a major language like French as the official language makes a lot of sense. It also helps Malians when they immigrate to France or Belgium!


ZM 04.10.15 at 5:51 am

Belle Waring,

“I remember Violet coming home from kindergarten saying mournfully, “mommy, Mandarin is so easy to talk but it’s too hard to write.” I cheerfully told her that little Chinese girls have been saying that for thousands of years so she’d have to just buck up. I don’t know that they taught little girls to read so long ago, but…”

I had a professor who studies a Chinese language that developed as women weren’t allowed to learn normal Chinese writing they made a secret women’s written language called nushu in parts of China. They would write it on fans and embroideries, and orally I think it was not spoken but sung.


Peter T 04.10.15 at 8:28 am

The only place I know of that took indigenous languages seriously was the Soviet Union, where they tried to draw local boundaries to reflect ethnicities, and provided alphabets and printing and publishing and schools up to whatever level the numbers would support (so, say, instruction in Chuvash was in Chuvash at primary school, Chuvash and Russian at high school and then Russian at uni. With, of course, the usual fights, backsliding, bureaucratic attempts to impose Russian at lower levels, fights over boundaries and language status. Still, kept a lot of small languages alive, even flourishing.


novakant 04.10.15 at 8:44 am


wow, I make a short comment in response to a question and it gets turned into some sort of elaborately caveated argument hinging on all sorts of stipulations that might sound good on paper but don’t have any empirical value – gotta love the internets, lol …

so just two things:

– by “Islamic subjugation” I was referring to the Muslim/Arab conquests of the 7th century

– you cannot expect to communicate in Arabic with people in Iran / from Iran, just as you won’t get very far with Spanish in Paris, Dutch in Berlin or French in Rome


David 04.10.15 at 9:15 am

Fascinating conversation, and nothing so far about domestic US politics, he said snarkily.
Much has already been said but a couple of points may be worth making.
There are (at least) 2000 languages spoken in Africa, or about one third of the world’s total. The whole world was a patchwork like that once, but low population density and difficulties of communication meant that the pattern of lots of small local languages has lasted much longer than elsewhere in the world. The practical consequence is that people have to speak several languages as a simple survival mechanism, one of which is usually a former colonial language. Even in South Africa, where English is almost universally spoken, I’ve had a Sotho-speaking friend talk to me in English, talk to the security guard in Xhosa (a language they had in common) and talk to a Coloured friend in Afrikaans (although not the same Afrikaans as is spoken by the white community) all in the same hour or so. But actually you find the same thing outside Africa: Japanese and Koreans will communicate in English, for example, as will most Europeans from different language families. It’s all about convenience.
A second variant is where you have languages spoken by major regional powers, and you learn the language at school or for professional reasons. Russian in eastern Europe, of course, German in some areas, but also Spanish in Portugal and, conversely, Portuguese in parts of Latin America.
It’s against this background that you have to see the Mali example: seriously, what other choice is there? Curiously, African French, at least in its educated variety, is highly appreciated in France itself. The kind of French taught in the ex-colonies is much purer and more traditional than contemporary French in France, and much less full of franglais and globisch. A number of African (including Maghrebian) writers are highly valued in France for the elegance of their language.


JohnD 04.10.15 at 10:43 am

ZM at #33 – Japan’s hiragana script has some of the same history as nushu, with a happier ending – after a period of being mainly used as a script for educated women it was incorporated into the writing of the main language. Wierdly, it did not supplant chinese kanji characters completely (I say wierdly, because from a a Western perspective it is both beautiful and a more efficient and easily learned way to represent the Japanese language). It may still do, one day – I remember a fuss a few years back when young supporters of the Prime Minister (Koizumi, I think) paraded banners with his name spelled in hiragana because using kanji was just too damned hard.


Harald K 04.10.15 at 11:42 am

Collin Street, the idea that gendered nouns and work titles carrying gender makes Esperanto unsuitable for its intended purpose, that’s … your opinion. They could accommodate that objection, of course… but it’s far from the only objection that could be made. Some people see that as problematic, then some people see the mostly western grammar and roots as problematic, then some people will say this sound and that sound are too hard to pronounce for Chinese people, etc.

The reason Esperantists didn’t “fix” their language in the way you care about was that at the point it came up, they were bloody tired of schisms over that sort of thing (1), so they decided to freeze the fundamentals of the language, and let the rest work itself out by actual usage. You’re free to use gender neutral work title constructions and alternate gender pronouns in Esperanto (a ton have been proposed), it works just like in English: if enough people start doing it, it becomes standard.

The Esperanto folks just decided they were done with top-down changes to the language, which when you think about it, is a change that has to come sooner or later.

(1) I heartily recommend “In the land of invented languages” by Arika Okrent for a part of the story.


Belle Waring 04.10.15 at 3:00 pm

JohnD: they had a chance to ditch all the characters and didn’t go for it?!?! WAT. I want to be Japan’s Abe Simpson. “Please eliminate these kanji and just stick with hiragana. P.S. I am not a crank”


Belle Waring 04.10.15 at 3:04 pm

It does seem as if a lack of educational materials for young speakers are part of the barrier to success for speakers of small languages. Most people in Lombok (90%) are ethnically Sasak, but go to schools where they are meant to become literate in Bahasa. On the one hand you need to be able to speak to the wider world, or rather, the rest of your country, and island, even. On the other it must be tough going for young students at the start; I’ll have to ask how it’s organized the next time I’m there.


Z 04.10.15 at 3:34 pm

JohnD: they had a chance to ditch all the characters and didn’t go for it?!?!

They had (at least) two chances, check out the Nihon-Shiki movement during the Meiji Revolution/Restauration (I love it that the Japanese call their revolution, much more revolutionary than any European one, a Restauration). Much recommended panels on the topic at the Edo-Tokyo museum.

But once you have mastered kanji, reading makes so much more sense: the meaning and etymology just jump at you the way they never, or rarely do, with alphabetic language (case in point, I recently learned the existence of the word halobate and its pretty cool real-world referent; this is written in alphabet, so not so many people immediately see what I mean, though Belle does; were we conducting this discussion in kanji, everything would be clear to everyone and no one would ever forget this word).

So trust me Belle, a couple of hundred kanjis more and you won’t be able to imagine reading in hiragana again, and I say this as someone who has remained stuck at the level of Harry Potter for 7 years now.

Anyhow, I think it was Ken Hale that said that anyone should study once in her life the grammar of an unfamiliar language, and this was great advice. It’s definitely my great-grand-father who instructed his children (from his cobbler shop in rural Normandy) that in their life, they would have to learn to swim and to speak a foreign language.


Guano 04.10.15 at 4:09 pm

“Curiously, African French, at least in its educated variety, is highly appreciated in France itself. The kind of French taught in the ex-colonies is much purer and more traditional than contemporary French in France, and much less full of franglais and globisch.”

Yes, indeed. In Mali and Burkina Faso you have to be careful to use a more formal French than you would in France. Always use “vous” for “you”, and not “tu”, for example.

The ex-Portuguese colonies in Africa have also tended to stick to Portuguese as the official language just to avoid arguments (though there are sometimes arguments in Cabo Verde about the which form of Creole is more authentic).


js. 04.10.15 at 5:53 pm

I, as a good reader of Ancient Greek, can tell what an article in a modern Greek newspaper is about (unless it’s about monetary policy! which it probably is), but not any of the specifics, though randomly some words will jump out nigh-identical (verbs, weirdly)

Right. What I’ve heard tho is that it’s a lot easier in the other — i.e. modern to ancient — direction. Because, roughly, ancient Greek is like a subset of modern Greek. Or something like that. This anyway is what a Greek friend told me—it’s not impossible she was exaggerating the ease of learning ancient Greek.


Vanya 04.10.15 at 8:22 pm

The analogy to Arabic in Iran would be Latin in Germany. Many educated Germans learn at least a few years of Latin in Gymnasium, even now. German has a lot of Latin loan words. If you walked around Cologne trying to speak Latin to people, they would probably find you bizarre (just as someone trying to speak classical Arabic in Iran would be bizarre) but you would probably be able to communicate your needs and wants successfully. Trying to speak Egyptian or Iraqi Arabic in Iran is analogous to speaking Italian or Spanish in Germany. Chances are you will find someone who speaks that language, but most people won’t. In both cases, Iran and Germany, English is probably a better bet for communication.


David 04.10.15 at 9:00 pm

On the Kanji issue, what I was told by my teacher (and seems to be confirmed by experience) is that the adoption of Chinese characters to write a completely different language (bearing in mind that Chinese languages, as such were not imported) actually caused lots of practical problems. Chinese languages are tonal, for example, and often unisyllabic, whereas most Japanese words are polysyllabic. This meant that hiragana had to be retained if Japanese words were to be written in their entirety. Thus, you often see Japanese words written in a mixture of Kanji and hiragana, or hiragana letters added to distinguish, say, nouns from verbs.
As Z says at 41, though, ideograms give a whole new level of experience, and I was fascinated by them, though I’ve forgotten most of them now. For example, the character for “man” (otoko in Japanese) is made from two characters meaning roughly “strength” and “field” – i.e. the person who works hard in the field, at a time when practically all Japanese males were agricultural laborers. A more literal translation would therefore probably be “farmer”.


maidhc 04.10.15 at 10:51 pm

Before the Vietnamese used alphabetic characters, a lot of official documents were written in classical Chinese (analogous to medieval England doing official documents in Latin, I suppose). There was also a writing system called chữ nôm that used Chinese characters for their sound value in representing Vietnamese. So to use this writing system you first had to learn to speak and write Chinese. Because a lot of Vietnamese sounds don’t occur in Chinese they also had to come up with many extra characters.

I imagine the adoption of the standard alphabetic representation did a lot for education. The current literacy rate in Vietnam is over 90%.

There are quite a few minority languages in Vietnam. I think not all of them have a written form.


maidhc 04.10.15 at 10:55 pm

The exact ethnic composition of Iran is unknown, as there is no official data. The CIA World Factbook has estimated that Persians constitute 61% of the population, Azerbaijanis 16%, Kurds 10%, Lurs 6%, Arabs 2%, Balochs 2%, Turkmens and Turkic tribes 2%, and others 1% (such as Armenians, Georgians, Circassians, and Assyrians).[29] It found Persian to be the first language of 53% of the population, Azeri and other Turkic dialect being spoken by 18%, Kurdish by 10%, Gilaki and Mazandarani by 7%, Luri by 6%, Balochi by 2%, Arabic by 2%, and other languages at 2%.

Most people in Iran whose first language is not Persian (47%) speak it as a second language. Many people would also have some acquaintance with Arabic from studying the Quran.


Ian 04.10.15 at 11:19 pm

Most people in Lombok (90%) are ethnically Sasak, but go to schools where they are meant to become literate in Bahasa. On the one hand you need to be able to speak to the wider world, or rather, the rest of your country, and island, even. On the other it must be tough going for young students at the start; I’ll have to ask how it’s organized the next time I’m there.

It’s presumably the same in Lombok as in almost all Indonesia except for some of the remotest parts of eastern Indonesia: the first three years of primary school are in a mix of the local language and Indonesian, and thereafter it’s all Indonesian. This may not be as tough as it sounds – most kids (except in those really remote areas) will have become conscious of Indonesian on TV and radio as soon as they become conscious of language. And many local languages in Indonesia, plus Indonesian itself, have pretty complex systems of diglossia – from early on kids have to start handling the different levels even within the family, let alone in wider contexts. So learning a new language, that all your classmates are learning at the same time, is in a sense an extension of this.


Ian 04.10.15 at 11:46 pm

More relevant to the OP, a friend who used to work on setting up local radio stations in Indonesian Papua told me this story. The radio stations had to broadcast in Indonesian – not just because of state-imposed conformity, but because usually each station would cover an area where several different local languages were spoken, and Indonesian was the default lingua franca. One day an announcer in one of the highland stations, going through his list of community news and announcements, decided to switch from Indonesian to the language of the town & valley where the station was located. Towards the end of his broadcast the station manager came into his booth in alarm: half the town was mobbing the station and demanding to know how it was their language was being spoken over the airwaves. Surely this was physically impossible? The announcer let some people into the booth and showed them there was no technological reason why a microphone would accept only the Indonesian language. In an instant he became a local hero.


AW74 04.11.15 at 7:05 am

I grew up in Kenya and visit regularly – you see an interesting variant on this theme there.

Kenya’s boundaries got set Berlin in the 1880s and as a result the country has probably 30-40 languages, in three main language groups that are really fundamentally different from each other. So a Kikuyu speaker can usually get by quite easily in Kamba but Maasai is utterly different

English and Swahili are the official lingua francas, which everyone will speak (to some basic level) as well as their own language. So everyone is multilingual. I think functionally it would be necessary to have some sort of lingua franca, and politically it is an advantage that English and Swahili are not the home language of any major tribal grouping*

There is an irony in that it has become common practice that one speaks Swahili to those viewed as somehow socially lower on the scale (e.g. junior employees) and English in the other direction. So a well meaning tourist trying to learn some Swahili and speak it a) is not necessarily speaking their counterpart’s first or even second language b) may come across as trying to talk down. The perils of multilingualism…**

* The only people who speak Swahili as a first language are a smallish set of tribes on the coast. They very much look down on the poor quality of everyone else’s Swahili

** Comparable only to what I encountered in Brussels when i mistakenly thought it woudl be culturally sensitive to try to speak French to what turned out to be a Flemish nationalist taxi driver. There is a nice irony in having the supposedly post-nationalist EU keeping its legislative centre right on the front line of one of the more vicious modern-day language / culture spats…


Peter Erwin 04.11.15 at 11:14 am

As maidhc pointed out, there is a small fraction of the Iranian population (mostly in the southwestern province of Khuzestan, bordering Iraq) who speak Arabic as their first language. Students in Khuzestan apparently have academic problems because teachers who come from other parts of Iran rarely know Arabic, and local teachers are discouraged by semi-official government policy from using Arabic in the schools.

two former Khuzestan Province teachers who currently live outside Iran said that the government’s refusal to allow the teaching and speaking of Arabic in schools has led to poor grades and an increase in dropout rates among Khuzestan students….


“Many of the teachers who teach in Khuzestan Province schools have come from other provinces and don’t speak Arabic. The non-Arab speaking teachers are incapable of understanding the students in class …”


Collin Street 04.11.15 at 11:41 am

The reason they still use kanji in japan is pretty simple: japanese written in straight hiragana is basically illegible.

Complex reasons.
+ because of the way grammar and inflections are written in hiragana and actual words-proper usually written in kanji — or katakana if there’s no kanji — the script alternation actually serves the same purpose as word spacing. Reading japanese in kana It’s a pretty regular occurence — once a paragraph? — that you missjudge word boundaries and have to rewind half a sentence.
+ this is a font issue, but kana are actually written slightly smaller than kanji in the same font, and fit more loosely into the character box, which has the effect of making the kanji look slightly bolded; for kana-only text in current fonts this manifests as big gaps between characters that make it hard to follow a line of text. And since kana are pretty uniform in shape, there’s no signposts, and jumping to the next line can happen fairly often.
+ man japanese written in kana takes up a lot of space.


chris y 04.11.15 at 1:28 pm

The type of the opposite approach to that of Mali and India must be South Africa, which has eleven official languages, covering the first language of about 98% of the population. Given the historical context it’s easy to see that this was the only option available to them, but it must create a wonderful labour market in translation and interpretation. In a multilingual country where it’s politically tolerable to impose a single official language, it must have considerable advantages of efficiency.

Esperanto, contra proposals above, would be politically unsuitable for India, Iran, Mali or South Africa, as it’s almost entirely derived from European languages; however, it might be just the thing for the EU – advantages of efficiency and all. Does anybody know whether there’s any truth in the widespread belief that Esperanto is George Soros’ first language?


Peter T 04.12.15 at 1:55 am

There used to be 16 languages on the Indian banknote – all official (there may be more now). Very many Indians are multilingual, but you can get by in Tamil Nadu or Bengal with just Bengali or Tamil – the state language is there for all official purposes. Oddly enough, official Hindi was standardised on the Varanasi version, which is close to unintelligible for most western speakers (although learning standard Hindi is much easier for a Delhi native than for a Tamil or Kannada speaker). So it’s the same for India as for Indonesia and Kenya – the official language is native to a minority.


Boumeur 04.12.15 at 3:25 am

I lived in Côte d’Ivoire for a couple of years back in the 70’s in Korhogo, which is pretty close to Mali and what was then called Upper Volta. I almost never heard vous from anyone but the French, and they never every vouvoyed any African unless it was the chief of police, maybe.

Most people in Côte d’Ivoire knew some French, but it’s a way different kind of French, we called it pidgin French although that might be technically incorrect. When I’m in France I generally drop by flea markets and look for the guys selling fake African masks to exercise it– it’s the only foreign language I ever sort of mastered and it doesn’t seem to stay long with most immigrants.

There’s a French powdered chocolate drink called Banania, and up until the late 70’s its slogan was “y’a bon”, which is West African French– you might still see it on the walls in some older métro lines. Same idea as the golliwogs you probably don’t see in England any more, or the lawn jockeys you don’t see here or they’ve been painted white, mais ça me décourage que le patois ç’a pas duré là-bas-là quoi. You can also hear it in the movie “Black and White in Color.”

Almost every African of every tribe could speak and count in at least market Dioula, which is supposed to be pretty much Malinké or Bambara, the Dioula being basically a commercial disapora of Malinké, I think. I figured it was something like Swahili in East Africa. I had a Baoulé student who lived with me and a Senoufo cook, and they had intricate discussions and disputes in Dioula.

The advantage of French as the only official language is of course that there are supposed to be around 90 indigenous languages in Côte d’Ivoire, none of them written and none spoken by a tribe powerful enough to impose it on everyone else. The radio did fill in some for people who couldn’t understand French, but most of those people probably didn’t care much for bureaucratic news anyway. It didn’t seem as if anyone who did speak French felt disadvantaged or oppressed by it, or wanted to replace it with Esperanto.


jwl 04.12.15 at 1:24 pm

Colin Street,

Both of those objections are pretty minor and would be easily solved by minor orthography changes, like say putting in spaces. Not a big deal.

The great advantage of ditching kanji and more importantly Chinese characters, is that literacy would go way up. China claims very high literacy, but that is really viewed as some kind of sub-literacy, say 3000 characters. So one can “spell” common words, but has no idea how to write fumigator or French press in Chinese characters. Many Chinese learners have remarked on the pleasure they receive seeing native college-educated Mandarin speakers forgot how to write down words because they have forgotten the characters.

There was a huge movement in China to use pinyin (Latin script) for Mandarin. There were two main reasons it failed. The first was that the academic classes, who had put truly ridiculous amounts of effort into learning characters, didn’t want to lose that power and influence over everyone else (who are often semi-illiterate) and blocked reform. The second is that maintaining characters allows the government to maintain the fiction that one script can produce a unified Chinese nation. (It’s not true, of course, since each main Han language in China requires its own special characters, and the spoken languages aren’t mutually intelligible.)

Japanese is better off since it has dispensed with a lot of Chinese characters, but of course it has two different systems that are essentially the same to preserve the Japanese language from “foreign” words that will pollute its vital essences.

The Koreans did this right, and hopefully they will soon be able to purge Chinese characters entirely from everyday writing so that it can go back to being a study for the few strange people who enjoy punishment and aesthetics over literacy.

France is the most zealous in its desire to establish a national language for everyone and destroy its other indigenous languages. That’s why we should laugh long and hard at them when they complain about French losing influence and exposure among the world’s languages. Live by the sword of language extinction, die by the sword of language extinction.


David 04.12.15 at 6:58 pm

@jwl. I can’t speak for China, but the rate of literacy among ordinary Japanese people is extremely high in spite of having three systems of writing to learn (about which children complain endlessly). And modern Japanese is absolutely stuffed with foreign words, but written in katakana, which, because it is syllabic rather than alphabetic, mangles foreign words horribly (go-ru-fu-re-n-do for girlfriend etc). I have passed many hours staring at katakana trying to work outwit the hell the foreign word it’s trying to transliterate is.
As regards France I’m not sure what the point is. There was certainly a sustained attempt to make everybody learn standard French at school, but this was under the Third Republic (see Bordieu’s book on politics and language). This was part of building a unified Republic and incidentally ensuring equality of opportunity. The languages didn’t become extinct, though, and Breton, for example, has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Amusingly (or not) there are now moves to teach French children of Maghrebian extraction Arabic, to “put them in touch with their roots”.


jwl 04.12.15 at 9:16 pm


The remark about Japanese vital essences was mostly a joke. It is somewhat ridiculous to have two distinct syllabaries that do the same thing, but ok. Since Japanese has limited its use of characters, literacy is still possible, though obviously more difficult. Chinese doesn’t have an acceptable variant (though pinyin and bopomofo do sometimes fill that role), and so people literally can’t spell words if they forget the character representation.

The point vis a vis France is that substantial effort by the French state was undertaken to destroy all the other native languages of France, because they were viewed as treasonous to the state. “The language of the republic is French.” Alsace-Lorraine was only 4% French speaking in 1918, and now Alsatian is endangered, for example.

France refuses to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and severely restricts public schooling in other languages. I hadn’t heard of this effort to teach children Arabic, but it represents a sea change in French attitudes. I’ll be more impressed when you can get educated in Basque, Flemish, Occitan, or German though.


dsquared 04.12.15 at 10:06 pm

Curiously, African French, at least in its educated variety, is highly appreciated in France itself. The kind of French taught in the ex-colonies is much purer and more traditional than contemporary French in France, and much less full of franglais and globisch

Not sure it’s purer – French people just find accents charming, rather as we do the French accent. My wife is always complimented on sounding exactly like Petula Clark.

PS: Occitan is kind of totally dead, but you absolutely can get educated in Euskara in France (at the Ikastola in Biarritz) , and Breton-language education is almost thriving.


Peter T 04.13.15 at 1:08 am

And not just France. Welsh gained official status in Britain in 1965.


Bruce Wilder 04.13.15 at 1:30 am

Does Welsh have official status much beyond the bounds of Wales (or cases that originate in Wales or programs executed in Wales)?


dsquared 04.13.15 at 1:38 pm

Well, even Plaid Cymru doesn’t hold out much hope of it getting official status in England … but the Welsh Language Act is actually pretty strong in terms of giving the right to Welsh speakers to do all their business with public authorities through the medium of Welsh. If you look carefully on most UK Government websites, you’ll find a link to a Versiwn Cymraeg. I once, in order to wind up a mate, claimed that I wanted to go through the entire FCA registration process entirely in Welsh, and we ended up concluding that if I had decided to be a dick about it, they would indeed have had to translate everything.


Z 04.13.15 at 2:35 pm

I’ll be more impressed when you can get educated in Basque, Flemish, Occitan, or German though.

I think you are partly stuck in the France of 40 years ago. It is true that France actively eradicated most of its regional languages in the 1890-1970 period but since then, there have been active official efforts to revive them, and they have proved mildly successful. So in the 2000s/2010s, it is indeed extremely frequent (and quite popular, especially in the upper middle class) to receive at least part of one’s primary education in Alsacian, German, Corsican, Breton, Occitan, Catalan, Tahitian, Basque or Creole (depending on the size of the relevant area, these languages are taught to anywhere between 200,000 to several thousands children). However, it is true that these efforts are somewhat artificial, as the number of native speakers is usually too low to maintain an active speaking community and has been so for decades, and it is also true that Picard, Flemish and Francoprovencal have been left out. The latter, at least, seems to me to be on the verge of complete extinction.

France refuses to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and severely restricts public schooling in other languages.

As I just mentioned, the second part of the clause is nowadays completely false. The first part is also very misleading. François Hollande, the current President, pledged to ratify it, tried to ratify it but was blocked by the Conseil Constitutionnel from doing so. Since then, the executive and legislative branches have moved towards a modification of the Constitution that would allow the ratification (and the vote in favor of amending the Constitution in the Assembly gained a large bipartisan majority). In the meantime, France has signed in 1999 the part of the Charter pledging to officially encourage schooling in regional languages (and has indeed kept this pledge).

So it is not really the case anymore that France “refuses” to ratify the Charter. Rather, its executive and legislative branch are overwhelmingly in favor (and so would thus presumably be the general population), but technical details of constitutional law prevent the ratification for the moment.


EWI 04.13.15 at 5:45 pm

Warren Terra @ 28

“See also efforts in the British Isles”

The Statutes of Kilkenny were the first to outlaw Irish dress, music and language, and post-seventeenth century the language was denied any official recognition in the new British kingdom. But the death of the language came with the rise of the so-called ‘constitutional’ (i.e. proceeding on the basis of accepting a legitimacy of British rule) forces which arose with Daniel O’Connell, and the Famine and subsequent tradition of emigration to English-speaking countries destroyed the backbone of the language. There was a strong Gaelic revival at the turn of the twentieth century, with many new learners being only the first or second-generation of monoglots, but the legacy civil service in the new State succeeded in dooming the language to decline again.

Dsquared @ 62

“claimed that I wanted to go through the entire FCA registration process entirely in Welsh”

Heh. To myself and many other Irish people, the ‘FCA’ will always be An Forsa Cosanta Áitiúil, an institution of local Irish life for most of the twentieth century – and incidentally, the guys who brought you the battle scenes in both BRAVEHEART and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN:


Jon W 04.14.15 at 12:00 am

David@45: It’s important not to fall into the etymological fallacy here. Yes, the Japanese ç”· (man) contains the character for “strength” and “field”, but it’s also the case (to pick characters largely at random) that the character çš„ (typical of, target) combines the characters for “white” and “ladle”, and the character å½¼ (him) combines characters meaning “stop” and “skin.” One can make up mnemonics with these, but they don’t have larger significance.


reason 04.15.15 at 7:26 am

I’m sort of puzzled here that the language is being seen as the source of the problem and not the boundaries or the lack of education.

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