The Value of Learning a Second Language

What is the value of learning a second language aside from the obvious practical benefits : the fact that you can talk to people who don’t speak your first language, can read things which have not been translated, can politely talk to people who don’t find it easy to speak your first language and can read things in the original.

When I was in high school adults tried to convince me to try to learn a second language by claiming that it broadens the mind. They failed. Since then I have, more or less, learned Italian. What have I gained ?

My impression is that my mind reminds just about as narrow as it was before.

I asked Elisabetta Addis (the woman to whom I am married) what she gained from learning English. She said it was very useful, because by learning a second living language she learned that there is more than one way to structure concepts, that is that the structure of Italian is not the structure of truth, but is rather just one of many equally valid structures developed for historical reasons. I confessed that I have had the impression that Aristotle was not always totally clear on the distinction between his immense contributions to understanding Greek and to understanding thought and logic and would have confidently claimed that true though was only possible in Greek. I was as usual speaking from ignorance.

Trying to understand my different impression, she suggested that math is, for this purpose, like a second language (she learned English and math beyond a fairly elementary level simultaneously and imagine how fun that was).

I said that I suspect that part of the reason is that no one could possible mistake the structure of English for the structure of truth. Partly, of course, English spelling is totally arbitrary and makes no sense. Also English is not logical because it is part German and part French. For example to find if a claim is true one verifies it. Or steer meat is beef and sheep meat is mutton. That is, since English is a weird hybrid, English is its own second language.

If so, this is important, since the only people who have a choice about learning a second language or not are native English speakers.

My unassisted thoughts on the topic below the fold.
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Iberian update

Only time for a wuick update, but in case you haven’t been paying attention over the weekend, Spanish voters have voted in favour of the Constitution in a non-binding referendum. This now means that Zapatero will put the Constitution up for a vote in the Cortes – he had said he would only do so if the voters approved of it.

And Portugal has a new government after the opposition Socialists won an overall majority in their election at the weekend. As well as meaning that President Sampaio will work alongside a fellow Socialist, it also means that Europe will have a country led by Socrates – Socialist leader Jose Socrates.

fact and value, truth and knowledge

I would like to comment on an excerpt of a comment by Mike

“We might distinguish questions of fact (e.g. “which way will John vote at the next election?”) from questions of value (e.g. “is Blair’s outlook better than Brown’s?) by noting that the answers to factual questions may be true or false, but that the answers to value questions must always depend on and presuppose a point of view or value. Answers to factual questions do not presuppose a point of view or value – they presuppose the categories of true and false and must be framed in those terms (either we are correct in predicting that John will vote for X or, if he votes for Y we will have been shown to be incorrect).”

I think it will be important to define the word “knwledge” right now. I use “knowldge” to mean “justified true belief”. If we happen to guess right, we do not know. I will place great stress on the word “justified” in that definition.

OK back to the quote “answers to value questions must always depend on and presuppose a point of view or value” is implied by”answers to value questions must always depend on and presuppose a value”. In this post I will assume for the sake of argument that the stronger claim is true so answers to value questions must always depend on and presuppose a value. How does this make them different from claims of fact ?
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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Paul Samuelson is very smart but not always polite. When praising John Kenneth Galbraith he wrote something like “it would be wonderful to write his obituary” which only meant that it was enjoyable to write a encominium on Galbraith and any other more literal interpretation would be incorrect, funny and amusing to Prof Galbraith. Among Prof. Samuelson’s words of praise were, more or less, the following “he understood that economics is to important to leave up to the economists” Which is my effort to recall a translation of Clemenceau.

So the question is: “If you could write an encominium on a famous person in the mass circulation comments to a post in “A Fistful of Euros” who would you praise?”

The question is not “Does Robert Waldmann count how many comments each post gets and treat the number as a measure of his success ?” However, if anyone would like to post the comments “yes”,”that’s obviious”, “what a twit” or “that’s really the most pathetic form of self gratification I have ever heard of,” I will count them all the same.

So who would I like to praise ? Too keep the list under control I praise only people who died after I was born

My Mom should be famous
My Dad is almost famous
George Orwell
Vaclaw Havel
Nelson Mandela
Martin Luther King Jr
Jorge Luis Borges
Alan Turing ?
Larry Summers needs some praise right now and I won’t lie or anything but he was very patient with me.
Brad DeLong
Andrei Shleifer
Michael Kinsley
Graham Walker has tenure at MIT so he is sortof famous
Reinhart Selton is the most humble noble laureate that I have every met and he actually takes teaching undergraduates seriously.
Omigod I forgot to mention what an absolutely wonderful guy Salvatore Luria is.
I’m an economist so I have to talk about Kenneth Arrow even though I wish I could be a bit original.
Bernard Kouchner really deserves a better fate
John McCain should not be electe president of the USA even if he is an admirable person.
Happy is the nation that needs no heroes. Less happy is the nation full of people like me who didn’t appreciate Jimmy Carter
Why the hell was Andrew Young such a bad “permanent” representative at the UN ?
Paul Kafka is the nicest winner of the LA Times best first novel prize that I know
Many admirable and famous people who I know who are not going to get totally pissed at me for not mentioning them.

Click if you have nothing better to do than to read the actual praise.
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EU or USSR ?

I just read that a 4 year long investigation of Silvio Berlusconi was completed and that the investigating magistrates conclude that he missappropriated and did not pay taxes on “276,9 milioni di dollari, 9,4 miliardi di lire, 13,5 milioni di franchi svizzeri, 2 milioni di franchi francesi, 548.000 fiorini olandesi, a cui si aggiungono altre somme ancora da “quantificare”. ” According to the investigating magistrates the tax evasion continued for a while following a system “”elaborato negli anni ’80, e da allora costantemente seguito, fino al ’95”. (which means that Silvio was cheating on taxes while he was prime minister).

All in all it sounds like a rather important story wouldn’t you say ? However there was no (zero) mention of this on TG1 (main public nightly newscast) nor does any mention appear on televideo (text news on TV also public sector). Evidently the official accusation (based on banking records) that the prime minister is a megacrook isn’t news.

Which brings me to my question. Is this approach to news more typical of the European Union or of the Soviet Union ?

Sometimes it’s who you don’t vote for that counts

As many Fistful readers will be aware, it’s widely expected that there’ll be a General Election in the UK this May. Of course, because of the way our system works, no one can say for definite when it will be until the Prime Minister actually goes to the Queen and requests that she dissolve Parliament but all the signs on the Magic Political 8-Ball point to an election on 05/05/05 (for once, a date we can all agree on regardless of how you order days, months and years).

The UK remains the only country in the EU to use the First Past The Post electoral system which means that, thanks to the vagaries of the system, we can have electoral results that seem somewhat odd to an external observer. Since 1945, no party has won more than 50% of the national vote (the Conservatives came closest in 1955 and 1959) but only one election – in the February election of 1974 – has seen neither of the two main parties (Conservatives and Labour) achieve a majority of the seats in Parliament.
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What is Cultural Relativism ?

First I should say, as always, that I use blogs to write about things I know nothing about. So let me try to understand what cultural relativism might be.

Basically it begijns with the idea that should not judge other cultures. I think the origen might be with Herder who I try to translate “There must be no comparison. Each nation contains within itself it own happiness” or something like that. Substitute culture for nation and try to understand what he might have meant.

1. According to cultural relativists disrupting a culture is the worst crime.

That is CR might be an absolute ethical doctrine in which the objective moral truth is that no choice within a culture is as bad as an outsider attempting to fight a culture.

This is coherant but it is not relativist and I doubt that anyone believes it.

2. Each of us belongs to a culture somehow and our duty is to act according to it’s mores.

This has the fault of 1 which is that it might be the sum total of objective moral truth but that is not relativism and why would anyone think such a thing. Finally my culture tells me to be open minded and think for myself exploring what I might gain from other traditions. That means I can’t be at type 2 CR without logical contradiction. Finally how are people assigned to cultures.

3. We should choose a culture to obey and obey it.

All the faults of 2 but the last plus how to choose.

4. We can’t prove that one cultures moral principals are better than anothers. Therefore they are all equally valid. This applies equally to all views of right and wrong not just those of a “culture”. It also applies to purely hypothetical moral beliefs that no one has ever held. It is, I think, a confusion of knowledge and truth. From the obvious fact that we can not prove something right or wrong, it is concluded that there is no fact of the matter no moral truth. This obviously doesn’t follow. There is an excluded middle “everything that is true can be proven”. This is definitely false as has been proven (Godel’s theorem). Who ever thought such a silly thing.

Sad to say this is the well known distinction between ontological objectivity and epistimelogica objectiviity.

5. In fact the cause of our beliefs about right and wrong is our upbringing in a culture not God speaking to us or our deducing the catagorical imperative using neutral logic or anything like that.

I certainly agree with this. However, my belief in certain moral principals survives the conviction that I believe them not because they are true and their truth was made manifest to me somehow but because my mother and father thought they were true and they well etc back a million years. So ?

It seems to me that cultural relativism is either a moral imperative like any other except that no one would accept it as the be all of right and wrong or it is a confusion of the concepts “proven” and “true”

From Salvador to Rio.

Having missed my flight from Salvador back to Rio de Janeiro, I find myself in the airport?s cyber-caf? with a little extra time to spend. Alas, not enough to finish and type the lengthy post commenting on Amitai Etzioni?s thoughts about guilt and responsibility ? I began hand-writing it on another flight, but finding the right words usually takes time, and in this matter evidently more than with respect to most others. But I found something else sufficiently interesting to bring to your attention – browsing through online news I found some articles highlighting the ever increasing collateral damage caused when you let a US president crash on your couch.
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The Eloquence of Trotsky and Macaulay

The comparison of these two historians and historical actors is interesting because they appear to have nothing in common except for their extraordinary eloquence. Macaulay has been accused of writing history as ratification of the present. Trotsky has been accused of roughly everything else.

Consider these examples of eloquence. Both are quoted from memory (I am the only person too lazy to respect the journalistic standards of blogging). Each is the principal example in two essays which praise the eloquence of Trotskey and Macaulay respectively. I think the essay on Trotsky is the introduction to a collection of writings of Trotsky (I think this because I can?t find it in ?To the Finland Station?). The essay on Macauley is an article in The New Republic circa 1995.

?The assembly passed a resolution that there would be no negotiation with the enemy while their armies were on French soil. Danton asked ?have you made an alliance with victory? the assembly replied ?we have made an alliance with death??

A stiring line which also shows how Trotsky?s history mysticism had, by that point, driven him completely insane. Solidarity can fuse a group of individuals into a mighty historical force, but it can not make them think of the same snappy line at the same moment..

Macaulay was, of course, much more reasonable. He argued against anti semitism when arguing against legal discrimination against Jews writing ?we close all honerable professions to them then denounce them for becoming money lenders.?

Again eloquent, but it seems that the two cases of eloquence have nothing else in common. One displays the beauty of reason and good sence, the other the beauty of madness.

it seems that the two cases of eloquence have nothing else in common, but they do share one other trait. They are both word for word translations of Maximilien Robespierre.