The Samovar

January 14, 2007, 10:28 am
Filed under: Politics, Religion

Been busy working, but a few things that have come to my attention over the past few days from two blogs that are well worth subscribing to:

Bruce Schneier writes about choosing good passwords, describing the scary software that can test  350,000 passwords per second and can find 25% of them instantly, and 50% of them within a few hours or days. Quick summary:

So if you want your password to be hard to guess, you should choose something not on any of the root or appendage lists. You should mix upper and lowercase in the middle of your root. You should add numbers and symbols in the middle of your root, not as common substitutions. Or drop your appendage in the middle of your root. Or use two roots with an appendage in the middle.

Not Saussure quotes the Telegraph:

Muslim mothers who do not speak English at home are stunting their children’s literacy levels, one of the Government’s most influential education advisers said last night. Sir Cyril Taylor, the chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, said that the failure of parents to speak English at home was a key reason why some schools were at the bottom of newly-published-league tables.

Not Saussure does a perfect job of demolishing this argument so I don’t have to. What interests me about this is that it’s another example of how being anti-Muslim is becoming more and more socially acceptable. This is something that should concern us all.


It’s strange, isn’t it? Most of the world is happily multilingual. Yet in Britain, we regard other languages as ‘difficult’. When we hear them – even our native Welsh – we treat them with suspicion – almost as as if these crafty foreigners are plotting against us.

And, yes – there is an increasingly insidious underrent of racism. Not that people necessarily realise that they’re being racist. From one point of view, people only want the best for the children of immigrants – decent eduction, integration into British society, etc. etc. But they’re making mistakes based on fundamental misconceptions. As with the immigration ‘problem’ in general – and as with Blair’s subtly racist comments about Muslims adopting British values, people should start by asking “Is there really a problem?” (And if so – is it the problem we assume it to be).

Schools can’t cope with Polish children.
The fact that there are suddenly many, many more Polish voices heard out and about is no kind of problem. If there’s a problem in schools – then surely it’s a problem of reorganising education departments to cope with the inevitable necessity of immigration?

Love the name ‘Not Saussure’, btw. It certainly signified with me.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Sadly I’m one of the ignorant English-only speakers. Got given a course on Russian for christmas though so as soon as I get a bit of time I’ll be on to that. My goal is to be able to read Tolstoy in the original.

Comment by Dan Goodman

I’m not claiming any great linguistic competence for myself. But isn’t it terrible? – We call ourseves educated, yet can’t even master something as simple as a second language.

R4 had a great programme a while ago about education in Finland. Kids start school at 7. Parents are discoraged from teaching them to read and write beforehand, but everyone learns in their first year (literacy is the world’s highest). Everyone also learns Swedish and English. Most learn an additional language, mainly French, German or Russian.

The best bit was when they looked at whether this was a universal pattern. They went to an inner city school and interviewed a Turkish-born teenager in a remedial/ delinquents class. Naturally, they interviewed her in English.

My next project is Urdu. Currently I’m reading a book about Volapük, set in Edinburgh.

Have I told you about Tolstoy’s use of ti/tu and vi/vous forms in Anna Kareinina?

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

It’s a constant source of shame for me that I only know one language. We should all be doing much better. (Although, to my credit, a couple of years ago I did translate a mathematics research paper from french to english using only my vague recollections of gcse french and a french to english dictionary. Well, I was pleased with myself anyway.)

Good luck with the Urdu. Do tell me about the Anna Karenina stuff. I think there may have been some things in the footnotes of the edition I read, but it was a long time ago now.

Comment by Dan Goodman

Thanks for the mention, Dan. Glad you liked my post. As I mentioned there, from my ex’s experience, both as someone who only started learning English when she was about 7 and spoke it well enough come over to do her A levels here and as a language support teacher back in the 1980s, learning languages isn’t a big thing for children, at least. As Edward the Bonobo says (thanks for the complement about my name; I thought of using Sweet Foucault, but decided better not..) it really isn’t — or shouldn’t be — a problem for schools when they’ve got children for whom English isn’t the first language. It just means teachers have to do things a bit differently, that’s all, and there’s plenty of experience and expertise there, or there should be.

As I understand it, we Brits have always had this thing that foreign languages are difficult; that, or so I’m told, is why there’s so much written in Anglo-Saxon and Old English as opposed to equivalent texts in other languages — it was because so few English priests, even, could manage to learn Latin. Why this should be I do not know.

I think nowadays it’s partly idleness and partly fear of embarrassment; people feel they don’t need to speak a foreign language because everyone speaks English and, anyway, don’t want to risk looking foolish because they can’t speak the other chap’s language properly. When my work took me to Russia a lot, I found it really easy to pick up spoken Russian — I never really bothered to learn to read it particularly well, because I didn’t really need to — because I didn’t mind having the Russians in stitches at attempts to speak them in their own language (it was a great ice-breaker, for one thing, and impressed them that I was making the effort), with the result that I could quite soon carry on a reasonably sensible conversation in the language.

Comment by notsaussure

I love this topic because I’m a firm believer that all children should be taught several languages before they are seven years old – apparently before this age children have an innate ability to absorb new languages without even trying and also without getting them mixed up. Sure, ‘fine tuning’ of grammar, etc would come later, but they would have the base languages in the ol’ hard drive. And would probably not have the fear of making mistakes and sounding silly.

I am more or less fluent in Spanish (though not as much as I should be) after having lived in Spain for 15 years. I can understand a bit of French from very badly taught highschool French classes back in Canada. And I can read and mostly understand Portuguese and Catalan as they are quite similar to Spanish.

“Muslim mothers who do not speak English at home are stunting their children’s literacy levels”

A couple I know in Salamanca (Spanish mother, Japanese father) have a daughter and have lived both in Spain and Japan. When living in Spain they only speak Japanese at home, when in Japan they speak only Spanish at home. The reasoning behind this is quite clear – as the child will be educated at school in the language of whatever country she is living in, speaking the ‘other’ language at home helps keep it alive for her. And she also learned English ‘on the side’.

I am so envious of these kids. I wish someone had made me learn five languages when I was five years old, like most Swiss and Dutch people do. Sure it’s a bonus to be a native English speaker in the sense of English being the language of choice for international business, etc. But the more languages (or bits of languages) I learn, the more I appreciate how just knowing ONE language leaves you at a loss in terms of expressing yourself as richly or exquisitely as you might like to.

So many expressions can only be understood in the original language as there are often no exact translations for them.

Comment by azahar

David Blunkett suggested that British Asians should speak English at home. As I said to am Urdu-speaking friend at the time “He doesn’t mind you asking someone to pass the spliff, as long as you do it in English.”

Tolstoy…Russiand of Anna Karenina’s social class would have spoken to one another in French and yould have vousvoyered, but to servants in Russian and would have tutoyered. Anna Kareinina is written entirely in Russian, but the reader would have understood when French was spoken. In a key argument with Vronsky, Anna switches languages and forms. This is completely lost in transaltion.

I really must get around to reading the new translation of War and Peace. I heard the translator speaking about his dissatisfaction with the soldiers’ language in previous versions. One soldier gets his leg blown off and says something like “Oh deary me!” The Russian had a far earthier epithet. It was a feminine noun, so he settled on “Bitch!”

Ain’t linguistics ace?

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

az, I feel just the same. I wish I had learned lots of languages when I was young too.

Ed, yes I think that in my edition the vous/tu thing was footnoted in that argument. It wasn’t a particularly recent edition I think, just quite good with its footnotes.

Comment by Dan Goodman


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