Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Meanwhile in the rest of the world

There is a wave of demonstrations in Tibet. Tibetans are rising up against Chinese rule. China claims that Tibet is Chinese - Tibetans disagree. The demonstrations have been violent and the Chinese reaction has been both predictable - shoot into the crowds - and suprising - we're actually hearing about it. China is blaming the Dali Lama for tolerating and even instigating violence in Tibet. The Dali Lama however has been begging his people to adopt non-violence. The latest news is that he is threatening to resign as political leader of the government in exile if the violence doesn't stop.

In Belgium the Francophones (Walloon) and Flemish speakers (a dialect of Dutch) have finally come to an agreement and 9 months after the last election, a government has been formed. This isn't the first time Belgium has been plagued by this kind of crisis. The new Prime Minister, Yves Leterme (a Flemish speaking Christian Democrat), will lead a government of two Dutch speaking and three French speaking parties. The coalition will also include Christian Democrats, Liberals an Socialists. The sticking point for the last 9 months was the unwillingness of the Walloon (Francophone) parties to agree to Leterme's plans to devolve power to the ethnic regions. Belgium is about 60% Flemish speaking and 30% French speaking and about 10% mixed (mainly bilingual people in Brussels) or other (there are immigrants of course and there is a German speaking minority along the border). The government was only able to form when this issue was dropped. Given that they parties span the ideological spectrum, I would not count on them being able to agree on much else either. I would not count on this government lasting very long.

Related to this point is that Leterme wants to let majority Flemish speaking areas to conduct their business in Flemish. French speakers have refused to go along. Having been to Belgium, I can tell you that every Flemish speaking Belgian I met also spoke French (and English and German) but very few of the French speaking Belgians could speak anything other than French (although the older ones seem to take orders in German rather well - that's funny story for another time). Leterme (officially "bilingual" and the son of a Walloon) was so indiscreet as to make a racist comment related to this problem. He said that Walloons were "incapable of learning Dutch." Oh well. So we had 9 months of government crisis and will probably have a short lived government now with new elections relatively soon.


The Law Talking Guy said...

Of course, the Flemings can't admit the real problem. They speak Flemish, a variant dialect of a small language (Dutch). Learning French is, as it is all over the western world, part of a world-class education. Dutch ain't. So Flemings have many reasons to learn French (and English) unconnected with the situation at home. But a Walloon would only learn Flemish to speak to his Dutch-speaking countrymen.

Raised By Republicans said...

Well, the other little factor is that the Flemish parts of Belgium are better off economically and have been subsidizing the welfare state in the Waloon areas for decades. But the old pre-Demcoratic aristrocracy is French speaking.

Dutch isn't that small a language. There are 6 million Dutch speakers in Belgium, another 16.5 million Dutch speakers in the Netherlands, plus a smattering of Frisian speakers in Germany.

Besides, if you live in a country where the majority speaks a different language from you, it would only be polite to learn it. Especially if they are required to learn yours.

The Law Talking Guy said...

1. American schools teach French, not Flemish. Why is that? Because French is perceived as having more value as a second language, for a host of reasons, cultural, economic, and so forth. My point then is that, all things being equal, one would expect more Dutch to learn French than the reverse.

2. As for the majority of Belgians speaking Dutch, that may be true mathematically, but Belgium has been founded on the idea of french-dutch equality -i.e, the French don't have to accept a 'minority' status and assimilate.

3. 16.5 million is a pretty small language (Wikipedia says 23 million). Sure, it's not Navajo or Manx, but French is an official language in 31 countries and spoken natively by some 70-100 million depending on how it is counted. Another 250 million or so speak it as a second language. French is also one of the six official languages of the UN. All US passports are bilingual in English and French. Also, French is way better for getting chicks.

Raised By Republicans said...

Look, I know you're just trying to get my goat with your Germano-phobic Franco-snobbery.

The issue from the Flemmish point of view is that they go to the trouble to learn both of the official languages of Belgium. Francophones do not. It annoys them - and I don't blame them. When you add the economic differences between the communities, you have a real reason for political division.

By European standards, 23 million speakers (16.5 million in the Netherlands and 6 million or so from Belgium), is one of the more commonly spoken langauges in Europe. Twice as many people speak Dutch as speak Portuguese. We're not talking about Luxembourgish here (which is closely related to Dutch by the way).

The Law Talking Guy said...

I'm not trying to get your goat; I think my point is valid. If French weren't the co-official language of Belgium, many Flemings would still learn it. So they shouldn't be patting themselves on the back so much, or condemning the Francophones for refusing to choke on consonantal clusters that look like a typewriter jammed and vowels that sound like a pig giving birth. just saying.

Pombat said...

Maybe it should just be law that any child educated in Belgium learns both languages at school, from the very start of their education? That's how it is in Wales now (possibly high school only), and I'd say Welsh is a lot less useful than Dutch. Plus it's about the only language I know of that should come with complimentary umbrellas for the listeners.

Or maybe access to welfare state benefits should depend upon your linguistic capabilities? If you can only speak one of the languages, regardless of which one, you get a percentage of the welfare, calculated as the percentage of the population who also only speak that language?...

More people in the world do speak French, yes (it's easier than Dutch for a lot of people after all), but it's still rude that the Francophones refuse to learn one of the two official languages of their country, whilst expecting the non-Francophones to learn both - as you said LTG, Belgium was founded on French-Dutch equality.

Further, the argument about learning French anyway is a bit of a fallacy - looking at the world today, I'd happily swap my high-school French education for some Spanish.

And isn't the US passports being in English & French point more of a historical thing for the US than a reflection of the world today? The bulk of my passport's just in English (and proper English at that ;-p), with translations of the key words/phrases into eleven different EU languages, with French fifth on the list (got this passport in 1998), and my previous, EC, passport from 1992 has nine different translations, with French again fifth.

Tibet - can't really say anything, other than what a horrible horrible situation.

The Law Talking Guy said...

FYI, I never studied French. So I'm not being a Francophile or Francophone here. Do the Walloons expect the Dutch to learn French, or do they care? That's a point I'm not clear on. It seems like it's a choice the Flemings make, and probably not just because they want to be neighborly to the Walloons, but also because French is so useful otherwise.

If Belgium were divided between French and German (or English) speakers, I suspect the language learning to be more mutual.

Now, making people learn Welsh is just cruel...

Pombat said...

Is French really that useful otherwise though? I mean, if you want to deal with the French in France, it's slightly useful for when they all have a huff and refuse to speak English (amusing anecdote below), and I suppose could be useful for some African countries, but surely Spanish would be the pick of the European languages, particularly if you live in the States, Mandarin/Cantonese would be up there if you were a *superb* linguist with a fantastic ear, maybe one of the old Eastern bloc languages, most likely Russian, so you're familiar with that style of language?...

The French anecdote is from the workplace of someone I knew: they worked for a Welsh company, and were corresponding with a French company, details of the businesses are irrelevant. One day, the French got huffy, and rather than writing in English as had been the norm up until then, wrote a letter in French, throwing a complete tantrum and declaring that they did not see why they should have to correspond in English, and as such intended to correspond only in their native tongue from now on.

So, the Welsh company sent a very polite letter back, expressing that, having easily found a French translator, they entirely understood the French's point of view, and were happy to only correspond in native tongues for the duration of the project. They received a very meek telephone call the next day:
French: "um, what language is it in?"
Welsh: "Oh, our native tongue: Welsh." (translated by one of the staff's grandmother)

Result: very very polite letter from the French, asking if the Welsh company would possibly mind corresponding in English?

The Law Talking Guy said...

My Spanish and Russian are decent; I speak no Chinese at all. My American English is, of course, the most desirable and respectable type of English, as would be clearly attested by any random poll of Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders, and Australians (no British though - their larger numbers would screw up the sample).

I am not really arguing that French is all that useful, just that - almost anywhere in the world - the desire to learn French outstrips the desire to learn Dutch by at least 20 to 1.

Pombat said...

Actually, most of the Aussies I know write English, not American English. I don't know that many Kiwis, but I'm pretty sure at least a fair number of them write English too. Then there's the Indians - they're most likely still with English, and I think therefore tip the balance over to 'the original and best' rather nicely :-)

Yeah, I'm not trying to argue that the desire to learn Dutch is greater than the desire to learn French. What I'm trying to argue is (1) if Belgium has two official languages, then everyone in the country should learn both, and (2) if French were not one of the official two languages, the Flemish-speakers in Belgium would be a lot less likely to speak it, probably preferring another more useful language.

Chinese I've put well and truly in the "never gonna learn" category - waaay too hard. I've got a bit of French and German from school, and a bit of Italian from several months there last year (mostly food words, surprisingly enough...). I can understand a little of the other romantic languages (e.g. food labelling), where they're written down & similar to French/Italian, and got the hang of a bit of Dutch on menus (similar to German in places), but I don't think any of that counts.

Raised By Republicans said...

Cymru am byt!

I met a Japanese exchange student once who couldn't tell the difference between German and English words until they put together in a sentance. Just to put these linguistic differences in perspective.

I think the problem in Beglgium was that this fellow Leterme was trying to do exactly what Pombat suggested. He was trying to link access to government services to being able to speak the language of the local majority.

A little history may be useful here. Belgium has always been a majority Flemish/Dutch speaking country. It was formed, not out of Franco-Dutch brotherhood, but out of British geo-political needs. Britain wanted a buffer between Post-Napoleonic France and and Germany (which was not yet unified at the time). They created a United Kingdom of the Netherlands ruled by a Protestant monarchy based in what is now the Netherlands. The more southerly, Catholic provinces rebelled and gained their independence - that's Belgium. It was their Catholocism that united them against the Protestant north. Only in the 20the century has the linguistic division mattered so much.

Belgium was ruled at first by a Franco-phone monarchy. In the 20th century, as religion was replaced by ethnicity and language did Belgium start to have troubles. Again, although Flemish has always been the majority language in Belgium, the Flemish/Dutch language verison of the Constitution was not made official until 1967. In 1968, Flemish students at the University of Louvain demanded that classed be held in Flemish as well as French. The result was that the university split into two.

There is a reasonable interpretation that the Flemish have been treated like second class citizens for most of Belgian history despite being the majority. The idea that the poor Francophones are being put upon by a bullying majority isn't really the whole story.

As for the "usefullness" of French. The economic center of Belgium has decisively shifted to Antwerp and away from Charleroi. If you want a job in Belgium, you are far more likely to find a boss (a Dutch word BTW) who speaks Flemish/Dutch than Walloon/French. Unless you work in Brussels where that city is a melting pot of polyglot EU offices and Transnational Corporation HQs - better learn English.

Raised By Republicans said...

In the amusing anecdote area:

When I was in Brussels I was in a linguisticly mixed neighborhood. I speak English, Danish and German so I could triangulate on Dutch with only slight difficulty...So like Pombat, I could at least read the menus and instruction signs for example.

The bakery I went to every day was a Dutch speaking bakery. Great bread, great service. One day they were closed for some reason so I went to the one across the street - it was Francophone. It was afternoon so all they had left was baggets. I pointed to the lonely looking basket of baggets and said in my best Berlitz French, "Un bagget si vous ples."

The 70 year old woman behind the counter said, "Quoi?"
Oh, I thought, it must be "Une bagget si vous ples."
Quothe the old lady "Quoi?" This time with a smirk. Keep in mind, I'm pointing all this time at the only basket with any bread left in it in the entire store.
After going back and forth like this a few times, with me trying variations on pronounciation and congegation I realized I was talking to a Belgian who was old enough to remember WWII - I bet she knows how to take orders in German!

So I half-shouted, "Ein Brot! Verdammt!" Et voila I got my bagget.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Pombat - I just meant that Americans could outvote Aussies, Kiwis, and Canadians as to which was the better breed of English. That's all - it was a stupid joke (as are most of my jokes).

Btw, We tend to say "British English" and "American English" when we differentiate, btw, not "English" unmarked to indicate British or non-American English.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Btw, Pombat, I thought that Welsh/French anecdote was incredibly funny. I can only imagine the French protagonist thought that it was simply gibberish (Welsh looks uncommonly like typing in the standard touch-type method but with your hands off center), and probably hinted as much, only to be humiliated.

I note that Bell Curve has stayed out of this, although he is a (non-native) Francophone.

Anonymous said...

I have three comments on the previous posts:

1/ The official language in the northern part of Belgium ( Flanders, where the Flemish people live) is Dutch. (**not** Flemish) `Flemish' is just unofficially used to refer to the Dutch spoken by the Flemish people. (just like one can refer to American English simply as `American') Dutch spoken by the Flemings is 99% similar to that of the people in the Netherlands and Suriname. Of course, many Flemings also know to speak their local dialects, but that's true for so many places in so many countries.

2/ The Flemish people do not expect the Francophone Belgians to speak Dutch. Even though the Flemish people know to speak French. (although their proficiency and interest in French is rapidly decling in favour of English, due to the fact English has been replacing French on the international scene very rapidly; this is true even more so among younger people) But this only holds as long as the Francophone Belgians live in their official language areas. (eg. Wallonia) As soon as Francophone speakers go live in Flanders, where Dutch is the sole official language, the Flemings expect them to learn Dutch. That's not odd, is it ?

3/ Concerning the importance of Dutch versus French: from a world point of view, yes, French is (or rather: was) more important. But then again, English is more important than French, so why do the French people in France do not switch to English ? ... The majority of the people in Belgium are Dutch speakers. Historically, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg share a common cultural and often political history. More than 80% of the people in these countries speak Dutch. Also, Dutch is spoken in the economically most important region of Belgium. So I do not see a reason why the Belgian Dutch speakers should not act in an assertive way towards Belgian Francophones as soon as the latter start moving into their **official** Dutch speaking areas. (which also has political consequences) Also, French is not that important anymore as it once was. It is only a matter of time 'till French outside France (and some small other places such as southern Belgium) is no more important than Dutch is. (this is something I personally experience more, year after year) Also, in Europe, Dutch is still one of the more commonly spoken languages (just counting the number of native speakers). Of all national languages, it is the one most close to English. It is also spoken in Suriname, by the nobility in Indonesia (although declining), as a dialect in nothern France, it is one of the four official languages of the Union of South-American countries, it is co-official in the Brussels-Capital Region, it is also widely spoken in South-Africa and some neighbouring countries in the form of a dialect (but easily understandable by Dutch speakers) named `Afrikaans' (and made official over there), and is also official in some other places in the world. (Netherlands Antilles, Aruba, ...) So it's not a big language, nor a small one. But of course, on the world stage: neither French nor Dutch are really important.

Anonymous said...

Small disambiguation: with `Of all national languages, it is the one most close to English' I referred to the nature of the language (grammar, etc.), but of course not the number of speakers.