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You speak a very small, and probably therefore fascinating and very complicated language. You marry somebody who speaks another one from several villages over. The two of you move to the city, [where] there’s some big giant lingua franca.

What are you going to speak to your kids? You’re going to speak that big fat language.

That kills languages, because after a while, there are very few people left in the village. The big language is the language of songs, the big language is what you text in. That’s a very hard thing to resist.

John McWhorter

John McWhorter is a linguistics professor at Columbia University specialising in research on creole languages.

He’s also a content-producing machine, never afraid to give his frank opinion on anything and everything. On top of his academic work John has also written 22 books, produced five online university courses, hosts one and a half podcasts, and now writes a regular New York Times op-ed column.

Our show is mostly about the world’s most pressing problems and what you can do to solve them. But what’s the point of hosting a podcast if you can’t occasionally just talk about something fascinating with someone whose work you appreciate?

So today, just before the holidays, we’re sharing this interview with John about language and linguistics — including what we think are some of the most important things everyone ought to know about those topics. We ask him:

  • Can you communicate faster in some languages than others, or is there some constraint that prevents that?
  • Does learning a second or third language make you smarter, or not?
  • Can a language decay and get worse at communicating what people want to get across?
  • If children aren’t taught any language at all, how many generations does it take them to invent a fully fledged one of their own?
  • Did Shakespeare write in a foreign language, and if so, should we translate his plays?
  • How much does the language we speak really shape the way we think?
  • Are creoles the best languages in the world — languages that ideally we would all speak?
  • What would be the optimal number of languages globally?
  • Does trying to save dying languages do their speakers a favour, or is it more of an imposition?
  • Should we bother to teach foreign languages in UK and US schools?
  • Is it possible to save the important cultural aspects embedded in a dying language without saving the language itself?
  • Will AI models speak a language of their own in the future, one that humans can’t understand, but which better serves the tradeoffs AI models need to make?

We then put some of these questions to the large language model ChatGPT, asking it to play the role of a linguistics professor at Colombia University.

We’ve also added John’s talk “Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language” to the end of this episode. So stick around after the credits!

And if you’d rather see Rob and John’s facial expressions or beautiful high cheekbones while listening to this conversation, you can watch the video of the full interview.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type ‘80,000 Hours’ into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Video editing: Ryan Kessler
Transcriptions: Katy Moore


Why are so many languages going extinct?

John McWhorter: You and I think it’s really cool that there are 7,000 languages, and that languages can be so different from English. But for most people, language is about what you need, who you need to talk to. And what we now call globalisation (but it goes from long before we started calling it that): there are certain big giant languages that are most advantageous in that way. And they can make the smaller languages seem not only rustic but insignificant, not useful.

A classic example is one linguist, the late great Peter Ladefoged, was asking a Dahalo-speaking tribesman in Tanzanian. Dahalo is one of these languages with a certain number of clicks, et cetera — it’s very interesting to those who don’t speak it. But he liked the fact that his son was leaving Dahalo behind and was more comfortable in Swahili in the city making money.
And the tribesman said, “Dahalo is something we speak here, but we’re poor. I want my son to make money, and so I want him to speak Swahili and English.” And Peter Ladefoged said, “Well, who am I to tell him he’s wrong?”

And that is a really tough question. I think often, as most linguists do, about documenting languages. And boy it would be nice to keep them alive. But that is a tough proposition to make to some people who are interested in getting in touch with their language, but how do you make it so that they’re going to pass it on to children in the cradle and speak it to toddlers? That can be a real challenge.

You speak a very small, and probably therefore fascinating and very complicated language. You marry somebody who speaks another one from several villages over. The two of you move to the city, because maybe there’s more money to be made in the city. Maybe you think of the city as a more cosmopolitan place. In the city, there’s going to be some big giant lingua franca. And you two probably already speak it. Now, you have kids. What are you going to speak to your kids? You might speak a little of those village languages, but you two don’t share a village language. You’re going to speak that big fat language. It might be, for example, Swahili. That’s what your kids are going to know. They’re going to know bits and pieces of the village language. Those kids are going to marry other people who speak Swahili.

That kills languages, because after a while, there are very few people left in the village. And the people who are left in the village would rather speak Swahili, because modern media makes it so that you hear the big language all the time. The big language is the language of songs, the big language is what you text in. That’s a very hard thing to resist. That’s happening all over the world.

Creole languages

John McWhorter: Creoles are really fascinating. It’s the closest thing to language starting again. What happens is, let’s say there’s some situation where somebody learns another language only partially — a few hundred words, some shards of grammar. That’s frankly what most of us do in school. Suppose you have that, but for some reason you end up having to live in that. And you’re with a whole bunch of other people who’ve learned the language to that level, speaking probably a few different languages and you’re not going to default to any of them. Like you don’t know Polish, the Polish person doesn’t know English. And all of you speak this low-level, say, German or Russian. The situation is that you’re going to live in that language, talking to each other in that language forever.

What happens is not that everybody just stays speaking with a 300-word lingo. What happens is that people naturally expand it by using the words, by using bits of grammar from their native languages, and you fill it out into this brand-new language. That’s a creole. Often you hear that it’s children who turn it into a creole. But the truth is, if you look around the world, grownups can go a very long way towards expanding a pidgin, as you call it, into a real language — a creole.

And the truth is that that situation happened most in the previous millennium under conditions like slavery, orphanage, labour, military conscription. It was people who, for some reason, were in the frankly rather eldritch situation of speaking a language badly and needing to make it into a real language. So a lot of these languages were born in tragedy — an awful lot of them with plantation slavery, for example.

But the result is a brand-new language, and these are languages that are less gunked up with the needless complexities that languages that are older have. And so it’s not that they are absolutely elementary, but they show that they’ve only existed for a few hundred years. They don’t challenge you with a whole lot of nonsense in that way.

There are several dozen creole languages spoken around the world. There is some controversy in linguistics over whether creoles start as pidgins and they’re languages born anew, or whether creoles are just what happens when languages mix together and there’s no reason to think of them as anything different. I believe the first version. That was what people thought about creoles until about 20 years ago. And to be very glib, I think that the linguists who think that creoles are just what happens when two languages meet are wrong. I have to say that, but I’m not going to pretend that they do not have their say as well. But creoles are much more interesting than that.

And so Haitian Creole and the creoles of Surinam in South America, like Saramaccan, that’s the one that I have studied the most. Slaves escaped from plantations into the rainforest, and their descendants live there today speaking the new language that these people created. And Cape Verdean Portuguese, that’s a creole. There are many creoles in Australia and surrounding Oceania.

They’re very interesting languages, but they tend to be non-standardized. They tend to be spoken alongside some big fat monster language, so it’s easy not to know that they exist, but they are some of the newest languages in the world, and I find them mesmerising.

Does learning another language make you smarter?

John McWhorter: I want to say yes. And there is an idea out there that to be bilingual is to have a healthier brain in certain ways, to have better executive function. And you can even find me saying that in a TED Talk about 400 years ago. But the truth is the research has not borne that out. To be bilingual apparently holds off dementia by a few years, which somehow isn’t as handy a nugget as the idea that it makes you smarter.

Is learning a language something that makes you smarter? To the extent that learning a language is a matter of working out a certain kind of puzzle or practicing something that you didn’t know before, I’m sure that it makes you smarter in the sense that it creates new neuron connections, et cetera. I’m not sure that it necessarily raises your IQ.

However, I’m being a bit of a sourpuss on this, because I think there are many people who would say that if you learn another language, then you’re learning to process the world through a different code. You’re learning different shades of meaning in a different code, et cetera. And depending on what you call intelligence, sure, that is adding to your mental candlepower.

But the general idea that if you speak Polish and English, that probably makes you, in a sense, smarter than somebody who only speaks Greek or somebody who only speaks English — God, you wish that were true, especially since probably most people in the world are bilingual. And we boring, monolingual anglophones, we kind of want to put ourselves down, especially if we’re educated. But the research just doesn’t bear it out.

Updating Shakespeare

Rob Wiblin: When I read or listen to Shakespeare plays, I basically can’t make heads or tails of it. Why is that?

John McWhorter: Yeah, that’s always a difficult subject, because what I’m supposed to tell you is that, “No, you’re just not understanding that it’s supposed to be poetry. No, you just haven’t seen a good performance.” You’ll be interested to know that here in America, it’s often said that if you hear Shakespeare done by British people, it’s completely different — because somehow they really know how to do it. Whereas if you do it in an American accent, somehow it’s just not as good.

And none of that is true. The issue is that, with Shakespeare, almost all of the words are ones that we’ve heard. Or you can make it so that the ones that we haven’t heard, you can kind of quietly snip them out, but we recognise the words. And yet you sit there and you get very, very tired very, very quickly. And there are many people out there who don’t like to admit it, because if you say that you didn’t get King Lear without having read it very closely beforehand, it means that you’re not cultured or something.

No, it just means that you’re a modern English speaker. The problem is that to Shakespeare, for example, the word ‘generous’ meant ‘noble.’ It didn’t mean ‘magnanimous’ — it meant ‘noble.’ So if somebody says something about ‘generous,’ and what they mean is ‘noble,’ what they’re saying doesn’t quite make sense to you. You stub your toe, but they keep going. And so you’ve lost something. And then about 30 seconds later, there’s another word like that. With that piling on, that’s why The Tempest is incomprehensible. Or if you enjoyed it, it’s because of all the tricky things they’re doing on stage, and you like seeing Jude Law in it or something like that.

It’s a really interesting issue because Shakespeare is English, but it’s gotten to the point that we cannot comfortably understand what the person is saying unless you’re lucky. There are lucky passages, and those are the ones that people recite over dinner. But to actually go to King Lear or to Hamlet without having read it beforehand, you’re not meaningfully getting it. And so I’ve argued that we need to have not translations, but adjustments. And needless to say, certain people think that I’m just this uncultured boob. But no, it’s just that I like theatre and I don’t like pretending to like things that are difficult. Or I should put it differently: it’s not that it’s difficult — it’s impossible. And I think that that’s just not fair.

Should we bother teaching foreign languages in school? (John)

John McWhorter: That is becoming such a fraught question because of how rapidly translation technology is advancing. And I’m supposed to say, “Yes, we should teach children other languages, because another language gives you a different perspective on the world.” But I’m not sure if that’s true. I’ve argued against that idea, that each language gives you a different kind of acid trip. Because for every jolly thing about a language — where you say, “If you learn Russian, you’re more sensitive to gradations of blue,” or something like that — there’s something else about a language where it’s negative, something that casts a negative light on the speakers. And it all kind of comes out at par. We’re all seeing the same world. The languages are what change. Now, there are different cultures, but it’s not language and grammar and vocabulary that create that.

And so the question is, should we be teaching children languages? Certainly if we want people to learn languages, we’ve got to get them going much earlier than we do. Once you turn about 13, you start to ossify in that ability. But the question is why? And as a language head, my feeling is, “Oh yes, because it’s just so interesting to learn other languages and be able to talk to other people.” But that’s not how all people feel. So I’m kind of sitting on the fence at this point.

So for example, I live in a neighbourhood where probably every second person speaks Spanish and probably would rather speak Spanish than English. My girls, seven and 10, are very monolingual in English. Neither of them seem to have been bitten by the bug that I have. They’re not just fascinated to hear somebody speaking Hebrew and want to grab it. For them, speech is what we speak. And I’m thinking, “OK, do they need to know Spanish?” It would be good because they could communicate with a certain warmth with people in this neighbourhood. But then the question is, would they? Is that really how sociology works? Is that where their friendships are most likely to be?

It’s a tough one actually, because my real answer is yes. But then on the other hand, I don’t want to impose my interests on other people. And many people don’t really care about speaking other languages, including people who don’t speak English. So, yeah, it’s hard.

Should we bother teaching foreign languages in school? (ChatGPT)

ChatGPT: Well, that’s certainly a controversial topic. Learning a new language can have a range of benefits beyond just achieving fluency. However, it’s also important to consider the time and resources that are being invested in language learning, and to ensure that those resources are being used effectively.

One potential issue with language education in middle school is that students may not have the cognitive and linguistic maturity to fully benefit from language learning at this stage. Some research suggests that the brain is more receptive to learning a new language during early childhood, but that this ability decreases as we age. This is not to say that adults cannot learn a new language, but rather that the process may be more challenging and require more time and effort.

Another factor to consider is the quality of language instruction. If students are not receiving high-quality instruction that is tailored to their needs and interests, they may be less likely to become fluent in the language.

Overall, while I believe that learning a new language can be a valuable and enriching experience, it’s important to carefully consider the potential benefits and limitations of language education and to ensure that resources are being used effectively.

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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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