Idealism versus pragmatism in language learning

Over the summer my family had lunch with another family that has moved to our area in Hong Kong. They have come from Paris, France, where the dad is self-employed arranging the buying and selling of medical supplies for a variety of clients. They have two children, aged 5 and 3, and like our son, will be considering sending their son to primary school in 2019.

The dad has an interesting family background. His grandparents were originally from Chaoshan, a region of south China renowned for good food, large families, and many family-run businesses. The Chaoshan area is also famous for a very old and distinct dialect of Chinese that is incomprehensible to outsiders.

His family moved to Cambodia in the 1950’s during a time of growth and prosperity there prior to the closing down of China during the Cultural Revolution. They were then fortunate to escape from Cambodia to France just before the start of the Khmer Rouge.

He grew up in France acquiring French at school and speaking it with his siblings, but communicating with his parents in a mixture of Cantonese and Chaozhouese. His wife is also from Chaozhou, but they speak Cantonese with each other. They use a mixture of Cantonese and Putonghua with the kids, but the dad uses French with the older son because he spent more time in France.

While my Putonghua is adequate for straightforward conversations, my French is quite rusty. Thankfully the father’s English was better than either of my other languages, and we discussed issues relating to family, education, Trudeau, Macron, history, and language using English.

One thing that came up during our conversation was the observation that many people, and people involved in business in particular, are very pragmatic. This pragmatism can influence the types of languages that parents choose for their kids: English might provide better opportunities, so let’s choose English. The local schools do Cantonese better, so let’s do that. The new international French school will neglect Chinese, but that’s okay because French and English are still more useful globally.

I’m a bit of an idealist, but I also realize I have the privilege of being an idealist. As an anglophone I belong to a group that for the last 100 years has had little incentive to learn other languages well, and this trend continues. In many ways it’s been easiest for anglophones to get around the world, to the point where most of us have heard an anglophone wonder out loud why everyone doesn’t speak English. But as I’ve explored in another post, anglophones can’t be completely at fault for having found themselves in a world where English is the largest lingua franca.

My language from home, my parents, and the most useful and globally connected language all happen to be the same one. I have never had another language flung on me. I’ve never been forced to learn a new one, and I am confident I can spend the rest of my life encountering people, like our new French friends, who will speak my language.

I have the privilege of being able to wax eloquent about the need for others to preserve their languages all the while being able to fall back fairly easily on the world’s most useful language if my own kids don’t thrive with bilingualism. I also am vulnerable to the false idea that being a native English speaker somehow makes me a more enlightened, articulate, and consequently fulfilled human.

I believe strongly in promoting bilingualism. It is a central theme that runs through many of my blog posts. This idea that knowing more languages is better than fewer languages and that linguistic diversity is better than homogeneity. But it’s always a helpful reminder that there are pragmatic considerations for choosing a language as well, just as much as there are pragmatic reasons for not bothering to learn a new one.

This was brought home to me a few weeks ago at a meeting of the Hong Kong Anthropological Society where I met a Korean dad who grew up in Hong Kong attending the English medium English Schools Foundation schools. He retained a basic Korean he used with his parents, but no literacy. Nor did he ever learn Chinese. His wife, an American, has been pushing for their children to become bilingual in English and Chinese and they have met with considerable success.

One thing the dad said when we were talking about this was, “I don’t really care what language they speak. I just want them to be happy and I want to be able to communicate with them.”

And I believe this is valid.




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