Archive for September, 2017

Important languages, Indeed!

September 30, 2017

Data for Arabic as at 2240 on 30/09/2017

We try another approach to assessing the relative value of modern foreign languages.  The Indeed site allows one to search for job postings according to particular keywords in a particular location and gives a summary in terms of numbers and estimated salaries as illustrated above.

So we can compare these results postings containing the names of various languages such as ‘Arabic’, ‘German’ and so on in London, using in the first case key languages identified by the British Council as we discussed earlier.  This gives results as below, ordered in terms of average salary, which is just the total estimated salary associated with relevant postings divided by the number of postings.


In this table, ‘Overall here’ combines the 12 languages listed while ‘Overall jobs’ reports on all the jobs returned for London at the time of the study.

There are many interesting points here–there does seem to be some value to Dutch, as pointed out by the British Council.  The results for Mandarin are as ever clouded by what you call the language–‘Chinese’ gives a healthier average salary (£27,395) and rather fewer postings (1879).  The low average salary for Polish is presumably down to the kind of work Poles do in London while ‘Italian’ may be referring to restaurants rather than the language, thus depressing the average salary assigned to the term.  The explanation for Japanese might be that all professional-level jobs are filled by native speakers recruited from Japan, leaving only low-paid roles for others.

In general, we see that about 9% of postings mention one of the British Council’s priority languages, and this will overestimate the number of posts.  If as often happens an advert mentions ‘knowledge of French, German, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese) then it will get counted 5 times.  While there are of course other foreign languages, the representation of foreign languages in the London jobs market can be no more than 10%.

We can tabulate the overall results here with those derived from some other search terms as below:


The two points here are that the intuitive ordering of subjects and academic qualifications is reproduced and that languages seem to add less value than an unspecified degree.


Why did I tear myself away from you before it was time?

September 29, 2017


So now I’m worrying about the remark in Barbara Graziosi’s edition of Iliad 6 that Mandel’shtam describes the encounter between Hector and Andromache from Andromache’s point of view in the following line:

‘Why did I tear myself away from you before it was time?’ (the translation is by Nina Kossman).

We can perhaps believe that Andromache did the tearing:

ἄλοχος δὲ φίλη οἶκον δὲ βεβήκει
ἐντροπαλιζομένη, θαλερὸν κατὰ δάκρυ χέουσα. [Il 6.495-6]

though she was of course just doing what Hector told her to:

ἀλλ᾽ εἰς οἶκον ἰοῦσα τὰ σ᾽ αὐτῆς ἔργα κόμιζε
ἱστόν τ᾽ ἠλακάτην τε, καὶ ἀμφιπόλοισι κέλευε
ἔργον ἐποίχεσθαι: πόλεμος δ᾽ ἄνδρεσσι μελήσει
πᾶσι, μάλιστα δ᾽ ἐμοί, τοὶ Ἰλίῳ ἐγγεγάασιν.  [Il. 6 490-4]

so who was really doing the tearing is not so clear to us.

But in the Russian original the speaker has to be a man: Зачем преждевременно я от тебя оторвался! and the same holds true in Italian translation:  Perché mi sono separato da te prima che fosse tempo?

It could just be a misprint [Andromache ~ Hector], or more interestingly it’s what Andromache thought Hector should have thought, which would be atypical either for Mandel’shtam or for lyric poetry in general.

Rather than a misprint, the mistake is surely the idea that the poem is about Troy rather than about Mandel’shtam’s own experience. Mikhail Gasparov investigates this point rather systematically and concludes that the speaker cannot be any Greek or Trojan, not even Paris in relation to Oenone.

So perhaps it was a misprint, but the intended meaning was wrong as well…


Anne Applebaum at EBRD, 28 September

September 28, 2017


Blurred picture of Anne Applebaum and Ed Lucas

Anne Applebaum pursued three main lines in discussing her new book Red Famine: Stalin’s War On Ukraine under the benign oversight of Ed Lucas.

The first was that by sequencing and analysing decisions taken by Stalin in the light of his previous experiences we could be sure that the Holodomor or Great Famine was a deliberate attempt to destroy Ukraine and not just things going badly in agriculture as they were elsewhere in the Soviet Union.  As subsidiary points, it was now possible to establish the number of excess deaths with reasonable accuracy and the closure of Russian archives was not crucially important since it had been possible to sufficiently elucidate Stalin’s decisions.

Her second main theme was a number of historical absences around Holodomor, which had been covered up by the Soviet regime which complaisant Western correspondents, following the lead of Walter Duranty, had also glossed over.  As well as wishing to keep on good terms with the regime for practical purposes of doing his job, he had also not wished to go back his earlier Pulitzer-Prize-winning articles on collectivisation.  This tied in with the ambivalent reaction to Applebaum’s book of historians like Sheila Fitzpatrick who had developed an idea of Stalinism as a different type of modernisation and hence a different type of normal.

With regard to the question of genocide, then the actions of the Soviet Government would fall within the normal understanding of the term but not within the strict legal definition adopted by the UN.

Are languages important?

September 27, 2017

Never mind which languages, the question is are any foreign languages important in the English-speaking world?  After all, if you live in some non-Anglophone country you probably need English both for foreign travel and for doing business with the rest of the world, while for an English-speaker the only real need is when you have to sell stuff to foreigners.  And that’s stuff as in stuff, since the English language may be part of the attraction of services like education.

The CBI Skills Survey for 2017 suggests that employers are not satisfied with graduates’ foreign language skills:


but also do not regard them as particularly important:


…unless of course they come under ‘Degree Subject’…

Available surveys do not really show any particular premium for graduates in foreign languages.  A survey with rather unclear methodology looks at average [mean] starting graduate salaries as at October 2016, with some results we have summarised:


So it appears that starting salaries for what appear to be language-based degrees are a little above the average for humanities and a little below the overall average.  By way of comparison, the highest and lowest salaries are shown below:


A more systematic exercise (but with less detailed subject classifications) published by DfE gives median earnings in 2014/15 for those graduating in 2008/09.  As before, we would be hard-pressed to claim a particular premium for Languages:


Finally, what looks like a very thorough study by the IFS is more interested in various factors such as socio-economic background, prior attainment and institution status but gives some rather discrepant information for males and females:



So ‘Lang Lit’ (which must be basically English in terms of numbers) looks like a pretty good deal for women but not for men.

We conclude that there is no real excess demand for graduates in modern foreign languages demonstrated by either employer preferences or salaries achieved…

Teaching important languages

September 26, 2017

British Council ordering

As we have seen, the British Council report Languages for the Future gives a priority ordering of languages as above.

The question then is how this matches up with what is actually taught.  A further British Council report Language Trends 2014 gives the percentage of schools in the state and independent sector where particular languages are taught.


Languages taught in state schools


Languages taught in independent schools

We see that there is no particular sign of Arabic becoming widespread, nor even of Chinese doing so(though that is more common). We presume that ‘Arabic’ is Modern Standard Arabic in all cases and that ‘Chinese’ is Mandarin unless otherwise stated.

We can also look at the numbers of people studying for examinations at various levels.


Numbers studying for various examinations

Here, the school examination numbers refer to the numbers of entries as given on the JCQ site while the ‘Degree’ figures refer to first-year full-time students doing first degrees, as on the HESA site.  Here, in the ‘Degree’ column, we have assigned all of ‘Russian and East European Studies’ to Russian and all of ‘Modern Middle Eastern Studies’ to Arabic.

We can try putting these various activities on a common footing by giving them a weighting based on the amount of time in years they take up (taking account of subsidiary languages/subjects for the Degree column).


Table of weightings

We would then like to compare the input for various languages with their importance according to the British Council report.  There is no obvious common unit of measurement between these two things, so it seems safest just to compare the rank of the languages according to these two measures. The table below refers.


Comparison of importance according to British Council with resource input, by ranks

On this crude basis, Arabic (especially), Portuguese and Turkish are under-provided, while Polish (heritage speakers) and the traditionally-taught languages French and German may be relatively over-provided, along with Italian.

But if you were just interested in studying languages and wanted to know which ones would be most profitable, the obvious course would be to do Spanish at school–which seems quite possible these days–and then Spanish & Portuguese at university..

Which foreign languages are most useful?

September 25, 2017


The picture above (from the WEF site) gives one answer in terms of the most influential languages as reflected by book translations.  There seem to be definite nodes at English, French and Russian, then less clear ones at Dutch, German and Chinese.  But it is hard to give an exact interpretation of this figure, or indeed the other ones displayed at the same place.

Otherwise, the Internet reveals a number of attempts at weighting-and-ranking:


A British Council report on Languages for the Future dating from 2013 takes account of 1. current UK export trade 2. the language needs of UK business 3. UK government trade priorities 4. emerging high growth markets 5. diplomatic and security priorities 6. the public’s language interests 7. outward visitor destinations 8. UK government’s International Education Strategy priorities 9. levels of English proficiency in other countries 10. the prevalence of different languages on the internet and their table of English proficiency by country is quite interesting:


From the point of view of importance to Britain, they give a ranking of:


This may well be the answer from the British perspective!


A further study (2016) from the WEF considers languages under the criteria of 1. Geography: The ability to travel 2. Economy: The ability to participate in an economy 3. Communication: The ability to engage in dialogue 4. Knowledge and media: The ability to consume knowledge and media 5. Diplomacy: The ability to engage in international relations and comes up with the following results:



List25 gives a list of the world’s 25 most influential languages as of 2014, where the rankings are not just done according to how many people speak the language. Of course this is taken into consideration but so is how many people speak it as a second language, its impact on global commerce and trade, and its lingua franca status around the world.

They have some nice maps, for instance for French:


and come up with a ranking of 1. English 2. French 3. Spanish 4. Arabic 5. Mandarin 6. Russian 7. Portuguese 8. German 9. Japanese 10. Hindustani (Hindi/Urdu) 11.  Malay…


Meanwhile, the CBI Skills Survey for 2017 gives the following:


So, English is clearly the most important/useful/influential language of all times and peoples, and we will set it aside in what follows.

Using the British Council rankings as a starting point, we can summarise the results as below, where languages outside the British Council list are ranked by number of occurrences and then average ranking where listed:


Or we can apply the same procedure for all of the languages that occur more than once without privileging the British Council rankings, so that we rank first by number of occurrences and then average ranking where listed:


So, the world’s second most important language might be French, Spanish or Mandarin.  In fact, the top 5 for the British Council and the combined ranking have the same laguages, if not quite in the same order:  French, Spanish and German (the languages most widely taught in British schools) together with Mandarin and Arabic (rarer and more challenging, one might say).