Letters to the Editors

More

What Global Language?

Barbara Wallraff's article "What Global Language?" (November Atlantic) is an interesting review of the current status of English as lingua franca, but I believe that the particulars she notes are neither new nor peculiar to our newest "global language."

The last several languages that spread far beyond their original borders, such as Koine Greek, spread by Alexander's troops and subsequent events; Latin, from the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church; French and Spanish; and now English, have all had common features and problems. Koine Greek was a simplified Greek, shorn of some of its more extreme grammatical peculiarities, and mangled to various degrees. Aristotle would have had great difficulty with much of it. Although Latin had common texts from the Church, including Jerome's Vulgate Bible, and although work from scholars was good, it went downhill from there. Spanish had so many variants (which can lead to howlers and grave embarrassments) that thick dictionaries have been compiled of those variants. And how would a Cajun fare in Marseille? An Arab in Morocco and one in Syria do not converse easily; a northern German and a Bavarian trying to converse are a classic subject for stand-up comedy.

The "problems" of wide variation in English may well be lessened because of better communication, but they are not different. English began as a pidgin link between Saxons and Danes, and its innate simplicity and openness to innovation have led it, by a selection process, to its present position. It is imperfect, yet one of the best tools we have for communication and community in our global village.

Bill Rudersdorf
Houston, Texas

It is wrong to state that no predominantly English-speaking country is a member of the European Monetary Union. Ireland is. It will be interesting to see whether its uniqueness in this regard affects the location of financial institutions within the EMU.

Brendan Walsh
Dublin, Ireland

Notwithstanding the opinions of Barbara Wallraff, English is the global language of science. Any scientist who wishes to communicate his ideas to the scientific community must do it in English, or his voice will not be heard. This has caused great difficulty to those Asian scientists who still publish in languages other than English.

The rest of the world's countries have slowly shifted to printing their scientific journals only in English, in most cases not allowing publications in their own languages. Until China becomes the most powerful nation in the world and we are forced, all of us, to learn Chinese (provided the Chinese can decide which of their languages they will use), English will be the language of science and, of course, diplomacy.

Ellis Glazier
La Paz, Mexico

Barbara Wallraff concludes that English is not holding its own in the United States because of increases in the number of people in this country who speak other languages, and because of the arrival of some immigrants who do not speak English well and "may not even see the point of going to the trouble of learning it."

Not to worry. Immigrants are acquiring English rapidly and well. In 1993 only 8.8 percent of native speakers of Spanish living in the United States said they spoke no English, and 71.5 percent said they spoke English "well" or "very well." This is even more impressive when one considers that these figures include newcomers. Moreover, results for Spanish-speakers were nearly identical to those reported by speakers of Asian and Pacific Island languages.

Research consistently shows that languages spoken by immigrants are typically not maintained and are rarely developed. This finding is one of the most solid and consistent results in language research, yet it appears to be nearly unknown to the public. A recent confirmation comes from research by Ruben Rumbaut, of Michigan State University, and Alejandro Portes, of Johns Hopkins University: By the time immigrant students are in high school, most prefer English to their family language and feel more competent in English. Even for the group considered to be the most English-resistant, students of Mexican origin, the shift to English is obvious.

Stephen Krashen
Los Angeles, Calif.

Barbara Wallraff says that Canada's linguistic fate hung by a slender thread in the October, 1995, vote by the people of Quebec on secession from Canada. The reason for this contention is that Canada's roughly 30 million citizens are in theory bilingual, so if Quebec had seceded from Canada, the two language groups, French and English, would be on their way to being largely monolingual. But the descendants of Canada's two founding nations are largely monolingual, and the secession of Quebec would not have affected this.

A visit to Montreal will confirm the existence of a population of bilingual (depending on how rigid one's definition of "bilingual" is) speakers in Canada. But Montreal and possibly Ottawa—because the federal government's affairs are conducted in both languages—are not representative of the whole of Canada. Outside Montreal and certain pockets of Ontario, Canadians of either language group have a tenuous grasp on the other official language.

Contrary to perceptions outside Canada, the majority of Canadians are descended from the English, the Scots, and the Irish rather than from the French. Canada's francophone population today is probably under seven or eight million. The other twenty-some million Canadians speak English as either their native or their adopted tongue.

Although English-Canadian universities—again, possibly with a few exceptions—require entering students to have studied French at least up to their final year of high school, this is not enough language training to qualify a student as bilingual or anything close to it. Most Canadians are like Wallraff, who states in her article that even though she spent years in school studying a foreign language, she is barely able to summon enough of it to order dinner in a restaurant.

Mark Bentley
New York, N.Y.

Barbara Wallraff replies:

The main point of "What Global Language?" was that we should not imagine English and other languages to be in some kind of competition that one of them must eventually win. On the contrary, the more widely English is used worldwide, the larger will be the number of bilingual and multilingual English-speakers. This has important implications. For one thing, English is likely to be used in increasingly divergent ways in different places. Likely, too, is that people who speak English and another language or two or three will have an advantage over those of us who speak only English. Hence it would be in our country's interest to encourage immigrants to retain their first languages—even while they learn English, as Stephen Krashen is undoubtedly right that they do.

Hybrid Vigor

Gregg Easterbrook ("Hybrid Vigor," November Atlantic) is kind to recall my January, 1995, Atlantic article on ultralight hybrid-electric cars, but progress has accelerated so rapidly since then that he greatly understates the prospects. Honda's Insight, which I happily drive, is not, as Easterbrook says, "unaffordable"; it sells at an attractive but loss-making price not mainly because it's a hybrid or lightweight but because it comes from a small production run that uses costly new body tooling and low-initial-volume special parts. Honda has shown its faith in the hybrid drive system's economies of scale by committing the company's entire line of cars to adopt it soon. Similarly, Toyota will offer Prius-like hybrid drive systems across its full range, from subcompacts to big trucks.

Performance and economics will improve dramatically—far beyond Easterbrook's expected 30 to 40 mpg—as aluminum bodies are replaced by molded polymer composites with lower total manufacturing costs, and as engine hybrids are leapfrogged by efficiency-doubling hydrogen fuel cells. Volkswagen is now making a city car that gets approximately 78 mpg; it plans volume production of a carbon-fiber version in 2003 that will get roughly 235 mpg. Eight major automakers plan for volume production of fuel-cell cars in 2003-2005. The 70 mpg that Easterbrook considers impossible in "large, practical cars" has already been exceeded by the Big Three. GM's aerodynamic diesel-hybrid Precept, for example, was just tested at 79.6 mpg (gasoline equivalent) even before further lightweighting. And big automakers' gratifying $10 billion commitment to our design philosophy is being complemented by our development of an uncompromised sporty 100-mpg SUV-like Hypercar (SM).

Amory B. Lovins
CEO (Research), Rocky Mountain Institute
Chairman, Hypercar, Inc.
Snowmass, Colo.


Hqybrid Vigor" was informative, but based on a false premise—that electric vehicles (EVs) were a failed experiment. The automakers have very good reasons to stifle EVs. Today's internal-combustion-engine-driven family sedan is a stupendously complex device. EVs can be far more simple, reliable, and durable. That means lower selling prices, longer life, and therefore lower profits. Since EVs are much easier to produce, smaller companies can compete with the industry giants. This is the automakers' worst nightmare. It could ultimately be as bad as IBM's loss of the PC market to smaller start-ups.

EVs wouldn't be available from the major automakers at all if the California Air Resources Board hadn't forced the issue. The 1990 Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate required automakers to start producing EVs in 1998 and make them 10 percent of sales by 2002. The automakers dug in their heels and began a flood of anti-EV propaganda. In 1996 they were able to negotiate a deal with the Air Resources Board to start a pilot program instead of production. A limited number of EVs would be leased and monitored. Instead of simple, affordable EVs, they made expensive high-tech vehicles with unnecessarily exotic batteries. They marketed them ineffectively. Simply qualifying for a lease was an exercise in frustration. In the end the automakers proclaimed, to the public their PR barrage had already convinced, that EVs were too expensive and too limited, and no one wanted them. But when they closed down production, people were still waiting for cars. No matter. The manufacturers had "proved" their point: EVs aren't practical.

Chris Tromley
Ardmore, Pa.


Gregg Easterbrook is mistaken in thinking that pure electric cars were simply a technological failure that can be corrected by better technology. The problem with electric cars has been that they were designed to be as much like gasoline cars as possible; this fails to recognize an automobile as part of a system that includes roads, fuel, filling stations, and so forth.

Hybrid cars are, of course, a step in the right direction, but it is possible to go much, much further without any breakthroughs in battery technology.

The flawed design of electric cars grew fundamentally out of their political origins. Electric cars were built not in response to a market demand but in response to the regulatory requirements of the federal government and the state of California. People were induced to take the cars by their unrealistically low price tags: considering the small market for a highly specialized sports car, General Motors' EV1, for example, should have sold for at least $100,000, not leased for a mere $400 a month. But GM was under government orders to place the things as best it could, and therefore took a loss.

Electric cars did not make economic sense within the existing regulatory environment. Making due allowances for the effects of compound interest, gasoline at a dollar a gallon was only a minor portion of the cost of owning an automobile. Any fuel savings resulting from electric or hybrid cars were likely to be offset by the cost of the new cars themselves. Governments do not build automobiles, but they do build roads, and they have the power to tax gasoline. The seriousness of a government's commitment to electric cars can be accurately gauged by what it builds and what it taxes. The government was not prepared to raise gasoline taxes, or to build new roads of appropriate design, or to set up a network of battery-exchange stations. All the federal government and the state of California wanted, and were prepared to pay for, was an empty political gesture, so that politicians could pose as Greens and get elected to office. In the end that was what they got. I very much fear that the hybrid car may be yet another empty gesture.

Andrew D. Todd
Morgantown, W. Va.


I found some of Gregg Easterbrook's information regarding electric vehicles to be incorrect and misleading. I recently took possession of a new EV1 from General Motors after being on a waiting list for six months. This is the most practical and fun car I have ever owned. Yes, I said practical! Being an average urban driver, I rarely exceed sixty miles a day. This spunky car can travel about 140 miles on a charge, so range is not an issue. I never need to enter a gas station again: my car refuels in my driveway while I am sleeping. My new car has much better acceleration than any other car I have owned. Easterbrook's assertion that it would be passed by a semi going up a hill is absurd and shows his lack of homework on the subject.

To describe this technology as a failure is silly. The auto industry has made little effort to promote these vehicles, and hundreds of people are still on waiting lists to get them.

Ken Katz
Oakland, Calif.


Gregg Easterbrook properly celebrates the advances of hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight. But he fails to note that they emit more polluting exhaust than electric cars, and he foolishly follows the latest media fashions in declaring that electric cars are an idea that has failed.

Here in California we know better. The state Air Resources Board just renewed our Zero-Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) program, which will require major automakers to produce roughly 20,000 battery-electric cars beginning in 2003. The ARB rightfully considers the ZEV to be the "gold standard" for low-pollution cars.

Automakers have already sold or leased more than 2,000 electric cars in California, and the drivers of these vehicles love them: today's electric cars are powerful, peppy, and virtually maintenance-free. No oil changes, no smog checks, and no trips to the gas station. They are cheap to refuel, and noise from the electric motor is imperceptible.

There have been significant advances in battery technology over the past ten years, and GM's EV1, equipped with a nickel-metal hydride battery, gets in excess of 100 miles per charge. That may not be enough for every purpose, but it works in many fleet applications, and it's perfect for almost everyone's daily commute.

Kevin Finney
Coalition for Clean Air
Los Angeles, Calif.


Hqybrid Vigor" is so misleading that it is difficult to believe that Gregg Easterbrook spent any time conducting research for his article. I have driven GM's EV1 for more than two years. My range per charge is 150 miles on the highway and ninety in the city. It is the only car I use. I do not have to pay for tune-ups, oil changes, or smog checks. Electricity costs me less than half the cost of gasoline. I can accelerate from zero to 60 in under eight seconds. I never have to go out of my way to "fill up," because I charge in my driveway at night while I sleep.

I have no intention of ever going back to gasoline. Easterbrook does a disservice to his readers in attempting to propagate the myth that EVs are inadequate and unpopular. In fact, there is a waiting list for them in California.

EVs eliminate oil spills, the export of billions of petro-dollars, and emissions associated with notoriously dirty tankers, refineries, and diesel delivery trucks. When one counts emissions from electricity-generating plants, EVs are still cleaner on a per-mile basis than the cleanest available gasoline automobile.

Robert Seldon
Santa Monica, Calif.


Gregg Easterbrook replies:

Some things inspire small but intensely loyal followings, and electric cars appear to be one of them. These letters present electric cars as cheap, reliable, practical, fabulous. Why do so few people buy them? Ken Katz and Robert Seldon refer to a waiting list for electric cars; actually, General Motors was able to sell fewer than 100 of its EV1s in California in 1999 before it suspended production. Only about 3,000 electric vehicles have been bought nationwide. Devotees claim that manufacturers conspire not to sell electric vehicles—an argument that seems strained; if the public were clamoring for such cars, automakers would have to be fools not to offer them. (Even Honda, with its clean-green marketing approach, has dropped out of EV sales.) Maybe the popularity of electric cars will change with future technical improvements. For the moment, however, the market for electric cars seems smaller than the market for quill pens.

Soccer Turks

Your article "The Crescent and the Tricolor" (by Christopher Caldwell, November Atlantic) incorrectly states that "'there's not a single Turk on the German football team.'" Indeed, three German-born Turks, Mustafa Dogan, Mehmet Scholl, and Mahmut Yilmaz, play for the national team. But drawing a relationship between the number of foreign athletes on a national team and ethnic integration is dubious at best. Soccer teams are about finding the best players, not about solving social problems. Meanwhile, economic discrepancies and racism keep the vast majority of French Arabs and German Turks from meaningful integration.

Günay Evinch
Potomac, Md.


Christopher Caldwell replies:

I didn't say that the German soccer team included no Turks or Turkish-Germans. The Frenchman who made that claim to me did so in the wake of the 1998 World Cup, as I noted in the article. And he was correct: none of the three players Günay Evinch mentions were on Germany's World Cup roster two years ago.

Unforgettable?

Peter Berkowitz ("Wooed by Freedom?," October Atlantic) describes the closing scene of the picture Casablanca as "unforgettable" but apparently does not himself accurately remember it.

Rick does not shoot Major Strasser. That is the act of the French policeman, played by Claude Rains, who then injects a refreshing bit of cynicism into that otherwise mawkish movie with the command "Round up the usual suspects."

Keith C. Angus
Kemptville, Ontario


Peter Berkowitz replies:

Keith Angus is right about who shot Major Strasser but wrong about its significance. Louis's order to round up the usual suspects represents the triumph of friendship over cynicism.

I'm grateful to Brendan Walsh for pointing out the mistake about English-speaking Ireland's presence in the European Monetary Union.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Do People Love Times Square?

A filmmaker asks New Yorkers and tourists about the allure of Broadway's iconic plaza


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Why Do People Love Times Square?

A filmmaker asks New Yorkers and tourists about the allure of Broadway's iconic plaza

Video

A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Video

What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets

Video

Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.

Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Writers

Up
Down
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In