Are Brits Lazy Linguists ?

12/27/2013 12:40 pm ET | Updated Feb 22, 2014

You never hear parents tell their children to become linguists when they grow up.

However, most of the expats in Hawaii don't need engineers, lawyers or doctors within their first few months of living here. They need someone to help them with phonetics. "The hardest part about Hawaiian is the vowels. We called our new school Hualalai Academy, in honor of the mountain. To pronounce Hualalai it's: Hu -al -a -lai. The rhythm of the word is hard to catch. My secret was to say to myself 'who the hell am I'. To this day I am teased for my British accent when saying 'Aloha'," said Felicity, a Big Island resident who has been living in Hawaii since 1991.

After reading a BBC News article that suggested Brits are "lazy linguists", I asked Felicity to join me in learning 16 Hawaiian words per day for two months. We would adhere to the article which urged everyone in the United Kingdom to learn at least 1,000 words of another language. The article stated that a vocabulary of 1,000 words in a foreign language would allow a speaker to hold a simple conversation in that language. The 1,000 Words campaign would address the region's poor language skills which are reportedly causing them to lose out on international trade and jobs. I wanted to learn 1,000 Hawaiian words before the end of the year to show the professional community here my language acumen, so I asked Felicity to join me in my experiment. She had a lot to prove too. Originally from Cambridge, she is the founding head of a private school.

At Felicity's behest, we started learning words that began with consonants because they were easier to grasp. I read one of her emails with the "words of the day" while I was waiting for a flight to the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE). Linguists, researchers, program directors and educators from around the world descend on Qatar, ostensibly to discuss education initiatives but primarily in the hopes of creating a bridge between learning and life. While attending WISE, I met with Bilal Musharraf, The Dean of Translations for Khan Academy. Khan Academy, a non-profit educational website, translates into 30 languages.

Musharraf:

The language of education is universal but the language that you learn in has its paradigm. Certain languages have prevailed, in terms of establishing themselves because of cutting edge research. Talking about math and science might be more well established in certain languages than in others. That's not to say other languages are redundant. You have an emotive bond with your mother tongue. Up to a certain level, it really helps to learn new concepts in your mother language but then I think one should be open to understanding the scientific terms that have become globally accepted.


During my conversation with Musharraf, I received an email from Felicity which included words I felt were too common to be on the list. I asked her if she cheated, and she innocently admitted to already knowing five of the words she sent me. It was clearly time to reiterate the purpose and objective of the experiment! In her next email, she switched tactics and suggested we learn words beginning with "o." I received an email a few days later asking for a week-long break from the task.

Then I thought about the last thing Bilal said to me: "I'm a lifelong learner. I haven't stopped learning. The purpose of education is to satisfy intellectual curiosity but also to provide economic opportunity. As long as education is catering to those fundamental needs, then people will take education. They don't want to get education that doesn't meet their needs." I realized that Felicity wasn't receiving any economic opportunities from learning Hawaiian, so I reduced our "words per day" to five.

A few days later, I received the final dreaded email from Felicity: " I am so involved with local non-profits, my business and theatre, that I realize there is no time to learn Hawaiian until I retire. "

We'd learned 83 words.