By Marcel van der Veer
28-01-2018

Published in category Education

More on Languages

{"Languages take such a time, and so do
all the things one wants to know about."
The Lost Road. John Tolkien.}

Every year my daughter's high school invites parents to partake in an evening of information sessions, to help students orient themselves on their future. The idea is to have parents from all walks of professional life, each parent discussing half an hour or so with small groups of students who subscribed to your sessions. You are expected to tell about your study and career, and the students are supposed to pose questions. As you will expect, some come well prepared, others have to be stimulated a bit. I greatly enjoy those conversations with the next generation who have their lifes ahead of them.

I am a physical chemist so no wonder the discussion concentrates on aspects of a career in science and engineering. One question frequently comes up though - and if it does not, I will throw it in as a closing remark to a group. That question is "In your studies, what was the most important that you have learned?".

In answer to this question I will give some fatherly advice based on personal experience to the teenagers around the table and then add a final remark that usually surprises the girls and boys. I must explain what I mean, which is precisely my intention, when I say:

"Be an autodidact, be multilingual, study languages!".

You may object that there are many more subjects worthwhile to study other than languages, and I would agree, but as practical advice to young students the study of languages seems a priority to me. Often I notice that people here in the Netherlands assume that most people in the world will understand English. But the fact is that only one out of five persons on this globe speaks English; the point may be that an average Dutch person is not likely to meet one of those other four. But even in Europe, English may be a lingua franca in certain circles but outside of those, it is not. Present developments in the European Union may even weaken the position of English in the future, and an ambitious student should be prepared for Aristotle's horror vacui.

The believe that it would be sufficient to find your way in the world speaking only English and Dutch, is remarkable here in the Netherlands because we used to be renowned for our dominion of foreign languages. The economy of our country depends on intensive trade with our neighbours who of course do not speak Dutch. Therefore, even today modern languages have an important place in the high school curriculum. But how many Dutch people do you know with professional proficiency in say, French, Spanish or even German? And by that I do not refer to people who do not need other languages in daily life, but to those who do in international companies, schools, universities …

Of course, professional proficiency requires the study of specific (technical) vocabulary, and practising whenever an opportunity presents itself. This is not feasible in a generic high school curriculum and therefore is the student's own responsibility. Being able to cite Sartre or sing along with Édith Piaf is not the language skill you need when assisting a French production manager and his crew working overtime to restart a stalled production line while all are under pressure to get production going again - not quite la vie en rose, I can tell from experience. As with many skills, what you need to know before you can do something new, you must learn by doing it. Do not be afraid! That is the message I want to convey in the information sessions for the students at my daughter's high school.

I took a detour actually - at one point in my life I had a compelling reason to learn Spanish. Later I needed to bring French up to par for work which had become rusty after not having used it for years since high school. Having learned Spanish, I recuperated French by studying Spanish textbooks on French, using one to bootstrap the other and exercising both at the same time. But the route is not important, the fact we must take responsibility for our own multilinguism is. Otherwise the reputation of the Dutch Polyglot really will pertain to the generations before us.

For work and personal reasons I travel around Europe and meet people from different backgrounds. Many if not most will have taken English courses at some point. You meet persons who will converse with you in impeccable English, but also those who wish to not speak it. In my experience there are two main reasons for the latter.

First, I work for an American company where the world-wide corporate language of course is American English. When you visit a French multinational, the corporate language will understandably be French, and probably also in their affiliates outside France. So in particular plenary meetings will likely be held in French and if you do not understand French, tant pis. Likewise, in Germany you may be expected to converse in German.

Second, quite some people do not use English on a regular basis and therefore may prefer not to speak it in business conversations. On the one hand your discussion partner may just feel insecure, on the other hand insufficient dominion may lead to fragmented or misunderstood communication. The partner with least experience in a common language simply has a disadvantage and naturally will want to avoid that.

On a side note, above paragraph relates to current discussions on several curricula at Dutch universities that are offered in English only. The intention is to accomodate a wide range of student nationalities, promoting Dutch universities qua patet orbis. Two questions come up as far as I am concerned - does this give an advantage to students whose mother tongue is English over students who are not native speakers, and when not even the lecturer is a native speaker, will students get the best possible education? However, this issue should be a subject of another post.

When I studied at the university during the 1980's, textbooks were mainly in English, Dutch (most lecture notes) or even German, depending on what the lecturer thought was the best text for a subject. At the time we were all Dutch students, and some unable to read German might protest, but the answer would be to remedy such shortcoming before the exam was taken. In other words - you are an academic student, behave like one.

The latter is another reason one should master various languages. To quote the famous philosopher Wittgenstein- "The limits of my language form the limits of my world". You cannot have a thought that cannot be expressed in your language set - and every language has its own possibilities and limitations. Each newly acquired language gives a person a wider perspective of the world - new syntax and vocabulary to express new ideas, and a better understanding of other cultures.

And isn't that one of the pillars of personal growth?



All blog posts


Marcel van der Veer Algol68C on MVS revisited

04-08-2018

As the author of Algol 68 Genie I am interested in having access to other Algol 68 compilers for reference purposes. Several years ago I wrote a post on installing Algol68C on MVS. In this post I would like to give an update.

Algol68C Release 1.3039 is derived from the compiler that was in service to the mid 1990's on IBM mainframes and runs on either MVT or MVS. MVT and MVS developed into today's z/OS that is backward compatible with its predecessors. I used Release 1.303 at the University of Nijmegen under VM/CMS … [Read more]

Published in category Algol 68


Marcel van der Veer Let the music play on - vintage HiFi

05-07-2018

Lately I needed to call on some of my now rusty electronics skills since I came into some older HiFi equipment in need of attention. I consulted the world wide web in search of service manuals and found many more people with an interest in keeping older HiFi in working condition. Now I had the opportunity to combine my passion for electronics, HiFi equipment and music … and do not forget durability, since we are actually extending the life of otherwise obsolete products … [Read more]

Published in category HiFi


Marcel van der Veer Building a small Beowulf cluster II

03-04-2018

As described in an earlier post, at home I operate a modest Beowulf type cluster for embarrassingly parallel simulation runs in batch mode. With the experience from that build, I took on building a higher-performance cluster using Debian … [Read more]

Published in category Science


Marcel van der Veer Be multilingual!

28-01-2018

Every year my daughter's high school invites parents to partake in an evening of information sessions, to help students orient themselves on their future. The idea is to have parents from all walks of professional life, each parent discussing half an hour or so with small groups of students who subscribed to your sessions. You are expected to tell about your study and career, and the students are supposed to pose questions. As you will expect, some come well prepared, others have to be stimulated a bit. I greatly enjoy those conversations with the next generation who have their lifes ahead of them … [Read more]

Published in category Education


Marcel van der Veer Classical thermodynamics in a nutshell

18-11-2017

Recently I met during an event at my Alma Mater, the University of Nijmegen, my high school physics teacher. We discussed the chemistry curriculum, and remarked that quite some chemistry students capture with difficulty the fundamental principles from thermodynamics. Needless to say that thermodynamics is one of those subjects that serve a chemist for a lifetime. In my humble opinion, one reason for this lack of retention may be the abstraction level in freshmen courses, and that this might be improved by spending one or two introductory hours on the basic ideas of thermodynamics in a historic context … [Read more]

Published in category Science


Marcel van der Veer A brief history of Algol 68 Genie

27-11-2016

Being the author of Algol 68 Genie, people frequently ask me why a physical chemist wrote an Algol 68 compiler. This is an understandable question since people associate Algol 68 with the learned group of mathematicians and computer scientists that conceived the language some fifty years ago, and people recall the reputation it had of being an hard to implement laguage. In this post I would like to give an account of how Algol 68 Genie came to be … [Read more]

Published in category Algol 68


Marcel van der Veer Building a small Beowulf cluster

01-10-2016

At home I operate a modest Beowulf type cluster for embarrassingly parallel simulation runs in batch mode. A master node controls several drones. Nodes in this cluster need no more than a server installation, but if a drone happens to have keyboard, mouse and monitor a small GUI is nice to have … [Read more]

Published in category Science


Marcel van der Veer Running Algol68C on MVS

31-10-2012

Recently, Algol68C Release 1.3039 was made public for download. This release is derived from the compiler that was in service to the mid 1990's on IBM mainframes. The new release is meant to run on either MVT or MVS. This report documents the installation of the new release on emulated MVS/370 … [Read more]

Published in category Algol 68


Marcel van der Veer Revised Report on the Algorithmic Language Algol 68

01-06-2009

This is a translation of the Algol 68 Revised Report into HTML, for distribution with Algol 68 Genie, an Open Source Algol 68 interpreter. Since Algol 68 Genie became available on the Internet, it has become clear that there still are many people who are interested in an Algol 68 implementation, the majority of them being mathematicians or computer scientists. Hence it is expected that there are also people interested in having access to the formal defining document, the Algol 68 Revised Report, which unfortunately is out of print. It is believed that a HTML translation may well meet this need and enable people to study the formal description of Algol 68, a language that over the years has caused much debate (these debates may well be another raison d'être for this HTML translation) … [Read more]

Published in category Algol 68