My Conversation with John McWhorter

This one was done with an associated public event, ah the good ol’ days!  Here is the audio and transcript, here is the summary:

Who can you ask about the Great American Songbook, the finer Jell-O flavors, and peculiar languages like Saramaccan all while expecting the same kind of fast, thoughtful, and energetic response? Listeners of Lexicon Valley might hazard a guess: John McWhorter. A prominent academic linguist, he’s also highly regarded for his podcast and popular writings across countless books and articles where often displays a deep knowledge in topics beyond his academic training.

John joined Tyler to discuss why he thinks that colloquial Indonesian should be the world’s universal language, the barbaric circumstances that gave rise to Creole languages, the reason Mandarin won’t overtake English as the lingua franca, how the Vikings shaped modern English, the racial politics of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the decline of American regional accents, why Shakespeare needs an English translation, Harold Arlen vs. Andrew Lloyd Webber, whether reparations for African-Americans is a good idea, how living in Jackson Heights shapes his worldview, what he learned from his mother and father, why good linguistics students enjoy both Russian and Chinese, and more.


COWEN: Let’s say I interview a job candidate using Skype or Zoom rather than face-to-face, how is that different linguistically? How should I adjust? What should I expect that’s different?

MCWHORTER: You mean if they’re not actually there in the room?

COWEN: Right, but I see them on the screen.

MCWHORTER: I think that’s fine.

COWEN: You think it’s just as good?

MCWHORTER: It helps bring the world together. Do I need to be in the room with the person, watching what they do with their legs, getting a vague sense of whatever their redolence happens to be?

COWEN: All of these people have showed up, right?

MCWHORTER: Yeah. To tell you the truth, all of that to me is a distraction. I would rather just hear their voice. Frankly, I despise Skype. You’re sitting there, you look bad, and it always cuts out. Yet your whole life these days is about “You wanna Skype?” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, it’s going to cut out, and we’re both going to look bad.”

But I would rather just hear the person. Maybe that’s because I’m kind of linguist-centric.


COWEN: Here’s a very basic question. Let’s say immersion is not possible. How should an adult study a foreign language?

MCWHORTER: It’s hard. Sleep with somebody, frankly.



Clearly, this is the Conversation that Cowen wanted to have, and not the one McWhorter wanted to have.

Sarcasm on your part, of course. McWhorter was having fun.

Tyler lighting the McWhorter cannon against Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Youtube is a lot cheaper and safer than sex. Plus you could replay it over and over at whatever speed. Hear a lot of accents. Use your webcam to record yourself. You'll look and sound stupid but you'll learn faster because video doesn't lie.

I believe the interaction between two people is the important element involved in the suggestion, particularly as there is an incentive to learn, with the other person able to provide the appropriate feedback.

Immersion is a little overrated for language learning. It can be helpful but it isn't necessary if you're motivated. Extensive reading and listening are as good or better than just relocating to a place with the language.

Immersion is always helpful and all the most effective classroom language-learning programs are immersion-based.

Extensive reading and listening are included in immersion learning, they're just not sufficient to provide the benefit that immersion learning does.

Immersion is not overrated. It is the singularly most effective technique, and every effective technique imitates it, and is effective in proportion to how extensively it imitates immersion.

I don't really know how to respond to that other than to observe that it simply isn't true.

I majored in French and studied it at the graduate level for several years at Columbia, learned German and read it there as well and visited both countries several times for months. Could you provide some authority to back up your flat assertion that immersion isn't best, because I have never met anyone before you that held that opinion?

Immersion welcomes the new student with the frustrating and ridiculous catch-22 situation of being unable to access answers to basic questions in a form they understand.

Can we all get behind this view, if only to discourage all this stupid, pointless-when-not-actively-pernicious global travel ...? Especially given that it's of no importance, language-learning in adults being similarly a waste of time and breath.

A comment indicative of an unproductive, underachieving, mediocre mind.

It's unconscionable!

Spoiler: you returned from your trip abroad the same person. Your thoughts were not more interesting laboriously rendered into another tongue. This goes double for all those parents around here who think their child is learning to Think Different via school instruction in ... Spanish! Instead of English!

If you don't study French how will you ever learn the shrug properly?

I would never shrug! I'm sure I never have! Once a lady who had sold Amway - we were visiting for other reasons, her husband being eminent, even regionally legendary in his field before chucking it all away to, so it was conjectured, sell Amway too; it was a great pleasure to lunch with them, though we had established a signal just in case - anyway, the Amway didn't come up except, I thought, obliquely when she told me she'd taken a course on typing people and "you will be an ingenue all your life." I am all innocent attentiveness and enthusiastic accord.

In real life.

Travel is never a waste of time. Television, movies, and video games are a waste of time. As is photography. And even at its worst, there's certainly nothing pernicious about travel.

COWEN: Let’s say I interview a job candidate using Skype or Zoom rather than face-to-face because of a coronavirus outbreak?

MCWHORTER: Is this outbreak a hypothetical or has it already happened?

There was a production glitch at the end of this podcast. The result of this glitch was missing the final questions answer in its entirety,

Apologies, this has been fixed—redownload the episode or check out the transcript for the last answer.

Thank you, Tyler, I have only been able to read a bit but I can already tell this is going to be one of the best interviews you've done. Interesting guest, interesting topics!

Regarding the immersion question, I have studied at various times in my life German, Spanish, French, Polish, and Mandarin. You can only reach a certain point in foreign languages with books and study before you need full immersion to go on--for instance, I can read literature in Spanish (slowly, and only to an extent), but conversationally I'm way out of depth because I've only had a brief immersion experience. German, I'm pretty good at--conversation, reading at a high-level--because I've lived there for several months on two different occasions.

If immersion is not available, conversation classes are the next best thing. If those aren't available, Pimsleur CDs are the next closest thing I've found. I think the various online options are mostly a waste of time.

You must be Russian or good with languages (same thing!). I, with an IQ of at least 120 last I measured it, not to mention being in the 1% in wealth, have immersed myself in the Greek language, have a passport to show for it, and after oh, about what, at least 40 years of casual conversation, visiting this country every other year (I'm here now), still have about a sixth graders vocabulary and people who listen to me try and make complex points say I give them a headache. Maybe Greek is a tough language but to be honest I think some people are good at picking up languages and some are not. I'm not (though I also can tell you over 1000 words in Spanish, but without the proper endings). Immersion will not help me, sorry.

I am a Cowen fanboy, but Cowen sitting in a chair looking into a little camera mounted on a computer during an interview ain't his best angle. My advice to Cowen: don't do that again, ever. It reminded me of fish pictures. What? If you wish to impress friends with the size of the fish you caught, hold the fish in front of you while your friend takes a picture. A minnow becomes a whale. As for remote interviews, Terry Gross, an outstanding interviewer, conducts almost all of her interviews remotely. Why? To avoid the distractions of an in-person interview. I get it.

Terry learned her lesson from the Gene Simmons interview.

What an amazing interview that was...

Her interview with David Carradine was the grand championship.

Cowen is a great interviewer. He is polite but challenging, and never insults. In the Terry Gross interview, Gene Simmons brags about having sex with 4,600 lovers. And that was in 2002! Grotesque males using their power to exploit girls is a much admired talent among certain emasculated males. That doesn't include me. And from the way Cowen treats his female interviewees and colleagues, it doesn't include Cowen either. Maybe one day Simmons and Weinstein will be roommates.

Rock musicians and basketball players have been known to exaggerate and to say outrageous, implausible things for effect. Politicians too, I guess. Verify before you draw conclusions, counselor. By the way, guilty people sometimes lie.

John McWhorter. Is this man not the coolest person in America?

So glad he was finally booked. Now Peter Hessler and I'm happy.

The second coolest person after Glenn Loury.

Late question for McWhorter:

how does the phrase "Biogen leadership fiasco" translate into Mandarin? Korean? Farsi? Italian? French? German?

How does "fiasco" translate into English?

"Bungle" (noun, which may derive from Scandinavian broadly or Icelandic more specifically) is a close synonym, according to Roget's Intl. Thesaurus (4th ed.).

For what it's worth, my Webster's New World English/Italian Dictionary (Concise Ed.) translates "fiasco" as . . . "fiasco".

Perhaps possibly maybe they were passing a few flasks too many around Boston recently.

I seem to recall reading a McWhorter article in which he claimed that the closest modern language to what was spoken in England a thousand years ago is Icelandic. Anecdotally, I was surprised when I went to Iceland and discovered that I could grok a small but substantial amount of spoken Icelandic despite knowing nothing about the language. I bet it would be a relatively easy language for a native English speaker to learn.

One of your best interviews, ever. Chock full of interesting tidbits.

so the best linguists see the most action ?

My, aren't you a cunning linguist.

Bonus trivia: John McWhorter is incompetent if he did not mention, no, not PATENTS, but that languages will become mutually unintelligible if two people who speak the same language are separated for 200 years. This was from I believe a simulation. The "200 year rule" is also observed with species: a group of animals separated by a sudden geological barrier, say a volcanic eruption or changed waterway, will become separate species incapable of fertile offspring in about 200 years. Two hundred years is about the same span of time a nation rises up, achieves an apogee, and then declines (the Toynbee rule).

It strikes me as worth noting, though, that this assumes zero contact between those separate groups. 200+ years of separation between the US and the UK has led to almost no mutual unintelligibility at all.

Confusion, on the other hand is pretty much assured.

Do you walk or do you drive on the pavement?

200 years, independent of generation time?Ray, we expect better than this.

John is right about Skype/Zoom interviews. They suck, there's always a technical glitch, so I make sure to keep my phone on and next to me.

There is one advantage for a job interviewee. You can have cheat sheets placed next to you and the other person won't know it (even more so with phone interviews, they're basically open book exams). But you have to keep your notes low, preferably on the keyboard. If you put your notes above the laptop/computer, then it looks obvious.

I'm a big fan of Lexicon Valley. And it's more than a podcast. It feels like a Hollywood production with John sounding like your tour guide on one of those trams at Universal Studios.

Please disregard anyone who says you can't learn a language, even in later life. There are so many tools today because of the internet. Also, please read the books of Norman Doidge. Take a look at Duolingo , Mango, Memrise. I use them, and they are all different. For every alphabet , there are apps that can help you learn them by tracing the letters. Sanskrit has at least one excellent app. Look under Mudrakshar. The main point I would make it that you don't need to be anywhere near fluent to benefit from the study of languages. One way into languages is to study a sacred text. For one thing, they have limited vocabularies. As well. reading is much easier than writing or speaking. You can get to the point of reading newspapers without approaching spelling or writing fluency. And remember, for most languages you learn there will be another language that will include substantial vocabulary you already know.

Finally, seeing a person is very important in trying to understand what and why someone is saying things to you.

The less you know about what a person speaking to you in his/her language (which is foreign to you) is talking about (the content, or meaning, or communicative purpose), the harder it will be to understand what they are saying (and perhaps, to translate into your own language, or another language that you are competent in). In other words, knowing the culture, history of the speaker's place of upbringing , and immediate context matter very much.

"Mandarin has gender. It’s not called that, but you have to use a little word with each noun, and often it doesn’t make any sense."

Anybody know what this statement by McWhorter refers to? I'm a beginner to Mandarin so my understanding is that it does not have grammatical gender and uses a particle system that act as modifiers but I'm not sure what specifically he is talking about there.

"Measure words".

Who's next for Conversations With Tyler? I nominate Daniel L. Everett, Tara Houska and Amia Srinivasan.

I would nominate harari, E Todd and maybe tegmark or bostrom...

Good interview, but the part about Estonian and Finnish in the beginning ("Estonian has 16 cases ... Finnish is kinda easy in comparison") is strange. I don't know that either of those would be relatively easier to an English speaker. (And a nitpick: Estonian does have 14 case endings as Tyler said, not 16; Finnish has 15)

As for children's language learning, especially foreign language learning, good immersion learning is very important. Now many families have started to ask foreign nannies to take care of their children and teach them language by the way.
When it comes to adults,you have to do more practice.

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