The Shockingly Low Cost of Learning a Language

Right before the dawn of the Chinese commie covidian era I made a life decision. In late 2019 I decided to rid myself of any and all clutter, and get really good at a few things, rather than being super average at a lot. I just had too many hobbies and too many time sucks. I decided to jettison the banjo and gave that to my daughter. Also shot into space was my anti-library – I decided to either read it, or get rid of it. I had a few other small time hobbies that I got out of. So what was left was for me was to keep my regimen of physical fitness, work, and to learn French. When I say “learn French”, I want to be fluent.

I took some French in high school and college, and after many years found an interest in it again. I downloaded an app or two to my phone, but that quickly got boring. After picking around with different things online, I decided on a much more traditional way to learn the language – start from square one, and go back to school, specifically adult continuing education. I know how to work, and learning a language is work, no matter what the ads you hear that say “ten minutes a day” want you to believe.

After thinking about it, structured book learning and progression is the best way for me, and the schedule that I have. And adult continuing education isn’t graded or have a high pressure environment. All of the people in the class are taking it for enjoyment or professional reasons, and are, well, adults.

I am fortunate to live in a town where there is a big assed university, so I hit the UW Madison website and they did indeed offer French in their adult continuing education offering. So I signed up for French 1, wanting a full review of things I already knew. The course was under $200 for 12 weeks of assignments and 1.5 hours per week of in person class. That’s quite a value. The assignments are a mixture of cultural things, grammar, video, audio, etc. All of this is hosted on the UW website. Towards the end of French 1 we got booted from the buildings because of the commie crud, but we finished with Zoom. I have to admit that it was sort of fun going back to school, walking on campus, and getting back to an institution of higher learning even though it was just basically “night school”. I hadn’t been to a structured class since 1990 and my days at U of I in Champaign.

French 2 was done on all zoom, and I am now nearing the end of French 3, same thing. Each class was about the same price and the classes are very well run and extremely enriching. Already I am certain that if you dropped me in the middle of France and I had to get along, I could. I am well on my way to being fluent. My original plan was to be fluent in five years, but I think I can do it in three at my current pace.

I will have to re-take French 3 as that level is exponentially tougher – it takes a little longer to progress to French 4, which are basically fluent persons who are brushing up or moving into the finer points of the language.

In addition to this I hired a French teacher for some private lessons. We just log onto Zoom and talk for an hour at a time and she corrects my grammar and pronunciation. Invaluable. $50/hour. I bought ten lessons.

I have also supplemented with some online items from the Coffee Break series. Coffee Break offers full blown courses and short weekly passages that test listening and comprehension skills. Again, minimal cost.

I think that all of this would have been possible in the past, but harder to do. Zoom didn’t exist just a decade ago, so you would have to lose the time to travel for a face to face lesson if you were doing privates. While the in person classes would have been the same, the amount of video and audio resources available for free online are innumerable, and the ones in our class would have been much harder to distribute, versus just going to the UW website and downloading everything.

With the numerous choices online I had to pick a certain strategy and avoid the noise. The competition is intense for this market.

I got a mass market email today advertising an Air B and B like service in France (when it opens up). You can stay at someone’s house in France for a week who will speak French to you and take you around town and cook two meals a day for you. For $1500 a week. That is incredible and will be my next phase when I can do it.

I don’t really have a point to the post outside of showing that to further yourself, all you need is desire and a little money (and not even that much money). Which certainly brings into question how a college can charge what they do to teach what they teach.

Trimming the Kids to Fit the Template

Kevin Meyer, in his post Leveraging the Solitude of Leadership, cites a lecture delivered at West Point by essayist William Deresiewicz…who started by describing his experience on the Yale admissions committee:

The first thing the admissions officer would do when presenting a case to the rest of the committee was read what they call the “brag” in admissions lingo, the list of the student’s extracurriculars.

So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life.

That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.

But I think there’s something desperately wrong, and even dangerous, about that idea.

Dangerous how?  Largely because of all that emphasis on hoop-jumping…

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

A couple of weeks ago, a WSJ bookshelf piece titled The Price of Admission reviewed Little Platoons, by Matt Feeney, the theme of which is “a growing incursion of market forces into the family home.”

In the ambitious, competitive environments that Mr Feeney describes, year-round sports clubs and camps promote not joyful play or healthy exertion but ‘development’ and preparation for advancement to ‘the next level’–where the good, choiceworthy thing is always a few hard steps away.  If there is a terminus to this process, it is admission to a good college, which is, for many of the parents Mr Feeney describes, the all-encompassing goal of child-rearing.

As a result, the most powerful and insidious interlopers in Mr Feeney’s story turn out to be elite college admissions officers.  These distant commissars quietly communicate a vision of the 18-year-old who will be worthy of passing between their ivied arches, and ‘eager, anxious, ambitious kids’, the author tells us, upon ‘hearing of the latest behavioral and character traits favored by admissions people, will do their best to affect or adopt these traits.’

The emphasis on college admissions, especially ‘elite’ college admissions, has given enormous power to the administrators involved in this process–people who are ‘vain and blinkered’, in Mr Feeney’s words. They are also capricious:

Admissions officers once looked favorably upon students who captained every team, founded every club and spent every school break building homes in Africa and drilling for the SATs. Ambitious students and parents obliged, shaping family life in accordance to those preferences. In time, though, colleges found themselves deluged with résumé-padding renaissance students. Doing everything was no longer a sign of distinction, so admissions personnel changed the signals they were sending. “Now,” Mr. Feeney says, “instead of ‘well-rounded’ generalist strivers, admissions officers favor the passionate specialist, otherwise known as the ‘well-lopsided’ applicant.” Striving families are only too happy to comply.

I haven’t read Mr Feeney’s book, but at least as far as the college admissions process goes, I’d question whether it reflects ‘the intrusion of market forces’ into family life–if America was to go all the way to government ownership and control of those functions now performed by businesses, the malign effects of the admissions hoop-jumping described by the author would be just about the same.

In any case, people who are taught to center their lives and personalities around this admissions process, and the subsequent educational experience, are unlikely to be either first-class innovators or first-class leaders.

And, worse, the process makes them less likely to become thoughtful and courageous citizens.  In the comments to this post, commenter OBloodyHell quoted Walt Whitman:

There is no week nor day nor hour when tyranny may not enter upon this country, if the people lose their roughness and spirit of defiance.

“Roughness and spirit of defiance” are not likely to be compatible with the admissions process…and the education…that are all too common in American universities today.

Jimmy Stewart and My First Job

A comment on one of Dan’s great posts of business reminded me of my work life. Plunging in – getting caught up in the moment – I don’t have much to give someone beginning. I love his ability to step back, to analyze, to learn. This is personal, of a time past.

I haven’t had a career – I’ve had jobs: a Kelly job here, teaching one there and here, building the business. Hannity talks manual labor, beginning long before he was 16 and ending in front of the cameras in blue jeans; he’d think himself less of a man in a suit. Work = who I am, yes, that I understand. I consider myself the kind of person who delivered papers: from 6th grade through 8th, I think, the Omaha World Herald; in high school the Hastings Tribune. That was who I was, what Kenesaw was, what the fifties were. It reassures me – I came from that time, that place, that role. I’m less and less sure of memories, but bicycling around town, putting the paper in the doors – that was me.

Read more

Living in the Hate of the Common People

Someone at a social media site, who I will not dignify with a link, wrote:

I think we need to find a way to stop the working class from voting altogether.

This individual, who is in the UK and is obviously a furious anti-Brexiter, also wrote:

Idiots and racists shouldn’t be able to ruin the lives of people who do well in life by voting for things they don’t understand. The problem in this country boils down to low information morons having the ability to vote.

The above attitude reminds me of something written by that great historian and social analyst Harry Flashman, describing how people of his aristocratic class viewed the workers of the Chartist movement, circa 1848:

You have no notion, today, how high feeling ran; the mill-folk were the enemy then, as though they were Frenchmen or Afghans.

There are people in the US who have similar views of politics, only with reference to Trump voters rather than to Brexit.  Many Democrats, and especially ‘progressives’, assume and assert that Trump voters are ignorant people who are failing economically.  It is difficult for them to credit that there are quite a few Trump voters who are educated and thoughtful, and who in some cases are quite successful in career/economics terms…if such people exist, it is assumed that they must either be an insignificant minority or devious malefactors who are manipulating the ignorant masses in their own self-interest.

An example of this attitude appeared on MSNBC back in August, with anchor Chris Hayes and Washington Post writer Dave Weigel avidly agreeing with one another about the characteristics of Trump supporters (of whom they don’t approve)…men without a college degree who have enough income to buy a boat (Hayes qualifies it as *white* men).  Personally, I tend to *admire* people who have managed to do ok or very well for themselves without the benefit of a college credential. (And anyone believing that a college degree necessarily implies that an individual has acquired a broad base of knowledge and thinking skills hasn’t been paying very good attention of late.)

The snobbery we are seeing today is partly income-based. it is partly based on a faux-aristocratic contempt for people who work with their hands, and it is…more than any other single factor, I think…credential-based.

Indeed, education-based credentials seem increasingly to fill the social role once filled by family connections.  In his outstanding autobiography, Tom Watson Jr of IBM mentions that in his youth he was interested in a local girl, but her mother forbade her to have anything to do with him because he didn’t come from an Old Family…the fact that his father was the founder of IBM, already a successful and prominent company, evidently wasn’t a substitute.  Such ‘really, not our sort’ thinking would today be more likely based on the college one attended than based on family lineage.

Those expressing such attitudes exist in the Democratic Party in parallel with those who talk about their great concern for Working People. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, talked just recently about how physically tiring her work as a bartendress had been…and I don’t doubt that this was so…and asserted that Republicans don’t tend to have any experience doing such jobs.  Yet this same AOC posted a picture of her staring angrily at Joe Manchin–who one might think she would have considered as a possible ally on behalf of Working People–because he dared to question any Defund the Police policy.  And this same AOC helped ensure that Amazon, with the jobs it would have brought for those Working People, was not made welcome in her district.

It appears that a lot of those to whom the we-care-about-working-people message is targeted aren’t believing it.

(I’m not fond of the term ‘working class’, btw, it implies a fixed social structure and lack of mobility which is alien to American ideas.  The fact that Class terminology has become so common is a worrisome indicator.)

Discuss, if so inclined.


(classic song reference in the title)