Why We Don't Need Languages

Dr James Kierstead
Insights Newsletter
15 September, 2023

Victoria University of Wellington has defended its plans to stop teaching German, Italian, Latin and Greek and to cease research in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and French.

‘It’s not like anybody speaks these languages anymore,’ Ex Nihilo Vice Provost Brenda Boffin told us in an exclusive interview, ‘except for the 1.1 billion or so Chinese speakers, the 559 million Hispanophones, the 310 million speakers of French, the hundred and twenty million or so speakers of German and Japanese, and the almost 70 million Italian-speakers.’

When we mentioned that China and Japan together accounted for over $15 billion in exports last year, and that Germany, Mexico and France accounted for over a billion more, Prof. Boffin seemed unimpressed.

‘Nowadays, you can just use Google Translate,’ she said. ‘It’s not like you need to spend time studying these places and trying to understand their culture and society.’

‘That’s a relief,’ we told Prof. Boffin, ‘because with all those sacred texts and great thinkers – Confucianism, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment – it was a lot to get your head around.’

‘Exactly,’ came her reply. ‘That’s exactly why we can’t waste time and money on Greek and Latin either – after all, what did the Greeks do but invent democracy, pioneer geometry and geography, and inaugurate our traditions of history and philosophy? And what have the Romans ever done for us?’

We did have some suggestions on that front, but Prof. Boffin decided to reply ‘on a more positive note,’ pointing out that the university has ring-fenced Pacific languages like Māori and Samoan.

'Could you not just use Google Translate for those too?’ we suggested. This did not go down well with Prof. Boffin. ‘You have to realise that there is precious cultural heritage at stake here, unlike with French and German and Chinese and... Anyway, New Zealand’s part of the Pacific and the Pacific’s a big place.’

We suggested that was mainly because of all the water, but Prof. Boffin was undeterred. ‘At the end of the day, we’ve chosen to focus on our neighbourhood, and a very nice neighbourhood it is,’ she continued. ‘We’re not sure we’re missing a whole lot by focussing on where we are.’

When we asked, as our final question, whether Prof. Boffin thought there might be a risk of philistinism, she gave us a quizzical look.

‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘but I don’t know what that means.’

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