Friday, October 18, 2013

Evaluating the Difficulty of the State Department's Critical Languages

Ranking the "best" language to learn (usefulness vs. difficulty)
  1. Hindi: 6/10 difficulty; 44 weeks; 8/10 usefulness. The lingua franca of India and a globally important tongue. It's not the easiest language on here, but compared to Korean, it's a breeze.
  2. Mandarin Chinese: 8/10 difficulty; 88 weeks; 10/10 usefulness. What can I say? Mandarin is tomorrow's language superpower, second to English. The difficulty of the language is daunting, if overstated. There are certainly more difficult languages to learn, but the orthography is a nightmare for English speakers.
  3. Urdu: 6.5/10 difficulty; 44 weeks; 8/10 usefulness. Hindi and Urdu are both dialects of the same Hindustani language, but Urdu got the shaft cause its writing system is more difficult to master than Hindi's. 
  4. Persian (Farsi & Dari dialects): 5/10 difficulty; 44 weeks; 6/10 usefulness. Two dialects of the same Persian tongue. It will get you through Iran, parts of Afghanistan, and Tajikistan - not to mention you may find speaking communities in other parts of the Middle East. It's a good one to know, for sure.
  5. Arabic: 8/10 difficulty; 88 weeks; 8/10 usefulness. A very useful language but very difficult. If you have the motivation, I say go for it; but for those of you who are trying to pick up another language for the moolah, I would advise looking elsewhere.
  6. Korean: 9/10 difficulty; 88 weeks; 7/10 usefulness. As explained below, it is probably the most challenging language on the list. It is a useful tongue, but do the rewards justify the amount of time and effort required to master it?
  7. Pashto: 7/10 difficulty; 44 weeks; 3/10 usefulness. Pashto is for the Afghan/Pakistan enthusiasts and the language geeks. 
For those interested in becoming a diplomat on behalf of the United States (a Foreign Service Officer), bonuses are granted to the applications of those who know foreign languages with political importance (generally meaning they are the official language of a state or region). Not all languages are evaluated equally. Knowledge of any language gives you a .17 point bonus - small but certainly an edge over other candidates - and the required speaking/reading score is 3/3 (non-native, fluency), which is difficult to attain but not impossible. Based on anecdotal evidence, it is believed that Spanish is the most common second language of FSO applicants.

Many applicants want to learn one of the critical languages, a short list of languages with significantly higher bonuses. Applicants are further encouraged by the laxer standards to receive the bonus, the minimum score is only 2/2 (a professional but non-fluent ability). Unfortunately for many interested without solid language knowledge, there is a good deal of language myth and hogwash around each language learning experience: namely, myths concerning the difficulty of learning any of them as a native American English speaker. This post is intended to provide a myth-free review of each of the languages for anyone interested.

Note #1: Learning any language is difficult. Just because Spanish or Frisian or Scots would be listed as "easy" does not mean learning them is an easy experience. It simply means that they are some of the easiest you could select, relative to other world languages.

Note #2: There is no such thing as a objectively "easy" language. Dispel that myth at once. Some languages are easier than others for an English-speaking adult. All languages are equally easy for a baby. For example, perhaps the most difficult languages for an English speaker, the polysynthetic Eskimo-Aleut languages of North America, are just as simple for a child to learn as learning English or Vietnamese or Afrikaans. This list is NOT an objective list of language difficulty and there is no such thing!

Note #3: The "Time" numeral is the number of years or months required, on average, to attain necessary proficiency. These averages are maintained by the State Department.

Note #4: Difficulty is, and always will be, a subjective thing. Some speakers will find themselves unusually adept at learning and employing languages using case declensions, others may find themselves better at tongues with enormous verbal complexity. The result is that a language rated 9/10 may be closer to a 4/10 for some. Take these with a grain of salt.

Note #5: In 2012, point bonuses for critical languages were amended. While non-critical languages continue to receive a .17 boost, I do not know what the point values have been set to. I will report the pre-2012 bonuses which should grant some degree of certainty.

Arabic (Afrasian - Semitic)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .5
Time: 88 weeks
Difficulty: 8/10
Usefulness: 8/10
An important problem with Arabic is the enormous dialect diversity within the language so that two speakers from opposite ends of the Arab world may find themselves unable to converse with ease. Arabic has a lot of political pull and can be great for a career outside of the Foreign Service. But Arabic is a tough language. Why?

  • Phonology: 5/10. On the one hand, its number of consonants and vowels are average, and the vocalic system is much simpler than English. On the other hand there are a few tough consonants. Arabic distinguishes between velar, uvular, pharyngeal, and glottal plosives (and some dialect varieties have epiglottal plosives - cue jaw drop), which can make mastering the phonotactics of the language a surmountable challenge. The difficulty of Arabic's sounds has been greatly overrated in the past.
  • Vocabulary: 8/10. The triconsonantal root structure of Arabic is strange but by no means peculiar. A vowel ablaut exists in fragmented form in English (sing, sang, sung, song) and the consonant roots make learning new words easier than normal. As the language is not Indo-European, thus unrelated to English, learning the roots is going to be a challenge.
  • Grammar: 7/10 Literary Arabic boasts a small number of noun cases (3) and gender (2) and declines for three numbers but spoken Arabic no longer utilizes case or the dual form. Verbs have a normal degree of conjugations compared to world languages (including 5 moods), but significantly higher than English.
  • Suprasegments: 3/10. Arabic is a mora language where the meaning of a word is determined by the length of a phoneme, this is not especially difficult for an English speaker. Stress exists but its placement is non-random and limited: not a problem.
  • Script: 9/10. This is nearly as tough as it gets. 

Mandarin Chinese (Sino-Tibetan - Sinitic)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .4
Time: 88 weeks
Difficulty: 8/10
Usefulness: 10/10
A terribly difficult orthography with a somewhat simple spoken form. The difficulty of Chinese is famous, if greatly exaggerated. Learning Chinese is a great skill outside of State. If you never get in but you learned the language, it was time well spent.
  • Phonology: 4/10. Strange to an English mouth, but entirely palatable. Remember that tone is a suprasegmental characteristic, so don't jump to conclusions just yet.
  • Vocabulary: 8/10. Non-Indo-European so don't expect to find cognates with English, except in loanwords. 
  • Grammar: 3/10. English and Chinese have something very special in common: they are both isolating languages relatively free of inflection. Because of that, English grammar maps quite well onto Chinese.
  • Suprasegments: 8/10. Tonality over a single word modifies the meaning and can make the difference between saying "cow" and "mother." If you do some travelling, you may find other Chinese speakers using different tones, but knowing Standard Chinese tones will get you anywhere you need to be.
  • Script10/10. This is as tough as it gets and Chinese is famous for it. Thousands of unique symbols requiring memorization. The aid of radicals, small marks within the symbols that hint at sound and meaning, are of use but will not save you.

Hindi & Urdu (Indo-European - Indo-Aryan)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .4
Time: 44 weeks
Difficulty: 6/10 for Hindi, 6.5/10 for Urdu
Usefulness: 8/10
Hindi is the standard Indian dialect of the Hindustani language while Urdu is the official Hindustani dialect of Pakistan. The difference between the two is primarily rooted in vocabulary and the script. Like Chinese, it has an enormous number of speakers. Lots of Indians know the tongue and non-Indians too. Related to English but distantly. Very distantly. Close to Bengali and Gujarati.
  • Phonology: 4/10. An average number of phonemes. There is a distinction between retroflex and dental plosives but a dedicated learner would find that more fun that difficult.
  • Vocabulary: 6/10. Indo-European roots but extremely divergent from English, thanks to 5000 years of separation. Colored by cultural stratification.
  • Grammar: 6/10. A case system that has been reduced from Proto-Indo-European but never easy for an English speaker. Three cases with two declension classes. Conjugation by gender, tense, number, and aspect. Split ergativity. 
  • Suprasegments: 2/10. Stress accents that can be predicted.
  • Script: 7/10 for Hindi; 9/10 for Urdu. Devanagari script makes learning Hindi difficult but fortunately the letters correspond fairly accurately to consonants and vowels. Urdu is written in the Persian alphabet, based around the Arabic script.

Korean (Isolate? - Koreanic)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .4
Time: 88 weeks
Difficulty: 9/10
Usefulness: 7/10
A major economy with a sizable number of speakers. Not to mention that North Korea overhead means there will always be a few security analyst positions available for someone with knowledge of Korean. 
  • Phonology: 7/10. The inventory is short and simple but Korean employs stiff voice, a narrowing of the glottal opening, and hollow voice, a distortion of the larynx's position and constriction of the glottis. I have been told this is very difficult for English speakers to master as they often think they are doing it correctly as they cannot hear their mistakes.
  • Vocabulary: 10/10. Unrelated to English and distinguishes between honorifics, speech level (where the status of who you speak to/of demands a particular set of vocabulary be used), and gender.
  • Grammar: 9/10. 7 cases but not defined by gender and optionally defined by number. Verbs are relatively complicated for an English speaker, able to tack on up to eight affixes simultaneously (!). While the nouns are fairly easy fare, the verbal system is a monstrosity.
  • Suprasegments: 0/10. No significant stress system, no tonality, no pitch accent. There are several non-standard pitch accents found in dialects outside of the capital. 
  • Script: 7/10. A different orthography but one that makes sense.

Pashto (Indo-European - Indo-Iranian)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .4
Time: 44 weeks
Difficulty: 7/10
Usefulness: 3/10
The national language of Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. Strongly latched on to identity of the Pashtun tribes. Expect to be working in Central Asia.
  • Phonology: 5/10. Nothing too crazy except for a retroflex lateral flap (a funky 'l' sound) that can be mastered with practice.
  • Vocabulary: 6/10. Like Hindi and Urdu, it is Indo-European but very distant from English.
  • Grammar: 7/10. Four cases defined by gender (2) and number (2). Split ergativity. Moderate degree of complexity to the conjugation of its verbs.
  • Suprasegments: 2/10. Some argue there is a free pitch to add emphasis to a word. Nothing that can't be learned.
  • Script: 9/10. Pashto variation on the Persian alphabet.

Persian - Dari & Farsi dialects (Indo-European - Indo-Iranian)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .4
Time: 44 weeks
Difficulty: 5/10
Usefulness: 6/10
By learning Persian you could pick up either dialects and test in both. I'm not sure if you can do that. I'm pretty sure they only give you a bonus one time. In addition to having some currency in Eastern Iran, Dari Persian (which is not the Dari language of central Iran) is a co-official language of Afghanistan. Farsi Persian is the official language of Iran, and the language has many speakers in Central Asia and parts of the Middle East. 
  • Phonology: 2/10. 22 consonants, 6 vowels. Only strange feature for an English speaker is an allophonic [g ɢ] (think a 'g' further back in the throat) which is simple enough.
  • Vocabulary: 6/10. Like Hindustani and Pashto, relatedness to English is very remote.
  • Grammar: 5/10. No grammatical gender. 3 cases marked by adpositions. The role of cases has been greatly reduced since Old Persian. Verbs are conjugated inflectionally or aspectually with light verbs. Present tense verbs are highly irregular, but overall there are few tenses to master. 
  • Suprasegments: 2/10. Stress accents that can be predicted.
  • Script: 9/10. The Persian alphabet is derived from the Arabic.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

An Etymological Map of the District

The greater DC area needed an etymological map.

Okay, so it probably didn't need an etymological map, but it sure could use one. I took 30 minutes out of my morning today to have a bit of fun: mapping the greater Washington, DC area not with its current names, but names built around their historical meanings. For example takoma, as part of Takoma Park, derives from a Native American word meaning "snow-capped mountain." Some of the results were surprising (check out Suitland and Carrollton).

Actual names of cities - Etymological names of cities:

Alexandria – Defender of Men. From Greek alexein "to defend" + -andr- "man" (related to andros and anthro-).

Anacostia – Village Trading Center. From Nacotchatank Algonquin anacost- "trading village."

Arlington – Hygered's Farm. Named after Arlington, England. Anglo-Saxon records from the 800s CE list the name as Hygered-ing-tun. The suffix -ing- is a possessive marker analagous to 's in Modern English. -tun is a suffix for town but in the 800s CE it meant a stately house with farmland (Modern English -ton).

Bethesda – House of Mercy. From Aramaic beth "house" (whence the second morpheme of the word alphabet) + hesda "mercy."

Bladensburg – Sword's Fort. From a Germanic source, possibly Anglo-Saxon. Bladen "sword" or "knife" (contrast Modern English blade) + -s a possessive genitive marker (Modern English 's) + -burg "fort" (though today means something more like city or burrough).

Glenarden – Great Forest Narrow Valley. From English glen "narrow valley" + Latin arden "great forest."

Greenbelt – Rural Land Outside the City. English analogy: a belt of greenland that wraps around a city. A bit dated as nearly cities are surrounded by suburbs today.

Holmes Run – Holly Tree Run. Holme and holmes have many meanings. The one I figured was most likely is a common Middle English name meaning a place of a holly tree. The last name of Sherlock Holmes, for instance, meant "man of the holly tree."

Hyattsville – Village of the Man of High Gate. From Middle English hyatt a dialect shortening of high + gate with a 's genitive and -ville "village."

Lake Barcroft – Farm by the River Bank. From Scotch-Irish English ban- "river bank" + croft "farm."

Langley – Long Meadow. From Old English lang "long" + -lea "meadow" or "woods clearing" (contrast Ashley "meadow between the ash trees").

Marlow – Marsh Hill. From English mar- "marsh" + low "hill."

McLean – Celtic shorthand for (Saint) John's Servant

Mount Rainier – General's Adviser. A rarely employed term. A rainier was once a common position to Frankish and German armies.

New Carrollton – Town of the Slaughter Champion. From older Irish carroll "slaughter champion" + -ton "town."

Potomac River – River of Swans. Disputed etymology, so I chose the prettier one. It could also be from From Algonquin patowmack "something brought," signifying a trading post.

Pimmit Hills – Unknown

Suitland – Senator Samuel Taylor Suit's Land

Takoma Park – Snow-covered mountain. From Lushootseed [təqʷúʔbəʔ] "mother of the waters."

Washington – Wassa's Estate. Contrast Arlington. From Old English Wassa personal name + -ing- possessive suffix + -tun "estate," "farm house."

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Fantasy Tropes

While I'm waiting for the results of a small survey on the accents and vocabulary of middle age and elderly Iowans, I think we can take a moment's respite to talk about the accents used in the fantasy genre.

It's long been noticed that when directors want to demonstrate the "foreign-ness" of a character, they utilize British accents. TV Tropes calls this The Queen's Latin phenomenon. They are right on the money. British accents are an over-used technique. Is the guy from Rome circa 300 CE? Well he's speaking in Received Pronunciation now. Sometimes directors go so far as to have American and Australian actors adopt British accents, rather than cast a British actor.

But the stereotypes go deeper than just British accents in a period film. The fantasy genre is one of the worst purveyors of language stereotyping. Let's get frank, here:

Strong, brutish, and well-intentioned but not particularly intelligent
Result: Scottish accents

Cultured, sophisticated, pompous, usually good but sometimes evil or mischievous
Result: Highfalutin English accents

Human (heros)
Balanced, smart, lovable, closest to a perfect character
Result: Common English accents, General American

Human (lower class)
Unafraid to get their hands dirty in morally ambiguous situations but not necessarily evil
Result: Cockney, Irish

Human (antagonists)
Super powerful and super evil and super smart. They stand for chaos, destruction, deception, powerlust, and selfishness.
Result: General American, Common English accents

Hobbits and Simpleton Races
Generally good, down-home folk.
Result: Common English accents

Humans (assassins and mercenaries)
Strange and mysterious. Usually from a foreign land. They may speak slowly but their wits are sharp and skills unmatched by everyone but the heros and the main antagonist.
Result: Foreign accent, usually Mediterranean or Middle Eastern

Trolls and Ogres
Stupid, evil, easily tricked and hateful
Result: Cockney, Scottish

 So what we learn from today's venture is that American accents are generally ignored but Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian accents really get the boot.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Regional Accent Test

Review the questions, then please begin recording. You can record your answers at Vocaroo. Post a link to your Vocaroo file in the comment section and I'll reply with your "score." Remember there are no right or wrong answers, answers are only indications of regional influences upon your idiolect.

First name:
Did you move anywhere before age 18? If so, where:
[OPTIONAL] Area of college(s) attended, if attended:
[OPTIONAL] Places you lived after graduation:

Multiple choice.

How do you address a group of people? You may pick multiple.

  1. You
  2. You guys
  3. You all
  4. Y'all
  5. Yous
  6. Yinz
  7. Other: [please list]

Paul says, “I'm going to the store. Do you want to come with?” Does “do you want to come with” sound grammatical or no? Would you ask that question in the same wording?

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Don't know
Yolanda asks, "I called you yesterday. Why you ain't call?" Does "why you ain't call" sound grammatical or no? Would you ask that question in the same wording?
  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Don't know

What do you call a free-standing municipal water dispenser?

  1. Water fountain
  2. Fountain
  3. Drinking fountain
  4. Bubbler
  5. Other: [please list]

What do you call your casual shoes?

  1. Sneakers
  2. Tennis shoes
  3. Gym shoes
  4. Other: [please list]

In your kitchen, what does water come out of?

  1. Spigot
  2. Faucet
  3. Tap
  4. Other: [please list]

What do you call a generic hard candy on a short, white stick?

  1. Sucker
  2. Lollipop

Short answer.

What do you call rain while the sun is shining? If you do not have a word for it, say you do not.

What do you call the largest meal of the day?

What do you call your third meal of the day?

What does a farmer milk the cow's milk into?

When people say “I'm going to the city.” What city jumps to mind?

What do you call a flavored carbonated beverage?

What's a poke of potato chips? If you don't know, say "Don't know."

Say the following in a steady, moderate speed.


Read the following sentences aloud in a natural speaking rhythm. Try not to over-enunciate and try not to speak with unusual clarity. Speak naturally as if you were talking with a friend at a restaurant.

“I had to run to catch the bus and when I got on I realized I didn't know the route it was taking.”

“My cat has several kittens to the litter. She loves the nook by the pots and pans.”

"I think the tourists will go for an orange or apple during their tour."

"The aliens understood why humans love juice but could not understand the role of a father and mother."

"You can buy mirrors from the shop on 33rd Street if you hurry."

What is your American accent?

Traditionally, linguists would say that most Americans speak with a General American accent. What is meant by General American is a very particular dialect: one of the old, boundary-less dialects of the English language that Americans picked up in order to be better understood. Most Americans describe the accent as “plain,” “boring,” and “featureless.” It's very common for General American speakers to say “they don't have an accent” (this is a myth of language peculiar to American English speakers as everyone has an accent, but that's a tale for a different time).

Calling General American a single, concise accent may not be such a good idea. Which region of America speaks the real General American? Instead, General American may be more appropriately described as a collection of habits and traits of speaking that people choose to adopt on top of their regional dialect. Put more simply, people with regional dialects often speak with “flatter” accents but never truly lose their regionalisms.

In Massachusetts, for instance, despite the fact that many Southies of Boston now speak in accent closer to something outside of New England, they still retain their regional words like the adverbial use of wicked (as in, “that movie was wicked awesome”), casual r-dropping (think “pahk the car in hahvahd yahd,” which is formally called non-rhoticism), and a sporadic intrusive r ("sodir" not "soda"). 

So what does that mean for you and me? Well, many people incorrectly assume they speak a “pure General American.” This is not really true. First, as outlined above, there is no ironclad definition of General American, as every interpretation of General American is subject to regional idiosyncrasies. Second, contact through travel and pop culture can color your speech. Third, dialects change over time, even within a lifetime. The third point is often a bit surprising, but language change is happening all the time, everywhere. No exceptions. If you travel to Ohio, for example, you will see that the English language is already in flux: speakers under 30 years of age will pronounce words like strength as shtrength. Ohio's new accent, where [s] is reduced to 'sh' before [t] is common habit of language change that linguists call lenition or consonant weakening. It may interest you that this same thing is happening in parts of England.

I thought it would be fun to play an accent game of sorts. Granted, it won't be as exciting as a real game, but it may be fun to hear your regionalisms. Because most readers will have traveled in their lives, I am guessing none of you will a particularly distinct accent. My hypothesis is that most of you will have General American accents with various habits and features picked up from the places you moved to and the people you have interacted with.

Below will be a series of questions to answer and things to speak. To complete this test, you will need to record yourself saying the answers. I believe allows you to record and upload audio messages. You can reply with a link to the audio message for your answers. Because I might get each Vocaroo link mixed up, I will ask you to state your name at the beginning, as well as short biographic information.

The overall goal is that I'll tell you what regional accent you have, as well as point out any inconsistent or unusual features to your speech. 

I have arranged a fun test for you. There are many tests online, including some very good ones, but each have their particular problems. I have designed this test for American English speakers (English speakers from the United States). So my apologies to the rest of the Anglophonic world.