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How long to learn that language? Here’s a map for that
How the U.S. teaches foreign languages to its diplomats.
For English-speakers, Romanian is easier to learn than German. And you’ll be speaking Russian sooner than Hungarian.
How is that? Because the Foreign Service Institute says so. Located in Arlington, Virginia, the FSI is the U.S. government’s main provider of foreign affairs training, including language courses.
As the chief learning organisation for the State Department, the FSI is where diplomats go to study the languages they will need on foreign postings. The Institute has a very practical approach to languages, dividing them into five categories, depending solely on how long it takes to learn them.
This map shows how the FSI judges the difficulty of European languages. Note that the Institute only teaches languages that are required for diplomatic intercourse; hence the grey spots on the map.
You won’t find any courses in Basque (the area straddling the Franco-Spanish border), Breton (in the ‘nose’ of France), Welsh (in, ehm, Wales) or Scots or Irish Gaelic in Arlington. In the countries where those minority languages are spoken, you’ll get by with Spanish, French and English.
English, by the way, is a ‘Category 0’ language (pink on the map), meaning that Americans are expected to be proficient in it. English is of course an official language in Ireland and the UK, but also in Malta (although it is coloured grey on the map, since it also has its native Maltese language, which is based on Sicilian Arabic and is the only Semitic language to have official status in the European Union).
‘Category I’ languages (in red on the map) are the easiest for English speakers, who should be able to reach reading an speaking proficiency within approximately 24 weeks (i.e. a little less than half a year of intense study).
These languages include both Germanic ones (Dutch, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish) and Romance ones (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian). That may seem strange, since English is more closely related to the former than the latter.
However, the peculiar history of English means that it is heavily influenced by French (and Latin), especially in vocabulary. One study says that the share of Latin and French words in English is greater than that of Germanic origin (29% each, versus 26%).
German, on the other hand, might share a lot of basic vocab with English (1), but according to the FSI it is a ‘Category II’ language (orange) – meaning that it would require around 30 weeks of intense study to master written and spoken proficiency.
That doesn’t quite chime with the experience of Mark Twain, who wrote that
“(m)y philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it” (2).
So why is German rated a grade more difficult than, Dutch, which is a directly related language, or even than Romanian, which is from another language family altogether?
Because, despite the large extent to which the vocabulary of German is cognate with that of English, the grammar of German is way more complex than that of Dutch or Romanian among others – or English itself, for that matter.
For example, German nouns are gendered, meaning they are either male, female or neutral. This is not always logical. Yes, der Mann is male and die Frau is female, but das Mädchen (the girl) is neutral. And like Latin, German has different cases – ‘of the man’: des Mannes (genitive), ‘to the woman’: zu der Frau (dative), and so on. And don’t get us started on verb conjugations, word order and detachable prefixes!
Still, German is a breeze compared to Europe’s ‘Category IV’ languages (in green) – basically all the Slavic ones (Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Macedonian, Bulgarian), two of the three Baltic ones (Lithuanian and Latvian), plus Greek, Albanian, Turkish and Icelandic.
The latter four are mutually (3) completely unintelligible, as are the Baltic and Slavic families with all the others, but they share a level of difficulty. According to the FSI, it will take you about 10 months (i.e. 44 weeks) of full-time study to get the hang of any of these.
But wait, it gets worse. If you’re an American diplomat about to be stationed in Hungary, Finland or Estonia, you’re going to have to deal with the asterisk behind either of those ‘Category IV*’ languages. It means they’re not quite ‘Category V’, but still a lot harder than, say, Icelandic or Greek. So you’re looking at about a year of full-time study to make yourself understood in either Finnish, Estonian or Hungarian.
There are no 'Category V' languages in Europe, but the blue bits on the map hint at where – and what – they might be: Arabic, spoken, among other places, in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, on the southern edge of this map. Getting a good grasp of Arabic would require at least 88 weeks of day in, day out studying.
So why is Arabic harder than for example Turkish? Both languages are equally unrelated to English. While that may be so, Turkish has an easy orthography (in Latin script, unlike Arabic), an uncomplicated case system and extremely regular verb declensions – all factors which distinguish it from Arabic.
There are no ‘Category III’ languages in Europe, but of course the FSI system does not stop at Europe’s borders.
Considering all that effort, why would an English-speaker –even a diplomat – learn another language? Doesn’t everybody else speak English anyway?
True, English will get you pretty far in the world, but not everywhere. Speaking the local language – or at least making a decent effort to do so – will earn you good will and open doors that otherwise may stay closed.
Another reason is that being English-only speakers may be a disadvantage even if everybody else speaks English. According to a recent BBC article, native English speakers are the world's worst communicators. Being monolingual means they are less proficient in detecting the subtleties of language variation than non-native speakers of English.
Those non-native speakers will be less proficient in slang, word-play and cultural-specific references, and will avoid them more than monolingual Anglophones. In fact, they are better at using English as a lingua franca than native English speakers.
Also, learning another language exercises the brain, and provides insight into another culture. As the saying goes: “As many languages you speak, so many times are you human”.
In the original Latin, that’s: “Quot linguas calles, tot homines vales”. The quote is by Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), who also said: “I speak in Latin to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse”.
Neigh twice for the accusative, Misty!
Strange Maps #871
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(1) Mann, Haus, Hand, Fisch, Ring, Gold, Hunger, Bett, Name, Land and, erh, Doppelgänger, to name but ten.
(2) In Appendix D to ‘A Tramp Abroad’. Twain’s attitude towards German can be described as abhorrent admiration, as witnessed by these two further quotes:
"Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth”;
“Some German words are so long that they have a perspective. Observe these examples: Freundschaftsbezeigungen; Dilettantenaufdringlichkeiten; Stadtverordnetenversammlungen”.
(3) Thanks for pointing out that indispensible adjective, Andy!
Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
Saudi Arabia Plans Futuristic City, "Neom" (Full Promotional Video)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c646d528d230c1bf66c75422bc4ccf6f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/N53DzL3_BHA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.
- A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
- More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
- The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
Professor Luis Escobar.
Credit: Virginia Tech
A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.
- Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
- Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
- Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.
Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.
The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.
An odd find
Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock
Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.
"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."
Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.
The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."
Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.
"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."
Why understanding memory matters
Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock
"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.
If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."
Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock
Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.
Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."
Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia
At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.
Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.
In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.
Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."
He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.