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!
What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.
- Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
- Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
- Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
The Flynn effect shows people have gotten smarter, but some research claims those IQ gains are regressing. Can both be right?
- Many countries made incredible gains in IQ scores during the 20th century, averaging three IQ points per decade.
- Studies out of Europe have shown a reversal of this trend.
- Such declines are not universal, and researchers remain unsure of what is causing them.
They'll reportedly last for thousands of years. This technology may someday power spacecraft, satellites, high-flying drones, and pacemakers.
Nuclear energy is carbon free, which makes it an attractive and practical alternative to fossil fuels, as it doesn't contribute to global warming. We also have the infrastructure for it already in place. It's nuclear waste that makes fission bad for the environment. And it lasts for so long, some isotopes for thousands of years. Nuclear fuel is comprised of ceramic pellets of uranium-235 placed within metal rods. After fission takes place, two radioactive isotopes are left over: cesium-137 and strontium-90.
New research shows that a healthy supply of locally-sourced beer helped maintain Wari civilization for 500 years.
- A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
- Civilizations throughout the ancient world used alcoholic drinks to signify kinship, hospitality, and social cohesion.
- The researchers hope their findings will remind us of the importance in reaffirming social institutions and sharing cultural practices — even if over coffee or tea.
Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.
One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.
That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.
Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.
One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.
Brewing social capital
Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.
The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**
Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.
These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.
"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."
The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.
Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.
Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)
A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.
The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:
"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human."
Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.
Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.
The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.
During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)
Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.
In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.
Relearning ancient lessons
The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.
"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."
So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.
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