In the great wide world of tongues, there are languages that are easy and there are the ones that make you want to rip out your hair. I must be a glutton for punishment because I like to learn what are called less commonly taught languages. These are the hard ones and the hard to find ones. Chances are you didn’t have Czech or Igbo classes alongside Spanish in high school. Or if you had an interest in learning Tamil or Tagalog it may have been near impossible to find a teacher of this “esoteric” language. I’m all about promoting these languages. Friends have said to me, what’s the point of learning a difficult language like Icelandic, Arabic or Mandarin Chinese. Speakers of these “hard languages” also speak English as a second language. I always respond that the point is human connection, gently reminding them of one of my favorite quotes by Nelson Mandela, “When you speak to someone in a language they understand you speak to their mind; when you speak to them in their native tongue then you speak to their heart.” I say this as I leave for Iceland this week. I have been practicing some Icelandic, and Icelandic is notorious for having long, hard to pronounce words as many of the sounds don’t exist in English! Check this one out for example: Vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymluskúraútidyralyklakippuhringur
Yes, it is all one word in Icelandic, it means “key ring of the keychain of the outer door to the storage tool shed of the road workers on the Vaðlaheiði plateau”. What did I get myself into?!
The difficult languages can be a labor of love that pays off in impressive ways. Knowing a less commonly taught language is always an interesting icebreaker and a unique conversation starter. People are immensely curious when they learn you are studying Persian not because your husband is Iranian but because you were curious and wanted a challenge. Not to say that there is anything wrong with learning languages like French or Spanish. But watch for the look of wonder and admiration that crosses someone’s face at your next dinner party when you say you’re learning Azerbaijani and you don’t have a lick of Azerbaijani heritage. Less commonly taught languages are defined by the US Department of State as needing more hours of study to achieve a level of fluency (for example experts estimate that it’ll take 2,200 class hours to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese). Less commonly taught languages are also called Critical Languages or Critical Need languages. There is even a Critical Language Scholarship through the US Department of State, it’s a cultural and educational exchange program that offers students the opportunity to participate in an intensive language study abroad. This program funds students who study one of the 14 critical need foreign languages and is part of the National Security Language Initiative. This list of languages emphasizes the study of non-Western European languages critical to U.S. national security, such as Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Russian, and Turkish.
The languages as I said, are ranked based on difficulty. The difficulty is determined by hours of study needed to achieve a level of fluency according to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). The rankings break down in levels like; limited working proficiency, general proficiency, working proficiency and general working proficiency. The Defense Language Institute (DLI) shares this language ranking system with the FSI. Then there is the US Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) with a similar but different measure and definition of fluency.
There is even an international language proficiency level that is a bit easier to follow. Its called the Common European Framework of reference for languages. A language user can develop various degrees of competence in each of these domains and to help describe them the CEFR has provided a set of six Common Reference Levels (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2). A1 and A2 would be equal to a basic level of language function. Meaning you can introduce themselves and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where one lives, people they know and things they have. If you are a language learner at the B1 and B2 levels then you are an independent user of a language. Reaching level C means you are a proficient user and can recognize the implicit meaning and a C2 denotes mastery and you can understand anything that is heard or read and does well in complex situations. Depending on the complexity of the language it can take up to 1500 hours or more of study to reach the C2 level of fluency.
Some languages require thousands of hours to achieve a basic level of understanding. Even more time needs to be invested to be considered literate. Wow! Sounds like a lot. But no worries. if you find the right tools it’s really fun! For example, I started out most of my languages with Pimsleur audio programs to just spend some time getting used to the sounds and phonetics of the language. This was a no-nonsense approach and the dialogue introduces essential phrases you would actually need like “excuse me”, “I understand” etc.. Its funny my brother started calling Pimsleur “Pimpsleur” after we noticed that there was always a scene in the dialogue (No matter what language) where an American man asks a Japanese/Russian/ Egyptian woman to have a drink with him and then you learn how to ask what hotel she’s staying at.
After I had some of the Pimsleur phrases down. I always had to follow it up with some text. I’m an audio-visual learner. Finding a good text was the challenge. For language’s like Chinese and Arabic, I used college level intro course books. Meeting characters like Wang Peng and Li You and their adventures with Integrated Chinese, helped me get the hang of sentence structure. I got to learn some basic grammar and intermediate Arabic vocabulary with Maha and Ahmed in Al-Kitab fi taalum Araibiya . There was an excitement to learning about these characters every week. When you start to get into the more advanced material, you have to get more creative or you will plateau. This has happened to me many times with all my language friends. I would recommend finding a way through scholarships, grants, and determination to travel to a country where your target language is spoken. But you have to go with a mission and hold yourself accountable for sticking with that mission. Don’t fall into the expat trap of only hanging out with speakers of your native language. Get to know the locals, mingle, go to their homes, dine with them, listen to their music and sing their songs. It will be awkward, uncomfortable and embarrassing but go with it! Get comfortable with being uncomfortable! Don’t be ashamed if you don’t know all the words, use the words you do know to describe the ones you don’t.
Speaking of confidence in language learning. I recently spoke to an acquaintance that gave a presentation at the 2015 Polyglot Conference, he was a linguist who spoke German, Korean, Pashto, Serbian and Spanish. His presentation was about a subject near and dear to my heart, African American Vernacular English or AAVE (formerly known as Ebonics). We connected and he shared some of his tips for being persistent with languages. I must admit, I was a bit intimidated after finding out he was a Fulbright scholar. But he told me to never worry about where other language learners are. It’s your journey to have fun with the languages you choose. It is a continuous journey to be creative so that your language skills do not flatline and to stay consistent with the hours of meaningful practice. Keeping learning light-hearted and imaginative can take newly learned material from short-term to long-term memory. Come up with your own mnemonics that help you make words, cases, tenses, and phrases more relevant. My acquaintance from the Polyglot Conference mentioned a four-step process to being fluent. I’m loosely paraphrasing him at this point, but he described the process as follows. First being able to list and name, essentially building vocabulary. Second, you get familiar with sentence structure, third being able to ask questions, understand the responses and then answer questions accordingly. The last step is having the ability to have paragraph-level discourse. Holding a conversation at length on topics of interest.
“Paragraph” level is where I was just beginning to get in 2016 with Russian. I had a tutor, a rather humorless Ukranian guy who spoke Russian with a Ukranian accent (but I couldn’t tell). He pushed me to be able to talk about more than just life as a graduate student. He told me to describe Detroit, my hometown and talk about the politics, culture, and history there. Once I had done this he made me tell him about the 2016 election, who were the candidates, what did they stand for and what did that mean for US-Russia relations? Doing this made my brain want to melt and my mouth felt dry like leather. But I find that I am now more comfortable with Russian as a result.
In short my advice on how to pick the best language to learn and decide which one is right for you is simple. Find the one(s) you love and pursue them with reckless abandon. If you pick based on career options, knowing a language will always boost your career options (unless you’re learning Esperanto or Klingon). I when I was a kid there was a strong movement for people to learn Japanese because at the time Japan was a tech juggernaut with a booming economy. There were a million and one predictions about how Japan would eventually dominate the US. If you wanted to have an upper hand in business learn Japanese. Today is a very different world and Japanese is not so highly valued as a career asset. Then there was the push to have more Arabic, Pashto, Farsi and Urdu speakers around the turn of the 20th century. These four languages were seen as the most critical of the critical need languages as everyone jumped on the national security language bandwagon. Although, I admit I fell prey to some of these trends of learning something because it will help you later. Language fads and “languages that will boost your career options” will come and go.
Who knows, maybe by 2020 everyone will be jumping on the bandwagon to learn Georgian or Kazakh due to some international political uprising. Don’t learn a language purely to advance yourself, pick a language because of curiosity and admiration, choose to envelop yourself in a language and a culture for the connections with humans. Meet them, question them, love them and ultimately understand them. Do this and it will be a labor of love. I always have this to say of my language story: Spanish was my childhood sweetheart, Hindi was the crush I had but ultimately, the one that got away. Arabic was my first love, a serious commitment to language learning. But I started having an affair with Chinese and cheating on Arabic. Though I still cared for Chinese, eventually, Russian became my new mistress. Chances are I won’t become fluent in Icelandic when I return from Iceland. High probability I will never use the language again. But if I have connected to the hearts of a few native speakers by asking, “Hvar er klósettið? (where is the bathroom?) then I am indeed one step closer to my mission of being a global citizen.