Site Makes US Foreign Service Language Courses Available Free Online

Interesting in studying a new language on your own time? All of the study material used by the US Foreign Service is available for free, online, on the web site.  The site is the work of private volunteers and is not affiliated with the US government, but the lessons, which are in the public domain, are the same as the ones used by the Foreign Service Institute.

There are 41 different languages available-everything from Amharic to Yoruba. Materials include study texts, MP3s and exams to help you gauge your progress.  The amount of material for each language varies, though, and languages that are less commonly spoken have less material.

Free, self-guided foreign language study courses are always a good thing. Sure, you won’t learn as fast as you would if you immersed yourself in the language or temporarily relocated somewhere where it was spoken, but many people lack the time or the finances to go that route.

Hat tip to Lifehacker, who unfortunately sent more traffic over than the website’s servers could bear.  On April 23, the following message was posted-please keep it mind if you go to the site to download study materials any time in the near future:

Traffic from lifehacker overloaded the server earlier today. As a result the admins from the isp have pulled the plug on downloading any course materials. We’re currently working to restore access. Please be patient. When the courses do become available again, please refrain from immediately downloading whole courses at a time. Just download the first few files as samples then return later for more. Hopefully, that will allow everyone to be able to sample the language that they’re interested in.

Amidst Hand-wringing, the French Language Thrives In Surprising Places

For decades, France has been extremely concerned with preserving its language and culture and protecting it from excessive foreign influence. French conservative Éric Zemmour argued in his best-selling book French Melancholy that the French language is on the decline, and in an article published in the New York Times, he says:

“Now even the French elite have given up. They don’t care anymore. They all speak English.”

But is the French language really in trouble?

According to the New York Times, the answer is no. The language, with 200 million speakers, is fine-it’s the demographics of the world’s French-speaking population that has changed. For example, of those 200 million French speakers, only about 65 million of them are French. The rest are either immigrants to France or were born in one of her former colonies.

According to  Abdou Diouf, former president of Senegal and  secretary general of the francophone organization, French is “thriving as never before.” Mr. Diouf told the New York Times:

“The truth is that the future of the French language is now in Africa.”

People from former French colonies, in Africa and elsewhere, are producing excellent, worthwhile literature in French, but France often appears reluctant to call it “French literature.”  Here’s what Canadian-born writer Nancy Huston said to the New York Times about the subject:

“The French literary establishment, which still thinks of itself as more important than it is, complains about the decline of its prestige but treats francophone literature as second class, while laying claim to the likes of Kundera, Beckett and Ionesco, who were all born outside France. That is because, like Makine, they made the necessary declaration of love for France. But if the French bothered actually to read what came out of Martinique or North Africa, they would see that their language is in fact not suffering.”

New Compilation Features Motown Hits In Many Languages

These days, it’s taken for granted that American music will be produced in English and marketed throughout the world in the same language. However, that wasn’t always the case, as a new Motown compilation illustrates. “Motown Around the World: The Classic Singles”  features popular Motown artists like Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and the Supremes singing their greatest hits- in French, Italian and German.

In an article on the Boston Globe, Otis Williams of the Temptations described the challenge of recording music in a language you don’t speak:

“It was an interesting challenge for us because we didn’t do so much talking in German and French back then! We recorded those songs phonetically, and we were worried that we weren’t going to get them just right, but nobody expected us to get the language down perfect.”

However, back then recording in other languages was worth it for both artists and labels because doing so made it easier to sell records overseas.  People were more likely to buy music if they could understand the lyrics.

Some artists also had loftier motives for translating their biggest hits. For example, Connie Francis, who recorded in 13 languages and sold 150 million foreign-language albums, saw herself as a goodwill ambassador for America. She told the Globe:

“I did have a talent for languages, but I wanted to use it for some beneficial things. When I was 14, my dad said to me, ‘Look, if you ever do make it — and it’s a long shot — but if you ever do make it on record, you have to go to each country and sing in the language of the people. Our country has a lot of enemies, Connie, and you can make friends for America through music.’ And I always kept that in mind.’’

Translating MTV’s Jersey Shore

MTV’s reality show “Jersey Shore” has joined the list of American cultural exports of questionable taste. The show, which follows the exploits of a group of over-tanned, over-muscled and under-dressed young Italian-American twenty-somethings, began showing in 30 other countries last month.

To promote the show, MTV has created a global ad campaign translated into several different languages. For example, in Latin America, the “Jersey Shore” lifestyle of “gym, tan, laundry” translates to “gimnasio, bronceado, lavandería.”

MTV believes that the show has the potential to be successful in other countries despite being called “the most appalling show of 2009” by American critics.  In order to appeal to a youthful overseas audience, the ad campaign emphasizes the key features of the lives of the show’s stars: working out, tanning, drinking and partying.

Sean Saylor, who is overseeing the international marketing campaign, explained to the New York Times:

“We found universal ideas, universal truths, and did a campaign that fits with everyone.”

“Universal truths” like “everyone loves to watch a train wreck,” perhaps?  MTV is counting on it…as the New York Times article points out, there is a lot of money to be made by exporting the show to other markets.

Currently, “Jersey Shore” is showing on MTV’s international channels, but the network is also planning to market it to third-party syndicators.

One thing that won’t be translated: “The Situation” (for those unfamiliar with the show, that’s what one of the main characters calls himself) will remain “The Situation” in Portugal, France, the Netherlands and other markets. If you think about it, that actually makes a certain amount of sense. If your nickname makes no sense in English, why bother translating it?

An Island's Endangered Language

Off the coast of Yemen, the island archipelago of Socotra is changing. One of the most noticeable changes is in the languages that the inhabitants speak, as more outsiders have moved to the island in recent years.

For centuries, the people on Socotra spoke a Semitic language called Socotri. The archipelago is now part of Yemen, where Arabic is the primary language. While the older people of the islands still speak Socotri, today more and more young people are choosing to speak Arabic, which has become the language of education and business, especially in the capital city. Fahd Kfayin, the secretary general of The Heritage and History Association of Socotra, told the Daily Star that:

“It became necessary for Socotris to use Arabic to communicate with others. The doctor, the teacher, the salesman, the police chief are not from Socotra, so Socotris are forced to use it [Arabic], and therefore have had to learn it.”

Socotri is especially vulnerable because it is an oral language, without a script of its own.  This makes it difficult to preserve in writing the unique sounds that make up the language. With no way of recording it and with fewer and fewer young Socotris choosing to speak it, the language could be lost forever. Equally disturbing is the loss of Socotra’s tradition of poetry, which was traditionally sung almost constantly.  According to the Daily Star:

It’s said that in the past if poetry wasn’t heard from a house when someone passed it, they tried to find out what ill had befallen its residents. Now the island appears to have stopped singing.

Per the Daily Star, while the Socotris who still sing are beginning to include more Arabic in their poems, the decline of the tradition itself is attributable to a more conservative version of Islam taking root on the island.

Learning Languages Cheaply

Recently, the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler blog addressed the issue of learning a foreign language, looking for the most effective ways to gain foreign language skills without breaking the bank. Here’s a quick summary of what the Frugal Traveler found:

Podcasts on iTunes are a cheap (sometimes free) way to pick up foreign language skills. Chinesepod is especially noteworthy if you are interested in learning Chinese, Spanish, French, or Italian as it also allows you to interact with native speakers who can correct your pronunciation.

CD-based courses like Rosetta Stone may or may not be a thrifty choice-in less expensive countries, you can actually sign up for a travel-based program that lets you immerse yourself in the foreign language you wish to learn for less than you would spend on a course from Rosetta Stone. However, if you’re going to a destination where travel is expensive or you just want to become a proficient speaker in your spare time, these can be good choices. Also, check out your local library. Many libraries offer access to language learning software to patrons for free.

Phrasebook apps for smart phones may seem convenient, but old-fashioned books are often easier to use.

How does the Frugal Traveler suggest you learn a foreign language? Craigslist! That’s right…sandwiched in between all of the other useful and/or weird postings on Craigslist are people who are willing to trade language lessons. Usually, these are native speakers who want help brushing up on their English in exchange for teaching you to speak their native tongue.

Aside from price, trading language lessons over Craigslist has a couple of different advantages. First, you get help with your pronunciation from a native speaker. Second, the “textbook” version of a language can differ from the way people actually speak it in a thousand tiny ways. Learning from a native speaker might leave better prepared for your travels. Who knows? You might even make a new friend.

Can Syria Save Aramaic?

Aramaic, famous for being the language spoken by Jesus himself, had a brief moment in the sun in 2004, when Mel Gibson released the Passion of the Christ. However, outside of Mel Gibson movies, the language is declining. According to the Christian Science Monitor, most of the last remaining Aramaic speakers live in 3 small villages in Syria. The Syrian government had launched an Aramaic language institute near Damascus to try to teach Arabic speakers the language, but ran into some public relations problems due to the traditional Aramaic alphabet’s resemblance to Modern Hebrew. That may not seem  like it should matter, but in the Middle East, it does, so the University of Damascus halted the program.

However, George Rezkallah, the head of the school, believes that the controversy will blow over and classes will start again over the summer. This year, his classes will be geared toward both Arabic speakers and English speakers, and will use Syriac script instead of the problematic Aramaic letters.

Ironically, although the square alphabet used to teach Aramaic at the institute does resemble the modern Hebrew alphabet, it’s actually older than Hebrew.  The Christian Science Monitor says that according to Dr. David Taylor, author of The Hidden Pearl: Aramaic Heritage of the Syrian Orthodox Church:

“the Jewish people adopted the square Aramaic alphabet – which had become the lingua franca of the entire Middle East from about 700 BC – after they were exiled to Babylon in 587 BC, before which they had used a Palaeo-Hebrew script.”

Dr. Taylor also told the Christian Science Monitor that saving Aramaic is important because the language is:

“a constant reminder of the international importance of Syria in the ancient world, when it was a beacon of learning and culture that had a profound impact worldwide.”

Different Grammatical Structures Use Different Parts of the Brain

All languages have a vocabulary and a grammatical structure. However, the type of grammatical structure varies depending on which language you are looking at. In some languages, like English, the order of the words largely determines the meaning of a sentence. However, in other languages, like German, word order is more flexible because the language uses “tags,” like prefixes or suffixes, to make the meaning of the sentence clear.

If trying to learn a language with a different grammatical structure than the one you were born speaking makes your head feel like it’s going to explode at first, there may be a very good reason: you’re having to use a different part of your brain than you normally would.

In American Sign Language (ASL), the meaning of a sentence can be determined either by word order or by “tags.” So, the same sentence can be signed two ways-either using word order or using tags. In a study performed at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, researchers found that individuals fluent in ASL used a different part of the brain to comprehend a sentence signed with tags than they did to understand the same sentence signed using word order.

The researchers showed 14 deaf individuals, all native ASL signers,a video of a study coauthor signing the same sentences in two different ways. While the study participants watched the video, the researchers used functional MRI scans to monitor their brain activity.

To the authors of the study, the fact that different areas of the brain were used to process the different types of syntax implies that we comprehend language using neural structures that originally evolved for other purposes. As coauthor Aaron Newman told Science News:

“We’re using and adapting the machinery we already have in our brains. Obviously we’re doing something different [from other animals], because we’re able to learn language. But it’s not because some little black box evolved specially in our brain that does only language, and nothing else.”

More Irish, Please? Report Alleges Irish Government Is Not Doing Enough for Irish Speakers

Is the Irish government doing enough for its Irish-speaking citizens? Not quite, according to a report just released by the office of An Coimisinéir Teanga Seán Ó Cuirreáin. The report shows  that complaints against government entities for violating the Official Languages Act by  providing inadequate Irish language services were up 15 percent in 2009.

According to, problems included responding in English to complaints made in Irish, lack of Irish-speaking staff in Irish-language schools, Gaeltacht schools and Irish museums, and more, leading Mr Ó Cuirreáin to conclude that there are “significant gaps” between services for English-speakers and services for Irish-speakers.

Irish Government

In another example of noncompliance with the Official Languages Act, officials in the Revenue Commissioners’ offices made a habit of releasing news releases in English immediately, but not issuing an Irish-language version of the release until 4 to 9 months later, by which time they could no longer be  considered “news.” There was also reportedly a lack of Irish-language signs dealing with the swine flu epidemic.

Mr Ó Cuirreáin explained to the Irish Times that government compliance with the Official Languages Act is vital if the Irish language is to survive:

“The future of Irish as a living community language, even in the strongest Gaeltacht areas, is currently at its most vulnerable level – at crisis point according to some analysts – particularly among the younger generation,” he said.

He added: “While many will continue to speak Irish, a critical mass is required for its survival as a community language. Language preference is not a random issue for Gaeltacht parents and their choice is always in the best interests of their children. Every time State officials require Irish speakers to opt for English, it reinforces the negative message.”

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