Sunday, January 30, 2011

Parlez vous une autre langue?

I have had a lot of very similar conversations lately.  They usually go something like this.

FRIEND:  Hi, Spencer.
ME:  Hey!

FRIEND:  When do you start your new job?
ME:  Valentine's Day. My last day at the Council is February 11th.

FRIEND:  Oh.  Do you know where you are going yet?
ME:  Nope.  I will find out on March 11th.

Then I usually give a quick explanation (I really don't know much myself - it is very mysterious) of the bidding process, and how jobs are assigned to junior FSOs.

FRIEND:  Do you speak any other languages?
ME:  Nope. If I need to learn one, State will provide training.  I have to learn at least one other language within the first 5 years, or they kick you out, but there a lot of jobs and posts in the foreign service that require only English speaking.

FRIEND:  Oh, cool...

I can't tell you how many times recently that I've had some variant of this conversation, but if I had a nickel for every time, I could retire tomorrow.  As you gather from the above, I do not speak another language.  I took five years of French in middle and high school, but that was 18 years ago.  Wow, that just made me feel old.  Not only was it a long time ago, but I don't think that the way most Americans learn another language in school really helps anyone to learn another language.  We start way too late in life, and we aren't required to spend any real time on it.  It is just another subject in school; just another 50 minute period for 180 days for a few years.  And because it is required for most college prep curriculums, it is just something that we go through the motions on.  At least that was my experience.  I assume it is this way because most Americans don't believe there is any reason to learn another language.   If someone wants to speak with us, so the thinking goes, they'll speak English.

Language is a very important part of foreign service life; important enough that they give you bonus points on the register if you speak another language.  The bonus points are on a sliding scale where the size of the bonus corresponds to how important the language is to State at a given time.  For instance, languages like Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Pashto and Urdu are worth more than Spanish or Portuguese right now.  I obviously did not get a language bonus, but my veterans bonus was worth the same as if I spoke one of the easier, more common languages.  If I make a career in the foreign service, I will likely learn at least 2 new languages, and the diplobrats will likely learn several.  Assuming we can work out childcare arrangements, my wife can even learn another language at the same time that I do at the Foreign Service Institute (where State trains its diplomats).  So I see language as a pretty cool perk of the job.

Therefore, in honor of languages everywhere, here are some fun facts about language (with thanks to VistaWide: World Languages and Cultures):

To no one's surprise, Mandarin Chinese is spoken by the most people in the world: 1.051 billion (873 million native speakers/178 million speak it as a 2nd language)

Below is a list of the top 10 languages by numbers of native speakers.  The list is a little surprising both by what is on the list, but also what is not on the list.
    1. Mandarin
    2. Hindi (370 million native/120 million as 2nd lang)
    3. Spanish (350 million native/70 million as 2nd lang)
    4. English (340 million native/170 million as 2nd lang)
    5. Arabic (206 million native/24 million as 2nd lang)
    6. Portuguese (203 million native/10 million as 2nd lang)
    7. Bengali (196 million native/9 million as 2nd lang)
    8. Russian (145 million native/110 million as 2nd language)
    9. Japanese (126 million native/1 million as 2nd language)
    10. German (101 million native/128 million as 2nd language)

Surprising no-shows on the top 10 list are French (#18), Italian (#20), and Turkish (#21).

There are currently 6912 living languages, with 516 languages considered nearly extinct.

The country with the most languages spoken is Papua New Guinea, which has 820 living languages.

English is the most widely spoken 2nd language, the most widely published language, and has the most words, at approximately 250,000 distinct words.

Languages have been around since about 100,000 BC.

The language with the largest alphabet is Khmer (Cambodia) with 74 letters; smallest is Rotokas with 12 letters (4300 speakers in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea).

The oldest language still in existence is either Chinese or Greek (about 1500 BC).

The first written language is either Sumerian or Egyptian (about 3200 BC).


Cary said...


Alex said...

Interesting stuff! Once you start training you'll likely find yourself sorting languages in another way too: number of countries in which it's spoken. Bengali may be #7 in native speakers, but there's only one post at which you can use it. Not much bang for your language learning buck, at least

Andy said...

Just saw your blog and wanted to say congrats on getting through the testing process. I think you and I met once or twice in OA study sessions. Good luck starting your A-100!

Spencer said...

I was going do another couple of lines or a paragraph on the number of countries that speak a given language, but I thought the post was getting a little on the long side (and I was running out of gas). I find it really interesting that French, for instance, is spoken as a native tongue by only 67 million people, but is the official language in 41 countries, and is spoken as a second language by 63 million people.