Prentiss Riddle: Language

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Seeking gripping reads on language and language careers

My 16-going-on-17-year-old niece is having a high school romance with foreign languages (French, Spanish and Latin so far). She's looking at colleges (probably bound for UT Austin, not a bad choice for language study, but also dreaming about a scholarship to a big ivy league school in the sky) and considering majors that would let her focus on a language or ten.

Does anyone have any advice for a budding applied linguist? Are there any sources which suggest what language or languages might be in high demand 6+ years out? Any synergistic skills or double majors you'd suggest picking up which would give one a shot at the big bucks but still let one make full use of those language skills? I've urged her to travel on other people's dime as early and often as possible (i.e., apply for every study abroad scholarship she can squeeze into her schedule). Any other skill- and career-building tips you can think of?

Secondarily, I'm also looking for a couple of good, fun, readable books on language and languages to give her for her birthday. I've already bought a copy of Pinker's The Language Instinct for the Chomsky/cogsci angle, but Pinker disdains historical, literary and cultural detail. (I've never understood that -- to me that's like an ornithologist being so focused on migratory behavior and neuroanatomy as to profess an active dislike of birdsongs and colorful plumage.) I'm looking for color commentary, like the delightful but now hopelessly outdated books by Mario Pei I devoured when I was her age.

P.S. Tongue-in-cheek answers welcome (e.g., "Pashto and small arms skills will be in demand for the foreseeable future") but as a protective uncle I'm more likely to pass on the serious ones. And online resources would interest me but probably not her as she's in a luddite phase at the moment. :-)

language 2002.08.15 link
/ Usenet thread


I do have some ideas I could pass on, though I'm British, so my thoughts on US university courses are bound to be inaccurate!

1) I'm afraid I think that Romance languages are a serious waste of time, especially for a talented linguist, if your niece is showing real promise. Here you just have to guess _what kind_ of romance she is having with the Romance language family, or perhaps you know already. French, Spanish and Latin. Hmmmm. These languages are popular with women, and a certain idea of femininity is strong in at least one of those cultures, French, diverting a lot of people into studying them.

There are lots of reasons to study languages. Three obvious ones:
a) love for the culture;
b) a lot of people speak that language;
c) very few people in _your_ country speak that language, making your skill rare and valuable.

I am always suspicious of (a) because you don't really know the culture until _after_ you get fluent at the language, added to which pretty much every language has a rich and wonderful culture. It is just that 99.99 per cent of the world gets filtered out of our daily knowledge. The world is very very big, and a lot of teenagers are genuinely astonished to find that (to take a random example) there are Danish film directors, Danish poets, Danish standup comedians, Danish TV sitcoms, Danish crossword-puzzle compilers, Danish literature teachers, Danish painters, Danish philosophers (it is possible your niece may have heard of Kierkegaard actually, one of the 5 or 6 key figures of the last 200 years' philosophy).

I do not mean for one minute to suggest Danish - absolutely not. (It is quite a hard language, I hear.) I mean to cast suspicion on (a). Your niece probably feels French and Spanish are languages rich in 'culture' simply because she has heard something about those cultures. Do you see what I mean? I translate Hungarian, a very peculiar language with an extremely rich literature, most of which has never made it into English. It just loses too much in translation - no joke.

So be careful with reason (a).

Spanish comes out reasonably well for numbers of speakers (b) as does the neglected Portuguese (spoken in Brazil _and_ two large African countries), but several other languages do much better, and those (Chinese, Hindi, Arabic) do much much much better in terms of (c) - how many people in your country, the US, speak them.

Learn French and Spanish and you become cheap. She joins the ranks of at least forty million Americans who speak some French or Spanish. Learn Arabic or Chinese and she becomes expensive, so expensive the government and lots of banks will offer her a job if she is anywhere better than mediocre.

And frankly, Arabic, Hindi, Chinese have cultures so vast and deep as to make French or Spanish look like Danish or Hungarian in terms of parochiality. Just because your niece knows nothing about these cultures does not mean they have none. Chinese, Arabic and Hindi all have literatures several times larger than any European language, stretching back at least a thousand years and at most three thousand years earlier than any European language. Most of what makes Spanish distinctive is Arabic in origin for example, and (embarrassing for Europhiles) Spain's only period at the forefront of world civilisation came when it was ruled by Moroccans. I'm thinking of around 1000 AD when there were only three universities in Europe, and all three were in Arab-controlled Spain. Several mediaeval European thinkers had to learn Arabic to get a proper education, since at that time only the Arabs read and taught the Greek philosophers and mathematicians as well as their own.

So for me (a)(b)(c) all actually suggest a serious world language, by which I mean an Asian language with a non-Latin alphabet. These have the advantage of being both very beautiful and (needlessly) putting off lots of your niece's contemporaries from sticking the course, making her rare and valuable within three years. In fact a new alphabet is much less of an obstacle than most people think - it takes about five days of hard study usually to get totally comfortable with one - but you should rejoice in how many competing language learners it deters! A weird-looking alphabet can also disguise an easy grammar too. Japanese grammar is fairly simple for example.

One difficulty which may become apparent if you suggest these to your niece. The economically most rewarding languages to learn (and in my eyes also most culturally exciting) happen to be of countries where we believe women are held to have low status. These are vast, diverse territories of course, and life is as different in Morocco and Egypt as it is in Mexico and Canada, to take the Arabic zone for example. Shanghai is a world away from Taipei, to take the example of Chinese. But reputation is reputation.

I would just say, try to get her to think carefully about wasting too much time on a European language. Most people have very little idea of just how many people speak different languages, but world speakers of Urdu (Pakistan's language) outnumber French speakers worldwide for example. French is not even in the top ten, and it won't be in the top fifteen in a decade, I reckon. If 450 million people speak Spanish, then 500 million speak Arabic (and American speakers of Spanish outnumber American speakers of Arabic well over a thousand to one). Then at least 700 million people speak some Hindi, and at least 900 million people speak the main Chinese language, Mandarin, while getting on for one and a half billion people can _read_ written Chinese. (Their word-characters are used by at least five distinct languages, including Korean and Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese Chinese, and Wu Chinese.)

If you're serious about your niece, try to wean her off European languages. Good for weekend hobby time, but not a career. Just one last point - can you imagine how much hard work she will have to do to become good enough to translate a Spanish or French book? Talented and experienced translators of those books almost outnumber the books. In Asian languages there are entire libraries of masterpieces no-one has yet had time to even translate summaries of. The work will be coming to her, giving her the pick.

Hope that helps.

Mark Griffith [contact ARROBA otherlanguages PUNTO org] • 2002.08.15
Thanks for the thoughtful response. One comment: her choice of languages so far has to do with what's available at her school rather than your (a) (b) or (c) reasons. So I think she's pretty open to other options as soon as we can get her to a decent university.

Actually she was giving some thought to Pashto or Dari herself but the protective uncle in me pointed out that that part of the world would be a hard place for a woman to build a career. (Nor a pleasant place for a radical vegetarian, also an important factor in her case!) And by the time she gets out of school, Afghanistan may be a distant backwater in the war -- Indonesian or Tagalog may be the next Pashto or Dari. :-(

Prentiss Riddle [riddle ARROBA io PUNTO com] • 2002.08.15
Ah, she sounds open-minded!

Yes, Afghan languages are unlikely to be topical five years hence [though Dari/Deri is apparently, according to a couple of Afghans and a couple of Iranians I know, almost identical to Farsi {Persian/Iranian} they can follow each other's newspapers and TV news fairly easily - so not as obscure a language choice as it sounds].

Probably the safest bet is a big Oriental language [like Arabic or Hindi or Chinese - as I was banging on about to you last night] plus a smaller, long-odds bet like Indonesian or Tagalog as you suggest. We are unlikely to spot the next crisis zone, but when I was at high school I thought Japan's days were numbered, and I was wrong. It will still be a big important [and fascinating] language and economy twenty years from now even if we'll no longer think they're set for world domination. As will Korea still. And of course A, C, and H.

A side thought - Swahili, spoken by traders in at least four East African countries, has a reputation for being one of the world's easiest grammars, so it could be quick to add as a back-up. Something like Chinese, Swahili plus another one would give many employers the confidence to send her anywhere.

The kind of book that would excite _me_ would give sample texts, plus short explanations of alphabets and grammars over 5 or 6 pages each language for about fifty languages. Does such a book exist, I wonder?

Mark Griffith [contact ARROBA otherlanguages PUNTO org] • 2002.08.15
The closest I've seen in a quick prowl to the book you're wishing for is the Compendium of the World's Languages by George Campbell. As I recall it's skimpy on script and language samples -- it uses a ubiquitous Bible verse (ugh!) -- but it seems more sophisticated in its 3-4 pages of grammatical analysis than most such books and more complete in its language selection. (Alas, the reviewers at Amazon also say it's full of errors.)

Prentiss Riddle [riddle ARROBA io PUNTO com] • 2002.08.15
On the book front, I think Pinker's book is really great. It's readable and fun (a classic 'popularisation') but also passes on lots of up-to-date information. Still within the Pinker-ish approach, I like Larry Trask's 'Language: The Basics' as a nice, short easy read and David Crystal's 'Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language' where you can dip in and find lots of interesting stuff. She might also enjoy Neil Smith's 'The Twitter Machine' which is also very Chomskyan.

I'm afraid I don't read enough on history, literature and culture. The first author that springs to mind for me is Bill Bryson but I don't think he says enough on language. Umberto Eco has written a lot of fun stuff she might enjoy (although not always an easy read).

I don't have much knowledge that would help with regard to which languages to go for, but I reckon Asian languages like Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese might be good bets given the way those cultures are developing and also the way the internet is developing. (Did you hear the statistic, which I heard David Crystal talking about) about how quickly the percentage of the internet that's in English is shrinking?)

Hope this helps.


billy [billy ARROBA pumpernickle PUNTO net] • 2002.08.15
With all due respect, the idea of picking a language based on a crystal-ball idea of "might be in high demand 6+ years out" strikes me as silly. Remember The Graduate and "plastics"? And what romantic high-schooler is going to choose on such a mercantile basis anyway? The most important thing is not which language(s) she picks, it's getting started on picking up languages. Once you've got one or two under your belt, it's easy enough picking up more.

Mark: Your positive suggestions are sensible, but were you bitten by a Frenchman or something? French is a great language/culture and worth learning for its own sweet sake; it doesn't preclude learning Chinese, you know! (And of course you can fall for a culture without knowing a language; more than once I've studied a language after falling for the culture, and no, I didn't discover I'd been utterly deluded about the latter.)

To Mark's suggestions I'd add Persian/Farsi, which is the bearer of an ancient and productive culture with incredible amounts of fabulous poetry and isn't that hard to learn, being Indo-European. And I suspect Iran is going to be more important to us before too long. (And you get Dari and Tajik for free.)

steve [languagehat ARROBA yahoo PUNTO com] • 2002.08.16
Books: Bernard Comrie (ed.), The World's Major Languages goes into a fair amount of detail about a few dozen languages; Andrew Dalby's Dictionary of Languages has hardly anything about the languages per se (numbers 1-10, usually) but enough maps, histories, anecdotes, proverbs, and the like to delight any language lover -- it's kept me entertained for months now (and taught me a great deal). For a book of that size (over 700 pages) I've found remarkably few errors. Highly recommended.

Oh, re Japanese: the grammar is not particularly "simple," and the writing system is so ludicrously complicated (rivaled only by Hittite) it's really not worth getting into unless you have a good reason (being posted there, for example).

steve [languagehat ARROBA yahoo PUNTO com] • 2002.08.16

I'll heartily second the Comrie and Trask nominations. Comrie also has a fairly fun illustrated atlas of languages, but that may not go deep enough. Pretty pictures and maps, though. Another thing to look at is The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, which lends itself to browsing for far-too-long periods of time.

For something less visual, I still recommend Sapir's "Language," for its amazing ability to convey how languages vary in construction and change over time.

As for which language to get into, I have a weird theory. I think people and certain languages "get along." I started looking at Bengali and I just liked it. Dunno why, just did. Looked at Hindi, eh, didn't like it. Make sense? No. C'est ma vie, or something.

I disagree with European languages being a waste of time. There are a lot of people who speak "European" languages, most of them, perhaps, outside of Europe. Another advantage to Romance languages is they follow quickly on each others' heels. If you learn Spanish and French, you're 2/3rds through Italian, Portuguese, and even something more exotic like Occitan or Catalan.

Simplicity, in my opinion, isn't necessarily a virtue. Yes, it's easier to learn, say, Indonesian orthography than Thai, but the complexity is half the fun.

I saw a cartoon once where a little kid is asking a travel agent "Is there a country I can go to that doesn't have irregular verbs?" Blech! The more irregular and nitpicky and wacky, the merrier. :)

Bring on the ergativity, baby!

And as for boring practicality, there's a lot to be said for learning to program: I've spent a few years trying to get my coding skills up to par once I figured out I really wanted to be a *computational* linguist, and not just a linguist. But that's just me, and you say she's kinda Luddite, so that might not be her end of the street. A PhD in Computational Linguistics, though, certainly fits the lucrativity criterion. So I hear.

Hmm, I'm rambling on.

Here's a simple piece of advice: She should walk into four or five language classes at the beginning of the semester, and one of them will make her smile and have fun, and that's where she should be.

Patrick Hall [patrick ARROBA fieldmethods PUNTO net] • 2002.08.16
Hey, Pat! I was reading down your comment muttering "Yeah! You tell 'em!" and then got to the end and it turned out to be you. Shoulda known. Anyway, what Pat said (Sapir is IMO much preferable to the trendy Pinker); also, in regard to the Campbell Concise Compendium (I presume you wouldn't be springing for the $300+ two-volume jobbie), I looked at the Amazon reviews (with some trepidation, because I love the book) and was relieved to see that the errors they're talking about are almost all in the phoneme lists, which I hardly pay attention to -- that's not what I go to the book for. I want to get an idea of what the language is *like*, and from that point of view it's wonderful: in just a few pages it gives you enough morphology and syntax that you feel you have some sense of it. (I like to use it together with Dalby, which gives you none of that, but plenty of other stuff.) I would agree with Bill Vaughn (in the Amazon comments), who says it has just enough errors to be annoying but highly recommends it.

If your niece only knew the combined linguistic experience that was going to bat for her in your comments section!

steve [languagehat ARROBA yahoo PUNTO com] • 2002.08.16
Thanks for all the great comments! Keep 'em coming!

I thought I'd mention that through Google I turned up this list of language and linguistics book recommendations for a small-town library. Not entirely pertinent to what I'm looking for for my niece, but useful anyway.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle ARROBA io PUNTO com] • 2002.08.16
I must confess Steve is right about my prejudices: I probably underestimate the difficulty of Japanese grammar [when I give it a glance] having learned Hungarian, so having got used to things like hanging postpositions, alternating consonants and vowels, other funny categories of verb instead of the six persons etc.

And I think the writing systems of Oriental languages are gorgeous in their own right - again a visual prejudice on my part makes me regret only having had the chance to study one non-Latin-alphabet language at high school [Greek].

This connects with what Steve also rightly detects as my irritation with French. Yes, it _is_ a great culture [like so many others], but I felt annoyed that I was spending years on it at school because of sheer lack of imagination in the education system. It's not taught in Britain [and the US, and Australia etc etc...] because it is beautiful and important. It is taught because the previous generation of schoolchildren had to do French, and the best linguists among them went to college and became French teachers. Sheer institutional inertia.

I would go as far as to say that one of the biggest reasons French is taken seriously worldwide is that it is the most taught language in English-speaking countries. If there had been a big switchover fifty years ago [like the way the Hungarians in 1990 {perhaps unwisely in their case} had a big programme to retrain all their school Russian teachers as teachers of English] to a more 'exotic' language or range of languages, I believe French would not even be in the top 15 now. I really think the self-reinforcing belief among English-speakers that French is an important world language is the biggest thing, after the tireless efforts of the French government, that still keeps it important. Britain's Security Council seat is hard enough to justify in power-political terms. But would the UN have given France [an Allied 'victor' with no army] a permanent seat on the Security Council [hence hardwiring the French language into lots of international organisations for another 2 or 3 generations] if almost every British Foreign Office civil servant and a big chunk of American State Department employees back then not had French as their only decent foreign language?

mark [contact ARROBA otherlanguages PUNTO org] • 2002.08.17
So if somebody wanted to learn a language in order to translate material that has never been read by English speakers, I presume Arabic, Chinese and Hindi would be good to learn. Are there any other languages with vast stores of previously untranslated literature? I can imagine some professor, standing in a library filled with dusty manuscripts, scratching his heading and saying "Bloody hell. I wish somebody would translate this stuff!"

J. Random Human • 2002.08.18
Hi everyone,

Allow me to butt in this wonderful discussion. My advice to the budding linguist is very simple: choose the language that makes your heart tick. If she has the chance of studying French and Spanish, she should grab it with both hands. If down the road of language learning she chooses to become a translator, she will face tough competition, no doubt. But there will always be room for talented professionals, even when scientists eventually develop the Universal Translator. If she is seriously considering becoming a translator, the second most important advice, other than traveling and immersing herself in the foreign culture she chooses, is build up your native language writing skills. After all, you will always be working into your native language.

As a technical translator I have a different take on what the next new language wave will be. Sure, there are tons of overlooked masterpieces written in lesser spoken languages, but literature translation has always been underpaid and I don't see that changing in the future. If she wants to have a steady flow of checks being delivered to her mailbox, she should consider languages with a steady intellectual production. A project manager was telling me the other day that she scourged the globe to find a translator with good knowledge of a rare Phillipines dialect the other day. She found this one guy, probably the only person in the world capable of translating the piece. He named his price and it was steep, about $1,000 a page. She had no option but accept it. I've used this extreme example to highlight that yes, knowing a rare language can be a trump up your sleeve. On the other hand...I keep wondering how often does Mr. Phillipines Dialect get job offers? How much need for communication is there between his dialect and English? Probably quite infrequently. For better or for worse, not a day goes by when I don't get an e-mail asking about my availability for a translation, because there is a lot of traffic between Portuguese and English. Americans want to sell their products here, Brazilians want to attract American investors, French foodstuff producers want to sell their gourmandises in Germany, German auto-makers want to sell their cars high and low. The economic (and political, witness the Pashto and Dari surge) importance of a country determines the amount of language traffic flowing between two languages. So I really wouldn't discard a mainstream language just because 'a lot of people speak it'. Of course, these comments apply if she really wants to join the translation bandwagon.

Another aspect I would like to touch on is how advantageous it would be for your niece to concentrate on both languages and a technical area. I was not wise and chose Film Making as a major. If I had a second go at it, I would study Economics or Computer Science. I could never go beyond statistics 101, but if I had a higher ratio of mathematical brain cells, I would shoot for some really hardcore technical area, such as Physics or Chemistry. Sound knowledge of a technical area is the choo-choo leading you the gold mine. (take this statement with a grain of course, no one in his/her sane mind would ever become a translator if they want to be a millionaire). All too often, international organizations such as WIPO struggle because they have very fine linguists, with a wonderful linguisticky background and absolutely no technical experience or knowledge. And that can be a problem when you're translating cutting-edge biochemistry patents from Japanese into English.

As for book recommendations, I am going to pass on that and suggest something altogether different. There is no better way of propping up language learning than listening to music. When I started learning English, my musical madeleine was Horse With No Name. I can't begin to tell you how exhilariated I felt when listening to this song on the radio and being able to understand what they were saying. Next thing I knew I was devouring lyrics and vynils and learning by heart a million pop songs, marveling at the idioms, listening carefully for intonation and pronunciation of new words. And this is a habit I haven't kicked off. Right now I am doing a little bit of German studying and you'll catch me here, right now, singing Schubert's Lieder together with Kathleen Battle. Poor Kathleen and poor Schubert, but is there anything more splendid than Deutsche Grammophon CD inserts, that come with lyrics in German, English and French? Not to my knowledge.


Enigmatic Mermaid [enigmaticmermaid ARROBA uol PUNTO com PUNTO br] • 2002.08.20
Thanks, Senhor(it)a Enigma. Your point about language traffic is apt, and applies even if one went into non-technical translation, whether movie subtitles or news reports.

And the tip about lyrics is a good one, even though they can be quite challenging. There are plenty of lyrics in English I still haven't been able to decode, let alone my non-native languages. But music can be a great motivator: at UT they even teach a special intro to Portuguese for fans of Brazilian music.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle ARROBA io PUNTO com] • 2002.08.20
A second language in addition to a marketable skill makes you twice as marketable, but a second language with no primary skills will give you nothing. Even in the most obvious application of a second language (translation/interpretation), I will not hire translators who do not have the requisite background. But I will pay a high premium gladly for someone with a degree in computer science who is highly literate in her native language. Of course, those people are generally in high demand in their regular field, which drives their prices up even more.

The best thing would be a language minor with something marketable as a major, and spend an undergrad year or grad studies in a foreign country, studying the marketable major in that foreign language.

BTW, even better than listening to music is to have boy/girlfriends who are native speakers of the language you're studying. Romance is a great motivator.

Mark 2 (not Mark Griffith ;)) [denchan ARROBA earthlink PUNTO net] • 2002.08.21
I couldn't agree with my namesake Mark2 and Mermaid more on this.

I can recall when I was at college asking the language students "Shouldn't you really be studying something like Engineering _in_ Russian, or Chemistry _in_ Japanese?" and getting blank, baffled looks in return.

mark [contact ARROBA otherlanguages PUNTO org] • 2002.08.22
I heartily recommend David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous (isbn 0679776397). He's a philosopher by training, but he approaches the relationship between language and philosophy from the perspective of phenomenology, which gets very interesting.

Mike • 2002.08.23
Book recommendation:

Title: The Professor and the Madman

Not so much about languages per se, but a fascinating (and true) story about a mentally disturbed man's contribution to the OED.

anonymous • 2002.09.27
If she's quite young she might enjoy The Loom Of Language by Frederick Bodmer and Lawrence Hogbin. It is an old fashioned, British Empire type of book, but entertaining, and gives you an overview of some of the world's language groups' features in a traditional 'schoolboy Latin' grammarian's style. I loved it when I was at school.


woofti [woof ARROBA woofti PUNTO com] • 2003.01.29
I have a daughter who is a sophomore who is studying Russian(honors) and plan on continuing to take this course for the rest of high school. She is interested in accounting and I said to her that both can go hand-in-hand. She is trying to decide on schools in the states (Florida) and University of Toronto (Canada). Any suggestions on which ways that she can go with this type of career?
Along with another student they are in the top of their Russian class. I have even suggested going abroad. She will be able to start working doing the summer of 2005 and thought that it would be beneficial to her if she could work using this skill that she has.
Thank you for your time.

tblake [yellowhorse529 cxe aol punkto com] • 2004.10.25
Hi! this is sabina! it is a bit of wird about the alphbet and writings!
right now i am doing my homework of pakistan! it is geography homework!
i am in year 6, in september i will go to a high school. see ya!

Sabina [henna_sheikh cxe hot,ail punkto com] • 2005.02.16
please give me some riddle,enigma at my e-mail adress right now! (thanks)

bhawish raj [babloo_1996 cxe yahoo punkto com] • 2006.03.01
Looking back at this thread four years on, I see that we were overly optimistic about lessening demand for Pashto and Dari (I fear they'll be hot for the rest of the decade at least).

And I think the Mermaid's point about language "traffic" may weaken Mark's point about the demand for little-studied languages: if 40 million USAmericans speak Spanish that increases the competition but it also greatly increases the demand.

The point that one should have dual expertise in languages and a technical or business subject area makes a lot of sense, except that my own experience belies it: I've been waiting for 20 years now for the day when somebody tells me I'm the guy for a tech job because of my languages. The only use I've ever gotten out of them on the job has been quite peripheral -- adding a few words of courtesy in e-mail correspondence that was primarily in English, or giving marketing the gist of a blog post about our product. At best the technology field is language-agnostic; at worst it's anglocentric and language-ignorant.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2006.07.14
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