Do you speak…

Do you speak…
: In our school district, the sixth graders are about to pick the language they’ll study for the rest of school.

Instead of Latin (or Italian, for that matter), they should start offering Arabic.

  • Yes! Arabic! And look at the auto-translation tools available. Where is AI, plust databases, plus expert editing, to get better?
    The continued lack of good automatic translators should be a scandal in the EU — but isn’t.

  • tom

    What is funny is that there were a bunch of “free” automatic Arabic->English translators pre 9/11 and shortly afterwards. When the U.S. Gov’t started talking about recruiting folks to translate, and folks like Aaron at Internet Haganah started “hunting” down suspected terror sites, the free/easy to use translation sites changed to pay formats. Which I actually think is part capitalism (though you can get other translations for no cost) and part cat and mouse, in some ways.

  • meep

    Actually, Arabic should replace French as an offering, as kids take Latin not to become fluent in a foreign language, but to improve their skills in the English language with regards to vocabulary and grammar. (At any rate, that’s why I took Latin).
    Of course, the sticking point is that there are more teachers in the U.S. who have had exposure to French than Arabic.

  • Joe Peden

    meep, Arabic is going to replace French, in France. They are ahead of us again.

  • Anonymous

    Tom, the reason automatic translations isn’t better and more widely available is technical, rather than a matter of lack of will. The truth is that no one knows how to do it any better than it’s being done; the EU and the DoD spend a good bit of money every year trying to improve it.
    That said, I’d love to see schools offer Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese, and maybe Swahili; the usual languages are relatively similar to English, and the more you “stretch those muscles” the better off you are when trying to learn a language later.
    Of course, then we need to talk about the absolutely ludicrous way we teach languages in this country.

  • Foreign language instruction in the United States is a joke. But that’s also kind of understandable, given that everyone in the world is trying to learn English. If we’re serious about changing it, everything needs to be completely overhauled and kids should start learning another language in Kindergarten or earlier, which is when they start studying English in countries that are serious about improving English instruction.
    I guess the reason that we focus so much on languages like French and Spanish is that these are such easy languages to learn for a native English speaker, that they are the only ones that you could possibly pick up from the half-assed manner of teaching we have here.
    Learning languages like Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, Chinese, Korean etc. is so incredibly difficult that they need to be started very very young. Failing that, almost all middle and high-schoolers, even very smart ones, would just get discouraged by how hard it is, and wouldn’t really have time to learn anything with all the other stuff they have to study, extra-curricular activities, socializing etc. That’s why pretty much the only chance to learn these languages is in college.
    On top of that, it would be very difficult finding qualified instructors. Those who are qualified will be completely turned off by the bureaucracy and ineptitude of the American public education system, just as they were turned off by same at the FBI. On top of that, my understanding is that there are such dialectical differences in Arabic that an Iraqi and an Egyptian couldn’t really understand each other, so which dialect would we teach? On top of that it’s such a hard sell. You can’t dangle out promises of trips to wonderful places where you can use Arabic, and you can’t pick up chicks with it because in the countries where it’s spoken you’re not allowed to talk to them for the most part.
    I agree it’s something that needs to be changed, but it’s a big big deal that would require deep systemic change. On a side note, did anyone else know that Bernard Kerik speaks Arabic?

  • Moira

    Don’t you live in NY? I would think Spanish would be a no-brainer. We live in south Texas and it’s very helpful since most people either speak one language or the other.
    As for difficult langauges (per Eric), Korean is not one of them. It is quite logical and easy to learn. Both my kids picked it up quite easily when we lived in Korea (one child went to Korean kindergarten)and I did fairly well too. I was already fluent in German, but found Korean much easier to learn and understand. Kudos must go to King Sejoung who helped to create the written language. My daughter is currently trying to learn Hebrew and feels that it is much more difficult and illogical than Hangul (Korean).

  • Moira:
    I lived in Korea for a year myself, and picked up a fair amount of Korean. Languages are always easier to learn when you’re living in a country where the language is spoken. However, Korean is actually one of the languages categorized as “super-hard” by the Foreign Service, the others being, I believe, Mandarin, Japanese, and Arabic. Heberew is categorized only as “hard”, so go figure. The grammar and pronunciation of Korean are very difficult. The grammar is much less similar to that of English than that of Mandarin, which I’m studying now.
    As far as Spanish, I’ve always thought it was a waste of time to teach it in school because it’s such an easy language to learn and you can so readily pick it up informally, especially if you live in NYC or Texas as you say, as well as California, or Miami. Just get a restaurant job.

  • Actually, Arabic would be a really useful language to learn, and not just in a “Love Thy Neighbor” kinda way. A kid with a good college degree and a good knowledge of Arabic could go to the Persian Gulf for 10 years and really clean up.
    Had I my druthers I would’ve studied Japanese and Chinese.

  • I think the absolute most important reason to learn Arabic and Farsi is so we can bolster our intelligence agencies’ abilities to monitor our enemies.

  • jan

    I studied Japanese in college and found it to be quite easy to learn to speak. The grammar is a little differetn, but it’s very consistent and none of the sounds are diffucult to pronounce. The hardest part is learning to write it as they have three different alphabets. I suspect that difficulties with the alphabet would be the most difficult part of learning arabic as well. I lived in Iran as a child and amazingly enough (25 years later), I still remember how to count to 10 in Farsi!

  • JP

    I had the chance to learn Arabic, but I did not take it. It was offered during my training to be a banker in Germany. At the time (late 80s) I chose Japanese instead (since forgotten and not as important anymore looking at the economic decline Japan has taken since). You never know when and how you can use a language. Now I actually travel to Kuwait off and on for business and I regret not knowing any Arabic.
    Same goes for Spanish. Learned French in school (no Spanish offered then) which was a total waste. When I lived in Texas and NYC I wished I could speak Spanish. So my advise: learn any foreign language you can practice with living people around you. I sure broadens the horizon (and I’m not saying that because auf the JJ breast thing ;-)

  • tom

    Dear Anonymous,
    I understand that there are technical needs that come up with regards to Arabic->English, but take my word on one thing.
    There was a service called ajeeb, which you could find at this link where one could translate for free. To do English -> Arabic it’s free. To do the reverse, it costs you $30 for a 3 month subscription and $100 for a 1 year subscription. This was free for some time after 9/11, but changed shortly afterwards. I have had a username all this time and had used it for translating things that people were finding on the ‘net.
    So there are places that can do it – it’s just conveniently costly at this point.
    I really don’t mean to point to conspiracy or something here, it’s just awful interesting that after everyone wanted to do this automatically, it got a price. Bandwidth costs money, as we all know – but it should cost that for other translations as well.

  • Russian has six cases, three genders, three numbers, and many more interesting features. Books have been written about how to use the verbs of motion. However, it also in an IE language, and with a little thinking, Russian words can be made easier to learn when you realize that they’re related to some English words. ‘Vodka’ is from ‘voda’ (water), which is related to English ‘water,’ etc.
    Turkish is not an IE language, and the only words it has in common with English are things like radio, train, etc. It is also completely different from English in word order and the way thoughts and words are formed.
    Either are interesting mind exercises, but they might not be as useful as Japanese or, I have to admit, Arabic.

  • Turkish, Korean, and Mongolian, oddly enough, are all from the same non IE language family, the “altaic” languages I think they’re called. They all have the bizarre word order and grammar you’re talking about.
    There was a big push for Americans to learn Japanese in the 80’s when there was this hysteria about the Japanese buying up the country. Nowadays, it seems like Chinese would probably be the language to learn from a business perspective. That’s one of many reasons I’m studying it.
    From a national security perspective it seems like we should have people studying Korean, Japanese, and Chinese (all languages needed to figure out how to handle North Korea) as well as Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu.

  • Anonymous

    Despite the curviness, Arabic script is only slightly more complicated than Roman. The 28 letters do take four different forms (depending whether written connected to the front, end, or middle of other letters or not connected at all), but most of these variations are very obvious: it’s analogous to the variations seen in Roman cursive. Difficulty comes from the large presence of caligraphies, of which there are many styles, but the same can be said of styalized Roman fonts; it’s just taken to a higher degree in Arabic. The other difficulty is that vowels are not written except with little marks above and below the consonants that are included only in the Qu’ran and children’s texts. Of course, English is one of the worst offenders in Roman script of nonsensical vowel spelling (especially American English: British English is taught for a reason); so spelling out vowels doesn’t entirely simplify things.
    BTW, there are only three letters that are difficult to pronounce.

  • Scott

    I have no choice, my girlfriend is Russian, so Russian it is.
    Do I understand correctly that the kids are choosing a language to study from now until graduating highschool? Is it mandatory? Is the school private? I think that is a great idea.

  • kyost

    Latin should be taught in grade school. For vocabulary and roots and logical grammar and as a starting point for other Euro languages, Latin cannot be beat.
    French is taught because it was the language of high culture after Latin. If one thinks it is just as good to read Cicero in English, then it is just as good to read Voltaire in English.
    Middle and High Schools should encourage students to study Arabic and Mandarin. There is no lack of teachers, just lack of teachers with B.eds.

  • Arabic is freaking hard to learn, though! I speak whereof I toil. Then again, kids are better at learning languages, so … Actually, once they get the Arabic down, they’ll be all set for Persian and Hebrew …

  • angell

    Yeah, then we can get them to memorize the Koran. The muslims would jump for joy if we rewarded terrorism by making Arabic second to English.