Sunday, November 13, 2022

Hard Languages

  “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
– Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein

Arcane tribal languages in remote settings (South America, Asia, Africa) would be the most daunting for English speakers. This is because of their isolation from the mainstream languages of more populated areas, and therefore have little in common with familiar Roman and Greek roots in the Indo-European tradition. 

If you want to try your hand at a south/eastern European language, try Romanian.  It is the only Latin-based language in that geography, and shows many cognate commonalities with English.  And although Danish is a close cognate to English, its 27 phonetically distinct vowels make it much harder to understand and master than Swedish and Norwegian. Also complicating Danish are its varied glottal stops that are both hard to hear and hard to pronounce for non-native speakers. While Danes can pick up both these Nordic systems, both the two other speaking groups have more trouble with Danish, and pronunciation is exacting (Jens Lund, Ph.D., folklorist and native Danish speaker). 

Are you up for a real language challenge that will allow you to speak to under 100 other specialists after years of work?  Then consider the constructed language (conlang) domain. Klingon would have to be one of the most challenging.  This language was invented for Star Trek III (1984) as a formal integrated speech for the Klingons in the Trek universe.  After a dictionary was published, many people dabbled in its difficult spelling and pronunciation, but only a handful (under 100 estimated) have become skilled speakers able to converse with each other and understand the film tracks.  In addition, since Klingon speech focuses largely on spacecraft and warfare, it has limited use for day-to-day conversation. It is popular with linguists for its creative aspects played out within the general principles of language.  

Of natural languages (as opposed to constructed cases), it is interesting that Mandarin Chinese is the hardest to learn for English speakers—because of the thousands of ideographs necessary for written comprehension, as well as a four-tone scale for meaning.  But it is also the most widely spoken global language (besides Globish, basic English spoken as an auxiliary tongue).  Arabic, Polish, and Russian follow, the first also forcing a totally unfamiliar writing system.  The US Foreign Service Institute groups languages for difficulty from 1 through 4, with the “Super-hard” Category 4 including Arabic, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Japanese, and Korean.

Classical languages are more difficult simply because of their restricted lives in religious and academic contexts, but express a range.  "Classical Greek and Sanskrit are extremely difficult because they are so highly inflected--hundreds of forms of the verb and numerous case endings.   Late Greek (koine) simplifies the grammar and thus is much easier to read and not particularly difficult. Egyptian grammar and vocabulary are very simple.  Its only real difficulty is mastering the hieroglyphs, which are very few compared to Chinese" (Prof. Robert Littman, Classical studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa).

How about learning a tribal language?  There are many still active around the globe, the most in New Guinea (numbering around 850), the most diverse linguistic area known. The Khoisan language of South Africa is among the world’s oldest, at 60,000 years.  Closer, in the US, the three leading tribal languages still spoken are Navajo (by far the largest and hardest) in Arizona, Yupik in Central Alaska, and Sioux in the upper Midwest and Canada. Navajo was famously employed as an unbreakable talking code by native-speaking marines in WWII. They are all difficult, made more so by their roots in exotic and ancient cultures, arcane to learn and relate to vocabulary—and have only in modern times enjoyed a written format.  Hawaii is the only US state with two official languages—Hawaiian and English--as of 1978.  Along the range of tribal language difficulty, Hawaiian is among the easiest.

So there are many “hardest languages” out there to appreciate, if not to master as a fluent speaker, and each has a rich cultural component.  Klingon was born from the constructed science fiction of the Star Trek universe, so does have a soundtrack, but a steep learning for pronunciation, structure, and symbol alphabet.  Klingon was designed to look and sound truly alien, which it does as a function of its weirdly off-center profile without cognates.  (However, Duolingo now actually offers the course.) The most widely spoken constructed lingua franca, Esperanto, has an estimated million speakers world-wide, but little cultural baggage (literature, history, religion, film, cuisine).  However, fluency can be reached in one-tenth the time of natural languages, and in itself, Esperanto offers a quickly effective base for language-learning capability. 


Next blog:  “Easy” Languages

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Acing the College Essay


Acing the College Essay

I answered a call for experts on the college essay by the New York Post.  Here are my answers to their questions about this high-value writing challenge: the personal profile, an essay that can make (or even break) the candidate’s chances. 

We are at the starting line for college applications. The early-decision deadline for many colleges is November 1st.  Between November and February, upwards of 5 million college applicants—including 65% of high-school graduates--will be struggling to compose an essay of 250 to 650 words in their “authentic voice.” The goal is to portray themselves as uniquely interesting college material for selective schools across the country.

Here are a few heuristics—rules of thumb--applicants need to know for this essay portion, the personal statement, of their application.  An effective essay is important because by itself it has an important job.  This is to focus, or refocus, the whole application: by putting a face and voice to the facts of student grades, activities, and awards, or to temper a less-than-stellar record by showcasing insight, values, and clear expression.  As essay coach Alan Gelb puts it in his book Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, “…admissions office counsellors name the essay as the single most important ‘tip factor’—that is, the thing that can tip your application in your favor, all other factors being equal.” 

Q: What is your experience in writing and education?  As an academic editor and dissertation project manager, for several decades I have been an admissions essay coach, as well as Faculty Reader of the Advanced Placement test in English for the College Board.   

Q: Why is the college essay such an important part of the application process? The college personal essay is quite possibly the most important piece of writing you will ever undertake.  While something outside the main application, it can be a high card in your hand if handled well.  “It can turn around the way the committee looks at your other achievements, acting as the catalyst that can channel positive attention on to acceptance,” says Steve Goodman, admissions strategist and author of the results-based College Admissions Together.  Individual schools, and the central Common APP, issue specific “prompts” (which can change) to set the focus, including “Describe a person you admire,” “Personal growth,” “Learning from obstacles,” “Solving a problem,” and “What captivates you?” (Princeton Review)

Q: Can you point to a leading thing not to do in the essay?  Select your essay topic with the reader in mind, the admissions officer, who will give you under ten minutes to impress them.  (In-person interviews are increasingly rare).  The topic might not even be your intuitive first pick of what’s most important about your character and experience.  Think of something unique to you, your family, community, or values.  Example from a student client’s first draft: “I am unique.  You will never meet anyone like me.” My edit:  Everyone is unique; it’s what we do with that position that counts.  Here’s the question:  How did you mobilize your unique qualities to make a difference for yourself and others?

We then revised the initial statement to read “I realized that I could use my special talents to create value not just for myself but for others, from my family out to school and community.”  Then describe how.  Avoid topics that many others will gravitate to:  My trip to Israel (or European / Asian tour), gender or religious conversion, why I hate / love / admire my parent / stepparent, and political opinions, unless you are involved in political work.  Think of something either off-beat or seemingly ordinary to signal an important principle you learned, then applied

The goal of the personal essay is to show off your insight, self-awareness, ability to derive value and meaning from any situation (family business, volunteering, off-brand sports, assignments, reading, challenges from family, peers, authority figures).  Showcase your own specialized perception, talents, expertise, ideas, even hopes and fears, and the doubts you have struggled with—showing how you coped, managed, or overcame them, and how you were able to surmount resistance with resilience. 

Q:  What about other best practices?  This would be obvious to experienced applicants:  No texting spellings (e.g.,” I xpect 2hav evn mor xper”); use a translation program if you need one.  Don’t rely on your own judgment about how well you write; show your “finished” draft around to your English teacher, an editor online, your parents, assuming they are literate types, or other seasoned writers.  Your own peers, unless they are highly qualified, probably don’t make the grade here.

But here’s a warning:  admissions experts know immediately when an essay looks “cooked”: written over 50% by an expert.  It can’t be a world-class essay when your grades are Bs and Cs.  If it’s 85% mechanically correct, and the ideas are solid, that level will be fine.  Students tend to put off the essay until last, but it’s important to work on it over time, starting slowly the summer before the due date. (Yes! This means draft after draft as you discover yourself in the text.)  This is the critical piece you spend the most time building up by multiple drafts, a much-encouraged method, and each stage takes the time of close attention.  No matter how skilled a writer you believe you are, this is no midnight-the-night-before task.  As a reward, this experience will greatly strengthen your essay writing in all school subjects.

QWhat can make the essay shine?  Seek originality and insight-finding moments to describe and analyze.  This means going beneath the surface of people, incidents, and circumstances to discover what’s important and perception-shifting about them.  Dedicate the time to focus, mind-map, then gather together a good number of thinking pieces as paragraphs you can then pull together to construct your essay (and note any word limits to be aware of).  Find the unexpected insight, the extraordinary embedded within “ordinary” scenarios. 

The idea is to show perception wedded to knowledge (weaving in references to school reading), especially impressive to your admissions readers.  One of my clients wrote a winning essay about watching Bill Cosby as TV’s Dr. Huxtable for his medical school application; another covered her job mowing lawns with his father when the family economy got tight for a business school placement.  Responding to “most impressive historical event,” another wrote about the explorations and innovations of the Phoenicians as key to civilization-building—a personal view.  

Exploring the many concepts implicit in ordinary experience, or to themes of human experience, is the key to an intelligent take on the world (the same skill that marks great literature, in fact) signals you are perceptive acceptance material who will prove an asset to the incoming class.