Friday, October 18, 2013

Evaluating the Difficulty of the State Department's Critical Languages

Ranking the "best" language to learn (usefulness vs. difficulty)
  1. Hindi: 6/10 difficulty; 44 weeks; 8/10 usefulness. The lingua franca of India and a globally important tongue. It's not the easiest language on here, but compared to Korean, it's a breeze.
  2. Mandarin Chinese: 8/10 difficulty; 88 weeks; 10/10 usefulness. What can I say? Mandarin is tomorrow's language superpower, second to English. The difficulty of the language is daunting, if overstated. There are certainly more difficult languages to learn, but the orthography is a nightmare for English speakers.
  3. Urdu: 6.5/10 difficulty; 44 weeks; 8/10 usefulness. Hindi and Urdu are both dialects of the same Hindustani language, but Urdu got the shaft cause its writing system is more difficult to master than Hindi's. 
  4. Persian (Farsi & Dari dialects): 5/10 difficulty; 44 weeks; 6/10 usefulness. Two dialects of the same Persian tongue. It will get you through Iran, parts of Afghanistan, and Tajikistan - not to mention you may find speaking communities in other parts of the Middle East. It's a good one to know, for sure.
  5. Arabic: 8/10 difficulty; 88 weeks; 8/10 usefulness. A very useful language but very difficult. If you have the motivation, I say go for it; but for those of you who are trying to pick up another language for the moolah, I would advise looking elsewhere.
  6. Korean: 9/10 difficulty; 88 weeks; 7/10 usefulness. As explained below, it is probably the most challenging language on the list. It is a useful tongue, but do the rewards justify the amount of time and effort required to master it?
  7. Pashto: 7/10 difficulty; 44 weeks; 3/10 usefulness. Pashto is for the Afghan/Pakistan enthusiasts and the language geeks. 
For those interested in becoming a diplomat on behalf of the United States (a Foreign Service Officer), bonuses are granted to the applications of those who know foreign languages with political importance (generally meaning they are the official language of a state or region). Not all languages are evaluated equally. Knowledge of any language gives you a .17 point bonus - small but certainly an edge over other candidates - and the required speaking/reading score is 3/3 (non-native, fluency), which is difficult to attain but not impossible. Based on anecdotal evidence, it is believed that Spanish is the most common second language of FSO applicants.

Many applicants want to learn one of the critical languages, a short list of languages with significantly higher bonuses. Applicants are further encouraged by the laxer standards to receive the bonus, the minimum score is only 2/2 (a professional but non-fluent ability). Unfortunately for many interested without solid language knowledge, there is a good deal of language myth and hogwash around each language learning experience: namely, myths concerning the difficulty of learning any of them as a native American English speaker. This post is intended to provide a myth-free review of each of the languages for anyone interested.

Note #1: Learning any language is difficult. Just because Spanish or Frisian or Scots would be listed as "easy" does not mean learning them is an easy experience. It simply means that they are some of the easiest you could select, relative to other world languages.

Note #2: There is no such thing as a objectively "easy" language. Dispel that myth at once. Some languages are easier than others for an English-speaking adult. All languages are equally easy for a baby. For example, perhaps the most difficult languages for an English speaker, the polysynthetic Eskimo-Aleut languages of North America, are just as simple for a child to learn as learning English or Vietnamese or Afrikaans. This list is NOT an objective list of language difficulty and there is no such thing!

Note #3: The "Time" numeral is the number of years or months required, on average, to attain necessary proficiency. These averages are maintained by the State Department.

Note #4: Difficulty is, and always will be, a subjective thing. Some speakers will find themselves unusually adept at learning and employing languages using case declensions, others may find themselves better at tongues with enormous verbal complexity. The result is that a language rated 9/10 may be closer to a 4/10 for some. Take these with a grain of salt.

Note #5: In 2012, point bonuses for critical languages were amended. While non-critical languages continue to receive a .17 boost, I do not know what the point values have been set to. I will report the pre-2012 bonuses which should grant some degree of certainty.

Arabic (Afrasian - Semitic)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .5
Time: 88 weeks
Difficulty: 8/10
Usefulness: 8/10
An important problem with Arabic is the enormous dialect diversity within the language so that two speakers from opposite ends of the Arab world may find themselves unable to converse with ease. Arabic has a lot of political pull and can be great for a career outside of the Foreign Service. But Arabic is a tough language. Why?

  • Phonology: 5/10. On the one hand, its number of consonants and vowels are average, and the vocalic system is much simpler than English. On the other hand there are a few tough consonants. Arabic distinguishes between velar, uvular, pharyngeal, and glottal plosives (and some dialect varieties have epiglottal plosives - cue jaw drop), which can make mastering the phonotactics of the language a surmountable challenge. The difficulty of Arabic's sounds has been greatly overrated in the past.
  • Vocabulary: 8/10. The triconsonantal root structure of Arabic is strange but by no means peculiar. A vowel ablaut exists in fragmented form in English (sing, sang, sung, song) and the consonant roots make learning new words easier than normal. As the language is not Indo-European, thus unrelated to English, learning the roots is going to be a challenge.
  • Grammar: 7/10 Literary Arabic boasts a small number of noun cases (3) and gender (2) and declines for three numbers but spoken Arabic no longer utilizes case or the dual form. Verbs have a normal degree of conjugations compared to world languages (including 5 moods), but significantly higher than English.
  • Suprasegments: 3/10. Arabic is a mora language where the meaning of a word is determined by the length of a phoneme, this is not especially difficult for an English speaker. Stress exists but its placement is non-random and limited: not a problem.
  • Script: 9/10. This is nearly as tough as it gets. 

Mandarin Chinese (Sino-Tibetan - Sinitic)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .4
Time: 88 weeks
Difficulty: 8/10
Usefulness: 10/10
A terribly difficult orthography with a somewhat simple spoken form. The difficulty of Chinese is famous, if greatly exaggerated. Learning Chinese is a great skill outside of State. If you never get in but you learned the language, it was time well spent.
  • Phonology: 4/10. Strange to an English mouth, but entirely palatable. Remember that tone is a suprasegmental characteristic, so don't jump to conclusions just yet.
  • Vocabulary: 8/10. Non-Indo-European so don't expect to find cognates with English, except in loanwords. 
  • Grammar: 3/10. English and Chinese have something very special in common: they are both isolating languages relatively free of inflection. Because of that, English grammar maps quite well onto Chinese.
  • Suprasegments: 8/10. Tonality over a single word modifies the meaning and can make the difference between saying "cow" and "mother." If you do some travelling, you may find other Chinese speakers using different tones, but knowing Standard Chinese tones will get you anywhere you need to be.
  • Script10/10. This is as tough as it gets and Chinese is famous for it. Thousands of unique symbols requiring memorization. The aid of radicals, small marks within the symbols that hint at sound and meaning, are of use but will not save you.

Hindi & Urdu (Indo-European - Indo-Aryan)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .4
Time: 44 weeks
Difficulty: 6/10 for Hindi, 6.5/10 for Urdu
Usefulness: 8/10
Hindi is the standard Indian dialect of the Hindustani language while Urdu is the official Hindustani dialect of Pakistan. The difference between the two is primarily rooted in vocabulary and the script. Like Chinese, it has an enormous number of speakers. Lots of Indians know the tongue and non-Indians too. Related to English but distantly. Very distantly. Close to Bengali and Gujarati.
  • Phonology: 4/10. An average number of phonemes. There is a distinction between retroflex and dental plosives but a dedicated learner would find that more fun that difficult.
  • Vocabulary: 6/10. Indo-European roots but extremely divergent from English, thanks to 5000 years of separation. Colored by cultural stratification.
  • Grammar: 6/10. A case system that has been reduced from Proto-Indo-European but never easy for an English speaker. Three cases with two declension classes. Conjugation by gender, tense, number, and aspect. Split ergativity. 
  • Suprasegments: 2/10. Stress accents that can be predicted.
  • Script: 7/10 for Hindi; 9/10 for Urdu. Devanagari script makes learning Hindi difficult but fortunately the letters correspond fairly accurately to consonants and vowels. Urdu is written in the Persian alphabet, based around the Arabic script.

Korean (Isolate? - Koreanic)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .4
Time: 88 weeks
Difficulty: 9/10
Usefulness: 7/10
A major economy with a sizable number of speakers. Not to mention that North Korea overhead means there will always be a few security analyst positions available for someone with knowledge of Korean. 
  • Phonology: 7/10. The inventory is short and simple but Korean employs stiff voice, a narrowing of the glottal opening, and hollow voice, a distortion of the larynx's position and constriction of the glottis. I have been told this is very difficult for English speakers to master as they often think they are doing it correctly as they cannot hear their mistakes.
  • Vocabulary: 10/10. Unrelated to English and distinguishes between honorifics, speech level (where the status of who you speak to/of demands a particular set of vocabulary be used), and gender.
  • Grammar: 9/10. 7 cases but not defined by gender and optionally defined by number. Verbs are relatively complicated for an English speaker, able to tack on up to eight affixes simultaneously (!). While the nouns are fairly easy fare, the verbal system is a monstrosity.
  • Suprasegments: 0/10. No significant stress system, no tonality, no pitch accent. There are several non-standard pitch accents found in dialects outside of the capital. 
  • Script: 7/10. A different orthography but one that makes sense.

Pashto (Indo-European - Indo-Iranian)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .4
Time: 44 weeks
Difficulty: 7/10
Usefulness: 3/10
The national language of Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. Strongly latched on to identity of the Pashtun tribes. Expect to be working in Central Asia.
  • Phonology: 5/10. Nothing too crazy except for a retroflex lateral flap (a funky 'l' sound) that can be mastered with practice.
  • Vocabulary: 6/10. Like Hindi and Urdu, it is Indo-European but very distant from English.
  • Grammar: 7/10. Four cases defined by gender (2) and number (2). Split ergativity. Moderate degree of complexity to the conjugation of its verbs.
  • Suprasegments: 2/10. Some argue there is a free pitch to add emphasis to a word. Nothing that can't be learned.
  • Script: 9/10. Pashto variation on the Persian alphabet.

Persian - Dari & Farsi dialects (Indo-European - Indo-Iranian)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .4
Time: 44 weeks
Difficulty: 5/10
Usefulness: 6/10
By learning Persian you could pick up either dialects and test in both. I'm not sure if you can do that. I'm pretty sure they only give you a bonus one time. In addition to having some currency in Eastern Iran, Dari Persian (which is not the Dari language of central Iran) is a co-official language of Afghanistan. Farsi Persian is the official language of Iran, and the language has many speakers in Central Asia and parts of the Middle East. 
  • Phonology: 2/10. 22 consonants, 6 vowels. Only strange feature for an English speaker is an allophonic [g ɢ] (think a 'g' further back in the throat) which is simple enough.
  • Vocabulary: 6/10. Like Hindustani and Pashto, relatedness to English is very remote.
  • Grammar: 5/10. No grammatical gender. 3 cases marked by adpositions. The role of cases has been greatly reduced since Old Persian. Verbs are conjugated inflectionally or aspectually with light verbs. Present tense verbs are highly irregular, but overall there are few tenses to master. 
  • Suprasegments: 2/10. Stress accents that can be predicted.
  • Script: 9/10. The Persian alphabet is derived from the Arabic.


  1. Very helpful! Thank you so much for all your hard work on the study of these interesting languages. You have answered so many of my questions. All the best to you!

  2. Very helpful! Thank you so much for all your hard work on the study of these interesting languages. You have answered so many of my questions. All the best to you!