Foreign Language Requirements

James Harbeck highlights some of the world’s most challenging linguistic quirks:

Some languages have a situation called diglossia, in which the written form actually represents a different dialect from the spoken form. The numerous (and not all mutually intelligible) dialects of Arabic are written in a different version of Arabic from what’s spoken. The same is true of Tamil and Sinhala: the spoken versions of the languages are now different in not just sound but some points of grammar and vocabulary from the official standard written versions.

That’s a lot harder than just having an awkward writing system. It gets to be like needing to know two languages. It’s like having an everyday spoken language that’s like what you hear in, say, rap music, or country music, or teenage slang, and having to read and write everything like you see in Shakespeare.

Relatedly, Olga Khazan examines a recent study on how immigrants assimilate into their new countries, based on how dissimilar their native language is:

By examining nine host countries, 70 sending countries, and 1,559 test scores, he then found that immigrants who come from languages that are most linguistically dissimilar have the worst literacy scores in their new host countries. A Turk in the Netherlands, the author posits, has about the same linguistic proficiency scores as a native who has little or no primary schooling. …

The awkward thing here is that there aren’t that many linguistically-similar Danes or Swedes banging down the doors to U.S. visa offices. Most of our immigrants come from Mexico (though they’ve dwindled significantly in recent years), while most holders of high-skilled worker visas are from Asia. But it seems like if the U.S. wants those individuals to perform their best economically, it could offer some sort of welcome package of its own — in the form of some generous language assistance.