Tag Archives: Language

Language skills lacking in the U.S. foreign service?

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy reports that government auditors found language skills among foreign service officers to be far more rare than they would hope. On China, he quotes from the unreleased Government Accountability Office report:

In China, officials told us that the officers in China with insufficient language skills get only half the story on issues of interest, as they receive only the official party line and are unable to communicate with researchers and academics, many of whom do not speak English.

The deficiencies are large in war zones, and the article notes serious shortfalls in Iraq and Afghanistan. The only specific data in this article on Chinese posts groups Chinese with Arabic as important languages:
“Deficiencies in what GAO calls ‘supercritical’ languages, such as Arabic and Chinese, were 39 percent.”

The officers I have met in China seem to be in the 61 percent, but the quote above indicates that someone at least in the embassy thinks the 39 percent blocks the staff from doing the best job possible. From me, one vote for more language study (yes, I need it too), and a dream for leaps forward in machine translation.

The other quote from the report on China, which I leave without comment:

In Shenyang, a Chinese city close to the border with North Korea, the consul general told us that reporting about issues along the border had suffered because of language shortfalls.

Free Chinese Dictionary for iPhone in the Creative Commons

Today a colleague showed me that what I had hoped for has come true: There is a full-featured, free, Creative Commons licensed dictionary, and there is a good iPhone application to use with it. The dictionary is CC-CEDICT, and the iPhone app DianHua.

A screenshot of the iPhone application from the Dianhua website.

A screenshot of the iPhone application from the DianHua website.

So far (for the last couple of hours) it’s served me well. But I’m quite excited that the dictionary is seemingly relatively good and is also released under a Creative Commons license. That means it’s fair game for developers to use in applications we can’t yet imagine.

The project of building this dictionary, CC-CEDICT, is community-based using the wiki form. It’s wiki has a to-do list, which presently portends the addition of alcohol-related terms and XML terminology.

As with any wiki project, the content is only as good as the contributors. I’ll quote myself paraphrasing my future professor Cass Sunstein’s retelling of the Condorcet Jury Theorem:

The Condorcet Jury Theorem … states in part that in a jury, the probability that the right decision will be reached increases with the size of the jury, but only if the average juror is more likely than not to come up with the right decision on his or her own. If members of a jury are individually less than 50 percent likely get the right answer, then their deliberation magnifies the problem. Groups like these are wrong, Sunstein says, because of prejudices (freedom fries, anyone?), confusion, and incompetence.

But we can do more than hope incompetence, confusion, and prejudice don’t take over this dictionary, and that sufficient community editing keeps madness out of the reasonably robust foundation. We can contribute and edit ourselves! Also, of course, a smart reader of community-generated content knows what to doubt. And with dictionaries, it’s even worth doubting “authoritative” volumes with names like Oxford, Xinhua, and yes, even Webster.

'Conquer English to Make China Stronger!'

Ampontan points out that the media’s love for Li Yang’s instructional rallies and methods, called Crazy English, recently included a New Yorker article by Evan Osnos.

I’m pretty happy with myself because with my Mandarin tutor today I finished a textbook. But our meetings at a Beijing cafe are nothing like Crazy English.

One by one, the doctors tried it out. “I would like to take your temperature!” a woman in stylish black glasses yelled, followed by a man in a military uniform. As Li went around the room, each voice sounded a bit more confident than the one before.

In Shanghai at a gallery whose name I’ve forgotten on Moganshan Lu, I saw a photographic exhibition composed of massive prints of Li Yang’s instruction. The scenes were astonishing. Student-teacher ratio was actually optimized to be very high. The events in these images and in other reading on the subject emerge as motivational events, and one of Li Yang’s primary methods is to increase confidence in his students.

But there is a nationalist element. The title of this post, “Conquer English to make China stronger,” is Li’s motto, according to the New Yorker. Ampontan points to another article that contains this passage on China and Japan.

During a question and answer session with the crowd, one student told Li that he hated the Japanese for their rape and occupation of the mainland prior to World War II. The student then said he didn’t want to study Japanese because of this hatred.

“If you really hate the Japanese, then you will learn their language,” Li told the student and the crowd. “If you really want revenge against Japan, then master their language.”

Nationalism, I suspect, may be a tool to reach audiences and to keep his massive events (along with the potentially millions of books sold) from running afoul of the government. This, from the first article, may tell you something about his deeper motivations:

On the couch at the hotel, Li turned one of our interviews into a lecture for his employees, who crowded around to listen. (Someone recorded it on a video camera.) “How can we make Crazy English more successful?” he asked me, his voice rising. “We know that people are not going to be persistent, so we give them ten sentences a month, or one article a month, and then, when they master this, we give them a huge award, a big ceremony. Celebrate! Then we have them pay again, and we make money again.”

He turned toward the assembled employees and switched to Chinese: “The secret of success is to have them continuously paying—that’s the conclusion I’ve reached.” Then back to English: “How can we make them pay again and again and again?”

I wonder how much the students learn.