Great Language Game Tests Your Ear For Foreign Languages

Welcome sign - foreign language game
Flickr, Sanctu

Any seasoned world traveler can tell the difference between Italian and Russian, but how about Tamil and Punjabi? Estonian vs. Slovenian? Do you even know where they speak Hausa?

Test your ear for foreign languages with the Great Language Game, compiled from audio samples of 80 languages (just a drop in the bucket compared to the six or seven thousand spoken in the world!) and presented as a multiple-choice quiz. Each correct answer gets you 50 points, the highest so far is 8600 points. The samples were collected from SBS Australia and Voices of America by Australian data scientist Lars Yencken. The easiest language is French, while the hardest to guess is Shona, a Bantu language native to Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Test your language skills at GreatLanguageGame.com

Learn Spanish With Lonely Planet’s Fluent Road

Learn Spanish Fluent Road
Courtesy of FluentRoad.com

Traveling to Spain or Latin America this summer and want to say more than “Donde esta el bano?” (though, that’s an important one to know)? Lonely Planet has just launched a new online foreign language program, Fluent Road, partnering with Spanish language program Fluenz. The focus is on Spanish for now, but you can choose from dialects from Argentina, “neutral” Latin America, Mexico, or Spain.

Fluent Road is designed for travelers to get the basics before a trip: Spanish for transportation, finding accommodation, ordering food, etc. It’s also a good stepping-stone to a more intensive learning program, and travelers could easily work up to a Fluenz course after completing Fluent Road. What differentiates this from other language learning like Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur is a dissection of the language, showing you how Spanish works and providing explanations, not just rote immersion. Fluenz founder and avid traveler Sonia Gil guides you through obstacles, pronunciation, and practice speaking, writing and reading as a native speaker and “language geek.”

As with all online learning, you can go at your own pace; there are 30 video lessons that can be completed in one to six months. Other useful features include the ability to record yourself to compare pronunciation a native Speaker, and customizable digital flash cards to help practice. You can also contact the teacher and program designer via Twitter.

Take a free 12-hour trial now, subscriptions start from $9 for a month to $30 for six months of access, at www.fluentroad.com.

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: How To Avoid Posts Where You Might Get Eaten Alive

tribe in papua new guinea cannibalsHave you ever received a phone call from someone who was hoping to entice you to live in a country where cannibalism is still practiced? I have.

“I have a great opportunity for you in Port Moresby,” said Hollis, my State Department Career Development Officer (CDO)/used car salesperson.

I Googled Port Moresby from my office at the American Embassy in Skopje, Macedonia, and the results weren’t encouraging. And when I asked a more senior person at the embassy what he thought, his first reaction told me all I needed to know about the place.

“Papua New Guinea,” he said. “Don’t they still eat people there?”In the peculiar world of the Foreign Service, diplomats are always obsessing over their next post. No matter whether you’re in Paris or Bangui, it’s hard not to think about what’s next, thanks to the unique bidding system, where State Department Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) typically bid a year or more in advance of taking up a new post.

The practicality of this system is that if you’re in a two or three year assignment, you typically know where you’re going next near the midway point of your tour. If you love your post and are heading somewhere dreadful next, you have plenty of time for the apprehension to build, but if you’re excited about your onward assignment it can make even the worst job or post seem bearable.

If you have a one-year assignment to a danger post, you typically bid right before or after arriving in say, Kabul or Baghdad. And since serving at a post like that gives one some serious bidding equity the next time around, nearly everyone manages to go somewhere they want after serving in conflict zones. So your ticket to Afghanistan can be tempered by a ticket to Sydney or Rome that’s already in the bag by the time you land in Kabul.

If you’re a traveler who has thought about joining the State Department’s Foreign Service, but want to know more about how likely you are to be able to live in the regions you prefer, this is a primer on what to expect if you join the Foreign Service.

First tour: FSO’s start their careers in a class called A-100 and are given a “directed assignment” to their first post. Officers can express bidding preferences but whether you get what you want is a real crapshoot. If you have a foreign language proficiency, your chances of going to that country/region are good, but don’t bank on it.

Career development officers (CDO’s) take a variety of factors into account in deciding who goes where: job/career fit, family and school considerations (i.e. they are less likely to send someone with school age children to a post with no accredited schools), health considerations (if an FSO has a family member with health issues), language ability and the timing of when the job is open versus what job and language training the person would need to fill the position.

Second tour: The second tour is also a directed assignment but here’s where things get really tricky, as far as bidding strategy goes. Junior officers can only get one full language course in their first two tours, and they have to do a consular job as well. So if, for example, you exhaust your language training on the first go around, or don’t fulfill your consular obligation, your bidding options can be severely hampered.

In my case, I was given Albanian language training prior to departing for my first post in Macedonia, and since I wasn’t proficient in any other foreign languages at that time, I could only bid on jobs at English speaking posts and jobs, which didn’t require foreign language proficiency.

The second assignment is supposed to be based upon bidding “equity.” Those who are at the toughest posts – and here, toughest is defined by those with the highest hardship and danger pay ratings – have the most equity, and should get the first pick of assignments.

But in reality, FSO’s with connections or good karma sometimes manage to float by from one good post to another while others go from bad posts to even worse ones. I loved living in Macedonia, but since it was rated as a 20 percent hardship post at the time I was bidding for the second go-around, I thought I would have plenty of equity to get one of the 20 jobs I bid on for my second tour.

tobagoBut then I got the Port Moresby phone call from Hollis, who explained that I didn’t have enough equity to get any of the 20 posts I’d bid on, and would have to take my chances with the leftovers. CDO’s are very much like used car salespeople, so he was trying to push the places that no one had bid on. After weeks of wrangling, I was given Port of Spain, Trinidad, which wasn’t at all up my alley, but seemed quite acceptable compared to Port Moresby.

Mid Level Bidding: Once FSO’s get tenure, the directed assignment process is over and officers lobby and interview for jobs based on their own merit. The equity system is still in play but less so. In decades past, some FSO’s managed to specialize in one geographic area, but these days, with huge missions in Baghdad and Kabul, no one can get away without at least bidding on hardship posts, and many officers are getting sent on unaccompanied assignments in dangerous places against their will.

Tips: In an A-100 class, it’s essential to try to find out through the grapevine as much as you can on who’s bidding on what. The most important thing to gauge is what jobs everyone is putting at the very bottom of his or her list. Let’s say, for example, that nearly everyone has Khartoum as the bottom of their list, but you have it somewhere near the middle of your list. Well, guess who’s got a pretty damn good shot of spending Christmas in Sudan?

In general, you want to present bid lists that make sense and that you can defend rationally. Trying to tell CDO’s you prefer Dublin, Sydney and Prague because they have good beer in each place is a sure way to get a one-way ticket to Dhaka. And last, but definitely not least, if you have high-level connections, use them, and remember that you can always negotiate.

Bottom line: Joining the Foreign Service is a little bit like joining the military, in terms of signing your fate over to the government. It’s obviously far cushier, pays better and is less dangerous, but you can’t completely control where you go and you can get sent to places you do not want to go without your family members. If you’re flexible, adventurous and not extremely risk averse, it might be a good career option for you. But if you’re just hoping for an easy way to live in Sydney or Rome, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Read more from “A Traveler in The Foreign Service” here.

[Photos by Dave Seminara and friar's balsam on Flickr]

VIDEO: Everyone says I love you in 15 languages


In case you decided to save your Valentine’s Day celebration for this weekend, you may want to show your Valentine how worldly and well-traveled you are and find a new way to say “I love you“. Traveler and photographer Kien Lam, who previously brought us the amazing Speeding Around the World in Under 5 Minutes, has made a special romantic video to capture the essence of love around the globe. Show Your Love shows us how similar love is, no matter the country, language, or medium, incorporating 15 different languages from Arabic to Braille to Swahili in love letters, music, texts, and other creative ways to express your feelings.

Show us your love and leave us a mushy comment in your native language!

10 travel excuses not to make in 2012

ghana, africa So, you’ve always wanted to travel, but you just haven’t done it yet. Why not? Do you think you can’t afford it? Or, that you don’t have the time? When it comes down to it, obstacles shouldn’t be getting in the way of you fulfilling your dreams. This year, stop making excuses and travel.

Excuse #1: I can’t afford it

This is one of the most common excuses people make for not traveling. Traveling doesn’t have to mean staying in 5-star hotels and eating at Michelin starred restaurants. In fact, using less-expensive accommodation options, like staying with locals for free through Couchsurfing, volunteering on organic farms in exchange for room and board with WWOOF, or doing a homestay can give you more insight into the local culture of the place you are visiting. Hostels, a simple yet social form of accommodation, can also help you meet fellow travelers while saving you money. And, eating at restaurants that don’t have a big “English Menu Available” sign are not only cheaper, but more authentic.

You can also help yourself before your trip begins by saving up some money. Stop spending money on little things that you don’t really need, like a $4 Starbucks coffee (make it at home) or a $10 sandwich from the eatery near your job (again, make it at home). Also, stop splurging on bigger things, like new clothes, makeup, sneakers, big nights out, etc… Obviously you don’t want to deprive yourself, but cut back a little and look for alternative and cheaper options that can also be satisfying.Excuse #2: I don’t have anyone to go with

You don’t need anyone to go with! I’ve gone on backpacking trips through Europe and South East Asia by myself and have never had a problem meeting people along the way. If you stay in hostels, you will easily meet other travelers. Money exchanges, airports, markets, and walking tours are other prime spots for making friends. If you’re more interested in meeting locals, try a homestay, volunteer, or just seek out the cafes and bars where locals hangout and strike up a conversation. The best thing about traveling alone is you never have to adhere to anyone else’s schedule. Instead, you can wake up when you want, see what you want, and do what you want without having to feel the need to coordinate with someone else.

Excuse #3: I’m too young/old

You are never too young or too old to travel. If you’re young, why not do something abroad to help build your resume, like volunteer, study, or intern abroad. If it’s a matter of your parents being worried and you want to appease them, join a tour group like Intrepid Travel or G Adventures so that you’ll be with an experienced guide as well as other young travelers.

If you think you’re too old, think again. There are plenty of older people out there, not just traveling, but backpacking and trekking their way around the world. In fact, just this past October, 84-year old Richard Byerley broke a new world record and became the oldest person to summit Mount Kilimanjaro. And before him, the oldest person to do this same feat was 82-year old George Solt in 2010. If you still feel skeptical, there are tour groups that cater to those in their retirement years, like Road Scholar and Grand Circle Foundation.

airplane Excuse #4: I’m afraid to fly

According to planecrashinfo.com, the chances of you being killed on a plane flown by one of the top 25 airlines is 1 in 9.2 million. And, even if you went with an airline that is deemed to have higher accident rates than the others, the chances are still slim at 1 in 843,744. If logic still doesn’t assuage your fears don’t get dismayed, you can still travel. Fill up your gas tank and take a road trip, pack a bag and travel by bus from city to city, or, for something a little more luxurious, opt for a relaxing cruise.

Excuse #5: My boyfriend/girlfriend/parents don’t want me to go

While it’s understandable that the people who love you will miss you, they should also try to be happy that you’re doing something that will make you feel fulfilled. There is so much technology available nowadays that keeping in touch is easy. Video chat on Skype, send e-mails, or keep a blog to let your loved ones follow your travels and know that you’re safe.

If it’s a significant other that’s keeping you from traveling, ask them to come along with you. And if they can’t, you still shouldn’t give up going on a trip that will enrich your life. As for your parents, it’s only because they are worried about you, so try to ease their minds as much as possible. Call regularly and send them photos, make it clear how responsible you plan on being, and show them blog posts and articles from other travelers who have been to the same cities. Despite the fact that I’ve backpacked myriad countries alone, my parents still worry, and that’s something that will never change. But, these trips have helped me have experiences I never would have otherwise and have helped shape me into the person I am now.

Excuse #6: Traveling is dangerous

While I hear this one a lot, it’s always amazing to me that people can put such a blanket statement on traveling. Isn’t life in general dangerous? I’ve also heard that driving, smoking cigarettes, playing contact sports, drinking alcohol, and eating fatty foods is dangerous, but I’d say majority of the people I know do most of those things. You need to take risks in order to live a full life. Of course, you should take precautions. Walking back to your accommodation alone and drunk at 3AM in a foreign city (or even your hometown) probably isn’t the best idea. But if you use your brain, you should be more than fine.

One thing I always find, too, is that people perceive other cities as being more dangerous than they often are. On a recent trip to Ghana, Africa, my friends were extremely worried for my safety. On a hike in the Volta Region I asked a local who I had befriended if he would ever come to New York to visit me. His reply? “Isn’t New York one of the most dangerous cities in the world?”

Excuse #7: It’ll ruin my career

Most jobs give you time off (and if they don’t, maybe you should try looking for a new job), so use it. If you get two weeks take two weeks vacation, and try to plan it around holidays and weekends so you can add extra days into your trip. If you’re looking to go for longer, don’t look at it as the end of your employability. Traveling can help build and enhance your skills and also shows how adaptable you are as a person. You may also discover things about yourself along the way that can lead you into a job you didn’t even know you wanted, like teaching abroad, travel journalism, being a tour guide, or working for a nonprofit or travel company.

Excuse #8: I have a family

Take them with you! Just ask Meg Nesterov who writes Gadling’s Knocked Up Abroad, chronicling her travels with a baby. There will be challenges to traveling with a family, but with the right attitude and some planning it isn’t impossible. If your kids are a little older, they will be introduced to unique cultural experiences at a young age, and you can seek out destinations that have opportunities for learning. There are also tons of hotels out there that cater to families, and many homestays and volunteer programs that will accept families with children, as well.

Excuse #9: I’m scared of being culture shocked

Even the most well-traveled individuals can experience culture shock, and it’s completely normal. However, you shouldn’t let the possibility of some discomfort abroad stop you from seeing a foreign land. If it’s your first time traveling, start with a country or countries that are more Westernized and speak English. Once you get more comfortable with being away from home, you can start to branch out little by little. If you get to a place where you really feel uncomfortable, don’t run away but instead face the obstacle head on. Realize the unique experience you’re having and try new things that you never imagined you would. You can always sneak back to your hotel room and write your thoughts in a journal when you need a break.

Excuse #10: I don’t know a foreign language

Obviously, you can solve this problem by traveling to destinations where they do speak your language. However, by only sticking to primarily English-speaking countries you can miss out on a lot of great cities. You’d actually be surprised how many people in non-English speaking countries can, in fact, speak at least some English. And when they can’t, using hand gestures, pointing, and carrying a pen and paper to write down the names of landmarks or draw pictures can be very helpful. And just to be safe, a pocket dictionary never hurts.