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Linguistic Puzzles

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When you absolutely must have a break from your Anki decks, here are some brain teasers that require quickly "figuring out" how an unfamiliar language works. They are designed to test one's aptitude for language learning, more than one's grasp of a language already under study.


Most of the languages are obscure or rare and others are no longer in active use. Examples include the following:

• Luvian, an ancient language of the Middle East written in a hieroglyphic script.

• Maasai, a Nilo-Saharan language of Kenya and Tanzania.

• Quechua, the language of the ancient Inca Empire, and one of the national languages of Modern Peru.

• Sanskrit, an ancient language of Northern India and the sacred language of the Hindu Vedas.

• Shugnan, an Indo-Iranian language of Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

• Babylonian. Decipher an educational document in the cuneiform writing system.

• Tocharian, an ancient language of China.

The puzzles are graded according to difficulty and are designed for native English speakers, according to the instruction page. No additional resources, such as dictionaries, are needed.

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To amplify a bit: My initial interest in the topic of linguistic puzzles was as an adjunct to standard language aptitude tests which attempt to predict a person's ability to master a new language. Several such tests exist in the civilian world as well as in the military. Examples are discussed here:

• Modern Language Aptitude Test -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_Language_Aptitude_Test

• Oxford Language Aptitude Test -- http://www.rhul.ac.uk/classics/cucd/test.html

• Defense Language Aptitude Battery -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_Language_Aptitude_Battery

If you are still having trouble with the "ni hao; ni hao ma" part of introductory Chinese after three semesters of part-time study back in your native country, it might be wise to do further self assessment before giving up your job and mortgaging the farm in order to immerse yourself in an expensive year-long course in Shanghai or Beijing. A slight exaggeration, of course, but you see what I mean.

The Oxford test, has other versions, complete with answers and discussion here: http://www.classics.ox.ac.uk/admissions/index.asp

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