Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Archive for the category “Language and Culture”

FSI Language Courses

FSI Language Courses  – http://fsi-language-courses.org/Content.php

If main URL is down, also try:

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What does Serbo-Croatian sound like?
  • What does modern Hebrew sound like?
  • What does Sinhala sound like?


Pretty much a plain vanilla presentation of language courses originally developed by the Foreign Service Institute of the State Department. As these courses were created by federal government employees, the courses became part of the Public Domain, freely reusable by anyone. This website has no connection to the federal government. It’s run by a nonprofit that wants to provide access to these course which were held in high esteem when they were created are still useful today.

Each course consists of a student workbook (usually hundreds of pages) in PDF format and a number of tapes in MP3 format. The audio tapes appear to be purely in the language being studied. You won’t get any benefit from the tapes alone except for getting a sense of how that particular language sounds.

The workbook varies in detail from course to course, but usually tries to teach the written language along with the spoken language and later units of the course will have reading passages. Suggestions for teaching the language in a classroom setting will also be offered.

Several dozen courses are offered. Representative ones are:

  • Arabic
  • Cantonese
  • Greek
  • Polish
  • Serbo-Croatian
  • Vietnamese
  • Yoruba

Cultural Orientations from the Defense Language Institute (DLI)

Cultural Orientations from the Defense Language Institute (DLI) – http://famdliflc.lingnet.org/productList.aspx?v=co

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What are home customs like in Nigeria?
  • What are some traditions in Algeria?
  • What is family life like in China?
  • What does Dari sound like?


This set of online training modules from the US military try to familiarize personnel with cultural conditions on the ground. From the website:

“The Cultural Orientations (CO) offer an engaging introduction to a given cultural group. Linguists and non-linguists alike will benefit from these interactive materials and pertinent language exchanges that are coupled with an objective and practical look at daily life in different contexts. Topics include religion, traditions, family life and differences in the lifestyles of urban and rural populations.”

There are literally dozens of cultural orientations available, based more around language and ethnic groups than around countries. The number of “slides” presented varies, but all modules have the structure of Country profile, Religion, Traditions, Urban Life, Rural Life, Family Life, Assessment and Resources (for further reading and study). In addition to the “Assessment” tab at the end of each orientation, there are smaller assessments at the end of each section. Country profiles are provided with the understanding that most ethnic groups tend to have one country where most of them live.

Most of the cultural orientations have an interactive activity under the “geography” portion of the country profile tab. You’re given the name of the continent (i.e. Africa) where the country under discussion is found and asked to click on that continent. Then you’re given the region of the continent that the country is found (i.e. East Africa) and asked to click on that. Then comes the final and most humbling task of all – you’re given an unlabeled outline map of the region and a group of flags with the country names on them. Your task is to place each flag into its proper country. This was relatively easy for me for the Balkans and much, much trial and error with East Africa. By the time you’re done, you will know what borders the target country.

Many parts of the orientation feature short dialogs. It won’t teach you the languages of the given ethnic, but will be helpful in learning how a language sounds.

Some of the orientations offered are:

  • Algerian Cultural Orientation (Feb 2011)
  • Amharic [Ethiopia] Cultural Orientation (Apr 2011)
  • Dari [Afghanistan] Cultural Orientation (Nov 2008)
  • Hausa [Nigeria] Cultural Orientation (Jul 2007)
  • North Korean Cultural Orientation (May 2009)
  • Saudi Cultural Orientation (Nov 2007)
  • Wu [China] Cultural Orientation (Aug 2008)

These orientations will be helpful in framing stories in foreign countries and may be helpful in setting character beliefs and traditions.


Defense Language Institute Products

Defense Language Institute Products –http://www.dliflc.edu/resources/products/

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What would a complaint about working conditions sound in Egyptian Arabic?
  • What does Argentine Spanish sound like?
  • Where can I find the Filipino legend Chocolates Hills of Bohol Island?


As the website says, this is a listing of products of the Defense Language Institute that covers both culture and language for a number of countries. Some of the products (i.e. Cultural Orientations) have been covered elsewhere. Unless otherwise noted, all products are freely available.

One particularly intriguing product to me is Phone Conversations. Here’s the description from the website, “This site contains over 300 casual phone conversations in non-standard dialect and lesson plans with support materials for classroom use.” For example, the Spanish section allows you to listen to phone calls in Spanish from Mexico, Ecuador, Argentina and a few other countries. You have to have some command of the target language for this to be worthwhile, but it does show differences in culture as well as dialect.

Probably of greater interest to writers is “Legends and Folktales” which offer illustrated narrations of local folktales. Clicking on “Legends and Folktales” brings up a dotted world map. Mousing over the dot shows the country name. Clicking on the dot shows the legend. Some of the legends, such as Russia’s “Legend of the Firebird” can be played either in English or in the native language. This site would seem to be fruitful for people trying to establish a character’s ethnicity.

An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490-1920

An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490-1920 – http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/dihtml/dihome.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What were some dances in England during the 1710s?
  • How and when did Irish dance start in New York City?
  • What were the expectations of a 19th Century lady asked to sing or play the piano?


From the website,

“Dance manuals can tell us important things about how people lived in past eras. For example, the illustrations and, later, photographs not only illuminate how people dressed, but demonstrate body carriage. These books highlight the importance of knowing the most fashionable dances and detail grand balls, private gatherings, and other social events that included dance, thus describing the importance of dance (or lack of) in any particular era, as well as how to appropriately spend leisure time. In addition, each era has codified rules of etiquette, specific gender roles, as well as codes regarding acceptable behavior toward one’s partner while dancing. Dance manuals are an excellent source for this type of information. And, of course, the manuals detail the steps and dances–in many cases, dances that were popular before the advent of photographs or film. Many manuals also contain music to accompany the dances. All of this information is helpful to anybody who wishes to recreate (often called “reconstruct”) dances of the past or to better understand the evolution of popular social dance.”

Post Navigation