“Why Would You Want to Learn That?”

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It is no secret that there will be those who will discourage you from your language learning attempts (or other hobbies or interests, for that matter) throughout your life.

This is, interestingly, true for commonly spoken/learned languages as it is for those spoken by relatively few people.

I have gotten the question “Why Would You Want to Learn That?” several points when I bring up certain languages.

Most of the time this sentiment is just sheer curiosity…as a student in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, why is something like Irish important to me?

Sometimes, however, I did get explicit discouragement, although certainly not often. Here’s a fact, though: speakers of more commonly spoken languages are almost certainly more likely to judge you negatively than speakers of less commonly spoken languages (who will be glad you made any variety of effort at all).

At many points throughout my life have I been seized by a desire to do something out of the ordinary. Chances are that if you are reading this, so have you.

True story: when I visited the Sámi Exhibition in the Nordic Museum in Stockholm I saw that the panels and writings were translated from Swedish into English and also into Northern Sami.

There was a booklet that came with the exhibitions that was bilingual Swedish / Northern Sami, and I had the thought of actually taking it with me and then learning that language Rosetta-Stone style (I’m referring to the artifact, not the expensive program).

I couldn’t do that because a notice said that I had to return the booklet.

I don’t really know exactly what seized me with the desire to have learned Northern Sami back then (Early 2013, if I recall correctly). Maybe it was the pretty flag or the costumes or my lifelong love of cold climates, or maybe I was just impressed by the way the words looked on the page.

The journey with Northern Sami did not begin in earnest until March 2014 (more than a year after I thought of learning the language from a museum booklet that I couldn’t take in the first place).

Looking back on that and also my experiences with other rarer languages, I developed the following system that I encourage you to try if you are ever captivated with a desire to learn something that may be “out of your character”:

Learn first. Find justifications later.

Your originaly desire for learning a new rare language may be “the words look cool”, but when you actually acquaint yourself with the culture, you can find songs that you wish you knew the meanings of, or encounter a small but vibrant film industry. And so when someone asks you “why do you want to learn that?” you can disarm them with something that makes sense, rather than your original motivation which might have been quite silly.

When someone asks me why I learned Northern Sami to any degree at all, I said that I wanted to find how its linguistic framework fit among the rest of the Scandinavian Languages and understand the story of the Sámi people as it is contained within the language.

Obviously this logical answer wasn’t really why I undertook the trek to begin with.

But I myself have had silly reasons for learning many languages.

I wasn’t too enchanted by Danish until I sat next to some Danish guy on a plane who was surprised that I correctly identified the language he was speaking. His demeanor  was so prevalent with hygge that I just had to take the language more seriously than I did. The fact that I had a small but noteworthy amount of Swedish and Norwegian in my arsenal at that point gave me more of an incentive to do so.

To date, I have tried to learn Irish unsucessfully a number of times since late 2008. Now with Duolingo’s course, I have finally embarked on a journey that I’ve been waiting for. I still can’t really say what makes the Irish language appealing for me—I guess that’s for antoher post. But will I find a justification for it? Most certainly. But that justification wasn’t the reason why I began.

Last night was Thanksgiving and I sampled pretty much every language that I knew to people who were throwing endless questions at me.

All the while it seemed that I had earned respect for just finding what I wanted to do, for whatever reason, and just going ahead and doing it.

I encourage you to do the same.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Learning the Language YOU WANT to a Level You Can be Proud of!

(Yesterday marks the half-a-year birthday of this blog)

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  1. A desire to learn a language cannot be forced. It must land on you, and it can land on you for all sorts of reasons, ranging from the professionally pragmatic to just plain silly.

 

Don’t force this desire to learn something and, when you get this desire or find yourself wishing that you knew Language X, proceed to the next step without hesitation!

 

  1. If it is a language whose sounds are familiar to you, proceed to Step 3.

 

If not, go online, find media, and familiarize yourself with the sounds of the language.

 

Entertain the thought that, one day in the future, you will be able to speak and understand this language to the degree that you can understand some or all of what is being said to you.

 

Throughout the entire learning process, get some music in your target language and play it regularly.

 

You won’t understand almost any of it at the beginning, but you will ease into it and your desire to learn the lyrics to your new favorite song in the target language will be a powerful motivator.

 

  1. Find out if the pronunciation of the language is fairly regular and intuitive (Finno-Ugric Languages and Esperanto are the easiest, some like Spanish and Dutch may be a tad harder) or has more “historical” pronunciation (English is the biggest offender, but any language with short/long vowels [Russian, Latvian, Cornish] or complicated but vaguely regular pronunciation rules [Danish, Irish, Faroese] may qualify).

 

If it is in the former category, find a pronunciation guide (online) and familiarize yourself with the sounds. Then, find an online phrasebook for free (Omniglot, Wikitravel, and their ilk) and practice saying these things out loud.

 

If it is in the latter category, find an audio phrase book or one with phonetic pronunciation. Recite things out loud and get used to some of the patterns. Remember, if your language is in this category, the pronunciation will grow on you as a result of the immersion which you will encounter later.

 

YouTube tutorials are also tremendously helpful at this stage, if they exist for your language.

 

For languages that have new characters, or have a set of characters that is impressively large (Chinese Character, Japanese Kanji…), use the same principles to ease into the new system, one letter or character at a time.

 

  1. Now what you want to do is build basic vocabulary. Flashcards can do, Anki, Memrise and DuoLingo are good candidates. I would suggest using a combination of these methods.

 

Your primary goal is to ensure that you can engage with material for native speakers as soon as possible.

 

Throughout this step, regularly check on native-language material (preferably for younger age groups) and see how you engage with it. Keep on building your vocabulary to a degree that you can understand some of it.

 

In the event that there is a certain film or show that you know so well that you practically know all of the lines by heart, even better. Use this to augment your vocabulary.

 

Don’t expect to understand everything.

 

  1. Once you have some passive understanding of the language, your goal is twofold:

 

5a. Gain an active rather than just a passive understanding of the language (by means of writing and speaking). Say things out loud to yourself, find a friend and write messages to him/her in your target language, set up a meet with said friend if possible.

 

Don’t be ashamed to use translation services—these are “training wheels” of sorts (and even when you speak a language fluently enough so that you can teach college-level classes in it, expect to use a dictionary / online translation sometimes!).

 

5b. The grammar…familiarize yourself with the verb forms via the programs listed in Step 4. Adjectives, verbs, declensions…know them to a degree to which you feel comfortable with, but don’t obsess.

 

My Finnish textbook has 34 different paradigms for nouns in declining. Greenlandic has 10. Don’t let it scare you, just note basic patterns and then, when you feel more comfortable with your abilities, return to the tables and the like and polish them.

 

  1. Now that you have both some active and passive understanding of the language, your goal is to perfect grammar even more sharply and to keep on using the language.

 

Keep on collecting words, keep on collecting idioms, keep on collecting songs, make the language a part of your life. Sideline a bit of your Native-Language entertainment / free time with that of your target language…

 

Keep on using your language to build friendships and maintain connections.

 

At this stage, expect embarrassment, mistakes, and sometimes even explicit discouragement (although hopefully you will encounter this one rarely).

 

You will note that others will respect you and your efforts and some may even show more than a hint of jealousy, but let no emotions dissuade you from doing anything further.

 

This is the step that actually never ends, and there is only one alternative: to forget the language by means of disuse.

 

But even if you do, the passive knowledge remains within you somewhere, waiting for you to come back to it. The verb forms are still there, you still have an anecdote or a song or a cool fact here and there…but, remember, the entirety of this project depends on Step 1: having that desire. If you don’t have it anymore, that’s okay. Don’t force it. Follow your heart and let it lead you somewhere else.

 

Whenever you think to yourself “it would be cool if I could learn language X”, think of this list, and return to it. Think of what acting on that thought could do, and think of what you will gain.

 

I haven’t regretting studying any language at all during my entire life. Chances are that you won’t either.

 

Good luck!

If I Were a Language Teacher, Here’s What I Would Say to My Students

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I would make the following clear to my students from the outset:

 

“The tests, assignments, and class sessions will not make you even remotely good at this language on your own. What you must do, in addition, to these sessions, is make space for this language in your own life…”

 

“I hereby present to you an additional homework assignment for each session: you must somehow engage with your target language in between each class. You can do this at home. You can set up a meeting between friends. You can watch your favorite TV show, as long as it is in the language. You can go YouTubing or play video games in the language…

 

“…what is important is that you associate this language with its countless other dimensions outside of my class”.

 

“You must realize that no journey ever existed without mistakes. While some assignments will be graded, I understand that on your road to mastery you must err…

 

“I’ll have you know that on my own language journeys I have been through terrible moments indeed. I got answered in English by service people and felt terrible about it. I once got shouted ‘STOP SPEAKING (Language)!’ by someone. I got told on multiple occasions that my accent was terrible, and in less than the span of a year, I was told by others that it sounded like that of a native…

 

“There will be discouragement (If relevant: There will be those that will ask ‘Why do you bother to learn this language if we all speak English anyway?’ I’ll have you know that it may be most, but it is by no means all. And even those who speak the language will marvel at your attempts, however small, as long as they are honest.) On the long road, I almost never let that discouragement get to me and neither should you. I will always be supportive of your efforts to learn any language, no matter what”.

 

“Once you leave the class, you can choose to forget everything and then, from that point onward, mention to friends that you took the language for X years, and now you don’t speak a word of it…

 

“…or, alternatively, you could keep a space for this language in your life, continue having fun with it and your friends that speak it and media that use it. Then you will look back on this class as merely the beginning of a journey that made your life complete…”

 

“Whether you will let this language complete your life is entirely up to you

My Translation Adventure with Northern Sami ‘n Friends

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A week from tomorrow is my birthday. In looking for potential gifts and wish-list constructions, one click led to another and I found myself discovering something about Minecraft (a well-known video game with quite simplistic but cute graphics that I can’t really grasp the point of) being translated into many languages.

Since my travels have hardened my discipline, I’m usually not one for game-playing, but I was so intrigued that I had to take a look.

Turned out, the list of languages included the standard ones that most Americans can name off the top of their head, but then spun into complete unpredictability with Manx Gaelic and Cornish being featured (!!!!)

Both languages, for those unaware, had passed into extinction and have been revived. In the UN’s Atlas of Endangered Languages, these two are noted with the red pin (indicating “critically endangered”) with a letter “R” on it, indicating that it had been brought, pardon my expression, back from the bring.

It is interesting to note that the game is likely being used to further the revival attempts at both languages, even though neither translation is truly complete (Cornish is at 65% or so as of the time of writing, with Manx slightly over 70%).

Now here’s the most interesting part: Minecraft outsourced its translations to the public. What that means: you can create an account on CrowdIn, and start translating to whatever degree you want to, no matter who you are. Of course, those who know the language better will vote on your translations accordingly, acting as quality control.

Taking a look at its offerings, I noted that there was a Northern Sami translation and that it was not making signs of great progress (as of last week it was about 1%).

Keeping in mind the adage from the language encourager community that languages need to be experienced rather than learned, I snatched the chance, created the account, and then began translating.

My only experiences with the game dealt with watching some of my college friends play it (and try to hopelessly explain the game to me), but luckily this was no barrier in me getting to work.

A few days later, and the progress for the translation is now at around 14% or so, and when I’m in more of a working mood I’m likely to continue it.

Some of my thoughts / frustrations:

  1. There are lots of languages recognized by CrowdIn, possibly the longest list I’ve seen on anywhere that isn’t Reddit. Very interestingly, while they had offerings like Ewe and other languages whose name I only recall seeing once, Greenlandic / Kalaallisut was nowhere on the list.

 

Mixed blessing?

 

  1. A Material Notebook proved helpful. I had grammar tables and the like in my notebook that was right by my side. I had also copied the contents of a screenshot from Wikipedia that showed Kubuntu being translated into Northern Sami, and I had never thought that I would ever to put it to use like this when I first wrote it.

 

As it turns out, I consult multiple dictionaries for the translation, Giella Tekno (which is Norwegian/Finnish to Northern Sami and back to both), as well as two English-Northern Sami Dictionary lists, and another Norwegian/Swedish /Sami Languages dictionary. But clicking between the tabs proved difficult and really wore out my hand, after which I needed to take a walk.

 

  1. There was an original stage of self-consciousness, but I quickly got over it. I thought, “what if a Native speaker comes in and demolishes all of my translations?”, then I figured, “well, you know what, Jared? If you don’t get this done, who on earth is going to do it? Are you going to put your skills to use or are you just going to close the window and forget than anything ever happened?. Jared. Samiland needs you. You might not know it perfectly, but good enough is okay. And you can trust that others will modify your work accordingly…”

 

Further adding to the degree of self-consciousness was the fact that the language, as small as it is, is fractured (for those who don’t know, there are about 15,000 native speakers of this language at least, and definitely many others who learn it as a second language).

 

The word for “I” can be spelled either “mon” or “mun”, and I opted for the first one. Now among the books and websites that I was using, some of them did end up using alternate spellings and I might have not been perfectly consistent. But yet again, Minecraft does note that the “translations may not be 100% correct”.

 

Speaking of which, Facebook is also working on its Northern Sami Translation and it is showing almost no signs of activity, last I checked (which was last week or so).

 

  1. “My dictionaries aren’t showing up any word for X. Should I use the English word instead?”

 

  1. “My dictionaries offer multiple words, one that is more purist Sami and the other that is very clearly ‘Dárogiella’ (the “land language” which is either Norwegian or Swedish, depending on where in Samiland you are). Which one do I use?”

 

I am reminded of the same struggles in some other languages, specifically in Hebrew and in Greenlandic, where there are purist words and European loanwords (all over Europe in Hebrew’s case, Danish in the case of Greenlandic). Yiddish also comes to mind, with its blend of Germanic, Slavic and “Loshn-Koydesh” elements, all of which carry different connotations to a trained ear.

 

The situations are very comparable between the lot of them.

 

  1. “This language has lots of words for reindeer and lots of words for snow, but for some odd reason I can’t find any equivalent for word X (usually something related to technology)…odd…”

 

  1. CrowdIn gathers a list of your “preferred languages” as a result of your profile registration. This proved to be very useful, as I could reference the Finnish and Estonian translations, as well as those in the Scandinavian and West Germanic Languages (among many others) and note what routes I could take. (I usually checked my results with Google Search or Giella Tekno…you’d be surprised how much material there is online even for the smallest of languages…)

 

  1. Despite the fact that it was working, it didn’t really feel like work. I kept in mind Robert Benchley’s adage that “anyone can do any amount of work, as long as it is the work he’s not supposed to be doing at the moment” (note to world: I did not miss any assignments on account of this project).

 

  1. This exercise dramatically improved my vocabulary in all of the “preferred languages”, especially in Norwegian, Finnish and, of course, Northern Sami itself. A speaking exercise afterwards noted that I almost never was grasping for words or pausing as a result of this immersion.

 

I help translate things, and my languages get better…

 

And who knows? Maybe I’ll end up playing the game one day…

 

What a deal!

A Language is a Family

Once upon a time I found myself at the Paideia Institute in Stockholm, which is a Jewish Studies consortium, which, interestingly, has a Greek name.

Why?

Alexander the Great had this idea that by reading a textual compendium and learning the Greek language, one could become Greek.

While the idea of reading Jewish texts as a sole means to conversion is obviously incongruent with this idea, the fact remains that a language is a family, or a club. This is even truer with not commonly studied languages.

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We all know the feeling of being in a group with inside jokes and similar personalities.

With learning a language, you get to be in one more group each time you learn a new one.

The more you learn a given language in-depth, the more your identity is connected to that club.

The club is not just the people from the countries where the language is spoken. It is also the students that are undertaking the same initiation process as you.

And you are welcome to leave the group at any time in your life by means of not rehearsing your language. But even then, there will be times that will bring your previous engagements with it to mind.

The initiation ceremony may require that you know some combination of the following:

  • The popular songs (those well-regarded as well as those considered “trashy” or “guilty pleasure” or “only good for dancing”).
  • The holidays and their traditions and songs.
  • Tongue twisters and peculiar traits of the language.
  • An awareness of how various religions that influenced the culture
  • The loanwords from various other languages
  • Jokes
  • General mindsets, memes, inside jokes, and common untranslatable cultural references.

Now for this exercise I would like you to think up your dream language and insert it, in your minds eye, wherever (X) is.

You, (your name here), have chosen to become a member of the (X) club, whose members are worldwide and come from more backgrounds that you can comprehend. They are not limited to (countries where the language is spoken), and the current members will be more than glad to have you join them, or even spend time with them.

In so doing, you will take upon yourself the ways of the (X) language, and learn not only its grammar, its words, and its dialogues but you will also take upon yourself the (X) way of life, to whatever degree you can.

In so doing, you will learn many of our secrets, which are secrets insofar as they are not known to outsiders. As long as you show that you are committed, we will relate the history of our language and our people to you, as well as our soft spots and our values, all of which are, in fact, communicated solely by virtue of the language itself.

The (X) language may prove difficult for you and will frustrate you, but it will be the key to a new land and innumerable friendships and employment opportunities that you will not regret for a minute.

Even if you learn the (X) only to a weak degree, we (most of us, that is) will accept you and your commitment. We appreciate any time you spend with our society and hope that you share our world with your family and friends that haven’t chosen to join. And who knows? Maybe they’ll come along as well.

This is a task of much dedication. This is a journey that will spell much mirth but also much pain and frustration and feeling stupid.

But the rewards that you will reap will know no limits.

So what say you? Do you want to join our family?

You don’t need a passport.

You don’t need a good singing voice.

All you need is a drive. Experiment. Be persistent. Don’t give up.

And if you have that desire to join us…not only will we be thankful to you and your efforts, but you will be grateful to yourself.

Ready to join?

How to Get a Really Good Accent in Your Target Language with the Help of Only One Word or Phrase

My tactic revolved around a quote from Bruce Lee which said that he feared not the man who practiced 10,000 kicks, but rather one kick 10,000 times. Come to think of it, it has been a while since I picked up a quote dictionary.

I blame quote infographics on Facebook.

Unrelated fact: when I was in high school I had this “quote of the day” feature in my creative writing classes, which I recall shamelessly having ripped off my peers at previous institutions.

Moving on…

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When I was in Paris, I remember that one of my sibling travel companions kept on saying the phrase “les hommes d’équipage” (the ship crew) aloud in a dramatic voice at vaguely regular intervals (there was no occasion that called for the recitation whatsoever). It apparently had some unclear connection to a poem about an Albatross that escapes me.

I had heard “les hommes d’équipage” about seven times a day on average, and interestingly said travel companion had a very convincing accent indeed, without even trying, after a significant amount of recitations of the phrase.

True story: sometimes I catch myself saying the phrase out loud, too. Even now!

Now during the few weeks between Paris and New York, in which I found myself in my parent’s place alongside all of my siblings (first time in a long time), the habit rubbed off on me too. When in very, very casual conversations with my family members, I would throw in a phrase with virtually no context and with a very non-American accent indeed.

Except for this time the phrase was Greenlandic, and the words were “Kalaallisut oqalusinnaavit?”(Can you speak Greenlandic?)

It probably was annoying to them as “les hommes d’équipage” was during my Paris venture, but I certainly managed to experiment with a different Greenlandic-sounding accent every single time, until I got one that stuck and made sense.

And once I had that accent for the two words, I was capable of splicing the accent onto the rest of my speech in that language.

I speak a number of languages but my accent strength in them is not equal.

And here’s why not:

Because I haven’t had this accent training drill with a phrase in all of them.

One thing I used to do with Danish was say the word “Hvad?” (what?) at points in conversations with my family members and some friends when the English “what?” was appropriate. As a result, I practiced this word many, many times indeed, and even if my Danish accent or my ability to replicate the stød is not perfect, it certainly became a lot better.

Now that I think about it, I really should be doing this more often…

So here’s what you do:

  • Identify a certain phrase or word in your target language that sticks with you.
  • Make it a bit of an inside joke / exclamation / etc. and get in the habit of using it. If you don’t want to do it in public, then just feel free to use it when frustrated at your computer, etc.
  • Let the word or phrase grow on you, and then one time, you’ll find yourself having said the word with an accent that sounds perfect.
  • Now you have the accent. Try using it on other words in your target language, and possibly even in your native language / other languages to ensure that it sticks.
  • It may not be utterly perfect and may require some refinement, but…voila! There you are.

Happy practicing!