My Weaknesses

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Here’s something you probably weren’t expecting me to write about, and I highly recommend all bloggers who give advice of any sort do very much the same.

Here I am, someone who writes instructions for people wanting to use their languages to talk to other people, to get to know other cultures, or who came here finding a perspective on how to learn rarer languages or those spoken in places in which English proficiency or fluency is the norm.

But I’d like to let you in on something: I don’t even see myself as any variety of authority on most days. Regardless of how much external validation or how many interviews I get or even if I speak ten different languages in a single evening without faltering in any of them (it has happened!), I still see myself as very much a flawed creature.

I just hope that my musings could provide an antidote to the discouragement we encounter all far too often.

My biggest weaknesses, and what I can do about them:

 

  1. I burn out easily.

 

This wasn’t the case back when I was in school, but I think the novelty of polyglottery has a bit worn off and for a few months now I’ve been hard-pressed to do any variety of language learning that isn’t directly connected to the Internet or an mp3 file.

I’m moving out of my apartment right now and as I write this I have on my left side a pile of no less than eighteen language learning books, and while some of them I have looked at cover to cover, I have an expectation that I should have memorized the contents of at least one, and I have done no such thing, despite the fact that a handful of the books are very worn out from overuse.

On top of game design and writing this blog I feel that my energy has been beaten down through cynicism, and somehow I need to get it back.

 

A possible fix: Maybe I should take a break from almost all rote-language learning for a while (excluding the maintenance with entertainment that I would usually use to take break, after all, watching “Let’s Play” YouTube videos in Finnish hardly counts as work in my book.)

Barring that, maybe I should wait a while and then perhaps a change in my life would cause me to return to these projects with new vigor.

I’ve made a New Year’s Resolution to learn Welsh and I feel that I haven’t been making ample progress. On top of that, I have a travel destination in May 2017 (most likely) and an accompanying language mission that I cannot afford to “screw up”.

More on that for another time!

 

  1. I’m hypercompetitive

 

…but not in the way you might think!

 

I’m hypercompetitive with the ideal version of myself that I’d like to become. So when I make a mistake somehow or can’t switch languages fast enough (this is one thing that has been tripping me up as of late!), I blame myself.

If I feel as though I’ve been floundering in maintaining certain languages, I get uneasy even if I’ve had a lot to do otherwise and most other people would forgive themselves!

In short, I expect myself to be superhuman, but I can’t have it any other way. I’ve tried.

What’s more, I also have external competition, perhaps worrying that many other polyglots that have focused on more popular languages see me as something “less” because I would commit more time to something like Irish or Bislama than to French or Spanish.

 

A possible fix: take a note of my weak feelings and note to which languages I’ve had these troubles with. Use mini-exercises , nothing to stressful, to make myself feel good about using these languages again. Realize that mistakes are actually okay—after all I catch myself making grammatical errors or using the wrong prepositions in English more frequently than I used to!

 

  1. I get nervous easily.

 

There was that one time that I was asked to speak Icelandic to a guest at an event and I was so tripped up for a number of reasons that I could barely get coherent sentences out.

Then there are the times in which, if I have had something with sugar in it, even a little bit, my memory banks will be positively scrambled. It’s bad when you have to show up to an event having rehearsed Spanish the whole day and forgot the word for “download” accidentally (descargar, for those curious).

I should know that word, I think to myself, given how much time I use with video games to practice Spanish (which I am only moderately proud of and don’t consider myself good at most of the time, this statement applies both to video games and to Spanish).

I figure “more practice”, head home, watch six videos in Spanish and write out words I don’t know and develop techniques for memorizing them, and it occurs to me that vocabulary really isn’t the problem, the actual problem is self-doubt.

 

A possible fix: However grateful I am for my schooling, I have to recognize that, sadly, one of its purposes was (and remains) to suck out a lot of our confidences. Realize that the problem isn’t a lack of practice or a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of mindfulness. I should focus on this sort of mental discipline as much as sheer rote-learning when preparing for language exchange events.

 

  1. I dwell on past failures for far too long, even though I know I shouldn’t

 

Some of you know this about me, but concerning events especially I have a photographic memory.

Sadly, one thing this has done is that I remember almost every time a native speaker has put me down / answered me in English / I’ve been tongue tied or unable to form a sentence / something bad was said or written about me / I couldn’t think of the right word / I didn’t live up to my standards.

I even took a year-long break from Spanish because of thoughts like these.

 

A possible fix: realize that a lot of the being answered in English bits were due to (1) insecurity on behalf of the native speaker (2) a contract (in which they may be required to speak your native language) (3) in which the native speaker has too much of his or her native language in the home or at work and wants a change (I’m okay using other languages if necessary) (4) habit (look, if you met the person before you could manage their language well enough, be easy on yourself! They may be used to communicating with you in the language you met them in)

For the other concerns, see the possible fix in (3), above.

 

  1. I often put more stock in other people’s opinions of me, my progress and my work than my own opinions thereof.

 

This, again, has to do with schooling and grades.

There is one good thing to this, though: if I get validated or complimented or being told I speak “fluent” or “wonderful” (insert language here), I feel an extraordinary confidence rush. Thankfully this has been happening more and more.

A possible fix: I’ve been used to discounting my own opinions as invalid (also perhaps something to do with my schooling), now I just have to do this to my own negative opinions. This has to be called a “one-sided optimistic bulldozer”.

Truly a worthy investment on your part, too.

On Language Learning During Illness

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(For those of you who recognize the character, I will avoid from making sickening puns of any sort)

Been a while, hasn’t it been?

I woke up one day in November 2015 having any variety of optimism sucked out of me completely, unable to focus on any task and feeling both energetic and tired in all of the wrong ways.

There was absolutely no positive feeling anywhere in me.

Worse yet, I had a game design conference to attend later that month. Thankfully for the first few days of November, I thought it would be a temporary thing that would pass, but after it lasted a week it became clear that it wasn’t letting up.

These feelings resulted in me walking away from every single one of my projects. Up until November I was updating this blog every week, and even looking forward to making one of those “polyglot videos” (for those unaware: filming oneself speaking a lot of languages one after another).

And thanks to the feelings incurred, I did the previously unthinkable and I shut down my Facebook account from November 2015 until June 2016. I genuinely wanted to retreat from a lot of my previous commitments and passions, and I had no idea why. I felt an extraordinary energy definciency and sometimes I fear that I still do have it.

Suffice it to say that thanks to one of my students, I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease in time and it was treated in time. It is easily one of the most difficult diseases to detect, and it is likely that I caught it in a Connecticut forest while visiting my parents during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Thinking back to my time of treatment (and struggling to identify the disease) as well as various other illnesses I’ve had during my polyglot career, I didn’t see anything written on this topic.

Granted I have had the good fortune to not have undergone anything worse than Lyme Disease during my life, but I think that I should write some words of encouragement about learning a language during sickness. It could be something lasting, it could be something that may cause you to “not feel well”, for one day, but the truth be told is that..

You can still be in the process of moving your dreams forward, even under the most dire circumstances!

And language acquisition and retention is no exception to this!

If you find yourself not feeling well and stumble upon this blog post, I wish you a speedy recovery!

 

Some things to keep in mind:

 

Tone down judging yourself harshly

 

I come from a family of overachievers and me being the first-born sibling means that I am a lot more likely to be harsh on myself than those who are not.

Especially with the pressure of testing culture in the United States, which sadly leaves lasting scars on many people, it is very possible to feel invalidated from discouragement for too many reasons to count.

You may not be able to remember words as well, you may even find yourself forgetting basic phrases, your energy may be low and your native language(s) may also be in no great condition either!

As a general rule your passive abilities will be stronger than your active ones (although there are some languages with which can be definite exceptions to this). But even then, those may feel downsized as a result of your not-feeling-very well.

Keep in mind that if you are in one of these slump-days on your language learning journey, do not use moments like these to measure and / or track your progress! Granted, there may be some languages that you have such sharp control over that you can manage then excellent even when not feeling well!

What you should be using to track your progress, then, is how well you can manage with the skills of reading / writing / speaking and listening when you are feeling better.

But that day may be far off, sadly. In which case, you still do have hope! I remember that I was honing Irish and Finnish before Lyme Disease came in, and I didn’t even feel like doing anything.

Not visiting the respective wikipedias, not picking up a book, not even using videos or cartoon shows!

But regardless of how badly you feel, keep in mind that you can always do something.

It does not matter if it is just a handful of words, even a single sentence, or even a few minutes of exposure. The journey is always about moving forward. And those language learners who manage the best are those that move forward with their journeys.

Moving forward is not always the same is sprinting, and on bad days, you have to understand that. 

Some of you knew that I spent my preteen years in a very religious Jewish school. And one thing that they emphasized in theory (although in practice not as much) was the fact that every deed of religious observance, or good deed in general, no matter how small, was to be treasured.

On good days as well as bad days, you need to learn how to think like that with regard to your goals.

Moving slowly is okay. When you are not feeling well, whether with a fever or not enough sleep or even something far worse, it may even be expected of you. And so don’t push yourself too harshly and don’t treat yourself too harshly either.

Just because you are a polyglot or a polyglot-in-training, doesn’t mean you have to be superhuman. In fact, no one should ever expect that of you!

Happy days will be ahead of you, and realize that, while your language learning attempts during illness may seem underwhelming to you, they are actually greatly heroic acts that you will look back on with pride!

 

(P.S. about the video, I’m starting a YouTube channel soon [well, it is live already, actually!] and I’ll be honing my video-making skills along the way and delivering you a polyglot video when the moment feels right! Sorry to keep you waiting even more!)

Overmorrow is Coming

many languages

For nearly a month I’ve neglected a lot of my blogs, but this is in part due to holidays, my game design, and also quite a lot of study.

This weekend marks two important events for me. For one, the Polyglot Conference, in which I and many others will meet in person many of the authors and luminaries who inspired us to go on our many language journeys.

Second, October 10th and 11th marks four years to the day that I began my three years abroad right after college, which began in Krakow and then ended up in too many other places to count. Alas, I seem to have forgotten all but the most basic Polish, but another task will soon come to me before this academic year is out, one that will require me to re-learn a lot of it!

Through the study of a lot of my languages, I’ve had to re-evaluate some of them both down and up in the past month (The Celtic Languages I was a lot weaker in than I thought, and  the Finnic languages were stronger).

In the past month, I also made the difficult decision to drop Greenlandic from my repertoire for the time being, although it is truly impossible to forget a language entirely. Given how much I have already devoted to Greenlandic already, it seems that this is merely a pause.

But I also remember that Icelandic and Danish I first struggled with a lot at first, and then, upon becoming more hearty a “language hacker”, I wasn’t nearly intimidated by them.

The past few weeks have been replete with virtually non-stop study, putting my work for my game and even my MA final examination on hold (I was told by my MA examiners that I should use my language abilities in my reading list, but there is only so much you can do with a something like Icelandic in a final exam about Jewish History).

I do not say this lightly: there were also times in which I was absolutely frozen and unable to continue with studying, perhaps worried that, despite the endless hours I had thrown into lots of languages, that I somehow “wasn’t good enough”.

But above all, language learning is not a contest. Not particularly a sport, either. It isn’t an issue of who speaks language X the best being the winner, it isn’t about who speaks the most languages being the winner, it is a process of exploration, in the same way that hiking really isn’t a competitive sport.

To make this point, my biggest shame in my language learning experience, followed by my biggest mirth.

Heidelberg, Germany. February 2014. I was asked to give a “Referat” (something like a class presentation / teaching the class for one day). Obviously, the class was held in German, but I remember using so much Yiddish, Hebrew and English in between (the topic was Jewish studies) that one of the co-teachers actually shook her head in despair, wondering how a “stupid American” ever made it into this program to begin with.

That semester was actually quite replete with similar incidents like that, my journey through the German language, more than that of any other, being one of “tripping and falling”. The fact that I had Yiddish and Scandinavian languages under my belt at that point didn’t help much—I thought that my truest attempts at “High German” would always be tainted.

But as it turns out, in the last few months (June – July) my fears evaporated. Sometimes I still think of that semester and cringe. But I suppose I would cringe even more had I chosen to try even less than I did.

Now the biggest pride:

April 2015, Ben-Gurion Airport. On the way back from Israel, visiting my family members, with my Anglophone parents on the way back to the U.S. Given as I am the spokesman, the security staff, without my knowledge, puts me in the line for people who have Israeli passports (he mistook me for one of his own, and Israelis have possibly the most refined American-radars on the planet, blame Birthright).

Upon reaching the security staff at the end of the line, we were told that we should be in the line for foreign passports and that we had no business being in that line whatsoever.

And then of course there is the honorable mention of passing as a local in a place rumored by some to be the hardest to get the locals to speak to you in the local language.

Well, whatever becomes of this conference, it will definitely be fun, no doubt!

Looking forward to meeting my fellow hikers,

Jared

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Polyglot Report Card, March 2015 Edition, and Diagnoses (Part 2)

(You can read the first part of this post here)

Now we get to those languages in which my control of them is either slipping or weak.

Irish…I got a phrasebook back in October or so. I’ve been mostly relying on software aids, especially given as Irish pronunciation is THE hardest I have ever encountered (although it, like all others, can be adjusted to). Faroese and Danish are honorable mentions for second place…with Swedish slightly behind…Finnish being the easiest overall…

Okay, what do I need to do? I need to expose myself to real Irish. A LOT more. Given as my DuoLingo Tree for Irish is now complete, this is exactly what I need to continue. Especially with St. Patrick’s Day having come, I did have the opportunity to practice (including my first conversation! A very short one, though, but still…)

Overall, I feel that I am a few steps away from near-complete conversational fluency. But with poor time management and/or stress related to other tasks, this could be complicated further.

Cornish. I’m losing interest in it, and might drop it out for another. Finnish is in a similar place.

French, Italian, and Russian are in a limbo, because I have been devoting a lot more time to languages that I’ve been getting stronger in, these have not been receiving due time…I feel that I should rehearse French grammar with software aids, and for Italian and Russian all I need are…you guessed it…animated cartoons!

I feel moderately confident about Inuktitut. I have been learning a LOT of words but NOT a lot of real-life exposure. Thankfully, that can change, as typing “isuma.tv” into your browser will get you a very large collection of Inuktitut television, as well as plenty of other programs as well. Now if only I could include two-hour movies into my routine.

Then there are other mystery languages that I have been playing with, none too seriously. The day when I really get into these is when I’ll be writing posts about them.

Above all, I could draw the following patterns from this post and the previous one:

  • Maintain your strong languages with exposure, especially online media, unless you’ve soaked it up enough so that you feel completely full…
  • If you have a good grammatical control of a weak language, immersion!
  • If you have a weak grammatical control of a weak language, you should really be reading books and studying some more, as well as using relevant software.

Again, when I feel too overwhelmed by my time schedule that I’ll need to let go of a language, I’ll have to do it. But paradoxically, if I have the desire to learn a language, even for the stupidest of reasons, I should proceed.

If you have that desire, I highly recommend you follow suit…

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It Would Have Been Enough for Me

A listening to Cornish Radio in the afternoon of St. Piran’s Day, it seems that, sadly, I have not reached my goal of being able to understand everything well.

That said, I did get somewhere…and somewhere is always better than nowhere. While I usually cannot understand the very fine content on the Radio / Cornish Wikipedia / Translations / etc., I can always make out a very general idea. That isn’t nothing. And had I not set the goal for today, then it wouldn’t have happened at all.

I know where I went wrong, and that wasn’t because my phrasebook got delayed for a long time. It was because I began the project with such extraordinary intensity and then, the passion faded. And by that time, I wasn’t really up to fully continuing with the project. Nor do I really know if Cornish is going to be a language that I will want to learn to fluency…we’ll see…

I could have very well blamed homework. The Jewish Holiday of Purim was also on the same day as St. Piran’s Day (St. Purim’s Day?), and obviously I was celebrating…and I could have blamed that, too. But the fact remains, that I know that I did something wrong, and that was start with too much energy. And when that energy was lost, I wasn’t motivated to reach my goal. Because I knew that, aside from this post, there wouldn’t be any real consequences (e.g. a bad grade).

It isn’t possible to win all of the time.

But it is helpful to keep in mind this idea (that I saw on a postcard in the Columbia bookstore) to shoot for the moon, for even if you will miss, you will land among the stars. And some of something is always better than nothing of something.

And here comes another goal, let’s see if I can learn from the last time:

17 March. St. Patrick’s Day. Can I become conversational in Irish before then? And, better yet, could I find some avenue to speak it on that day, somewhere in this fine city?

eire

We’ll see…but for now, I’d like to wish Cornwall and all that is affiliated with it a Gool Peren Lowen! And my Jewish friends (and myself) a Khag Purim Sameach! (חג פורים שמח!)

Mixed-Up Polyglot-Ville

Not all news in my language endeavors is good. Last night at the Polyglot Bar I felt as though I deliberately dealt a sub-par performance.

How? Well, for one, I caught myself mixing up Spanish and Portuguese, and in Portuguese I kept switching between the European and the Brazilian varieties without able to distinguish them well.

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Up until my New York City residence time, I only used various Portuguese’s with native speakers (e.g. the guy who lived in my building in Heidelberg who had a Portuguese flag visible through the window, Brazilian friends, and so on). Now that I am dealing with students, I should probably keep in mind to use the Brazilian accent only, but sometimes slip-ups happen. And it is a lot easier to mix up the two Portuguese’s than it is to mix up Spanish and any variety of Portuguese.

My Dutch attempts were better, but I still felt as though I was sometimes grasping for simple words. And between German and Yiddish I did something interesting: I used as many words from “Loshn-koydesh” (“the holy language”) as possible with speaking Yiddish, to ensure that not an ounce of Deitschmerish would have a hope of creeping in. But having to juggle them jointly still was an issue.

And this is very odd when I consider the fact that, while I did use some Norwegian and Danish at the Swedish conversation hours in Heidelberg, I didn’t actually mix up the languages. And even if I accidentally did, then it certainly didn’t elicit any reactions from anybody in any direction.

Looking back as to my beginnings with the Scandinavian Language, I remember Ulf, a priest in the church of Sweden, giving us a rundown as to how Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian differ from each other in terms of their pronunciation and register. And this was before I even considered learning any of these. As a result, from the very beginning, I but these in different groups, and my accents between the three are cleanly cut and I have been told this summer that my Scandinavian accents are impressive, especially the Norwegian one.

So, I have a problem:

I mix up Spanish and Portuguese and the West Germanic Languages (German, Yiddish, Dutch, and yes, English)

What am I going to do about it?

Interestingly in JTS’ Yiddish sessions I never mix up Yiddish with German or Dutch (I only created “Holandyiddish” last night)

Maybe I just had a bad night. But I’m not going to use that as a cop-out.

My plan:

I have to create a zone for the various accents, the way that I learned to do with the Scandinavian Languages since the beginning. Back when I first learned Spanish in high school, I didn’t really have any “accent zone”, nor did I even know the concept. Now I know better.

So…this means that I have to consciously speak aloud to myself (or, better yet, with others) and make sure to use a European Spanish accent ONLY. Thanks largely to watching dubbed cartoons, I can be cognizant of the differences between European and Latin Spanish and adjust my speech accordingly.

Now for the Portuguese, it is a bit difficult. I will have to force myself into speaking like a Portuguese person and like a Brazilian, and tease out the zones so far so that there is no overlap. Again, the only way that I am going to manage this is by talking out loud.

I remember how I learned the Danish Stød by practicing it on while crossing the street but also in the shower, getting dressed, etc. I will have to use that time in order to rehearse these accents accordingly. This is a problem that I have, but it is capable of being fixed with discipline.

I also have to develop stronger association with these languages.

I have a confession: when I speak Norwegian, it is only a matter of a few seconds until I think of Max Mekker, the infamous Big Bird equivalent from Sesam Stasjon (Norwegian Sesame Street). Let’s be honest: he probably taught me more Norwegian than anyone else.

max mekker with magic wand (ep. 36)

Because of this, I am not tempted to let Swedish or Danish into the Max Mekker Zone. It just doesn’t work.

Maybe I should watch the Co-Productions from Brazil and from Iberia, then? Worth a shot…

The mixing up of Germanic Languages occurs less and less often, but I think the Romance Language one requires instant address.

Speaking of Romance Languages, I do have some good news:

It took me a while, but I met someone at the Polyglot Bar last night—an American enthused with the Italian Language, and he managed to get me having my first Italian Conversation with my DuoLingo knowledge and occasional feeding of words and told me that my accent and that my word choice was very good!

I’m nowhere near confident, but it gets an upgrade!

Benvenuto, Italiano!

italia

Unfortunately, I might need to knock Portuguese down a notch on my language list until I’m more disciplined. So it isn’t among my best languages anymore (until I get more disciplined, that is).

Estonian is also showing remarkable signs of progress. This is because I have been studying it due to false hopes that Estonians would show up to the Polyglot Bar (lots of people told me that they had friends or acquaintances who spoke it), not also to mention its similarities to Finnish which makes it easier for me.

Anyhow…I’m ending the article here, but I’m raising a toast to my Spanish, Portuguese, and Brazilian accents…and no more mixing up things in Polyglot-ville!