”How Do You Know So Much About Everything?”, or How to Build an Encyclopedic Memory

 

Too often throughout my life have people tried to convince me that somehow my mind was “special” and that I was “gifted”.

Later on in life, it occurred to me that the only thing that really made me different was the fact that I “tripped” on some successful formulae on how to memorize things and that I applied them with consistency.

If you’ve had a conversation with me in real life, you’ll definitely know that I am an experience collector that draws in a lot of different histories and cultural experiences from throughout the globe and draws them together in ways that are inspiring at best, intimidating at worst.

Today I decided that I’m going to let loose some of my secret as to how I developed the memory and how you can develop an encyclopedic knowledge of anything of your choice!

You already have an encyclopedic knowledge of SOMETHING

That’s one important thing to keep in mind. Even if it is very simple details about your life, your family or your work sphere, there is something that you know very well in detail.

How exactly did you remember it? I’ll give you some clues.

For one, you associated the various facts and faces and stimuli used for recognition with multiple elements. Some of them were:

  • Feelings
  • Incidents associated with certain feelings (e.g. funny stories, awkward stories)
  • Places (we’ll get to the memory palace in a bit, which is probably the world’s most tested-and-true memory technique)
  • Your senses (you may associate smells or sounds or melodies with them)

Another thing you also did in order to remember these details about your life is the fact that your brain has been convinced (and rightly so) that learning these details is actually essential to your survival. (If you can trick your brain that learning something is essential to your survival, your brain is going to learn it whether you like it or not. Humans are the most successful species this planet has ever seen and your brain is, by extension, served as the key to that success. Trust it).

In places like Germany and Myanmar where I could not always rely on people speaking English or other languages I knew, my brain kicked into second-gear when I needed to learn phrases of the local language, especially ones that would be useful in emergency situations. Even in places like Sweden and Iceland knowledge of the local language could be a survival advantage and …

(I was writing this in Grand Central Station and a fire alarm went off. Despite the fact that the announcement was in English I literally couldn’t understand a single word. Serves to show you that sometimes even “your language” can be completely unintelligible to you and you don’t give it a second thought or become insecure about it!)

Where was I?

Oh, yeah…

I was having a conversation about multilingualism at (one of) my rabbi’s classes last night. Interestingly I said that a lot of people memorize other things with great success (e.g. names of sports teams and what years they won, names of Pokémon, video games, video game levels, TV shows, episodes and seasons, books you’ve read, names of your teachers throughout your life, etc.) One reason for that is that they associate it with places, feelings and stimuli.

Take the example of sports games. I’ve lived with a lot of students from Spain when I was in Poland (to whom I owe the fact that I talk Spanish like an Iberian). They went to sports bars very frequently and no doubt they associate each game with a different place and a different set of emotions, not also to mention the sort of things that their friends or other company said or did during the game or afterwards. In so doing, they have an advantage in memorizing a “timeline” in their head given that they associate each incident with stimuli that serve to enforce the memory.

Or take video games. I can literally draw of map of the Kanto Region (from the original Pokémon games) from memory. I can tell you where in Kanto to find any of the individual species in the Red Version (I started with a Bulbasaur, for those curious). I can even hum the music from any of the routes or the cities (although this is probably due to my musical memory in general, which is something I may write about another time). What’s more, I KNOW I am not the only person who can do that.

I associated each place not only with the melody but also the type of Pokémon that were found there, in addition to places in real life where I was when I beat certain gym leaders in the game. (I beat Brock in Hamden, Connecticut outside of a place called Wentworth’s Ice Cream store, for example).

Now how exactly can you apply this to ACADEMIC knowledge?

For one, since I was very young, I associate particular places with other stimuli (they were usually visual or musical). I also associate places with individual customs or landmarks. Flags, obviously, became a big help as well.

This was something that I may have picked up later in in my childhood from edutainment games. Take, for example, the 1990’s versions of “Where in the World in Carmen Sandiego?” (I’ll have you know that they depicted some places I’ve been to in real life, including Yafo in Israel, Gamla Stan in Stockholm, and the Old Town in Heidelberg with not a hint of inaccuracy in the SLIGHTEST. Okay, they probably copied the details from panoramic photos, but whatever). In the games, you not only associate the places with hints that the characters give to you but also the landscapes and the musical pieces that echo the “mood” of whatever place you’re in. (Yafo is going to be very different from San Francisco, and Mount Kilimanjaro is going to be very different from either of those).

The places no longer became lists of places I’ve never heard of, they became places of living people, real places and a culture that I tasted, to whatever small a degree, with the game’s soundtrack (I would say that Israel, Iran, Iceland, Zaire (as it was called then), France and Germany probably have the most memorable musical pieces in that game).

Or let’s take verb conjugations, for example.

For Finnish, I associated them with particular sentences that I heard in songs and spoken by characters in dubs of animated movies or cartoons. In so doing, the grammatical “pains” of Finnish (such as conjugations of verbs, conjugations of the “no” verb [in Finnish, “no” is a verb and you have to conjugate it and pair it with the stem of another verb afterwards], or the relative pronouns [don’t get me started on these!]) weren’t so painful anymore.

In Hungarian, I’m doing something slightly different, in which I’m associating them with sentences from my Anki deck, all of which seem to tell a story by themselves (okay, let’s open up the deck right now and see what I get. Okay…the sentence is … “apám jól van, mint mindig” [Father is well, as usual]. Doesn’t that sentence tell a story by itself? Doesn’t it cause some emotion of sorts to stir up in your heart? When you hear the sentence, you may associate it with a particular “taste” captured in the sentence. Remember that.) No doubt I’m going to head onto what I did with Finnish-dubbed cartoons as well, probably later on down the line…

Here’s probably another point you need to take away: just reading stuff off a page over and over again is NOT LIKELY TO WORK. You have to pay attention to how each element you’re supposed to be memorizing makes you feel.

What words in it resemble things or words in other languages you already know? What sort of story is the word telling? (In many Germanic languages [Yiddish, German, mainland Scandinavian] you “over-set” something to translate it, but in Finnish and Tok Pisin you “turn” it).

Are you learning it with a friend or eating something you really like (or really don’t like) while you’re learning it?

Did a native speaker correct your pronunciation and did you feel embarrassed? Did a native speaker compliment you and make you feel good about it?

These emotional turns are going to cause your memory to go into Jedi mode, which is why immersion in another country (or another area of the country or the city that you’re living in that you haven’t explored), which is very likely to create emotions of all sorts, is such a good idea, regardless of whether you’re a beginner (like I was with Burmese in Myanmar back in May), on the intermediate plateau (like where I sort of am with Greenlandic right now concerning my Greenland mission in October) or fluent (like with Danish in Greenland).

You can also use music to create emotions as well, which is why learning from a song (and a song text) is a fantastic idea as well, even though it may not assist you in conversation at the absolute beginner stage (although no doubt it will help you up your vocabulary count in the intermediate stage and beyond!)

In summary:

  • To develop an encyclopedic memory, know that it is possible. You already have a very good knowledge of at least something, no matter who you are.
  • Associate what you want to learn with “hooks”. They can be anything that evokes an emotion or a visual that may assist with it. Pay attention to what “connections” you can make between what you want to learn and what you already know. Your knowledge base is like a Lego Castle and the more you build on it the more opportunities you’ll have to link things.
  • Use hooks of all sorts.
  • If something’s not sticking, feel free to expose yourself to it multiple times and your brain may come up with a hook eventually. If not, you can stare at the what you want to learn (e.g. a word, a conjugation) and make something silly so that you remember it.
  • Associate pictures or other sentences or tunes with what sort of words you want to learn.
  • Most importantly, realize that ALL humans are capable of this, and you don’t need a “certain type of brain” in order to get an encyclopedic knowledge of things. Just keep working on the hooks and you’ll get asked what I get very frequently in no time. “How on earth to you manage to KEEP SO MUCH STUFF in your BRAIN?!!?”

 

Happy hooking!

20140928_074028

Advertisements

My Unpopular Opinions

Everyone who ventures into the world of growth makes an effort to take on a way of thinking that most people don’t have.

Choosing to be somewhat edgier than normal, I decided to write this piece to explain what sort of mindset led me to become a legend in my own sphere and, increasingly, on an international scale.

To become successful in any fashion, much less become revered captain of industry, a certain narcissism and ruthlessness is required.

Which each passing day I feel that my dark side is somehow strengthening, but along with it, a desire to assist people bring their dreams to reality, live fulfilling lives, and build bridges and help cultures understand each other.

It’s odd, because throughout my life I’ve been taught that “being a nice person” is the most important thing. In my understanding, being nice and courteous is what’s EXPECTED  of you, it isn’t a bonus or a skill and should not be treated as such.

The most important thing, in my life, is do anything it takes to fix the world or protect it from bad futures. In Jewish understanding this is the idea of “Tikkun Olam” (World Reperation), which oddly enough was a phrase that I literally DID NOT HEAR until I enrolled at Wesleyan University, despite several years in an Orthodox Jewish background (although a lot of my Orthodox friends, and rightly so, do value Tikkun Olam with great pride…and not just Rabbis, mind you!).

Here are some opinions of mine that you may not share, but I’m okay with that…

 

  1. The online polyglot community seriously needs to consider expanding languages learned.

 

Too often is the same set of ten languages bounced around over and over and over again.

Too many people on the online polyglot community consider the question of “usefulness” rather than asking themselves what they really want.

Too many seek outsider approval or, even worse, ask their friends what sort of languages they should be learning. (Don’t do that! Ask yourself that question instead! And I think I’ve written that on this blog before, methinks…)

Truth be told, with few exceptions, just learning popular languages without any deep motivation dominates a lot of the Facebook groups.

Again, it’s one thing to learn a language because of a genuine connection, but a lot of people just do it “to get ahead” or “out of civic duty” or are more focused on the results they read about in that Business Insider article rather than the process of getting to know a culture (which is as in-depth a process as getting to know a person).

One time I actually met someone who was a well-known figure in the language-learning industry and s/he almost reacted to my knowledge of languages like Greenlandic and Tok Pisin, not also to mention the fact that I was working on Gilbertese in my YouTube series, with confusion bordering on hatred!

Obviously among the best-known polyglots in the world, this almost never happens. Among my deepest friends, this doesn’t happen.

It pains me to see how Fluent in 3 Months, formerly a source of inspiration that I would visit in tears whenever I was worried that I would never learn Swedish or Hebrew well enough to be good enough to talk to anyone, has turned into a predictable array of articles that just show off a handful of the world’s most powerful languages in favor of showing the true diversity of the human spirit. It’s shameful.

I don’t encounter innovation among most polyglot communities, I just encounter the predictable and the dull, and that could change if only people were REALLY willing to do something different. Source: I became world-famous all over Palau and Greenland because I thought different.

Mostly I’m talking about Facebook communities rather than blogs and websites (and certainly not those blogs and websites belonging to friends of mine who have not only provided me inspiration but also a platform!)

 

 

  1. Most people will end up sacrificing their true potential for conformity or comfort

 

Do you really want to become a legend? Do you really want to become someone who the world and your family will be very proud of indeed?

You have to make sacrifices and think differently. It is an essential law of the universe that states that conformists never win. EVER. They never have, nor will they ever go on to do so, anywhere, for all of human history.

But which would most people rather pick? A safe group identity, or a life of shaking things up and being remembered and revered for it?

Most people are not willing to make that sacrifice. A lot of people will be unduly attached to their entertainment, to their predictable jobs, and choosing to slog away at routine rather than asking themselves “what can I do to make myself the very best?”

Granted a lot of this may come from limiting beliefs, and if you have them, throw them away without any second thoughts. The people who want to discourage you are always wrong (even if it is I myself that is discouraging you from anything, however implicitly. Don’t be discouraged!)

But I’ve seen this throughout my life. Given the choice between making valuable connections and investing in self-improvement and putting your all and living a quieter life…it’s clear which one most people want. But at the end of their life, I’ll guarantee you that all of those who chose the quieter path will regret it. Very, very deeply.

And this leads to a point that a lot of people don’t actually want to believe but I’m very convinced of. And that is…

  1. Most people don’t actually want success in their lives

From my preschool years I noticed that I was surrounded by people (even adults) who often would cut off their best versions of themselves with limiting beliefs. “I can’t”, “no, I don’t have the talent for that”. “I’m smart, you’re not, you can do these things, I can’t. You know that”.

The limiting belief is actually an evolutionary mechanism. Believe me, getting the wisdom and going through the process of learning all of these languages and learning more about it year after year is…painful. You find yourself surrounded by people who seem to talk about nothing, who don’t care about the world and are anything put the explorer types to whom our future and present as a species is indebted!

Plainly put, fame is painful. Talent is painful. You’ll have the weight of many people trying to drag you down. And the higher you are, the more of them you’ll get. No wonder a lot of people choose a life of non-adventure!

They might SAY they want to be successful, but aren’t willing to undertake the personal sacrifices and become the variety of character to whom success shows itself.

 

  1. If you don’t like me, you are the problem, not I

My good friends are among the smartest and well-spoken people I can imagine, ones who strive for justice, ones who are endlessly eloquent, those who think differently, bring light into the world, build bridges, build ropes to help others climb up, and ones that bring hope into the world.

I surround myself with these people and I actively seek them out. I want to learn from them and ask them for advice, share life experiences and ponder the world together, finding the newest ways in which heroism is required in the world.

And then there come times in which I attempt to start conversations with people, inquire about their journeys, their passions and how they feel great and heroic in THEIR own life…what sort of small (or big) victories they have achieved…

And sometimes the conversation gets actively shut down, sometimes they’ll choose to walk away or otherwise ignore me and give me short answers. Or worse, be explicitly mean to me, insult me based on my nationality or my job or my choices (although this has almost never happened in recent memory…)

I know where I stand in this world, and it is with the healers, the makers, and the heroes. I think as many people deserve to be in such company as possible! I think YOU deserve all the success that your deepest self dreams about, and has dreamt about for years!

If you somehow try to shut me out of your life, it is clear where you stand. You are the problem, I am not (although I know that I am very far from perfect, as are we all).

Lastly…

 

  1. Most people have a visceral hatred towards the type of people who avoid the dustbin of history.

 

Any successful person knows this. A lot of name-calling, shunning and cruelty awaits for those who think differently.

Most people not only don’t want success, they don’t really like types associated with personality traits that are associated with it.

Often I find in the world that there is a conception that smart people or project-starters or entrepreneurs or those who have acquired great talent are somehow “making up” for something, so as to turn the very idea that these people help our species and our world get ahead is actually a flaw.

A lot of people are going to take the predictable paths in life with low-risks and many of them are going to make the non-conformists and the “movers and the shakers” feel bad.

But that’s only to try to prevent them from getting ahead during the one time that they have the advantage.

Because you, O dreamer, are going to head into a legacy that will make you, your country, your family, your ancestors, your progeny and everyone who even met you once extraordinarily proud!

And then it will be worth every pain, every doubt, every calamity that you incurred along the way.

 

SOME CONCLUDING THOUGHTS:

 

I understand if you disagree with me or even want to try to dissuade me. I am gladly open to any discussion of anything that I’ve given here. What’s more, I want absolutely none of you to construe any of this as a personal attack.

Yes, I know I can be harsh at times, but the trying times of humanity right now call me to be more indignant then I ever have been. I’m not wasting the one chance of life that I get, and I know you won’t either!

come back when you can put up a fight

Is Studying from Grammar Tables Helpful?

Back when I was studying Classical Greek in college, I thought that I would just look at the tables for a long time and that I would somehow internalize them that way.

I was regularly struggling a lot in classical languages (although I did end up graduating with a degree in classics) and this was in part because I had no idea how to study.

Spaced Repetition, memory devices and, of course, the app zoo were completely unknown to me (and in case of the apps, not invented yet).

One degree, many struggles and a lot of shame, as well as many “I hope I’ve gained wisdom from this experience” ‘s later, I found myself learning Finnish. It is a language that… surprisingly isn’t as complicated as classical Greek in terms of its grammatical structure!

Granted, I understand very well that learning an ancient language (note that I do NOT say “dead”)  and learning a living language are two very different things. For one, I need active knowledge of Finnish in order to have a definitive mastery of it, I need to write it in and understand it when it is spoken by native speakers (also, for those unaware, Finnish is the slowest language I’ve ever encountered, especially in news reports. Keep in mind that it is still faster when spoken by native speakers than any language spoken by non-native speakers, however well [e.g. Creole Languages or English as an L2]).

None of that is required in an ancient language (although it may surprise some of you to know that a Modern Latin actually EXISTS and IS SPOKEN!)

So, now to answer the question you’ve come here for…how should grammar tables be used?

Within the past few years, there are a handful of languages that I’ve been using grammar tables for:

  • Icelandic
  • Cornish
  • Breton

And, interestingly, in Irish and Finnish I didn’t really use them that much.

However, I do use some of them in my classes when I teach languages

Allow me to explain:

When using a table, you should recite everything in it OUT LOUD and, if possible, use it with a simple sentence. In a language like Hebrew I would usually ask my students to say “I have a fish” and “I don’t have a fish” (Hebrew has no verb “to have” or indefinite articles, so what they actually say is “there-is to-me fish”, “there-is to-you fish”, and so on).

You can do this with verbs that conjugate (all Indo-European languages), prepositions with personal endings (like in Irish or Hebrew), adjectives that adjust themselves for gender (as in the case in Hebrew or Spanish)  or declensions (Slavic languages, Icelandic and Faroese, the Finno-Ugric Languages).

However, looking back to my journey in Breton, I remember stupidly reciting a lot of the tables over and over again and hoping it would stick. And it usually didn’t ,except for the most basic sentences (like “I am Jared”).

However, now I can have conversations in Breton without any major issues, so how did I get there?

For one, did the following, AFTER having recited the tables (but not memorized them):

 

  • Used them in small sentences of my own creation (e.g. I am Jewish. Are you American?)
  • Learned a bunch of sentences that I might need (e.g. I’ll have a crepe, please). I got these sentences primarily from my Colloquial Breton book, my Kauderwelsch Breton book, and Clozemaster (not also to mention too many other websites to list). To remember these sentences, I associated them with imaginary places, emotions or situations. (A sentence like “I have a boyfriend!” is very likely to conjure mental images of an emotion AND a situation regardless of who you are)
  • After having poked around sentences that use these constructions, I returned to the table to fill in my gaps, and repeated the process.

 

That’s one way to do it.

Another way I managed it with a language like Faroese (before I forgot almost all of it) was that I not only did what I did above, but I also used immersion, listening to Faroese music regularly during my commutes, walking around, cleaning, etc. In so doing, I unconsciously picked up patterns as to what prepositions used what case. I developed, like native speakers of these languages, a sense of what “felt right”.

Even if you’re a memory master, you may not pick up the true sense of how to equip yourself with your declensions / conjugations / grammar immediately. You may come to recognize it, but like with any new tool, you’ll have to fiddle with it a while, try out new things, look at people using it on the internet, and be willing to experiment and even mess up more than a few times.

Sentences are also very helpful, in programs like Anki or Clozemaster or the Tatoeba Sentence Database, or even reading them out loud from phrasebooks or UniLang courses (these may be helpful with a translation into a language you understand as well!). In so doing, you’ll be able to note general patterns between them, and after five to sixteen exposures to a common word, you’ll find it fixed into your long-term memory.

The same is also true of various declensions as well. Now, there comes the case with irregular declensions and irregular verbs, and so you want to return to the tables and the grammar guides after you’ve made some satisfactory progress with your language and you want to fill in more gaps.

In so doing, you’ll soon put everything in the tables in your long-term memory before you know it!

And in some language, you may actually get exposed to irregular verbs via immersion on a regular basis (Spanish and the Scandinavian Languages did this for me), and you may come to associate particular sentences or song lyrics with an irregular verb form that may be useful to you!

So, to answer the questions, are tables useful?

 

Yes, but don’t cram your way into knowing them. You have to use them in tandem with the way the language is used in real life (in any form) in order to truly let them become a part of your understanding of that language.

I didn’t look at the Breton verb conjugations or the Icelandic declensions once and then memorized them forever. I didn’t do that with any language. Instead, I put it together in my understanding, piece by piece, by using the language in a genuine manner, actively and passively.

Yes, chanting verb tables can help, I know it did for Spanish (which I still remember) and Latin (which I don’t), but above all it is you that has to assemble the puzzle of your dream language together with using every tool you have—the book itself isn’t going to cut it, although it will help.

Happy learning!

IMG_4725

How to Choose Your Next Language: The Only Post You’ll Ever Need

The advice that I put in this article is literally found nowhere else and if you’ve come here for a list of eight languages you should consider studying, you’re not going to get that.

Too many people have asked exactly what sort of process I use in order to pick what language goes “next on my list” or which ones I’d like to learn manageably well (Breton) vs. professionally fluent (Danish).

Too many people embark on a language-learning journey and just say “I want to be fluent. Period.” But it requires more thought than this. (Learning English for communicating with customers vs. learning English for law school are going to be too very different things. And besides, not all of a language’s “realms” have been fully explored by native speakers. Far from it, in fact!)

The fluency that people like this probably have in mind is when the various “realms” of their target language pertaining to their life are filled up.

If you think I need to talk about music theory in Tok Pisin or Finnish, think again. While I do know that vocabulary in my native language, I barely use it. I could manage it if I want (although keep in mind, some languages don’t have all of these “realms” filled in, Estonian in particular prides itself in being the smallest language in the world with a very comprehensive scientific vocabulary!).

Anyhow, language choice.

 

Reasons that I would disregard when choosing a language

Too many people pick languages based on “how many native speakers it has”.

This is not a helpful metric, for a number of reasons.

For one, the one thing you should NEVER do with your life is entrust the choices in your life to other people. E-ver!

Obviously earlier in your life it may have been necessary but if you’re independent in any capacity I highly recommend anything that even contains a whiff of letting other people choose your destiny.

There are those that choose languages like Spanish and Chinese because they have a resonance with their friends from places where they are spoken. They have become attached to the music and to the literatures and the many cultural mentalities contained in such a place.

There are others that choose these languages because of cultural misunderstandings—perhaps they think that a fear of Mexico or China is just too much to bear in the United States and learning these languages will help serve as a protection against such a fear.

There are others still that encounter speakers of these languages with great regularity.

But choosing a language based on an abstract concept of “lots of people speak it” and very little else is pointless and ill-defined.

People who learn Spanish or French for reasons like this and little else barely get past the intermediate stage, don’t have the cultural resonance required for genuine fluency, and probably continue their learning for ill-defined “monetary benefits” or “understanding people” when just sticking to learning material aimed at foreigners year after year, being surpassed in progress by people who learned the language out of a genuine love for the culture and way of thinking.

(You CANNOT become fluent with just language-learning materials! You NEED material intended for native or fluent speakers!)

And never, ever, EVER ask ANYONE “what language should I learn next?”

Ask YOURSELF that question instead!

I’m sorry if my word choice is too harsh, but I’ve decided that in the coming year, I’m going to be a lot more uncensored in my opinions. It’s good for clickbait, after all!

Also peer pressure is not a good reason in the SLIGHTEST. Not for language, not for anything. “No French? No Turkish? No Chinese?” Got this year after year after year.

And the only thing that really got me interested in the French language to begin with wasn’t even France, it was West Africa and the Pacific Islands!

You are the boss of your life. Disregard the rest of people who want to pressure you or make you feel bad. Make decisions that you really want from the heart, and you’ll be a legend. Let other people make your choices, and you’ll end up burned out and full of regret. End of story.

Okay Jared, so HOW should I choose my language instead?

Step 1: Look at one of the following things:

 

  • A map of the world
  • The language index at omniglot.com
  • The register of flag emojis in your smartphone keyboard (if you have one)
  • A very vast collection of language-learning books
  • The travel section in a bookstore or library.

 

Feel free to use a combination of these elements.

What places or languages in that list stick out to you?

Which ones might you have been dreaming of seeing or knowing more about since you were a kid?

When the language is written on a page, does it feel like something you ABSOLUTELY must have in your life?

When you read about the language or the country where the language is spoken or visit online forums about the language or communities associated with it, do you feel a sense of wishing that you were a part of that? Do you feel a sense of wishing that you would like to communicate with these people and understand this culture?

When you listen to music sung in this language, how does it make you feel? Would you like more music of that sort in your life or not?

Also, another metric to consider using is to look at your own heritage.

What language(s) did your ancestors speak? Do you have relatives that speak it or otherwise are (or were) capable of understanding it? You’ll have the motivation to learn such languages because, whether you like it or not, they are a part of who you are.

I got very much attached to languages like Yiddish and Swedish precisely for this reason, and it seems that it will be that way with Hungarian, too.

It’s Okay to Learn a Language for Silly Reasons, Too

Sometimes a language jumps out at you and you don’t know why. Maybe it sounds cool. Maybe you like the writing system. Maybe you read something funny about the way the language is spoken (“Danish sounds like seal talk”) or written (“Greenlandic looks like a kid banging on a typewriter”)

You’re probably wondering, “Jared, did you just write that it wasn’t a good idea to choose a language based on number of speakers, but it is okay to choose a language because it ‘sounds cools’?”

Precisely.

Here’s the reason why.

When choosing to invest in a hobby or buying a product, it is primarily an emotional decision. Logical decisions can be used some of the time, but if you want a lasting attachment to your investment, choose something based on your emotions rather than what other people think might be good for you.

My choice to have learned Greenlandic was not a logical decision in the slightest. My choice to have taken the book out from the library, photographed the language section in the back, and put it on Memrise was all purely from an emotional standpoint.

Where exactly did it land me?

Well, I became attached to Greenlandic because I liked how it looked on paper and how it sounded. I also had a fascination with Greenland since my childhood.

Several years later, I’m going to Greenland to meet with some of the country’s biggest names in the arts and I’m developing a video game set in Nuuk. I was also interviewed by Greenlandic National Radio in December 2016!

This was all because I had an emotional attachment to my project.

And you need a project that you, similarly, are emotionally attached to.

The choice of language has to be YOURS.

It has to be one that you long for deeply, that you can think about with a smile and talk about with friends and show you true devotion to the culture and literature and idioms and everything that language is.

It can be any language in the world! It doesn’t matter if it is a global language or a small national language or a minority language or an endangered language or even an ancient tongue that is used only in writing.

You have to choose it because you genuinely love it!

Love conquers all, and this is doubly true for language learning.

many languages

This building from Antwerp has been featured in WAY too many foreign-language learning posts. I think I may be the one that started the trend! 

Do You Need the Presence of Native Speakers in Your Life to Learn a Language?

I should definitely begin by saying two things:

  • The presence of native speakers in your target language can only do good things, except if they are monumentally discouraging you to learn their language (which almost all of them are not).
  • You absolutely DO need to hear native speaker VOICES in order to learn a language, what this article is about is whether you actually need human beings.

I considered not writing this article, but given that there are so many people that rule out languages they want to learn because they worry they won’t encounter native speakers anywhere, I thought this needed to be written.

In a significant amount of the languages that I speak fluently, I have never conversed with a native speaker of the language. Let’s count them:

 

Languages on my list (not all of them good) that I HAVE used with Native Speakers:

 

English, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Yiddish, Hebrew, Finnish, German, Spanish, Breton(!), Irish, Icelandic, Greenlandic (phone conversations only), Polish, French, Welsh, Ukrainian, Russian, Northern Sami (!!!!), Myanmar / Burmese, Tajik, Slovak, Vietnamese, Gujarati, Tamil

 

Languages on my list (not all of them good) that I have NOT used with native speakers:

 

Pijin, Bislama, Cornish (okay, that one time with the guy who spoke a few words, but he wasn’t a native), Scottish Gaelic (okay, same situation as Cornish, but he spoke more than a few words), Guarani, Tahitian, Mossi (although I met a possible native speaker once but before I knew this language existed), Tongan, Rapa Nui, Palauan, Kiribati / Gilbertese, Bileez Kriol

 

Languages on my list (not all of them good) that I have used with other speakers of the language, but NOT natives:

 

Tok Pisin, Faroese, Lao, Trinidadian Creole (second-generation people with roots in various Caribbean nations, this situation is unbearably complicated!)

 

And this list becomes even more iffy when you take into account that, in some areas, it matters that you are a FLUENT speaker rather than a native. This is especially the case for Creole Languages, that function as mini-Global Languages in the areas that they are spoken (which explains why in places like Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin is more widely spoken than Standard English. This is true wherever Creoles are spoken, in my understanding).

To write for Finnish Wikipedia, it is pretty much required that you be a native speaker or have your work edited by one (same for English or many other languages, actually). However, for Tok Pisin Wikipedia, it is just required that you are fluent, you don’t need Tok Pisin to be your native language.

And now to return back to the topic at hand!

You CAN learn a language very well or even to fluency without ever having encountered a native speaker in your target language ever. (I’ve done it several times.)

That said, I should issue warnings and pieces of advice in the event that you’d like to undertake this route. But sometimes this route is necessary. Maybe you really want to learn a language that you just can’t get exposed to except through the Internet. I highly encourage that route, as long as you keep the following in mind:

 

  • Listen Intently to the Way that Native Speakers Talk!

 

You may be able to learn a language without encountering any real-life native speakers, but you WILL have to encounter VIRTUAL native speakers at one point (e.g. your target language spoken on the radio, used in movies or in other forms of online media). To that end, you’ll need to listen intently:

How do the people who speak this language formulate their vowels? How do they deal with syllable stress? How are various consonants (such as r or t or the equivalent) pronounced differently than in languages you already know well? What accents that you recognize resemble the one you are listening to?

The best thing to do is to imitate the voices you hear. In some cases you may have some learner audio. In the event that you don’t, you can almost ALWAYS find samples of the language online (spoken or sung or what-have-you) and imitate that by repeating the syllables one after the other.

You learned your first language with mimicry, and don’t be afraid to learn your 2nd or even your 19th with mimicry as well.

 

  • Practice Conversations with Yourself

 

I can walk into almost any language exchange in the world and find an opportunity to give a stump speech about myself in a language like Spanish. At least where I am, I don’t have that luxury for Bislama or Breton.

So what did I do?

I practiced talking to myself as if I were introducing myself to someone. You can even have a little dialogue in your head, but this is not recommended unless you are under very dire circumstances (e.g. stuck in a job where you cannot talk unless you absolutely must). Write down words that serve as gaps in your vocabulary and look them up later.

To find out if your sentences are correct, compare them to what you can find in your textbooks or online (or, in the case of the rarest languages, Bible translations, which also exist for too many other languages to list, literally everywhere).

Feel free to also bounce off sentences in the language you are learning off of like-minded friends. Ask them to do the same if they are learning…well, any language at all, to be honest.

 

  • Double Your Exposure with Media for Languages that You Don’t Rehearse in Conversation as Often

 

If you want to become conversant in this language, good news: there certainly is a way. But you need to listen to your language even more intently and with increasing frequency.

When I was learning Tok Pisin and Greenlandic in the elementary stages, I acquired a LOT of musical tracks in both languages and had them crowd my SIM-Card. The practice I wasn’t getting at polyglot events was made up for with exposure to the language I had during my commute or just while walking down the street.

You’d be surprised about how much passive vocabulary you can really acquire from this (you’re going to have to look at dictionaries from time-to-time and see how many words are vaguely familiar with the “Oh! I remember hearing that word in a song once!” flavor).

You may not have exposure to native speakers to hone your accent, but you do have recordings, and they can be as equally useful. (And besides, a lot of people don’t really imitate native speakers that well anyway or put a lot of effort into accent development unless they have to. This laziness is just how humanity is most of the time).

 

  • Record Yourself!

 

Absolutely essential. And if you have the courage to put your recordings of you speaking your target language on a video site, all the more power to you. And you can even find Reddit communities where your target language is spoken and they can give you feedback a lot of the time. That’s how I became world-famous all over Palau!

If you can compare your recordings to that of native speakers, either talking or singing, that is even better!

  • If you find close-up videos of native speakers talking, imitate their mouth movements.

 

I don’t think that requires much further explanation.

 

  • Having trouble with a sound you don’t know? Find guides. Or just fake the sound until something like it comes to you.

 

You may want to learn a language with that guttural q or click sounds but don’t know how to pronounce it. Guides will help you, even if you can’t find native speakers who can.

Or another thing you could do is somehow try to find the mouth-movements that closely mimic them. You’d be surprised to learn that you can actually train your mouth to learn new sounds well into your adulthood and for the rest of your life!

I’ve coached singers to sing in Greenlandic and they managed the hardest sounds of the language (q and ll and rr) with great ease once I told them what to do with their mouth. Even if you can’t find a native speaker, you can find a guide somewhere because a lot of these sounds are more common in languages throughout the world than you think (Those sounds I just mentioned in Greenlandic are not unique to the language at all, appearing in dozens if not hundreds of others!)

  • In the Event of a Tonal Language, Rehearse Tones with Ruthless Imitation in the Same Way as (1)

 

People who want to try to say that tonal languages are not suitable for self-study are lying. It may indeed be HARDER, but with enough training your love will conquer all.

The key is to repeat very often. Very, very often. Like a piano piece you have to memorize for a recital. This is essential.

 

Conclusion:

 

Learning a language without any native speakers to talk to in-person is a challenge, but it definitely is possible with discipline. A lot of people say “I need native speakers to talk to and to help me develop my accent”.

That might have been true in earlier days, but nowadays recordings from speakers of your favorite language are more accessible than ever! So the primary issues would be (1) expose yourself to the language very, very often and (2) imitate the language very, very often and (3) record yourself to see how you measure up for native speakers.

And who knows? Maybe you will actually encounter a native speaker of your dream language one day, even if others are telling you that the chances of meeting one are “almost none”!

Don’t believe the haterz. You deserve the life you want!

yerushalayim

How to Perfect your Accent in English

It isn’t often that I find myself writing about my native language! Actually, I think this is literally the FIRST time I’ve ever done that!

I’ve been an English-language tutor for nearly two years now, and one thing I’ve really noticed is that, thanks to my time in Poland at a reception desk (among many other jobs that included “Yiddish translator” and “guy who sings children’s songs for…well…children”), I’ve gained the uncanny ability to actually zone in on people’s English-language errors and peculiarities.

This article isn’t about grammar in the slightest (but if you’re curious I would think that the biggest mistakes made by far would actually be related to sentence structure and article usage [when do I use “a”? when do I use “the”?]).

Instead, I’m going to give you the keys to knowing how to perfect your accent. And English is tricky!

grand central

You, one day, knowing that your English skills are in the top 0.01% of all non-native speakers! 

Some languages, like Finnish or Hebrew, are pronounced the way they are written with mathematical precision!

English, especially the trickier American variety, is anything but that.

Without having to read any of my extended memoirs any more, let’s get into the details.

The most common pronunciation errors made by my students would include:

  • Not using the Schwa sound

American English has a very lazy sound indeed that a lot of languages don’t have. If you are a native speaker of American English, say the word “the” …note that it is a low sound that almost comes from your chin!

Instead, they will pronounce the words “the” and “thee” indentically. You don’t want to do that.

Unfortunately, the rules as to when to use the schwa sound are…well, there are no rules.

Because the schwa can literally be represented by a, e, i, o, u OR y!

Wikipedia, as of the time of writing, gives the following examples: about (first syllable), taken (last syllable), pencil (last syllable), memory (second syllable), supply (first syllable), sibyl (last syllable).

So what you need to do is two things:

  • Master the sound (the wikipedia article on Schwa that I just mentioned has a recording you can use!)
  • Find patterns in the way that it is used by English speakers and imitate them. If you find this hard to do, go to tatoeba.org and find English sentences read out loud by native speakers. In this way, you can learn to imitate a sentence exactly as a native speaker would! (Thanks to Ari in Beijing for this tip!)

 

  • English vowels, especially in “American”, are “Lazy”.

 

When I hear heavily accented English a lot of the time, and this is true for people from all continents, I usually hear a precision in the vowels.

In many types of accented English, the vowels are pronounced with emphasis and are strongly highlighted. You can do this and sound like a native speaker of American English…from the 1940’s, that is.

But contemporary English has a gliding quality to its vowels that almost none of the other languages that I have studied have.

American English uses a “legato” (and for those of you who speak Italian, note how differently an American would say the word versus the way an Italian would say it and you’ll illustrate my point exactly!). The vowels slither from one end of the mouth to the other. The primary focus of that back-and-forth swaying should be the back half of your tongue!

Instead, what many speakers do is that they pronounce the vowels statically. What this means is that the vowels, instead of moving throughout your mouth the way they do in “American”, stay put.

I don’t blame a lot of non-native speakers. Most languages in the world do this.

Those of you who know me in person know that my accent is a mixture of those from the many countries I’ve lived in. I have no problem putting on a flawless American accent, but it takes effort for me, because the lazy sounding of the vowel is something that, looking at it honestly, actually requires effort to execute.

Again, imitation of native speakers will assist you in learning how to do this. Pay attention to the small details of people’s speech (by the way, that’s what I did in my Learn Palauan Video Series that’s still ongoing). That way, you can pick up an accent.

What’s different from the way the native speaker is saying it in comparison to the way you would say it? Pay attention to EVERY. SMALL. DETAIL.

  • Not Pronouncing the R correctly

 

And this is especially  a problem from places like Thailand in which the L and the R sound are almost mixed (I bet you’re probably thinking about politically incorrect accent imitations from cartoons, aren’t you?)

One of my students practiced this sound by imitating my pronunciation of the phrase “rare occurrences”, which many non-native English speakers struggle with.

Your tongue should be curved upwards slightly, or flat, and then retreated. It should sound almost like a lazy dog’s growl (and I think it was a comment on Fluent in 3 Months or something like that that I took it from).

For those of you who speak the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, the phrase 好好 (or “very good” = Hǎohǎo) is actually pronounced something closer to having an “r” sound in the middle of it. That’s how I got native Mandarin speakers from Beijing to pronounce the R sound flawlessly. Surprisingly that r actually resembles the American R to an astonishing degree.

  • Having various pronunciation “ticks” from their native language seep in.

Now this is one that I considered omitting by virtue of the fact that there are some native speakers of English that do this (e.g. some Irish people don’t pronounce the “th” sound, Trinidadian native speakers of Standard English may pronounce the word “ask” as “aks”, etc. And no, this isn’t the time for me to get into a debate about whether or not the English Creoles of the Caribbean are separate languages or not. Post for another time!)

This can take extraordinary training and most people are satisfied with their English accent enough to the degree that they don’t deem it necessary.

Take Sweden, for example, a place with a very high rate of English proficiency. Despite that, you’ll hear people pronounce the “ch” sound like a “sh” sound, or the “j” sound like a “y” sound at times. (“A box of shocolates” … “you yust need to understand…”)

Thanks to my experience with Scandinavian tongues, I speak like that too, at times. (Keep in mind that many Swedish young people will throw in English phrases and sentences even when speaking Swedish among themselves).

You don’t understand the degree to which the things you expose yourself to can affect you. It’s very, very powerful.

These things can be trained away with effort, but given that a lot of people want a “good accent” and not a “they can’t tell the difference between me and an American” accent, a lot of people don’t go this far. But I think that the various English pronunciation ticks of many nationalities are well-documented and you just need to be aware enough to avoid them.

And sometimes speaking exercises and tongue twisters may train things away.

Again, maybe these ticks are actually something that you like (as conversation starters, for example). But I got news for you: you can easily turn such things like that “on” and “off”.

Some examples of these ticks:

  • Swedes, Norwegians, French people pronouncing “ch” as “sh”.
  • Polish and Portuguese speakers overusing nasal vowels in English.
  • Hungarians speaking English with the first-syllable-is-always-stressed rule (English does, as a general rule, do this, but not with the consistency of the Finno-Ugric Languages).
  • Greenlanders pronouncing the “ti” combination as “tsi” rather than “tea” (e.g. “Arctsic Winter Games”)

This is very much a perfectionist point. Which brings me to the one thing that almost ALL English learners struggle with.

  • Keeping the Inventory of Vowels from your Native Language

The most common roadblock for developing a good accent in English!

Your native language may have a set amount of vowels. English is almost certainly very likely to have more.

Often some speakers will just read and speak English using the vowels of their native language, rather than learning in detail the way that the English language uses vowels.

As an English native speaker, I have to be careful about my accent. If I don’t do a good job, I may get answered in English, especially if my accent impedes my understanding.

You, as an English learner, don’t really need to get worried about being answered in your native tongue when you try to speak English, and NOWHERE NEAR with as much consistency. This is especially true in English-speaking countries.

As a result, I’m not surprised by the fact that most people don’t want to hone their accent and only want to make it “borderline understandable”. And this is true even in places that score “very high” on English proficiency tests.

To some degree, I understand this because humans are, generally speaking, lazy creatures.

So what you’ll need to do is learn how to pronounce the vowels in English while successfully shutting out the sounds of your native tongue.

Imagine that you had no knowledge of your other languages in the slightest, and just needed to imitate the sounds based on what you heard, without overlaying the vowel sounds of your native language on it. That’s what you need to be doing.

Simply put: don’t read English vowels the way as if they were the same exact vowels in your native tongue. Use a new system.

 

BONUS: Another thing you could do to help you in English is…learn a little bit of another language!

 

I know, counter-intuitive, right? Especially in places where it is commonly believed “don’t learn too many languages because you can’t master them all. Focus on a handful of them!” (just wait till I and the rest of the polyglots get validated by furthered informational and memory technology! Hoo hah!)

But if you choose to do this, you’ll actually acquire skills from your other language to help you with English and everything that it entails.

You’ll also learn about how to approach learning from a different angle, and what makes English (and the process of learning English) different from whatever other languages you may be learning.

As a hyperpolyglot myself, I’ve honed the many processes of learning and maintaining my many other languages by means of collecting experiences on each journey and sharing them with each other.

This is one well-known fix that very, VERY few people try, but I highly recommend it if you haven’t done it already.

Granted, English may actually be your third, fourth, fifth, etc. language, in which case you just may need a little bit of thought, investigation and a few diary entries in order to see what you could do to fix it.

 

Yes, I have, on a handful of occasions, met non-bilingual folks whom I mistook for Americans because they spoke English so well (and my accent radar is EXTREMELY well-honed).

It. Is. Possible!

That. Person. Could. Be. YOU!

Have fun on the journey!

How to Use the Pokémon Animated Cartoon Series to Learn Languages!

pokemon piste fee

Screenshot from the Finnish-Language Pokémon Website.

Few cartoon series have been localized as widely as the journeys of Ash Ketchum and his many friends. In addition to the usual advantages of using TV series to learn languages (patterns and repetition are essential in creating a space for your target language in your brain), the Pokémon Anime also endows a number of unique quirks that are definitely worth mentioning.

If you came here to find a listicle, you’re absolutely right!

 

  • The Cartoons are Available for Free Online 

On The Pokémon Company’s official website, as of the time of writing, you can access the site in the following languages: English, Spanish (EU), French, Italian, German, Russian, Portuguese (Brazil), Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish. (There is also the Japanese site as well but I can’t really access the site map aside from a Pokémon Go download link as of the time of writing).

You can use the versions of the site in order to access (from anywhere in the world, mind you) not only various episodes of the anime but also various flash games that are completely localized in all of these languages. There are other features on the site as well, and obviously in the bigger languages the site is more complete (with a Pokédex available in some of these languages).

Furthermore, the content and layout of the anime episodes will vary depending on language and sometimes they “rotate”, so when you access the site on different days or weeks you’ll get different episodes.

To access the website in these languages, just type in “pokemon.com/XX”, where XX is one of the letter codes: ES (Spanish), BR (Portuguese), DE (German), FR (French), IT (Italian), RU (Russian), NL (Dutch), SE (Swedish), NO (Norwegian), DK (Danish) and FI (Finnish). Pokemon.com takes you to the English version of the site.

Once you’re on the site, click on the TV icon and have fun! (Or you can fiddle around and browse all the while).

If you are not learning one of those languages, you can also access, via YouTube or other sites, the anime in the following languages (and probably many more, depending on where in the world you are): Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Latin Spanish, Portuguese (EU), Czech and Romanian. (If I missed any, let me know in the comments. I know that the anime is sometimes localized into languages such as Greek, Hebrew, Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese, but I can’t find any depositories of them online, although sometimes the Pokémon movies are available in all of the languages listed on this page with more ease. Sometimes these movies will be available on the websites).

 

  • The Speed of the Dialogue is Perfect for a Beginner-to-Intermediate Learner

 

This was oddly consistent throughout a lot of the localizations of the anime, as well as the English Dub.

What’s also very odd about the speed is that speaking at the speed that many of the characters do in the Pokémon anime is actually completely natural for a native speaker.

While learning Hebrew, Russian and Spanish in high school and college, one extraordinary hurdle I had was that I was addressed in low-speed “Learnerese” a lot of the time. Then thrown into the real world of these languages, I really didn’t know how to speak like anything natural. The same was true with most of the teachers that addressed me as well (although there were noteworthy exceptions).

One thing I really liked about the Pokémon TV show in various languages was that it presented the perfect speed for a learner that was anywhere between beginner and intermediate. It wasn’t too slow, but it also was just the right speed that was suitable for a conversation.

Granted, there are some more challenging parts, primarily the Team Rocket Motto (which is probably the most difficult portion for learners to understand), but above all most of the dialogue should be at a manageable speed for you.

And even if you don’t understand it, the Pokémon anime can still be helpful for a learner because…

 

  • The Pokémon Anime is Rich is Visual Context Clues

 

When Team Rocket talks about their plans to capture Pikachu, often you’ll notice that a significant amount of illustrations and animated visuals accompany their plan. You can actually use this in order to make out what is happening even if you really don’t have a clue what’s being said.

Keep in mind, kids learn their first languages with the aids of cartoons like these, and these visual cues help them…and that means they can also help you!

Another example in which visual cues are also used is when Ash and his friends encounter a landscape or a cityscape or a colony of Pokemon (among many other things). You’ll also notice that every member of Ash’s party often remarks on what is being said. Pay attention to these short phrases. They’ll be extremely useful throughout your language learning journey.

Also, during battles, note that some key words are also repeated at key actions, as well as various words and styles used depending on what emotions the characters are feeling. Anime is very rich in expressing people’s emotions across many different lines, so that should also help.

Speaking of battles…

 

  • In Some Localizations and Seasons, the names of Pokémon and their Techniques will be in English. Use this for accent training.

 

In Japanese, Chinese, Korean, French and German, the Pokémon’s names will be localized. In all other languages they will use the English versions of the Pokémon names, and in the Nordic dubs in the later seasons the techniques will also be recited in English (although the names of the Pokémon types are NEVER localized).

You can use this to your advantage if you really want to train your accent in these languages if you pay attention to the quirks in how these English names and words are pronounced by the voice actors.

If you’re a native English speaker, pay attention to pronunciations that may sound strange to you. Even in the Nordic dubs I’ve caught a handful of complicated Latinate technique names being butchered, although examples escape me.

Interestingly, in comparison to casual speech in many of these languages, the dubs are significantly low on English loan words (the way that German or Dutch in particular tend to use them very often). You may be able to snag one once in a while, even in languages like Portuguese and Russian in which Anglicisms are rarer than in languages like Norwegian.

 

  • The Pokemon Anime Provides a Plethora of Stimuli that Can Serve as Memory Techniques

 

If you hear a phrase or a word you need to remember, you’re going to forget it easily unless you find something to “connect” it with. It could be a funny incident involving the word, it could be a story involving the word, or you could associate it with your environment or feelings at the time.

(This is why learning the language in an immersive environment is so helpful.)

The Anime provides memorable characters in the Pokémon themselves, as well as a host of settings and music tracks that you can connect to the phrases you’re taking in.

And we haven’t even touched on the possibility that you can also connect various words and phrases to plot points in the story. Not also to mention you can do what kids do: re-watch your favorite episodes endlessly (again, this is how kids learn their first language!)

 

  • Various Portions have No Dialogue at all (or Dialogue in Pokémon Speech). Use This Time to Reflect on What Words You’ve Heard and How to Internalize Them.

 

One thing that can be frustrating about watching Pokémon in a language you’re learning is that sometimes the action shifts to having the cute monsters hop around the screen or just looking at landscapes or, true to anime fashion, just having characters look at each other with menacing stares (in addition to many other down-time situations that I haven’t touched on!)

Use this time in order to develop memory techniques to fully internalize any words you’ve learned earlier on in the episode.

Also, if you’re having trouble picking up words, feel free to type something that sounds like it into Google Translate or another dictionary thing. It will usually correct you, especially if it is a phonetic language. Otherwise, if you don’t have a translator, you can use context clues. This is especially helpful if you’ve seen the episode before in a language you understand better.

 

Conclusion

 

One of the most successful animated cartoon shows in history can be used as a learning tool with surprising efficiency, given its ability to weave words with storylines and illustrations. The episodes themselves are perfect for a learner seeking to make his or her way out of the “language learner material ghetto” (as All Japanese All the Time refers to it as).

I should mention that I don’t have a lot of experience using this show with East Asian Languages given that my East Asian Languages that I’m working on ever-so-slightly (Burmese and Lao) don’t have localizations (as far as I know).

So if you’ve had experience doing that, let me know what I missed out on! Part of me thinks it may not all be that different!

 

Happy Watching!