30-Day Lao Speaking Challenge: 10 Days Left + Day Before My Birthday Reflection

 

My birthday is tomorrow! It will be a fantastic day to reflect on what I have accomplished in my life thus far. One thing of note is the fact that with each passing year I seem to accomplish what was unthinkable the previous year. I hope that this coming year of my life continues to amaze me beyond all belief.

I’m not going to remark on my progress or how I’ve changed in 2017. That will have to wait until December. But I thought I’d give a run-down of where I’ve been going since the conference:

 

  • For November: Lao

 LAO

Thanks to a friend of mine I discovered the 30-Day Speaking Challenge on Facebook. Realizing that I probably wasn’t going to progress a lot with a tonal language unless I did something seriously, I decided to take it on for November, choosing Lao (which has been a GREAT experience for me so far).

 

Three negatives about my experience with Lao so far, three positives;

 

  • Not a lot of good resources to look up words reliably
  • Not getting feedback on my tones (but this is honestly “what I signed up for”, and also really makes me understand how much EASIER it is to learn a politically powerful language, even one like Mandarin Chinese [you’ll hear more about that in a bit!]). Actually, not getting feedback from anything.
  • Not a lot of music I like in Lao. (Still looking!)

 

+ I’m significantly bolstered in my motivation to focus on one language at a time. This is in addition to the YouTube Series, which serve as “warm-ups” to the Internet challenges such as this one which will cast me on the way to genuine fluency

+ My “flow” has greatly improved. Some languages I know (Krio) and knew (Portuguese) quite well, but didn’t really have a flow for them in a way that made me feel genuine. When I speak a language like Yiddish or Danish, I don’t sound like a learner in the slightest, and that’s because the rhythms of me speaking the language sound flowing and natural. It’s possible to be fluent in a language and now have that flow (as COUNTLESS English L2 speakers throughout the world have demonstrated with me throughout my life).

+ I’m learning words on a daily basis without fail because I’m engaging my multiple senses in taking in knowledge of the language.

  • December Challenges: Greenlandic

 Mother of the Sea and Me

I’m not fluent in Greenlandic, despite the victories I had with the language when I was in Nuuk last month.

 

I’m honestly burned out in studying the language and so I think one thing that would help would be if I were to do this 30-Day Challenge in Greenlandic.

 

Obviously I’m expecting ZERO feedback from other participants, but this I a self-imposed challenge. And who knows? I may find myself surprise.

 

  • December Challenges: Burmese

20170525_165915

There’s another 30-Day challenge I’ll be doing in December, the EuroLinguiste One, and I’ll be doing it with Burmese. The culmination of the project will be me filming a 2-5 minute video speaking Burmese (I could even use a script if necessary).

Given that I really need to find myself reading the language at a quick pace if I want to make any genuine progress with it, I think this challenge would be helpful (part of it involves doing Facebook posts in the language as well as setting your device to that language. I have multiple Burmese-speaking Facebook friends so they can help me and/or laugh at me as they so choose. But they’ve been extremely supportive, so thank you.)

 

  • Looking Forward: 30-Day Challenges Every Month for 2018 and beyond. Mostly with Languages I’ve studied previously I need to climb “Mount Fluency” with .

 

After the polyglot conference it seems that I’ll have to focus a lot more on maintenance and a lot less on acquisition of New Languages. That said, I may take on one or two new ones in 2018, and it seems that Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese going to be on my short-term plans for reasons I quite can’t explain yet (no, travel plans are not involved).

Already with Duolingo Mandarin I’ve been noticing a significant amount of words that resemble Burmese (given that they are both Sino-Tibetan Languages). Mandarin Speakers can’t understand spoken Burmese, but there are words in common with similar meanings and so it’s good to have that advantage.

 

  • New YouTube Series for My Birthday Tomorrow!

Can’t reveal anything about it yet!

The only thing I do know, however, is that I will continue to acquire more and more experiences as I go through life!

Onwards!

jared gimbel virginia

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Think Human Translators Will Be Replaced By Machines? Not So Fast!

In line with the previous piece about corporate narratives discouraging cultural exploration and language learning, there is a corollary that I hear more often and sadly some people whom I respect very deeply still believe it:

Namely, the idea that translation, along with many other jobs, will be replaced entirely by machines (again, a lot of misinformation that I’m going to get into momentarily)

My father went so far to say that my translation job wouldn’t be around in a few years’ time.

Iso an Jekob

I don’t blame him, he’s just misinformed by op-eds and journalists that seek to further an agenda of continued income inequality rather than actually looking at how machine translation is extremely faulty. After all, fewer people believing that learning languages is lucrative means that fewer people learn languages, right? And money is the sole value of any human being, right?

I am grateful for machine translation, but I see it as a glorified dictionary.

But right now even the most advanced machine translation in the world has hurdles that they haven’t even gotten over, but haven’t even been ADDRESSED.

I will mention this: if machine translation does end up reaching perfection, it will almost certainly be with very politically powerful languages very similar to English first. (The “Duolingo Five” of Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese would be first in line. Other Germanic Languages, with the possible exceptions of Icelandic and Faroese, would be next.)

If the craft “dies” in part, it will be in this sector first (given as it is the “front line”). Even then, I deem it doubtful (although machine translation reaching perfection from English -> Italian is a thousand times more likely than it reaching perfection from English -> Vietnamese) But with most languages in the world, translators have no fear of having their jobs being replaced by machines in the slightest.

Because the less powerful you get and the further you get away from English, the more flaws show up in machine translation.

Let’s hop in:

 

  • Cultural References

 

Take a look at lyricstranslate.com (in which using machine translation is absolutely and completely forbidden). You’ll notice that a significant amount of the song texts come with asterisks, usually ones explaining cultural phenomena that would be familiar to a Russian- or a Finnish-speaker but not to a speaker of the target language. Rap music throughout the world relies heavily on many layers of meaning to a degree in which human translators need to rely on notes. Machine translation doesn’t even DO notes or asterisks.

Also, there’s the case in which names of places or people may be familiar to people who speak one language but not those who speak another. I remember in Stockholm’s Medieval Museum that the English translation rendered the Swedish word “Åbo” (a city known in English and most other languages by its Finnish name “Turku”) as “Turku, a city in southern Finland” (obviously the fluent readers of Scandinavian Languages needed no such clarification).

And then there are the references to religious texts, well-known literature, Internet memes and beyond. In Hebrew and in Modern Greek references to or quotes from ancient texts are common (especially in the political sphere) but machine translation doesn’t pick up on it!

When I put hip-hop song lyrics or a political speech into Google Translate and start to see a significant amount of asterisks and footnotes, then I’ll believe that machine translation is on the verge of taking over. Until then, this is a hole that hasn’t been addressed and anyone who works in translation of cultural texts is aware of it.

 

  • Gendered Speech

In Spanish, adjectives referring to yourself are different depending on your gender. In Hebrew and Arabic, you use different present-tense verb forms depending on your gender as well. In languages like Vietnamese, Burmese, and Japanese different forms of “I” and “you” contain gendered information and plenty of other coded information besides.

What happens with machine translation instead is that there are sexist implications (e.g. languages with a gender-neutral “he/she” pronoun such as Turkic or Finno-Ugric Languages are more likely to assume that doctors are male and secretaries are female).

Machine Translation doesn’t have a gender-meter at all (e.g. pick where “I” am a man, woman or other), so why would I trust it to take jobs away from human translators again?

On that topic, there’s also an issue with…

 

  • Formality (Pronouns)

 

Ah, yes, the pronouns that you use towards kids or the other pronouns you use towards emperors and monks. Welcome to East Asia!

A language like Japanese or Khmer has many articles and modes of address depending on where you are relative to the person or crowd to whom you are speaking.

Use the wrong one and interesting things can happen.

I just went on Google Translate and, as I expected, they boiled down these systems into a pinhead. (Although to their credit, there is a set of “safe” pronouns that can more readily be used, especially as a foreign speaker [students are usually taught one of these to “stick to”, especially if they look non-Asian]).

If I expect a machine to take away a human job, it has to do at least as well. And it seems to have an active knowledge of pronouns in languages like these the way a first-year student would, not like a professional translator with deep knowledge of the language.

A “formality meter” for machine translation would help. And it would also be useful for…

 

  • Formality (Verb Forms)

 

In Finnish the verb “to be” will conjugate differently if you want to speak colloquially (puhekieli). In addition to that, pronouns will also change significantly (and will become shorter). There was this one time I encountered a student who had read Finnish grammar books at length and had a great knowledge of the formal language but NONE of the informal language that’s regularly used in Finnish-Language vlogging and popular music.

Sometimes it goes well beyond the verbs. Samoan and Fijian have different modes of speaking as well (and usually one is used for foreigners and one for insiders). There’s Samoan in Google Translate (and Samoan has an exclusive and inclusive “we” and Google Translate does as well with that as you would expect). I’m not studying Samoan at the moment, nor have I even begun, but let me know if you have any knowledge of Samoan and if it manages to straddle the various forms of the language in a way that would be useful for an outsider. I’ll be waiting…

 

  • Difficult Transliterations

 

One Hebrew word without vowels can be vowelized in many different ways and with different meanings. Burmese transliteration is not user-friendly in the slightest. Persian and Urdu don’t even have it.

If I expect a machine to take my job, I expect it to render one alphabet to another. Without issues.

 

  • Translation Databases Rely on User Input

 

This obviously favors the politically powerful languages, especially those from Europe. Google Translate’s machine learning relies on input from the translator community. I’ve seen even extremely strange phrases approved by the community in a language like Spanish. While I’ve seen approved phrases in languages like Yiddish or Lao, they’re sparse (and even for the most basic words or small essential phrases).

In order for machine translation to be good, you need lots of people putting in phrases into the machine. The people who are putting phrases in the machine are those with access to computers, not ones who make $2 a day.

In San Francisco speakers of many languages throughout Asia are in demand for being interpreters. A lot of these languages come from poor regions that can’t send a bunch of people submitting phrases into Google Translate to Silicon Valley.

What’s more, there’s the issue of government support (e.g. Wales put its governmental bilingual documents into Google Translate, resulting in Welsh being better off with machine translation that Irish. The Nordic Countries want to preserve their languages and have been investing everything technological to keep them safe. Authoritarian regimes might not have the time or the energy to promote their languages on a global scale. Then again, you also get authoritarian regimes like Vietnam with huge communities of expatriates that make tech support of the language readily available in a way that would make thousands of languages throughout the world jealous).

 

  • Developing World Languages Are Not as Developed in Machine Translation

 

Solomon Islands Pijin would probably be easier to manage in machine translation that Spanish, but it hasn’t even been touched (as far as I know). A lot of languages are behind, and these are languages spoken in poor rural areas in which translators and interpreters are necessary (my parents worked in refugee camps in Sudan, you have NO IDEA how much interpreters of Tigre were sought after! To the degree in which charlatans became “improvisational interpreters”, you can guess how long that lasted.)

Yes, English may be the official language of a lot of countries in Africa and in the Pacific (not also to mention India) but huge swathes of people living here have weak command of English or, sometimes, no command.

The Peace Corps in particular has tons of resources for learning languages that it equips its volunteers with. Missionaries also have similar programs as well. Suffice it to say that these organizations are doing work with languages (spanning all continents) on a very deep level where machine translation hasn’t even VENTURED!

 

  • A Good Deal of Languages Haven’t Been Touched with Machine Translation At All

 

And some of this may also be in part due to the fact that some of them have no written format, or no standardized written format (e.g. Jamaican Patois).

 

  • Text-To-Speech Underdeveloped in Most Languages

 

I’m fairly impressed by Thai’s Text-to-Speech functionality in Google Translation, not also to mention those of the various European Languages that have them (did you know that if you put an English text into Dutch Google Translate and have it read out loud, it will read you English with a Dutch accent? No, really!)

 

And then you have Irish which has three different modes of pronunciation in addition to a hodge-podge “standard” that is mostly taught in schools and in apps. There is text-to-speech Irish out there, developed in Trinity College Dublin, It comes in multiple “flavors” depending on whether you want Connacht, Ulster or Munster Irish. While that technology exists, it hasn’t been integrated into Google Translate in part because I think customization options are scary for ordinary users (although more of them may come in the future, can’t say I know because I’m not on the development team).

 

For Lao, Persian, and a lot of Indian regional languages (among many others), text-to-speech hasn’t even been tried. In order to fully replace interpreters, machine translation NEEDS that and needs it PERFECTLY. (And here I am stuck with a Google Translate that routinely struggles with Hebrew vowelization…)

 

  • Parts of Speech Commonly Omitted in Comparison to Other Languages

 

Some languages, like Burmese or Japanese, often form sentences without any variety of pronoun in the most natural way of speech. Instead of saying “I understand” in Burmese, you would literally say “ear go-around present-tense-marker” (no “I”, although you could add a version of “I” and it would still make sense). In context, I could use that EXACT same phrase as the ear going around to indicate “you understand” “we understand” “the person behind the counter understands”.

In English, except in the very informal registers (“got it!”) we usually need to include a pronoun. But if machine translation should be good enough to use in sworn interviews and in legal proceedings, they should be able to manage when to use pronouns and when not to. Even in a language like Spanish adding “yo” (I) versus omitting it is another delicate game to play, as is the case with most languages in which person-information is coded into the verb (yo soy – I am, but soy could also mean “I am” as well)

Now take a language like Rapa Nui (“Easter Island Language”). Conjunctions usually aren’t used (their “but” comes from Spanish as a loan word! [pero]). Now let’s say a machine has to translate from Rapa Nui into English, how will the “and” ‘s and “but” ‘s be rendered in a way that is natural to an English speaker?

 

Maybe the future will prove me wrong and machine translation will be used in courts instead of human beings. But I’ll come closer to believing it when these ten points are done away with SQUARELY. Until then, I’ll be very skeptical and assure the translators of the world that they are safe in their profession.

 

 

ga

Here’s Why Corporate Power Doesn’t Want You To Learn Languages

It has been more than a year since Donald Trump was elected and I know I’m not alone in being positively furious, but in a way that my fury has further impassioned me to change the world.

One thing that I’ve brought into conversation, seldom with disagreement, is the fact that ever since that fateful night, I’ve been seeking to cut the toxic influences of American culture than enabled Donald Trump to happen (that is to say, sensationalism, the idea that money is life’s report card, conformity, extreme divisions within our society with not a lot of dialogue, being directed by mass media to be angry for the sake of being angry and not in a productive manner, among many other things).

After all, saying “Fuck you, Donald Trump” is easy. Looking at your life choices and realizing what sort of choices you can make to create a culture less likely to choose and promote someone of that sort takes effort and sacrifice.

All the while I see that America continues to be a land in which the dream that brought my ancestors here continues to be more and more elusive. Behind it all is a military-industrial complex, op-eds that seek to confuse, emotionally manipulate and gaslight the public, and a mass media culture so great that resisting it completely requires the self-discipline of a spiritual giant.

Granted, there are many aspects that I really like about American culture, and I have no doubt that my hyperpolyglotism came about in part because of the many intercultural conversations and intersections that only the United States can provide. But that’s for another time, although I realize that in order to criticize a society you need to affirm yourself as a friend of said society. And all things considered, I truly do love the United States, given as I may have not been given the opportunity to live had it never existed (given my Jewish roots).

One thing that I thoroughly dislike about it is the fact that I hear a lot of people say extremely predictable things, over and over again. This is in part because many people in this country read the exact same newspapers, watch the exact same television shows and consume many of the same contemporary popular songs. (People often ask me how on earth I can manage to learn so many languages to fluency and I tell them consistently that it requires you taking in entertainment in other languages and downsizing your entertainment intake in your native language. Guess how many people I’ve spoken to [outside of polyglot communities, that is] who have actually followed through on that plan after I told them what to do.)

Often I hear almost headache-inducing ideas of “you’re good with languages” or “I heard that it’s no use learning a language” or “I tried learning a language for a decade and I can’t speak any of it”. I know why I hear these same things continuously

And it’s primarily by design.

Look, if the ruling class in the United States truly wanted it, the secrets of Language Hackers and my friends at the polyglot conference would be known to 4 out of every 5 citizens living in this country. The knowledge is available freely on blogs in English. My advice is free and I’m glad to share any of my stories and the uglier sides of my struggles to fluency.

But instead, the same old myths persist.

Because a corporate dominated society doesn’t want a broad citizenry of open-minded languages learners.

Here’s why not:

 

  1. Income inequality is very much based on pitting people (or groups of people) against each other. Language Learners build bridges.

 

“The Arabs”, “The Russians”, “The Jews”, “The Iranians”, “The Europeans” … I’ve heard all of these referenced very frequently in dismissive tones in conversation from people in many different political arenas.

 

Truth be told, division is essential as a distraction tactic. This fear of the other also drives the military-industrial complex which is probably the one thing that has endangered the biosphere most severely in human history.

I’ve met language learners from all continents, from all over the globe. They’re certainly not perfect people, but they’re bridge-builders and peacemakers. They view people different from them as potential friends and hobbies, not something to spark fear. Many of them see themselves and doing “divine work” (even if they don’t believe in a higher power), and rightly so.

They learn about cultures that the corporate state boils down into stereotypes. They realize that problems are more readily solved with dialogue, understanding and respect than with force and violence.

They are the very antithesis of a system that keeps people divided and distrustful of one another.

 

  1. A lot of sensationalized news stories (many of their owners and writers also seeking to prop up income inequality and perpetuate it) strategically make people afraid of other places. Language learners recognize all countries of people with ordinary dreams.

 

I’ve met people from the majority of countries on this planet, thanks to my time in New York City. Believe me when I say that people are remarkably the same everywhere in terms of many things, although social conditioning is one aspect in which there is a lot of difference.

If you take away a lot of the mythologies that our various national and/or religious agendas have instilled into us, we are pretty much all the same.

And yes, there are hateful and destructive people on every corner of the globe, but they exist by virtue of the fact that, in some respect, they’ve been derived of something, whether it be economic opportunity or a caring support system, or even taken in by a system of “us vs. them” that is almost entirely promoted by self-serving politicians and people who want to keep the system in place in which the rich keep getting richer. And I haven’t even touched on limiting beliefs yet, the almighty slayer of dreams.

Our governments divide us but at our language exchange events and in our online forums, we’re bringing the world together. There’s difficulty in having such tasks come about, but almost all of us strive for it. And in a world in which any culture in the WORLD can be yours to explore within a few mouse clicks, YOU can be on the right side of history!

 

  1. Neoliberalism frames countries as their governments and economies foremost, rather than their cultural stories. Language learners get to the heart of places’ cultural stories that are often hidden.

 

“China’s gonna take over the world!”, “Saudi Arabia is an evil country!”, “Israel is a cancer!”, “Russia hates everything about the west”, and on and on and on.

Again, division at work. And yes, there are a lot of political problems present throughout the world, but seldom if ever do people investigate the cultural roots of conflicts and even more seldom do they try to administer dialogue and healing.

With language learning you can delve into the cultural story of anywhere you’d like, complete with its flaws and darkest chapters. Usually a lot of the “issues” that have come about in which people are afraid of other countries are present for reasons that are not visible on the surface. The path of least resistance is to be angry and call names. That’s what the system depends on, meaningless rage and emotional manipulation in which people are tricked into thinking that they’re helping when they’re actually not.

True peace doesn’t come about with divisions like this, it comes about through realizing that we have shared cultures and dreams that all humans understand. These commonalities are far stronger than our differences, however big a world of income inequality would like these differences to be.

 

  1. If enough people explore other places, even virtually, the entire framework of fear which serves as a distraction from the problems of capitalism will fall apart completely.

 After so many emotional headlines and frantic googling when I had Lyme Disease (believe me, you don’t want Lyme Disease) and again in the months leading up to Trump’s election as well as after it, it occurred to me that there was just a lot of … fearmongering…and not a lot of productive dialogue.

No doubt there is productive dialogue (that I have particularly found among independent journalists), but usually it’s just click-farming, dumbing down and making people more scared.

Right now at this very moment I remember when I met the Chief Rabbi of Norway, Rabbi Michael Melchior. He told me boldly the following statement (and I PROMISE I’m not making this up!): “I’ve spoken to the most extreme Jihadist in the West Bank, and when I was done talking with him, he agreed that a Two-State Solution was the best possible outcome” (!!!)

In 2013, I couldn’t believe it. In 2017, I can. After having encountered tons of people throughout the world, I realize that if we just strip away our fears one by one, we’d lead fulfilled live of peace and harmony as a species from then on out.

But instead, our current system depends on fear. Fear to distract from the genuine problems of capitalism that threaten the future of our species. A good deal of that fear depends on misunderstanding other people.

I don’t misunderstand other people and other cultures, I only seek to explore. And I can’t even begin to tell you how many people have sneered at me telling me that I was fraternizing with “countries that hate Jews and Israel” (exact words).

Surprisingly, I’ve come to the conclusion that anyone’s xenophobia, however microscopic it may be, can be whittled away to nothing with choosing to explore other cultures and languages. I’ve seen it happen. And close-minded people are created by being made to be fearful of others first and foremost. Being in other countries, I realized my fears about other places were largely just imagined.

Some of my acquaintances haven’t been as lucky to achieve this path to open-mindedness as I and my polyglot friends have, but it’s always available and we’d love to have you.

The world depends on your being an explorer.

So go explore!

just-visiting-in-jail

If you don’t explore, this might as well be you. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

30-Day Speaking Challenge, or The Gift of Lao

Just the right thing I needed in order to drill the “ONE LANGUAGE AT A TIME” thing home: came across a link to a 30-Day Speaking Challenge in a Facebook group and decided to get in on the action before the new month of November came in.

You can read more about the challenge here: http://hugginsinternational.com/30dayspeakingchallenge/

For those of you who probably don’t want to click on the link, I’ll share the concept here: film / record yourself speaking a bit of your target language for thirty days in a row, publish the results in a group and get feedback / encouragement / what have you.

Now interestingly the language that I chose was Lao and there’s a strategic importance behind it:

  • It’s small enough for me to be passionate about it, but also is close enough to Thai to the degree that maybe a speaker of it could help me even if he or she hasn’t made much exposure to Lao. From what I know: they seem to differ in their pronoun usage as well as in some key words, not also to mention the fact that they use different (although similar) writing systems. What’s more, Lao tends to include pronouns in sentences and speech more often than Thai does (which can omit the pronoun the same way that Burmese or Japanese ordinarily would do. In layman’s terms: in Burmese I would say “have food” in order to indicate “[I] have food”, “there is food”, “we have food”, etc. That’s not passable in English [except in VERY casual speech] and in that respect Lao resembles English in which the pronouns are commonly used.
  • It’s tonal and if there is ANY language I would strongly need a community for, it would be a tonal language.
  • I correctly predicted that most people doing the challenge would be doing European Languages, wanted to get “other continents in on the action”.
  • I’ve had more exposure to my other tonal language, Burmese, as well as significant practice using it. That said, I may consider doing Burmese in a future 30-day speaking challenge.
  • I’m not an absolute beginner in Lao (A1 at the moment)

 

I just submitted my second recording to the spreadsheet and may consider publicizing the 30-day result depending on how much I like it. Hey, it seems that I’m 1/15th of the way done!

Here’s how I predict the challenge will affect me:

 

  • It will make me take my construction of the “Temple to Lao” more seriously.

 

When I was interviewed by Ari in Beijing in April, I mentioned the fact that the most important thing for learning a language is the fact that you need to build a “temple” to your target language within your time routines.

 

The only real way I’ve been doing that so far is with my YouTube channel. Sure, reading Lao dialogues out loud with some funny commentary and messing up the tones can be entertaining, but there’s so much more I could be doing.

 

I could become as immersed in Lao culture the same way I was with Greenlandic or Yiddish. I could truly feel as though understanding this poor and “forgotten” country is something I shouldn’t back away from.

 

My peers in the group have been very supportive of me thus far, and I’m thankful for that.

 

  • I Will Learn to Have More Mercy on Myself

 

I don’t speak languages from East Asia very well (although Burmese is by far my strongest out of…two…). I should expect to make mistakes and realize that I’m not getting any Lao trophies or getting to watch any Free Lao YouTube movies without any subtitles without a lot of work. And that work is going to involve discipline, learning how to make sounds I’m not used to, and, very importantly, on the importance of tones.

I hold myself to extremely high standards. A lot of people in the group are uploading recordings upwards of three minutes on the first day. Most of them are learning European Languages and are native speakers of European Languages so they have an advantage that I just don’t have. It’ll take me longer for me to make progress in Lao than it will for an English speaker to make progress with French.

And that’s okay.

And sometimes I worry that I mess up the tones entirely and completely.

And that’s okay too. For now!

 

  • I Will Be More Inclined to Explore Lao Culture and Identity as a Hobby as a Result of This Challenge. That will Enforce my Desire to Learn It More.

 

Already within these two days I’ve begun  to see it happen. I’m monumentally increasing my exposure to Lao and commitment to learning more about it, even if it involves reading books and travel blogs in English.

 

I’m beginning to see more of what the world looks like through Laotian eyes. And with each new culture I feel more human, more fulfilled and more righteous.

 

  • I Will Be More Inclined to Focus On One Task

 

I have a bunch of languages to improve, but I think that if I give the lion’s share of my focus to one task, I’ll be able to gain confidence more quickly and that will carry over to my other languages, both ones that I speak fluently and ones that I don’t speak as well.

Come to think of it, I’m feeling a lot better focusing more on improving just my Lao rather than improving Lao alongside Irish, Cornish, Welsh, and Tajik. I can maintain those on the side (or what I know of it), but I think that this focus is helping me fall in love.

And it seems that this is the beginning of something lovely!

LAO

The 2017 Polyglot Conference: Self-Assessment and Roadmap

The most legendary month of my life is about to close, one that brought me to Iceland and Greenland and, by extension, into meetings with some of the most legendary human beings who have impacted my life to date.

I got to meet Nanook, the legendary band from Greenland, as well as the lineup of my favorite Greenlandic TV show from years back, see my favorite Icelandic rapper in a 30-minute concert and, of course, visit and re-visit some of my greatest heroes that have shown be beyond a reasonable doubt that learning to speak a second or third or even twentieth language at any age is ALWAYS a possibility!

I got to use thirty languages over the course of few days and think about where I have been, where I am and where I am going.

Granted, some of these languages are ones that I speak fluently and use in my career. Others are those that I have literally not practiced for months. In the meantime, I’ll have to think about where I under-estimated myself, where I over-estimated myself and what great victories I scored as well as any possible defeats.

The Saturday of the conference had me feeling unbelievably elated at the end. So elated, in fact, that I slept very poorly that night. What’s more, I had to present the following day, making it LITERALLY the worst night of this year to get a bad night’s sleep.

But surprisingly I not only managed my conference presentation on Video Games and Language Learning very well, I was told that the organizers heard “nothing but positive feedback” about it including repeated hopes that I would make encore presentations at other conferences.

My secret to being a good presenter is simple: note whatever your boring teachers throughout your life did, and do the opposite of what they do. Easy!

Anyhow, I’ll write about which languages I think I did very well with, which ones I did okay with and which ones I really need improvement with.

Let’s start with that last one.

For one, I significantly overestimated my ability in Irish and it felt that when I spoke it I had flashbacks to when I was twelve years old and my teacher scrawled “DID NOT STUDY” on my quizzes. (This was in part because I was thrown into a Hebrew Day School where my knowledge of Biblical Hebrew was significant impaired because I was a latecomer!)

I forgot essential words at times and while I did put some sentences together, it occurs to me that I need work.

The same thing very much happened with Lao (although the only time I used it was in a Lao-Thai conversation, something that I have had no experience in doing).

My Welsh which I had neglected for months, obviously, did not even get a sticker on my name tag, but I added it to my list because with some “rewatering”  it will warrant an A1 level again.

I also flubbed Cornish a little bit as well

Three languages which I need to really work on. So what am I going to do?

For one this weekend I will devote entirely to studying these languages, to the exclusion of others.

Now for my “I did pretty well!”

Despite some grammatical flubs at times Finnish was truly something to be proud of and I’m very impressed by the level of L2 Finnish speakers that I’ve seen at the conference.

Hebrew was also very similar as well, although sometimes I worry that I’m a little bit TOO casual and not scholarly enough. This style REALLY impresses some Israelis and manages to vex some others. But it bears repeating that using the language with people who speak it is always a good idea! Regardless of how much you may convince yourself otherwise!

Greenlandic, despite the fact that I remember being just “manageable” in Greenland the week prior, also was a meager success, whatever people wanted to ask of me what meant I was capable of providing. Granted, mostly these were simple phrases but it occurs to me that I knew a lot more of the language than actually came out when I was in the country. Again, my own nervousness holding myself back.

Icelandic and French both involved some significant gaps in my conversational abilities, given the language-learning tornado (and Jewish-holiday tornado) I was in in the weeks leading up to the conference.

Lastly, the one chance I got to use Krio went off better than I expected!

Now the greatest victories of the bunch, not surprisingly, go to my truly fluent languages, the Scandinavian Trio and Yiddish. Being in Greenland the week beforehand sure did help with Danish, but the practice I’ve got while teaching really, REALLY shined through. I also managed to speak significantly better Spanish and German than I literally ever remembered doing, EVER.

Every other language on my list was “not enough chances to use it” (for my fluent languages like Bislama) or otherwise “okay, I guess, but you still need some noteworthy improvement” (pretty much every other language I haven’t named).

The fact that I significantly slouched in my conversational abilities on Sunday is testament to the fact that mental and physical conditions matter in conversational abilities in any language, and languages you don’t use as often are even MORE likely to be impacted. My fluent languages (like Danish and Hebrew) stayed the same, but my less-than-fluent languages (like Hungarian or Polish) got worse.

 

Where do I go from here?

It seems ever more likely that 2018 is going to spell no more new languages for me for the time being. Right now, even though I’d really like something like Turkmen or Tuvaluan or Lithuanian, I have my plate full and now it’s time for me to invest in what I have in significantly more depth. I know it’s possible. I’m good now. Some would even call me very good. But I want to be divinely unstoppable.

Obviously I understand that the “activation energy” required for going to a higher level is more the higher you get (this ties into the idea of “diminishing returns”. Getting my Breton to C2 is going to take a LOT more effort than getting Lao to B1. Looking at the ungodly amount of time I put into my best languages, it’s no surprise.

Right now I just have ideas for a plan, but “improve tons of languages” is not really a recipe. I need a recipe and I’m probably going to need more than just a day to come up with a plan.

We’ll see how my little mini-mission on Saturday and Sunday goes!

NOTE: This is primarily a self-reflection about MY OWN progress rather than anything about the conference itself. That’s likely to come later on, probably when I’m back in the US and have had time to reflect on it!

I wish every day were a Polyglot Conference, actually!

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From my first Polyglot conference two years ago!

 

10 Lessons I Learned from Language Immersion in Greenland for a Week

Two Languages (three if you count English which I used at time). One city. A lot of ice and friendly people. Was it a success? MOST DEFINITELY!

I’ve been studying Greenland on-and-off since 2013 when I first encountered that Lonely Planet book that described the Greenlandic Language as “the result of a small child banging on a typewriter”.

Cupid’s arrow to the heart. Photographed the entire language section of that guidebook, page by page. Put the words into Memrise. I thereby made the site’s first Greenlandic course which ultimately ended up in the language  being included in the OFFICIAL LISTING OF LANGUAGES IN THE APP!

Then there’s Danish, which I’ve been studying / speaking since 2013 as well. Frightened to speak it fearing judgmental native speakers until I encountered some people who spoke it in 2014 (native Danish speakers as well as L2 speakers from Germany). Then I realized there was nothing to be scared of.

Greenlandic: Weak although impressive on some level. Certainly a lot better than my Burmese was earlier this year (although I think my Burmese is SLIGHTLY better than my Greenlandic now, truth be told). I managed some tasks impressively, some with difficulty, and I have absolutely no ability to speak in Greenlandic about deeply serious or philosophical topics (but ONE DAY!)

Danish: Conversationally fluent to professionally fluent, depending on my mood and who I’m talking to. There is one thing, however. Sometimes I still feel frightened and judged when I try to speak certain languages with strangers. This results in “cymbals banging in my head” which can significantly deter my ability to think of vocabulary at the right moment. But surprisingly, I’ve IMPROVED as a result of being here.

So how did I do? For one, I managed almost ALL of my business that could be done in Danish or Greenlandic in those two languages. In conversations with friends I think I managed a good balance between Greenland, Danish, and English (hey, it’s fair that I share my native language with them, too!) Especially in the second half with Danish, I expressed myself without any issue and had absolutely no glaring issues with being answered in English after the second day!

Above all, GREAT SUCCESS! I also learned a lot of words as well and gained insight into the dynamics of bilingual societies (this is the first time I’m doing immersion in a place with TWO local languages, although no doubt Danish is significantly less prominent in more rural areas of Greenland outside of the major cities)

Yes, I know I was on a break, but I thought it would be important for me to write at least SOMETHING because I’m here in Greenland for the first time:

 

  • In a multilingual place, expect rapid changes in switching languages at times.

 

This was fun. I’ve heard of people going to places like Montreal or South Africa or other places where multiple languages are used between people and in the public sphere. I wasn’t sure what sort of dynamic to expect, but interestingly I found that the dynamic between many Greenlanders involved hopping between languages in conversations sometimes (this might be especially evident as far as families that may have different first languages among them). My host family used Greenlandic, Danish and English with me, sometimes switching throughout the conversation, and sometimes I even overheard some people doing the same. Granted, with probably about the same frequency you’ll encounter people sticking to one language at a time.

 

There are SO many dynamics to be taken into account with this that it probably would take more than a week to fully investigate and delve into them.

 

  • Don’t take being spoken to in English personally, especially if it occurs at a time in which the person who you are speaking to is aware that you are from an English-speaking country.

Imagine this: you hear that somebody is from a place where your L2 or L3 or L28 is spoken. Great success! So you begin speaking in the language of that place, believing that, in so doing, you will demonstrate cultural appreciation and a willingness to show that, on some level, you care about where they came from.

 

That’s how some of the people who “answer in English” may be thinking!

 

I’ve noticed that usually a shift to English tended to occur in Greenland not so much when I messed up (usually I just rebounded and continued in the target language, especially with Danish) but rather when (1) somehow they found out I was from the U.S. (either I told them or something on my personal information made it clear, etc) or (2) they were aware of the fact that I was American beforehand (even if I had communication with them in other languages in the past. Note: my written Greenlandic is tremendously weak, although I’m hoping that predictive text and better learning methods will help me in the future).

 

In the other Nordic countries, conversations are being had about the threat that English is posing to their language. In Iceland this is particularly strong (I feel). In Greenland, it is my understanding that this conversation isn’t even had as far as English is concerned (I think a lot of the debates center on Greenlandic vs. Danish). Danish was (and is) 1000x easier to learn and to maintain than Greenlandic is (and this is more to do with political power of these two languages than anything else). But given that I was willing to learn and converse in BOTH, it actually sent a message to people that I really, REALLY cared about Greenland, its people and its culture (learning one language for a trip is cool, but two?)

 

I can imagine that a lot of Greenlanders want to feel global and globally connected. To that end, I am willing to use English with them to some degree, as long as I can use the other local languages as well. I used English at times, but never to the degree that it became a detriment to my “language learning mission”. (In Iceland, I strove / will strive to avoid English as much as I can).

 

What’s more, there are some immigrants to Greenland (Yes, they exist!) who speak neither Greenlandic nor Danish, and I sometimes encountered these folks behind service counters. In one Thai restaurant in Nuuk I even saw the menu in Danish that was coded with number-and-letter combinations, possibly to get over any language barrier than may be involved.

 

  • If you’re headed to a multilingual place (that is to say, a place with more than one LOCAL language. Nuuk qualifies [with Greenlandic and Danish] and while Reykjavik does have many English-speaking denizens, Icelandic is the ONLY local language there), get advice beforehand (or as soon as you can) about what sort of languages you should use in which spaces.

 

Also if you can determine what language a certain waiter or celebrity or person you’re meeting speaks, use that to your advantage as well.

 

On the way from the airport I was told that it was wisest for me to usually use Danish while buying things (which I did). But obviously using Danish was not 100% suitable (or even 50% suitable) for EVERY SINGLE SITUATION that I encountered in Nuuk. Simply put, there were situations in which knowledge of Danish wasn’t essential in the slightest, and Greenlandic was.

 

Again, among people who speak both, you are welcome to use both, especially in casual conversation. I would gather the same would hold for any other bilingual area.

 

  • Don’t Overthink Your Mistakes (or Anything Else)

 

No, just because you messed up that one word doesn’t mean you’re a failure. No, just because somebody began speaking English to you that one time doesn’t mean you’re a failure either (this happened once or twice to me by the way). And for the love of everything that is holy, don’t belittle your accomplishments!

 

Especially if you’ve come from a family of over-achievers and perfectionists (a bit like mine used to be), you may hold yourself to a standard that is way too high. Don’t expect yourself to be an angel. Believe me, even the best of polyglots out there aren’t angels either, even if it may seem like that in their videos. I sure know I ain’t!

 

  • If you’re starting to feel doubt, think about how far you’ve come and how FEW people have attempted what you’re doing.

 

Surrounded by native speakers of languages that I spoke to varying degrees made me self-conscious at times. My perfectionism (which exists in my heart even though my brain knows it should be gone) also did not help. Sometimes I wondered if I would ever be taken as a “serious” polyglot by masses of people on the Internet, or even if I really DESERVED to present at any polyglot conference at all.

 

And this is DESPITE the fact that I manage MOST of my interactions during this trip without ANY English. (Even though I did use English because, again, I don’t want to be greedy. I understand that people see me as a resource in a country where non-Danish foreigners weren’t even allowed to visit until 1953 [!!!])

 

I also took for granted the fact that I could read all of the signs, all of the menus, all of the everything (in Danish – note that the vast majority of these things in Nuuk are actually bilingual Greenlandic / Danish).

 

  • If the language you’re speaking is threatened or perceived as threatened, you have advantages with its speakers (and getting help from them) on many, MANY levels

 

Greenlandic-speakers see their language as vulnerable, and UNESCO agrees with them. Against the mini-giant that is Danish and the ultra-global-giant that is English, it seems that Greenlandic sees itself stuck in a magnificent clash of outsider cultures (well…these two cultures…).

 

When I began speaking to Greenlandic speakers in places like pubs and restaurants and my host family, I got every single possible variety of positive reaction and tons of continued encouragement. Greenlandic speakers are probably among the most helpful native speakers I’ve encountered for any language ANYWHERE!

 

I got business contacts, high fives, hugs, compliments, in-depth conversations and plenty, PLENTY more. And this is with my manageable-in-tourist-situations-mostly Greenlandic.

 

The only languages I remember getting this sort of red carpet treatment for were (1) Icelandic, (2) Hungarian and (3) Polish (and even [3] was very selective. Some people reacted with utter joy and others were a tad confused. I should say that Poland is a FANTASTIC environment for language immersion with JUST the right amount of English usage vs. usage of the local language that is helpful for whatever you’re doing!)

 

  • Don’t assume other people are judging you (or will judge you) for speaking their language.

 

Greenlandic people usually don’t show their emotion at all—EVEN in comparison to other Nordic countries. As an American, I found this extremely jarring and almost strange. Anyone who knows American culture even on a surface level knows how “obsessed with feelings” we are.

 

Sometimes I was tempted to think that people were displeased with me, and then I remembered that the cultural mentality is extremely different in comparison to the United States.

 

And one person went so far as to even tell me that the idea that “speaking Danish -> Greenlanders will judge you as a bit of a colonial invader” wasn’t actually that true at all.

 

Point is, a lot of people “not being nice to you” or “not liking you” may actually be…imagined…

 

On the other side, in the United States we have the reverse problem, being too kind to people with whom we do not really want to interact with. And I think, to a degree, that’s significantly more dangerous. But onto the next point…

 

  • Pubs and gatherings are great places to help you with language learning. Keep in mind that they serve different ends.

 

Pubs -> great for finding people that will help you with individual words or gaps in your vocabulary. You may encounter some people who may be very carefree due to alcohol and they’ll (1) be forgiving of your mistakes and (2) compliment you way too much. If you’re a beginner and you feel up to it, I would make evenings like this a priority.

 

After all, I think the Polyglot Bar and Mundo Lingo also really helped me especially with French which I learned almost ENTIRELY through this method! (even though sometimes I fear that I speak it not quite as well as I would like and it is NOWHERE near my strongest language and sometimes I’m definitely not fluent!)

 

Gatherings -> great for having serious conversations and also rehearsing new vocabulary that you may have memorized in response to the theme of the event. It’s also a true measure to see how spontaneous you really can be and you’ll encounter speakers of many languages at larger gatherings. Great for advanced learners especially who want to go from good or very good to divinely invincible.

 

  • Over time, you’ll grow into a persona with a language you’re proficient or fluent in

 

Imitate the people. Note what they do. Learn to behave a little more like them. Pretend you are them. You’ll be able to grow into fluency a lot more readily with a language in which you have a persona. How does your native-language self compare to the sort of people you see around you? Note the differences and act on them. This may actually happen naturally as a result of being around people.

I had someone tell me that over the course of the week I was looking “progressively more like an Inuit”. Make of that whatever you will!

 

  • Your goal isn’t to be mistaken for a local. Your goal is to communicate.

 

Okay, maybe you DO want to be mistaken for a local, but obviously if you haven’t visited the country or if you haven’t developed deep in-person friendships with people there, there will probably be something in your body language or in the way you speak that will give it away.

 

I look vaguely Asiatic (probably my Jewish background) and I look vaguely Nordic (probably my Swedish-American background) but I don’t really look like I’m Inuk in the slightest. I don’t dress like Greenlanders do (and I was told this to my face, Greenlandic people really liked my fashion style and said that I looked like a “super-manly American cowboy”. No joke!)  I don’t look like a “typical Dane” either, regarding both my fashion and my physical appearance.

None of that mattered in the slightest because my pronunciation in both Greenlandic and Danish were good (so I’ve been told) and in the case of Danish I got all of what I wanted to say said almost all of the time (except when my nervousness got the better of me and in both cases it was when I was speaking to people whom I had seen on TV, concerts, etc.).

 

I think the one thing I need to work on is internal self-doubt and freezing up sometimes. I think that’s really preventing me from being at my best consistently using foreign languages. And I guess that’s probably gonna be part of my New Year’s Resolution for 2018 (COMING SO SOON?!!?)

Greetings from Nuuk,Greenland!

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Ten Affirmations about Language Immersion in a Foreign Country (P.S. I’m on a Break)

On to Iceland tomorrow and Greenland on Wednesday!

That means I’m going to be on a break from then until Halloween (when I come back, probably without any costume whatsoever).

In the meantime, I have to prepare myself to think in THREE different languages during the trip, and I’m not going to lie, I know that I should let go of negative experiences in the past (e.g. times in which people were extremely reluctant to practice their native languages), but I have trouble doing so.

In short, my mind knows that I need to view the challenges ahead of me very logically, but my heart is still inclined to view every little mistake as a statement on who I am as a person.

So here are ten affirmations that I’ve drawn up (you’re welcome to disagree with me) about language immersion in foreign countries:

 

  • All language learning journeys, even regarding your native language, are works in progress.

 

  • Most people in the world WANT you to learn and speak their language, even if you just speak a little bit of it.

 

  • The most important lessons from your language immersion may come weeks, months or even YEARS after the fact.

 

  • The spread of English throughout the world is likely to make you LESS likely to get answered in English in foreign countries as time goes on. (The one place where I’ve been answered in English the most is the place that had the lowest English proficiency rates…Myanmar, namely. The one place I’ve been answered in the local language the most consistently is the one with the highest…Iceland vol. 1 [2015])

 

  • If you have to use English at times (e.g. emergency situation, feeling ill, someone wants to practice with you), don’t see it as a defeat AS LONG as you make SOME gains with your target language(s).

 

  • If somebody tells you that learning their language is a waste of time, KNOW that their opinion is in the minority both from within and without. Disregard that person’s opinion.

 

  • Some native speakers may need some convincing. Be persistent in usage of your target language if you suspect this is the case. If you get answered in English, continue in the target language without hesitation. Believe it or not, some NATIVE speakers get that treatment as well!

 

  • Don’t believe horror stories about language immersion from the internet, or think that you have no choice but to be answered in English all of the time. The most inspiring stories usually never get told on blogs or publicized widely on Quora or Yahoo! Answers.

 

  • Count your victories and celebrate them, however minor.

 

  • Even with your best foreign languages, or even your native language(s), there WILL be slip-ups. Accept it and realize that moving forward is the most beautiful thing you can do.

 

 

 

I’m presenting at the 2017 Polyglot Conference on how to learn languages using video games. At the very end of that conference, the location for the 2018 conference will be revealed.

Calling it: it will probably be somewhere in Britain (probably making some sort of post-Brexit commentary of sorts).

See you in a few weeks!

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