How to Learn to Read the Hebrew Bible in the Original

Happy Fourth of July! Over the course of the past week I wondered to myself, “Lord (no pun intended), what topic would be REALLY good and/or suitable to discuss and post on American Independence Day?”

Yes, I could write about American English but often that may come to be a bit too predictable….

Instead, I have come to write about a topic that many of you have been BEGGING me for—namely, the Hebrew of the Scriptures!

I think that the Bible and the United States go very well tog…never mind that…

Anyhow, time to begin!

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Antwerp, the home of the world’s oldest printing presses

A lot of people have told me throughout the years (people of all religions, mind you) that they would like to learn enough Hebrew in order to read the Bible. Another common question I get is “how similar (or different) are Hebrew as it is spoken in Israel today and Hebrew as it is used in the Scriptures and prayers?”

Excellent question!

  • Modern Hebrew has words from English (thanks to the British Mandate), French (thanks to it having been the international language in the days of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew) and Slavic Languages / Yiddish (given as that was the culture of many of the founding fathers of contemporary Israel). Biblical Hebrew has absolutely none of these.

 

However, one thing that may surprise you is the fact that there are loan words from other languages in Biblical Hebrew, although thanks to a millennia-long gap, post-colonialism and too many other factors to list, it’s not easy to detect all of them.

The culture of the Bible is one in which the Hebrews find themselves interacting with many, MANY other ethnicities. The sheer amount of them is staggering and nowadays I would venture that that sort of diversity of small mini-nations as described in the Bible would be found in places like Northern Australia, Melanesia and areas of Indonesia.

Obviously some of the big “players” would include the quilt of cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Eastern Mediterranean. As time goes on in the Bible, the array of mini-cultures starts to coalesce into global powers like Assyria, Egypt and Old Babylon. During the time of the “United Kingdom of Judah and Israel” (as my professor Wayne Horowitz used to call it), the union (a bit like a Poland-Lithuania or a Denmark-Norway, as it were) became a regional military power (as noted in the book of Samuel). This happened during the reigns of David and Solomon and the kingdoms split after Solomon’s death.

So what does this have to do with loanwords?

Hebrew is fairly purest at times, or so it seems…until you realize that the extent of loans or cognates from languages like Akkadian or Sumerian cannot be fully realized in their entirety.

One such Sumerian loanword in Hebrew is a word used to refer to the Divine Realm, “היכל” (Heykhal).

With knowledge of Akkadian, a lot of the Bible’s “hidden references” come to light, and we may never truly discover the full scope of it. (Jeremiah is said to have been able to read it, and that there are idiomatic and pattern parallels between his book of prophecy and those of prominent Akkadian language poets)

Planet Earth’s first great empire was Sumer, and then (much like Judah and Israel did later on), they coalesced into one kingdom, the Kingdom of Sumer and Akkad. Like the Israelites, the Akkadians were also Semites, while the Sumerians were not. The tension apparently did result in the union’s dissolution later on down the line.

It’s unsurprising, then, that loanwords from these languages ended up in Hebrew.

Later on in the age of the Talmud, the Mishnah (the “alpha” version of the Talmud, with the “beta” version, the Gemara, coming later on) uses loanwords from Greek and even some from Latin (note to those unaware: Greek was the American English of the Eastern Roman Empire). The same way that Dutch youth may use a lot of English, German and French loan words in their speech, the Tanaim of the Mishnah also used loans from other languages that they recognized.

I’ve come a long way since Jewish Day School, haven’t I?

In short: Modern Hebrew -> Contemporary European Influence, Biblical Hebrew -> Influence from the Languages of Antiquity, Talmudic Hebrew -> Influence from OTHER languages of Antiquity (and we still haven’t even touched on the Hebrew as used by Jewish poets throughout the Diaspora for millennia!)

 

  • Verb Structure is different.

 

Like Irish (which shares a LOT of uncanny similarities to Biblical Hebrew in terms of its grammatical setup, causing people to think that the Celts were the Lost Ten Tribes), Biblical Hebrew uses a “Verb-Subject-Object” sentence structure. When God speaks to Moses, the words translate to “he-spoke God to-Moses to-say”

Modern Hebrew resembles something closer to English, Yiddish or Slavic Languages in terms of its sentence structure. Translating word-by-word from Modern Hebrew into English is less of a hassle for this reason.

 

  • Pronunciation CAN be different (in Ashkenazi or Temani Spheres)

 

Jews from Yemen and Jews from Ashkenaz (Central-Eastern Europe), especially deeply religious ones, may use different pronunciation than what Israelis will use in conversation.

But Israelis of all stripes, however, will use the Sephardic pronunciation in using Modern Hebrew.

Here’s why:

Yiddish has Hebrew loan-words in it. These Hebrew words in Yiddish (that can sometimes be significantly detached from their Hebrew-language meanings in the most absurd ways, including being some of the rudest words in the language…) are pronounced using the Ashkenazi pronunciation.

In the early days of Zionism, Yiddish was seen as a Ghetto Language, something to be shed. As a result, the Hebrew pronunciation adopted was that of the Sephardi Jews, so as to become detached from the Old World culture. Oddly enough, Modern Hebrew took a lot of idioms of Ancient Hebrew origin from Yiddish back into its contemporary version (although obviously the meanings shifted yet again in some cases!)

What does this mean for you?

There’s an Orthodox Jewish community right across the street from where I’m writing this. Sometimes they play Hasidic pop songs sung in Ashkenazi-pronounced Hebrew. This means that, unless you’ve had particular training listening to that brand of Hebrew, it may be strange to you (like listening to versions of English that you may have never heard in your life for the first time!)

Some Biblical Hebrew classes will have you use the same Sephardic pronunciation that you use for Modern Hebrew. But in some cases you may need to get used to (or at least recognize) the  Ashkenazi or Temani variant depending on what sphere you’re in.

 

  • Forms of Hebrew used in Antiquity can be wildly inconsistent.

 

The Mishna uses modified plural endings for verbs. Some portions of the Bible show slightly-different grammatical patterns. And then this isn’t even touching on the “kri uktiv”, the idea that some words in the Bible are not pronounced as they are written!

(HOWEVER! Your editor will usually let you know in some way how to pronounce the word in the event of “kri uktiv”, which is just the Hebrew term for “read and written”. Oh, “kri uktiv” is Sephardic, and in Ashkenazi it would be “kri u’ksiv”. Fun).
Imagine having no one tell you this and then be expected to read texts with very little prior knowledge in Hebrew from the Five Books of Moses and the Mishna and the prayers. 10-year-old me was very confused indeed.

And that’s why I became a teacher to prevent other people from being so confused.

 

I want to Read the Bible in Hebrew. Where do I start and where should I put my resources? I’ve never studied a “dead language” before…HELP!

 

Jared Gimbel to the rescue!

You need to recognize a number of things first:

  • The building block of the narrative will be verbs. Verbs, like in Modern Hebrew and in other Semitic Languages, will be made out of “shorashim” (the Hebrew word for “roots”), in which there will be a set of three letters that will indicate a certain meaning. These shorashim are not limited to verbs, but also nouns or adjectives that are connected to that action as well.

Most Shorashim in the Bible will be three letters long, and a lot of them will appear very frequently in the bible, verbs like “to send”, “to call out”, “to say”, “to go”, “to return” will be featured regularly. Learn to recognize verbs like these, and let translations of the Hebrew Bible into the language of your choice guide you.

  • The names of characters will be different! The English names of Biblical Characters are taken from the Septuagint (the Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible). The same is true with the names of the Biblical characters in European Languages or indigenous languages of places colonized by Europeans (the Americas, Africa, Oceania, among others)

In the case of English, you’ll note that the names changed by virtue of the restrictions that Greek had in regards to adopting sounds from Hebrew. Isaac is a Greek-ified version of the Hebrew “Yitzkhak” (and in Yiddish it came under Polish influence and became “Itsik”), and Jacob is a version of “Yaakov” (which is “Yankev” in Yiddish – again, under Polish influence).

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob become Avraham, Yitzkhak, and Yaakov in Hebrew, and Avrohom, Itzik and Yankev in Yiddish. This is SO MUCH FUN, RIGHT?!!?

Also the Bible features a LOT of place names (and people names) that are mentioned once and sometimes they’re almost never brought up again. One issue I’ve seen with students trying to read the Bible is that they may not be able to recognize when a proper name is, in fact, a proper name.

Again, using translations on the side (as long as you’re paying attention, which I’m sure you are) will help you hone your “sixth sense” as to what is a place-name and what is a person-name. Even more confusing: place-names and personal names can also MEAN THINGS!

(What’s more, some Biblical characters are actually named after incidents, including…you got it…Isaac and Jacob. These word games don’t translate into any other language! Aren’t you excited to learn this stuff?

  • Words will appear over and over again in the Bible. Recite aloud. The more you’ll encounter these words, the more you’ll come to recognize them.

Favorites would include “leemor” – “to say”, which is also used to indicate an indirect statement (in plain English this means the “that” in “I said that this blog is the best in the world”), “hineh” (behold!), any words relating to birth and death at all, as well as prepositional phrases, which provide the learner as much frustration in Hebrew as they do with almost any language I can think of that isn’t a Creole.

  • Context always helps.

The fact that you’ve probably heard most of the stories before will actually help you with any information that you may be blanking on, whether it be verb tenses, prepositional phrases, or even a shoresh!

Think about what the people in the story might be doing or saying, how much info you can piece together given what you have already.

You have an exciting journey ahead of you. You are going to be able to read the most influential piece of literature in human history. And believe me, it is a VERY fulfilling feeling to get to read the Masoretic text in the original. Your friends will be impressed…as will I!

Happy Fourth of July!

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Polyglot Report Card: June 2017

A new polyglot video is coming soon and its production is within sight! So therefore, given that I want to return to the world of video-making with an experience you will remember (I think maybe three / four videos a year would probably be a good benchmark of my progress unless one of my creation goes COMPLETELY viral), time for me to rate myself.

come back when you can put up a fight

So that you know, I’m going to be as RUTHLESS as possible with myself and expose my weaknesses to their core. At the same time, I am going to realize that (1) there is always room for improvement, even in one’s native language(s) and (2) this is, in part, to expose my vulnerability (which a lot of Internet polyglots, I fear, tend to not do).

I am going to be featuring a total of 36 languages in this video, and I believe it will be the first-ever polyglot video to feature languages native to every continent (except for Antarctica).

They are as follows, although the order is to be decided:

English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea), Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Finnish, Spanish (EU), Breton, Bislama (Vanuatu), Pijin (Solomon Islands), Irish, Cornish, Polish, Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), French (EU), Portuguese (both EU and BR), Dutch (Netherlands), Welsh (Southern), Ukrainian, Russian, Italian, Faroese, Northern Sami, Burmese, Estonian, Hungarian, Krio (Sierra Leone), Tajik, Tahitian, Guarani (Jopara) and Tigrinya.

Yes, I have studied MANY other languages besides, but I’ll be focusing on these in order to maintain my sanity and cover enough material within a reasonable time limit.

Yes, the last three are very recent additions and, while they are not going by very swimmingly and require some work, I know I’ll be able to include small bits of them in the video (and I’m not talking about “good luck” or “bye-bye” like in my last one, but complete sentences). One reason I made my March 2017 video so short was because I thought that it would match with people’s attention spans. Ah well. At least it was good enough for a first try.

Anyhow, time for me to get graded. Biggest Strength, Biggest Weakness, Accent, Grammar, and Future Course of Action before I film the video.

 

English

 

Biggest Strength: It’s my native language (despite what you may have heard, read or believed). I’ve had a lot of exposure to it throughout my life and I can easily use idioms and cultural references with ease. I’m so good at speaking English (even by native speaker standards) that often I have to train myself to simplify my thought patterns for languages that often required more direct methods of communication (French, Burmese, Bislama, etc.)

Biggest Weakness: Thanks to me having avoided English-language media for years now in order to raise my skills in other languages, sometimes my spoken English has detectable traces of influence from other languages. Sometimes I even find myself talking in Nordic accents without even realizing it, as well as expressions and grammatical pieces from English Creole Languages. (NOTE: Do not let this serve as any discouragement from learning English Creole Languages! American, Hiberno- and Caribbean forms of English are 110% legitimate versions of the language that came about through similar influences as well and also have traces of other people’s native languages present throughout! Maybe the same could also be said about…any language anywhere!)

Accent: I need to sound more American sometimes rather than something “international”. I pull it off with my family well enough, but sometimes I have to get myself to deliberately sound “lazier” in order to not get the “where are you from? You have an accent” spiel.

Grammar: My sentence structure also shifts sometimes to something more distinctly German or Romance-Language oriented. Sometimes this makes me sound like a foreigner and I would obviously catch it in editing. I really need to stop this.

Future course of Action: Just be cognizant of when I make mistakes and try to avoid them in the future. This will certainly be an interesting topic to write about in the future.

 

Danish

 

Biggest Strength: Where do I start? I’m very good at reading and understanding things seldom becomes an issue for me. Yes, I can’t pick up “every word” as clearly as I could with Norwegian or Swedish but I can’t even do that with English a lot of the time either. You see, this is a problem a lot of novice language learners have. They judge their L2 to a higher standard than the one they have for their native languages. Please, be aware of when you do this. My biggest strength? I’ve finally gotten over the understanding hurdle, and it’s been years since I’ve done it and I’m getting better. Those of who you have studied Danish know exactly how much of a pain this can really be.

Biggest Weakness: In speaking, I think I need to use idioms and expressions more often, although going through a 16,000+ word Danish – English dictionary on Anki certainly is helping. What’s more, I need to be VERY cognizant of slip-ups when it comes to vowel shifts, especially as far as the infamous letter a is concerned (the Danish a is often pronounced like a short-a sound like in “bat”, English also has a similar quality. This actually makes Danish more approachable to native English speakers who have never spoken any other language aside from English before).

Accent: I’ve been told that my accent is fantastic. But sometimes when shifting very quickly from another Nordic Language to Danish (or from any language to Danish, period), I need to take a second or two to get my pronunciation “sounding right”. That, and singing has really done significant wonders for my accent, especially since the beginning (which is the hardest part, esp. with Danish)

Grammar: No glaring issues that I can think of.

Future course of Action: I need to sing more! Out loud! And talk to myself more often when I’m using Danish to study (e.g. while reading a text for research or using Anki)

 

Swedish

Biggest Strength: Why couldn’t I be like this in Sweden? Took me years to get here, but Swedish is now solidly one of my strongest languages. My Swedish-American heritage propelled me into this journey with a sense of purpose and, while I still haven’t read the letters in Swedish from my deceased family members, I know 110% I’d be able to talk to them (if I…ever had the opportunity to have spoken to them…). I can use idioms, synonoms, a wide variety of words and put them together in a way in which my personality genuinely comes through. If that isn’t fluency, nothing is.

Biggest Weakness: Two things (1) sometimes I flub pronunciation of a word once or twice (although rarely) and (2) sometimes I let some of my negative experiences with the Swedish language (e.g. having had native speakers once or twice refuse to speak to me in Swedish or otherwise treat me not very nicely) attach themselves to me even though I shouldn’t. I should know better than that to realize that I’m not that insecure beginner anymore! But sometimes my emotional core sometimes likes to think that I am, despite the fact that on some days I use Swedish for 4-6 hours.

Accent: Not the Finland-Swedish I was talking when I was living there, that’s for sure (although Finland-Swedish is finally growing on me!). I think it’s a really good job and the worst I’ve ever gotten within the past year is being asked if I spent a significant amount of time in Norway / if I’m Norwegian (and, once or twice, being switch to Norwegian on, but I’m okay with that, of course!)

Grammar: Very few, if any. Had trouble for a while as to exactly when to use the word “fast” (too difficult to explain in a single sentence), but that’s been dealt with.

Future course of Action: Mindfulness. I have to let my bad memories go. And stay gone. Otherwise, I’m gonna keep on doing what I’m doing. Come a long way.

 

Norwegian

 

Biggest Strength: I got a lot of exposure to this language with television and as a result my knowledge of the culture and general patterns is very, very sharp. My exposure to this language on YouTube ensures that I can pepper my speech with idioms and a very natural flow.

Biggest Weakness: I have trouble reading very complicated and specialized texts. Casual dialogue is not a problem for me, ever. Also Norwegian is probably my weakest of the Scandinavian Mainland Trio, by virtue of the fact that I’ve interacted with Norwegian speakers the least. I sometimes have issue understanding dialects that are not Oslo or Sami.

Accent: Sometimes I think I sound like a cartoon character. Been told that my accent places me squarely in Eastern Norway. Good. That’s what I want.

Grammar: Some arcane forms of pasts and plurals that I’ve heard referenced in some songs are things I need to gain more familiarity with. Aside from that, very few issues.

Future course of Action: I literally haven’t watched Norwegian TV all year and I need to do it more often. Not YouTube. Go on NRK and watch stuff.

 

 Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea)

 

Biggest Strength: I can understand radio broadcasts and television with extraordinary ease. I could even transcribe a lot of it!

Biggest Weakness: Understanding the language as used by locals in documentaries can be possible but sometimes is a bit of a problem. The fact that I haven’t had a lot of practice with the spoken language, while I use it with my family members (regardless of whether or not they understand it), needs to be accounted for.

Accent: Yes, I can imitate a lot of people who sing and who present on TV or on podcasts, but I think my Tok Pisin accent needs something to make it sound less American. Difficult to say what.

Grammar: Bislama and Pijin have more prepositions and I have to be conscious to avoid their usage in Tok Pisin. Which I usually do.

Future course of Action: Watch PNG documentaries where Tok Pisin is featured. Otherwise, hey…maybe speaking the official variety as used in the programs described above isn’t a bad thing at all! More reading practice would also be good.

 

 Yiddish

Biggest Strength: The one language I’ve spent the most time with being fluent. I’m committed, its a language that echoes with me and it shows on every level.

Biggest Weakness: Still have some Yinglish here and there, although rarely. I also really want it to be more idiomatic, referencing well-known phrases and proverbs. And by “well-known phrases” I don’t mean “bible verses”. Sometimes it takes me a while to “switch” into fluent Yiddish from English (and by “ a while” I mean “ a few seconds”)

Accent: Some people really like it, saying that it sounds like the true Yiddish of the Lithuanian Yeshives. Others think is sounds too close to German or thinks that it sounds “strange”. Non-native speakers, especially from secular institutions, love it.

Grammar: Sometimes I make stupid mistakes, although never in my classes, thankfully. This only happens when I’m switching languages really quickly.

Future course of Action: Keep going through my comprehensive Anki list (it is 7000+ words). Has a lot of words that would make my language sound more natural than it already is.

 

Hebrew

Biggest Strength: I have a lot of cultural resonance with the Hebrew language, given that it (along with French) were the first ones I was exposed to as a child alongside English. My knowledge of Biblical quotes is top-notch (which is surprisingly useful in conversation and rhetoric in Hebrew), as well as my knowledge of prayers. I also know a lot about the culture and mentality in general, more than anywhere else aside from the US.

Biggest Weakness: However, there are gaps in my vocabulary as far as purisms go, and if there weren’t Yiddish’s Hebrew words (that were taken back into Modern Hebrew in the days of Zionism) in the equation, it would be a lot worse off. I’m good conversationally but there’s something missing in comparison to the way I speak Swedish or German or Tok Pisin. That something is an extended vocabulary of abstract nouns.

Accent: Good enough to fool the staff members at Ben Gurion. That was 2015. I’m even better now.

Grammar: The Binyanim are second-nature to me, which presents interesting problems when I’m trying to…well…explain how they work. Fun fact: native Hebrew speakers get disqualified from teaching their native language because they “crash and burn” while being asked to explain binyanim, not also to mention that colloquial speech also bypasses a lot of complicated verb forms as well as using grammatically incorrect forms (much like English speakers in this country!)

Future course of Action: I’m supposed to be programming this list of 10,000 most common Hebrew words into Anki. Unfortunately I have to edit the list to make it consistent and I’m not making steady progress with it. Israeli TV shows would also really help me with my vocabulary gaps. While I don’t need the subtitles at ALL to understand it, maybe I should use them from English (or even another language!) just in case I need to gain an extra degree of wisdom in the translation business.

 

German

Biggest Strength: Thanks to the Kauderwelsch series, I’ve read more German than literally any other language on this list (barring various forms of Hebrew). I can watch Let’s Play Videos online and follow them consistently, my passive vocabulary is huge. Lots of people, native speakers and otherwise, think that I do a good job. Yeah, if only I could have been this good…when I was living there!

Biggest Weakness: Gender shenaningans, issues with some relative pronouns (a sentence like “The cities in which I have lived” can present some problems for me, and by “problems” I mean “hold on a moment”)

Accent: I speak like I’m from the South of Germany thanks to my guilty pleasure of watching Domtendo on a weekly basis. Somehow thinks that it needs some fine-tuning, although I don’t know how or why. Maybe it sounds too Scandinavian sometimes.

Grammar: What’s more, sometimes I have to correct my grammar errors in German but I do the same in English too. I would say that my German grammar is mostly acceptable.

Future course of Action: The relative pronouns need fixing in this regard. Also playing video games in German with more complicated vocabulary sets would really help me.

 

Finnish

 

Biggest Strength: I’m really used to spicing up my Finnish so that it doesn’t sound like a textbook. I also have a broad knowledge of Finnish morphology

Biggest Weakness:  I have the reverse problem with Hebrew—I know a lot of abstract nouns but often names of material things can elude me at times.

Accent: I’ve noticed that my accent tends to sound like one of the last five Finnish-language voices I heard last. Aside from that, I would say it is good although I have trouble imitating Finnish-accented English.

Grammar: Good in regards to colloquial speech, could use work in regards to the written language. Given that I mostly want to use Finnish to engage with the popular culture, part of me is okay with the dynamicI have now.

Future course of Action: I guess I’ll have to speed through that Anki list of 22000 Finnish words now, won’t I? Any way I could randomize it? Or I could do the less intensive thing and use clozemaster. Television would also be good but part of me worries exactly how much time I’ll have to practice langauges with it.

 

Spanish (EU)

Biggest Strength: The one official EU language I can read best! It’s obviously the doing of video games.

Biggest Weakness: I sometimes feel self-conscious to talk to native speakers, given how I’m haunted by past memories of screwing up this language and feeling like a failure when attempting it. Sometimes I don’t e even tell native speakers that I know it!

Accent: Irritiatingly Peninsular, which causes Spaniards to swoon and a host of reactions from Latino Spanish speakers, ranging from “so cool!” to “huh? I can’t understand anything…”

Grammar: Only a handful of knots in irregular verbs.

Future course of Action: I’ve tried and tried to find a way to improve and seldom does “more TV” or “more Anki” or “more Clozemaster” actually do anything. I think it’s a mindfulness thing and I don’t really know how to push away my bad memories. Sometimes they were so bad that I literally gave up the language three times. This sadly resulted in me having gone to a Puerto Rican New Year’s Party and me being unable to understand a lot of what was being said. What got me back into it? Let’s Play Videos in Spanish. That’s what. Oh, and video games in general.

 

Breton

Biggest Strength: Casual conversation goes by well when I get the chance to use it. Although given the level of Breton speakers I’ve encountered in the past few months, this isn’t a very high standards. I have a friend of mine who is in an intensive Breton language program right now! Hopefully we’ll be able to hone each other’s skills upon his return!

Biggest Weakness: Reading.

Accent: Good enough, I guess.

Grammar:  My one blind spot is verb conjugation, and maybe some forms of mutation (for those unaware: Celtic languages have some initial letters of words change under certain circumstances, this is called “mutation”)

Future course of Action: The reading-with-the-glosses procedure I outlined many posts ago (split an article into sentences, look up the words you don’t know, read the article aloud and translate it into your native language).

 

Bislama (Vanuatu)

 

Biggest Strength: Can understand almost anything spoken in it.

Biggest Weakness: While I can speak it very well, Bislama has a rich array of exclamations and I haven’t mastered anywhere close to all of them.

Accent: Good, or acceptable at the absolute least.

Grammar: Mastered.

Future course of Action: listen to the Radio more often in Bislama

 

 Pijin (Solomon Islands)

 

Biggest Strength: Can understand almost everything spoken in it

Biggest Weakness: Sometimes I sound too proper (in using too many English words).

Accent: Good, I think.

Grammar: Mastered

Future course of Action: use YouTube to watch stuff in Pijin more often, the Radio, especially in Honiara, is primarily English.

 

 Irish

 

Biggest Strength: My accent is very good. That’s what Irish people have told me.

Biggest Weakness: The spoken language, especially outside of Connemara, can elude me. Some verb forms could use work.

Accent: Very good, according to Irish people.

Grammar: Good enough for converseation, but I need to get many other verb forms under my belt to go from good to great.

Future course of Action: Find fun stuff to do in Irish and do it, but it has to involve listening.

 

Cornish

 

Biggest Strength: My listening abilities. I can understand a great deal of my favorite Cornish podcasts without a sweat!

Biggest Weakness: I do have trouble understanding songs in Cornish, however, and my grammar needs work.

Accent: Good? Okay? Questionable?

Grammar: I. Need. Work. With. This. Verbs can be a mess especially as well as prepositions. Oh, and like Hebrew and the other Celtic languages, prepositions change if it matches a person.

Future course of Action: Speaking exercises about myself.

 

 Polish

 

Biggest Strength: My pronunciation is good and I can make things flow a good amount of the time until I get tripped up.

Biggest Weakness: Vocabulary gaps concerning things like politics, jokes, etc.

Accent: Very good to good.

Grammar: Verbs good, cases okay, adjectives very good, articles not something you need to worry about with Polish (given that they do not exist).

Future course of Action: Read stuff on Facebook more often and translate it using your gloss-method. Also using Clozemaster is good to learn both vocabulary and brush up on elements of grammar.

 

 Greenlandic (Kalaallisut)

 

Biggest Strength: My pronunciation is good.

Biggest Weakness: My reading is terrible and my writing is almost non-existent.

Accent: I’ve been told it is good.

Grammar: Read almost everything on the topic by now and this is actually one thing I don’t need to worry about.

Future course of Action: Reading exercises with the glosses.

 

 French (EU)

Biggest Strength: I can have fluid conversations about many topics, especially about languages and travel.

Biggest Weakness: Verb conjugations and idiomatic phrases drawing blanks.

Accent: All over the board. I’ve heard that it is mostly good, however.

Grammar: Verbs need work.

Future course of Action: Clozemaster and Duolingo for verbs, look at table after table and also that gloss exercise couldn’t hurt you.

 

Portuguese (both EU and BR)

Biggest Strength: Can read very well.

Biggest Weakness: Have trouble speaking. Thanks to the fact that I don’t have much of a cultural resonance with any Lusophone country (the way I do with many of my better languages…see a pattern?), I lapse frequently into Portuñol.

Accent: Okay to good, based on feedback.

Grammar: Surprisingly not too weak.

Future course of Action: Watch cartoons, get songs, find things to like about Lusophonecountries and movies and what-have-you.

 

 Dutch (Netherlands)

 

Biggest Strength: A lot of casual phrases make me sound like I speak the language better than I do.

Biggest Weakness: I can’t read it very well.

Accent: I don’t think it is that good.

Grammar: Gaps with irregular verbs.

Future course of Action: Between reading and singing, all of your weaknesses would go away.

 

Welsh (Southern)

 

Biggest Strength: I have a convincing accent.

Biggest Weakness: Vocabulary gaps and virtually no good knowledge of verbs. Questions can pose a problem.

Accent: Convincing.

Grammar: Verbs need work.

Future course of Action: Reading things would help, as well Duolingo but only with verb-related or question-related skills.

 

Ukrainian

 

Biggest Strength: My accent can be good.

Biggest Weakness: Literally everything else.

Accent: The one good thing I have.

Grammar: Okay, I lied, the second good thing I have.

Future course of Action: I have issues when I speak and often I have to go slowly. Films haven’t really helped much so I’ve enlisted Mango Languages’ Ukrainian to help me. Maybe more Duolingo would help too. Maybe I should spend more time with language-learning materials before I try immersion again.

 

Russian

Biggest Strength: I can say a significant amount of basic phrases convincingly.

Biggest Weakness: Consistent vocabulary gaps.

Accent: I’ve been told it is good.

Grammar: Learning it for that one year in college was good for something. I’d say “decent”

Future course of Action: Anki + Songs + Clozemaster.

 

 Italian

Biggest Strength: I can understand and read a lot of it.

Biggest Weakness: My active skills are usually trash unless I have had a lot of exposure in the previous days.

Accent: Good, I’ve heard.

Grammar: Inconsistent.

Future course of Action: Let’s Play Videos are not working, but maybe if I watch cartoons in Italian, they MIGHT…work…

 

Faroese

 

Biggest Strength: Pronunciation isn’t an issue.

Biggest Weakness: Haven’t rehearsed in a while and forgot a lot of it.

Accent: Decent, I think

Grammar: Needs work.

Future course of Action: Use Memrise to help you get back on your toes, and use Faroese music to job your memory a bit.

 

Northern Sami

Biggest Strength: Pronunciation isn’t an issue.

Biggest Weakness: Everything that isn’t basic phrases.

Accent: O…kay?

Grammar: Tons of gaps.

Future course of Action: See how much you can remember from watching the TV shows in Northern Sami you used to watch before you decided to drop it.

 

 Burmese

Biggest Strength: I have a good grasp of the grammar.

Biggest Weakness: I can’t read too well + my tones need work

Accent: Okay for a foreigner, I think.

Grammar: Good.

Future course of Action: Read through all of my books, recite everything outloud and, where there is Burmese script (because not all of my books have it), write it out.

 

 Estonian

Biggest Strength: I’m good at casual speaking at a basic level.

Biggest Weakness: The letter õ, comprehension and reading issues.

Accent: All over the board.

Grammar: Good, thanks to Finnish.

Future course of Action: Songs, cartoons, reading.

 

Hungarian

Biggest Strength: My accent is good and pronunciation is not an issue.

Biggest Weakness: I don’t know the cases too well and there are very predictable vocabulary gaps.

Accent: Good to very good.

Grammar: LOL

Future course of Action:Tried immersion once, didn’t work too well, should probably go through book dialogues and simple sentences at this juncture. Mango Languages is also deployed.

 

Krio (Sierra Leone)

Biggest Strength: I can understand a lot!

Biggest Weakness: Need less English-language content when I speak to sound genuine. I also forget key words every now and then. But hey, I started a month ago!

Accent: I think it’s good.

Grammar: Decent

Future course of Action: I have this Peace Corps book and all of the words in the glossary should be put into a flash card program without any second thought to it.

 

Tajik

 

Biggest Strength: I can pronounce things.

Biggest Weakness: Everything else.

Accent: I think it’s either good or silly.

Grammar: I can do possessives…! …?

Future course of Action: You have a book. You have grammar guides. Go through the grammar guides. Form sentences about yourself when you can.

 

Tahitian

Biggest Strength: I began last week.

Biggest Weakness: I’m still a beginner.

Accent: Coming to terms with it.

Grammar: Needs work.

Future course of Action: Just keep going!

 

Guarani (Jopara)

 

Biggest Strength: My pronunciation is good.

Biggest Weakness: I literally cannot form sentences.

Accent: Interesting to good to consistent.

Grammar: LOL

Future course of Action: Prepare a stump-speech about yourself. Somehow.

 

 

Tigrinya

 

Biggest Strength: I just began today!

Biggest Weakness: Yeah, who are you, do you expect me to say “NO WEAKNESSES” on day 1? Really?

Accent: Needs significant work.

Grammar: LOLOLOLOLOLOL

Future course of Action: Invest in free books and YouTube Tutorials.

 

So, to lay out my recipes in short:

 

English: Just be cognizant of when I make mistakes and try to avoid them in the future. This will certainly be an interesting topic to write about in the future.

Danish: I need to sing more! Out loud! And talk to myself more often when I’m using Danish to study (e.g. while reading a text for research or using Anki)

Swedish: Mindfulness. I have to let my bad memories go. And stay gone. Otherwise, I’m gonna keep on doing what I’m doing. Come a long way.

Norwegian: I literally haven’t watched Norwegian TV all year and I need to do it more often. Not YouTube. Go on NRK and watch stuff.

Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea): Watch PNG documentaries where Tok Pisin is featured. Otherwise, hey…maybe speaking the official variety as used in the programs described above isn’t a bad thing at all! More reading practice would also be good.

 Yiddish: Keep going through my comprehensive Anki list (it is 7000+ words). Has a lot of words that would make my language sound more natural than it already is.

Hebrew: I’m supposed to be programming this list of 10,000 most common Hebrew words into Anki. Unfortunately I have to edit the list to make it consistent and I’m not making steady progress with it. Israeli TV shows would also really help me with my vocabulary gaps. While I don’t need the subtitles at ALL to understand it, maybe I should use them from English (or even another language!) just in case I need to gain an extra degree of wisdom in the translation business.

 

German:  The relative pronouns need fixing. Also playing video games in German with more complicated vocabulary sets would really help me.

Finnish: I guess I’ll have to speed through that Anki list of 22000 Finnish words now, won’t I? Any way I could randomize it? Or I could do the less intensive thing and use clozemaster. Television would also be good but part of me worries exactly how much time I’ll have to practice langauges with it.

Spanish (EU): I’ve tried and tried to find a way to improve and seldom does “more TV” or “more Anki” or “more Clozemaster” actually do anything. I think it’s a mindfulness thing and I don’t really know how to push away my bad memories. Sometimes they were so bad that I literally gave up the language three times. This sadly resulted in me having gone to a Puerto Rican New Year’s Party and me being unable to understand a lot of what was being said. What got me back into it? Let’s Play Videos in Spanish. That’s what. Oh, and video games in general.

Breton: The reading-with-the-glosses procedure I outlined many posts ago (split an article into sentences, look up the words you don’t know, read the article aloud and translate it into your native language).

Bislama (Vanuatu): listen to the Radio more often in Bislama

 Pijin (Solomon Islands): use YouTube to watch stuff in Pijin more often, the Radio, especially in Honiara, is primarily English.

Irish: Find fun stuff to do in Irish and do it, but it has to involve listening.

Cornish: Speaking exercises about myself.

Polish: Read stuff on Facebook more often and translate it using your gloss-method. Also using Clozemaster is good to learn both vocabulary and brush up on elements of grammar.

Greenlandic (Kalaallisut): Reading exercises with the glosses.

 French (EU): Clozemaster and Duolingo for verbs, look at table after table and also that gloss exercise couldn’t hurt you.

Portuguese (both EU and BR): Watch cartoons, get songs, find things to like about Lusophonecountries and movies and what-have-you.

 Dutch (Netherlands): Between reading and singing, all of your weaknesses would go away.

Welsh (Southern): Reading things would help, as well Duolingo but only with verb-related or question-related skills.

 

Ukrainian: I have issues when I speak and often I have to go slowly. Films haven’t really helped much so I’ve enlisted Mango Languages’ Ukrainian to help me. Maybe more Duolingo would help too. Maybe I should spend more time with language-learning materials before I try immersion again.

Russian: Anki + Songs + Clozemaster.

Italian: Let’s Play Videos are not working, but maybe if I watch cartoons in Italian, they MIGHT…work…

Faroese: Use Memrise to help you get back on your toes, and use Faroese music to job your memory a bit.

Northern Sami: See how much you can remember from watching the TV shows in Northern Sami you used to watch before you decided to drop it.

 Burmese: Read through all of my books, recite everything outloud and, where there is Burmese script (because not all of my books have it), write it out.

 Estonian: Songs, cartoons, reading.

Hungarian: Tried immersion once, didn’t work too well, should probably go through book dialogues and simple sentences at this juncture. Mango Languages is also deployed.

Krio (Sierra Leone): I have this Peace Corps book and all of the words in the glossary should be put into a flash card program without any second thought to it.

Tajik: You have a book. You have grammar guides. Go through the grammar guides. Form sentences about yourself when you can.

Tahitian: Just keep going!

Guarani (Jopara) Prepare a stump-speech about yourself. Somehow.

Tigrinya: Invest in free books and YouTube Tutorials.

 

(NOTE from 29 June 2017: Since writing this post, I tried to learn Tigrinya but found the resources difficult and scarce. As a result, I’ll be learning a bit of another African native language, Mossi / Mooré, which is the primary language of Burkina Faso and also used in some surrounding states. But who knows what other languages I’ll learn and/or forget in the future?)

The True Transformative Power of the Icelandic Language

Imagine having the ability to have spoken with your ancestors from 500 years ago. Imagine what you would learn from them, what sort of insights you would have about the way you and your family viewed the world, and even how minor things like their mannerisms and body language made you what you are.

From a physical standpoint regarding living beings, as far as I can tell, this is impossible.

But one language in my journey stood out, even more so than the dead languages I had studied and forgotten (namely, Ancient Greek and Latin), as one that was like that ancestor. Upon talking to him/her, it brought all of my interactions with the rest of its family members into place.

I am of course, speaking about the Icelandic Language. And this post is, of course, in honor of Iceland’s National Day.

2015-08-20 16.40.04

It goes without saying that the contemporary language of Iceland, while in name the exact same language that Leif Erikson spoke, is now a lot different.

For one (and NOT a lot of articles about Icelandic will mention this!) Icelandic took not only English loan words from recent times, but also Danish, French and Spanish loanwords from even further back. What more, a lot of the purist words from the Icelandic Language Academy did not end up sticking with the general populace (the exact same thing happened with the Hebrew Language Academy in Israel).

That said, it goes without saying that Icelandic is significantly more purist than many other languages that have had to deal with the same “dance” that they did (translate internationalisms vs. use them straight outright).

In fact, this is one aspect in which Faroese differs from Icelandic, by virtue of the fact that more Danish loanwords, many of them internationalisms, found their way into Faroese and not into Icelandic. (Although Faroese has significant fewer internationalisms than any of the mainland Scandinavian languages of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish).

Anyhow, I’ve come to write about what made the Icelandic language so transformative for me.

  1. It caused me to think about language evolution and what can happen to versions of a language over time.

 

The Norwegian of a thousand years ago would have been mutually intelligible to an Icelandic speaker. In fact, that same Old Norwegian was actually used in the latest “Civilization” game, with an Icelandic voice actor, no less!

 

Icelandic was (and is) very heavily grammatical, with a lot of case endings, three genders, verb conjugations and very much unlike what the mainland Scandinavian Languages are today.

For those unaware: a language like Swedish or Danish does not even change verb endings for person. It would be like saying I is, you is, he is, she is, etc.

The Mainland Scandinavian Languages did away with case endings although a small amount of idiomatic expressions survived that use them (hint: look for a preposition and then a “u” or an “s” at the end of a noun that follows!). Most Norwegian dialects kept the three genders, although Swedish and Danish reduced them to two, not unlike Dutch, in which the Masculine and Feminine became the “common” gender.

This also glosses over completely the fact that French and German words found their way into the Scandinavian Languages on the mainland while usually passing Iceland by.

What exactly accelerated language evolution? Perhaps low population densities and a lot of contact with foreigners, as well as heavily centralized authorities caused these simplifications to happen.

Given what happened to Icelandic’s immediate family members, it really makes me wonder what sort of language changes the next stages of human history will hold. Already we are witnessing an increasing amount of English content throughout almost all languages on the globe, much like the French and German languages impacted the languages of the Scandinavian mainland.

It’s truly a humbling perspective to have.

 

  1. It made me think about what language purity really what (and wasn’t)

To some degree, I’ve also had a very similar experience with Hebrew as well. Like the people of Israel, the people of Iceland have had prolonged contact with English-speaking armies, who brought along their music, television and, most infamously, their profanity.

For those unaware, Iceland had an American army presence throughout most of World War II, because the allies wanted to ensure that Hitler could not reach Canada from the Danish overseas territories (which could have been Hitler’s rationale behind invading Denmark in the first place). Ensuring a presence on Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands was of the upmost importance to the Allies.

Many, many articles have been in awe about the purity of the Icelandic language, and which is a little bit funny when you end up listening to Icelandic Rap and easily lose track of how often English words (as well as Anglophone cultural references) are used!

Purist language or not, every language has to share the world with somebody. Israeli Hebrew is the language of Abraham and David – with limitations. Modern Icelandic is the language of Leif Erikson and the first European-Americans – with limitations. That’s not a bad thing in the least, it just serves to show that true purism, especially for smaller nations, is not always within reach.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think about what smaller languages can be

 

Ask people about whether or not the Icelandic language has a future, and you’ll get many answers.

A few months ago, there was a well-publicized article about Icelandic being underused in technology (and I’ll have you all know that, while I’m writing this article, my Windows 10 system is in a [complete] Icelandic translation!) It told horror stories about 14-year-olds in Reykjavik choosing to chat to each other in English rather than in Icelandic, and that the world should be very worried indeed!

But at the Endangered Language Alliance meetings, I heard a different story: those holding up a language like Icelandic as THE success story for smaller languages. In all of recorded history there have been about 1,000,000 Icelanders tops. And yet, all of Disney’s animated canon is dubbed into Icelandic with all of the songs translated and rhymed! (Disney does this to a lot of other languages as well, no doubt, although obviously most of them are from the developed world. Also, the song translations are not thoroughly accurate reflections of the original English song lyrics, there are liberties taken but that doesn’t make it any less fantastic!)

With a language like Breton, I’m concerned for its future. I can’t always find a continuous stream of content, often a lot of people from Brittany have only a rudimentary knowledge of the language (if any at all). Comments on the internet written in Breton can be sparse, even when you know where to look. Breton seems to have been relegated to a niche environment, thanks largely to French governmental policy. That saddens me but that just simply means that I have to keep on maintaining my knowledge of Breton even more strongly.

But with Icelandic, I can easily hop onto almost any website in the country, and the comments sections will be teeming with Icelandic, the menus will be fully in Icelandic and unchallenged by the presence of any translations (most of the time). Anywhere in Icelandic settlements, even in the most touristy areas, I find that Icelandic is the dominant language I hear on the streets.

Thousands upon thousands of people throughout the globe have a desire to learn it, and many of them get permanently enamored with Icelandic, finding themselves with a treasure they’ll never give up.

The Icelandic-Language music scene is very much alive, with thousands of songs to choose from in dozens of genres. The government is actively interested in keeping the language alive, and I’ve heard that if you even go so much as to hint that the Icelandic language isn’t worth keeping alive, prepare to invite the distrust, if not in fact outright isolation, from your Icelandic peers.

Yes, in Reykjavik once or twice I encountered an ice cream store with the flavors written out in English rather than in Icelandic. I don’t doubt the problems that journalists have written about. And I think that more Icelandic products in the realm of technology need Icelandic localizations, even if it may not serve a very practical purpose in their eyes.

But whenever I think about what a small language can and should be, I would have to agree with my ELA friends and say that Icelandic is the platinum standard for small languages in the 21st century. If Breton or Irish or the Sami Languages or any endangered tongue on the face of the planet would be in the situation Icelandic is in now, there would be month-long celebrations held by its speakers.

 

  1. Icelandic Made Me Think about How to Learn Grammar and Difficult Pronunciation

 

“I’m going to try that evil language again!”, proudly exclaimed one of my students (whom I regularly teach Swedish). “I just seem to have trouble knowing when I should pronounce the ‘g’ hard and when I shouldn’t”

Not gonna lie: I considered writing a piece about “Why Icelandic is EASY”! And I thought for a while and I thought “Uuuhhhh…there are English cognates….uuuhhh…okay, good. Grammar? No….how about…pronunciation? Mostly regular but given how often Icelanders slur and leave out consonants….no…yeah, I got nothin’…”

I’ve struggled with all of my languages, even the English creoles. Got news for you: in language learning, you sort of…don’t have a choice…except for…to struggle…until you find yourself…not struggling anymore…

Icelandic was no exception. Reciting grammar tables didn’t really help. I got the pronunciation and I was imitating the voices I heard in the apps and yes, singers (not just local favorites like Ásgeir Trausti and Rökkurró but also the aforementioned Disney songs localized into Icelandic, some of which I’ve even sung at crowded karaoke bars to standing ovations! I tell you, I have this crazy theory that almost everyone living in the U.S. has a secret crush on Iceland. And it sometimes isn’t so secret…)

But I found myself at a loss for the first few months knowing when to use what case when and even if I was getting verb forms right.

What did I do?

Instead of doing the thing I would have done in college and just studied the tables endlessly until their stuck, (TERRIBLE IDEA by the way! Even with memory devices, it might not all stick!) I made a point to listen to Icelandic music every day for months at a time. Even if I couldn’t understand everything, I would be able to detect patterns involving prepositions, pronouns, and the way Icelanders actually pronounce words.

For more on Icelandic slurring, I bring you to my other success story about the Icelandic Language.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think of how, if enough people study a language, it will genuinely have an impact on the language’s future.

 

Few smaller languages (less than 1 million native speakers) are as popular as Icelandic (although Irish might come close sometimes).

I am thrilled to see, especially in light of the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik (at which I will be presenting!), hundreds of people taking up the Icelandic Language, seeking to become a part of a culture that sometimes sees itself as under siege (did I mention how often tourists-doing-stupid-things-stories are featured in Icelandic news?)

Whether it be wanting to experience the Icelandic travel bug without leaving your hometown, wanting to experience this ancient culture, wanting to understand other Germanic Languages or perhaps out of sheer curiosity, these people are genuinely ensuring that the speakers of the Icelandic language know that all throughout the world, there are people that think about their mother tongue and want to keep it alive and let other people know about its treasures.

In an age in there are those that fear that a handful of cultures threaten to extinguish all others, I am a glad to be a part of this tradition that helps proudly hold our human heritage to the light.

 

And so can you!

 

IMG_4725

The Day I met Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings I was wearing this shirt. Two years later, guess where they bring the conference? Coincidence? Maybe not!

The Top 5 Catchiest Songs I’ve Heard in My Whole Life to Date (March 2017 Edition)

 moving forward 1

Today is Purim, a Jewish Holiday that does involve costumes, celebration and the reversals of fortune.

Interestingly, it occurs to me that it may be the closest thing to a “troll holiday” that really exists in the Jewish calendar.

My identity, especially my Jewish identity, is something I struggle with a LOT more than I should.

But that’s a story for another day.

True to the spirit of reversal on Purim (vnahafokh = Ancient Hebrew for “and it was reversed”, referring to the denouement of the Book of Esther which you should read one fine afternoon, if you haven’t heard it already today or yesterday evening), I ain’t gonna be writing about language learning.

I’m going to be posting the catchiest songs I’ve heard. Ever.

Actually, what am I thinking? Does this have anything to do with Purim? No, it probably doesn’t. There isn’t even any Jewish performer on this list (as far as I can tell…sorry)

But I hope all of you regardless of background or level or anything else can enjoy this playlist.

Want the lyrics? Leave a comment. Didn’t include them because I thought it would clutter this post more than message. I didn’t include commentary for the same reason. You came to hear catchy songs, not a lecture.

So more music, less wordz!

  1. Basshunter, “Boten Anna” (Swedish)
  1. The Tokens, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (English)
  1. Daniel Bilip “Mangi Mendi” (Papua New Guinea / mostly in Tok Pisin)
  1. SUSSAT! “Sila Qaamareerpoq” (Greenlandic)

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Staysman and Lazz, “En Godt Stekt Pizza” (Norwegian)

Juan Magan, «Mal de Amores» (Spanish [Spain])

Marc Fussing Rosbach, «FIIST!» (Greenlandic)

And now for the first place you’ve all been waiting for…

  1. Keatly Kalulu, «Kava» (Bislama [Vanuatu])

No, Americans are Not “Worse” or “Better” at Languages Than Anybody Else

While there are some certain realities that cannot be denied (that every member of my extended family that is still living, with the exception of myself, is a monoglot), it has little to do with reality and more to do with attitude.

2015-07-06 11.22.31

Austin, TX, home to speakers of Spanish, Japanese, Upper Sorbian and Northern Sami, among others

Think about it. If you were raised with everyone telling you that learning a language is a waste of time, hopeless beyond a certain age, and that “everyone speaks your language anyways”…why would you expect very stellar results?

Let’s say, for the purposes of a thought experiment, that all the countries on earth, instead of the 190+ there are in reality, are the current and former members of the Danish “Common Kingdom” (Dan. “Rigsfællesskabet”). So in this world, the only countries that exist are Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland (I’m not mentioning Norway and Sweden here, that is taking the exercise a bit too far and possibly extending into controversy).

As you well know, Danes do visit and have employment opportunities on Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and in both places Danish is the second-most common language after West Greenlandic and Faroese respectively. In Iceland, Danish is still learned commonly as a foreign language after English.

In the real world, while there is some interest among Danish-speakers in learning Greenlandic and Faroese, the majority does go with the idea that “they speak Danish anyways, why bother” , not unlike what some English speakers do in the real world with where their language is commonly spoken (most of the developed world, more or less).

In this thought exercise, in which the English language does not exist, who do the “worst” language learners actually become?

The point you should take is this:

No one nationality is better or worse at learning languages than any other. But some nations do have better or worse ATTITUDES at learning languages than others.

It has little to do with age of beginning education either. The Netherlands, very high English proficiency indeed, does start its English language nearly later than any other country in the EU (I regret not remembering nor writing down the source). The earliest is Belgium (3 years, if I recall correctly).

But there is no correlation between age and English proficiency or proficiency in any other languages.

Often I read articles about how wonderful the Luxembourgers / South Africans / Nigerians / Scandinavians / Dutch are at “linguistic ability, and then sometimes I feel pain. Why did I have to be born into this nation?

But at a certain point, I realized, especially coming from the Northeastern U.S., that I had advantages in picking up languages that people from these countries and others do not.

  1. English may be everywhere in certain countries, but in many American Cities, nearly EVERY major language is everywhere.

In Heidelberg, I struggled to find speakers of official EU languages of smaller countries. In New York City, I once encountered two Faroese speakers over the course of a single weekend! (P.S. that was NOT the Polyglot Conference).

Furthermore, the neighborhoods of many American cities are known for being, to some degree, ethnically divided, with regional languages dominating alongside English. Yes, this does exist to a degree in many other developed countries, but given as the United States still remains the world’s most popular immigration destination, you can imagine the variety you can help yourself to!

This is the U.S.’s hidden treasure that it has lying out in the open. But will you take it?

  1. American English has its accents taken from the various countries from which its immigrants came. You probably have a variety of foreign accent without knowing it.

 

This is somewhat self-explanatory. Upon returning from Germany to the U.S., I noticed exactly how many American accents owed themselves to German. I also noticed significant Slavic strands (especially Polish) as well as Scandinavian strands among American accents in general. Sometimes I could even tell what an American’s ancestry was based on listening to their voice, and you’d be surprised how right I was!

As a result of this, you’ve been exposed to a plethora of voices that you somehow need to convert into the many accents of the world. Again, the fact that so many immigrate and have immigrated to the U.S. can make this a boon.

  1. American English has a colloquial speech taken from words and colloquialisms from all of the immigrant languages.

“Long time no see”, “you hear?” as a question, and “this here book” all started out as immigrant mistakes, and then they became fossilized in correct, although slang, English. In literally EVERY language I have studied, I have seen an influence that the language has played in English, or, alternatively, that English has influenced it. (This holds true even for minority and/or smaller languages!!!)

As a teacher of languages myself, I make a point of showing how much of the target language a person knows already, without extensive effort. I point out the various connections between that target language and English.

If you ever hear me do it during a lesson, your conception of “Americans are bad with languages” will be banished forever to the hinterlands, never to be heard from again.

For learning a language as an American, it is merely connecting the various familiarities you already have from certain popular culture phenomena or slang expressions and then you have a stable base in a language upon which you can grow fluency.

4, No American I have met has ever decried any language as “useless”.

You’d be surprised how often I get in some countries a “why would you want to learn that?” response. You’d be surprise how, when I used to speak English in some countries, there would be those that put down the local language as useless (hint: if you speak the local language well, or even not so well, no one will ever say anything bad about it! On either side!)

Americans, thanks to a general open-mindedness but also a very friendly demeanor, NEVER judge you on your language choices. Furthermore, they are never skeptical about the idea of a polyglot (some people, especially in Europe, see the idea of learning lots of language an extraordinary waste of time. I heartily disagree because the skills between languages are more transferable than you may think, especially within the same families and sub-families!).

You’ll encounter learners of the rarest languages at American polyglot gatherings (as I’ve seen last week) and you won’t hear any scorn among them. In fact, scorn will be heavily discouraged! In fact, more often than not, a rare language is seen as a thing of extraordinary pride. True, when I was in Germany and Iceland, there were those that marveled about the fact that I could understand Greenlandic (which I then forgot and am now learning again!), but the awe shown is only a fraction of the praise that Americans, polyglots or not, will shower upon you for your efforts and commitments.

You are really encouraged to pursue your dreams in this country. Language learning should be no exception.

And the only thing holding America back from being the greatest multilingual powerhouse the world has ever seen is an attitude, paid for by pseudoscience and fear.

Get rid of that, and a wonderful, new ultra-omniglot United States will come into being, unlike any other country that ever existed!

Languages in Article are Closer than they Appear

Upon studying many languages in a similar area, you begin to realize that each language tells a story—one of its own culture’s relationships with others, one of its own culture’s struggles, and also of its hopes.

Trying to list ways to prove that is something for another time.

But another thing that happens is that you get to see certain pairs of languages which seem uncannily similar to each other.

The fact that English and Icelandic/Faroese share many idiomatic structures shouldn’t surprise anybody (e.g. “I am with child”, made famous from the story of King David, parallels an Icelandic method of indicating ownership by saying “Ég er með…”).

But here are some other pairs that are more surprising.

The fact that English and Modern Hebrew share close idiomatic links is often overlooked by the many Americans and other English speakers who take Hebrew classes every year. This is in part because of the British Mandate of Palestine, but also because of American and English-Language influence on Contemporary Israel.

The American Olim brought their idioms with them from across the Atlantic, and many of them have impacted Modern Hebrew’s development very starkly. There are people in other countries (Germany and the Netherlands come to mind) who do use lots of English words in their native-language speech, but not as often do they translate the idioms into their languages. Modern Hebrew has done exactly that, in too many examples to even count.

For those of you in Hebrew classes: see if you can notice this more often, especially if you are in an upper-level class. (I’m not giving examples here because I’m afraid the left-to-right thing might screw things up a bit…)

Another example of European influence with a non-European language has been the exchange between Danish and Greenlandic (c’mon, you guys know me by now, of course I would mention it!).

Danish favorites, such as “lev vel!” (bye bye, meaning “Live well”, “tak for sidst” (“thanks for the last time”), “vi ses” (“We [will] be seen [by each other again]”) and “velkommen (“welcome”) got translated literally into Greenlandic, courtesy of Oqaasileriffik (the “Greenlandic Language Secretariat”, which creates purist words, place names, and personal names).

I’ll give an example: “Tikilluarit” means “Welcome” in Greenlandic:

Tiki – to come

Luar – to do something well

-it – you (singular

It is a literal translation of “come well”, which is exactly what “welcome” and “velkommen” and its Germanic siblings all convey!

All modern items (computers, typewriters, etc.) can also be conveyed in Greenlandic using Danishisms (computeri, skrivemaskiina, etc)

In their idiomatic structures, Finnish and German are quite similar. Wednesday in both Finnish and German indicates “middle of the week” (“keskiviikko” and “Mittwoch”), whereas in Swedish this isn’t the case.

The compounding of nouns is nearly identical in both languages and the sentence structure in Finnish is closer to German than it would be to Swedish. This is probably due to trade routes, although definitely some German structures that existed in Swedish were thrown over to Finnish as a result of Swedish control of the region.

A surprising amount of cognates similarly exist between Northern Sami and Swedish/Norwegian. One example is that “Stora/Store” (big) becomes “Stuoris”. The word for chair is “stuollu” (stol), the word for fox is “rieban” (my first Northern Sami word, actually, coming from Norwegian “reven”).

I was shocked to see how many of these exist in the language (I can’t speak for the other Sami Languages), and nothing that I saw in Stockholm’s Nordic Museum on the Sami People and Languages alerted me that this would be the case. Like the English idioms in Hebrew, the scope of these import words is quite mind-boggling.

And for a final pair I’ll leave you with Irish and Biblical Hebrew.

Yup. You read that right. A number of my professors mentioned it throughout the years, but I still don’t have a convincing theory as to why this would be the case.

Both languages lack indefinite articles. The idea of prepositions with a personal ending exists in both. The sentence structure in both is so congruent that I find it almost frightening.

That isn’t to say that they are all the same—Irish, like Spanish and Portuguese, differentiates between two states of being (“ser” in Spanish would be “Is” in Irish, and “estar” in Spanish would be “Tá”). In Hebrew, like in Russian, there is no present tense of the verb “to be” in conjugated forms.

There are also some cognates between the other Germanic Languages and Hebrew, “אֶרֶץ” vs. “erde” (German), “לְהַצִיג” vs. “Zeigen” (also German), and others that a professor of mine told me about but don’t come to mind too easily.

One thing that I truly have noticed: sometimes similarities can note a language’s diplomacy and history. But at other times similarities are just coincidences.

I have so many of these throughout my collection of languages and beyond that I could make a case as to how any two languages are related. But just because I can do it doesn’t mean that I should.

Or maybe you’re going to put me up to the challenge?

Reflections on Language Courses

“Language courses are crap”.

Or so one Spanish TA confided to me during my college years.

After about two years of not having any language courses, although having many others self-taught via immersion and conversation, between this week and next week I was thrown back into that world.

There was a time in which I thought that a language course was the only true gateway to learning another tongue.

How silly I was back then.

I’ve noticed something very different about U.S. Language Material shelves and those in various European countries.

The U.S. ones are often stocked with big books and expensive programs, and the variety of languages is regrettably small. However, between brands such as Assimil and Kauderwelsch, the rest of the world does seem to focus a lot on reducing the introduction to a language in a small book.

Guess which one I’ve found more useful?

Moving on…

I’ve had a few days of Hebrew classes since my full-grown polyglot chrysalis hatched earlier this year (I place March-May 2014 as the rough time frame of the hatching).

The one thing that I found the most telling is the fact that, in the Intermediate class (that I was asked to leave because it was too easy for me), the teacher used English more than I was comfortable with, rather than the target language, and spoke particularly slowly.

At literally no point in any of my language learning processes, except for at the very beginning, did I subject myself to material for learners that was deliberately slow (okay, except for Duolingo’s turtle feature).

This sometimes became a bit of a challenge, especially with highly inflected languages (Finnish was my first of the lot), because I remember that trying to process all of the cases took too much mental energy for me during my early stages. But, with persistence and the “just one more episode” mentality, I grew into them.

Another thing; many students just don’t try putting on a separate accent. To be honest, I sometimes find myself guilty of this in Hebrew. Efraim Kishon famously called Israel a land where everybody has an accent and, therefore, nobody has one (very true indeed, but probably truer in his day).

For most of my languages, however, I feel that speaking with too strong an American accent really isn’t an option (hence, I keep a collection of how many nationalities I’ve been mistaken for…but that’s for another time!) I think that, for the benefit of language learners everywhere, I should write a piece about accent reduction.

But for the American crowd: you guys are not alone. One thing I’ve noticed about most language learners (from literally everywhere!) is that they tend to not put on any accent at all.

For whatever its worth, even people from the nations that have a reputation for being “good with languages” (a term that is misleading on all accounts and serves no purpose aside from to comfort lazy efforts) tend to have virtually no different accent when speaking other tongues (English spoken in a Dutch accent is a case in point).

Perhaps as a native English speaker, it becomes a necessity because my goal is to reveal myself as “good enough” so as to keep the conversation in the language that I want.

Now, as to the advanced class: it truly is going to teach me how to deal with texts. But what it doesn’t let me do is “speed up the process”. There is a syllabus spread over the course of several months, and that syllabus doesn’t allow me to go at my own pace.

The fact that I know several other languages well enables me to become more confident when I speak the target language among my classmates. And this confidence really shows (interestingly I felt too self-conscious in my European travels to put this air on most of the time…but maybe when I’m out of the country the next time!)

It is also telling that, in a course, I don’t use the materials that I find the most “fun” to learn my languages (as I did on the immersion roads to fluency). I do what the teacher wants.

On the one hand, this helps my self-discipline. On the other hand, this will complicate my relationship with the target language, because the one thing that will kill all “chemistry” I have with a foreign tongue is the idea that it is being force-fed to me.

Now, as to whether I agree with the idea that language classes are “crap”:

I also have a bit of a suspicion that there might be some in the class that just see the course itself as the road to becoming “good” with the target language.

If I were a language teacher, I would preface my first class with this: it is my goal to guide you through the target language, but if you are to become good, you must do MOST of the work on your own. And that means truly making it a part of your life.

Americans aren’t the only ones who take a language for “x years” and forget it all. This happens everywhere I’ve seen.

I don’t have any talent for what I do.

If I want to learn something, I make it a part of my life. I make it a part of my routine. And the class is certainly part of my routine, but as an obligation upon which a grade of mine is dependent, there is no way that any language course will make me like a certain language more. If anything, it would make me care about it less.

That isn’t to say that I don’t care about the languages with which I have taken classes in (Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and Spanish, and given how many languages I’ve learned without even setting foot in a classroom, this list will probably remain that way forever).

But between an act of love and an act of obedience, there is one task that will always win for me in my heart.

And you can probably guess which one.