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 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])

Polyglot Conference Excitement, Plans and Hopes

After getting back from Iceland (and even before that), I got into a series of tangles that was more dangerous than Hercules’ Hydra. Luckily, the end of result of these tangles was that I published a game, which you can look at and/or purchase here.

(And for those of you wondering, there will be a future installment of “Kaverini” that will serve primarily as a language showcase. Oh, and social commentary too)

Ever since I registered for the Polyglot conference back in June, I had decided to build up a collection with very few new additions so that I could feel confident and secure that I belonged with the “best of the best” in the language-learning world.

For those of you unaware, this is the first time the Polyglot Conference has entered the Western Hemisphere. The conference will be held in October 10-11, and one of my friends from the New York Polyglot Bar scene (Alex Vera) will be presenting on third-culture identities. He is a personality whose lecture you will feel guilty about missing.

So in the coming days, I’ll have a series of posts, inspired by others that I’ve seen, about the essential lessons about learning and life I got from each of my language journeys.

You know what? I’m just gonna go for it right now. And consider this my list of languages that I will use for the conference.

 

English: The journey to acquiring my native language was, nonetheless, a journey. It was different because it took a lot longer but it was the same because it involved the same methods of learning words, for the most part.

When I was a child, I obviously learn the “core vocabulary” from talking to my parents and family members (the 300 words that most commonly appear in a language), but when it came to more complicated words (like “complicated”), I usually learned them from VHS home videos, and it always helped that whenever I encountered a word that I did not know, I asked either of my parents.

grand central

The Lesson: having exposure, in any form, is everything. And even if you don’t understand everything, guides, in any form, will help you. Human ones are obviously the best.

German: Along with Spanish and Hebrew, this was the one language that I felt I “tripped and fell” with the most. I had learned Yiddish to a significant degree beforehand, but what happened as a result was that I had a lot of gaps in my German vocabulary.

Namely, whenever “loshn-koydeshdike verter”  (words from the Holy Tongue), would be used in Yiddish, I blanked on the German equivalent. Lots of words indicating time relations in Yiddish come from Hebrew. Permanently is “l’doyres” (literally, “to / for generations”), during is “be’es” (literally, “in the time [of])

And then there were times that I had to give presentations in class, in German, in front of native speakers, and I slipped up terribly, often having to substitute Yiddish or English words for words I didn’t grasp. And my self-consciousness discouraged me from using German in all social situations, when I very well could have (well, in most).

There was a time that I used a Yiddish word, “landsmanshaft” (namely, the togetherness felt by people who live in the same place), and one of my friends told me (kindly) not to use in in German because some people associate it with Nazism (!)

I felt utterly ashamed at not having tried hard, but I was also struggling with many other things aside from culture shock and not also to mention a fair amount of discouragement from learning from some people, and from my own doubts.

But in the last few months, I found out that a lot of the fear of judgment was just imaginary. I began to buy lots of German-language books for learning other languages. And that was the magic trick that, perhaps long overdue, sealed my journey to fluency.

hochdeutsch

The Lesson: Books are important. Reading is important. And never, ever, ever give up.

Yiddish: The first language I thought that I genuinely got good at, the only time I recently struggle with it was when I was asked to explain a development of a video game I was then working on (and am still working on) and just…could not…

But the reason that I got good at it was because of the Yiddish Farm summer program, in which English was banned in an informal capacity.

idishflag

The Lesson: Shut out your native language = progress

Norwegian: There were few times I fell for a language as hard as I did for Norwegians. My Swedish friends all loved the sounds and the rhythms of the Oslo dialect, and there were many other fluent English speakers that said that it was very easy to get to grips with, not also to mention quite useful. (The amount of Norwegian-related requests and jobs on the market is surprisingly shocking to anyone who expects it to be “useless”. It has probably been the most solicited of my language services).

I had trouble with all of the languages I learned, but surprisingly, I had the least with Norwegian. Supportive native speakers, an accent that was very similar to that of British English, and enough learning materials to choke on.

But what really helped me the most was my enthusiasm, which made effort effortless.

max mekker scream

The Lesson: If you “fall in love” with a language, act immediately, and act passionately!

Danish: A sheer mention of this language will strike fear in the heart of a Swedish-learner. I know, because I’ve seen it happen many times. The swallowed letters, the glottal stops, the plethora of vowel sounds (but not a plethora of vowel-letters).

Put it shortly, I could read Danish, I could understand it (but that took a LONG time, and a LOT of hours of TV to do so), but at several points I consigned myself to the fact that I would never manage to have any active usage of it. Especially when spoken.

But thanks largely to the amount of exposure which I had, not only from the TV but also from the product labels in Sweden, I realized that I had a lot more power in the language than I thought I did. I remember having my first few conversations, and my thoughts all throughout was, “I thought I would never get here…ever since the beginning…”

And so it was.

dansk i graekenland

The Lesson: It’s always impossible until you actually do it. Therefore, true impossibility in regards to language learning = nil.

Swedish – Oh Lord. My first exposure to Swedish was shortly after my maternal grandmother died, leaving behind, among other things, letters from my ancestors written in Swedish.

At that time, I was gearing up for a work opportunity in Stockholm. So my goal was twofold: (1) complete the work and (2) learn Swedish, if for nothing but the letters.

There were those Swedes who were VERY supportive of my efforts, and others (a minority, I should add) who deemed it to be a waste of time.

Even in the United States, my results were mixed. Some were just barely impressed, others were positively infatuated. I was told that I spoke like an American, a German, a Finn, and like a long-time resident of Stockholm. All throughout the same journey.

But all the time, I kept on making progress, regardless of what anyone told me or how anyone reacted. The fact that it was more “difficult” for me to impress Swedes than those of many other nationalities actually added to my motivation!

And at some point, I thought that the importance for myself (being a fourth-generation Swedish American) outweighed any criticism I may receive.

And another thing? The better you get, the less skepticism you’ll encounter, and the chances of people forcing English upon you will reduce to nothing!

I should also add that without the helpful folks at the Heidelberger Sprachcafe, it is likely that I would have forgotten the language altogether!

norden

The Lesson: Don’t worry about not impressing people or discouragement. Just get better. If you just keep on going, you’ll get good enough to impress everyone. Eventually.

Dutch – The first thing that I bring up about my Dutch journeys is this: In 2013, when I visited the Netherlands and Belgium for the first time, I had a fair (although not really fluent) Dutch under my belt (I really didn’t get that until earlier this year).

But in the Netherlands, I did get a lot of people responding in English, but in Belgium, I didn’t. Outside of the country, however, I got the opposite: I got Dutch people responding in Dutch but Belgians responding in English.

After a significant amount of practice (which is always easier written than done…imagine no English media for weeks on end…), the responding in English problem just…disappeared…

It occurred to me after my Icelandic venture exactly what I did wrong.

The biggest problem you are having in getting people to respond in the language?

STOP SOUNDING LIKE A LEARNER.

I remember when I ordered in Dutch for one of the first times that I emphasized every single word a bit too much. When I offered it quite quickly and without hesitation (without. Emphasizing. Every. Single. Word. Like. This), then I didn’t have to worry about being responded to in English.

vlaanderen

The Lesson: Learn to stop sounding like a learner. Varies from language to language, but you want to sound composed, and “like you know what you are doing?” And speak in complete sentences as often as possible! I cannot stress that last bit enough!

 

Finnish – A funny story during my stay in Helsinki. I ordered a shot of Vodka, in Finnish, using the English name for the flavor (it didn’t have the Finnish name on the menu), and I got responded to in English.

Less than five minutes later, I ordered a beer, without a word of English, and he responded to me in Finnish, as though I weren’t even the same person!

Another thing I accidentally did was I overdid the “don’t say words unless you have to” thing, because some English guidebooks told me I was in the “land of the Silent Finn” (an image that can be disproved if you ever heard FinnAir stewardesses talking amongst themselves for more than a minute).

When I toned it down to not saying anything, I got answered in English, because that was taken as a sign that I didn’t know what I was doing / saying.

Your ability to say something (or your inability to say something) will indicate whether using the local language on you is a safe move. Give enough signs to show that it is, and you’ll never worry about being answered in English again!

maamme

The Lesson: Regardless of what other components may be present, the biggest thing that ensures whether or not you get answered in the local language as opposed to English is your choice of words, your delivery, and, in some cases your behavior.

Hebrew:

This lesson is one that is tied up with both Ancient Hebrew and Yiddish.

There are lots of words that mean one thing in Ancient Hebrew and another in Modern, and, even more jarringly, a word that has two different meanings in both Modern Hebrew and Yiddish.

“Agala”? Hebrew for “Vehicle”. Spell it the same way in Yiddish, “Agole?” A hearse!

And most of the other examples that I can think of are not suitable for a family blog.

But from between the two Hebrews, “Teyva” is a box in Modern Hebrew. In Ancient Hebrew, it also refers to…the Ark…as in Noah’s Ark.

The idea of Noah’s Ark being a cardboard box. Now that’s something.

yisrael

The Lesson: When a word gets taken from one language to another, it takes on another identity, that is separate from the one it has in another language.

Northern Sami: One time at Scandinavia House NYC, I went to a Sami Theater presentation and I actually encountered a player from one of my favorite TV shows. Upon conducting what was my first-ever conversation in Northern Sami, I got stared at by a lot of the audience, as though I were a celebrity!

I was told afterwards, “I just love the sounds of that language…” and just one compliment after another…

And this was for a language that sometimes I got told was a useless endeavor!

sapmi

The Lesson: Learn Somebody’s Language, Become Somebody’s Hero. True Story.

French Unlike many other polyglots, I have to admit that my command of French is very sub-par indeed. But hopefully, thanks to its similarities with English and the endless possibilities to use it, I’ll get conversational by the time October rolls around.

Back in July 2014 I committed to learning both French and Faroese. I became fluent in one and I became just barely capable to speak another. Interestingly, my ability to read French is quite good, but when it comes to a Polyglot conference that sadly doesn’t count for much.

I did not pour hours into French (either learning it or getting exposure) the way I did with other languages. But given the relative lack of progress, I’m glad to say that I know at least something and can say some things and have a good accent, too.

rf

The Lesson: Something is better than nothing.

Spanish – I messed up with this language more than any other. Fact. I had trouble making myself understood to some, I had problems using correct grammar, I certainly had problems communicating with native speakers. Part of this may be due to the fact that, as an American, I realize that many other like me have attempted to learn Spanish to fluency and didn’t hit anywhere near the mark.

But I will play no blame-game of the sort.

Thanks largely to high school but also living in New York City and my experiences with “hispanohablantes” in Poland, I realized that I couldn’t erase my progress completely with this language. Even if I tried. Which is one reason why, however poorly I may speak this language now, it will come back in October with a vengeance!

ay yay yay

The Lesson: You never truly forget a language. At least, you always remember something.

Greenlandic – Trying to navigate this language was like trying to navigate a dungeon controlled by a maniac. Always another trap, always another thing to look out for, but some sense of logicality present overall…

The only real problem I have with Greenlandic grammar (maligned by many, even in Greenland, as being extraordinarily difficult) is choosing what order to stack suffixes, but even that only becomes a minor issue that can largely be sidestepped. I’ve written enough on Greenlandic as is. I can’t spend too much of this blog post to write more on it.

I found vocabulary throughout my Greenlandic journey more difficult to process than for any other language.

Despite all of the shortcomings, and the fact that sometimes I worried about whether my abilities were good enough, I carried on.

I cannot say that I speak Greenlandic absolutely perfect. But I could have very well folded at any point. Good thing I didn’t.

kalaallit nunaat

The Lesson: Above all, focus on what you do have. That which you don’t have will come.

Irish – I deemed this my hardest language of the bunch a significant amount of times. But after getting used to its significantly, the pronunciation, the orthography, the clash of dialects, and, of course, the grammar, sometimes I wonder why I even thought it was hard to begin with.

I see a lot of words in common with the Romance languages, a pronunciation system that, with lots and lots of practice, actually comes to make sense and, in short, nothing that I should be afraid of.

Oh, and also a lot of English words that Irish-speakers tend to throw into their speech. But this is also the case with about half of the languages on this list.

eire

The Lesson: It doesn’t seem so hard when you’ve done it. Then you wonder why you were so scared.

 

Faroese – I learned Faroese pronunciation through songs and, to a lesser degree, my German-Language Faroese book. There are lots and lots of beautiful songs written in the language and ones that will no doubt enchant all of you as well.

But looking back, this was a journey that I would have ended as soon as I started it if it were not for the new songs that I would otherwise have no clue existed. And with each language on this list, my collection of songs keeps on growing.

foroyar

The Lesson: Media in a Language is an all-around good: It keeps you motivated, it helps you learn, and it helps you maintain the language.

Cornish – Ah, the comments I got about this one. “Don’t just five people speak it?” “Why bother if only a few hundred know it?”

Sometimes I found myself affected. But then I kept in mind that Cornish is being heavily promoted in Cornwall and is basically a free ticket to employment if you know it well.

I’m not very good with Cornish right now, in fact, it is without a doubt my weakest language, but if I were stronger I would end this with the words “who’s laughing now?”

kernow

The Lesson: Don’t let others tell you what is a useful language and what isn’t.

Tok Pisin – I made quick progress in Tok Pisin because I would use it with my family members (some of which now “hate” the language quite passionately…ah, what can I do…). My family members, all of which (sadly) speak only English (and many have convinced themselves that this will always be the case), could understand the basic ideas of Pidgin English phrases, so I used this to get quick practice.

I couldn’t do this with too many of the other languages on this list.

I made sprints in learning this language, a lot less so because it resembled English and had simple grammar and more so because I actually used it more often than many others.

png

The Lesson: Use your skills at all possible times for maximum improvement.

Breton – This is a funny one. I remember having my first conversation in Breton over the summer. I actually went to an event in Brooklyn, but I misunderstood the brochure—I thought it was going to be a Breton Conversation Hour. Instead, it was Breton for absolute beginners.

I show up, but I had limiting speaking practice at this point .While speaking to the teacher, there was one key point that I knew from when before I even spoke my first word of the language…namely…

In Breton, you should (in general) ALWAYS accent the penultimate syllable!

It was shocked how much effort I put into learning lots of phrases on the train, but when it came to the flow of conversation…I was put off by the simplest detail!

Nevertheless, the teacher was pleased. Not only that, but the teacher was late, which meant that I had to teach the class for a bit until she showed up!

breizh

The Lesson: The small things you don’t notice can count for a lot.

Icelandic – I told the entire story here. I’m not really repeating it. TL;DR: the Internet told me that I would never get answered in Icelandic if I used the local language. The Internet, for one out of many times, was wrong. Very wrong. In fact, the amount of times I got answered in English I could count on my fingers. And all of them were at the hotel.

island

The Lesson: Don’t believe language-learner horror stories.

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?

Playing Favorites? (October 2014 Edition)

One fine evening in New York that probably wasn’t as cold as it is now, I was asked on not a few occasions if I had a favorite language.

As much as I love all of my commitments, the fact is that I cannot budget everything equally (and I think that almost no one can) and therefore I (and many other polyglots) do end up playing favorites by default.

Don’t believe me? Have a look at the tag categories above.

And should you have the good fortune to have read other blogs written by those who have learned multiple languages in adulthood, expect something similar: some languages are mentioned in their writing more than others, and it is clear that the levels are not all the same and that those that are the best are likely those that they put the most time into.

IMG_3129

A Restaurant in Hania’s Old Town

That being said, I believe that there are multiple ways to choose favorites, and while I have no favorite language overall, I can say that I play favorites in specific categories.

And should you want to ask me for more categories, nothing is stopping you.

For one, most people who are not polyglots usually judge a language just by virtue of its sound. And concerning my favorite language sound-wise, there is a very clear-winner:

norsk flagg

Norsk Bokmål, as spoken in Oslo in particular, has maintained an allure for me every since I first heard it in Stockholm. The fact that it is very closely related to English in many regards gave me further incentive to commit time to the project.

One thing I noted about Norwegian Language Learners is that they tend to hop right into native-level material (even if for kids) a lot earlier than learners of many of the common “high school” languages (Spanish and French being the best well-known).

About the sound: most people from the rest of Scandinavia note that Standard Norwegian has a unique rhythm that is reminiscent of a lilting song.

Many of my Swedish friends are very much enchanted by the language and call it “magnificient” and “wonderful” and many other varieties of praise-laden names.

I was also recently asked by someone if there are localizations of well-known animated classics into Norwegian. Yes. Very much so…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIAibXgN2Lo

Then there is the system of a language, the way it works and the way words and sentences are formed. Again, a clear winner here:

kalaallit nunaat

When asked to describe how Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic) works, I will usually give people examples like these:

 

Sila = weather

Silarsuaq = world, the universe (literally: “big weather”)

Anori = wind

Anorersuaq = storm (“big wind”)

Nuna = land

Nunarsuaq = planet earth (“big land”)

Nunavissuaq = continent (land + place where something is found or done + big)

Illu = house

Illorsuaq = mansion (you get the idea)

Illoqarfik = city, village (house + have + place where something is found or done)

Pinnguaq = toy (something + little)

Pinnguarpoq = he/she/it plays (The dividing line between verbs and nouns in Greenlandic is so thin that some scholars argue that a division between them doesn’t exist)

 

Much like mathematics, virtually the entire language, minus loanwords (mostly from Danish) works in this fashion. There are suffixes that all have functions that you need to learn (not unlike mathematical signs).

Greenlandic is also home to my favorite word in any language, “qaqqaqaqaaq” (there are lots of mountains).

When I described this language to my mother (who only speaks English), she told me that the language “sounds easy”.

There are only two real difficulties with Greenlandic: (1) relative lack of learning materials (especially if you don’t know Danish) and (2) the fact that it is very much different from any language that is commonly studied (i.e. don’t rely on any cognates whatsoever, unless you have studied other Inuit languages).

And here is the language as spoken by Paul Barbato, an American (watch the other videos in the channel for the backstory):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4cyMEOkhU4

Another important aspect is taste, and this time there is no clear winner, and I would tie Danish and Yiddish for first place:

Much like German and Dutch, Danish is also heavily insulted by many just by virtue of its sound. Drunk Norwegian is one of the tamer names I’ve heard, with the harshest being the unfortunate but memorable “Danish sounds like vomiting”.

Of the languages of Europe that are spoken by more than 1 million people, the two that are most closely related are Danish and (Standard) Norwegian. The written languages in particular are very close, but as one of my Swedish friends said, “I can read Danish, but when spoken, it sounds as strange to me as Chinese”.

As to Yiddish, it is probably the West Germanic Language that gets insulted the least but made fun of the most.

I have written on both of them here and here.

And now as to the languages that changed my life the most:

Two-way tie with two honorable mentioned: Greenlandic and Yiddish, and honorable mentions Finnish and Modern Hebrew.

Greenlandic enabled me to glimpse the culture of an island that everyone on the planet is familiar with but tend to not think of as a place where people live. The “push-pull” between the Inuit and Danish spheres of influence is a source of creative tension that powers the entire culture of the country. I myself am vegetarian and I dread the thought of seal meat. What I do not dread, however, is the world that opened up to me as a result of my venture and how it changed the way I see everything in the Americas in particular.

Yiddish is also a tension between many European elements and the cultures of the holy tongue (as far as Yiddish is concerned, this is a blend between Hebrew and Aramaic). It also enabled me to understand my culture in a way that most Jews today just cannot fathom, not just as texts or politics or prayers but as a way to taste life—a flavor concocted from too many lands to list.

As to Finnish, J.R.R. Tolkien taught himself the language and likened it to a wine cellar that few people venture into. The languages that he (make that “we”) created share influences from this language (What’s it with Finnish enthusiasts creating artificial languages? There must be something in it…as we would say, “katsokaa itse!” [see for yourself!]).

But most people associate Finnish with “being difficult” and little else.

And it is a shame…because Finnish has a tendency to be quite absurdly logical most of the time. I have never heard Hebrew described as an immensely hard language…

As for Modern Hebrew itself, it is a cultural salad, not unlike Yiddish, Dutch, and Estonian (and definitely many other languages about which I have scant knowledge).

Before Modern Hebrew, the language was merely something scriptural, something used for prayer.

After Modern Hebrew, it became the result of a grand experiment as to what would happen if you took a holy language and let it travel the world for a long time.

The result makes you think more about how a language can evolve, and where our languages are going and where they could go.

Quite a thought…

My First Adventure at New York City’s Polyglot Bar

My image of the Polyglot Bar NYC that I conjured via the articles written about it was a place that had every major language in the whole world represented among its attendees.

As it turns out, I was fairly surprised to find out that there were about thirty people present, and half of them spoke Yiddish (myself included). There were more Yiddish speakers than speakers of Italian or Portuguese present, actually!

Wonderful. A bit odd. Cute. I really liked it. Will do it again in two weeks.

Some of my reflections:

  1. As a general rule, Americans never gave me the “why did you learn this?” spiel.

 

My name tag listed the languages that I knew and Northern Sami was among them (which I was definitely willing to practice, even though I consider myself quite weak). I was heartily congratulated by someone for having taken on that task. Apparently the only reactions I had from having the very rare languages listed were amazement.

 

There were those that asked me why I had the desire to learn Finnish or Dutch however. I could easily mention my Masters’ Thesis as my motivation to learn Finnish, but for Dutch I was left completely out in the cold. I went to the Netherlands as a tourist, yes, but so do many other people. And I think I’m the only person I know personally who went to the Netherlands as a tourist and learned the local language to an okay degree beforehand (my discipline wasn’t nearly as strong then as it is now…)

 

While in Heidelberg I got the “why did you choose this language?” question quite often…about pretty much anything that wasn’t too commonly studied. While in Europe, I got this from quite a few people:

 

“How did you decide upon that? Did you just wake up one morning and then decide, ‘y’know what? I’m gonna learn Greenlandic!’”

 

Yes, part of me thinks it is cute, but I’m also very grateful that I don’t have to put up with it here. Or, at least, not as much.

 

  1. I was the only speaker of any Scandinavian Language present

 

During my first semester in Heidelberg in which I was Sprachcafe-ing, this was also the case, but in the second year in Heidelberg this almost never happened. Swedish-speaking Germans from the University courses would show up, sometimes the occasional Dane or Norwegian as well (as well as native Swedish speakers, of course).

 

Interestingly I was not the only speaker of a Finno-Ugric Language present. As for Inuit languages, I usually expect to be the only one in the room that has any knowledge of them. Part of me likes it that way, but another part of me would be thrilled if and when it weren’t the case.

 

  1. People really were interested in trying out phrases in other languages

 

An Italian Speaker wanted to know how to say some basic things in Danish. Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish similarly got sampled by some of the people I spoke with. (Why is it always the Nordic Languages that have this appeal?)

 

Here’s the thing, though: don’t expect to say “God Morgen!” (Danish, not Norwegian) correctly on your first try. But come to think of it, I would pay good money to hear Danish spoken in an Italian accent…or maybe I should just watch Disney films dubbed into Danish? (Lady and the Tramp comes to mind…)

 

  1. The most enthusiastic small crowd I’ve seen all year!

I almost wrote “the most enthusiastic crowd I’ve seen all year”, but then it occurred to me that I was in Germany in July 2014 when they won the FIFA World Cup…so much for that title…

  1. Duolingo really worked wonders for me

 

I actually got laughed at when I told someone that I learned Portuguese from Duolingo (translated from the conversation, to my vague recollection: “That must have taken you an awfully long time, week after week of practicing…”). I was so comfortable with some conversations, one in particular in which I didn’t flinch at all, that I realized that I needed to, in accordance with some advice I had received, get into native learning materials.

 

Therefore, as of this morning, I have quit the Duolingo Portuguese course (because it was a bit of a hassle for me to complete the tree) and will train the language solely with television and conversations from now on. The training wheels are gone!

 

Therefore, two things: (1) My Portuguese is now at a conversational level and (2) I replaced the Portuguese with the New Irish course!

 

Brief aside about Irish: my professor (Viktor Golinets from Heidelberg) told me that Irish had the same sentence structure as Biblical Hebrew. He’s totally right!

 

  1. I didn’t feel nearly as self-conscious about German as I did most of the time when I lived in the country. The confidence difference really showed.

 

If only I trained myself to not be so scared as early as April 2013. But old habits die hard. This lack-of-confidence thing is hopefully dead for good. If it wasn’t before, it certainly is after last night.

 

  1. Sometimes I feel self-conscious with native speakers, but no self-consciousness at all with people whom I did not sense to be native speakers.

 

This will just required a pinch of mental discipline on my behalf.

 

  1. Near the very end, I began mixing up languages because I was a bit tired and overheated. But I’ve noticed something: only within the same families.

 

German and Yiddish were the biggest offenders, but interestingly I never mixed up the West Germanic (German, Yiddish, Dutch) with the North Germanic (Scandinavian).

 

Obviously part of this has to do with the fact that I am a hopeless romantic for languages (and lots of other things, too) and sometimes I just need a bit of focus.

 

But I obviously know what the cure is…

 

Going to the Polyglot Bar a SECOND TIME!