Gulf Arabic and Thai Airport Mission Results: Minor Successes, Not Optimal, but Important Things to Reflect on

Here I am in the United States, more tired than I have ever been in my entire life. Nearly two weeks of absence from my blog, and I have finally returned.

The last I wrote on this blog, I committed to learning a tiny bit of Gulf Arabic, a tiny bit of Thai, as well as Burmese to a Tourist Level.

Gulf Arabic for my Dubai stopovers? Well…I did prepare a significant amount of very essential vocabulary (and yes, the Middle East phrasebook arrived on time!), but, as it turns out, given how (1) I wasn’t buying anything in any of the shops and (2) expatriates outnumber local significantly in the United Arab Emirates (this was even MORE pronounounced in the Airport, where it often felt significantly more Southern Asian at times…I should also note that I heard Hebrew spoken at the airport!)

When I tried to engage security personnel in Arabic, they virtually ignored me. But maybe I’m missing on something. I’ve heard that in Jordan (for which I failed to prepare Arabic on account of my school schedule), even a few words may get you the response “You speak Arabic better than I do!” from a local (I think it was the Rough Guide to Jordan that said this…)

Anyhow, it seems that I’ll pivot from Gulf Arabic to the Iraqi variety (but it’s not going to be my main focus). Why? I told someone at a language exchange that I would like to learn Iraqi Arabic out of curiosity, and because I studied Ancient History (among other things) in college, and I got told (on multiple occasions). “WHY? ISIS practically destroyed everything there…” (Keep in mind that I have no intention to travel to the country at this point at all, although interacting with Iraqis everywhere else would be a fantastic endeavor!)

So, did I fail? This was a surprise mission after all, but I managed to learn quite a lot under the circumstances, and I think I would be able to hold my own in an emergency situation.

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Also the first time I’ve spent Ramadan (for any amount of time) in a Muslim Country. Would have never predicted that I would have arrived at 3 AM in an airport. Wowie.

Now, as for Thai…

Yeah, WAAAY too tired to have prepared it properly on the plane. And I decided to go with an app that I wasnt used to (the Japan-based LingoCards) rather than using the sturdy Mango Languages (which I think is fantastic for “activating” a basic language, actually).

That said, I was capable of using “Hello” and “Thank You”, as well as “Where is…?” The phrasebook helped.

Lesson Learned: If you expect yourself to be tired in a given situation, prepare yourself. I remember that I used to be a fire dancer and fire stuntsman in college (True story!) One thing I was told…that when you are ACTUALLY dancing with fire, expect it to go more quickly. Same here. Expecially if you haven’t had experience with a language, expect to be slower and a lot less quick-witted when using the language with other people in comparison to your exercises by yourself. This is doubly true if travel is weighing you down.

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Bangkok’s Legendary Airport + Self-Proclaimed Legendary Hyperpolyglot

Now, ordinarily, I would write something about how I managed with Burmese during the two-week-plus trip, but that’s worthy of a post in its own.

The bad: I got answered in English more often there than any other place (with the exception of the Netherlands), and this is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that few Burmese are fluent in English.

The good: managed myself using Burmese in almost every single situation (with the exception of the hotel, which is an anomaly for multiple reasons I’ll discuss in another post). I can plainly say that I have mastered basic Burmese although I am not fluent.

And, of course, next week will feature posts on Danish (in honor of the…closest thing they have to a national day) and Swedish (in honor of the Day of the Swedish Flag). Neither of them will follow the patterns I’ve laid out for the previous National Day posts.

And I should probably get some rest.

Myanmar Saga + Extra Double-Feature Daredevil Language Mission!

Tomorrow I head off to the Golden Land (Myanmar / Burma).

As a Yiddishist I am actually amused by the fact that a popular Yiddish name for the United States was (and remains) “di goldene medine” (also meaning “The Golden Land”, or somewhat more accurately, “the golden country”). I’m hopping one from Golden Country to another, so it seems.

On one hand, I feel significantly confident in my ability to say a lot of “touristy” things in Burmese, although I’m not fluent (and I have problems reading the Burmese script, too!).

This is my first tonal language that I’ve taken seriously since my “polyglot awakening” in 2013 or so, and as a result I’m quite worried about whether I’m getting it right but luckily the fact that I have a musical ear certainly hasn’t hurt.

Where am I? Well, let me put it this way: part of me feels that I’m walking into a test that I haven’t studied for. At all. And that this test determines my future.

But another part of me feels that I’m entering into the testing room with as many “cheat sheets” as I want.

Now, time for me to tell you that I got caught off guard!

Apparently I have layovers in the United Arab Emirates and in Thailand (and Thailand only on the way there).

So you know what this means:

I’m also on a mission to see how much Gulf Arabic I can learn on the plane to Dubai, as well as elementary Thai on the way there.

(This, in addition to Burmese, which will be in quite good shape, I think, after three weeks).

Time for me to layout my plans:

 

Burmese:

myanmarsaga

I’m gonna have to memorize as many phrases in “Birmanisch für Myanmar – Wort für Wort” to the best of my ability, including how to put sentences together and all that fun stuff. The fact that my life may depend on knowing this stuff means that my memory is probably going to go into Jedi mode. I’ll see how well I do (or how badly I do).

What’s more, I also have five Burmese Memrise courses in offline mode on my phone, including a complete guide to the characters. I know that various Pali loan words are not pronounced the way they are spelled (see my previous post on Burmese here), but I expect to be able to read Burmese by the time I set foot in Mandalay for the first time.

Interestingly this is my least urgent mission. I got time for this. My most urgent mission would be.

 

Surprise Gulf Arabic EXTRAVAGANZA!

UAE

 

If only I found out that I was having a layover in Dubai literally two days ago, I would have a book (I wasn’t told this due to miscommunication. My parents are the ones that are bringing me along to play translator).

I managed to get the Lonely Planet Middle Eastern Phrasebook purchased online. It will come to me tomorrow, and I hope that it will arrive before the shuttle to the airport does.

But even if that doesn’t happen, I have other tools for Gulf Arabic, namely a Peace Corps Guide (primarily aimed at Saudi Arabia) that is 300 pages long, as well as a Japanese-based Gulf Arabic app, and the free preview for the Gulf Arabic Kauderwelsch book (I wouldn’t underestimate those free previews given how helpful one of them was for me in Iceland).

Thanks to me having done Dari on Mango Languages (to help improve Tajik), the Arabic alphabet isn’t as strange to me as, let’s say, Thai characters.

I’m focusing on the casual Gulf Arabic for this time. Will probably only use in the airplanes or on the airports. But at least that will be enough to write an article on. I hope.

I am reminded of one of my friends, a fluent speaker of Egyptian Arabic, who remarked that Gulf Arabic sounded like “frog talk”. Part of me has dreamed of learning it ever since.

What do I intend to do? Go through the books and the apps on the plane, and the book (that will hopefully arrive!) using mnemonics along the way. Write as much as I can. If there are native speakers I can interact with, great! This will be a challenge I remember!

 

Thai: Something New

 

thailand

 

Got an Italki language exchange partner who wanted to learn Northern Sami from me (which I forgot a while ago but am relearning bit-by-bit to prepare for the lessons). She’s teaching me elementary Thai in exchange and I’m enchanted by everything about it, the same way that I am enchanted with…pretty much every language I’ve ever studied.

Thanks to her help I’m headed into this situation with more wisdom than with my “see how much Gulf Arabic you can learn in a day” assignment.

I still have zilch idea how to read. At all.

But I am capable of speaking. A little bit, but I’m capable of that little bit.

And that is something.

PLAN: Same as for the Gulf Arabic one, except for I’ll be studying it on the plane from Dubai to Bangkok. I also won’t be studying this for the “way back” trip.

 

Vanishing for the Vacation.

 

I’m not going to be writing posts during my trip to Myanmar (May 10th – May 29th). I’ll even leave my computer at home.

I’ll miss all of you, but I really, REALLY look forward to sharing the results of my daredevilry with all of you!

 

Another announcement:

 

I WILL BE PRESENTING AT THE POLYGLOT CONFERENCE IN REYKJAVIK, 2017!

 

“Using Video Games to Learn and Maintain Languages”.

 

I’ll get to that soon enough. But first I have to take on some adventures.

 

While I’m my adventures, I’ll be thinking of you, dear reader, and knowing that I can share my ventures as inspiration to make your linguistic dreams come true!

See you in June!

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Are Some Languages Harder Than Others?

Ah, yes, one topic guaranteed to get clicks!

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Helsinki, 2013

I should begin by mentioning the previous “schools” that I am aware of concerning the ranking language difficulties. Keep in mind that for this article I have primarily native English speakers in mind, without taking into account other languages that they may know to whatever degree:

 

  • Most well-known is the Foreign Service Institute’s rankings, captured in way too many infographs throughout the web so I won’t post the extensive list here. The short version: Romance Languages and most Germanic Languages are the easiest, Swahili Indonesian and German a bit harder, most languages in the world are hard but not the hardest, which would go to the Chinese Languages, Korean, Arabic and Japanese.

 

(I’ve heard that “Arabic” in this case actually indicates either “MSA” or “extensive knowledge of all dialects”, surprisingly, not clear what a lot of people mean by “Arabic” when they say it, even in the Language Learning World [ESPECIALLY in that sphere, come to think of it!]. That said, I played around with some Arabic dialects for tiny tastes here and there but nothing devoted. No interest in learning MSA at the present moment).

 

The gist of the list is this: easier languages require less time to speak at a good level. I see some validity in this. No doubt between learning a language like Galician (a sibling of Castilian Spanish and Portuguese that didn’t go on and take over the world) and Gujarati (an Indo-Aryan language spoken on India’s westernmost coast), I and almost anyone with a knowledge of English would find it easier to “sprint” with Galician, even as a monolingual native English speaker.

That does NOT mean that sprinting with something like Gujarati is impossible, only that it requires more mental focus or, in some cases, mental gymnastics (prepare for either a lot of out-loud repetition or heavy-duty memory techniques!)

The biggest weakness of the list, in my opinion, is that it isn’t too extensive and that it just covers primary official languages without going further. Curious to see where Irish or Greenlandic or Tok Pisin, or even Haitian Creole, would stack up!

 

  • The Benny Lewis school (which, to be fair, really helped me get over some of my difficulties with languages like Finnish and Hebrew), the idea that all languages are equally difficult and that some languages that are touted as “difficult” actually are simplified in other regards.

Without a doubt, from the vantage point of the English speaker, Lewis’ argument has some validity, as anyone who has ever TRIED a “hard” language with this mindset and succeeded can attest to.

One thing that frustrates me is the idea that often people read a lot about a “hard” language online. These tend to read like fact-lists of grammatical phenomena, but rarely if ever are they actually written about someone who has actually learned it. (And in the rare case that it is, as I may have seen on finland.fi or the like, it actually DOES contain encouragement).

The attitude presented as such is vital. It can help people who are struggling with a language very dissimilar from English (such as what I have with, let’s say, Welsh or Burmese at the present moment).

It also manages to magnify the fact that, yes, there are some portions of “easy” languages like Spanish that are actually insanely difficult when actually looked at. (Spanish verb conjugation is a page, but Burmese verb conjugation is a paragraph, if not actually a few sentences).

 

BUT!

There is something missing from both of these ideas, and its one that I’ve almost never encounter anyone else bring up before, which is why I needed to write this, and that is…

 

A Language’s Political Power Makes It Easy to Engage With.

 

Careful!

Engage with =/= learn!

If I wanted to, I could live my entire life in French somewhere. My computer is available in it, almost all major video games and other software programs on the market are available in it, there’s dubbing, and more political support than a language could hope for. In short, one of the most powerful languages on the planet.

A language like French, German, or Mandarin is the easiest to engage with. If you want to start putting what you’ve learned to practice, you can start within seconds. In some globalized cities, you can even just walk outside and encounter native speakers.

A notch beneath is a national language of (what is usually) a particular country or a handful of countries. Swedish, Indonesian, Hungarian and Vietnamese would fit squarely into this category. Often there is a lot of tech support available in this language, although not a lot of (or ANY) film dubbing (and having film dubbing, outside of those for children’s programming, usually ensures that it is one of the most powerful languages on the planet, Ukrainian would be the exception that proves the rule, in my opinion).

These are easy to engage with online but not AS easy as the ones that will flood you with lifetimes’ worth of material within seconds.

Sometimes included in this category are some regional languages of very powerful states (e.g. a handful of regional languages of India, Indonesia or Spain).

Then comes the genuine minority or regional language, varying a lot in their positions, or certain local languages that, while commonly spoken where they are, often are deemed “less prestigious” than European colonial tongues (Tok Pisin and Tetum from East Timor come to mind immediately). Other examples would include Breton or Faroese.

While the Internet still provides tons of materials for languages like these, especially if they’re from Europe, you’ll notice that it is a lot scarcer. What’s more, some languages, like Quechua or Cornish, have an extraordinary dearth of programming, but hopefully the future will change that.

Then come local languages such as those spoken within even smaller communities than that. I have only met a handful of people EVER that have managed this task, and often by becoming a genuine friend of these communities (these are languages that, I would say, would exist on Wikipedia but their respective wikis would be very, VERY small! Imagine languages of small indigenous communities. Some Melanesian musicians, such as Sharzy from the Solomon Islands or Daniel Bilip from Papua New Guinea, will lapse into such languages)

 

But hold on, Jared! Certainly you don’t mean to say that Bislama (the third category) would be harder to learn that Japanese (first category)

No.

But often your ability to rehearse and get better at a language makes it easier to maintain and easier to get a vocabulary.

So how does this tie into difficulty?

Allow me to explain:

I refer to some of my languages that I have “activated”, which means that I have mastered basic elements of grammar, can conjugate basic and general verb forms in a past, present and future, understand how adjectives work, understand how cases work (if the language has cases) and how articles and sentence structure function.

Once you get a very good grasp on these, then having the language is a bit like a “bicycle skill”, one that you never truly forget even if you haven’t done it in the longest time.

Case in point: I abandoned Russian and Polish for several years but throughout all of this time I could distinguish verbs from adjectives and make them fit grammatical in sentences.

Once you have “activated” a language in this manner, and acquired a core vocabulary of 300 words or so, then it comes the time to improve it.

Improving it is going to be easier for a more politically powerful language.

In short, the list that I provided above is a difficulty on how to improve, whereas the FSI’s list actually determines difficult to activate.

Two different types of learning, both radically different difficulty levels. One can be very easy in one and absolutely impossible in the other.

Have fun activating and improving!

 

Dysgu Cymraeg

RAWR! said the Welsh Dragon! And yes, that’s cartoon me in the picture!