How Do So Many Languages Fit in Your Head?

Ah, yes, a topic that has been requested for a long time!

I’d like to dedicate this post to Paul DuCett for our Facebook-reminded Friend-versary. Granted, he’s someone who doesn’t have a lot of problems with this in the least, with very convincing accents in most of his languages (that I’ve heard him speak). But I thought that I’d let the world know that he’s an inspiration in my life as well as to many others around him.

Also, the topic was requested by another friend of mine, Dan Haworth, who is also an extraordinary role model and language enthusiast.

Hey, if you have any topics to request, I’m glad to hear them! Write ‘em in the comments!

Aaaand…onward!

Online as well as offline, I encounter people who speak five or six languages very well, and they say “I have enough confusion as-is, I couldn’t possibly imagine the sort of confusion you encounter”

Do I encounter confusion? Undoubtedly.

Do I find a way to minimize it? Read on!

Arieh Smith (of Ari in Beijing fame) once asked me what my biggest strength was, and here comes the answer:

The one extraordinary strength that I have is that I can make connections between events, words and many other things with great ease.

How does this relate to having a lot of languages fit in my head?

Well, you as a human being have a lot of senses, and as a result you usually associate things you remember with more than one sensory element. (Imagine the setup of your room, for example, that you may associate with feelings, scents, etc.)

One thing I do in order to minimize confusion is that I ensure that the languages to which I commit myself are not just words, but also canisters of experiences that I have had with them.

Let’s take a language with which I have been overwhelming successful with: Norwegian. It has a lot of challenges despite the fact that it is one of two languages that I’ve heard described by its native speakers as easy (the other being…Burmese? But I’ve heard them both described as hard at times, too…)

Namely, the pronunciation can be a bit tricky at the beginning. Regne (to count) is pronounced “rye-neh”, but legen (doctor) is pronounced “leg-en” and reglene (the rules) is pronounced “reg-le-ne”. What’s more, the musical sounds of the language are very difficult to imitate and I have still yet to see an online polyglot pull it off very well (although no doubt I have encountered many Americans in person that have spoken Norwegian so impressively that I thought they were natives!)

And if you know Danish, the trouble expands because the two languages look almost identical on paper! So I wanted to know both Danish AND Norwegian but what could I do?

Last night at Mundo Lingo I was expressing the fact that I was still shocked that I don’t mix up Danish and Norwegian almost…ever. (Interestingly if I’m alternating between Swedish and Norwegian I can have some issues but that’s another story)

I pin this success on the fact that I associate the Danish language with the songs and experiences I’ve had with Danish, and the Norwegian language I associate with a whole new set of experiences!

These experiences include not only talking to native speakers (or non-native speakers) but also using the language online, times in which the fact that I knew Danish came into conversation (“Oh, yeah, when Danish speakers say they like something they say ’they can suffer it!’ Isn’t that fun?”

Then there are the languages that I don’t know as well and that’s because I still have yet to collect a lot of experiences with them. Last night at Mundo Lingo I felt that I did very well with Swedish, Danish, German, Spanish, Hebrew and English. Not so for French, Ukrainian, Burmese or Russian.

What am I missing in the last four? Is it because I need more time? Maybe.

But one thing I definitely could use to make it stronger and it affirm the presence of these languages in my head is to attach them to nodes. I have to have unique experiences in which I’m actively using the language. They could be online. They could be offline. They could even be in my dreams for all I know.

Collecting experiences like these serves two purposes:

  • It makes instances when you use the language more memorable, because you are tying the words, the syntax, the sentences to specific happenings.
  • It also serves to create an emotional attachment that not only furthers your desire to get better at the language, but also prevents other things of a similar flavor from entering that space.

So many people mix up languages and I can almost tell you why:

It’s because they haven’t distinguished the flavors between the languages yet.

This also happens as a result of addiction to book learning. Book learning is good. I’ve definitely done it. But at some point you’ll definitely need something else!

Those who mix up Spanish and Portuguese and pronounce them with almost identical accents are probably going to mix them up frequently. Often too many languages learners assume that the way to learning a language is through (1) learning or (2) having a lot of interactions with native speakers.

Yes, they definitely help, but you’ll need a deeper emotional attachment in order to fully make them a part of who you are.

I’m being honest: my emotional attachment to the languages that I succeeded with last night is significantly stronger than those that I didn’t succeed with.

But maybe what I really need is methods to create that attachment.

So how exactly do I keep all the languages in my head?

I associate words, sentences, grammar forms, irregular verbs, etc. with various things. They could be mental images of my friends, cartoon characters, website layouts, album covers, song lyrics, etc.

That way, I have an extended “picture dictionary” on recall.

When the picture dictionary is honed, I can manage to be unstoppable when speaking a language. If the picture dictionary isn’t honed, I mess up. And yes, I have the picture dictionary technique even with my native language!

As a child when I was learning what “Hanukkah” or a “Sukkah” was, I associated them with particular scenes from the VHS tapes that I was exposed to in school or at home. I did this naturally (although I don’t know if my mind works differently than yours. A lot of people assume that I am a “genius” and that I have a distinct advantage because of it. Perhaps I do, perhaps I don’t, but I’m here to provide techniques and the idea of whether or not I’m a genius is “teykudik”, a Yiddish word meaning “not having any possible conclusion or endpoint in any way whatsoever”)

So that’s my trick as to not mixing them up. You wouldn’t associate the taste of vanilla ice cream with the word “chocolate”…or would you? In the same way, I wouldn’t mix up Spanish and Hebrew (like WAAAY too many people I’ve met say they have) because the former is my experiences with my Spanish friends in Poland and the latter is my experiences with Israeli expatriates all over the world. I associate the two languages in very different spheres because of that.

Mixing up languages? Collect new experiences in any regard, in each of your languages, ones that will endow each of your languages with a very distinct flavor that you wouldn’t “mesh” with any of the other flavors.

And there you have it!

come back when you can put up a fight

Polyglot Report Card: June 2017

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

come back when you can put up a fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

English

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Danish

 

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

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

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

Grammar: No glaring issues that I can think of.

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

 

Swedish

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

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

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

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

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

 

Norwegian

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea)

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 Yiddish

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hebrew

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

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

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

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

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

 

German

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

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

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

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

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

 

Finnish

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spanish (EU)

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

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

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

Grammar: Only a handful of knots in irregular verbs.

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

 

Breton

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

Biggest Weakness: Reading.

Accent: Good enough, I guess.

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

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

 

Bislama (Vanuatu)

 

Biggest Strength: Can understand almost anything spoken in it.

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

Accent: Good, or acceptable at the absolute least.

Grammar: Mastered.

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

 

 Pijin (Solomon Islands)

 

Biggest Strength: Can understand almost everything spoken in it

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

Accent: Good, I think.

Grammar: Mastered

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

 

 Irish

 

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

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

Accent: Very good, according to Irish people.

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

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

 

Cornish

 

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

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

Accent: Good? Okay? Questionable?

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

Future course of Action: Speaking exercises about myself.

 

 Polish

 

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

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

Accent: Very good to good.

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

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

 

 Greenlandic (Kalaallisut)

 

Biggest Strength: My pronunciation is good.

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

Accent: I’ve been told it is good.

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

Future course of Action: Reading exercises with the glosses.

 

 French (EU)

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

Biggest Weakness: Verb conjugations and idiomatic phrases drawing blanks.

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

Grammar: Verbs need work.

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

 

Portuguese (both EU and BR)

Biggest Strength: Can read very well.

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

Accent: Okay to good, based on feedback.

Grammar: Surprisingly not too weak.

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

 

 Dutch (Netherlands)

 

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

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

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

Grammar: Gaps with irregular verbs.

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

 

Welsh (Southern)

 

Biggest Strength: I have a convincing accent.

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

Accent: Convincing.

Grammar: Verbs need work.

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

 

Ukrainian

 

Biggest Strength: My accent can be good.

Biggest Weakness: Literally everything else.

Accent: The one good thing I have.

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

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

 

Russian

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

Biggest Weakness: Consistent vocabulary gaps.

Accent: I’ve been told it is good.

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

Future course of Action: Anki + Songs + Clozemaster.

 

 Italian

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

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

Accent: Good, I’ve heard.

Grammar: Inconsistent.

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

 

Faroese

 

Biggest Strength: Pronunciation isn’t an issue.

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

Accent: Decent, I think

Grammar: Needs work.

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

 

Northern Sami

Biggest Strength: Pronunciation isn’t an issue.

Biggest Weakness: Everything that isn’t basic phrases.

Accent: O…kay?

Grammar: Tons of gaps.

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

 

 Burmese

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

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

Accent: Okay for a foreigner, I think.

Grammar: Good.

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

 

 Estonian

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

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

Accent: All over the board.

Grammar: Good, thanks to Finnish.

Future course of Action: Songs, cartoons, reading.

 

Hungarian

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

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

Accent: Good to very good.

Grammar: LOL

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

 

Krio (Sierra Leone)

Biggest Strength: I can understand a lot!

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

Accent: I think it’s good.

Grammar: Decent

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

 

Tajik

 

Biggest Strength: I can pronounce things.

Biggest Weakness: Everything else.

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

Grammar: I can do possessives…! …?

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

 

Tahitian

Biggest Strength: I began last week.

Biggest Weakness: I’m still a beginner.

Accent: Coming to terms with it.

Grammar: Needs work.

Future course of Action: Just keep going!

 

Guarani (Jopara)

 

Biggest Strength: My pronunciation is good.

Biggest Weakness: I literally cannot form sentences.

Accent: Interesting to good to consistent.

Grammar: LOL

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

 

 

Tigrinya

 

Biggest Strength: I just began today!

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

Accent: Needs significant work.

Grammar: LOLOLOLOLOLOL

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

 

So, to lay out my recipes in short:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cornish: Speaking exercises about myself.

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

Greenlandic (Kalaallisut): Reading exercises with the glosses.

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

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

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

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

 

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

Russian: Anki + Songs + Clozemaster.

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

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

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

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

 Estonian: Songs, cartoons, reading.

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

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

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

Tahitian: Just keep going!

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

Tigrinya: Invest in free books and YouTube Tutorials.

 

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

The True Transformative Power of the Icelandic Language

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

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

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

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

2015-08-20 16.40.04

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s truly a humbling perspective to have.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

What did I do?

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

And so can you!

 

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

“With All Due Respect, I Just Don’t Believe It” – How to Handle Skeptics

Today I’m going to address what is probably the highest quality problem a polyglot could have: having people actually doubt your skills.

I’ll go ahead and begin with this: there are some languages that I speak very, very well (my list is at the top of this page). Then there are those that I still speak smidgets of. And, of course, those that fall in between this, not to mention those that I’d like to learn some day.

If you are one of those who is a skeptic of my skills, I will either invite you to talk to me about my language journey or even see me in “action” at a polyglot event or even on the streets of a city. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Speaking of which, I’ve been inspired by Moses McCormick’s “Level Up” missions and thought I should come to do something similar. For those unaware, Moses McCormick collects pieces of enough languages to actually make me look like a novice and interacts with native speakers, filming the results. The extended metaphor involves the acquisition of Experience Points common to Role-Playing Games.

Okay, so what’s the problem?

Imagine you go to a language exchange event with something like this:

come back when you can put up a fight

This is an abbreviated list.

Now, granted, you’ll encounter a lot of very shocked people. And reactions like these:

  • Why don’t you speak language X better?
  • Why don’t you speak language Y at all?
  • Why do you focus on “useless” languages?
  • What else do you do with your life aside from learning languages?
  • Why don’t you speak language of variety Z? (Up until the Myanmar mission, it was usually “I do not see any Asian Languages on here”, despite the fact that Hebrew is, technically speaking, an Asian language).
  • What’s your secret?
  • Can you say “thank you” in all of these, just to make sure that you’re real? (I can do this without any effort at all, actually)
  • How did you pick up every single one of these? (Each one has a different story. I used a lot of animated cartoons to learn Danish, but I literally couldn’t have done that with something like Breton. Living in the country obviously helped with Sweden, but as things stand going to Papua New Guinea to learn Tok Pisin is a non-option for me, so I had to “simulate” the immersive environment via technology…not too hard!)

 

And then a handful of those like this:

 

  • “There’s no way you’re telling the truth about that”.
  • “I just don’t believe you”

 

Thankfully, these skeptics are in the pure minority, and I usually encounter ones like that about once every two months or so.

And if you were to think that it was mostly on the Internet that I encountered folks like these, you’d be completely right.

And I usually don’t respond to them. After I make enough videos and collect enough interviews, there won’t be any more room for skepticism.

Here’s Why I Don’t Pay Attention to Hyperpolyglot Skepticism

 

  • I’m secure in my abilities

 

Here’s how I judge my fluency in non-Native languages and ensure that I’m “on the ball”.

I find videos of non-native English speakers of varying levels on television, etc. My goal, as things stand, is not to sound like a native in all of the languages I speak, but in my best ones I want to be able to speak as well as fluent speakers of English as a second language.

If I can translate everything that they are saying into a language and verbalize everything that they say using my vocabulary, then this means that I am in a good place. This means that my skill in that language is solid.

I realize that at this moment, I should not focus on “catching up” to native speakers. The native speaker of Hebrew or German or Finnish is going to have a permanent advantage over me. I may really like these languages, but Israelis or Germans or Finns have lived and breathed the culture for their whole lives. Unless I commit an ungodly amount of time to the task, I’m not catching up. But that’s okay.

Likewise, I have the advantage as a native English speaker over everyone who is not. I can use idiomatic expressions with more ease than … most native speakers of English, actually!

And this leads to another problem I’ll address on another day: the fact that my vocabulary in English is extremely sharp, and that sometimes I have to hold my vocabulary sets in my other languages to a lower standard. But that’s okay.

(Sometimes it’s even necessary. Bislama’s comprehensive vocabulary is 7000 words and nearly half of those are place names, leaving about 4000 words, which is nearly one-fourth the size of an English native speaker’s vocabulary. Keep in mind that comprehensive vocabulary means all known words in the language! Dutch’s comprehensive vocabulary, for the sake of comparison, is, if I recall correctly, around 400,000, among the largest on the planet).

 

  • Some insecure people want to make you feel bad about your choices. Ignore them.

 

I remember one time I encountered someone who spoke to me with an almost visceral hatred about the fact that I was “dabbling” in a lot of languages.

This person tried to say that it was wiser to invest very strongly in a handful rather than hop around.

But here’s one reason why I know I made the right choice: not only are skills transferable between languages (e.g. my Yiddish and Swedish and Icelandic vocabularies have very detectable crossover between them, and even Tok Pisin and Burmese and Vietnamese have grammatical elements in common!), but memory software is just going to get even better. The possibilities to increase your vocabulary size will be even more endless than before.

Take, for example, the fact that video games have causes some people to play them to develop very good reflexes (I can’t even remember the last time I dropped a glass or plate on the floor, actually). In comparison with soldiers that fought in the second world war, contemporary soldiers, thanks to using software and games, have developed reflexes that would have been considered superhuman a century ago!

What’s more, I know that learning a language is like watering a plant. The plant grows over time with enough care, and some plants grow more slowly than others. In that regard, I know that having thirty plants and watering them all slowly is going to be wiser on the very long term than having three plants that grow quickly.

I am very sure that the case for many languages places me on the winning side. Although if you chose to focus on a handful of languages instead, I respect that choice very much. After all, the maintenance involved on my end can be downright painful! And that pain isn’t for everyone, and neither might the reward from that pain be something that you even want…

 

  • I expect to make mistakes

I don’t advertise myself as someone who speaks a bajillion languages all perfectly, I advertise myself as someone who is solidly conversational in around 17-20.

I’ve heard solidly conversational English speakers in places like Iceland. They were very good and I was extremely impressed. Were they absolutely perfect or using the vocabulary of college graduates? No. But it wasn’t necessary.

Usually people forgive my mistakes, even stupid ones, by chalking up to the fact that being a hyperglot leads to confusion (although I’m constantly working on trying to decrease that confusion). Even speaking a few languages very well can also lead to confusion!

I am someone who chases new experiences with enthusiasm, and I expect there to be mistakes and I ditch perfectionism on the short term.

I look at language learning as a jigsaw puzzle. You assemble the frame (which is the basic structure on how a language words with its basic verbs, adjectives, pronouns, and the most common vocabulary) and then you assemble the rest of the puzzle by just arranging the pieces as noticing how they fit together based on the guide that you’ve seen. Here’s the key difference: putting together the language jigsaw puzzle never ends.

 

Conclusion

I’ve had people throughout my life that doubted my abilities. I’ve had people throughout my abilities that didn’t think that I was smart enough or didn’t think that my skills were well developed enough for a changing world. There were even those that tried to tell me that my religious upbringing during adolescence was like a permanent handicap!

And yes, there are those that tried to get me to doubt my commitment and my attachment to one of the greatest passions of my life, getting to experience the many tongues of the planet.

I’ve been a high achiever since I was a toddler. I’m used to this sort of resentment and I may feel some pang of despair or insecurity at times, but aside from that, I just know that, after enough demonstrations and enough hard work, I’ll be the winner.

And those that doubted me will be the ones having to apologize.

And really, if you have people doubting your skills, especially on the Internet, don’t pay attention to them. This is me telling you that your grand vision for your life deserves to be yours, and you need all of the encouragement and care required so that you can get it.

Onwards!

Some Encouraging Thoughts about Learning Swedish in Sweden

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Today is June 6th, now the National Day of Sweden, formerly known as the Day of the Swedish Flag. As to why that day in particular was chosen, you can read the story about it here.

And if you ever go to Stockholm, I highly recommend a visit to Skansen, which is one of the most genuine experiences you will ever have in your life, guaranteed. It sometimes feels like time travel, given that many of the shops there function exactly the way they did before the Industrial Revolution.

Anyhow, if you have an interest in learning Swedish, particularly for travel purposes, you’re going to encounter a lot of discouragement on the Internet, and this piece will serve as your “antidote”.

I’ve lived in Sweden for a year. I did not leave fluent (I acquired that mantle at around early 2014, when my polyglot visions all started to come together, and when I found myself practicing with encouraging and helpful native speakers very often). But it was a good start.

But chances are if you look around the Internet, you’ll encounter, you guess it, horror stories, the same way I did with learning Danish and Icelandic. Stories from The Local (a newspaper that has English-Language editions in several countries, including Sweden and Denmark) about how “my Swedish spouse won’t talk Swedish to me, she only uses English even though I’ve asked her thousands of times to not use it” and about “why bother, given as I’ve only been answered in English?”.

(Hey, I know I’ve been repeating myself but you have NO IDEA how many hits posts like these get!)

Anyhow, as I detailed when writing about Myanmar, it was actually easier to get answered in Swedish in Sweden than it was to get answered in Burmese in Myanmar (this is taking my appearance as someone who does not look Asian into account). This was despite the fact that Sweden has among the highest rates of English proficiency in the world and Myanmar has 5% of its population as fluent English speakers.

Anyhow…

Reasons Why Learning Swedish in Sweden is a Good Idea

I was told beforehand that learning Swedish just wasn’t necessary. And then my luggage got misplaced at the airport and I couldn’t even pronounce the name of my address. I couldn’t pronounce the street names. I couldn’t even pronounce the names of businesses.

Then my housemates and I went on a shopping tour to buy things for the house (I was in the Paideia Program in Sweden). Thinking that not knowing Swedish wouldn’t be a problem, we encountered several staff members at that store who responded to our English in Swedish.

And then there was another store near Östermalmstorg (a town square near where I went to classes) in which the same thing happened to me.

(My understanding is that they might have been immigrants that underwent Swedish-language immersion beforehand to the exclusion of learning any English at all, or possibly might have learned Swedish from their environment much like I was doing in the early stages).

And to top it all off, the apartment I was in was owned by the Jewish community and we had to follow the guidelines for keeping a kosher home that were written in Swedish and seldom translated into English! (Only a few paragraphs from the guide, if I recall correctly)

Keep in mind: this was before I learned about polyglot cultures, language hacking, or before smartphones were invented. This was before I had access to any decent programs that would help me learn languages (although I would pick them up in the next few months after the events I described).

So…I was going to learn Swedish but…I had no real clue about how I would go about doing it.

The only real thing I had was the phrasebook sections in my guidebook.

I struggled. I got answered in English quite often, but sooner or later it happened a lot less often. Sometimes I encountered the occasional Swedish native speaker that would feel threatened by my level of Swedish and sometimes not-so-subtlely ignored me, treated me not very nicely, or outright refused to use Swedish with me (sometimes this still happens to me, oddly enough, although the overwhelming majority is appreciative!)

I know the feeling as well. I’ve encountered some people who have spoken English to me with virtually no trace of any accent (these have only been a handful, and keep in mind that my ear for accents is very, very sharp, especially as concerns Nordic languages). I felt a little bit threatened too, to be honest. Can’t blame others for feeling the same way.

But anyhow, enough complaining, more about advice about how to make the most of your venture.

  • Sweden is full of people from various backgrounds that all come to the country and learn to speak Swedish. Like Americans, Swedes are more used to hearing their language spoken in foreign accents than people of other nationalities may be.

 

“You pretty much have to talk like a native otherwise they’re going to answer you in English”.

WRONG!

Get good pronunciation, no doubt, especially as concerns the letter “a”, which is pronounced differently when stressed than when unstressed (I spent ten minutes trying to think of English equivalents and between the dissimilarity between English dialects I can’t think  of anything suitable to illustrate the difference. “Ja” = yes = stressed, the a’s in “fattar” (understands) is unstressed.

But don’t feel that you’re under extraordinary pressure to be perfect. They may hear an accent (when I wasn’t fluent yet, I was placed in either Germany or Finland most of the time), but just because they hear an accent doesn’t mean it is English-only city for you.

 

  • Use your smartphone to your advantage

If you know what you want for breakfast, check it up on Google Translate or, better yet, go to en.wikipedia.org, look for the item you want, and then change the article language to Swedish. If you do the latter, look at the article and notice how the word pluralizes (if you haven’t gotten the hang of the flavors of the Swedish plural form yet).

If you don’t have coverage, make sure to download the Swedish language packet on the Google Translate app so that you can use it even when offline. It may not be perfect, but thanks to the fact that there are a lot of Swedish speakers in the Google Translate online community, your luck is better with Swedish than it is with something like Irish or Burmese.

Simple phrases will, more often than not, work.

For an app with very good simple phrases that will be useful in travel, I recommend the Transparent Language app that can come with many US library accounts (I don’t know if it is available outside of the US, however). For more information on how to find a library that supports the service, write a comment and I’ll help you. All of these phrases are accompanied by native speaker audio.

Mango Languages is also good for getting the hang of simple conversations that will be useful on a daily basis. It, too, is available through libraries.

 

  • If you have Swedish-speaking friends, even if you primarily use English (or another language) with them, get their help! 

One of my best friends in Stockholm was a priest in the church of Sweden. Being a Swedish teacher himself, he really helped me with irregular verbs as well as assisting me with commonly mixed-up words. He helped me have my first-ever conversation in Swedish!

Even the Hebrew teacher in Paideia, who picked up Swedish later on in life, helped me as well! So you can enlist the help of your Swedish-speaking friends even though not all of them may be native speakers!

Swedish language enthusiasm is a very contagious bug (as is Swedish-culture enthusiasm, must I add). Those who get addicted get in for life. Swedish people lecture foreigners about Sweden and the Swedish language all of the time. (Admit it!) So if you have friends who have been affected, they’re going to affect you too!

And my, my, is Swedish a useful skill to have! Especially in Internet comment sections 😛

 

  • If you get answered in English and know what to say next, just continue in Swedish as if nothing happened.

I actually learned this trick from watching my monoglot family members interact with people who don’t speak English, as well as other people like the shopkeepers I mentioned above (who didn’t speak English).

Keep in mind that, in some places, native speakers get mistaken for tourists at times (I’ve heard multiple stories about this happening in the Netherlands). If you know what to say next in order to ask for directions or order food, then say it. If you don’t use English you’ll give no one any pretense to answer back in English.

But keep in mind: if you are in the company of Swedish-speakers and English-speakers, use English unless necessary so as not to come off as rude. Swedes are more sensitive towards that sense of exclusion than members of other nationalities (or so I feel).

I’ve had times when I’ve just kept using Swedish after accidentally hesitating (and getting responded to in English) and then it just continues in Swedish as if nothing happened.

  • Don’t dwell on mistakes

You aren’t your mistakes. Your mistakes are like the various blows of a hammer that mold you into what you are about to become.

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And this will soon become the sigil of your success resulting forthwith!

  • Use filler words and make your sentences longer than normal.

You don’t actually want to sound like a phrasebook, you want to sound like a native speaker (or close to it). But the phrasebook stuff actually serves as a “springboard” to sounding like a native speaker.

As a result, I’ll direct you to my article here, which is valid for learning how to avoid being answered in English anywhere (taking into account that I’ve had most of my language immersion in European countries as of 2014).

  • Realize that Swedish People are, on the Whole, Supportive and Want you to Learn Their Language

Swedish pride is very strong. Like with other cultures, Swedish culture rewards those who have an active interest in it. You will make new friends, you will get complimented, you will be treated with awe and respect if you master conversational Swedish.

But the road to that can be difficult, but here’s the thing: looking back, picking up Swedish wasn’t too difficult in comparison to having picked up many other languages. And looking back, Sweden had among the most encouraging native speakers I’ve encountered anywhere, especially among its younger generations.

Was my immersion journey in Sweden hard? Yes

Would immersion journeys be hard anywhere else? You bet.

Did I leave Sweden fluent? No.

If I came back there, would I avoid English the entire time? Of course I would.

And when I would come back, I would remember that the last time I was there, in 2013, I was struggling an awful lot, and realizing that that fulfillment from having come a long way…could also be yours, be it with Swedish or any other language.

You’ve got an exciting journey ahead!

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Uppsala, complete with a very Swedish indeed truck in the backgrond.

My Journey Through the Danish Language and How It Changed Me Forever

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We sure did!

It’s Danish Constitution Day, and I thought it would be a good idea to write something of a different flavor in honor of this (quasi) national day.

I began studying Danish in 2013. Being a novice polyglot at the time, I turned to the Internet for advice and virtually none of it was encouraging and even less of it was encouraging about the prospects of a foreigner learning Danish. And even less of that for a foreigner whose native language was English.

Being honest: when I heard the Danish language for the first time, I was not too enchanted by it. I thought it would be something I would “pass” on, in favor of Swedish and Norwegian.

This was in addition to the fact that I was heavily intimidated by the prospect of the pronunciation of the language, in which, as I like to tell my friends and students, “half of the language is not pronounced”.

I’ll pass, I thought, although sometimes, even then, I was feeling masochistic and I would try watching some things in Danish on the Internet and see how little I would understand.

And then in encountering Danish people in my travels (and Danes travel a LOT!), somehow I was enchanted by the mentality, the accent, the culture, and a dozen other factors I still can’t articulate. (And “in my travels” I mean “on the plane on the way back from Sweden to the United States”).

I already had a significant amount of Norwegian under my belt, although I wasn’t fluent yet (that would come in due course, however). One reason this was important was that I didn’t really need to learn Danish from word lists and books the way that I had with Norwegian and Swedish previously.

(Note to those unaware: Danish and Norwegian are very, very close in their written forms, a handful of times I’ve speed-read a Facebook post and didn’t even know which of the two it was until I chanced upon one of the orthography differences. I’ll give you one such difference: the –tion at the ending of international words is kept in Danish but transformed to –sjon in Norwegian. This is also a sign that I may be speed reading too quickly.)

As a result of having my Norwegian experience, I could immerse myself in Danish freely, while keeping track of (1) differences I encountered in the writing systems, (2) differences I encountered in word choice (“måske” in Danish means “maybe”, but a Norwegian speaker would opt for “kanskje”) and (3) the way certain Norwegian words that I could recognize became changed when pronounced through Danish (pronouncing “v” as something like an English “u” sound is something that some Indo-European languages do, Ukrainian, Slovak and Latin as taught in some classics departments have something like this as well. Danish does this with regularity as well).

Thanks to me sight-reading food labels in Sweden (which are commonly translated into Finnish and / or Danish), I recognized a lot of words and orthography patterns before I even started.

Given how different the pronunciation was from any other language I had encountered, I thought that immersion was the only way to even get a decent Danish accent (and by “accent” I mean “ability to actually pronounce the words in a way that is even half-way normal for a native speaker of the language”). I was so right about that.

Now, let’s pivot back to the discouragement.

The idea that there were so many expatriates online that struggled, that said that Danes demanded that they spoke English instead, that they got told off by locals that there was “no point” to learning the language, and dozens of other horror stories.

(Granted, this happened only once or twice to me in Sweden, interestingly, and usually once I brought up the fact that I had to know the language for heritage reasons [reading the letters from my deceased family members] this usually made people [somewhat shamefully] retreat from the idea that Swedish was or is “useless”).

Thanks to these stories, I was under this impression that my pronunciation had to be nigh-perfect, otherwise I would get laughed at and made fun of.

Thanks to these stories, I also was feeling more masochistic, the idea that I should take on a hopeless project, and even if I didn’t succeed, write about it someday.

I just kept going. Kept imitating the people on the screen, kept looking at phrasebooks to get good pronunciation tips, kept reading and realizing that Danish wasn’t nearly as hard as the Internet (or I) had imagined it to be.

Sooner or later, the slurring and the glottal stop actually became normal for me.

In Greece as well as in Germany I encountered non-native speakers of Danish who picked it up from their friends or living in Danish-speaking areas. This was a huge boost to my confidence (although a lot of them said that they were in the minority but…yeah, people who pick up the local language in places that are not English-speaking countries tend to be the minority anyhow.)

And then, later on, I actually encountered native Danish speakers who were actually not only not making fun of me but actually conversing with me like a normal person! And actually complimenting my efforts! And only in this past year have I been told that my Danish was “fantastic” and “unbelievably impressive!” J

 

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A victory pose, if e’er there was.

What’s the big lesson of all of this? Apparently it was the Internet horror stories that emboldened me, rather than turned me away (as what also happened with my journey to Iceland in 2015).

The various people who would “hate” me for speaking their language I never ended up encountering. The people who would belittle my attempts I didn’t cross path with (okay, there was that one time, but it wasn’t a native speaker).

SIMPLY PUT: I IMAGINED IT.

However, the legends of “Danish being harder to learn than Chinese” did help me in one regard: they caused me to put a lot of ungodly time into exposing myself to the language, and, as I tell my students, the more you invest in a language, the sooner you can get fluent and feel a full member of the culture!

2014 was the year I had my first conversations in Danish, and I deem it no coincidence that having acquired Danish led me on a road to my polyglot awakening. Simply put, I put pessimism in its place, and my willpower and desire to succeed and turned it away.

Granted, I still have a while yet to go. Sometimes my mom encouraged me during my Myanmar trip to “practice with the Burmese people at the hotel” and sometimes I was too paralyzed with fear of judgment in order to do it. Sometimes I still have that paralysis in talking to native speakers of even my best languages, worried that somehow I’ll slip up for that my nervousness will get the better of me, or that I have to live up to a Michael Jordan-like reputation that I honestly don’t think I deserve.

But one day, I know, these fears will go the way of the ones that I had imagined along this journey I had described.

And this is Jared Gimbel, telling you that your fears, whatever they are, will disappear soon in due time.

I’m here to help.

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Don’t worry, be happy

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.