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.

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8 Important Lessons I Learned Speaking Elementary Burmese in Myanmar for 2 ½ Weeks

My goal: learn Burmese well enough to get by. Did I succeed? Yes I did! Did I leave fluent in Burmese and being able to talk about philosophy and politics? No, but that’s okay.

More importantly, I did pick up some very important lessons.

Shortly before taking off, I got a message from one of my friends who is a native speaker of another East Asian Language, saying “now we’ll see how our Western polyglot fares with our Eastern languages!”

(Full disclosure: my only other Asian Language up until that point was Hebrew. Even then, there are those that would consider the languages of the Middle East, Central Asia or even most Indo-Aryan Languages as “Western”)

Burmese was VERY different from every other language I’ve studied (although interesting it had grammatical similarities to the Melanesian Creoles like Tok Pisin [of all things], which gave me an advantage, as well as odd similarities to many other languages I can speak as well). It was a challenge. Obviously I would have fared better with languages more similar to those I knew already, but it is what it is and I’m glad that I did it.

 

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Victory. Is my Destiny.

 

It seems that, after this enchanting experience, I’m likely to want to pick up more languages from outside Europe in the future. That is…if I could even manage the whole maintenance thing or have the heart to actually abandon some of my previous languages…

Anyhow, ‘nuff rambling, more wisdom!

 

  1. Just because English isn’t widely spoken where you are, doesn’t mean that your chances of being answered in English are any lower. Actually, you’re probably MORE likely to get answered in English in such a country!

 

“Burmese people speak terrible English”. That’s what I read once on a Swedish-language travel site. Part of me was surprised (former British colony? Bad English? Really?), part of me wasn’t (all that isolation is probably responsible for that). But I thought, “I don’t need to worry about getting answered in English at all! Yippi”

WRONG!

Actually, looking at it neutrally (and this is taking into account the fact that I am a white person who would, under almost all circumstances, not be mistaken for a Myanmar local), I got answered in English more frequently in Myanmar than in SWEDEN.

(And, looking back on in, Sweden wasn’t really all that bad in that regard, unless I hesitated / made a grievous grammar mistake / did something very un-Swedish. Even with my English-speaking family members nearby and even when I handed the cashier my American passport at Systembolaget, I still got answered in Swedish!)

I did encounter fluent English speakers in Myanmar, but only near high-end places in Yangon (and these were the richest areas of the whole country).

With most Burmese (including these fluent speakers as well as those what spoke elementary English), it seems that they wanted to prove that they knew English (to whatever degree they did). In a place like Sweden or Iceland, with heaps of hackneyed articles being written on why they speak English so well, it seems that most feel no need to prove it.

In Italy and in France (back when my Italian and French was even worse than my Burmese was when I took off), the situation was very comparable to that of Myanmar, with the English of the locals usually being a lot higher than most areas of East Asia.

That said, all hope is not lost, because…

 

  1. With the exception of places where global / popular languages are spoken, few foreigners will even attempt the local language. This, already, makes you stand out.

 

In Myanmar, it is common for local to greet tourists with “Mingalarbar”(မင်္ဂလာပါ).

Some tourists respond in kind (and only once did I hear a group of tourists profess any knowledge of Burmese beyond that, my only interaction with expatriates [who , according to my knowledge, spoke Burmese about as well as I did], was at the “Myanmar Shalom” Expatriate Shabbat. Yes, there are Jews living in Myanmar! More on that some other day.)

But I noticed something whenever I would interact with restaurant staff or locals on the street and there were other tourists nearby. Often they would stare at me with amazement. Locals would also react differently to me, even though I was travelling with people who didn’t even know a lick of Burmese. Even if I had trouble understanding what was spoken back to me, or even if I got answered in English, I still got complimented very heavily.

In Iceland, I also had a very similar reception as well when I spoke Icelandic to locals. This is what knowing the local language does (even if you speak a little bit, which would mean “I can order food in this language and ask how much things costs or ask for directions”). It gives you an aura of enchantment that those who don’t make the attempt and even those who have been speaking the language since birth. This is even truer with languages that are more rarely studied.

 

  1. Your Skills Fluctuate as a result of Travel, as well as of the Learning Process

 

At some points during my Myanmar trip, I was “on a roll”, I was getting all of the tones right, I was not making pronunciation errors, no hesitation and sometimes didn’t even need to peek in my books for a vocabulary refresher!

Sometimes I was too tired and “wasn’t feeling up to it”, and therefore wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic, able or confident. But interestingly, if I had to interact in a language I was consistently good with (like those that I teach), I wouldn’t have had an issue even if I was tired or sick or being eaten by bugs (this didn’t happen to me, thankfully).

Only once or twice was I so “out of it” that I defaulted to English.

But only a few hours later did I use my Burmese skills that actually resulted in me getting free water bottles! (This was at Shwedagon Pagoda, no less!)

You are learning. Until you are consistently good, your skills are going to fluctuate wildly. And even with your native language, your ability to apply grammar or come up with meaningful expressions is going to fluctuate (to a lesser degree). And this is true even if you are a monoglot who only speaks your native language.

 

  1. Use What Resources You Have. Obviously for Less Politically Powerful Languages, You’ll Have Less. But Take Your Disadvantages into Account in the Learning Process.

 

I looked at the Google Translate App in frustration, wondering why on earth I wasn’t able to download the Myanmar / Burmese translation package (the way I was capable of doing with Icelandic).

If I were headed to somewhere like Thailand or Vietnam, I would have had my work cut out for me more easily, with more books, more tips and more technological resources to deploy.

My books for learning Burmese, however, weren’t nothing (and I had two that I carried on my person at all times).

One thing I learned to do within the first few days was keep a ready mental note to use the index if I saw a certain situation was coming up. For the Lonely Planet book, this was easier. But for the Kauderwelsch book, I often had to remember page numbers where I encountered certain phrases or use the mini-images at the top of the page in order to serve as a guide to when I would need to use what.

And speaking of books…

 

  1. Use your books or your tech resources during your downtime (at the hotel, waiting for a meal, etc.)

Something to note: as of the time of writing there are a lot of people, especially older folk, that will get visibly irritated if you use your phone excessively. Interestingly, they will have no such reaction to you referencing a book (unless you are really engrossed in it).

That said, keep in mind that whenever you are having an “I’m bored” moment, get out your book and look at something you think you may need or otherwise look at something related to a consistent weak point.

For Burmese, one consistent weak point I had was numerical classifiers (fail to use these well enough and this means you’ll get answered in English in a yap). For those who don’t know what a classifier is (they exist in a lot of East Asian Languages across the board), it is a word used to indicate a number of a measurement of something. That something comes in various “flavors”, and you choose what “flavor” depending on what class of thing you are talking about.

So when I was in a hotel or waiting for a meal, and it seemed that conversation was slow or that there was an aura of laziness in the air, I would take out my book, review classifiers, and do so until circumstances required me to do something else.

But just reading the words off the page isn’t going to do much…so you’ll need…

 

  1. Memory Devices are your Best Friends. I used (1) similarity to words I already knew in other languages and (2) using the memory palace technique in order to mentally “place” the word where I knew I would use it.

 

 

Let’s look at the Burmese classifier list on Wikipedia, shall we? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burmese_numerical_classifiers)

Now, how exactly would I remember the first entry in the list (ကောင် / kàuɴ), a classifer used for animals?

Well, it sounds like “cow” and I would remember a cow falling, but there’s also an “င်” at the end which is pronounced like an “ng” sound. I kept in mind “kong” (whether exactly you may be thinking of King Kong of Hollywood Fame or the Kong Family of the Nintendo Franchise is entirely up to you)

Then, of course, there were my first evenings in a restaurant where I was required to remember words for what I wanted to order. I took in the surroundings and I “placed” the various words on the tables in my mental space. That did the trick.

 

  1. Discouragement and “Why Did I Even Try This?” May Come. Resist these feelings and don’t dwell on your mistakes.

 

You are almost certainly going to be making mistakes on your immersion journey. Back when I was in various European countries from 2011 until 2014, I sometimes dwelled on my mistakes too often. Now I’ve known better.

Misunderstood? Eh.

Answered in English? Bleh.

Didn’t know how to respond in a conversation? Meh.

I usually don’t get too vexed when I’m playing a video game and I lose a life. I expect losing lives to be the natural course of playing a video game. Similarly, I don’t think I should overreact when the same thing happens in language learning.

And this leads to my final lesson…

 

 

  1. Be easy on yourself and take what you can get.

 

I didn’t leave fluent in Burmese. That’ll take a while yet. What I did get, however, was motivation, practice, and tips for the road forward.

Knowing that one day I will look back on these days when I was making mistakes more frequently, knowing that I would remember “back when I couldn’t speak Burmese all that well”, and that I would probably laugh at it with a smile…fills me with determination.

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I know. I said I would knock off the Undertale Jokes. Come to think of it, I think I made the exact same joke some twenty-odd posts ago?

It’s easy to compare yourself to other learners, including those who have lived in the country for a brief while and left fluent (I can only think of a handful of instances, I think Benny Lewis in Brazil was one such occurrence, but obviously learning Portuguese as a Native English speaker is going to be nothing like learning Burmese as a native speaker of … any European Language, actually).

Take what you can. You have plenty of time to get to the rest later (and “the rest” is actually of infinite volume, and this is true for any language). And even if you don’t return, you’ll have the chance to interact with native speakers, wherever you meet them, for the rest of your life.

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I expect to see this flag more often in my life even if I don’t ever end up returning to Myanmar at all.

How to Learn Your First non-Native, non-English Language

 

I would like to dedicate this post to the mighty and memorable Miguel Nicholas Ariza, who celebrated his birthday yesterday at the famed Mungo Lingo Language Exchange events.

I hope that this article will inspire people to return to language learning again and again, as well as to the events that you help host!

 

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This is Miguel. He is open-minded, friendly, curious and a great human being. Be Like Miguel.

 

In much of the world, people have 1 ½ native languages, English being the 1/2 , and the local language being the 1. (Sometimes there are areas with two local languages, possibly even more, such as areas of Spain or India that have regional languages)

The dynamics of learning English are very different from learning other languages. While Iceland may excel at teaching a lot of its students English, there were (and sadly continue to be) snags when it comes to the country’s Danish education system, which may be on its way out.

To compare the experience of learning Danish (in the case of Iceland) or Swedish (in the case of Finland) or Irish (in the case of the English-speaking areas of Ireland) to learning English just isn’t fair.

Imagine if, out of 20 products (such as computer programs or company names or refrigerator brands), 19 had names in (insert name of language that isn’t English here) Imagine if (that language) had among the best known movie and entertainment industries in world history and had a significant amount of  import words in every language in the developed world and, to boot, was more learned than any other language on the planet by people who have been told their entire life that not knowing it is to be left behind, and that sometimes a nation’s economic worth and potential in the eyes of the world is dependent on how well (or not) they speak that language.

That’s reality for non-native English speakers, almost anywhere, regardless of what continent they’re on.

No wonder people get answered in English when starting to learn languages. The native speaker may feel an inherent shame on not having won the “native language lottery” the way I did. Even if they come from a place like Iceland, where English proficiency is a standard.

(For whatever it’s worth, I think English will lose its cool factor when it starts to more seriously threaten other languages and cultures, and English proficiency is already starting to lose its impressive factor, even in places like Iceland, and will continue to do so. Contrariwise, learning non-English languages of all stripes will continue to be seen as an even more impressive feat if English continues to be on the ascent. These are my opinions).

 

I am beginning to learn my dream language. It is (XXXX), and, right now, I only speak English (or English + My Native Language). I feel that I’m struggling a lot. What can I do?

 

The first thing I would recommend is take your first field trip to omniglot.com, look at the language you are learning from the A-Z database (I can almost guarantee that it will be there, no matter how exotic), read about it, get used to the sounds of it, click the links offered at the bottom of the language profile page to either read more about the culture or get language learning resources (many of them free online pages)

If there is a “phrases” section, copy out everything in it into a notebook or put it into a program of your choice. You will use these countless times throughout your life if you are to succeed! Exciting, huh?

From there, you have a number of options, are your primary goals are as follows:

  • Learn all of those phrases.
  • After that, say, “I have, I need, I want” followed by “do you have? Do you need? Do you want?”
  • Activate the following “checkpoints” (I’m not thinking about Duolingo right now, I promise!). Think of these as your “collectibles” (so this is what was going through Luis’s head, right?). Just learn how they work in a basic sense: articles (if any), adjectives (how to say “I am X, you are X, he / she / it is X, etc.), verbs (in order of importance: present, past, future, imperfect, any conditional tenses), conjunctions (start with and, but and or, they get you pretty far), prepositions (size will vary tremendously depending on language), case system (If there is one. How many? How often are they used? Which are regularly used? In some languages, like anything Finno-Ugric, case system and prepositions overlap.), noun genders (if any, there are entire language families lack them)
  • Give a stump speech about yourself and prompt others to do the same. (I am a X, I come from Y, I was born in A but now I life in B, my current goals are CDFG because of H. I am learning dream language because of reasons IJK.)
  • Learn associated vocabulary with your job and the things around you.
  • Common mistakes made by learners (unless you are learning something very rare indeed. Even something like Welsh will have an article about it about this topic)

 

From then on, learning the vocabulary in that language will be like assembling puzzle pieces, except for the puzzle NEVER ENDS!

 

Congratulations, you just got in for life! You’re always going to be learning new things about the language, maybe even if you try to forget it…even if it is your NATIVE language! Ha ha ha ha!

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Here’s lookin’ at you, kid!

 

Okay, Jared, that is great and all, but how do I go about memorizing it?

 

Imagine you have a giant pizza or other fantastic meal you like right in front of you. You wouldn’t try to shove a whole piece in your mouth…(I would hope…)

 

Some ways you can assist the memorization project:

 

  • Memory devices. This is easier for languages closer to English, obviously, but even with something like Greenlandic I made it possible (Even something like “sumingaaneerpit?” [“where are you from?” In Greenlandic] I memorized in this fashion.) Memrise.com has it as an in-built function that you can store your memory devices in. I imagined that the word resembled “some gunner pit”, and while it didn’t even make sense, it got the job done. (If you have a notebook, feel free to put your “mems”, as Memrise refers to them as, next to the words)

 

  • Repetition. The same Burmese learning audio every day for a week sure doesn’t hurt…

 

  • Funny incidents. True story. One day I got “Colloquial Hungarian” shipped to me, and that day there was a Jewish event (Lab / Shul in New York City, for those curious). I met a Hungarian native speaker that evening and I told her that the book arrived today. I asked her how to say “pleased to meet you”, and I hear “örülök hogy megismertelek”. After nearly destroying my tongue after four attempts (and a lot of laughter), I explained that I got the book earlier that day. When I heard it again a few days later, having it associated with that incident made it stick better.

 

  • Mental Images from TV or Audio “Images” from your Dialogue Tapes. When I was learning Dutch from watching a lot of the Pokémon Anime in it, I remembered a lot of key phrases by virtue of remembering certain poses of characters or certain plot points that I would remember. If you do something less visually oriented (like a dialogue tape), you can note anything unusual about a certain phrase or intonation and you may remember it better.

 

 

And here are some general pointers:

 

  • Do NOT be hard on yourself! This includes: (1) do not compare yourself to other learners who have had more time than you (2) do not compare yourself to native speakers of your target language and their English skills and (3) do not expect to know all vocabulary. No one ever knows all vocabulary in any language (true story!). 10,000 words will net you something very close to a native speaker, 2,000 words will get you through almost all conversations with significant ease (others would even argue that 600-1,000 would suffice)

 

  • Start off by simplifying your language. You may be tempted to think of everything in terms of flowery English idioms, instead, at this stage you should train yourself to simplify your speech and once you’re assembling that puzzle you’ll acquire useful phrases and idioms along the way for which English has no equivalent for.

 

  • If you have to lapse into English, do so confidently. A perfect example includes how people from places like India and the Netherlands may use English phrases in casual speech to make a point.

 

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions of native speakers. Almost all of them want to help you, actually, even though they may not explicitly express it.

 

  • Don’t get discouraged from native speakers. Some of them may have no intention of becoming polyglots and may be threatened. Anyhow, if you encounter any amount of discouragement from a native speaker at any time, it is thoroughly their This is different from constructive criticism! Constructive criticism: “this word is too formal, be aware of that”. Destructive criticism: “your accent is awful”.

 

  • There will be hard times ahead. There will be a lot of people that may belittle your efforts or unknowingly make you feel bad. Just keep on going forward. The more forward you’ll go, the more you’re hear native speakers ask you in amazement. “How on earth do you speak such good (XXXX)?”

 

And then you’ll think of the times that you were struggling, that you thought of giving up, or even times that people were not very nice to you on behalf of your choices. But congratulations! You won!

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You, someday, with twice as much happy and the fact that you’re probably not an orange if you’re reading this. 

On Having Had Bad Experiences with a Language

 Interestingly, the Queens Library System has proclaimed this week “Broken Heart Week”.

Also interestingly: Finland’s Valentine’s Day is actually called “Ystävänpäivä”, or “friend day”.

(One could imagine the conversation. “I’m sorry”, said Finland to 14 February, “but I don’t see it like that…”)

Anyhow, this article is about something tangentially related…and it is one that a lot of my language-learning blogger friends haven’t touched on, namely…

What if, for whatever reason, you may feel emotionally weighed down by the thought of a certain language, even if part of you wants to learn it (or re-learn it)?

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This can come in many forms:

  • General negativity associated based on past experiences. Some of you know that I had a very stringent Jewish education in my teenage years (not from my parents). While I am grateful for a significant amount of knowledge given by this experience, in the long run, especially emotionally, it caused a significant amount of harm in too many ways to count. Luckily, I am repairing my relationship with my Jewish roots not only with Yiddish and Hebrew but also with various events in New York and beyond catered to curious open-minded young people like myself. Sometimes I couldn’t read certain Hebrew texts without being vexed or irritated.
  • Cultural dissonance. My relationship with American culture has been difficult, given as due to the fact that I never really understood it from the inside. I deliberately avoid a lot of contact with English-Language entertainment and news and, as a result, my accent has sometimes shifted to a hodge-podge of everywhere that I’ve lived, not also to mention the many languages I’ve studied.
  • Being bullied by speakers of a certain language at one point.
  • Having gotten out of a relationship with a speaker of that language and having the end go badly.
  • Having studied that language at school and having had bad experiences learning it there (everything from discouraging teacher to having done poorly in the class or on a standardized test.)
  • Having been discouraged by other learners or native speakers along the way. Spanish and Swedish were among the worst for me in this regard, with some speakers telling off my efforts as well as, in the case of some Swedish speakers, either refusing to use the language or belittling my efforts. Thankfully, and I should make it clear, these are a minority among human beings! I want to let you know that anyone who treats you this way in regards to language learning is painfully insecure about his or her own goals!

 

In my polyglot journey, I’ve felt all of these at one point or another. These feelings are difficult, ones that almost administer an electric shock whenever you want to somehow cure them or even look at the problem.

Here are some possible things to keep in mind:

 

  1. Sometimes you need to take a break.

Perhaps you may need some time apart from the language or culture that you may have had bad experiences with. Recognize these feelings, and then consider separating.

It doesn’t have to be forever! You can easily come back to it when you “calmed down” significantly, when time has healed you a little bit (or a lot) more.

During this time (and I should know, given how many languages I’ve learned to high levels and then forgotten), you may have memories pop up now and again about the times you had together.

Perhaps one of these memories may be strong or meaningful enough so that you may want to come back. And coming back is always an option when you feel up to it.

 

  1. Learning a language to a level lower than sturdy fluency is okay.

 

I play favorites. Back when I was a less seasoned polyglot I tried to pretend as though I couldn’t, and let me tell you that any polyglot who says that he or she doesn’t play favorites is almost definitely lying.

I like Scandinavian and Celtic Languages a lot better than a lot of popular global languages. That’s okay.

I feel that I may not know Spanish to the same degree that I know Yiddish or Bislama or Swedish because of the pain of a significant amount of discouragement form learning throughout the years. And that’s okay. Who knows? Maybe it will be my favorite language one day…

I may have been attached to Russian culture in the past and have moved onto new horizons. My Russian is nowhere near as good as it was and now it’s quite pathetic. But that’s okay as well.

 

  1. Each Culture has many cultures within it, and one of them will fit you somehow.

 

This also ties into another issue I didn’t mention before, which is “I can’t speak or learn language X because of historical baggage Y”.

This also ties into the other unmentioned issue which is “I can’t have a resonance with language X because of the actions of a certain government or political figure”.

Within any culture, no matter how small, there are many more subcultures than the ones seen in guidebooks or in the history books.

If the issue of cultural resonance is lacking, look for another culture or subculture associated with that language.

This may serve to change your view of that language completely.

 

 

  1. School Performance and Grades have constantly diminishing importance as you get older.

 

The sort of bad performance that brought me to tears a decade ago would be something I would laugh at now.

If you so will it, you can change your view of the world, so that the tests means nothing, the negative feedback of any of your peers mean nothing, and that the only thing that really does matter is whether or not you are on the path to acquiring the dreams you want.

 

  1. You’ll show them one day!

 

That one time that was told my “Norwegian accent was awful”?

That one time I was told that I spoke “a bit of Swedish” when I was putting together complete sentences?

That one time I was told “you obviously don’t know any Spanish, she told me you couldn’t be understood?”

And the many, many times I got answered to in English?

I just turned around, with some bitterness, and I said, “I’ll show them”

And that is what I did.

And that is what you will do as well.

And you know that if you encounter those people again, with your hyper-leveled up skills, they will not treat you the same way they did before.

 

  1. You don’t need discouraging influence in your life, much less have it affect you in the long wrong.

Here is something I want you to read carefully, okay? Can you remember it?

The people who discourage you from language learning of any sort are always wrong.

There.

Okay.

No more worries about that.

There may be the time in which they may genuinely want to help you, in which case that is okay and they will make it clear from the outset that that is what they are doing. But as to mean behavior, belittling your skills, they’re wrong. And this is Jared telling you to let you know that they’re wrong.

And that your dreams are right.

“I Read an Article That Said…”

Too often do I encounter people who bring to me scientific “proofs” that it is impossible to learn a language beyond a certain age / impossible to learn X amount of languages / impossible to get a native-like accent beyond a certain age.

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This frustrates me to no end, because these studies only act to discourage people from even trying. And even when people  do try, if these studies are taken seriously by people, then the learners will be holding themselves back, and severely so.

A few days ago I was told by someone that it was impossible for the brain to learn more than nine languages. The fact is that there are people with human brains who can process 9+ languages, and I have seen and heard it happen (with people other than myself, obviously), so obviously such an idea holds no weight because demonstrable phenomena in the real world disprove it.

In both my other blog and this one, I find myself in constant struggle with forces from mass media that serve no other purpose aside to shut doors on people’s dreams.

I myself had thought that I would never be a true polyglot because I believed those studies at one point. Now I don’t believe them and neither should you.

Among people who have spent time in countries other than the United States, the idea that learning a language is impossible beyond a certain age is just simply not believed. All who are reading this (or have the ability to read this) should take a similar stance.

Among scientific literature journals, there are lots of opinions to be found that can prove almost anything. Earlier this year I found a quote from a Norwegian linguist that said that Greenlandic was the world’s hardest language (on account of the dizzying amount of suffixes, or so he says).

Actually having studied Greenlandic, I find many words in the language to make more sense than equivalents in a Germanic language like English or Danish, and this is precisely because of the suffix system that was derided as being “impossible” in the study.

What am I trying to say here?

There will be some teachers that will open doors for you, and there will be others that will close doors for you.

Too often in the United States do I see that doors are being closed for language learners.

My job is to open them to you.

Will you come in?

“Why Would You Want to Learn That?”

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It is no secret that there will be those who will discourage you from your language learning attempts (or other hobbies or interests, for that matter) throughout your life.

This is, interestingly, true for commonly spoken/learned languages as it is for those spoken by relatively few people.

I have gotten the question “Why Would You Want to Learn That?” several points when I bring up certain languages.

Most of the time this sentiment is just sheer curiosity…as a student in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, why is something like Irish important to me?

Sometimes, however, I did get explicit discouragement, although certainly not often. Here’s a fact, though: speakers of more commonly spoken languages are almost certainly more likely to judge you negatively than speakers of less commonly spoken languages (who will be glad you made any variety of effort at all).

At many points throughout my life have I been seized by a desire to do something out of the ordinary. Chances are that if you are reading this, so have you.

True story: when I visited the Sámi Exhibition in the Nordic Museum in Stockholm I saw that the panels and writings were translated from Swedish into English and also into Northern Sami.

There was a booklet that came with the exhibitions that was bilingual Swedish / Northern Sami, and I had the thought of actually taking it with me and then learning that language Rosetta-Stone style (I’m referring to the artifact, not the expensive program).

I couldn’t do that because a notice said that I had to return the booklet.

I don’t really know exactly what seized me with the desire to have learned Northern Sami back then (Early 2013, if I recall correctly). Maybe it was the pretty flag or the costumes or my lifelong love of cold climates, or maybe I was just impressed by the way the words looked on the page.

The journey with Northern Sami did not begin in earnest until March 2014 (more than a year after I thought of learning the language from a museum booklet that I couldn’t take in the first place).

Looking back on that and also my experiences with other rarer languages, I developed the following system that I encourage you to try if you are ever captivated with a desire to learn something that may be “out of your character”:

Learn first. Find justifications later.

Your originaly desire for learning a new rare language may be “the words look cool”, but when you actually acquaint yourself with the culture, you can find songs that you wish you knew the meanings of, or encounter a small but vibrant film industry. And so when someone asks you “why do you want to learn that?” you can disarm them with something that makes sense, rather than your original motivation which might have been quite silly.

When someone asks me why I learned Northern Sami to any degree at all, I said that I wanted to find how its linguistic framework fit among the rest of the Scandinavian Languages and understand the story of the Sámi people as it is contained within the language.

Obviously this logical answer wasn’t really why I undertook the trek to begin with.

But I myself have had silly reasons for learning many languages.

I wasn’t too enchanted by Danish until I sat next to some Danish guy on a plane who was surprised that I correctly identified the language he was speaking. His demeanor  was so prevalent with hygge that I just had to take the language more seriously than I did. The fact that I had a small but noteworthy amount of Swedish and Norwegian in my arsenal at that point gave me more of an incentive to do so.

To date, I have tried to learn Irish unsucessfully a number of times since late 2008. Now with Duolingo’s course, I have finally embarked on a journey that I’ve been waiting for. I still can’t really say what makes the Irish language appealing for me—I guess that’s for antoher post. But will I find a justification for it? Most certainly. But that justification wasn’t the reason why I began.

Last night was Thanksgiving and I sampled pretty much every language that I knew to people who were throwing endless questions at me.

All the while it seemed that I had earned respect for just finding what I wanted to do, for whatever reason, and just going ahead and doing it.

I encourage you to do the same.

If I Were a Language Teacher, Here’s What I Would Say to My Students

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I would make the following clear to my students from the outset:

 

“The tests, assignments, and class sessions will not make you even remotely good at this language on your own. What you must do, in addition, to these sessions, is make space for this language in your own life…”

 

“I hereby present to you an additional homework assignment for each session: you must somehow engage with your target language in between each class. You can do this at home. You can set up a meeting between friends. You can watch your favorite TV show, as long as it is in the language. You can go YouTubing or play video games in the language…

 

“…what is important is that you associate this language with its countless other dimensions outside of my class”.

 

“You must realize that no journey ever existed without mistakes. While some assignments will be graded, I understand that on your road to mastery you must err…

 

“I’ll have you know that on my own language journeys I have been through terrible moments indeed. I got answered in English by service people and felt terrible about it. I once got shouted ‘STOP SPEAKING (Language)!’ by someone. I got told on multiple occasions that my accent was terrible, and in less than the span of a year, I was told by others that it sounded like that of a native…

 

“There will be discouragement (If relevant: There will be those that will ask ‘Why do you bother to learn this language if we all speak English anyway?’ I’ll have you know that it may be most, but it is by no means all. And even those who speak the language will marvel at your attempts, however small, as long as they are honest.) On the long road, I almost never let that discouragement get to me and neither should you. I will always be supportive of your efforts to learn any language, no matter what”.

 

“Once you leave the class, you can choose to forget everything and then, from that point onward, mention to friends that you took the language for X years, and now you don’t speak a word of it…

 

“…or, alternatively, you could keep a space for this language in your life, continue having fun with it and your friends that speak it and media that use it. Then you will look back on this class as merely the beginning of a journey that made your life complete…”

 

“Whether you will let this language complete your life is entirely up to you